A 12th Century Tour, Part 3 - Greece and Byzantium

In the 12th century, Benjamin of Tudela traveled from his home in northern Spain to Baghdad and beyond. He followed pilgrimage and trade routes, visited scattered communities of Jews through the Mediterranean, and recorded where he visited. I'm turning his record - his itinerary - into a series of posts on medieval travel. Thus far, Benjamin has been generally complementary towards everyone he visited. That is about to change.

Series: Part 1, Part 2

Part 3: Greece and Byzantium

[From Corfu] it is two days' voyage to the land of Larta (Arta), which is the beginning of the dominions of Emanuel, Sovereign of the Greeks. It is a place containing about 100 Jews, at their head being R. Shelachiah and R. Hercules. From there it is two days to Aphilon (Achelous), a place in which reside about thirty Jews, at their head being R. Sabbattai. From there it takes half a day to Anatolica (Aetolicum), which is situated on an arm of the sea.
I'm having difficulty locating the smaller towns Benjamin mentions. They've changed names several times and the original text is far from clear. 
From there it takes a day to Patras, which is the city which Antipater, King of the Greeks, built. He was one of the four successors of King Alexander. In the city there are several large old buildings, and about fifty Jews live here, at their head being R. Isaac, R. Jacob, and R. Samuel. Half a day's journey by way of the sea takes one to Kifto (Lepanto), where there are about 100 Jews, who live on the sea-coast; at their head are R. Guri, R. Shallum, and R. Abraham. From there it is a journey of a day and a half to Crissa, where about 200 Jews live apart. They sow and reap on their own land; at their head are R. Solomon, R. Chayim, and R. Jedaiah. From there it is three days' journey to the capital city of Corinth; here are about 300 Jews, at their head being R. Leon, R. Jacob, and R. Hezekiah.
Patras was not built by Antipater; it probably existed 1,200 years before him, amazingly enough. Some of the buildings Benjamin saw were raised when Augustus refounded the city as a roman colony, 1400 years before Benjamin's visit. Corith, in the 12th century, had been battered by earthquakes, invasions, and a recent conquest. Benjamin arrived less than twenty years after the city was sacked by Roger of Sicily.
Thence it is two days' journey to the great city of Thebes, where there are about 2,000 Jews. They are the most skilled artificers in silk and purple cloth throughout Greece. They have scholars learned in the Mishnah and the Talmud, and other prominent men, and at their head are the chief rabbi R. Kuti and his brother R. Moses, as well as R. Chiyah, R. Elijah Tirutot, and R. Joktan; and there are none like them in the land of the Greeks, except in the city of Constantinople. From Thebes it is a day's journey to Egripo, which is a large city upon the sea-coast, where merchants come from every quarter. About 200 Jews live there, at their head being R. Elijah Psalteri, R. Emanuel, and R. Caleb.
Benjamin crossed overland from the Gulf of Corinth to the Agean, from Thebes to Chalcis. The previous section of his journey, including the trip to Crissa, is more difficult to track.
From there it takes a day to Jabustrisa, which is a city upon the sea-coast with about 100 Jews, at their head being R. Joseph, R. Elazar, R. Isaac, R. Samuel, and R. Nethaniah. From there it is a day's journey to Rabonica, where there are about 100 Jews, at their head being R. Joseph, R. Elazar, and R. Isaac. 
From there it is a day's journey to Sinon Potamo, where there are about fifty Jews, at their head being R. Solomon and R. Jacob. The city is situated at the foot of the hills of Wallachia. The nation called Wallachians live in those mountains. They are as swift as hinds, and they sweep down from the mountains to despoil and ravage the land of Greece. No man can go up and do battle against them, and no king can rule over them. They do not hold fast to the faith of the Nazarenes, but give themselves Jewish names. Some people say that they are Jews, and, in fact, they call the Jews their brethren, and when they meet with them, though they rob them, they refrain from killing them as they kill the Greeks. They are altogether lawless.
I can't locate Rabonica or Sinon Potamo (or Zeitun Potamo, "Zeitun of the River"). Rabonica could be modern Rafina, but it's not certain, considering Benjamin seems to be heading north along the coast, not south. Given the constant warfare of the era and the region I'm not particularly surprised a few cites vanished. The Wallachians, already lawless, were in open revolt within twenty years.
From there it is two days' journey to Gardiki, which is in ruins and contains but a few Greeks and Jews. From there it is two days' journey to Armylo, which is a large city on the sea, inhabited by Venetians, Pisans, Genoese, and all the merchants who come there; it is an extensive place, and contains about 400 Jews. At their head are the chief rabbi R. Shiloh Lombardo, R. Joseph, the warden, and R. Solomon, the leading man. Thence it is a day's journey to Vissena, where there are about 100 Jews, at their head being the chief rabbi R. Sabbattai, R. Solomon, and R. Jacob.
There are probably a dozen ancient "Gardiki"s in Greece. "Vissena" is a good example of how difficult it can be to track down modern locations for these sites. Its spelling is given in other texts as "Bissena", "Vessena", or even "Bezena"... and we still aren't sure where it was.
From there it is two days' voyage to the city of Salonica, built by King Seleucus, one of the four successors who followed after King Alexander. It is a very large city, with about 500 Jews, including the chief rabbi R. Samuel and his sons, who are scholars. He is appointed by the king as head of the Jews. There is also R. Sabbattai, his son-in-law, R. Elijah, and R. Michael. The Jews are oppressed, and live by silk-weaving. 
Thence it is two days' journey to Demetrizi, with about fifty Jews. In this place live R. Isaiah, R. Machir, and R. Alib. Thence it is two days to Drama, where there are about 140 Jews, at the head of them being R. Michael and R. Joseph. From there it is one day's journey to Christopoli, where about twenty Jews live. 
