CELEBRATED TRAVELLERS BETWEEN THE TENTH AND THIRTEENTH CENTURIES.
BENJAMIN OF TUDELA, 1159-1173; PLAN DE CARPIN, OR CARPINI, 1245-1247;
The Scandinavians in the North, Iceland and Greenland—Benjamin of Tudela visits Marseilles, Rome, Constantinople, the Archipelago, Palestine, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Damascus, Baalbec, Nineveh, Baghdad, Babylon, Bassorah, Ispahan, Shiraz, Samarcand, Thibet, Malabar, Ceylon, the Red Sea, Egypt, Sicily, Italy, Germany, and France—Carpini explores Turkestan—Manners and customs of the Tartars—Rubruquis and the Sea of Azov, the Volga, Karakorum, Astrakhan, and Derbend.
In the course of the tenth, and at the beginning of the eleventh century, a considerable amount of ardour for exploration had arisen in Northern Europe. Some Norwegians and adventurous Gauls had penetrated to the Northern seas, and, if we may trust to some accounts, they had gone as far as the White Sea and visited the country of the Samoyedes. Some documents say that Prince Madoc may have explored the American continent.
At all events we may be tolerably certain that Iceland was discovered about A.D. 861 by some Scandinavian adventurers, and that it was soon after colonized by Normans. About this same time a Norwegian had taken refuge on a newly discovered land, and surprised by its verdure he gave it the name of Greenland.
The communication with this portion of the American continent was difficult and uncertain, and one geographer says "it took five years for a vessel to go from Norway to Greenland, and to return from Greenland to Norway." Sometimes in severe winters the Northern Ocean was completely frozen over, and a certain Hollur-Geit, guided by a goat, was able to cross on foot from Norway to Greenland. We should keep in mind that the period of which we are speaking is the time when legends and traditions were very plentiful, and gained ready credence.
Let us return to well-authenticated facts, and relate the journey of a Spanish Jew, whose truthfulness is beyond question.
This Jew was the son of a rabbi of Tudela, a town in Navarre, and he was called Benjamin of Tudela. It seems probable that the object of his voyage was to make a census of his brother Jews scattered over the surface of the Globe, but whatever may have been his motive, he spent thirteen years, from 1160-1173, exploring nearly all the known world, and his narrative was considered the great authority on this subject up to the sixteenth century.
Benjamin of Tudela left Barcelona, and travelling by Tarragona, Gironde, Narbonne, Béziers, Montpellier, Sunel, Pousquiers, St. Gilles, and Arles, reached Marseilles. Here he visited the two synagogues in the town and the principal Jews, and then set sail for Genoa, arriving there in four days. The Genoese were masters of the sea at that time, and were at war with the people of Pisa, a brave people, who, like the Genoese, says the traveller, "owned neither kings nor princes, but only the judges whom they appointed at their own pleasure."
After visiting Lucca, Benjamin of Tudela went to Rome. Alexander III. was Pope at that time, and according to this traveller, he included some Jews among his ministers. Among the monuments of special interest in the eternal city, he mentions St. Peter's and St. John Lateran, but his descriptions are not interesting. From Rome by Capua, and Pozzuoli, then partly inundated, he went to Naples, where he seems to have seen nothing but the five hundred Jews living there; then by Salerno, Amalfi, Benevento, Ascoli, Trani, St. Nicholas of Bari, and Brindisi, he arrived at Otranto, having crossed Italy and yet found nothing interesting to relate of this splendid country.
The list of the places Benjamin of Tudela visited, is not interesting, but we must not omit to mention one of them, for his narrative is most precise, and it is useful to follow his route by the maps specially prepared for this purpose by Lelewel. From Otranto to Zeitun, his halting-places were Corfu, the Gulf of Arta, Achelous, an ancient town in Ætolia, Anatolia in Greece, on the Gulf of Patras, Patras, Lepanto, Crissa, at the foot of Mount Parnassus, Corinth, Thebes, whose two thousand Jewish inhabitants were the best makers of silk and purple in Greece, Negropont and Zeitoun. Here, according to the Spanish traveller, is the boundary-line of Wallachia; he says the Wallachians are as nimble as goats, and come down from the mountains to pillage the neighbouring Greek towns.