Nowadays, the internet has made it possible for anyone, with a bit of money to spend, to head off with a backpack around the globe and share their experiences with others. Bloggers, YouTubers, and Instagrammers are the most famous travellers of our time, sharing their photos and stories with fans and followers whenever they're on the road. But they were far from the first ones to do it. In an age without smartphones, laptops or cameras, Benjamin of Tudela – whose name is now synonymous with that city – set off to explore distant corners of the world, leaving the Kingdom of Navarre behind him. Bear in mind that this was during the 1100s when there were no planes, trains, buses, hostels, google maps, cash machines, nor any of the things that give us comfort as we travel in the modern world. Taking into account the dangers and difficulties he must have encountered, Benjamin of Tudela is quite frankly one of the coolest guys to have ever gone travelling. So who exactly was he? Where did he go? And what traces of him can we find back in his home-town of Tudela?
Sadly, we know very little about the man himself. What we do know is all about his journeys, the places he travelled to and what he saw. Benjamin was a Jewish resident of Tudela who lived from 1130 to 1173. He is believed to have started his epic journey in 1165, in what some historians suggest had been intended to be a pilgrimage to the Land of Israel. He didn't return home for an estimated 7 or 8 years, and wrote extensively about many of the places he visited, speaking of the different cultures he encountered whilst paying particularly close attention to the Jewish communities which were spread across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. For that reason, other scholars believe the real intention of his journey had been to study and catalogue the Jewish diaspora. His writings about his travels would, centuries later, become a hugely important source of information for understanding the cultures that lived during the middle ages.
Benjamin of Tudela started his journey from Zaragoza and went on to travel through the lands we would now refer to as the south of France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Israel, Iraq, Iran, Egypt and presumably around the entire Arabian Peninsula and the Red Sea (as shown in the image below). He is believed to have spent longer periods of time in both Rome and Baghdad, as these are the cities he wrote about in the most detail.
If you want to find Benjamin today, you'll have to go to the Plaza de la Judería. It is here where he is immortalised in the form of a small monument; a bust that watches over the square. It is also here in the Jewish Quarter where Benjamin is most likely to have lived. What's more is that the same neighbourhood is home to a quaint and narrow centuries-old street – Calle Benjamin de Tudela – named after the town's very own legendary traveller.
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