A three days' voyage brings one to Abydos, which is upon an arm of the sea which flows between the mountains, and after a five days' journey the great town of Constantinople is reached. It is the capital of the whole land of Javan, which is called Greece. Here is the residence of the King Emanuel the Emperor. Twelve ministers are under him, each of whom has a palace in Constantinople and possesses castles and cities; they rule all the land. At their head is the King Hipparchus, the second in command is the Megas Domesticus, the third Dominus, and the fourth is Megaa Ducas, and the fifth is Oeconomus Megalus; the others bear names like these. 
"The others bear names like these". I love Benjamin's take on the endless array of titles in the Byzantine empire. Here's Gibbon on the subject, waxing polemic.
The happy flexibility of the Greek tongue allowed [Alexius] to compound the names of Augustus and Emperor (Sebastos and Autocrator,) and the union produces the sonorous title of Sebastocrator... Beside and below the Caesar the fancy of Alexius created the Panhypersebastos and the Protosebastos, whose sound and signification will satisfy a Grecian ear. They imply a superiority and a priority above the simple name of Augustus; and this sacred and primitive title of the Roman prince was degraded to the kinsmen and servants of the Byzantine court. The five titles of, 1. Despot; 2. Sebastocrator; 3. Caesar; 4. Panhypersebastos; and, 5. Protosebastos; were usually confined to the princes of his blood: they were the emanations of his majesty; but as they exercised no regular functions, their existence was useless, and their authority precarious. 
But in every monarchy the substantial powers of government must be divided and exercised by the ministers of the palace and treasury, the fleet and army... The Curopalata, so illustrious in the age of Justinian, was supplanted by the Protovestiare, whose primitive functions were limited to the custody of the wardrobe. From thence his jurisdiction was extended over the numerous menials of pomp and luxury; and he presided with his silver wand at the public and private audience.... In the ancient system of Constantine, the name of Logothete, or accountant, was applied to the receivers of the finances: the principal officers were distinguished as the Logothetes of the domain, of the posts, the army, the private and public treasure; and the great Logothete, the supreme guardian of the laws and revenues, is compared with the chancellor of the Latin monarchies...The introductor and interpreter of foreign ambassadors were the great Chiauss and the Dragoman, two names of Turkish origin, and which are still familiar to the Sublime Porte.  
From the humble style and service of guards, the Domestics insensibly rose to the station of generals; the military themes of the East and West, the legions of Europe and Asia, were often divided, till the great Domestic was finally invested with the universal and absolute command of the land forces. The Protostrator, in his original functions, was the assistant of the emperor when he mounted on horseback: he gradually became the lieutenant of the great Domestic in the field; and his jurisdiction extended over the stables, the cavalry, and the royal train of hunting and hawking. The Stratopedarch was the great judge of the camp: the Protospathaire commanded the guards; the Constable, the great Aeteriarch, and the Acolyth, were the separate chiefs of the Franks, the Barbarians, and the Varangi, or English, the mercenary strangers, who, a the decay of the national spirit, formed the nerve of the Byzantine armies. The naval powers were under the command of the great Duke; in his absence they obeyed the great Drungaire of the fleet; and, in his place, the Emir, or Admiral, a name of Saracen extraction, but which has been naturalized in all the modern languages of Europe. Of these officers, and of many more whom it would be useless to enumerate, the civil and military hierarchy was framed. Their honors and emoluments, their dress and titles, their mutual salutations and respective preeminence, were balanced with more exquisite labor than would have fixed the constitution of a free people; and the code was almost perfect when this baseless fabric, the monument of pride and servitude, was forever buried in the ruins of the empire.
And back to Benjamin.
The circumference of the city of Constantinople is eighteen miles; half of it is surrounded by the sea, and half by land, and it is situated upon two arms of the sea, one coming from the sea of Russia, and one from the sea of Sepharad.
The "sea of Sepharad" is the Mediterranean.
All sorts of merchants come here from the land of Babylon, from the land of Shinar, from Persia, Media, and all the sovereignty of the land of Egypt, from the land of Canaan, and the empire of Russia, from Hungaria, Patzinakia, Khazaria, and the land of Lombardy and Sepharad. It is a busy city, and merchants come to it from every country by sea or land, and there is none like it in the world except Bagdad, the great city of Islam. In Constantinople is the church of Santa Sophia, and the seat of the Pope of the Greeks, since the Greeks do not obey the Pope of Rome. There are also churches according to the number of the days of the year. A quantity of wealth beyond telling is brought hither year by year as tribute from the two islands and the castles and villages which are there. And the like of this wealth is not to be found in any other church in the world. And in this church there are pillars of gold and silver, and lamps of silver and gold more than a man can count.
Benjamin's terseness is endearing. "These guys have their own Pope. Moving on..." His description of Constantinople's wealth is probably not exaggerated. It didn't remain wealthy for long. 40 years after Benjamin passed through, the 4th Crusade... well, I could probably write an entire series on the 4th Crusade.
Close to the walls of the palace is also a place of amusement belonging to the king, which is called the Hippodrome, and every year on the anniversary of the birth of Jesus the king gives a great entertainment there. And in that place men from all the races of the world come before the king and queen with jugglery and without jugglery, and they introduce lions, leopards, bears, and wild asses, and they engage them in combat with one another; and the same thing is done with birds. No entertainment like this is to be found in any other land.
