Ring o’ roses: Genoa, Constantinople and Pera

continuing the series..

Pera/Galata, Constantinople

Around the middle of the fifth century AD, Theodosius II had ordered Constantinople’s Jewish community to move to Pera, north across the Golden Horn.[1]

Re-settled there, the Constantinopolitan Jews  continued to work and trade for another seven centuries until their quarter  on the eastern side of the fort was  ravaged by Latin crusaders in 1204.

Half a century earlier, in 1160, Genoa had finally accepted Manuel I Komnenos’ offer of a commercial quarter on the city’s northern shore. Their quarter lay unprotected by the landwalls but was adjacent to those already allotted other Latins:  of Amalfi, Pisa and Venice. (click to enlarge)

For a couple of generations, then, the Latins’ quarters and the Jews’ lay opposite one another.

Within a year or so of the Genoese’ arrival, Benjamin of Tudela would visit and record our most detailed account of the Jews’ life in Pera.[2]

Benjamin  says they lived nowhere else in Constantinople and numbered two thousand Rabbinites and five hundred Karaites – which would have made a tenth of the city’s population at that time. He says further that they were merchants, traders and producers of silk fabrics, who had to cross the Horn  sell their goods in the city’s markets (fora). [3]

Despite constant harassment from the local Greeks, some Jewish families had prospered,  and when their condition was somewhat alleviated due to the high regard in which Manuel I Komnenos held his physician, R. Solomon ha-Misri.  [4]

From the eastern side of Pera to Constantinople is no further than to Asia Minor. A modern tourist map (below) serves as illustration: Istanbul to the lower left; Galata above and Asia Minor to the right.

This adds to the probability that the itinerary which is sketched in the Voynich ‘minimap’ describes a route overland; from the north passing though Asia minor, above or through the area of the Cappadocian chimneys, to the sea-gate of Constantinople and/or Galata.

That this route was feasible is sure enough, though the number of Roman, and of Byzantine roads through Asia Minor make exact description impossible.[5]  Dana Scott was the first to suggest the route could follow the Byzantine administrative boundaries, which the Greeks called dioceses.[6]

Within the city of Genoa, commercial archives date from  1154, the year before Manuel I Komnenos offered the Genoese their first quarter, fronting the Neophorian harbour.

From that time and for the following few years we find commercial partnerships notarised between resident Genoese and Jews who had come  from regions that were, or which had been, under Byzantine rule.  The pattern revealed by these documents shows that the Jewish partner engaged with one or two Genoese; the latter provide  loans at high interest, for the purchase of eastern goods in Alexandria and their sale in Sicily, Iberia and elsewhere –  including regions where the Genoese had no presence as yet: St. Gilles, Montpellier, Pisa, Salerno, Bougia, Seville, and Sardinia.

Thereafter the Genoese partners took an equal share of the net profits.

One suspects that similar practice was observed in contemporary Constantinople, but without the Genoese practice of making the arrangement a partnership.

Greek- and Arabic- speaking Jews had been trading the same routes by  the eighth century. Before the period of Spanish rule in Sicily,  Sicilian Jews’ closest religious connection was to North Africa,[7]  while  trade into Sicily from Alexandria is attested through a Jewish network before the time of the Normans’ rule (as we saw when considering the early Sicilian-Norman herbals).

The earliest named of these Jewish traders in Genoa of that time years is Soliman of Salerno, who came to the republic while his native region was in turmoil under the Norman king William, known as ‘the Bad’.

His first venture to Alexandria, with silver provided by his two Genoese partners left him enough, even after meeting interest and expenses, to acquire  a house and land in Genoa and – now with non-Genoese partners – to purchase one-third share in a ship. He went a second time a few years later and returned just as successfully.

Another, also named Solomon though  known as Blancardo, seems to have been a solid and wealthy businessman whose attitudes and approaches to running his trading house are closely similar to those of the fourteenth merchant of Prato,  Francesco Datini.

A third is  Buongiovanni Malfigliastro, evidently the most substantial of the three, and he came direct from Constantinople: that is, from Pera. His speciality was the purchase and marketing of furs, fabrics and associated materials, such as alum.

