Sometime, somewhere, between Africa and Hindustan, lay a river so Jewish it observed the Sabbath. According to the ninth-century traveller Eldad the Danite, for six days of the week the Sambatyon pushed a heavy load of rocks along its sandy course. On the seventh day, like the Creator fashioning the universe, the river rested. Some writers described the Sambatyon shrivelling overnight into a dry bed. Others swore that the river was waterless: a moving road of stone, its rocks tumbling and grinding against each other so abrasively that its sound, a low thunder, like ‘a tempest at sea’, could be heard a mile away. The eccentric behaviour of the Sambatyon would not be stopped by anything except its own unnatural laws. It was said that were a man to take a bag of its sand and pour it into a glass vessel he would witness the full force of the mystery. Come sunset and the end of the Sabbath, the white grains which had lain inert during the day of rest would stir, shake and spray themselves against the walls of the bottle as if frantic to rejoin the mother stream. Should an intrepid traveller use the Sabbath as an opportunity to ford the stony bed he would, Eldad warned, be thwarted, for ‘as soon as Sabbath begins, fire surrounds the river on the far bank, the flames remaining lit until the next evening when the Sabbath ends. Thus no human being can reach the river for a distance of half a mile for the fire consumes all that grows there.’
In 1480, Eldad’s Letters were published in Mantua, so one of the very earliest printed Hebrew texts was a journey into the imagination. But the limits of the world were shifting with every caravel sailing around the coasts of Africa and north-east to the Indies. The most fanciful thing could turn out to be true. And there was another pressing reason to hope that an intrepid traveller might find the Sambatyon. On the far side of its banks were said to dwell four of the Lost Tribes of Israel, the people who had been carried away by the conquering Assyrians in the eighth century bce. All that was known of the location of their ultimate exile was that it was somewhere orientally remote, since the Assyrians had ruled a vast realm stretching from the coast of Yemen to the shores of the Caspian. But find the Sambatyon and you would find the Israelites, preserved in exile like insects in amber. Everything about them was miraculous. They rode about on elephants in a countryside free from noxious creatures. ‘There is nothing unclean among them . . . no wild beasts, no flies, no fleas, no lice, no foxes, no scorpions, no serpents, no dogs. . .’ They lived in handsome, towered dwellings; dyed their clothes vermilion; kept no servants, but tilled the fruitful land themselves. Pomegranates without limit were theirs to harvest; succulently pulpy figs, honey to the bite, dropped from the trees. Their land was kosher Cockayne.
Even those who suspected that Eldad’s story was, in every sense, far-fetched, longed to know more, for the discovery of the river, and beyond it these lost Israelites, could signal what every Jew yearned for
Even those who suspected that Eldad’s story was, in every sense, far-fetched, longed to know more, for the discovery of the river, and beyond it these lost Israelites, could signal what every Jew yearned for. Tradition had it that the appearance of the liberating prince from the house of David, the true Messiah, the Redeemer of Jerusalem, the Rebuilder of the Temple, would be heralded by the rediscovery of the Lost Tribes of Israel, with the tribe of Reuben in their vanguard. When Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, it was rumoured that the Sambatyon had stopped running altogether, and that the Lost Tribes were preparing to rejoin the world, if, indeed, they had not already done so. Rabbi Obadiah of Bertinoro, no gullible fool, staying in Jerusalem in 1487, made sure to ask freed slaves there whether they had news of the Sambatyon and the people beyond. ‘The Jews of Aden’, he wrote to his brother, ‘relate all this with a certain confidence as if it were well known and no one ever doubted the truth of their assertions.’ The first Hebrew book of learned geography, Abraham Farissol’s Iggeret Orhot Olam, the Cosmic Itinerary, had a passage on the whereabouts of the river, which it located somewhere in Asia.
Reunion with the Lost Tribes of Israel became a consuming obsession for Christians as well as Jews. For the former there were reasons strategic and reasons apocalyptic to want the story of the Sambatyon and the Tribes to be true, and they both converged in a Hebrew moment. If the Israelites dwelled somehow beyond the limits of the Muslim world, whether in Africa or Asia, contact with them offered the opportunity to launch an attack on the Turks from the rear. Jews had already been sent by the king of Portugal to find the realm of Prester John, said to be a Christian king powerful in those faraway lands and close to the Lost Tribes. A holy alliance was within reach. The Last Days would be hastened: the long-prophesied battle of titanic antagonists, Gog and Magog, would be joined. Skulls would crack; hosannas would sound; the earth would bubble with blood. Divinely appointed warriors, magnificently arrayed, spears glittering, would go forth to battle the legions of the Antichrist. Following their victory a Christian golden age would commence. Led by the lost Israelites, the rest of the Jews would at last see the error of their ways and troop in their multitudes to the font. Christ would return, radiant in numinous majesty. Glory be to God.
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