The Sons of Maimon 1: Exile

Maimonides Statue

New series, new episode! Today we start in Spain, or more accurately Al-Andalus, with the story of Moses, who you'll likely know as Maimonides, and his little brother David. We'll follow the sons of Maimon ben Joseph as they make their way south to the Maghreb and then east, on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and then to their eventual home in Egypt. There, one would find great success and the other death. This is the first of a two (or possibly three?) part series on the family and their world, with the next episode focusing on Egypt, international trade, and David's last voyage.

Many thanks and happy listening!



  • The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela, translated by Marcus Nathan Adler. Philipp Feldheim, inc.

  • Judaism in Practice: From the Middle Ages Through the Early Modern Period, edited by Lawrence Fine. Princeton University Press, 2001.

  • Davidson, Herbert, A. Moses Maimonides: The Man and His Works. Oxford University Press, 2004.

  • Fromherz, Allen J. The Almohads: The Rise of an Islamic Empire. I.B. Tuaris, 2012.

  • Jacobs, Martin. Reorienting the East: Jewish Travelers to the Medieval Muslim World. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.

  • Kennedy, Hugh. Muslim Spain and Portugal: A Political History of al-Andalus. Routledge, 2014.

  • Kraemer, Joel L. Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization's Greatest Minds. Doubleday, 2010.


In January of 1185, a letter written in Hebrew made its way northeast from Egypt. The letter was bound for the home of a man living in the city of Acre, then part of the Kingdom of the Jerusalem, to that of someone named Japheth ben Elijah. Now that name probably won’t ring any bells for you, and even though he’s lengthily addressed as “the esteemed, great and revered teacher and master, Japheth, the wise and astute sage and discerning judge, son of the esteemed, great and revered teacher and master, Elijah, the pious judge,” there’s no reason that it should really, no reason perhaps for you to take note of the letter at all, except that the writer was a different matter. The writer’s name was Moses Ben Maimon, but you’re more likely to know him as Maimonides, the renowned philosopher, astronomer, physician, scientist, theologian, and Torah scholar in exile, a giant among medieval Jewish scholars, a giant among any given set of scholars really.

The cause of Moses’ letter to Japheth was not exactly a happy one. To start with, it was spurred on by irritation. Moses and his family had once been Japheth’s guests, and after they’d left him, their host had been first surprised and then later dismayed not to hear from them. Eventually, he’d even been surprised and dismayed enough to write to them protesting this rudeness on their part. But Moses, far from contrite, had been deeply annoyed at not having received a letter himself. He’d had a very testing time of it since they’d last met; he’d heard from well-wishers from far and wide, but nothing at all from this recent host, nothing until that letter of complaint. So it was that with some irritation, in 1185 Moses replied to Japheth’s accusations, laying out the situation as he saw it.

“... a few months after we departed, my father and master died. Letters of condolence arrived from the furthest west and from the land of Edom, a distance of several months, yet you disregarded this.

Furthermore, I suffered many well-known calamities in Egypt, including sickness, financial loss and the attempt by informers to have me killed.

The worst disaster that struck me later, worse than anything I had ever experienced from the time I was born until this day, was the demise of that upright man, may the memory of the righteous be a blessing, who drowned in the Indian Ocean while in possession of much money belonging to me, to him and to others, leaving a young daughter and his widow in my care.

For about a year from the day the evil tidings reached me, I remained prostrate in bed with a severe inflammation, fever and mental confusion, and well nigh perished.

From then until this day, that is about eight years, I have been in a state of disconsolate mourning. How can I be consoled? For he was my son; he grew up upon my knees; he was my brother, my pupil.”

And the letter continues. It describes the loss in more detail and it confronts Japheth as to his thoughtlessness. How was it that the four of them - Moses, his brother, his father, and Japheth - had “walked together in God’s house in fear and trepidation,” yet when two of those four were now dead, there was no consoling correspondence from Japheth? 

But the focus of these two episodes is not how hurt, how angered, Moses was by this exchange. In part, it’s one of the losses he mentioned, that “upright man … who drowned in the Indian Ocean.” It’s about his brother, David.

