A 12th Century Tour, Part 7 - Egypt, North Africa, and Home Again

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. You probably thought I forgot about him. Well, I didn't.

In the last section, Benjamin described - as best he could - lands beyond those he visited. In this section, he finally returns home.

Series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6,

Part 7: Egypt, North Africa, and Home Again

[From Lybia] to the land of Assuan is a journey of twenty days through the desert. This is Seba on the river Pishon (Nile) which descends from the land of Cush. And some of these sons of Cush have a king whom they call the Sultan Al-Habash. There is a people among them who, like animals, eat of the herbs that grow on the banks of the Nile and in the fields. They go about naked and have not the intelligence of ordinary men. They cohabit with their sisters and any one they find. The climate is very hot. When the men of Assuan make a raid into their land, they take with them bread and wheat, dry grapes and figs, and throw the food to these people, who run after it. Thus they bring many of them back prisoners, and sell them in the land of Egypt and in the surrounding countries. And these are the black slaves, the sons of Ham.
I've written about the medieval worldview and the "other" before. This is the flip side of the coin. A medieval traveler will happily treat the king of the dog-headed people as a king before anything else. But if a group lacks a recognizable power structure, if they don't behave like "people" at all, then, according to the medieval view, they are closer to beasts. It's not about skin colour, it's about behavior and categorization.

If you are going to exploit someone, it's easier to justify - both to yourself and to bystanders - if you emphasize that the people you are exploiting have "not the intelligence of ordinary men." Dehumanizing people is easier when you are certain they aren't not, and could never be, as smart as you.

One final note: the entire story of Noah and his sons is remarkably strange and inconsistent.

From Assuan it is a distance of twelve days to Heluan where there are about 300 Jews. Thence people travel in caravans a journey of fifty days through the great desert called Sahara, to the land of Zawilah, which is Havilah in the land of Gana. In this desert there are mountains of sand, and when the wind rises, it covers the caravans with the sand, and many die from suffocation. Those that escape bring back with them copper, wheat, fruit, all manner of lentils, and salt. And from thence they bring gold, and all kinds of jewels. This is in the land of Cush which is called Al-Habash on the western confines.
From Heluan it is thirteen days' journey to Kutz which is Kūs, and this is the commencement of the land of Egypt. At Kutz there are 300 Jews. Thence it is 300 miles to Fayum, which is Pithom, where there are 200 Jews; and unto this very day one can see ruins of the buildings which our forefathers erected there.

Thence to Mizraim is a journey of four days. This Mizraim is the great city situated on the banks of the Nile, which is Pison or Al-Nil. The number of Jewish inhabitants is about 7,000. Two large synagogues are there, one belonging to the men of the land of Israel and one belonging to the men of the land of Babylon.
A section on the different practices between the two synagogues has been omitted. You can read it here.
Twice in the year the Egyptian monarch goes forth, once on the occasion of the great festival, and again when the river Nile rises. Zoan is surrounded by a wall, but Mizraim has no wall, for the river encompasses it on one side. It is a great city, and it has market-places as well as inns in great number. The Jews that dwell there are very rich. No rain falls, neither is ice or snow ever seen. The climate is very hot.

The river Nile rises once a year in the month of Elul; it covers all the land, and irrigates it to a distance of fifteen days' journey. The waters remain upon the surface of the land during the months of Elul and Tishri, and irrigate and fertilize it.

