David Reubeni

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[pp. 745-757]

DAVID REUBENI

(d. 1535 A.D.)

David Reubeni, an Oriental Jew, arrived in Italy in 1524, and died in Spain in 1535. His wanderings are described in a book of Travels, written in Hebrew. The unique MS (which disappeared from the Bodleian Library after 1867) was twice edited from a transcript.

Ed.: A Neubauer, Mediaeval Jewish Chronicles, Oxford 1887; E. Biberfeld, Der Reisebericht des David Reuben, Berlin 1892 (incomplete).


The part of Reubeni's wanderings throughout the Sudan was translated into English by S. Hillelson, David Reubeni. An early Visitor to Sennar, Sudan Notes and Records, XVI, 1933, pp. 55-66, from which we have borrowed the following extracts.[1]

I, David, am the son of King Solomon [blessings on his memory] and my brother King Joseph who is older than I am rules his kingdom in the desert of Khabor, where he is king over 300,000 people of Gad, Reuben and the half-tribe of Manasseh. I set forth from the court of my [p. 746] brother the king and the seventy elders his counsellors, for they had instructed me first of all to proceed to Rome to stand before the Pope [may his glory be exalted].

So I left them and journeyed from the desert of Khabor by way of Harrah, a distance of ten days until I reached Jeddah, where I fell grievously ill... meanwhile I heard of a ship that was going to the land of Kūsh[2] and though I was still sick in bed I called the master of the vessel to me. Now I had an aged servant, a deaf and dumb man who was attending to me and cooked my food and was in charge of my possessions and looked after all my needs; so the servant and I embarked on this vessel to cross the Red Sea, and I was still sick while we travelled on the Red Sea for three days and three nights, and on the fourth day we reached the town of Suakin in the land of Kūsh.

I hired a house in this town and stayed there for two months.

Then I heard that a large number of merchants were about to start for 'Asha[3] in the land of Kūsh, the Kingdom of Sheba, so I summoned their chief, who was a descendant of the prophet of the Ishmaelites, a man named 'Omar Abū Kāmil, and acquired two camels in order to travel with them. Thus I started from Suakin with my servant and all my gear, and we travelled with Abū Kāmil and a caravan of over 3,000 camels belonging to the merchants, and I fasted every day. I travelled through vast [p. 747] deserts and forests in which there was good vegetation and many trees and excellent grazing over rivers and mountains, a journey lasting two months until we reached the beginning of the kingdom of Kūsh.

The name of the king was 'Amarah and he dwells by the river Nile. The king is black and his rule extends over black people and white. This river over which he rules is the "river of Egypt" and his kingdom is of Sheba. Now I travelled over all his kingdom and stayed in the king's city at the "head" of the river Nile, the name of the city being Lam'ul. I stayed with him for ten months, during which Abū Kāmil was in attendance on me. Now the king used to travel about his domains, month by month from station to station, and I travelled with the king, and I had attendants who were descendants of their prophet, more than sixty men riding on horses who treated me with great respect, and their chief was called Abū Kāmil.

During the whole time I stayed in the land of Kūsh with the king I used to fast every day whether resting or travelling and I prayed day and night, for I feared lest I should stand in the "seat of the scornful" ... I used to go straight from the house of the king to my house, for at every travelling stage they erected for me a wooden house near the king's.

Now, this king has innumerable servants amongst whom there are captains of war and governors of the cities of the kingdom; and officers to administer their law. Whoever commits a fault, be it great or small, is slain, and every day they hold courts of justice. The king has many horses and captains who ride on them, and fine camels, and innumerable herds of cattle and sheep; he also has gold dust. Special officers travel ahead of him [p. 748] to erect wooden houses for the king and all his officers and servants, and whenever we arrived at a halting stop, everything was found arranged, from the beginning to the end [of the journey]; and after departure they burn all the houses.