Hello, and welcome. I’m Devon, and this is Human Circus: Journeys in the Medieval World, the history podcast where I, your guide, follow the stories of medieval travellers and the larger histories around them. And this is the part in the show where I gently remind you that yes, I am indeed on Patreon, and that if you’re enjoying the podcast and would like to support its continued good health, and mine, you can find me there at or by way of my website at And I’d like to thank everyone who has supported me, whether on Patreon, through Kofi, or the pre-Christmas Kickstarter . I know that being alive is a costly business, and there are a lot of great projects to choose to put your money behind, podcasts and otherwise, so it means a lot to me that you’ve chosen mine. In particular, my thanks go out this episode to Brittney and to Ole, my newest Patreon members.

Now, let’s get to the story, that of a less famous sibling, a younger brother, a merchant, and, of course, a traveller: David Ben Maimon.

And I can hear you asking, from the near future and wherever this finds you, why? Why David? Why focus all that time and energy on this relative failure of a sibling? Why not just talk about Moses himself, one of the greatest figures of the period.

In part, this will actually be about Moses. It’s unavoidable really, simply because the sources on David’s life are so very, very less than abundant. But as you’ll see, more in the next episode than this, David also had his own particular story arch, one that involved him in the world of trade in the Mediterranean, North Africa, and India. His somewhat tragic story took him places that his more important brother’s did not. 

This first episode will cover the back story, the beginnings, the move from Spain and the set up for the family’s life in Egypt; the second will be about Egypt, will be about trade, about the India trade, and about David’s own little part in all of that. For now, let’s begin in al-Andalus. That’s where we’ll find the highly respected judge and scholar Maimon ben Joseph and his sons Moses and David, in Córdoba, the jewel of the world. 

There, the city fattened on the inheritance of a favourable climate, the fertile Guadalquivir valley, the river that brought goods from the sea and from Seville and by which silks, jewelry, and leather returned. In the words of Al-Maqqari, that river:

“ gliding slowly through level lawns, or winding softly across emerald fields sprinkled with flowers, and serving it instead of robes; now flowing through thickly planted groves, where the song of birds resounds perpetually in the air; and now widening into a majestic stream to impart its waters to the numerous wheels constructed on its banks, or communicating to the plants and flowers of the vicinity freshness and vigour.”

There were olives and grapes, oranges, almonds, lemons, thyme, melons, figs, peaches, pears, quinces, and palm trees, so many introductions from elsewhere that shaped the landscape. There were written words in abundance, enough to make it one of the cultural capitals of the world and produce both those oft-cited tens of thousands of books and an incredibly important center of translation. And Moses and David’s family would have been there in the southwest corner of the city, close to the river, the Great Mosque, and the palace, in the Jewish Quarter with its crowded, narrow, paved streets, each lit at night by lamps that hung at the doorways and corners of its white-walled houses. 

The family felt the effects of regime change in Al-Andalus. And I should maybe pause here to quickly get us all on the same page where that Al-Andalus, or Islamicate Spain and Portugal, had been concerned, to take us back in time to the year 711. That was the year an Umayyad governor had crossed from North Africa and invaded the post-Roman Visigothic Iberian Peninsula. The conquered portion had remained Umayyad even as the Umayyad Caliphate itself had been overthrown back in Syria by the Abbasids in the mid-8th century. As the remaining Umayyads had been hunted down and finished off, a young prince had escaped and fled west. He had survived an epic journey, had needed to leave behind his wife and child, had watched as his brother was killed, and had completed that journey to lay claim to what he viewed as his: now the Umayyad Emirate of Cordoba.

By the mid-10th century that Umayyad Emirate had again been declared the Umayyad Caliphate though now centred in Al-Andalus, in Cordoba, not in Damascus. As such it was proclaimed a rival in Islamic supremacy to the Abbasids and Fatimids, and it would take possession of ports in North Africa, challenging the Fatimids not just theologically but also militarily. But it would not last like those other caliphates would. With the untimely death of the caliph while the heir was still not of age, it would disintegrate, devolving to increasingly independent rulers, to what are known as the taifas, the Taifa of Cordoba being but one of them, a diminished if still wealthy and powerful one. 

So as I said, this was no longer the land of the Umayyads, no longer that of the independent Taifa of Cordoba that had remained after Umayyad rule had collapsed, no longer even that of the Almoravids, the Berbers who had come across from the Maghreb to counter the advances of of the Christian kingdoms against the contentious taifas and then stayed. This was during the time of the Almohads, another Berber dynasty, though one of quite different origins, and one whose vision of society left little space for the kind of religious tolerance that is often associated with Cordoba in its time of glory.