The inhabitants have a pillar of marble, erected with much skill, in order to ascertain the extent of the rise of the Nile. It stands in the front of an island in the midst of the water, and is twelve cubits high. When the Nile rises and covers the column, they know that the river has risen and has covered the land for a distance of fifteen days' journey to its full extent. If only half the column is covered, the water only covers half the extent of the land. And day by day an officer takes a measurement on the column and makes proclamation thereof in Zoan and in the city of Mizraim, proclaiming: "Give praise unto the Creator, for the river this day has risen to such and such a height"; each day he takes the measurement and makes his proclamation. If the water covers the entire column, there will be abundance throughout Egypt. The river continues to rise gradually till it covers the land to the extent of fifteen days' journey. He who owns a field hires workmen, who dig deep trenches in his field, and fish come with the rise of the water and enter the trenches. Then, when the waters have receded, the fish remain behind in the trenches, and the owners of the fields take them and either eat them or sell them to the fishmongers, who salt them and deal in them in every place. These fish are exceedingly fat and large, and the oil obtained from them is used in this land for lamp-oil. Though a man eat a great quantity of these fish, if he but drink Nile water afterwards they will not hurt him, for the waters have medicinal properties.
Egypt was seen as the cradle of medicine.
People ask, what causes the Nile to rise? The Egyptians say that up the river, in the land of Al-Habash (Abyssinia), which is the land of Havilah, much rain descends at the time of the rising of the river, and that this abundance of rain causes the river to rise and to cover the surface of the land. If the river does not rise, there is no sowing, and famine is sore in the land. Sowing is done in the month of Marheshwan, after the river has gone back to its ordinary channel. In the month of Adar is the barley-harvest, and in the month of Nisan the wheat-harvest.
This is one of the rare times Benjamin seems to speak to the reader directly.
In the month of Nisan they have cherries, pears, cucumbers, and gourds in plenty, also beans, peas, chickpeas, and many kinds of vegetables, such as purslane, asparagus, pulse, lettuce, coriander, endive, cabbage, leek, and cardoon. The land is full of all good things, and the gardens and plantations are watered from the various reservoirs and by the river-water.

The river Nile, after flowing past (the city of) Mizraim, divides into four heads: one channel proceeds in the direction of Damietta, which is Caphtor, where it falls into the sea. The second channel flows to the city of Reshid (Rosetta), which is near Alexandria, and there falls into the sea; the third channel goes by way of Ashmun, where it falls into the sea; and the fourth channel goes as far as the frontier of Egypt. Along both banks of these four river-heads are cities, towns and villages, and people visit these places either by ship or by land. There is no such thickly-populated land as this elsewhere. It is extensive too and abundant in all good things.

From New Mizraim unto Old Mizraim is a distance of two parasangs. The latter is in ruins, and the place where walls and houses stood can be seen to the present day. The store-houses also of Joseph of blessed memory are to be found in great numbers in many places. They are built of lime and stone, and are exceedingly strong. A pillar is there of marvellous workmanship, the like of which cannot be seen throughout the world.
The "store-houses of Joseph" are, according to Adler, the ruins of Memphis.
Outside the city is the ancient synagogue of Moses our master, of blessed memory, and the overseer and clerk of this place of worship is a venerable old man; he is a man of learning, and they call him Al Sheik Abu al-Nazr. The extent of Mizraim, which is in ruins, is three miles.

Thence to the land of Goshen is eight parasangs; here is Bilbais. There are about 300 Jews in the city, which is a large one. Thence it is half a day's journey to Ain-al-Shams or Ramses, which is in ruins. Traces are there to be seen of the buildings which our fore-fathers raised, namely, towers built of bricks.

From here it is a day's journey to Al Bubizig, where there are about 200 Jews. Thence it is half a day to Benha, where there are about 60 Jews. Thence it takes half a day to Muneh Sifte, where there are 500 Jews. From there it is half a day's journey to Samnu, where there are about 200 Jews. Thence it is four parasangs to Damira, where there are about 700 Jews. From there it is five days to Lammanah, where there are about 500 Jews.
Two days' journey takes one to Alexandria of Egypt, which is Ammon of No; but when Alexander of Macedon built the city, he called it after his own name, and made it exceedingly strong and beautiful. The houses, the palaces, and the walls are of excellent architecture. Outside the town is the academy of Aristotle, the teacher of Alexander. This is a large building, standing between other academies to the number of twenty, with a column of marble between each. People from the whole world were wont to come hither in order to study the wisdom of Aristotle the philosopher. The city is built over a hollow by means of arches. Alexander built it with great understanding. The streets are wide and straight, so that a man can look along them for a mile from gate to gate, from the gate of Reshid to the gate by the sea.

Alexander also built for the harbour of Alexandria a pier, a king's highway running into the midst of the sea. And there he erected a large tower, a lighthouse, called Manar al Iskandriyyah in Arabic. On the top of the tower there is a glass mirror. Any ships that attempted to attack or molest the city, coming from Greece or from the Western lands, could be seen by means of this mirror of glass at a distance of twenty days' journey, and the inhabitants could thereupon put themselves on their guard. It happened once, many years after the death of Alexander, that a ship came from the land of Greece, and the name of the captain was Theodoros, a Greek of great cleverness. The Greeks at that time were under the yoke of Egypt. The captain brought great gifts in silver and gold and garments of silk to the King of Egypt, and he moored his ship in front of the lighthouse, as was the custom of all merchants.