In this country there are places full of vegetation, and forests, and deserts and mountains. This king with whom I dwelt has slaves, male and female, most of whom are naked; the queen and the concubines and the ladies of the court and the slave girls and maidservants wear golden armlets and bracelets and anklets, and they cover their nakedness with a handwrought chain of gold, a yard in width, which goes around the loins and is locked in front and behind; the rest of the body is naked, but all women wear gold nose-rings. Thus they travel with the king and even in the rain they sit naked, exposed to the rain, men and animals, and they sleep on the ground for they have no houses; and every one of them, men and women, lights a fire in front of him to keep him warm. They eat elephants, wolves, leopards, dogs, camels, mice, frogs, snakes and even human flesh.

The king used to summon me daily, and he said to me: "What is it you desire of me, my Lord, son of our prophet? If you desire slaves or camels or horses, take them." And I replied: "I desire nothing of you. Only I have heard of the splendour of your kingdom and I brought you this present in affection and good-will; see, I give you a silk garment and 700 ducats and I desire nothing of you". I also said: "I love you and I give you my blessing and the blessing of my fathers, and the blessing of the prophet Mohammed, and I give you forgiveness of sins, and I give you strength and a dwelling in paradise for yourself and your sons and your daughters and all the people of your household, and in [p. 749] another year you shall come to us in the city of Mecca, the place of the forgiveness of sins."

Thereafter the king sent to my house four virgin slave girls and four slaves, all of them naked. The messenger said: "Our Lord the king sends you a thousand greetings, take then these slave boys and girls as a present from our Lord the king". So he left them standing before me naked and I gave them garments to cover their nakedness. In this night my evil genius stood at my right hand to tempt me with one of the beautiful slave girls and I had already conducted her to my bed, when my good angel prevailed and said to me: "Remember whence you came and whither you are going, and what this deed is that you are about to do. God Almighty is offended by an evil deed like this; remember your Creator and he will remember you; but if you sin this night, God will raise up enemies against you, who will lay you low, and you will be unable to carry out your sacred mission". Blessed be the Lord who saved me from this sin. I prayed and wept and turned to Him all night on my couch and did not sleep until the morning. And in the morning I took all the slaves and led them to the king's wife and said to her: "The King has given me these slaves as a present, now I present them to you as a gift of good-will, I desire nothing in return and I give you forgiveness of sins and good place in the paradise". When the king heard of this matter, he summoned me and asked why I had not accepted his gift. I replied: "From you I accepted it, but I give it to the queen in affection and good-will."

Then the king honoured me greatly, as likewise he honoured the descendants of the Prophet living in the land of Kūsh, and among them their chief Abū Kāmil, whom he honoured on account of his friendship with me, and [p. 750] thus he treated all his servants. The king and all his servants loved me and respected me and looked upon me as if I were an angel of the Lord, and they were in the awe of me because I fasted every day and prayed day and night and spoke little before them, and when they addressed me I replied briefly. And when I rode on my horse to go anywhere, the king gave orders that the chief servants of his kingdom should go with me all the way.[4]

... Thereafter in the morning I departed from Lam'ul with my aged companion and the servant of the king, leaving the residence of the king on the sources of the Nile. We crossed many rivers, and there were many grazing grounds of elephants, and elephants in plenty. There [p. 751] is also a river of mud where horses sink in the mud up to their bellies and many people and horses perish in this manner. But we crossed this river on horseback, and blessed be the Lord who saved us, amen. We travelled a distance of eight days until we reached Sennar,[5]the place of Obadiah, the aforementioned officer, and the king's messenger transmitted to him the instructions of the king, and Obadiah summoned me and said: "What does our Lord desire? Whatever you command I shall do and give in friendship and good-will". I replied: "The only thing I desire is that you shall buy three good camels at my expenses and two waterskins of cowhide to carry water on the camel." Then he gave me a slave to accompany me to Abū Kāmil; and in the morning I set forth from Sennar with my slave and the messenger, and we travelled for five days along the Nile until we reached the town of Soba, which is in ruins; there they have wooden dwellings. Abū Kāmil met me and said: "How is it that you came away from the king without a present of slaves?" I know the king loves you and honours you, and now you have come away without taking anything from the king. Therefore you shall remain in my house while I go up to the king to ask for a gift on your behalf." To this I agreed.