And I should mention here in speaking of these last two powers, these rival Berber groups, Almoravids and Almohads, that these are not minor tribal squabbles we’re talking about here. Nothing of the sort, these are empires, first one then the other stretching from what is now central Spain south to the western Sahara and east to Libya. 

The Almohads, a Hispanization of Muwahhidun, or those affirming the unity of God, had coalesced around the founding figure of Ibn Tumart, a puritanical religious reformer and self-proclaimed Mahdi and descendent of Muhammad from what is now southern Morocco and a man who had risen to challenge the Almoravids, first as trouble-making preacher then as leader of a movement. That movement had survived his death and early military defeats as well as a grinding decade of deadlock in which the Almoravids could not pry them out of the mountains, but they in turn did not have the strength to assault the Almoravid cities on the plain. Finally, under Ibn Tumart’s successor, ‘Abd al-Mu’min, a lengthy campaign would bring them to Fes, Salé, and, in March of 1147, the capital, Marrakesh.

In 1147, Lisbon fell too, not to ‘Abd al-Mu’min but to Alfonso Henriques, first King of Portugal, and a mixed bag of northern crusaders. And the loss of the city was indicative of broader pressures that the emirs of Al-Andalus were feeling in the absence of a strong Almoravid power, pressures enough for some rulers to even invite another intervention from the Maghreb. However, when the Almohads came to Al-Andalus it was not, with few exceptions, as a peaceful occupation. It was a conquest, and by 1148 it was one secured Seville and Cordoba. That was where our main characters’ family lived. And as I said, they felt the difference.

Spain under Muslim rule had long been home to an enormous Jewish population that had enjoyed what is sometimes called, some have said misleadingly so, a “Golden Age” of convivencia, or coexistence. Though there were ups-and-downs and eruptions of violence, they enjoyed the relatively safe status of ahl al-dhimma, the protected people of the book. There was as such a tax to be paid, but that was, again relatively speaking, a small price to be able to openly practice one’s religion. And I do want to caution against taking this for some kind of idyllic paradise of inter-religious cooperation. Many Jews would rise to positions of influence and power. Many would do very well; there were recognizable high points of achievement and cooperation. They were not entirely equal though. Jews were vulnerable members of society. But they were able to participate fairly fully, openly, and successfully in society. Under the Almoravids and to a greater extent the Almohads, that changed.

Not happy to allow practitioners of other religions in their lands - actually also rather prone to killings of their own coreligionists where they disagreed - the Almohads brought in the options of forced conversion or death, and there are stories of the martyrdom of those who chose the latter. But even the former, now supposed fellow-Muslims, were not trusted on an equal footing. Some would achieve positions of power and influence, in business and at court, but by the 1184 rule of al-Mansur, converts were going to be required to wear outward signs of their religious history. They were distrusted as potential impurities in the body of believers. 

Other Jews, people whose families had for many generations called Al-Andalus home, fled, from Almohad Spain’s three great cities of Seville, Grenada, and Cordoba, and from elsewhere in their territory. They made for Christian Spain or the south of France, or for North Africa. But they missed their home, its cultural sophistication, and, at least in the case of philosopher Abraham Ibn Ezra who left Al-Andalus for Italy, France, and eventually also England, its fine-floured white bread which was to his taste unmatched anywhere else.

The Almohads did not usher in an age that was bereft of written culture - far from it, you found figures like Ibn Rushd and Ibn Tufayl at the court in Marrakesh - but they caused a great many Jewish and Christian scholars to flee from Islamic Spain, spreading science and philosophy from Arabic and Greek with them and strengthening Toledo as a center of translation as they did so. The forceful arrival of Almohads and their policies scattered people across Europe and the Mediterranean, and among the displaced was the family of the brothers Maimon. And after this quick break, we’ll be following them.


The family left Cordoba some time after the Almohad invasion, Moses maybe ten years old, likely lived for a while in Seville and perhaps also in the north of Spain, for years, maybe a decade. It’s really hard to be certain. But by 1160, Moses now a well educated man of 21, they had moved to Fez in present-day Morocco. Another country now and across a stretch of water, not within Europe, it was then not so much of a departure, still part of the Almohad world and closer to its traditional center. So why then, why there? It’s sometimes said that they went so that Moses might study there with a renowned judge, a man named Judah ha-Kohen ibn Shoshan, but others, including Joel L. Kraemer, whose book I’m using quite a bit here, have argued that this understanding is based on later, untrustworthy sources. 

