On Holiday with Benjamin of Tudela
It is summer, and as the fortunate among us head to familiar summer haunts—redolent with the smell of hedgerows and the feeling of warm earth under bare feet, once again appreciating sundown and turning the pillow to the cool side—it seems apt to reflect on the many ways in which travel is something quite qualitatively different from movement through space.
In JQR 109.2 Martin Jacobs opens yet another fascinating vista in the writings of twelfth-century pilgrim Benjamin of Tudela. Applying insights gleaned from recent theoretical studies of space, Jacobs’s essay “‘A Day's Journey’: Spatial Perceptions and Geographic Imagination in Benjamin of Tudela’s Book of Travels” shows how Benjamin’s Sefer masa’ot (Book of travels) depicts movement through space as a way to express a complex cultural experience. Jacobs sharpens what is particular about Benjamin by setting his writings alongside others’, such as fellow Iberian Ibn Jubayr (1145–1217), a Muslim writer who also traveled through Europe and the Near East. Ibn Jubayr’s itinerary, recorded in his Rihla (Journey) is similar to Benjamin’s on its surface, but comparison throws the heavy weight of cultural perception into relief.
Even what seems to be pure data, Benjamin's report of travel times and distances, Jacobs shows to be part of Benjamin's subjective construct. Benjamin’s narrative structure, a linear organization Jacobs identifies as “hodological,” “functions as a way of compiling, organizing, and making sense of heterogenous knowledge—both empirical and imagined—about places stretching from Iberia to East Asia, from Western and Central Europe to North and East Africa.” Benjamin's travelogue emerges as a mosaic of tropes supporting aims tied less to physical than to conceptual exigencies, reflecting in spatial terms “his broader vision of an interconnected and unified Jewish world.”