Jewish Explorers of the Globe
R’ Binyamin of Tudela
Diaries of explorers of the ancient world read like a fantasy novel. Quaint descriptions of previously unknown creatures, colorful accounts of strange peoples, and dramatic renditions of events, fascinate the modern reader. These travelogues are a vivid sketch of a world so different from what we know today.
The Jewish explorer, however, tells a far more intriguing story. Welcomed by his dispersed brothers wherever he went, he painted a picture of the Jewish communities of the time, whether oppressed or flourishing, the Torah personalities who led them, their shuls and yeshivas, the professions that Jews engaged in, the location of kevarim, and often, a detailed portrayal of the land for which every Jew’s heart yearns – Eretz Yisrael. Such are the accounts provided by R’ Binyamin of Tudela.
R’ Binyamin of Tudela
…They say that it was a palace of Ben Hadad. Here is a wall of crystal glass of magic workmanship, with apertures according to the days of the year. And as the sun’s rays enter each one, in daily succession, the hours of the day can be told by a graduated dial. In the palace are chambers built of gold and glass… And there are columns overlaid with gold and silver, and columns of marble of all colours. And in the court, there is a gigantic head overlaid with gold and silver, and fashioned like a bowl with rims of gold and silver. It is as big as a cask, and three men can enter therein at the same time to bathe. In the palace is suspended the rib of one of the giants, the length being nine cubits, and the width two cubits; and they say it belonged to the King Anak of the giants of old…
-The Itinerary of R’ Binyamin of Tudela, Chap. 12
The historical significance of R’ Binyamin of Tudela’s enthralling travels, far overshadows the scant biographical information that we have about him. We know that he lived in the (no longer) independent kingdom of Navarre, which is situated in northeastern Spain. He originated from the city of Tudela, which he does not describe, in stark contrast to the fact that he painstakingly recorded the details of every other town he visited.
It appears from the preface that he did not write the diary, but dictated it to a Castilian Jew, who added a small introduction. This unknown writer describes R’ Binyamin as an “Ish mevin umaskil, uBa’al Torah,” an intelligent man who was learned in Torah. He also assures the reader that everything recorded therein is reliable, since R’ Binyamin either saw it personally or heard it from a reliable source.
It is not clear when R’ Binyamin set out on his epic journey. However, the date of his arrival in Castile, which was recorded by the mysterious writer as 1173, combined with various other clues, indicates that he was on the road for approximately 14 years, setting out in 1165.
In those 14 years, he saw more of the ancient world than most of us see in a lifetime, even with the availability of air travel. Although his exact route is disputed, he certainly covered the northern part of the Mediterranean basin, Eretz Yisrael, a section of northern Africa, Russia, Germany, and Spain.
What prompted R’ Binyamin to leave the comfort of his hometown and embark on his journey, remains a mystery. Seemingly, it was business-related, as he regularly mentions trade opportunities, such as in Tyre: “In the vicinity is found sugar of a high class, for men plant it here, and people come from all lands to buy it,” and on the Island of Chios, “Here grow the trees from which mastic is obtained.” (Hippocrates wrote that he used mastic, the resin of the mastic tree, for the prevention of digestive problems, colds and as a breath freshener.) He also records the locations of ports and cities where commerce thrived. Whether this information was for the benefit of his own dealings is unknown. He may, in fact, have been writing a guide for his fellow Jews engaged in commerce, informing them of the best places to travel to enrich themselves.
Another likely purpose for his journey is based on its historical context. R’ Binyamin’s travels took place between the First and Second Crusades. Jewish communities had been devastated during the First Crusade, and relations between the Christians and the Moslems remained hostile. In this time of uncertainty, R’ Binyamin traveled the world, recording the names and locations of far-flung Jewish communities and their leaders, possibly as destinations for fleeing Jews. He pays attention to the independence of the various settlements, such as:
From Marseilles, one can take a ship and in four days reach Genoa, which is also upon the sea. Here live two Jews, R. Samuel, son of Salim, and his brother, from the city of Ceuta, both of them good men. The city is surrounded by a wall, and the inhabitants are not governed by any king, but by judges whom they appoint at their pleasure.
He also stresses when the situation is the reverse, and the Jews are oppressed miserably. About Constantinople (known today as Istanbul):
No Jews live in the city, for they have been placed behind an inlet of the sea… For their condition is very low, and there is much hatred against them, which is fostered by the tanners, who throw out their dirty water in the streets before the doors of the Jewish houses and defile the Jews’ quarter. So, the Greeks hate the Jews, good and bad alike, and subject them to great oppression, and beat them in the streets, and in every way treat them with rigour.