When the family left Al-Andalus and made for Fez, rather than to Christian Spain, they may have been moved by ties of kinship, friendship, or business to those already there. But another factor in their decision could have been that religious oppression was not evenly distributed throughout the empire, that they may have heard from some of the many Andalusians who now called Fez home that the Almohad ruler, still then ‘Abd al-Mu’min, had grown more religiously tolerant in his administration. In the later part of his reign, Christians and Jews were again allowed to participate in the Almohad Maghreb’s economy, in importing commodities for example.

It is a little hard to get a grip on exactly how bad the situation was for Jews in Almohad North Africa at the time, and most current historians seem very cautious in their treatment of it. If we look to the sources, they seem clear enough. Abraham Ibn Daud wrote of the Berbers “having wiped out every remnant of Jews from Tangiers to al-Mahdiyya,” and of “years of war, evil decrees and persecutions.” Joseph Ibn Aqnin described Jews being barred from owning slaves and from trading, forced to wear visually distinctive clothes, and even having their children taken away to be raised by others. There are reports of forced conversions, of choices given of Islam, exile, or death. And things were said to only get worse with the next Almohad ruler.

Yet for all of this, you still found Jewish communities in the Maghreb and Jewish judges where the Jewish community was said to have been wiped out. In Fez, where 100,000 people were said to have been killed in the taking of the city, and its Jewish community entirely destroyed, soon after you find complaints about the wealth of the Jewish merchants in and around Fez. And that’s where they went, and where they stayed for some years, where they studied, wrote, and practiced.

They emigrated when David was likely in his teens and Moses in his early twenties, their father Maimon about 60. Of their three sisters very little is known, their very existence known to us through mentions in written correspondence, their number the product of some speculation. Of their mother, there’s even less; some sources have her having died in childbirth, but there seems to be little actual evidence for this beyond an absence of information.  

They made their way across the Strait of Gibraltar and then by land to a city sitting on the trade routes that linked sub-Saharan Africa with the Mediterranean and east with west along the Maghreb, to a city still showing signs of having been violently taken by the Almohads, its castle and walls thrown down. Fez was not the final destination for Moses and David, their sisters, father, and, perhaps, mother, but it would be home for them for a while

The picture of what exactly they did in Fez is not entirely clear. Moses continued his studies of astronomy, medicine, and Rabbinic literature and his writings on the Talmud, but the element of their life there that has received by far the most attention is that of conversion, or rather the questions around it. There are various stories which later circulated as to Moses having converted to Islam if only in deed, that he lived publicly as a Muslim while privately continuing his religious practices. Having later returned to living openly as a Jew, he was confronted with abandoning Islam, a serious charge, and he was forced to defend himself. From there, the story plays out with some variations as to ending. 

One sees Moses hiring an assassin to lure his accuser down to the Nile, club him from behind, and let his body tumble down into the waters. Another has him cleverly securing a predated contract to a house in Damascus so that he could later falsely establish his presence in that city years before his eventual accuser would say that they’d travelled together from the Maghreb.

If these details sound unlikely the basic premise is less-so, and feigned conversion, though unproven, is far from beyond the realm of possibility. The option of dissimulation was one that many took rather than death or exile, and indeed it was an option that both Moses and his father supported in their writing from Fez.

This is from Maimon Ben Joseph’s Epistle of Consolation:

"We who are in exile can be compared to a man who is drowning. The water has reached our nostrils but we still grasp hold of something … and as the water threatens to engulf us, behold, a rope consisting of God's precepts and His Torah dangles from heaven to earth. Whoever seizes hold of it still has hope of living … and surely he who holds on even only with the tips of his fingers has more hope than he who lets go completely."

Maimon wrote of Psalm 90, “I considered the Psalm and its secret was made clear to me, that Moses uttered it for time of exile, and David put it in the Book of Psalms as a source of comfort and consolation.” And then, “Moses prayed that God would still the waves of the seas that surround us, for the nations among whom we are dispersed encompass us about.” 

In his epistle, Maimon consoled a friend and also a community. He counseled against despair, urging his coreligionists not to give in to death or to true conversion, but to practice as Jews in secret, to observe the laws so far as they could, to not be “deceived by this unstable world,” and to understand that they were indeed still Jews.”

