A 12th Century Tour, Part 4 - The Holy Land

In the 12th century, Benjamin of Tudela traveled from his home in northern Spain to Baghdad and beyond. I'm turning his record - his itinerary - into a series of posts on medieval travel, in a continued attempt to drive viewership of this blog into the ground.

From his home in northern Spain, Benjamin has traveled 2,050 miles / 3300km as the crow flies to reach the eastern coast of the Mediterranean. In this leg, he journeys south into the Holy Land, loops, and returns north.

The density of landmarks, towns, and villages in this section is very high. It makes mapping the area very difficult. I haven't bothered finding actual distances in most cases; even if I can figure out which cities Benjamin is referring to, I don't have room on the map to list the full distance.

Series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Part 4: the Holy Land

[From Malmistras] it is two days' journey to Antioch the Great, situated on the river Fur (Orontes), which is the river Jabbok, that flows from Mount Lebanon and from the land of Hamath. This is the great city which Antiochus the king built.
Funny story. Remember how Benjamin listed all those cities in Greece and Italy that were founded by Alexander the Great's generals? Well, it's possible - not certain, but possible - that Antioch actually was. Or maybe not. Anyway, the "Antiochus" here is probably Antiochus IV.

Whenever Benjamin says "X place, which is Y", "Y" refers to the Biblical name, or his best guess at it. I'm not going to link every reference. Benjamin's cross-references are very accurate and much better than contemporary Christian pilgrims or the Crusaders, who made all sorts of wild guesses.
The city lies by a lofty mountain, which is surrounded by the city-wall. 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. The other part of the city is surrounded by the river. It is a strongly fortified city, and is under the sway of Prince Boemond Poitevin, surnamed le Baube. Ten Jews dwell here, engaged in glass-making, and at their head are R. Mordecai, R. Chayim, and R. Samuel. From here it is two days' journey to Lega, or Ladikiya, where there are about 100 Jews, at their head being R. Chayim and R. Joseph.
Thence it is two days' journey to Gebal (Gebela), which is Baal-Gad, at the foot of Lebanon. In the neighbourhood dwells a people called Al-Hashishim. They do not believe in the religion of Islam, but follow one of their own folk, whom they regard as their prophet, and all that he tells them to do they carry out, whether for death or life. They call him the Sheik Al Hashishim, and he is known as their Elder. At his word these mountaineers go out and come in. Their principal seat is Kadmus, which is Kedemoth in the land of Sihon. They are faithful to each other, but a source of terror to their neighbours, killing even kings at the cost of their own lives. The extent of their land is eight days' journey. And they are at war with the sons of Edom who are called the Franks, and with the ruler of Tripolis, which is Tarabulus el Sham.
Yes, these are the original Assassins. The translator, M. A. Alder, thinks the Assassins were a fable, like Sinbad the Sailor.
At Tripolis in years gone by there was an earthquake, when many Gentiles and Jews perished, for houses and walls fell upon them. There was great destruction at that time throughout the Land of Israel, and more than 20,000 souls perished.
This earthquake took place in 1157. There was a second severe earthquake in 1170, so we know Benjamin visited this area before 1170.
Thence it is a day's journey to the other Gebal (Gubail), which borders on the land of the children of Ammon, and here there are about 150 Jews. The place is under the rule of the Genoese, the name of the governor being Guillelmus Embriacus. Here was found a temple belonging to the children of Ammon in olden times, and an idol of theirs seated upon a throne or chair, and made of stone overlaid with gold. Two women are represented sitting one on the right and one on the left of it, and there is an altar in front before which the Ammonites used to sacrifice and burn incense. There are about 200 Jews there, at their head being R. Meir, R. Jacob, and R. Simchah. The place is situated on the sea-border of the land of Israel.
Benjamin almost certainly saw a temple, but probably not to Ammon. The whole coast is littered with ancient temples.
From there it is two days' journey to Beirut, or Beeroth, where there are about fifty Jews, at their head being R. Solomon, R. Obadiah, and R. Joseph. Thence it is one day's journey to Saida, which is Sidon, a large city, with about twenty Jews. Ten miles therefrom a people dwell who are at war with the men of Sidon; they are called Druses, and are pagans of a lawless character. They inhabit the mountains and the clefts of the rocks; they have no king or ruler, but dwell independent in these high places, and their border extends to Mount Hermon, which is a three days' journey. They are steeped in vice, brothers marrying their sisters, and fathers their daughters. They have one feast-day in the year, when they all collect, both men and women, to eat and drink together, and they then interchange their wives. They say that at the time when the soul leaves the body it passes in the case of a good man into the body of a newborn child, and in the case of a bad man into the body of a dog or an ass. Such are their foolish beliefs. There are no resident Jews among them, but a certain number of Jewish handicraftsmen and dyers come among them for the sake of trade, and then return, the people being favourable to the Jews. They roam over the mountains and hills, and no man can do battle with them.
Benjamin's knowledge of the Druze is second hand, and from their enemies. In A. Asher's translation, Benjamin says, "They are called heathens and unbelievers because they confess no religion." I think that's a more accurate translation than "pagans of a lawless character." From Benjamin's point of view, the Druses don't have any religion. They just believe in stuff.