... [6] In the morning I started from Soba, the place of Abū Kāmil, who sent his brother to accompany me, and I travelled a distance of ten days to the kingdom of al-Ga'l (al-Ja'l), which belongs to the kingdom of Soba and is under the rule of Amarah. The king of al-Ga'l [p. 752] was called Abū 'Aqrab, and Abū Kāmil’s brother informed him of the king's order to convey me (whom he called Our Lord the Son of the Prophet) and to give me everything for the road. I stayed with this king three days and thereafter travelled with my old servant until I reached the mountain of Ataqqi[7] where I met a great chief called 'Abd el-Wahhab; this man desired me to travel by the short desert road to the city of Dongola.[8]

... Accompanied by my servant and 'Abd el-Wahhab, I travelled for ten days through the desert. I now had two servants, the old one and one whom I had bought. So I reached the town of Dongola, situated at a distance of half a day from [text corrupt here] the land at the beginning of deserts; this is the end of Amarah's kingdom. We met a large party of horsemen and I besought Abd el-Wahhab to speak to the chief of the horsemen to discover what the country was like. 'Abd el-Wahhab rode off on his camel and hurried to meet them, and these horsemen told Abd el Wahhab that they were looking for runaway slaves; he replied that we had seen none, and he asked them concerning the country, whether it was good or bad. They replied: "The country is good, but last night certain sons of King Amarah arrived with 200 men and we have heard that the king's son is sick and the king is looking for a physician to treat him." When 'Abd el Wahhab returned to me and reported their speech I said to him: "If you will deal kindly with me you will have a large reward from God and from me; it is not good for me to stay in this land while the sons of the king are here, [p. 753] for it is not my desire to see them; so if I have found favour in your eyes, conduct me to al-Mamah[9] which is five days' journey from this place at the end of the kingdom of Soba on the river Nile, and there the people are enemies of the king. He replied that he would do as I had bidden him; and if I desired he would accompany me to Egypt. Then I prostrated myself before the God of Heaven and Earth as I heard the words of this man. Then I travelled with that man on the edge of the desert, where there is much sand as upon mountains. I fasted three successive days until I reached the country of the king’s enemies; then I came to the river and there I found a Moslem sheykh [lit. an Ishmaelite elder], an Egyptian who was living with his wife and children in that place which is called al-Khabir.[10] This sheikh kissed my hand as he met me and said: "Come, you, blessed one of God, our Lord and son of our Lord, do me the favour of coming to my house that I may acquire a blessing. I have straw and fodder and a place for a night's lodging." So I went with this sheykh, whose name was Umman, and he welcomed me and my servant. I asked him to convey me to Egypt soon, and he replied: "The way by which you came from Lam'ul is a very good one for going to Egypt. If you travel by the river route you will be killed, even if the prophet were with you they would kill him. Therefore remain in my house at peace until we see that the way is secure and then you shall go with the travellers." Thereafter I dismissed 'Abd el [p. 754] Wahhab and he returned to his country. And when I heard the words of the sheykh, I gave 'Abd el Wahhab ten ducats and he went to his home.

... At this place there came to me five young men of the two tribes and presented me with two lion cubs, which I accepted in order to take them to Egypt.

