The map below shows Benjamin of Tudela’s extensive travels throughout the Mediterranean region in the mid-12th century, during the time of the Crusades. As a Jewish merchant from the northern Spanish city of Toledo, he was familiar with the cultures and languages of Jews, Muslims and Christians.
His chronicles of his travels give valuable descriptions of the cities visited as well as the relative status and condition of the Jewish communities where he visited. Below is the excerpt of his description of the rich and prosperous city of Alexandria in Egypt, that at the time was under Fatimid rule. Source: Project Gutenberg: The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela
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 hollowp.104 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. [The other MSS. add here: 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 p.106the 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.
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 timesp.107 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.