By the 12th century, the legendary rivalry between the Blues and the Greens had mostly collapsed into public displays and minor bickering. If you've never heard of them, start here.
This King Emanuel built a great palace for the seat of his Government upon the sea-coast, in addition to the palaces which his fathers built, and he called its name Blachernae. He overlaid its columns and walls with gold and silver, and engraved thereon representations of the battles before his day and of his own combats. He also set up a throne of gold and of precious stones, and a golden crown was suspended by a gold chain over the throne, so arranged that he might sit thereunder. It was inlaid with jewels of priceless value, and at night time no lights were required, for every one could see by the light which the stones gave forth. Countless other buildings are to be met with in the city. From every part of the empire of Greece tribute is brought here every year, and they fill strongholds with garments of silk, purple, and gold. Like unto these storehouses and this wealth, there is nothing in the whole world to be found. It is said that the tribute of the city amounts every year to 20,000 gold pieces, derived both from the rents of shops and markets, and from the tribute of merchants who enter by sea or land. 
The Greek inhabitants are very rich in gold and precious stones, and they go clothed in garments of silk with gold embroidery, and they ride horses, and look like princes. Indeed, the land is very rich in all cloth stuffs, and in bread, meat, and wine. Wealth like that of Constantinople is not to be found in the whole world. Here also are men learned in all the books of the Greeks, and they eat and drink every man under his vine and his fig-tree
They hire from amongst all nations warriors called Loazim (Barbarians) to fight with the Sultan Masud, King of the Togarmim (Seljuks), who are called Turks; for the natives are not warlike, but are as women who have no strength to fight.
The Byzantines hired enormous numbers of mercenaries from all over the world. Benjamin would have seen the Varangian Guard in Constantinople.
No Jews live in the city, for they have been placed behind an inlet of the sea. An arm of the sea of Marmora shuts them in on the one side, and they are unable to go out except by way of the sea, when they want to do business with the inhabitants. In the Jewish quarter are about 2,000 Rabbanite Jews and about 500 Karaïtes, and a fence divides them. 
You thought Benjamin was just recording the communities he visited? Nope. Like any tourist he was also judged what he saw.
Amongst the scholars are several wise men, at their head being the chief rabbi R. Abtalion, R. Obadiah, R. Aaron Bechor Shoro, R. Joseph Shir-Guru, and R. Eliakim, the warden. And amongst them there are artificers in silk and many rich merchants. No Jew there is allowed to ride on horseback. The one exception is R. Solomon Hamitsri, who is the king's physician, and through whom the Jews enjoy considerable alleviation of their oppression. 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 (the Ghetto). 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. Yet the Jews are rich and good, kindly and charitable, and bear their lot with cheerfulness. The district inhabited by the Jews is called Pera.
Medieval tanneries stank.
From Constantinople it is two days' voyage to Rhaedestus, with a community of Israelites of about 400, at their head being R. Moses, R. Abijah, and R. Jacob. From there it is two days to Callipolis (Gallipoli), where there are about 200 Jews, at their head being R. Elijah Kapur, R. Shabbattai Zutro, and R. Isaac Megas, which means "great" in Greek. And from here it is two days to Kales. Here there are about fifty Jews, at their head being R. Jacob and R. Judah. From here it is two days' journey to the island of Mytilene, and there are Jewish congregations in ten localities on the island. Thence it is three days' voyage to the island of Chios, where there are about 400 Jews, including R. Elijah Heman and R. Shabtha. Here grow the trees from which mastic is obtained. 
Mastic is a very valuable plant resin with hundreds of uses. Benjamin isn't just writing an itinerary for fun. "If you want to trade in mastic", he says, "it's here, and here is the route, taking this many days." Trade in mastic was an Imperial monopoly, but I'm sure trading close to the source would be more profitable than trading in a distant port.
Two days' voyage takes one to the island of Samos, where there are 300 Jews, at their head being R. Shemaria, R. Obadiah, and R. Joel. The islands have many congregations of Jews. From Samos it is three days to Rhodes, where there are about 400 Jews, at their head being R. Abba, R. Hannanel, and R. Elijah. It is four days' voyage from here to Cyprus, where there are Rabbanite Jews and Karaïtes; there are also some heretical Jews called Epikursin, whom the Israelites have excommunicated in all places. They profane the eve of the sabbath, and observe the first night of the week, which is the termination of the sabbath. 
As far as I can tell, we only know of this sect from orthodox texts and reactions to their practices.
From Cyprus it is four days' journey to Curicus (Kurch), which is the beginning of the land called Armenia, and this is the frontier of the empire of Thoros, ruler of the mountains, and king of Armenia, whose dominions extend to the province of Trunia, and to the country of the Togarmim or Turks. From there it is two days' journey to Malmistras, which is Tarshish, situated by the sea; and thus far extends the kingdom of the Javanim or Greeks
Thoros II of Armenia was a thorn in the Emperor's side. When he died in 1169, he had finally made peace with the Emperor and returned some of the towns listed here to Imperial control. Therefore, Benjamin must have passed by this area before 1168. It's entirely possible he took two or even three years to reach this point in his journey.