In essence, the two above-mentioned possible reasons for his travels are linked. During that period, Jews found themselves in a curious position. Disliked by Christians and Moslems equally, they were tolerated by both and traveled freely between their strongholds, sometimes bringing with them valuable trade.
Aside from his valuable addition to Jewish historical literature, R’ Binyamin’s account is highly esteemed by the international community, as an accurate description of the medieval world, which precedes that of Marco Polo by one hundred years.
On his travels around the world, R’ Binyamin had the opportunity of visiting and examining many famous sights. The most fascinating are those which dovetail into Klal Yisrael’s long, rich and tumultuous history.
Toward the start of his travels, he arrived in Rome. There he found eighty palaces belonging to Roman Imperators, including that of Nero, or Neron Kaisar, who was the first general sent against Yerushalayim before Churban Bayis Sheini. Outside Rome, he found another palace thought to have belonged to Titus. R’ Binyamin gives the reason for this strange ostracism as being due to the Consul and 300 Senators’ disappointment that he had conquered Yerushalayim in three years, when they had instructed him to capture it in two.
R’ Binyamin also tells of two bronze pillars, spoils from the Beis Hamikdash, stored in a Church. Each column was engraved with “Shlomoh ben David,” and according to the local Jews, exuded moisture each year on Tisha b’av.
The city of Pozzuoli in Italy provided a rare insight into the mix of reverence and fear that gentile kings had regarding David HaMelech and his kingdom. The city was reputed to have been built by Zur, the son of Chadadezer, when he fled in terror of the Jewish king. Similarly, R’ Binyamin encountered a fifteen-mile road running under a mountain range. It was built by King Romulus, the builder of Rome, as an escape route should he have to flee David HaMelech and his general, Yoav. Romulus built fortifications on and below the mountains, reaching as far as Naples.
R’ Binyamin visited the ancient city of Antioch, lying near today’s Antakya, Turkey, which inherits its name. Now in ruins, this city was constructed by the evil Antiochus who imposed gezeiros upon the Jews of Eretz Yisrael before the miracle of Chanukah. He describes it as lying “by a lofty mountain,” referring to Mount Silpius, partially “surrounded by the city-wall,” and partially “surrounded by the river.” Antioch’s plumbing arrangements were very intriguing:
At the top of the mountain is a well, from which a man appointed for that purpose directs the water by means of twenty subterranean passages to the houses of the great men of the city.
He recorded ten Jews living there, all glaziers, led by “R’ Mordechai, R’ Chayim, and R’ Shmuel.”
Progressing into Eretz Yisrael, R’ Binyamin described Har HaCarmel, the site of Eliyahu’s confrontation with the false prophets during the reign of Achav. He observed the remains of the mizbei’ach, relating: “The site of the altar is circular, about four cubits remain thereof.” Elsewhere on the mountain was a cave which the Christians associated with Eliyahu, where they had erected a structure called St. Elias.
Some time after viewing the ruins of Achav’s palace in Shomron, R’ Binyamin went to see Har Gerizim and Har Eval. Har Gerizim, the mountain of the Brochos, was verdant with “fountains and gardens and plantations,” while Har Eval was “rocky and barren.”
R’ Binyamin found Yerushalayim to be a small city “fortified by three walls.” Then as now, it was bursting with all types and stripes: Arabs, Jacobites, Syrians, Greeks, Georgians, Franks, and of course Jews. A nucleus of 4, these Jews made a living by dying cloth, and paid a small annual rent to King Baldwin III, (a third-generation Crusader) to ensure that no other dyers would be admitted to the city who might threaten their livelihood. These 4 Jews resided next to Migdal David, which R’ Binyamin describes as the strongest structure in the city.
Shlomo HaMelech’s Palace and adjoining stables still stood and were occupied by 300 knights, who went out daily to perform military exercises. The Kosel, which R’ Binyamin (incorrectly) states were one of the walls of the Kodesh Hakedashim, was a site of Tefila for all the Jews in the region, as it has been throughout the ages.
From Har Hazeisim, R’ Binyamin informs, one can see the Yam Hamelach, or the “Sea of Sodom.” Two parsah (approximately 4 km) from there, stood a pillar of salt – Lot’s wife. “The sheep lick it continually,” he observes, “but afterward it regains its original shape.”
While in the area, R’ Binyamin was told a fascinating anecdote by Rabbi Avraham HaChasid, (“The Porush from Constantin, who was one of the Aveili Tziyon,”) about the Kevarim of Beis David on Har Zion. Two workmen who had been engaged to restore a church on the mountain discovered a cave. They cautiously stepped inside and soon found themselves in a large palace,
…built upon pillars of marble overlaid with silver and gold. In front was a table of gold and a scepter and crown. This was the grave of David HaMelech. To its left was the grave of Shlomo HaMelech. Similarly, there were graves of all the kings of Yehuda…
There were also closed boxes whose contents remained a mystery. When the two men tried to enter the chamber, a fierce wind rushed at them, knocking them over, where they lay until evening. Another wind then came carrying a man’s voice, which cried out: “Get up and go away from this place!”