News of what an easy means to wealth was offered by lending Byzantine Jews sea-loans, and having the advantage of their experience and established trade networks, surely  spread rapidly through the circles of Genoa’s wealthier class, and in 1160, Genoa finally accepted Manuel’s offer of the Neophorion quarter after five years’ hesitation.

It is possible that Constantinople had encouraged  Byzantine-linked Jews to engage with Genoese partners, for Manuel I had reason to want his offer accepted, and to ensure that the already-substantial sea-power of the Genoese was tied to his interests rather than those of the new regime in Sicily.

The lands which the Normans had gained in Sicily and the southern part of the peninsula had been Greek in culture  before the time of the Romans, and were still largely so, though now mingled with an Arab and Berber population. Shortly before the Voynich manuscript was made the inscription above was carved in Carpignano, a town in the far heel of the peninsula.

It was evidently expected in early Constantinople that after ending Arab rule  in Sicily that the Normans would return the lands to Byzantium but, since they were evidently not inclined to do so,  Manuel I was now about to mount a war to reclaim what he viewed as part of the Byzantine domains.

The one condition he placed on the offer to Genoa was that in return for rights to trade in Constantinople, the Genoese must pledge that if the city was in danger,  every Genoese merchant and ship in Byzantine territory would act in the city’s defence.

In 1155, the Genoese had hesitated; by 1160 they were willing.

Some memory of the Jewish community in Pera remains.  As we find in Greek documents from 1082, the Perama Gate –   nearest the ferry landing  from Pera – is still remembered as “the Jews’ gate”. [8]





Within Constantinople,  before the Voynich manuscript was made, the most opportune time for exchange of technical and commercial information to occur (if any did) between Jews and Genoese was between 1160 and  1204, and more particularly during the reign of Manuel I Komnenos (r.1143-1180).

After 1204, the Venetians were offered a quarter in Pera; the Genoese not until the Venetians had been expelled, in 1267. [9] It appears that few made the transition until after 1348 when their great tower was built.

Vesconte’s map of 1321 still has Genoa’s banner in Constantinople  -and Vesconte was Genoese.

By 1375, though, Abraham Cresques can set it in Pera, still below Constantinople’s flag.

Buondelmonte’s drawing  of 1422 shows the former Jewish quarter in Pera – to the east of the fort – and what appears to have been a dividing wall  breached between the greater and lesser sector on that side.

In the next post, I consider certain works produced in the Byzantine capitals during the reigns of Manuel I Komnenos (r. 1143-1180) and Andronicus II Palaeologus (r. Dec. 1282- May 1328). The theme of interest to us is related to the   ‘wheels’ of heaven and earth, their divisions, and a recurring association made to angelic and celestial hierarchies.

Header picture  – detail from a cartulary roll, Italian c.1305. vellum.  For more information see website ‘Manuscript Evidence.org’ here.



[1‘Theodosius…’ . It was also now that Theodosius invited  Nestorius to serve as Patriarch over the Byzantine church. It was while he held that position in Constantinople that Nestorius became embroiled in a theological conflict which saw him leave under a charge of heresy.  His name was later used to refer to the Church of the East – otherwise known as the Persian church.

[2] Marcus Nathan Adler (ed. trans. and commentary), The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela (1907).  Still the standard text. Available through internet archive here. . Whether ‘Tudela’ is Toledo has been disputed, but it was certainly in Christian Iberia.

[3] ibid. Benjamin speaks of the markets, saying:

All sorts of merchants come here from the land of Babylon, from the land of Shinar, from Persia, Media, and all the sovereignty of the land of Egypt, from the land of Canaan, and the empire of Russia, from Hungaria, Patzinakia, Khazaria, and the land of Lombardy and Sepharad. It is a busy city, and merchants come to it from every country by sea or land, and there is none like it in the world except Bagdad, the great city of Islam.  (p.20 of the original; p.12 in Adler’s translation, Adler glosses the proper nouns).