His son, Maimonides, or Moses, took on a similar theme, clearly a pressing issue to be struggled with, and one which Moses wrote on in the years before 1165, and in his own Epistle on Forced Conversion.  

Moses was responding to a particular exchange where a scholar had asked, quote, “whether one should profess the shahada [the Muslim declaration of belief] to avoid being slain and having one’s orphaned children become Muslim, or whether one should refuse to recite and be slain, as the Torah requires, since uttering the shahada leads to abandoning all the commandments.” And to this another scholar had responded that, quote, “Whoever attests the mission of Muhammad thereby renounces the Lord God of Israel. One should rather be killed than profess the shahada, even if remaining alive would prevent one’s children from becoming Muslims.”

This was the conversation Moses entered, rejecting what he saw as rambling foolishness on the part of the respondent and an unfamiliarity with the suffering which so many others had experienced. Perhaps writing as one who had himself denied his own religion in public, perhaps only sympathetic to the situations of those who had, Moses argued for a separation of deeds done willingly and those under constraint. He wrote that besides, “Belief is not the notion that is uttered, but the notion that is represented in the soul...” Private belief, the privacy of the home or the head or heart, was, he said, more important than that spoken aloud in fear for life or family, and those who declared publicly but unwillingly for Islam were still Jews, not apostates.

He also said that when one was caught in such a situation, one should emigrate, and after a time, that’s exactly what he and his family did. They sailed from Morocco, perhaps from Ceuta, and arrived in the city of Acre in 1165. This, in what are said to be his words - in translation, was the crossing:

On Saturday night, [April 18th], I set sail. And on the Sabbath, [April 24], in the year [1165 C.E.], a great wave almost inundated us, the sea being very stormy. I took a vow that I would fast for these two days [every year] and observe them as a regular public fast, I and all my family and household. I shall command my descendents to do so until their last generation and to give charity according to their means. I vowed that i would remain in solitude on [April 24th every year] without seeing anyone, but rather worshipping and studying all day in privacy. Just as I found at sea that day only [the presence of] the Holy One, blessed be he, so I shall not see any person or sit with anyone [on that day] unless I am compelled to do so.

On the even of Sunday, [May 16th], I disembarked safely in Acre, and thus I [escaped persecution]. And so we arrived in the land of Israel. I took an oath that this day would be one of rejoicing and celebration and of giving gifts to the poor, I and my family, until the last generation.”

Moses had clearly felt the danger when at sea, enough to commit not only himself but also his descendants, down to the very last one, to doing something about it. And fair enough I suppose. It was after all, their lives too that were on the line and in need of preservation from the violence of the waters.

The voyage was never going to be pleasant one. Ships were crowded and uncomfortable. They were prey to gales and corsairs further out, and land-based attackers when in tight to the coast. Travellers brought with them food, bedding, equipment, and saddles for mounts on the other side. They might bring merchandise to trade along the way, at ports where the ship stopped to take on supplies or at their destination, in this case a substantial centre of trade.

The city that the family had safely reached was the heavily fortified Acre of the first Kingdom of Jerusalem. So it had been since it was captured by soldiers of the First Crusade under the command of King Baldwin of Jerusalem in 1104, and so it would be for just a few decades longer, until it was captured by the Ayyubid Sultan Salah ad-Din, or Saladin, in 1187. In the eyes of the well-travelled Ibn Jubayr, Acre, “may God destroy it,” “[stank] and [was] filthy, being full of refuse and excrement.” The poet Yehuda al-Harizi saw “a city of dolts and God’s wretchedest acre.” Benjamin of Tudela mentioned there a small Jewish population, led by three rabbis. 

The military orders had their own quarters in the city, the Templars and Hospitallers, and the Italian city-states of Venice, Pisa, and Genoa did too, each complete with warehouse spaces, markets, inns, and residences. In the words of Ali al-Harawi, merchants were “the providers of everything useful and the scouts of the world.” And in Acre, merchants came as Muslims, Christians, and Jews, from across North Africa, France, Italy, the Byzantine Empire, and from as far east as India. And pilgrims too, found in the port city a convenient point of arrival from which to reach Jerusalem. 