From Sidon it is half a day's journey to Sarepta (Sarfend), which belongs to Sidon. Thence it is a half-day to New Tyre (Sūr), which is a very fine city, with a harbour in its midst. At night-time those that levy dues throw iron chains from tower to tower, so that no man can go forth by boat or in any other way to rob the ships by night. There is no harbour like this in the whole world. Tyre is a beautiful city. It contains about 500 Jews, some of them scholars of the Talmud, at their head being R. Ephraim of Tyre, the Dayan, R. Meir from Carcassonne, and R. Abraham, head of the congregation. The Jews own sea-going vessels, and there are glass-makers amongst them who make that fine Tyrian glass-ware which is prized in all countries.
In the vicinity is found sugar of a high class, for men plant it here, and people come from all lands to buy it. A man can ascend the walls of New Tyre and see ancient Tyre, which the sea has now covered, lying at a stone's throw from the new city. And should one care to go forth by boat, one can see the castles, market-places, streets, and palaces in the bed of the sea. New Tyre is a busy place of commerce, to which merchants flock from all quarters.
 Tyre suffered a precipitous decline in 1291, when it was abandoned by the Crusaders.
One day's journey brings one to Acre, the Acco of old, which is on the borders of Asher; it is the commencement of the land of Israel. Situated by the Great Sea, it possesses a large harbour for all the pilgrims who come to Jerusalem by ship. A stream runs in front of it, called the brook of Kedumim. About 200 Jews live there, at their head being R. Zadok, R. Japheth, and R. Jonah.
From there it is three parasangs to Haifa, which is Hahepher on the seaboard, and on the other side is Mount Carmel, at the foot of which there are many Jewish graves. On the mountain is the cave of Elijah, where the Christians have erected a structure called St. Elias. On the top of the mountain can be recognized the overthrown altar which Elijah repaired in the days of Ahab. The site of the altar is circular, about four cubits remain thereof, and at the foot of the mountain the brook Kishon flows. From here it is four parasangs to Capernaum, which is the village of Nahum, identical with Maon, the home of Nabal the Carmelite.
The Carmelite order of monks had yet to be founded when Benjamin visited the region, but the mountain was apparently swarming with hermits. The parasang is a variable unit.10 parasangs make a day's journey.
Six parasangs from here is Caesarea, the Gath of the Philistines, and here there are about 200 Jews and 200 Cuthim. These are the Jews of Shomron, who are called Samaritans. The city is fair and beautiful, and lies by the sea. It was built by Caesar, and called after him Caesarea. Thence it is half a day's journey to Kako, the Keilah of Scripture. There are no Jews here. Thence it is half a day's journey to St. George, which is Ludd, where there lives one Jew, who is a dyer.
Benjamin is moving inland now.
Thence it is a day's journey to Sebastiya, which is the city of Shomron (Samaria), and here the ruins of the palace of Ahab the son of Omri may be seen. It was formerly a well-fortified city by the mountain-side, with streams of water. It is still a land of brooks of water, gardens, orchards, vineyards, and olive groves, but no Jews dwell here.
I'm not sure which ruins Benjamin saw, but they probably weren't the palace of Ahab. The area is covered in ruins.
Thence it is two parasangs to Nablous, which is Shechem on Mount Ephraim, where there are no Jews; the place is situated in the valley between Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, and contains about 1,000 Cuthim, who observe the written law of Moses alone, and are called Samaritans. They have priests of the seed (of Aaron), and they call them Aaronim, who do not intermarry with Cuthim, but wed only amongst themselves. These priests offer sacrifices, and bring burnt-offerings in their place of assembly on Mount Gerizim, as it is written in their law - "And thou shalt set the blessing on Mount Gerizim." They say that this is the proper site of the Temple. On Passover and the other festivals they offer up burnt-offerings on the altar which they have built on Mount Gerizim, as it is written in their law - "Ye shall set up the stones upon Mount Gerizim, of the stones which Joshua and the children of Israel set up at the Jordan." They say that they are descended from the tribe of Ephraim. And in the midst of them is the grave of Joseph, the son of Jacob our father, as it is written—"and the bones of Joseph buried they in Shechem."
Joseph's tomb is a troubled location in the modern era.
Their alphabet lacks three letters, namely [He], [Heth], and [Ain]. The letter [He] is taken from Abraham our father, because they have no dignity, the letter [Heth] from Isaac, because they have no kindliness, and the letter [Ain] from Jacob, because they have no humility. In place of these letters they make use of the Aleph, by which we can tell that they are not of the seed of Israel, although they know the law of Moses with the exception of these three letters. They guard themselves from the defilement of the dead, of the bones of the slain, and of graves; and they remove the garments which they have worn before they go to the place of worship, and they bathe and put on fresh clothes. This is their constant practice. On Mount Gerizim are fountains and gardens and plantations, but Mount Ebal is rocky and barren; and between them in the valley lies the city of Shechem.
It feels like Benjamin is quoting someone on the Samaritan language, but the translations I'm using don't list a source. I've asked around, and there doesn't seem to be an obvious pun I'm missing.
From the latter place it is a distance of four parasangs to Mount Gilboa, which the Christians call Mont Gilboa; it lies in a very parched district. And from there it is five [MSS defective]..., a village where there are no Jews. Thence it is two parasangs to the valley of Ajalon, which the Christians call Val-de-Luna. At a distance of one parasang is Mahomerie-le-Grand, which is Gibeon the Great; it contains no Jews.
