Not much is known of the individual who wrote “The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela” about his travels in the Christian and Muslim worlds between 1169 and 1171. He apparently came from the town of Tudela, in Navarre, northern Spain. He wrote in formal Hebrew and used many Arabic terms, a language which was probably his mother tongue. His work indicates that he was an inheritor of the culture of Muslim Spain and he grew up and was educated in the world of Arabic science and culture and the world of Jewish culture.

His book has been published as part of the Gutenberg Project and can be found at: http://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/mhl/mhl20.htm.

His description of Baghdad, then the centre of Islam in the Middle East and beyond, indicates the nature of the Jewish-Muslim relationship at the time.

“There the great king, Al Abbasi the Caliph (Hafiz) holds his court, and he is kind unto Israel, and many belonging to the people of Israel are his attendants; he knows all languages, and is well versed in the law of Israel. He reads and writes the holy language (Hebrew). He will not partake of anything unless he has earned it by the work of his own hands. …He is truthful and trusty, speaking peace to all men.”

He comments on the living conditions of Jews under his rule:

“In Bagdad there are about 40,000 Jews, and they dwell in security, prosperity and honour under the great Caliph, and amongst them are great sages, the heads of Academies engaged in the study of the law. In this city there are ten Academies. At the head of the great Academy is the chief rabbi R. Samuel, the son of Eli.”

The Jewish community enjoyed its own religious law under its own scholars.

“These are the ten Batlanim (full time scholars of Talmud), and they do not engage in any other work than communal administration; and all the days of the week they judge the Jews their countrymen, except on the second day of the week, when they all appear before the chief rabbi Samuel, the head of the Yeshiba Gaon (Jacob), who in conjunction with the other Batlanim, judges all those that appear before him. And at the head of them all is Daniel the son of Hisdai, who is styled “Our Lord the Head of the Captivity of all Israel.” He possesses a book of pedigrees going back as far as David, King of Israel. The Jews call him “Our Lord, Head of the Captivity,” and the Mohammedans call him “Saidna ben Daoud,” and he has been invested with authority over all the congregations of Israel at the hands of the Emir al Muminin, the Lord of Islam.”

The Exilarch, the Head of the Captivity, was responsible for the administration of the taxation of all Jewish communities in the empire. He also enjoyed financial independence: “He owns hospices, gardens and plantations in Babylon, and much land inherited from his fathers, and no one can take his possessions from him by force. He has a fixed weekly revenue arising from the hospices of the Jews, the markets and the merchants, apart from that which is brought to him from far-off lands.”

This history is a denial of the contemporary lie that Islam has a history of intolerance and religious persecution. Indeed the existence of the Babylonian Talmud is itself witness to the relationships which existed.

 

The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela: Travels in the Middle Ages. NightinGale Resources. NY 2010