As for Moses, David, their father, and perhaps their some or all of their sisters and mother - it’s not at all clear where they were at this point, though one sister at least seems to have remained behind - perhaps they were bringing goods with them to trade and to help cover the costs of their crossing, and they may have had a similar experience to that which Ibn Jubayr described.


“We were taken to the customs house, which is … prepared to accommodate the caravan. Before the door are stone benches, spread with carpets, where are the Christian clerks of the Customs with their ebony inkstands ornamented with gold. They write Arabic, which they also speak. Their chief is the Sahib al-Diwan [or chief of customs], who holds the contract to farm the customs. … All the dues collected go to the contractor for the customs, who pays a vast sum [to the government]. The merchants deposited their baggage there and lodged in the upper story. The baggage of any who had no merchandise was also examined in case it contained concealed merchandise, after which the owner was permitted to go his way and seek lodging where he could. All this was done with civility and respect, and without harshness and unfairness. We lodged beside the sea in a house rented from a Christian woman, and prayed to God Most High to save us from all dangers and help us to security.”

We know that Moses, David, and their father didn’t stay with that same Christian woman. They stayed with Japheth ben Eli, Moses’ correspondent in the letter I opened this episode with, but the other elements of Ibn Jubayr’s experience in Acre were likely very similar to their own. After this short break, we’ll see where they went next.


It’s possible that after Acre, the family travelled on to Tyre, though if they did it was not for long. It was by Benjamin of Tudela’s reckoning a beautiful city and one that was home to excellent sugar and to a relatively sizeable Jewish community which included shipowners and artisans producing the fine Tyrian glassware. It was also a city where you could stand upon the walls and look down at the ancient Tyre below the waves, tracing in outlines its palaces and its streets. Next, for our travellers, it was on to Jerusalem. 

In coming to Jerusalem, Benjamin of Tudela, who will by the way very likely be getting his own episode or series at some point here, described a small, fortified city that was, quote, “full of people whom the [Muslims] call[ed] Jacobites, Syrians, Greeks, Georgians and Franks, and of people of all tongues.” Of Jews there were but few. And based on Benjamin’s records, this was generally true of the entire area, but in Jerusalem it was as few as four. Living by the Tower of David, they paid an annual rent to the king for a dyeing house and exclusive rights to the business, an undesirable business that few would have wanted and also the work Benjamin found Jews doing in Bethlehem.

Jerusalem was not friendly to Jews at the time, and that had been the case for the 65 odd years that it had been in the possession of the crusaders, from the very birth of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. At the taking of the city in July of 1099 from its Fatimid governor, there had been a massacre of its Muslim and Jewish defenders and citizens, with chronicles reporting the invaders up to their ankles in blood, their knees, and horrifying scenes of synagogues set alight with all inside and with no survivors. Now, there were some survivors, some taken captive and then later ransomed, but Jews had not been welcome to live in the city after that. However, they were still able to visit. They still arrived as merchants or as pilgrims, and if anything, more of the latter came from Latin Christian regions as the trip became easier and more commonplace.      

The family went to Jerusalem in the company of Japheth ben Eli. He had been their host in Acre, and now, in the words of that letter, they “wander[ed] together in wastelands and forests after the Lord… .” They “walked together in God’s house in fear and trepidation.” And this was not entirely either rhetorical flourish or appropriate awe in religious spaces. There was real danger in going there, the threat of brigands who hunted on the paths taken by pilgrims and the hostilities between the crusader kingdoms, the Seljuks, and the Fatimids, though that dynasty was nearing its end. But our travellers, who likely joined a larger group for safety, would not succumb to these dangers. They’d arrive safely at their destination.

It was a custom first to gaze upon Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, and maybe that’s what the family, Japheth, and any who were with them did. Maybe they descended into the Valley of Jehoshaphat, and, if so, we can follow the directions of Joel L. Kraemer from there. They would have, quote, “entered the city by the Gate of Jehoshaphat, to Jehoshaphat Street, running east to west. He and his group would then have turned onto Spanish Street, past the Street of the Holy Sepulcher, to the Street of the Furriers, to Temple Street and then across the bridge to the Temple Mount,” and to the Western Wall. 

A century after our travellers made their way from Acre to Jerusalem, a similar pilgrimage was made by Spanish-born scholar Moses ben Nachman, also known as Nachmanides which I’ll use here to avoid confusion with our main Moses. Nachmanides would make his pilgrimage to Mamluk Jerusalem and Mamluk lands, and writing to his son back in Spain, he told of desolation. “As a rule,” he wrote, “the more sacred a site is than another one, the more ruined it is. Jerusalem is more ruined than the rest [of the country] and Judah more than Galilee.”