As to where this point is, exactly... it's somewhere on the coast. Benjamin turns up in Antioch in 2 days, so he can't be too far away.

Trade Route Map of Part 3

Representative Map of Part 3

I've drawn Rhodes and Cyprus as islands, even though the translation doesn't list them. I'm fairly certain Benjamin's audience would have recognized them as islands.

Summary of Part 3

Tracking Benjamin's distance is difficult. Aside from the difficulty of estimating sea routes, a fair number of cities and towns listed have no modern equivalents.

This stage of  his journey took 36 days to reach Constantinople from Corfu, and a further 24 days to reach Malmistras and the coast. Eyeballing the total distance at 1,300 miles / 2,090 km, his rate of travel slowed to 21 miles / 35 km/day.

He writes of:

-Four cities built by four legendary followers of a great conqueror.
-Wild hill-people who run as fast as dogs, take religious names (though not religious practices) and kill everyone except one particular religion (though they still rob them).
-A city of only ruins.
-A grand capital city, full of wealth.
-A spectacular annual entertainment at the ruler's expense.
-Bird battles.
-A king with many officers, each with a unique and interesting title.
-A king with a crown too heavy to wear. It is suspended by gold chains instead. The crown has glowing jewels.
-A wealthy king protected by hired barbarians.
-A resin worth its weight in gold
-A travel route hopping from island to island
-A warrior king with a kingdom in the hills

In Part 4, Benjamin visits the Holy Land, Jerusalem (still in the hands of the crusaders), and the tomb of every important historical figure he can find, real or imagined.

Scale of Travel

This image might be helpful for North American readers. Benjamin started in central Nevada and has just reached West Virginia.

A 12th Century Tour, Part 2 - Italy

In the 12th century, Benjamin of Tudela traveled from his home in northern Spain to Baghdad and beyond. He followed pilgrimage and trade routes, visited scattered communities of Jews through the Mediterranean, and recorded where he visited. I'm turning his record - his itinerary - into a series of posts on medieval travel.

I'm not the first person to discuss medieval itineraries in this context. Daniel Sell covered some basic rules for generating your own and using them to run an exploration- or trade-based game.

