La più antica raffigurazione di Gerusalemme (metà VI secolo
Mosaico della basilica di Madaba (Transgiordania)
NUMERICS OF HEBREWS WORLDWIDE DISTRIBUTION AROUND 1170 AD
ACCORDING TO BINYAMIN OF TUDELA
Abstract - We present data on the world
distribution of the Hebrews around 1170 AD as found in the book Itinerary
of Binyamin of Tudela. The data show about half of the Hebrews living in
the Yemen region, in agreement with the recent thesis of Kamal Salibi that
the original land of the Hebrews was the western-southern Arabian peninsula.
In a series of recent books the Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi [1,2,3] has argued that before their deportation to Mesopotamia (the people of Israel by Sargon in 722 BC, the people of Juda by Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BC), the Hebrews were a coalition of Arab tribes living in the high land (the Al-Sarat, elevation between 1700 and 3200 meters) of western-southern Arabian peninsula (approximately in the Asir region of present day Saudi Arabia). It is known that when Cyrus let the Hebrews free of leaving Mesopotamia, only a limited amount of them, belonging to the Juda and Beniamin tribes, went to Palestine, reconstructing the temple in the city of Jerusalem. The fate of the remaining ten tribes has been object of lot of discussions, e.g. by Velikovsky (he proposed the Caucasus, the Volga region and a third indetermined destination, see ), by Koestler (he claimed that many people around the Caspian sea at the time of the Khazars empire were Hebrews and that most of Eastern Europe Jews descended from them, see ). The arguments given by Salibi are based on the geography in the biblical books dealing with the period preceding the deportation. He notices that almost all the about 2000 toponima appearing in these books can be found in the Asir region.
Moreover additional data given in the biblical text, as distances, proximity to rivers and mountains etc., are supported by the Asir localization. Only a handful of such toponima can be located in Palestine where oreover some topographical features are often incompatible with statements in the Bible.
Salibi bases his analysis on the so called "received text" of the Bible, namely the original version containing only consonants. He claims that the current vocalization, made by the Masoretes over 1000 years after the exile, is often not correct. Among his remarkable claims we recall:
- "Jordan (h-yrdn) river" is a wrong translation for "ridge", referring to the great almost impassable rocky escarpment, having a sheer drop of some 100 meters, that separates the Arabian high plateau from the lower land by the sea. This escarpment stretches almost continuously for about 1000 km from just south of Meccah to near Aden, additional long stretches extending parallel to the south coast of the Arabian peninsula (see the map at pages 32-33 of The Times Atlas of the World, comprehensive edition, 1973). Additionally one should note that in the Bible the Jordan is never explicitly called a " river (nhr)", a fact that has always puzzled scholars.
- Jerusalem is never associated with the term "city" and its 26 gates are highly improbable, since a city of its size would normally have no more than 4 gates, the great cities of antiquities having usually at most 12 gates. "Jerusalem" is identified by Salibi as a secluded well defended natural area in the Arabian high plateau having 26 natural accesses, 24 of which are found on maps still bearing their ancient biblical name.
- only some of the Jews settled in Palestine with the favour of the Persians in the sixth century BC, when Palestine suddenly became important from the trade point of view in the context of the Persian empire, being located between Egypt and Mesopotamia.
Salibi does not discuss the fate of the other Hebrews, but notices that a large amount of them was well known to have dwelled in the Arabian peninsula in medieval times and that the opinion expressed by these dwellers of being in their fathers land was recorded by several medieval authors. It is worth to recall that one of the main historians of Islam, the Persian Al Tabari who wrote in the ninth century, describes a large number of fortified villages in the region of the city of Iathrib (later redenominated Al Madinah), whose population consisted of Hebrews in control of the cultivations of dates. One of the first acts of the political activity of Muhammad was fighting against them.
In this paper we look at very interesting information
on the distribution of the Hebrews in the world given in the book Itinerary
by Binyamin of Tudela, a little known important source that is not quoted
by Salibi. The data provide clear support to Salibi's thesis.
2. The travels of Binyamin of Tudela
The rabbi Binyamin of Tudela lived in the 12-th century in the city of Tudela in Aragona, not far from Saragosse. Around 1170 AD he underwent a trip that lasted about three years along the coasts of the Mediterranean and inside parts of Asia, visiting the local communities of Hebrews. He gave a quite synthetic description of his travels in the book Itinerary . This book has little information about his personal events but is curiously rich in data about the number of Hebrews that were living in the cities he visited (or possibly in some cities he did not visit but was given information about). There has been of course discussion about the accuracy of the figures given by him and someone has even claimed that the trip was not done at all. Here we are not going to enter such type of discussion. Our personal impression is that the text is essentially accurate. Binyamin therefore may provide invaluable information on a time where the world distribution of the Hebrews could still be considered as a good reflection of the distribution in classical times. Not long after Binyamin time persecutions in Europe and the onslaught due to the Mongols modified the distribution of the Hebrews in Europe and especially in much of Asia.
