BENJAMIN OF TUDELA ON THE VLACHS OF THESSALY (GREECE)


Rabbi Benjamin, son of Jonah, was from Tudela in Navarre (northern Spain). In ca. 1160 he travelled from Spain all the way to Palestine and Baghdad, across the Mediterranean and the lands of the Byzantine Empire. Nothing is known about him besides what he reveals about himself in his Itinerary, a travelogue written in formal medieval Hebrew, with a strong Arabic influence, an indication that he knew Arabic and was perhaps a member of a group of Jews in Muslim Spain who valued the synthesis of Islamic and Jewish cultures and who viewed themselves as an intellectual and social elite. The Itinerary is more than a travelogue, for Benjamin was interested in the existence of Israel as a scattered people. In the communities of southern France, Italy, Greece, and Palestine, which he visited, he recorded the names of two, sometimes three individuals from each community, perhaps the governing members or the Bet-Din (Jewish ecclesiastical court). Benjamin must have crossed Greece in the Fall of 1161. The Itinerary survives in five manuscripts, the most important of which contains also some of Maimonides' works, several Midrashic tracts, a commentary on the Hagadah by Joseph Gikatilia, and an extract from Abarbanel's commentary on Isaiah. Translation from The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela, translated by Marcus Nathan Adler (Malibu, 1987), p. 68.

From there it is a day's journey to Sinon Potamo, where there are about fifty Jews, at their head being R. Solomon and R. Jacob. The city is situation at the foot of the hills of Wallachia. The nation called Wallachians live in those mountains. They are as swift as hinds, and they sweep down from the mountains to despoil and ravage the land of Greece. No man can go up and do battle against them, and  no king can rule over them. They do not hold fast to the faith of the Nazarenes, but give themselves Jewish names. Some people say that they are Jews and, in fact, they call the Jews their brethren, and when they meet with them, though they rob them, they refrain from killing them as they kill the Greeks. They are altogether lawless.