Nachmanides was writing of cities torn into by Mamluks, Mongols, and crusaders, but of ruins, he was not only speaking in terms of physical devastation. And on this topic I’m going to read straight from Martin Jacobs here, from his book Reorienting the East: Jewish Travelers to the Medieval Muslim World. 


“Though medieval Jerusalem might have contained numerous ruins, the frequent references in Jewish travel literature to its ‘desolate’ state should not be taken at face value; nor is it to be confused with the nineteenth century stereotype of the Orient as a region in decay. Rooted in collective memory and reinforced by ritual, Jewish travellers continued to define the extant city - whether under Christian or Muslim domain - as “destroyed,” and it was only to be rebuilt in messianic times. This generic convention to have shaped both the Jewish pilgrims’ experience and their representation of the Holy City. As a result, the real and the envisioned Jerusalem were not only intertwined; the reality was hardly visible beneath the layers of religious imagination.”

This gets back to something I’ve talked about a little in earlier series, that this was a land alive with religious history, with saints, miracles, and the imminence of biblical events. For Jewish pilgrims, it was something else, a kind of perpetually open wound that awaited redemption. And so Nachmanides walked into Jerusalem, and at the appropriate places he paused, tore at his clothes with sadness, and he spoke words of scripture: “Zion has become a desert, Jerusalem a desolation,” “Our Holy House, our pride, where our fathers praised You, has been consumed by fire, and all that was dear to us is ruined, “O God, heathens have entered Your inheritance [they have defiled Your holy Temple and turned Jerusalem into Ruins].” 

We don’t have an immediate picture of Moses and David’s group in Jerusalem, of their movements, their actions, their response to being in this place, but Moses would later write something in the Mishneh Torah that gives us some idea and is, like that of Nachmanides, a vision of destruction. Quote:

“Even though the Sanctuary today is in ruins because of our iniquities, we are obliged to revere it in the same manner as when it was standing. One should not enter save where it was permissible; nor should anyone sit down in the [site of] the Court or act irreverently while facing the East Gate; for it is said: You shall keep my Sabbaths, and reverence my sanctuary. Now just as we are obliged to keep the Sabbath for all time to come, so must we revere the Sanctuary for all time to come; for even though it is in ruins its sanctity endures.”

And Moses would also describe the way one should behave when visiting the holy sites of the Holy Land, a ritual of mourning that was again like that of Nachmanides and of other Jews coming to look upon the holy sites. This is what he would say:

“A person who beholds the ruined cities of Judea should say, Your holy cities have become a wilderness, and should rend his garment. If he beholds the ruins of Jerusalem, he should say, Jerusalem a desolation and likewise rend his garment. If he beholds the ruins of the Temple, he should say, Our holy Temple, our pride, where our fathers praised you, has been consumed by fire, and again rend his garment.”

It’s an interesting formulation, such a very precise formulation where we might often imagine that tearing at your own clothes would be an entirely emotional outburst, not a premeditated ritual. And it continues, with Moses saying exactly how one must rip the cloth, while standing and by hand, and how one tear every garment until one’s “heart is laid bare.” As with other rituals of mourning, this one was no less deeply felt for its rigour.   

Unlike Nachmanides, who settled in Acre for the final years of his life, the family of David and Moses did not choose to remain and live in the region, but they did south to Hebron, to the Cave of the Patriarchs, where the occupying crusaders had driven out both Muslims and Jews, converting mosque to church and synagogue to monastery, and where they kissed the tombs of the patriarchs and they prayed. 

Unlike Nachmanides, the family did not consider staying and settling to be an absolute obligation. They returned briefly to Acre, perhaps again staying with Japheth, and then they left, again by boat. This time, they made for Egypt, home to a substantial Jewish population and an important centre for Mediterranean trade. For the family, it would bring great success and a lasting home, but not all the news would be happy. Maimon would soon be dead, and for Moses the move would bring danger and for David death, arguably a consequence of that very success.

But that’s where we’ll leave things for today. Next episode, I’ll be back with the life of the family in Egypt, that web of trade issuing out in all directions, and the sad story of David ben Maimon.