By Jerry Kasten
Every summer, children splash the pools trying to evade capture in a game called “Marco Polo.” The game is simple: A blinded tagger roams the pool shouting, “Marco!” while others respond, “Polo!” driving the tagger in the direction of his or her victim by sound.
I assume these children were taught that the game is named after Marco Polo, an early overland traveler merchant who helped the East meet the West.
Marco Polo crossed into Asia by a combined land and sea journey from southern Europe to India and China. His journey established trade routes and fostered the exchange of European and Asian knowledge.
However, Marco Polo was not the first to conquer this task.
Benjamin of Tudela, a Spanish Jewish scholar, made a similar journey 100 years before Marco Polo. His observations provided a more scholarly insight and perspective and might have served as a foundation for Marco Polo’s journey.
Since knowledge of life outside of Western Europe was limited, any eyewitness accounts by travelers helped contribute to the knowledge of the world. Benjamin’s travels took him from Europe to Asia and Africa.
We know that Benjamin left Tudelo, Spain, around 1160 and returned in 1172.
Places he visited included Barcelona, Marseilles, Rome, Naples, Rome, Salonica, Constantinople, Corico, Jerusalem, Damascus, Mosul, Bagdad, Cairo and Palermo.
He visited both Jewish and non-Jewish communities, keeping a travel diary titled “The Travels of Benjamin,” during his journey of a dozen or more years.
Benjamin’s observations describe each area’s sociological and geographical features, in addition to its Jewish community.
Originally written in Hebrew, his book was deemed important enough to be translated into the major European languages for all to read, including future travelers such as Marco Polo.
World history publishers need to credit Benjamin of Tudela (Spain) in addition to Marco Polo (Italy) with helping to provide significant geographic knowledge of our early world.
By Jerry Kasten