Reorienting the East: Jewish Travelers to the Medieval Muslim World

Reorienting the East: Jewish Travelers to the Medieval Muslim World

Reorienting the East: Jewish Travelers to the Medieval Muslim World

Reorienting the East: Jewish Travelers to the Medieval Muslim World


Reorienting the East explores the Islamic world as it was encountered, envisioned, and elaborated by Jewish travelers from the Middle Ages to the early modern period. The first comprehensive investigation of Jewish travel writing from this era, this study engages with questions raised by postcolonial studies and contributes to the debate over the nature and history of Orientalism as defined by Edward Said.

Examining two dozen Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic travel accounts from the mid-twelfth to the early sixteenth centuries, Martin Jacobs asks whether Jewish travelers shared Western perceptions of the Islamic world with their Christian counterparts. Most Jews who detailed their journeys during this period hailed from Christian lands and many sailed to the Eastern Mediterranean aboard Christian-owned vessels. Yet Jacobs finds that their descriptions of the Near East subvert or reorient a decidedly Christian vision of the region. The accounts from the crusader era, in particular, are often critical of the Christian church and present glowing portraits of Muslim-Jewish relations. By contrast, some of the later travelers discussed in the book express condescending attitudes toward Islam, Muslims, and Near Eastern Jews. Placing shifting perspectives on the Muslim world in their historical, social, and literary contexts, Jacobs interprets these texts as mirrors of changing Jewish self-perceptions. As he argues, the travel accounts echo the various ways in which premodern Jews negotiated their mingled identities, which were neither exclusively Western nor entirely Eastern.

Martin Jacobs is Associate Professor of Rabbinic Studies in the Department of Jewish, Islamic, and Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at Washington University in St. Louis.


The coward who chooses the stay-at-home life
must drink of the cup of vexation.
The sluggard, a tent-peg thrust deep in the earth,
is a study in want and frustration….
But the man who is wise travels eastward and west,
till he topple Ill Luck’s domination.
The adventurer, spurning the gifts of repose,
wins Wandering’s high consummation:
The splendor of mountain, of ocean, and plain:

––Judah Alḥarizi, Taḥkemoni, Gate 26

Curiosity, material gain, spiritual quest, and simple wanderlust have propelled people on long-distance journeys ever since travels were recorded. These motives were also invoked by Judah Alḥarizi (1165‒1225), author of the poem quoted in the epigraph. Born in Toledo and buried in Aleppo, Alḥarizi bridges East and West in both his itinerant life and literary oeuvre. the theme of the journey frequently serves this Jewish poet as a means to comment on the virtues and vices of his adopted and childhood homes. As illustrated by Alḥarizi’s case, travel narratives offer unique outlets for reflecting on the alien and the familiar, the other and the self—both of which are commonly depicted as in a mirror.

From this standpoint, the accounts of medieval Christians who visited or conjured up imaginary journeys to the Muslim world have been widely discussed for their role in the construction and dissemination of the European image of the “Orient.” Marco Polo, the thirteenth-century Venetian globetrotter, today is arguably the most frequently evoked eastbound voyager. Even more popular among premodern audiences was the fourteenth-century Book of Mandeville, despite (or perhaps because of) the often fantastic nature of the . . .

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