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500 Year Old Rare Book Recounts Journey to the East 100 Years Before Marco Polo

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McMaster University Library

McMaster University Library,  has recently acquired the first Latin translation of The Travels of Benjamin Tudela, a travelogue originally written in Hebrew by Benjamin of Tudela, a Jewish merchant from Zaragoza in Andalus, now southern Spain.”

100 Years Before Marco Polo

“The book recounts Benjamin’s 13-year journey which, from 1160 to 1173, took him throughout the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and Asia — along many of the same routes that Marco Polo would famously traverse more than a hundred years later.”

Map- Routes of Benjamin of Tudela, and Marco Polo

Map- Routes of Benjamin of Tudela, and Marco Polo

Last to See Constantinople and Baghdad Before Their Destruction

Groover says Benjamin, who likely embarked on his journey to develop mercantile contacts, wrote valuable accounts of the people and places he visited, including uncommonly accurate accounts of the vibrant and thriving Jewish communities he encountered, as well as detailed descriptions of powerful and influential urban centres like Baghdad and Constantinople.

“Benjamin is more or less the last person to describe these places to us,” says Groover who explains that Constantinople– the centre of the Byzantine Empire­– was burned to the ground in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade, and Baghdad– the cultural capital of the Muslim world– was sacked by the Mongols within 100 years of Benjamin’s narrative.”

Description of Constantinople (Excerpt)

“The following selection contains Benjamin of Tudela’s description of Constantinople. He is specifically interested in the lot of the Jews in this mercantile center. His description is in remarkable contrast to his impressions of Baghdad, for example, where Jews had a more favored status under the Muslim caliphate.” (Source: My Jewish Learning)

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‘”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 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…”‘

“‘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 Sepahrad [Spain].”‘

“‘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 Hungary, Patzinakia [country from the Danube to the Dneiper], Khazaria [southern provinces of Russia], 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 Baghdad, the great city of Islam.”‘

Best Seller -Smash Success!

“In 1575 – three centuries after Benjamin’s original Hebrew travelogue was written –the text was translated into Latin by Arias Montanus, a Jesuit priest and delegate to the Council of Trent. This translation quickly became a best seller.”

“’It was a smash success,” says [The Library’s Myron]Groover. “It went through several print runs in reasonably rapid succession. People were very keen to read this– most people knew of Marco Polo’s chronicle, but this was written much earlier and is, in many cases, more accurate.”’ (Source: McMaster University Library)

Will the book ever wither?

More: William Ready Division of Archives and Research Collections

H/T Art Daily

February 1, 2017 by Jack Dziamba. New Post Goes Up Every Wednesday.
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