From there it is three parasangs to Jerusalem, which is a small city, fortified by three walls. It is full of people whom the Mohammedans call Jacobites, Syrians, Greeks, Georgians and Franks, and of people of all tongues. It contains a dyeing-house, for which the Jews pay a small rent annually to the king on condition that besides the Jews no other dyers be allowed in Jerusalem. There are about 200 Jews who dwell under the Tower of David in one corner of the city.
Alder says that "200" could easily be misread for "4" and that 4 is more likely.
The lower portion of the wall of the Tower of David, to the extent of about ten cubits, is part of the ancient foundation set up by our ancestors, the remaining portion having been built by the Mohammedans. There is no structure in the whole city stronger than the Tower of David. The city also contains two buildings, from one of which—the hospital—there issue forth four hundred knights; and therein all the sick who come thither are lodged and cared for in life and in death. The other building is called the Temple of Solomon; it is the palace built by Solomon the king of Israel. Three hundred knights are quartered there, and issue therefrom every day for military exercise, besides those who come from the land of the Franks and the other parts of Christendom, having taken upon themselves to serve there a year or two until their vow is fulfilled. In Jerusalem is the great church called the Sepulchre, and here is the burial-place of Jesus, unto which the Christians make pilgrimages.
Jerusalem has four gates—the gate of Abraham, the gate of David, the gate of Zion, and the gate of Gushpat, which is the gate of Jehoshaphat, facing our ancient Temple, now called Templum Domini. Upon the site of the sanctuary Omar ben al Khataab erected an edifice with a very large and magnificent cupola, into which the Gentiles do not bring any image or effigy, but they merely come there to pray. In front of this place is the western wall, which is one of the walls of the Holy of Holies. This is called the Gate of Mercy, and thither come all the Jews to pray before the wall of the court of the Temple. In Jerusalem, attached to the palace which belonged to Solomon, are the stables built by him, forming a very substantial structure, composed of large stones, and the like of it is not to be seen anywhere in the world. There is also visible up to this day the pool used by the priests before offering their sacrifices, and the Jews coming thither write their names upon the wall. The gate of Jehoshaphat leads to the valley of Jehoshaphat, which is the gathering-place of nation. Here is the pillar called Absalom's Hand, and the sepulchre of King Uzziah.
In the neighbourhood is also a great spring, called the Waters of Siloam, connected with the brook of Kidron. Over the spring is a large structure dating from the time of our ancestors, but little water is found, and the people of Jerusalem for the most part drink the rain-water, which they collect in cisterns in their houses. From the valley of Jehoshaphat one ascends the Mount of Olives; it is the valley only which separates Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. From the Mount of Olives one sees the Sea of Sodom, and at a distance of two parasangs from the Sea of Sodom is the Pillar of Salt into which Lot's wife was turned; the sheep lick it continually, but afterwards it regains its original shape. The whole land of the plain and the valley of Shittim as far as Mount Nebo are visible from here.
I'm sorry, but the idea of sheep licking Lot's wife is hilarious to me.
In front of Jerusalem is Mount Zion, on which there is no building, except a place of worship belonging to the Christians. Facing Jerusalem for a distance of three miles are the cemeteries belonging to the Israelites, who in the days of old buried their dead in caves, and upon each sepulchre is a dated inscription, but the Christians destroy the sepulchres, employing the stones thereof in building their houses. These sepulchres reach as far as Zelzah in the territory of Benjamin. Around Jerusalem are high mountains.
I'm omitting a section about the sepulchures on Mount Zion.
From Jerusalem it is two parasangs to Bethlehem, which is called by the Christians Beth-Leon, and close thereto, at a distance of about half a mile, at the parting of the way, is the pillar of Rachel's grave, which is made up of eleven stones, corresponding with the number of the sons of Jacob. Upon it is a cupola resting on four columns, and all the Jews that pass by carve their names upon the stones of the pillar. At Bethlehem there are two Jewish dyers. It is a land of brooks of water, and contains wells and fountains.
At a distance of six parasangs is St. Abram de Bron, which is Hebron; the old city stood on the mountain, but is now in ruins; and in the valley by the field of Machpelah lies the present city. Here there is the great church called St. Abram, and this was a Jewish place of worship at the time of the Mohammedan rule, but the Gentiles have erected there six tombs, respectively called those of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah. The custodians tell the pilgrims that these are the tombs of the Patriarchs, for which information the pilgrims give them money. If a Jew comes, however, and gives a special reward, the custodian of the cave opens unto him a gate of iron, which was constructed by our forefathers, and then he is able to descend below by means of steps, holding a lighted candle in his hand. He then reaches a cave, in which nothing is to be found, and a cave beyond, which is likewise empty, but when he reaches the third cave behold there are six sepulchres, those of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, respectively facing those of Sarah, Rebekah and Leah. And upon the graves are inscriptions cut in stone; upon the grave of Abraham is engraved "This is the grave of Abraham"; upon that of Isaac, "This is the grave of Isaac, the son of Abraham our Father"; upon that of Jacob, "This is the grave of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham our Father"; and upon the others, "This is the grave of Sarah," "This is the grave of Rebekah," and "This is the grave of Leah." A lamp burns day and night upon the graves in the cave.