In the following section we give Tables listing the number
of people living in various regions of the world visited by Binyamin. Then
we will comment on them and discuss the data relation with Salibi thesis.
3. Tables of Hebrews distribution in the world
In the following Tables we list the cities for which Binyamin provides the number of Hebrews (without his distinctions between rabbanites, i.e. followers of the rabbinic teaching giving importance to the Talmud, and caraites, followers of the original precepts in the canonical biblical books).
For a small number of cities or places (e.g. Barcelona
or Cyprus) Binyamin does not provide figures.
Hebrews in Spain, France and Italy
ST. GILLES 100
ASCOLI SATRIANO 40
Hebrews in Greece
SINON POTAMOU 50
Hebrews in Siria and Palestine
BEIT GIBRIN 3
QALAT GABER 2000
Remark - Binyamin lists separately the Samaritans: 400 in Damascus, 200 in Caesarea, 1000 in Nablus, 300 in Asquelon.
Hebrews in Mesopotamia
RAS EL AIN 200
GEZIRET IBN OMAR 4000
AL ANBAR 3000
AL HILLAH 10.000
AL KUFAH 7000
AL ANBAR 3000
Remark - Binyamin makes the interesting observation that near Kafri there was an important complex of buildings, including the synagogue and the grave of Ezekiel and a rich library containing scrolls from the first and the second temple.
Hebrews in Arabia and Yemen
TANAI REGION 300.000
Remark - The Tanai region had 40 cities and 200 villages. The whole region is called by him Saba or Al-Yemen, meaning "the South", with respect to Shinar (i.e. Mesopotamia).
Hebrews in Greater Persia
NAHR SAMURAH 1500
Hebrews in Greater India
AL GONGALAH 1000
Hebrews in Africa and Sicily
MINYAT ZIFTA 500
Total and area percentages
AFRICA--SICILY 1.5 %
INDIA 10.6 %
PERSIA 25.8 %
MESOPOTAMIA 11.4 %
ARABIA--YEMEN 47.7 %
SIRIA--PALESTINE 1.6 %
EUROPE 1.4 %
In addition to the above numbers, Binyamin quotes without figures the existence of Hebrews in Germany and in the Khazar empire. Also he claims that a "large number" of Hebrews were living in a mountainous territory that appears to broadly correspond to Afghanistan. Curiously he omits figures about Andalucia.
We recall that according to Koestler the number of Hebrews in Germany before the end of the Khazar empire was marginal while it was probably substantial in the Khazar empire, whose leaders had converted to Hebraism ("in Khazaria sheep, honey and Jews exist in large quantities", is a statement by Muqaddasi in his 10th century Descriptio Imperii Moslemici). The Khazar empire was already in decay at the time of Binyamin, due to growth of the Rus power and the many incursions of Vikings along the Caspian shores.
Koestler argues that people from the Khazar territory
escaped west flying the terrible Mongolian invasion. Many of them set in
the wooded and marshy territory between present day Poland and White Russia.
From them, and not from Hebrews expelled from the western European countries,
the large population of Eastern Jews should have descended.
4. Comments on Binyamin data
We do not know how the numbers given by Binyamin relate to the actual total population of Hebrews at his time, because of the following questions:
A -- Do the numbers refer to the whole population or only to the male adults? Some passages suggest that only male adults were considered.
B -- How many people lived in cities or regions not touched by him?
Because of the above, even assuming that the given figures are basically correct, the total number of Hebrews corresponding to these figures, i.e. somewhat less than one million, is certainly a lower bound, by possibly a factor 4 with respect to problem A and a factor 2 or more with respect to problem B. By these factors one might estimate a total population of somewhat over 8 million, which is a reasonable estimate, being close to the numbers of Jews for the whole Roman world at the Augustus census (the Hebrews were the most numerous population!). At that time only part of the world inhabited by Hebrews had been censed, but economical conditions were probably better generally than at Binyamin time, allowing a higher population density in the Roman empire. It is anyway well known that human population has been rather constant in total numbers till the explosive growth related to the starting of the industrial revolution.
One should also notice that most Hebrews lived in cities or small towns on jobs requiring a certain specialized competence (making or colouring clothes is an occupation often quoted by Binyamin).
Despite the certain inaccuracy in total numbers, it is likely that the ratios of Hebrews in different geographical areas are quite correct, since such ratios are independent of the multiplying factors, which are presumibly similar for the different regions. Therefore the following observations coming from an inspection of the above given Tables should be basically valid.