[4] ‘… ha-Misri’. Adler has ‘Hamitsri’.    It is interesting to wonder whether the Anicia Juliana Codex was a gift from the Emperor to this physician. The codex certainly remained in Constantinople thereafter and when seen later by the offensive Fleming,  Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq,  it was as part of the inheritance of a son whose father had also been a Jew and court physician in Constantinople (by then  Istanbul).  For details of de Busbecq’s behaviour  see  Afterword to ‘Plants on the Page: dispositions and parchment’ (June 20th., 2013). The commonly seen version of the acquisition is heavily bowdlerised, and can be read in e.g. the wiki article ‘Vienna Dioscorides’, where, while mentioning that the codex was ordered rebound in 1406 by a certain ‘Nathaniel’, arbitrarily describes him  as ‘a Greek nurse’.  I can find no evidence that Nathaniel was in use as a forename by  Greek Christians, nor by Ottoman Turks, the nearest used among the Greeks being   ‘Natham’.   The single instance I’ve  found so far of any Byzantine Christian’s using the name – even as ‘ Nathanael’  – was when a former statesman,  Nikephoros Choumnos, adopted it  on becoming a monk after retiring from public life in c.1326.  His intention is obvious enough: Christ had described a disciple of that name as  ‘without guile’.    Among Christians, the Gospel’s Nathaniel was identified with Bartholemew.  Overall, it seems more likely that the person who had the Juliana Anicia codex rebound in 1406 was not a  ‘Greek nurse’ but a Byzantine Jew, an attendant rather than a physician because yet to complete his apprenticeship.   I am told that Alain Touwaide has commented that the Voynich manuscript reminds him of a type of medical handbook used in Byzantine hospitals – a subject in which Touwaide is an eminent expert. ‘ha-Misri’ described both Egyptian and north African origin.  A brief history of Egyptian Jews is offered  here.

[5] ‘Roads…‘  The network of Roman roads upon which the Byzantines relied, and some of which they maintained,  is well described and mapped in David A. French’s contribution to the series Roman Roads and Milestones published under the auspices of the British Academy of Ankara.  French’s study of those in Asia minor is Vol. 4, fasc.4.1,  presently online, here.

[6]  Dana Scott’s comment was credited when I first treated the ‘minimap’ – see post  ‘Fol 86v: the inset ‘minimap’ Pt1: from the Black Sea’, voynichimagery.wordpress.com (August 5th., 2012).

[7] There is an excellent article on line in ‘The Best of Sicily’ Magazine, even though it looks at Palermo rather than Salerno.  It also observes that “Observance of Sicily’s earliest Jews, part of the Diaspora, was akin to that of the Mizrahim of Tunisia. Their identification today as Sephardic would not be very accurate historically before the reign of Peter of Aragon (1282) and subsequent Spanish monarchs, which facilitated closer ties to the Jews of Spain.”  (http://www.bestofsicily.com/mag/art416.htm)  On the other hand, the author of a wiki article ‘Mizrahi Jews’ is right to point out that use of the term is controversial and to note the conflation that has occurred since the middle of the last century.

They include descendants of Babylonian Jews and Mountain Jews from modern Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, Kuwait, Dagestan, Azerbaijan, Iran, Uzbekistan, the Caucasus, Kurdistan, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan. Yemeni Jews are sometimes also included, but their history is separate from Babylonian Jewry. … The term Mizrahim is sometimes applied to descendants of Maghrebi and Sephardic Jews, who had lived in North Africa (Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco), the Sephardi-proper communities of Turkey and the mixed Levantine communities of Lebanon, Israel and Syria. ..  a conflation of terms [today], particularly in Israel and in religious usage, with “Sephardi” being used in a broad sense to include Mizrahi Jews and North African Jews as well as Sephardim proper.

[8] ‘The Jews’ Gate’ see following note.

[9] The Venetians had granted their quarter at Perama (mod. Eminönü) in May 1082, by the chrysobull of Alexius I Komnenos (1081-1118), in which mention is also made of a Jewish Gate there. See  Alexander Panayotov, ‘Jews and Jewish communities in the Balkans and the Aegean until the twelfth century’ (Ch.4) in  James K.Aitken and James Carleton Paget (eds.), The Jewish-Greek Tradition in Antiquity and the Byzantine Empire (2014). p.58.
Galata, then called Sykai, was relatively protected; it became a Venetian quarter after 1204 but was held by them only until 1294.  With the completion of the Turris Chrisi or Christea Turris (“Tower of Christ”) the Genoese added another stretch of walls was to the northern side of their quarter (1349),  and  expanded the area further in 1387, 1397 and 1404, until it was larger than the official grant. The walls remained until the 1870s.

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