Guided tours haven't changed much. "I'm not some tourist schmuck. Show me the real sepulchers."
One finds there many casks filled with the bones of Israelites, as the members of the house of Israel were wont to bring the bones of their fathers thither and to deposit them there to this day. Beyond the field of Machpelah is the house of Abraham; there is a well in front of the house, but out of reverence for the Patriarch Abraham no one is allowed to build in the neighbourhood.
From Hebron it is five parasangs to Beit Jibrin, which is Mareshah, where there are but three Jews. Three parasangs further one reaches St. Samuel of Shiloh. This is the Shiloh which is two parasangs from Jerusalem. When the Christians captured Ramlah, the Ramah of old, from the Mohammedans, they found there the grave of Samuel the Ramathite close to a Jewish synagogue. The Christians took the remains, conveyed them unto Shiloh, and erected over them a large church, and called it St. Samuel of Shiloh unto this day.
From there it is three parasangs to Mahomerie-le-Petit, which is Gibeah of Saul, where there are no Jews, and this is Gibeah of Benjamin. Thence three parasangs to Beit Nuba, which is Nob, the city of priests. In the middle of the way are the two crags of Jonathan, the name of the one being Bozez, and the name of the other Seneh. Two Jewish dyers dwell there.
Thence it is three parasangs to Rams, or Ramleh, where there are remains of the walls from the days of our ancestors, for thus it was found written upon the stones. About 300 Jews dwell there. It was formerly a very great city; at a distance of two miles there is a large Jewish cemetery.
Thence it is five parasangs to Yāfa or Jaffa, which is on the seaboard, and one Jewish dyer lives here. From here it is five parasangs to Ibelin or Jabneh, the seat of the Academy, but there are no Jews there at this day. Thus far extends the territory of Ephraim.
From there it is five parasangs to Palmid, which is Ashdod of the Philistines, now in ruins; no Jews dwell there. Thence it is two parasangs to Ashkelonah or New Askelon, which Ezra the priest built by the sea. It was originally called Bene Berak. The place is four parasangs distant from the ancient ruined city of Askelon. New Askelon is a large and fair place, and merchants come thither from all quarters, for it is situated on the frontier of Egypt. About 200 Rabbanite Jews dwell here, at their head being R. Zemach, R. Aaron, and R. Solomon; also about forty Karaïtes, and about 300 Cuthim. In the midst of the city there is a well, which they call Bir Abraham; this the Patriarch dug in the days of the Philistines.
Finding that New Askelon was "by the sea" made me redraw this entire section of the map. I hope you're appreciative. It took bloody ages.
From there it is a journey of a day to St. George of Ludd: thence it is a day and a half to Zerin or Jezreel, where there is a large spring. One Jewish dyer lives here. Three parasangs further is Saffuriya or Sepphoris. Here are the graves of Rabbenu Hakkadosh, of Rabban Gamaliel, and of R. Chiya, who came up from Babylon, also of Jonah the son of Amittai; they are all buried in the mountain. Many other Jewish graves are here.
In reaching St. George of Ludd, Benjamin has closed the loop and returned to his original path.
Thence it is five parasangs to Tiberias, which is situated upon the Jordan, which is here called the Sea of Chinnereth. The Jordan at this place flows through a valley between two mountains, and fills the lake, which is called the Lake of Chinnereth; this is a large and broad piece of water like the sea. The Jordan flows between two mountains, and over the plain which is the place that is called Ashdoth Hapisgah, and thence continues its course till it falls into the Sea of Sodom, which is the Salt Sea. In Tiberias there are about fifty Jews, at their head being R. Abraham the astronomer, R. Muchtar, and R. Isaac. There are hot waters here, which bubble up from the ground, and are called the Hot Waters of Tiberias. Near by is the Synagogue of Caleb ben Jephunneh, and Jewish sepulchres. R. Johananben Zakkai and R. Jehudah Halevi are buried here. All these places are situated in Lower Galilee.
From here it is two days to Tymin or Timnathah, where Simon the Just and many Israelites are buried, and thence three parasangs to Medon or Meron. In the neighbourhood there is a cave in which are the sepulchres of Hillel and Shammai. Here also are twenty sepulchres of disciples, including the sepulchres of R. Benjamin ben Japheth, and of R. Jehudah ben Bethera. From Meron it is two parasangs to Almah, where there are about fifty Jews. There is a large Jewish cemetery here, with the sepulchres of R. Eleazar ben Arak, of R. Eleazar ben Azariah, of Chuni Hamaagal, of Raban Simeon ben Gamaliel, and of R. Jose Hagelili.
From here it is half a day's journey to Kades, or Kedesh Naphtali, upon the Jordan. Here is the sepulchre of Barak the son of Abinoam. No Jews dwell here.
Finding out that Kades was "on the Jordan" caused me to redraw the map again!
Thence it is a day's journey to Banias, which is Dan, where there is a cavern, from which the Jordan issues and flows for a distance of three miles, when the Arnon, which comes from the borders of Moab, joins it. In front of the cavern may be discerned the site of the altar associated with the graven image of Micah, which the children of Dan worshipped in ancient days. This is also the site of the altar of Jeroboam, where the golden calf was set up. Thus far reaches the boundary of the land of Israel towards the uttermost sea.

