The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Sometime in the early 1160s, a Sephardic Rabbi named Benjamin set out from Tuteila (or Tudela) in Navarre on a wide arc across the known world. His intent was to document the lands he visited, with particular emphasis on the Jewish diaspora. His peregrinations took him to France, Italy, the Balkans, Constantinople, the Holy Land, Mesopotamia, Khuzistan, Persia, Quilon, and then, on his journey home, Yemen, Egypt, Sicily, Germany, Bohemia, Russia, and finishing in Paris, where he completed his Itinerary 1. And what an itinerary! If indeed he had visited all these countries, then, in the space of about ten years, he had covered all of Christendom and much of the domains of Islam. All he needed to do to be on par with Ibn Battuta, I daresay, would have been to extend his journey to the Orient and the Spice Islands.

For the purposes of this post, I'll extract his notes on Quilon (Khulam, as he called it).

Thence 2 it is seven days' journey to Khulam 3 which is the beginning of the country of the Sun-worshippers 4. These are the sons of Cush, who read the stars, and are all black in colour. They are honest in commerce. When merchants come to them from distant lands and enter the harbour, three of the King's secretaries go down to them and record their names, and then bring them before the King, whereupon the King makes himself responsible even for their property which they leave in the open, unprotected. There is an official who sits in his office, and the owner of any lost property has only to describe it to him when he hands it back. This custom prevails in all that country. From Passover to New Year, that is all during the summer, no man can go out of his house because of the sun, for the heat in that country is intense, and from the third hour of the day onward, everybody remains in his house till the evening. Then they go forth and kindle lights in all the market places and all the streets, and then do their work and business at night-time. For they have to turn night into day in consequence of the great heat of the sun. Pepper is found there. They plant the trees thereof in the fields, and each man of the city knows his own plantation. The trees are small, and the pepper is as white as snow. And when they have collected it, they place it in saucepans and pour boiling water over it, so that it may become strong. They then take it out of the water and dry it in the sun, and it turns black. Calamus and ginger and many other kinds of spice are found in this land.

The people of this country do not bury their dead, but embalm them by means of various spices, after which they place them on chairs and cover them with fine linen. And each family has a house where it preserves the embalmed remains of its ancestors and relations. The flesh hardens on the bones, and the embalmed bodies look like living beings, so that every man can recognize his parents, and the members of his family for many years. They worship the sun, and they have high places everywhere outside the city at a distance of about half a mile. And every morning they run forth to greet the sun, for on every high place a solar disc is made of cunning workmanship, and as the sun rises the disc rotates with thundering noise, and all, both men and women, offer incense to the sun with censers in their hands. Such are their superstitious practices. And throughout the island, including ail the towns there, live several thousand Israelites. The inhabitants are all black, and the Jews also. The latter are good and benevolent. They know the law of Moses and the prophets, and to a small extent the Talmud and Halscha.

There is a suspicion that this otherwise very dependable author has possibly not travelled beyond Arabia because of the exaggerations that suddenly develop in the book after that point. It might be that he took recourse to hearsay from other travellers, or he referred to books by earlier, less trustworthy men. Whatever the reason, his claim that Quilon - in the southern part of Malabar - was a Parsi kingdom does beggar belief. While there may have been Zoroastrians in that area, they were mainly concentrated much further north, in Gujarat.

Contrary to popular belief at the time that white and black pepper originated from different plants, he points out that one derives from the other, although it should be said that it works the other way round: when black pepper pods are put in water, the skin is able to be sloughed off, revealing the white kernel inside.

Finally, Benjamin's accuracy returns when he takes up his travelogue in Aden, after the Indian sojourn. This map, we may safely surmise, is the best guide to his progress.

References and Notes

1. Marcus Nathan Adler,
The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela: Critical Text, Translation and Commentary, New York: Phillip Feldheim, Inc., 1907

2. Benjamin travelled from Katifa, or El-Katif, in Bahrain.

3. [Footnote in Adler's book] Khulam, now called Quilon, was a much frequented seaport in the early Middle Ages where Chinese shippers met the Arab traders. It afterwards declined in importance, being supplanted by Calicut, Goa, and eventually by Bombay. It was situated at the southern end of the coast of Malabar. Renaudot in a translation of De Travels of Two Mohammedan Traders , who wrote as far back as 851 and 915 respectively, has given us some account of this place; Ibn Batuta and Marco Polo give us interesting details. Ritter, in the fifth volume of his Geography, dilates on the cultivation of the pepper-plant, which is of indigenous growth. In Benjamin's time it was thought that white pepper was a distinct species, but Ritter explains that it was prepared from the black pepper, which, after lying from eight to ten days in running water, would admit of being stripped of its black outer covering. Ritter devotes a chapter to the fire-worship of the Guebers, who, as Parsees, form an important element at the present day in the population of the Bombay Presidency. Another chapter is devoted to the Jewish settlement to which Benjamin refers. See Die judischen Colonien in Indien, Dr. Gustav Oppert; also Semitic Studies (Berlin, 1890, pp. 396-419.

Under the heading "Cochin," the Jewish Encyclopaedia gives an account of the White and Black Jews of Malabar. By way of supplementing the Article, it maybe well to refer to a MS., No. 4238 of the Morzbacher Library formerly at Munich. It is a document drawn up in reply to eleven questions addressed by Tobias Boas on the 12 Ellul 5527 (= 1767) to R. Jeches Kel Rachbi of Malabar. From this MS. it appears that 10,000 exiled Jews reached Malabar A. C. 68 (i. e. about the time of the destruction of the Second Temple) and settled at Cranganor, Dschalor, Madri and Plota. An extract of this MS. is given in Winter and Wiinsche's Judische Literatur, vol III, p. 459. Cf. article on the Boni-Israel of India by Samuel B. Samuel, The Jewish Literary Annual, 1905.

4. Sun-worshippers, or Parsis.


Unknown said...

the map doesnt go further east till india though it stops at current day saudi arabia, isnt it ?

Fëanor said...

indeed, that's what i meant by 'this map is probably the best guide to his progress' since his accounts of places he visited east of arabia are all fantastic and exaggerated.

Guru said...

imagined travels eh? The same was true of Marco Polo too!
Imagine how much easier it is today to peddle such drivel. Without moving a foot, you can convince others of having visited the entire globe.It also makes you admire Shakespeare on how much effort he would have undertaken to read up on places he never went to and yet produce marvelous pieces on 'history'.
Moral of the story:- Be convincing of your lies!

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