Every day the guardian of the lighthouse and his servants had their meals with him, until the captain came to be on such friendly terms with the keeper that he could go in and out at all times. And one day he gave a banquet, and caused the keeper and all his servants to drink a great deal of wine. When they were all asleep, the captain and his servants arose and broke the mirror and departed that very night. From that day onward the Christians began to come thither with boats and large ships, and eventually captured the large island called Crete and also Cyprus, which are under the dominion of the Greeks. Ever since then, the men of the King of Egypt have been unable to prevail over the Greeks. To this day the lighthouse is a landmark to all seafarers who come to Alexandria; for one can see it at a distance of 100 miles by day, and at night the keeper lights a torch which the mariners can see from a distance, and thus sail towards it.

Alexandria is a commercial market for all nations. Merchants come thither from all the Christian kingdoms: on the one side, from the land of Venetia and Lombardy, Tuscany, Apulia, Amalfi, Sicilia, Calabria, Romagna, Khazaria, Patzinakia, Hungaria, Bulgaria, Rakuvia (Ragusa?), Croatia, Slavonia, Russia, Alamannia (Germany), Saxony, Danemark, Kurland? Ireland? Norway (Norge?), Frisia, Scotia, Angleterre, Wales, Flanders, Hainault? Normandy, France, Poitiers, Anjou, Burgundy, Maurienne, Provence, Genoa, Pisa, Gascony, Aragon, and Navarra, and towards the west under the sway of the Mohammedans, Andalusia, Algarve, Africa and the land of the Arabs: and on the other side India, Zawilah, Abyssinia, Lybia, El-Yemen, Shinar, Esh-Sham (Syria); also Javan, whose people are called the Greeks, and the Turks. And merchants of India bring thither all kinds of spices, and the merchants of Edom buy of them. And the city is a busy one and full of traffic. Each nation has an inn of its own.
Translating this section was, apparently, quite difficult, but nearly everyone is listed. Having region-specific inns seems like an innovation few city-based D&D modules use.
By the sea-coast there is a sepulchre of marble on which are engraved all manner of beasts and birds; an effigy is in the midst thereof, and all the writing is in ancient characters, which no one knows now. Men suppose that it is the sepulchre of a king who lived in early times before the Deluge. The length of the sepulchre is fifteen spans, and its breadth is six spans. There are about 3,000 Jews in Alexandria.