Trade Route Map of Part 4

Martin Jan Månsson's Medieval Trade Networks map.

Representative Map of Part 4

As you can see, it's a little convoluted.

Summary of Part 4

Again, there's not enough space track every section of the journey.
From Antioch to Jerusalem, Benjamin covered 492 miles or 792 kilometres in 16 days. His rate of travel sped up to 31 miles / 50km per day.

He writes of:

-A hidden well fills the cisterns of twenty great men in this city.
-Ancient ruined temples.
-A mountain people who do not fear death, and strike at kings.
-A mountain people who follow their own secret religion.
-A mountain people with disturbing marriage ways.
-Fine glassworks, prized the world over.
-A place where fine sugar can be found.
-A sunken city, with streets and markets still visible.
-A mountain with a broken altar on its summit.
-A mountain swarming with hermits.
-The ruined palace of a wicked king.
-A people who use different letters, marking them as outsiders.
-A city that bars its harbour with chains.
-A city with an ancient and remarkably strong tower.
-A series of caves filled with the ancient dead.
-An ancient spring with a building over it, now dry.
-A tomb with a hidden, true tomb underneath.
-Hot water that bubbles up from the earth.

In the next section, Benjamin reaches Damascus and Baghdad.


  1. '[..]in a continued attempt to drive viewership of this blog into the ground.[..]'

    I dig the mountain chock-a-block with hermits. Imagine if each hermit had different personalities, and you were tasked with finding the one dude pretending to be a hermit to evade massive tax fraud or something.

    1. There are even hermit tables out there already:

  2. This is real good content, my readership certainly isn’t in question! Considering using a lot of these places for an upcoming (I hope) Dogs in the Vineyard game. It seems to me that many of these mythical and geographical features would fit in perfectly in not-Mormon not-Utah.