Series: Part 1

Part 2: Italy

From Marseilles one can take 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. Each householder has a tower to his house, and at times of strife they fight from the tops of the towers with each other. They have command of the sea. They build ships which they call galleys, and make predatory attacks upon Edom and Ishmael and the land of Greece as far as Sicily, and they bring back to Genoa spoils from all these places. They are constantly at war with the men of Pisa. Between them and the Pisans there is a distance of two days' journey.
I can't find any good articles on the towers of Genoa, but they must have resembled the famous and mysterious Towers of Bologna. "Edom and Ishmael" here means "Christian and Muslim"; the Genoese did not discriminate. Genoa used dromon-type galleys, crewed by up to 1,000 men.
Pisa is a very great city, with about 10,000 turreted houses for battle at times of strife. All its inhabitants are mighty men. They possess neither king nor prince to govern them, but only the judges appointed by themselves. In this city are about twenty Jews, at their head being R. Moses, R. Chayim, and R. Joseph. The city is not surrounded by a wall. It is about six miles from the sea; the river which flows through the city provides it with ingress and egress for ships.
From Pisa it is four parasangs to the city of Lucca, which is the beginning of the frontier of Lombardy. In the city of Lucca are about forty Jews. It is a large place, and at the head of the Jews are R. David, R. Samuel, and R. Jacob.
Both Pisa and Lucca continued the tower-building trend. The parasang is a variable unit.10 parasangs make a day's journey.
Thence it is six days' journey to the great city of Rome. Rome is the head of the kingdoms of Christendom, and contains about 200 Jews, who occupy an honourable position and pay no tribute, and amongst them are officials of the Pope Alexander, the spiritual head of all Christendom. Great scholars reside here, at the head of them being R. Daniel, the chief rabbi, and R. Jechiel, an official of the Pope. He is a handsome young man of intelligence and wisdom, and he has the entry of the Pope's palace; for he is the steward of his house and of all that he has. He is a grandson of R. Nathan, who composed the Aruch and its commentaries. Other scholars are R. Joab, son of the chief rabbi R. Solomon, R. Menachem, head of the academy, R. Jechiel, who lives in Trastevere, and R. Benjamin, son of R. Shabbethai of blessed memory. Rome is divided into two parts by the River Tiber. In the one part is the great church which they call St. Peter's of Rome. The great Palace of Julius Caesar was also in Rome.
Benjamin took the coast road, avoiding Florence entirely. Pope Alexander VI is, of course, the most famous of his name, but Benjamin is referring to Pope Alexander III. His papacy was not a quiet one; he endured a papal schism, arrest, detention, exile, and an ecumenical council. In fact, when Benjamin visited Rome, the Pope was likely in exile. He lived in France from his election in 1159 until 1165, then Benevento from 1166 to 1176. Benjamin probably visited Rome in 1165 or 1166.
There are many wonderful structures in the city, different from any others in the world. Including both its inhabited and ruined parts, Rome is about twenty-four miles in circumference. In the midst thereof there are eighty palaces belonging to eighty kings who lived there, each called Imperator, commencing from King Tarquinius down to Nero and Tiberius, who lived at the time of Jesus the Nazarene, ending with Pepin, who freed the land of Sepharad from Islam, and was father of Charlemagne.
Rome, in the 12th century, was not a grand metropolis. Any traveler could clearly see the "ruined parts", the abandoned palaces, the empty roads. A city built for over a million inhabitants housed only 30,000 when Benjamin visited. Benjamin skips the Roman Republic, moving directly from the ancient kings of Rome to the early Emperors. "Sepharad" is another name for Spain.
There is a palace outside Rome (said to be of Titus). The Consul and his 300 Senators treated him with disfavour, because he failed to take Jerusalem till after three years, though they had bidden him to capture it within two.
This story is entirely legendary and is probably taken from the Josippon, but you can see why Benjamin would record it. Tour guides haven't changed much over the centuries.
In Rome is also the palace of Vespasianus, a great and very strong building; also the Colosseum, in which edifice there are 365 sections, according to the days of the solar year; and the circumference of these palaces is three miles. There were battles fought here in olden times, and in the palace more than 100,000 men were slain, and there their bones remain piled up to the present day. The king caused to be engraved a representation of the battle and of the forces on either side facing one another, both warriors and horses, all in marble, to exhibit to the world the war of the days of old.
I'm not sure which palace Benjamin saw; it's possible it no longer exists.
In Rome there is a cave which runs underground, and catacombs of King Tarmal Galsin and his royal consort who are to be found there, seated upon their thrones, and with them about a hundred royal personages. They are all embalmed and preserved to this day.
I have no idea what Benjamin saw here. King Tarmal Galsin could be the Emperor Galba, but I've never heard of a preserved Imperial court in the Roman catacombs.
In the church of St. John in the Lateran there are two bronze columns taken from the Temple, the handiwork of King Solomon, each column being engraved "Solomon the son of David." The Jews of Rome told me that every year upon the 9th of Ab they found the columns exuding moisture like water. There also is the cave where Titus the son of Vespasianus stored the Temple vessels which he brought from Jerusalem. There is also a cave in a hill on one bank of the River Tiber where are the graves of the ten martyrs. In front of St. John in the Lateran there are statues of Samson in marble, with a spear in his hand, and of Absalom the son of King David, and another of Constantinus the Great, who built Constantinople and after whom it was called. The last-named statue is of bronze, the horse being overlaid with gold. Many other edifices are there, and remarkable sights beyond enumeration.
The bronze columns no longer exist. The equestrian statue is probably that of Marcus Aurelius, not Constantine. Benjamin is listing the major Jewish religious tourist sites of Rome, like any pilgrim. I think his description of Rome is one of the best I've ever read. It's a wonderful blend of myth, half-truth, history, and condensed fact.
From Rome it is four days to Capua, the large town which King Capys built. It is a fine city, but its water is bad, and the country is fever-stricken. About 300 Jews live there, among them great scholars and esteemed persons, at their heads being R. Conso, his brother R. Israel, R. Zaken and the chief rabbi R. David, since deceased. They call this district the Principality.
The "fever" here is malaria, a particularly deadly scourge to travelers.
From there one goes to Pozzuoli which is called Sorrento the Great, built by Zur, son of Hadadezer, when he fled in fear of David the king. The sea has risen and covered the city from its two sides, and at the present day one can still see the markets and towers which stood in the midst of the city. A spring issues forth from beneath the ground containing the oil which is called petroleum. People collect it from the surface of the water and use it medicinally. There are also hot-water springs to the number of about twenty, which issue from the ground and are situated near the sea, and every man who has any disease can go and bathe in them and get cured. All the afflicted of Lombardy visit it in the summer-time for that purpose.
Benjamin's legend of the origin of Pozzuoli is... spurious, at best, but sunken city he describes really did exist.
From this place a man can travel fifteen miles along a road under the mountains, a work executed by King Romulus who built the city of Rome. He was prompted to this by fear of King David and Joab his general. He built fortifications both upon the mountains and below the mountains reaching as far as the city of Naples. Naples is a very strong city, lying upon the sea-board, and was founded by the Greeks. About 500 Jews live here, amongst them R. Hezekiah, R. Shallum, R. Elijah Hacohen and R. Isaac of Har Napus, the chief rabbi of blessed memory.
The tunnel Benjamin describes is not fifteen miles long, but it is still very impressive. King Romulus was probably not afraid of King David and Joab; even in the stories, King David lived two centuries before Rome's mythical founder. Some commentaries express doubt that he visited the site in person and attribute these tales quoting Josippon again.
Thence one proceeds by sea to the city of Salerno, where the Christians have a school of medicine. About 600 Jews dwell there. Among the scholars are R. Judah, son of R. Isaac, the son of Melchizedek, the great Rabbi, who came from the city of Siponto; also R. Solomon (the Cohen), R. Elijah the Greek, R. Abraham Narboni, and R. Hamon. It is a city with walls upon the land side, the other side bordering on the sea and there is a very strong castle on the summit of the hill. Thence it is half a day's journey to Amalfi, where there are about twenty Jews, amongst them R. Hananel, the physician, R. Elisha, and Abu-al-gir, the prince. The inhabitants of the place are merchants engaged in trade, who do not sow or reap, because they dwell upon high hills and lofty crags, but buy everything for money. Nevertheless, they have an abundance of fruit, for it is a land of vineyards and olives, of gardens and plantations, and no one can go to war with them.