Thence it is two days' journey to Damietta which is Caphtor, where there are about 200 Jews, and it lies upon the sea. Thence it is one day's journey to Simasim; it contains about 100 Jews. From there it is half a day to Sunbat; the inhabitants sow flax and weave linen, which they export to all parts of the world. Thence it is four days to Ailam, which is Elim. It belongs to the Arabs who dwell in the wilderness. Thence it is two days' journey to Rephidim where the Arabs dwell, but there are no Jews there. A day's journey from thence takes one to Mount Sinai. On the top of the mountain is a large convent belonging to the great monks called Syrians. At the foot of the mountain is a large town called Tur Sinai; the inhabitants speak the language of the Targum (Syriac). It is close to a small mountain, five days distant from Egypt. The inhabitants are under Egyptian rule. At a day's journey from Mount Sinai is the Red Sea, which is an arm of the Indian Ocean. We return to Damietta. From there it is a day's journey to Tanis, which is Hanes, where there are about 40 Jews. It is an island in the midst of the sea. Thus far extends the empire of Egypt.
Benjamin's long journey is finally arcing home.
Thence it takes twenty days by sea to Messina, which is the commencement of Sicily and is situated on the arm of the sea that is called Lipar, which divides it from Calabria. Here about 200 Jews dwell. It is a land full of everything good, with gardens and plantations. Here most of the pilgrims assemble to cross over to Jerusalem, as this is the best crossing. Thence it is about two days' journey to Palermo, which is a large city. Here is the palace of King William. Palermo contains about 1,500 Jews and a large number of Christians and Mohammedans. It is in a district abounding in springs and brooks of water, a land of wheat and barley, likewise of gardens and plantations, and there is not the like thereof in the whole island of Sicily. Here is the domain and garden of the king, which is called Al Harbina (Al Hacina), containing all sorts of fruit-trees. And in it is a large fountain. The garden is encompassed by a wall. And a reservoir has been made there which is called Al Buheira, and in it are many sorts of fish. Ships overlaid with silver and gold are there, belonging to the king, who takes pleasure-trips in them with his women. In the park there is also a great palace, the walls of which are painted, and overlaid with gold and silver; the paving of the floors is of marble, picked out in gold and silver in all manner of designs. There is no building like this anywhere. And this island, the commencement of which is Messina, contains all the pleasant things of this world. It embraces Syracuse, Marsala, Catania, Petralia, and Trapani, the circumference of the island being six days' journey. In Trapani coral is found, which is called Al Murgan.
Thence people pass to the city of Rome in ten days. And from Rome they proceed by land to Lucca, which is a five days' journey.
Last time around, Benjamin said it was 5 days from Rome to Lucca. In any case, he now lists some of the major cities of Europe, but not in the same level of detail as the rest of his itinerary.
Thence they cross the mountain of Jean de Maurienne, and the passes of Italy. It is twenty days' journey to Verdun, which is the commencement of Alamannia, a land of mountains and hills. All the congregations of Alamannia are situated on the great river Rhine, from the city of Cologne, which is the principal town of the Empire, to the city of Regensburg, a distance of fifteen days' journey at the other extremity of Alamannia, otherwise called Ashkenaz.
A list of cities in the Holy Roman Empire has been omitted. You can read it here.
Thence extends the land of Bohemia, called Prague. This is the commencement of the land of Slavonia, and the Jews who dwell there call it Canaan, because the men of that land (the Slavs) sell their sons and their daughters to the other nations. These are the men of Russia, which is a great empire stretching from the gate of Prague to the gates of Kieff, the large city which is at the extremity of that empire. It is a land of mountains and forests, where there are to be found the animals called vair, ermine, and sable. No one issues forth from his house in winter-time on account of the cold. People are to be found there who have lost the tips of their noses by reason of the frost. Thus far reaches the empire of Russia.
The kingdom of France, which is Zarfath, extends from the town of Auxerre[216] unto Paris, the great city—a journey of six days. The city belongs to King Louis. It is situated on the river Seine. Scholars are there, unequalled in the whole world, who study the Law day and night. They are charitable and hospitable to all travellers, and are as brothers and friends unto all their brethren the Jews. May God, the Blessed One, have mercy upon us and upon them!
Finished and completed.

Trade Route Map of Part 7

Martin Jan Månsson's Medieval Trade Networks map

Representative Map of Benjamin's Entire Journey

This is the world as Benjamin saw it.
His journey lasted approximately eight years. Some scholars say it was fifteen, some say as few as five. In any case, he recorded over 300 cities and towns.

If you want to run a 12th century pointcrawl, you now have a map and a key. Bolt on the Ultraviolet Grasslands caravan rules and you've got a game.

Summary of Part 7

Once again, it is difficult to calculate Benjamin's route. We can plot a circuit on a modern map: Tudela to Rome, Rome to Istanbul, to Jerusalem, Baghdad, Cairo, Alexandria, and back. Very approximately, it's a loop of 15,000 km or 9,300 miles. Assuming the total journey took eight years, he traveled an average of 5km or 3 miles per day. Every day. For eight years.

On this, the last leg of his journey, he saw:
-people like animals, who are trapped and enslaved
-a desert which swallows people alive
-an enormous river which floods once a year

-a marble column used to predict the time and height of a river's flood
-a city built by an all-conquering king
-a city built on arches over a hollow

-a city on a perfect grid
-a lighthouse that can be seen for a hundred miles
-a city with traders from every nation, and a specialized inn for each nation
-a people who sell their sons and daughters into slavery
-a very cold place, unbearable in the winter


  1. How come you to know all these things?

    1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q6Pu4D-4yZg&feature=youtu.be&t=864
      Welcome to my wonderful world of knowing. My wonderful world of looking up things in books.