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The Travels of Benjamin of Tudela: Through Three Continents in the Twelfth Century    by Uri Shulevitz order for
Travels of Benjamin of Tudela
by Uri Shulevitz
Order:  USA  Can
Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2005 (2005)
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Having heard of Benjamin of Tudela, I was fascinated by this book on his travels, of interest to young and old, and enhanced by exciting pictures that bring the text to life. It opens in 1173 as a traveler fails to reach Tudela in northern Spain before the town gates close. The next morning, Benjamin enters the town after journeying through Europe, Africa and Asia (more than a hundred years before Marco Polo's great expedition) for fourteen years.

Welcomed back in the town's Jewish quarter, Benjamin tells a tale of difficulties and danger, but has no regrets. Traveling by barge, foot, wagon and by sea through Europe, he began to gain 'a feeling of the vastness of the world.' On the way to Constantinople ('the wealthiest, most powerful city of Europe' at that time), his ship was chased by pirates. Other dangers of the times included the Plague, Assassins (who followed the Old Man of the Mountain), and intolerant Crusaders.

A highlight of Benjamin's travels was approaching Jerusalem. From there he traveled, dressed as an Arab, 'by camel, donkey and riverboat' to Baghdad, to Babylon and the ruins of the Tower of Babel, to Susa in Persia (where the prophet Daniel's coffin hung from a bridge), and on to Egypt and Mount Sinai. En route, a fellow traveler told Benjamin about China ... 'a long, dangerous voyage to the farthest East.' On his way home, Benjamin was shipwrecked, but later rescued.

Uri Shulevitz conveys the reality of this period in history, rotting garbage, dead rats and all. He also communicates the excitement and awe that Benjamin must have felt, and that travelers feel today, visiting places they have heard of but never seen before. An Author's Note mentions the factual Book of Travels that Benjamin wrote on his return. The Travels of Benjamin of Tudela is a fascinating account.

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