Benjamin Tudela’s Description Of Jews In 12th Century Baghdad

Benjamin Tudela’s Description Of Jews In 12th Century Baghdad

Mohamad Mostafa Nassar


The following excerpt was taken from Rabbi Benjamin Tudela (1130 – 1173) from his “Itinerary” (Travels in the Middle Ages, Masa’ot Binyamin or also known as Sefer ha-Masa’ot). Tudela was a medieval Jewish scholar who travelled Europe, Asia and Africa. He recounts places he had been and seen. In the following excerpt, he mentions his travel to the city of Baghdad.

He recounts Caliph Emir al-Muminin al-Abbassi (Al-Mustanjid 1124 – 1170) [1] who was a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, and how he the Caliph treated Jews whom were citizens of Baghdad at the time.

Rabbi Benjamin Tudela

“Baghdad, the great city and royal residence of the Caliph Emir al Muminin al Abbassi of the family of Mohammed. He is at the head of the Mohammedan religion, and all the kings of Islam obey him; he occupies a similar position to that held by the Pope over Christians.…

There the great king, Al Abbassi 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. Within the domains of the palace of the Caliph there are great buildings of marble and columns of silver and gold, and carvings upon rare stones are fixed in the walls. In the Caliph’s palace are great riches, and towers filled with gold, silken garments, and all precious stones.… [During the parade of Ramadan]

He is accompanied by all the nobles of Islam dressed in fine garments and riding horses, the princes of Arabia, the princes of Togarma and Daylam (Gilan), and the princes of Persia, Media and Ghuzz, and the princes of the land of Tibet, which is three months’ journey distant, and westward of which lies the land of Samarkand.…

Along the road the walls are adorned with silk and purple, and the inhabitants receive him with all kinds of song and exultation, and they dance before the great king who is styled Caliph.…

He built, on the other side of the river, on the banks of an arm of the Euphrates which borders the city, a hospital consisting of blocks of houses and hospices for the sick poor who come to be healed. Here there are about sixty physicians’ stores which provided from the Caliph’s house with drugs and whatever else may be required. Every sick man who comes is maintained at the Caliph’s expense and is medically treated.

Here is a building called Dar-al Maristan, where they keep charge of the demented people who have become insane in the towns through the great heat in the summer, and they chain each of them in iron chains until their reason becomes restored to them in the winter-time.

Whilst they abide there, they are provided with food from the house of the Caliph, and when their reason is restored they are dismissed and each one them goes to his house and his home. Money is given to those that have stayed in the hospices on their return to their homes.…

All this the Caliph does out of charity to those that come to the city of Baghdad, whether they be sick or insane. The Caliph is a righteous man, and all his actions are good.

In Baghdad there are about 40,000 Jews, and they dwell in security, prosperity and honour under the great Caliph; and amongst them are the great sages, the heads of Academies engaged in the study of the law. In this city there are ten Academies.…

In Baghdad there are 28 synagogues, situated either in the city itself or in Al-Karish on the other side of the Tigris, for the river divides the metropolis in two parts.” (Excerpt from The Itinerary of Benjamin Tudela: Travels in the Middle Ages (late twelfth century) Originally written by Benjamin of Tudela; Translated by Marcus Nathan Adler; Published in 1907. (The Crusades – Primary Sources [Thomson – Gale, 2005], by J. Sydney Jones, page 128 – 129)

By Kaleef Karim


[1] Dr. Nuria Morere:
“Benjamin of Tudela’s narrative is about a Jewish rabbi who, upon leaving Tudela in 1165, headed eastward towards the Far East, Jerusalem, Baghdad, and Alexandria. Following a five year journey, he finally returned to Europe via Sicily in 1170. His long journey took him to what, in his day, were the limits of the cultural world.” (Antiquity in Benjamin of Tudela’s travel narrative: interpretation and meaning within the context of the history of travel [Routlege – Taylor & Francis Online – Journal of Tourism History,2017], by Nuria Morere,  page 5)

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