“In addition to its importance in regard to social life, and the art of government, geography unfolds to us the celestial phenomena, acquaints us with the occupants of the land and ocean, vegetation, fruits, and peculiarities of the various quarters of the earth, a knowledge of which marks him who cultivates it as a man earnest in the great problem of life and happiness.” –The Geography of Strabo, Strabo.
Benjamin, Son of Jonah, of the land of Navarre, began walking.
“Everyone who undertakes to give an accurate description of a place, should be particular to add its astronomical and geometrical relations, explaining carefully its extent, distance, degrees of latitude, and “climate.” Even a builder before constructing a house, or an architect before laying out a city, would take these things into consideration; much more should he who examines the whole earth: for such things in a peculiar manner belong to him,” Strabo said, he knew Benjamin was well aware of what he was saying, the merchant had read every word and knew by heart the path to his destination. But it was the journey that Benjamin must record, every bit of it, step by step. Strabo’s words were etched in his mind.
To narrate a great adventure, Strabo had said to him, look to Homer who “heightening by fiction actual occurrences, adorns and embellishes his subject; but his end is always the same, as that of the historian, who relates nothing but facts.” Homer fabricated many falsehoods, relating them like truths, said Strabo, “not all, but many falsehoods, otherwise it would not have looked like truth.”
Benjamin took measured steps, he was a merchant, with every look he measured the riches of the kingdoms, the power of the rulers and the number of Jews. Benjamin was as curious about architecture as he was about manufacturing processes. The more exotic the practices of the non-Jewish people, the more meticulously he recorded them.
In Rome there are kings inside of a cave, with them about a hundred royal personages. They are all embalmed and preserved to this day. You can go there and speak to them maybe, for they look most lifelike. There is a statue of bronze overlaid with gold, remarkable sights beyond enumeration. Benjamin looked to the sea of Sodom to right himself again.
At the other end of the world the king strode back and forth. Philip had served him well, and for a long time, and now stood by the door. The king sat down. Outside in his realm, the subjects, with no noses, they worshipped the winds, now waited with bated breath. The king ruled them with an iron fist. The king bit into a piece of bread, just as the merchant arrived. Strabo had shown him the way. The merchant will never speak a word of it, for it is written in the heavens, ask Strabo.
One step, two step: Twenty thousand gold pieces, the tribute the city amounts to every year. Two days voyage; 300 jews. Three days; 400 jews. Thence it is a day’s journey to the other Gebal; 150 jews. From there it is two days’ journey; 50 jews. From there it is three parsangs to Jerusalem; 200 jews. The riches, the jewels, the architecture, count them all, the rest is all superstition and sorcery. From Barcelona to Gerona. Take a breath Benjamin. Thence it is four pasangs to the city of Beziers. Thence from Pisa to Lucca to Rome.
Power was important to Benjamin. He noted that no matter how powerful the governing powers were over their subject, none held absolute power. The path to Jerusalem lay clear. But listen carefully, for the journey is the answer. Benjamin was far from random in his choice of subjects to describe.
The path leading to Jerusalem was through an enchanted world, where demons and evil spirits inhabited the forests. A man named Mohammed had turned a handful of Bedouin tribes into a warlike people, there was magic in it no doubt. The Moslems believed that the Arabic language was the highest form of divine revelation; the language of God. Allah. The Saracens you mean? The deliverers, yes.
Benjamin, son of Jonah, of the land of Navarre, he was as curious about architecture as he was about manufacturing processes. A Jewish merchant, he looked at cities, people, and monuments and measured piety, poetry and power. Benjamin carried a ledger where he noted down the details while walking the road between East and West. He traced a path among the idolators on his way to the end destination. His translators traced the journey through his steps as they wrote again and again in the earth the path that lead to where HaLevi had written “true hope” resided, never mind what Ibn Daud wrote–Daud’s pen illuminating the lives of the Christian kings of Spain. He was just a storyteller.
Benjamin arrived at Mount Zion. Closed coffers were there, the contents of which no man knows. In Bethlehem, Benjamin stood before a gate of iron, which was constructed by the forefathers of the people of Zion, and then he was able to descend down a series of steps, holding a lighted candle, the ghosts of ancient past flitting about like sharp shadows.
All Israel is dispersed in every land, and he who does not further the gathering of Israel will not meet with happiness nor live with Israel. When the Lord will remember us in our exile, and raise the horn of his anointed, then everyone will say, “I will lead the Jews and I will gather them.”
There is no city like Constantinople, where lies the church of Santa Sophia, except Baghdad, the great city of Islam, wrote Benjamin. Stand back, the crescent and the cross are at war. The Jews gather beneath, like spilled blood.
Sources: Geography of Strabo, Benjamin of Tudela.