The mountains between Naples and Salerno make sea travel advisable. The Schola Medica Salernitana was at the height of its influence when Benjamin visited Salerno. It was, arguably, the first university in the western world, complete with unlikely teachers, an extensive library, and a charming Hogwarts-like founding myth. Benjamin's description of Amalfi neglects to mention that the city was captured and sacked in 1133, 1135, and 1137.
Thence it is a day's journey to Benevento, which is a city situated between the sea-coast and a mountain, and possessing a community of about 200 Jews. At their head are R. Kalonymus, R. Zarach, and R. Abraham. From there it is two days' journey to Melfi in the country of Apulia, which is the land of Pul, where about 200 Jews reside, at their head being R. Achimaaz, R. Nathan, and R. Isaac. From Melfi it is about a day's journey to Ascoli, where there are about forty Jews, at their head being R. Consoli, R. Zemach, his son-in-law, and R. Joseph. From there it takes two days to Trani on the sea, where all the pilgrims gather to go to Jerusalem; for the port is a convenient one. A community of about 200 Israelites is there, at their head being R. Elijah, R. Nathan, the expounder, and R. Jacob. It is a great and beautiful city.
Benjamin cut across the ankle of the boot of Italy, heading inland to reach the eastern coast.
From there it is a day's journey to Colo di Bari, which is the great city which King William of Sicily destroyed. Neither Jews nor Gentiles live there at the present day in consequence of its destruction.
Bari was destroyed by William the Bad in 1156 and ordered to be rebuilt by William the Good in 1169. Convenient.
Thence it is a day and a half to Taranto, which is under the government of Calabria, the inhabitants of which are Greek. It is a large city, and contains about 300 Jews, some of them men of learning, and at their head are R. Meir, R. Nathan, and R. Israel. 
From Taranto it is a day's journey to Brindisi, which is on the sea coast. About ten Jews, who are dyers, reside here. It is two days' journey to Otranto, which is on the coast of the Greek sea. Here are about 50 Jews, at the head of them being R. Menachem, R. Caleb, R. Meir, and R. Mali. From Otranto it is a voyage of two days to Corfu, where only one Jew of the name of R. Joseph lives, and here ends the kingdom of Sicily.
Corfu changed hands many times in the 10th-14th centuries. Norman adventurers, Genoese pirates, Byzantine nostalgists, Venetian militants, and probably a few short-lived governments that escaped the official records.

Trade Route Map of Part 2


Representative Map of Part 2

This map uses only Benjamin's descriptions, ignoring actual geography. It loops back and forth like the Tabula Peutingeriana.

Summary of Part 2

From Marseilles to Otranto, Benjamin traveled 997 miles or 1,603 km. Estimated travel time is (because he doesn't list a few short trips) is 27 days. His average overland travel rate for this leg is consistent with Part 1, at 41 miles or 66km per day.