The shaken men related the incident to their foreman, who summoned Rabbi Avraham. He said that he would visit the cave the following day. The next morning, when the two workers were sent for, to accompany the Rav, they were found dead. The cave was subsequently sealed off.
Like every Jew who visits Eretz Yisrael, R’ Binyamin tried to locate and visit Me’aras Hamachpelah and Kever Rochel. The former was the subject of a strange deception. The local gentiles had erected six tombs and marked them with the names of the Avos and Imahos. Christian pilgrims who paid were told that this was the location of the graves. Jews who visited, however, knew to slip the custodian a larger sum, and he would open an iron gate which led to a flight of steps. These steps took the visitor into two successive empty caves, but in a third cave, there were six Kevarim, labeled with: “This is the grave of Avraham” and “This is the grave of Yitzchak, the son of Avraham our Father,” and so on. A lamp burned there constantly.
The pillar marking Kever Rachel was “made up of eleven stones, corresponding with the number of the sons of Yakov. Upon it is a dome, resting on four columns, and all the Jews that pass by carving their names upon the stones of the pillar.”
During the rest of his tour of Eretz Yisrael, R’ Binyamin encountered many more relics of our rich past, including Yavneh with its famous Beis Hamidrash, but sadly empty of Jews, the burial places of Shmuel Hanavi and Rabbeinu HaKadosh in Tzippori, the Chamei Teveria (hot springs of Teveria), the Shul of Kalev ben Yefuneh, the sites of Nov Ir HaKohanim and Geva Binyamin and the location where Yeravam maintained his golden calves.
Crossing into Syria, R’ Binyamin saw a breathtaking mosque named “Gami of Damascus,” reputed to have been the Palace of Ben Haddad – either the king who joined Asa in fighting Ba’asha King of Yisrael, or one of his descendants. Suspended from the ceiling was a giant rib which the locals would boast belonged to a “King of the Anakim,” who was called Abramaz. This seems to have been some kind of convoluted legend of Avraham Avinu, whom the Midrash says was “HaAdam HaGadol Ba’Anakim.” The rib couldn’t have belonged to Avraham, but it might have belonged to some giant belonging to his era.
In the plains of Lebanon, sprawled the city Baalbec (Baalas). There, R’ Binyamin was awed by the magnificent structure that Shlomo HaMelech had built for the daughter of Pharaoh. He described the extraordinary construction:
The palace is built of large stones, each stone having a length of twenty cubits and a width of twelve cubits, and there are no spaces between the stones. It is said that Ashmedai alone could have put up this building.
He visited Pesor, the home of Bilam ben Be’or “may the names of the wicked decay!” on the river Euphrates, then named “Balis.” There he saw a sundial designed by Bilam, which he described as a “tower” which he built “concerning the hours of the day.”
In Rakka, on the left bank of the Euphrates, located in the Charan of T’nach, he found the site of the home of Avraham before he had set out for Eretz Yisrael at Hashem’s command. It was highly venerated by local Arabs who came there to pray. He also discovered a Beis Haknesses erected by Ezra.
Fascinatingly, R’ Binyamin makes mention of the location of Noach’s Teivah. He notes:
It is a distance of four miles to the place where Noah’s Ark rested, but Omar ben al Khataab took the ark from the two mountains and made it into a mosque for the Mohammedans.
He refers to another Beis Haknesses of Ezra, located nearby, where all the local Jews gathered on Tisha B’av to daven.
Visiting Baghdad, introduced R’ Binyamin to a world center of Jewish life. Home to 40,000 Jews, they lived in prosperity under the protection of the local Caliph. Jewish life was governed by a Rosh Yeshiva (Gaon) and a Reish Galusa. There were ten great Yeshivos, led by ten great Roshei Yeshiva who took part in the Dinei Torah of the local Jews every day of the week, except Monday. On that day, they would gather before the greatest of their number, Rabbi Shmuel ben Eili, who was the Gaon. The Reish Gelusa at the time was Daniel ben Chisdai, who was a direct descendant of David HaMelech.
The Reish Galusa had authority over the Jews, invested by the Caliph, and was treated with great honor. He would visit the ruler once a week, attired in,
…robes of silk and embroidery with a large turban on his head, and from the turban is suspended a long white cloth adorned with a chain upon which the cipher of Mohammed is engraved…
Upon arrival, he would kiss the Caliph’s hand and be seated on a throne opposite him to discuss matters of government.
