As a youth, I was fascinated to read about the travels of Marco Polo who, in 1275, had journeyed from his home in Italy to distant China.
That was no mean feat in the thirteenth century, even though Alexander the Great had taken his Greek army as far as the Punjab in India, fighting all the way, some sixteen hundred years earlier.
Other European travelers to distant lands included Giovani di Piano Caprini, a Papal legate, who in 1245 had reached Karakorum, near the River Orkhon in what is today central Mongolia. And Guillaume de Rubrouck arrived at the same city in 1253. Karakorum had once been the residence of Genghis Khan.
But it was not until later that I learned about those other fascinating European travelers to China who had made the perilous journey much earlier in the ninth and tenth centuries. Those travelers were Jewish merchant adventurers who lived in the south of France and northern Spain.
They were known as Radanites and made their epic journeys by sea and overland. It would seem likely that they were the only Europeans at that time making such arduous expeditions into relatively unknown territories.
The Arab geographer, Ibn Khordadhbeh, who lived in the middle of the ninth century, gave an account of the many places visited by the Radanites as they traveled from Europe to China.
He included them in his book, The Book of Ways and Kingdoms, and described four different routes the Jewish merchants took. Here is some of what he wrote:
“These merchants speak Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, Greek, Latin, Frankish, Spanish, and Slav languages. They journey from West to East, from East to West, partly on land, partly by sea. They transport from the West brocade, castor, marten and other furs, and swords.
Route 1. “They take ship from France on the western sea (Mediterranean) and make for Pelusium (Port Said, Egypt). There they load their goods on camelback and go by land to al-Kolzom (Suez). They embark in the Red Sea and sail from al-Kolzom to al’Jar (Medina) and the port of Jeddah. Then they go to Sind (India) and China.
“On their return from China they carry back musk, aloes, camphor, cinnamon, and other products of the eastern countries to al-Kolzom, and bring them back to Pelusium where they again embark on the Western Sea.
“Some make sail for Constantinople to sell their goods to the Romans; others go to the palace of the kings of the Franks to place their goods.
Route 2. “Sometimes these Jewish merchants, when embarking in the land of the Franks, on the Western Sea, make for Antioch at the mouth of the Orontes; thence, by land to al-Hanaya on the bank of the Euphrates where they arrive after three day’s march. There, they embark on the Euphrates and reach Baghdad whence they sail down the Tigris to al-Obolla (Basra). From al-Obolla they sail for Oman, Sind-Hind, and China.
Route 3. “These different journeys can also be made by land. The merchants that start from Spain or France go to Morocco and then to Tangier whence they walk to Afrikia (Kairouan, Cairo) and the capital of Egypt. Thence they go to al-Ramla (Ramle), visit Damascus, Baghdad, and al-Basra, cross Ahwaz, Fars, Kirman (in Iran), Sind-Hind, and arrive at China.
Route 4. “Sometimes they also take the route behind Rome and, passing through the country of the Slavs, arrive at Khamlij, the capital of the Khazars. They embark on the Jorjan Sea (Caspian Sea), arrive at Balkh (on the River Oxus), betake themselves from there across the Oxus, and continue their journey towards Yurt, Toghuzguz (Mongolia), and from there to China.”
It should be noted that such epic journeys, as carried out by the ninth and tenth century Jewish merchants. took them on a 5,000 mile trek though deserts, mountains, dangerous seas and territories where bandits constantly preyed upon travelers.
It was interesting to read that they journeyed to the land of the Khazars; the same empire whose king and subjects embraced Judaism. That nation survived as a major Jewish state for several hundred years before being conquered by Russians.
Many of the goods brought back from the East, including spices, such as cinnamon, created the later impetus for European explorers in the Middle Ages to find the fabulous Spice Islands and resulted in the first circumnavigation of the world by Ferdinand Magellan.
When the Radanites disembarked from their ships, their journeys were continued by horse and camel. The picture above is a statue of a Jewish merchant traveler made in China during the Tang dynasty, a period from the 9th to the 10th century.
The late Israeli President, Yitzhak ben-Zvi, wrote a book, which also fascinated me as a youth. His book, The Exiled and the Redeemed, included stories of the remnants of scattered Jewish communities across the known world and the travels of the remarkable Jewish explorer, Benjamin of Tudela.
The Radanites reminded me of even earlier Jewish journeys going back as far as when Judea was still a sovereign state.
I was intrigued by accounts, legendary or true, of Jewish fleets sailing as far as the Tin Isles (Great Britain) to bring back tin from the mines of Cornwall. Or of Jewish seamen manning Phoenician ships at the time of King Solomon.
Jews went to sea like all other Mediterranean peoples. Jewish visitors arrived at ports throughout the Mediterranean basin. These ports included, among others, Alexandria, Cyrene, Carthage, Cartagena, Tarragona, Marseilles, and Barcelona.
Some of these Jewish explorers arrived in ships not merely owned by Jews but often with Jewish captains, sailors and crews. This continued until at least the 5th century of the Christian era.
It is not certain, but perhaps possible, that Jewish crewed ships were still plying the Mediterranean Sea at the time of the Radanites, thus taking them on the first leg of their fabulous journeys from France and Spain to China.
Copyright © Victor Sharpe, 2011
Victor Sharpe is a freelance writer and author of several books including Volumes One & Two of Politicide: The attempted murder of the Jewish State.
Victor Sharpe is a prolific freelance writer and author of several books including the trilogy, Politicide: The attempted murder of the Jewish state.
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