He writes of:
-A city of pirates
-A city (or several cities) where people build towers and fight each other from their tops
-A giant city full of ruins of the ancient world
-A remote and disfavoured palace of a king who failed to take a city
-An arena full of bones
-An arena three miles in circumference
-An embalmed emperor and his court in the catacombs
-A city with bad water and constant fever
-Medicinal petroleum
-A sunken city
-Healing hot springs
-A titanic tunnel connecting two cities
-A medical school founded by four unlikely people
-An island that changes hands every few years

In Part 3, Benjamin travels through Greece and Byzantium, and reaches the crown jewel of the 12th century Christian world - Constantinople.


A 12th Century Tour, Part 1 - Spain and France

In the 12th century, Benjamin of Tudela traveled from his home in northern Spain to Baghdad and beyond. He followed pilgrimage and trade routes, visited scattered communities of Jews through the Mediterranean, and recorded where he visited.

People have a vague idea that medieval travel accounts painted a modern picture of the world, as if they were some sort of Lonely Planet guide. Benjamin's account is a perfect way to dispel this myth. He traveled along known routes, visited known cities, and described things covered by earlier travelogues, pilgrims guides, and classical texts. As we will see, the world he describes is far from complete. 

For the purposes of this series I'm not concerned about Benjamin's motives, accuracy, or exact route. Instead, I'm going to use his text to show how a medieval traveler viewed the world, and how those descriptions can be used for fictional settings. Benjamin was an outsider everywhere he went. His itinerary is therefore much more interesting than a text from the same period written by a local. For the most part, I'm going to let the text speak for itself, but I will add links, images, and sidebars when I feel there's something more to discuss.

As far as I can tell, this is the best map of  his journey on the internet. That's terrible. I'm going to work on two maps. The first will be based on Martin Jan Månsson's Medieval Trade Networks map. The second will be a customized non-realistic map, based purely on Benjamin's descriptions and not on actual geography. Who knows; maybe I'll make a hexcrawl of it one day. He describes the world by days of travel, not by miles. I'll try to provide both.

The text is based on M. A. Alder's translation. Feel free to read ahead. I'd view his introduction with a skeptical eye. It hasn't aged well.


This the book of travels, which was compiled by Rabbi Benjamin, the son of Jonah, of the land of Navarre - his repose be in Paradise.

The said Rabbi Benjamin set forth from Tudela, his native city, and passed through many remote countries, as is related in his book. In every place which he entered, he made a record of all that he saw, or was told of by trustworthy persons - matters not previously heard of in the land of Sepharad. Also he mentions some of the sages and illustrious men residing in each place. He brought this book with him on his return to the country of Castile, in the year 4933 (C.E. 1173). The said Rabbi Benjamin is a wise and understanding man, learned in the Law and the Halacha, and wherever we have tested his statements we have found them accurate, true to fact and consistent; for he is a trustworthy man.
The "land of Sepharad" is the "land of Spain", as named by medieval Jews, based on a very obscure biblical reference.