Ancient Babylon still held the ruins of Nevuchadnetzar’s palace, covering an area thirty mil (about 27.3km or 17 miles) wide. Then home to an abundance of snakes and scorpions, the locals were afraid of exploring it. Nearby was the Shul of Daniel, which was frequented by some 3000 Jews, and the location of the furnace into which Chananya, Mishael and Azariah were thrown.
It is obvious that R’ Binyamin saw Migdal Bavel (the tower that the Dor HaFlagah built to “battle” Hashem) with his own eyes, from the precise detail he offers about it:
…The Tower of Bavel, which the generation whose language was confused, built, of the bricks called Agur. The length of its foundation is about two mil, the breadth of the tower is about forty cubits, and the length two hundred cubits. At every ten cubits’ distance there are slopes which go round the tower by which one can ascend to the top. One can see from there a view twenty miles in extent, as the land is level. There fell fire from heaven into the midst of the tower which split it to its very depths.
A thought-provoking testimony to the awesomeness of Hashem!
R’ Binyamin visited the Beis Haknesses of Yechezkel Hanavi, located by the river Euphrates. It was a grand structure, fronted by 60 turrets, with the Navi’s kever behind it. The grave was surrounded by a fabulous structure, built by Yechonyah Hamelech when Evil Merodach released him from jail. One of the walls was engraved with all of the names of the 35,000 Jews who were exiled during Galus Yechoniah, with the king’s name at the beginning, and the Navi’s at the end.
The site of the Shul and Kever was a major center of activity. Jews flocked there from considerable distances to daven during the Aseres Yemei Teshuva. It was a time of great rejoicing, attended by the Rosh HaYeshiva and Reish Galusa from Baghdad. The visitors would build a camp for themselves to lodge which would stretch 23 mil! On Yom Kippur, they would read from a Sefer Torah (written on gevil-parchment) which was written by Yechezkel himself.
There was also a large library, with books from the periods of both Batei Mikdashos, to which people with no sons would donate sefarim. The Shul was maintained by hundreds of donations brought by visiting Jews, as well as numerous estates which had belonged to Yechonya HaMelech.
The grave of Daniel in Shushan as described by R’ Binyamin was located in a very odd place – suspended beneath a bridge spanning the Tigris! Originally, the kever had been on one side of the river, resulting in the enrichment of all of the local inhabitants. Jealous, the poverty-stricken inhabitants of the other side of the river demanded that it be transferred to their side. Eventually a compromise was reached, the coffin would spend one year on each side of the river.
This state of affairs lasted until Emperor Sinjar-Shah-ben-Shah, King of Persia, turned up. When he heard what was going on, he strongly disapproved of the lack of kovod being shown to Daniel and commanded that they suspend the coffin, encased in another coffin of crystal, beneath the bridge by an iron chain. When this was carried out, he decreed that fishermen avoid fishing in a space of one mil on either side of the bridge.
Egypt, the place of Klal Yisrael’s oppression, harbored a rush of bitter memories from our past. R’ Binyamin saw a pillar of marble erected by the Nile, to ascertain how much it had risen, numerous storehouses which Yosef had built during his rulership in Mitzraim (“they are built of lime and stone and are exceedingly strong”) and structures that our forefathers had constructed during the terrible enslavement.
The Jewish population of Egypt was 7000, and interestingly, they were divided between two Batei Kenesios, one belonging to “Anshei Eretz Yisrael” and one to “Anshei Bavel.” The Anshei Bavel would complete the Torah yearly during Krias Hatorah, while the Anshei Eretz Yisrael would only complete it in a triennial cycle.
The two communities did unify twice a year, however, on Simchas Torah and Shavuos when they would daven together.
R’ Binyamin’s travelogue is very comprehensive, covering in its 112 pages countless cities, sites, peoples, which he visited over more than a decade in time. We have summarized some of the more intriguing points of his odyssey, with an emphasis on sites that are part of the brilliant tapestry of our past.
One remarkable message emanates from R’ Binyamin’s narrative: The Jews are a nation, defined not by a country or language — he found them scattered across the globe speaking a host of tongues — but by their Torah. As Rabbi Saadya Gaon declared, “Ein Umaseinu umah, ela b’Torasoh.”
Melachim; Shmuel; Megillah 29b; Emunos v’Dei’os Rabbi Saadyah Gaon, 3:7; Antiquities of the Jews Josephus; Masaos R’ Binyamin MiTudela R’ Binyaim MiTudela; The Itinerary Of Benjamin Of Tudela Critical Text, Translation And Commentary Marcus Nathan Adler, M.A.; Wikipedia
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