* The region of Arabia and Yemen contains about half the total population of Hebrews. This fact is a strong argument in favour of Salibi thesis that Arabia-Yemen was the original region where the Hebrews were deported from by the Assirians and the Babilonians, since many of the deportees would naturally like to come back to the land of their ancestors.
** The region containing the second largest amount of Hebrews is Greater Persia, at the time of Binyamin including a large part of central Asia now belonging to Turkmenistan, Tagikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazachstan. Impressive is the large number of Hebrews living in Hiva, close to the Aral see, a region now environmentally ruined but in medieval times very flourishing, as described for instance by Ibn Battuta. It is natural to conjecture that such large population descended from people who settled there during the Persian Achaemenid empire, when the Hebrews were treated well by the Persians and many of them acted as administrators. It is likely that large part of the population of these cities was later massacred by the Mongols, whose policy of utterly destroying the inhabitants of cities is so graphically described in for instance Ata Malik al Juvaini, , writing about 1250 AD. It is however possible that a part of these populations, possibly those living in the more western regions, e.g. in Hiva, could have escaped the Mongols onslaught by joining the Khazars in their flight towards Europe, thereby contributing to the stock of Eastern European Jews.
*** India is the region containing the third largest population of Hebrews, with a concentration in the city of Qulam, present day Quilon, in the western-southern part of the Indian peninsula. Under Salibi's scenario of the Hebrews living originally in Southern Arabia it is likely that many of them formed colonies already in very ancient times in that part of India, which was on the way to the farthest eastern regions wherefrom spices and silk were imported. It is well known that trade between Taprobrane (Sri Lanka) and Oman or Aden is extremely ancient, being practiced exploiting the monsoons by boats made of planks connected with coconut fiber ropes, a production of the Laccadive islands (see Severin  for a description of these boats and his personal experience of crossing the Indian ocean from Oman on a reconstructed boat). The Hebrews population of India might also have been increased some centuries before Binyamin by influx of refugees from west--northernly parts of India, that were once part of the Achaemenid empire and where the Islamic conquest was quite bloody, due to the local resistance to religious change (see again Ibn Battuta for a description of the massacres made by the muslim chiefs against the nonmuslim populations in the region of present Chittagong). Notice that the migrations of Zoroastrians to the quite southern location of present Mumbay was as well motivated by escape to forced conversion.
**** The region containing the third largest amount of Hebrews includes present day Siria, Irak and southern Turkey. It can be surmised that this population consisted partly of Hebrews that decided to stay there during the time of the Persian Achaemenid empire, partly of people who went there during the best time of the Islamic empire, partly of people who left Palestine after the Roman wars of Vespasian and Hadrian. Again much of this population may have perished during the massacres of city dwellers by the Mongols. It is clear from the information in Binyamin that most precious cultural relicts of the Hebrews were preserved in cities near Baghdad. These were most probably destroyed together with the population during the Mongolian invasion.
***** The number of people living in Europe, in the Byzantine empire and along the Mediterranean coasts of Africa, namely in the regions where we would expect most of the Hebrews under the standard hypothesis that the original land of the Hebrews was Palestine, wherefrom they dispersed during Hellenistic and Roman times, is only a small fraction of the total Hebrew population according to Binyamin figures. Barring the hypothesis of a higher mortality in these regions in some past time (but earthquakes and plague around 540 AD devasted these regions...) this fact supports the idea that already in classical times the Hebrews living around the Mediterranean were only a small fraction of the total population of Hebrews.
The above analysis, in conclusion, seems to support Salibi's
hypothesis that only a marginal part of the Hebrews, when given freedom
by Cyrus, settled in Palestine; most of them must have returned to their
original land in Arabia--Yemen, or they dispersed in the vastness of the
Achaemenid empire, where history later spread them even farther throughout
1 - K. Salibi, Secrets of the Bible people, Saqi Books, London, 1988.
2 - K. Salibi, The Bible came from Arabia, Naufal, Beirut, 1996.
3 - K. Salibi, The historicity of biblical Israel. Studies on Samuel I and II, Nabu, London, 1998.
4 - Communicated by Donald Patten, Seattle.
5 - A. Koestler, The thirteenth tribe, Picador, London, 1976.
6 - Binyamin of Tudela, Itinerario (Sefer Massa'ot), Luisè, Rimini, 1988.
7 - Ata Malik Al-Juvaini, Ta Rikh-i-Jaman Gusha, University of Manchester Press, 1958
8 -- T. Severin, The Sindbad voyage, Hutchinson,
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Emilio Spedicato, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Department of Mathematics, University of Bergamo, Italy
[Una presentazione dell'autore si trova nel I numero di Episteme]