Picture a scene in the Near East in the late fifteenth century. An upper-class Jewish merchant from Italy witnesses the flaying of a Bedouin thief who has been sentenced to death by a Mamluk sultan. Reporting the experience, Meshullam of Volterra finds confirmation of Western preconceptions about the cruelty of Eastern rulers (perhaps not unreasonably in this case). Turning from autocratic barbarity to the merely uncivilized, he also disapproves of Near Eastern table manners: “They all eat out of one vessel—the slave with his master—and they always eat with their fingers, most of them sitting cross-legged.” These vignettes come from one of the two-dozen Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic travel narratives, imaginary voyages, letters, and poetic texts written between about 1150 and 1520 that are surveyed in Jacobs’ Reorienting the East.

Interrogating these fascinating sources, Jacobs seeks to establish how Jewish traders and pilgrims encountered and visualized the Muslim world between...

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