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Benjamin of Tudela
by Jacqueline Alio

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Read more...The Peoples of Sicily: A Multi­cultural Legacy. Full of Greeks, Arabs, Normans, Germans and Jews, the most signif­icant general history of Sicily ever pub­lished is about much more than an island in the sun. Can the eclectic medieval experience of the world's most conquered island be a lesson for our times? Find out as you meet the peoples! (368 pages on acid-free paper, ebook available) Read more.

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In the 12th century this was actually 
a geometric Arab design, the Star of David probably being adopted by Jews much later.As his name implies, Benjamin was born in the town of Tudela in Navarre, probably around 1135. Around 1160 he set out on a journey across the Mediterranean to the Holy Land. This pilgrimage took him through Spain and France, through Italy to Brindisi, and then from Greece into Asia Minor. From Jerusalem and Damascus he made his way to Baghdad, then into the Arabian peninsula, northeast to the port of Basra, then southward around the peninsula to Egypt, then crossing the Mediterranean to Palermo before sailing back to Spain.

We don't know the reasons for his voyage, which took at least ten years. Pilgrimage was a motive, certainly, but he probably wanted to visit the various Jewish communities or even pursue commerce. Benjamin, first and foremost, was a rabbi. His book is a work of geography comparable in scope and tone to Idrisi's, but with an emphasis on the Jewish communities rather than the Muslim ones. He is one of the first westerners to mention "China" by that name, though his travels did not take him that far east.

Written in Hebrew, The Voyages of Benjamin was noteworthy for what historians have deemed its reliability regarding medieval life. It was subsequently translated into Latin and other languages. Benjamin's descriptions of Rome and Baghdad were particularly detailed.

He reached Palermo toward the end of his voyage, along the return route toward his homeland, which he reached in 1172. His description of the Sicilian city is detailed, picturesque and consistent with that of Abdullah al Idrisi. He seems to have been received at the court of the young King William II. Tudela provides an informal "census" of Sicily's Jews, mentioning, for example, that there were around two hundred Jewish families in Messina in the 1170s.

Palermo's Jewish community thrived until the forced conversions or voluntary deportations of 1493. The first Jews of Sicily were living at Siracusa (Syracuse) toward the end of the Greek era. In the sixth century they had a large synagogue at Palermo but this was eventually claimed by the Christians. Around 831, with the arrival of the Arabs, their lot improved somewhat but it was the Normans, arriving in 1071, who instituted religious equality, as opposed to "religious tolerance," for all citizens. The death of Emperor Frederick II in 1250 marked a sad turning point, as by then most Muslims, as well as Orthodox Christians, had been converted to Catholicism, leaving the Jews the only religious minority --though there are accounts of isolated Jewish communities converting before 1250.

Wherever he went, Tudela's accounts of intellectual life, always precise, reflect his own intellect and learning, exceptional for a twelfth-century traveller. Our knowledge of medieval Judaism would be the lesser without him.

About the Author: Historian Jacqueline Alio wrote Women of Sicily - Saints, Queens & Rebels and co-authored The Peoples of Sicily - A Multicultural Legacy.

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© 2008 Jacqueline Alio