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.


  1. How is it nobody has done that sort of map before. It really puts the perspective out there in a very helpful way.

  2. I'm loving the map you've drawn here. It feels very Mario or Pokemon, in a good way.

  3. Thanks for the summary. Benjamin saw a lot of cool stuff but his prose was dry. Dry like mummified toast.