They returned to their country, and I with my servant, remained in the sheykh's house. The worthy sheykh said to me: "Your camels are very weak and unfit to travel in this desert; it is necessary to feed them up for two or three months that they may grow fat and become capable of journeying in this desert; where there are stages of three days during which they will find no vegetation nor grazing nor any food, only water to drink wherever it is found, until you reach Girgeh, which is near Cairo on the Nile." So I asked the sheykh to advise me what I was to do concerning the journey and whether he knew of any men travelling to Egypt who would escort me, and I asked him to purchase for me good camels to convey me in this desert. The sheykh did according to my request and I bought from him a good nāqā[11] for 20 ducats; he also bought for me two strong camels for 70 ducats, to which I further added my camels in exchange. Thereafter the people of that town and its surroundings came to me bringing gifts of wheat, barley, lambs and calves as tithes and they filled the house of the sheykh with these gifts. But I took for myself only what was wanted to feed the camels and the rest I gave to the sheikh and to the poor. Thereafter the sheykh informed me that a party of Ishmaelite merchants intended to travel by the desert route on the next day; this was on the 17th of the month of Marheshwan, and there were also others due [p. 755] to start on the first day of Kislev. I asked the sheykh to summon the leaders of the party and I told them that I wished to go to Egypt with them by way of the great desert. They replied: "We are your servants and we shall acquire merit if you travel with us; therefore settle all your affairs tonight so as to be ready tomorrow, and they advised me to carry full water-skins on the camels. I slept that night and in the morning asked the sheykh to prepare all that was necessary for me; he replied that he would do so but that he was waiting for my slave who had left the house and failed to return. They went after the slave and searched for him but could not find him, and I asked the merchants to wait until noon that I might find the slave. But when noon had come and the slave had not returned I gave them permission to depart and they went their way. I stayed on with the sheykh for many days and never left the house, even when kings and notables came to visit me I did not stir from my place. Some time after the merchants had left Al Khabir I asked the sheykh to go with me to King Muhammad[12], and leaving my old servant and all my baggage in the house we went to that king. We found him attended by many servants and he was drinking date wine and eating lamb's flesh without bread. He rejoiced at my coming and said: "This day is blessed because of the coming of our Lord the son of our Lord the prophet, I desire you to stay in my house, and if you agree, great honour shall be done to you". I replied: "May he bless you whose name is blessed. I pray for you and I give you absolution and forgiveness of all your sins; now I ask of you today to send people to search for my runaway slave, for I know that he is in your kingdom, and God will reward you for this kindness that [p. 756] you do to me." The king replied that he himself would go forth with all hie commanders to look for the slave, and he sent all his attendants throughout the city and outside of it, mounted on camels, all hastening to search for the slave. I returned to the house of the sheykh and spent the day in prayer until the evening. Then the king brought the fugitive and said: "Because of my love for you, do not beat the slave this time." After the king had gone, I put irons on the man's neck and feet. And after I had rested seven days in the sheykh's house certain men arrived, naked and wounded from head to foot; they belonged to the party of merchants who had started on the 17th Marheshwan, and they related that after they had travelled three days they were attacked on the fourth day by a large party of "men of blood", who did great slaughter and carried off all the camels and other booty and the slaves, nor did they know who besides them remained alive of the party. After two days two other men arrived, and three more in the evening and every day still more, all members of that party and all stripped naked. So I gave them clothes to cover their nakedness and gifts amounting in value to 50 ducats.

Thus I remained in the sheykh's house and these despoiled people attended me and ate at my table until the 14th day of the month of Kislev; then I set forth with my slave and accompanied by many people I travelled in the great desert. All the time I fasted and prayed to God in my resting and my setting forth and my travelling, and I imposed on myself a vow neither to eat nor to drink except at intervals of three days and nights and not to eat between watering-places; for in this desert the nearest distance between watering-places is three days' journey and sometimes it is a Journey of four to five days and nights; we drank only the water carried on the [p. 757] camels until we reached the Rīf at the town of Girgeh after 45 days; we had with us a man acquainted with the way who guided us through the desert like a pilot on the sea, leading the way in the desert by a star at night, and by his knowledge during the day, for this desert resembles the ocean. This guide asked me to stay in his house until he would find me means to travel to Cairo; his name was Shalom in Hebrew and Salām in Arabic, and his house was at the end of the town a mile distance.

