Benjamin of Tudela

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Ancient History, Classical History and Mythology; Historians, chroniclers and history books

Map of the route
Map of the route

Benjamin of Tudela (flourished 12th century) was a medieval Spanish Jewish Rabbi, traveler and explorer. In his journey he passed through large swathes of Europe, Asia, and Africa. His vivid descriptions of Asia preceded those of Marco Polo by one hundred years. With his broad education and vast knowledge of languages, Benjamin of Tudela was a major figure in the history of geography and Jewish history.

Benjamin set out on his 13-year journey in 1160, in what began as a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He may have hoped to settle there, but there is controversy about the reasons for his travels; for example, it has been suggested he may have had a commercial motive as well as a religious one. He took the "long road" stopping frequently, meeting people, visiting places, describing occupations and giving a demographic count of Jews in every town and country.

Little is known of the facts of Benjamin's life. In some sense the journey must have begun in the Spanish town of Tudela, where today a street in the aljama is named after him. However, the published version begins in the city of Saragossa, further down the valley of the Ebro, whence he proceeded north to France, and then set sail from the port of Marseilles. After visiting Rome and Constantinople, he set off across Asia, visiting Syria and Palestine before reaching Baghdad. From there he went to Persia, then cut back across the Arabian Peninsula to Egypt and North Africa, returning to Spain in 1173. In all he visited over 300 cities including Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Damascus, Baghdad and beyond.

He described his thirteen years abroad in a book, The Voyages of Benjamin (מסעות בנימין, or Masa'ot Binyamin, also known as ספר המסעות, Sefer ha-Masa'ot, The Book of Travels). This book describes the countries he visited, with an emphasis on the Jewish communities, including their total populations and the names of notable community leaders. He also described the customs of the local population, both Jewish and non-Jewish, with an emphasis on urban life there. There are also detailed descriptions of sites and landmarks he passed along the way, as well as important buildings and marketplaces. Benjamin is noted for not only telling facts, but citing his sources; historians regard him as highly trustworthy.

The Voyages of Benjamin is an important work not only as a description of the Jewish communities, but also as a reliable source about the geography and ethnography of the Middle Ages. As well some modern historians credit Benjamin as giving very accurate descriptions of every-day life in the Middle Ages. Originally written in Hebrew, it was translated in to Latin and later translated into most major European languages, receiving considerable attention in the sixteenth century.

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