Part 1: Spain and France

His book commences as follows: - I journeyed first from my native town to the city of Saragossa, and thence by way of the River Ebro to Tortosa.
From there I went a journey of two days to the ancient city of Tarragona with its Cyclopean and Greek buildings. The like thereof is not found among any of the buildings in the country of Sepharad. It is situated by the sea, and two days' journey from the city of Barcelona, where there is a holy congregation, including sages, wise and illustrious men, such as R. Shesheth, R. Shealtiel, R. Solomon, and R. Abraham, son of Chisdai. This is a small city and beautiful, lying upon the sea-coast. Merchants come thither from all quarters with their wares, from Greece, from Pisa, Genoa, Sicily, Alexandria in Egypt, Palestine, Africa and all its coasts.
The "Cyclopean" buildings at Tarragona are massive walls of boulders, built by bronze age architects two and a half thousand years before Benjamin visited them. We do not know if Benjamin, like many people of his age, thought the walls were actually built by the one-eyed cannibal Cyclopes.
Thence it is a day and a half to Gerona, in which there is a small congregation of Jews. A three days' journey takes one to Narbonne, which is a city pre-eminent for learning; thence the Torah goes forth to all countries. Sages, and great and illustrious men abide here. At their head is R. Kalonymos, the son of the great and illustrious R. Todros of the seed of David, whose pedigree is established. He possesses hereditaments and lands given him by the ruler of the city, of which no man can forcibly dispossess him. Prominent in the community is R Abraham, head of the Academy: also R. Machir and R. Judah, and many other distinguished scholars. At the present day 300 Jews are there.
Despite being on the coast, it seems Benjamin traveled overland. Sea journeys, even short ones, were perilous adventures.
Thence it is four parasangs to the city of Beziers, where there is a congregation of learned men. At their head is R. Solomon Chalafta, R Joseph, and R. Nethanel. Thence it is two days to Har Gaash which is called Montpellier. This is a place well situated for commerce. It is about a parasang from the sea, and men come for business there from all quarters, from Edom, Ishmael, the land of Algarve, Lombardy, the dominion of Rome the Great, from all the land of Egypt, Palestine, Greece, France, Asia and England. People of all nations are found there doing business through the medium of the Genoese and Pisans. In the city there are scholars of great eminence, at their head being R. Reuben, son of Todros, R. Nathan, son of Zechariah, and R. Samuel, their chief rabbi, also R. Solomon and R. Mordecai. They have among them houses of learning devoted to the study of the Talmud. Among the community are men both rich and charitable, who lend a helping hand to all that come to them.
The parasang is a frustratingly variable unit that changes based on local terrain. M. A. Alder equates a parasang to 3.4 miles, and states that 10 parasangs make a day's journey. Therefore, 4 parasangs = 13.6 miles. The actual distance, on modern roads, is 22 miles.
From Montpellier it is four parasangs to Lunel, in which there is a congregation of Israelites, who study the Law day and night. Here lived Rabbenu Meshullam the great rabbi, since deceased, and his five sons, who are wise, great and wealthy, namely: R. Joseph, R. Isaac, R. Jacob, R. Aaron, and R. Asher, the recluse, who dwells apart from the world; he pores over his books day and night, fasts periodically and abstains from all meat. He is a great scholar of the Talmud. At Lunel live also their brother-in-law R. Moses, the chief rabbi, R. Samuel the elder, R. Ulsarnu, R. Solomon Hacohen, and R. Judah the Physician, the son of Tibbon, the Sephardi. The students that come from distant lands to learn the Law are taught, boarded, lodged and clothed by the congregation, so long as they attend the house of study. The community has wise, understanding and saintly men of great benevolence, who lend a helping hand to all their brethren both far and near. The congregation consists of about 300 Jews - may the Lord preserve them.
From there it is two parasangs to Posquières, which is a large place containing about forty Jews, with an Academy under the auspices of the great Rabbi, R. Abraham, son of David, of blessed memory, an energetic and wise man, great as a talmudical authority. People come to him from a distance to learn the Law at his lips, and they find rest in his house, and he teaches them. Of those who are without means he also pays the expenses, for he is very rich. The munificent R. Joseph, son of Menachem, also dwells here, and R. Benveniste, R. Benjamin, R. Abraham and R. Isaac, son of R. Meir of blessed memory. Thence it is four parasangs to the suburb Bourg de St. Gilles, in which place there are about a hundred Jews. Wise men abide there; at their head being R. Isaac, son of Jacob, R. Abraham, son of Judah, R. Eleazar, R. Jacob, R. Isaac, R. Moses and R. Jacob, son of rabbi Levi of blessed memory. This is a place of pilgrimage of the Gentiles who come hither from the ends of the earth. It is only three miles from the sea, and is situated upon the great River Rhone, which flows through the whole land of Provence. Here dwells the illustrious R. Abba Mari, son of the late R. Isaac; he is the bailiff of Count Raymond.
There are a lot of prestigious names here. I've tried to link to most of them. Benjamin was clearly proud of the people he visited, and with good reason. The relics of St. Giles were a major pilgrimage destination. The saint was "the speediest of all the saints to help the unfortunate and afflicted. The author [of the pilgrim guide] himself had seen a prayer answered on the very same day. The most vivid sculpture in Provence still displays the generous gratitude with which the pilgrims of the 12th century rewarded St. Giles for his aid." (Popular Religion in the Middle Ages, Brooke)
Thence it is three parasangs to the city of Arles, which has about 200 Israelites, at their head being R. Moses, R. Tobias, R. Isaiah, R. Solomon, the chief rabbi R. Nathan, and R. Abba Mari, since deceased.

From there it is two days' journey to Marseilles, which is a city of princely and wise citizens, possessing two congregations with about 300 Jews. One congregation dwells below on the shore by the sea, the other is in the castle above. They form a great academy of learned men, amongst them being R. Simeon, R. Solomon, R. Isaac, son of Abba Mari, R. Simeon, son of Antoli, and R. Jacob his brother; also R. Libero. These persons are at the head of the upper academy. At the head of the congregation below are R. Jacob Purpis, a wealthy man, and R. Abraham, son of R. Meir, his son-in-law, and R. Isaac, son of the late R. Meir. It is a very busy city upon the sea-coast.

Trade Route Map of Part 1

Tuleda is just barely visible on the left side of the map. All of Benjamin's other major destinations are marked.

Representative Map of Part 1

This map uses only Benjamin's descriptions. If a city is listed as being on the coast, it's on the coast. If not, it's not. Small squares for towns, big squares for cities, books for centres of learning, coins for trading cities, walls and castles where mentioned.

Summary of Part 1

From Tortosa, where Benjamin starts tracking his travel time, he traveled 433 miles / 703km to reach Marseilles. Estimated travel time in total is just over 14 days, presumably with long breaks. His average rate of travel is 40 miles / 60 km a day. He writes of:
-mythical prehistoric ruins
-a commercial city with every major power represented
-a learned vegetarian recluse
-the relics of a quick-acting healing saint
- a great river
-an outsider who serves as the bailiff of a count

In Part 2, Benjamin reaches Rome, and his itinerary begins to include unlikely, mythological, and fantastic elements.