I went there and he gave me lodging and a bed and one of his servants to attend to my needs and those of my servants. This place was on the river Nile. I stayed with this man for twenty days and I sold my camels for 100 pieces of gold; then I embarked on a small boat and travelled down the Nile until I reached the gates of Cairo. There I was delayed by Moslem Turks, who searched all my belongings and my chests, in order to take customs dues [lit. a tithe] and they charged me twenty florins on account of the slaves, for no one is allowed to enter the gates of Cairo with Kushite slaves unless he pay a duty of 20 florins for each.

When the Turks saw my two lion cubs they coveted them as a gift, saying that they would exempt me from customs and the duty on slaves, and other expenses. So I gave them the two cubs to save further expense and they paid me great respect; for they were greatly pleased and said they intended to send the lion cubs to the Turkish king.

Thereafter I entered Cairo on the first day of the month of Adar in the year 528 [= 1523 A.D.] at the setting of the sun. (Hillelson, p. 55 ss.).

  1. "Whatever view may be taken of David's [Reubeni's] character and of his truthfulness in the matter of his political mission, the value and interest of his references to Sennar and Nubia ar obvious, and it cannot be doubted that they are based on first-hand knowledge. Wherever names and other details can be recognized and checked they are surprisingly accurate, and in 1523 such information was not obtainable from books. We may therefore regard it as a fact that this adventurous traveller visited the places he mentions, and verisimilitude is added to the story by the appropriateness of his disguise as a Meccan sherif, a title which could not fail to secure protection and honour in the newly Islamized kingdom of Sennar. In the following translation of the early chapters of the "diary" certain longueurs have been abbreviated, [p. 746] but the passages of historical and geographical interest are given in full. Both the Hebrew text and Biberfeld's translation have been consulted." (S. Hillelson)
  2. Reubeni made use of Biblical names. Asha (Asa) has not been identified. Biberfeld suggested today's Massawa as a possible identification, but Hillelson regards it as far from likely. 'Awān [an Ancient port between Massawa and Assab] might be also suggested.
  3. [cf. n. 2]
  4. Summary of the following text: "After ten months' stay with king 'Amarah, David's departure was hastened by the arrival of a third "Meccan Sherif", who at first proposed to enter into partnership with David and Abū Kāmil for the purpose of exploiting the credulity of the king and sharing in the gifts. He pretended to possess a book brought "from the house of the Prophet" and supposed to possess great religious virtue, which he intended to present to the king, and both David and Abū Kāmil certified to the authenticity of the book and of the sherif. The latter, nevertheless, for reasons not revealed to us, denounced David as an impostor and a Jew. The king appears to have accepted David's denial and David found an advocate in the queen. Nevertheless, he now resolved to leave the court, and obtained from the king two horses, and a guide to take him to "Obadiah, the officer in charge of the king's treasure", with instruction that the latter should send him on to "Abū Kāmil". There is some confusion in this part of the narrative due either to the imperfect transmission of the text, or to Daid's lack of skill in telling a story. The Hebrew name Obadiah is obviously out of place, and it may be be fanciful to see in it a corruption of 'Abdullah (Jammā'), chief vassal and wazīr (vizier) of 'Amara Dunqas. "Abū Kāmil" is now supposed to reside at Soba, although we have never been told that he had left the court.
  5. According to Arkell, "Lam'ul" should be located somewhere 50 miles south of Sennar [Editor's note].
  6. David saw a dream of his father warning him to leave immediately
  7. Not identified
  8. Reubeni requested by king Amara's messengers to stay until the presents sent by the king will arrive, hurried instead, to leave the country.
  9. Possibly al-Māmā [?] near the norther frontier of the Funj kingdom. - For this place name: cf. Burckhardt, Travels, p. 70: "To the east of Ferke and Zergamotto (Sarkamotto), is a high mountain called Gebel Māmā, at the foot of which are the tumuli or barrows before mentioned. This may be said to form the extremity of Batn al-Aadjan on the east side."
  10. Probably "al-Hafīr" a watering place some fifty miles S-W of modern Dongola.
  11. She-camel
  12. Very probably a Nubian king in the Batn al-Hagar region. [Editor's note].