The Women Who Captivated Muslim Travelers of the Middle Ages

Descriptions of Muslim travel in the middle ages reveal exotic marriage customs and a meeting with a Jewish doctor expelled from Spain


13th century illustration of pilgrims on their way to Mecca

The pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, called the hajj in Arabic, is one of the five central commandments in Islam. Every believing Muslim is obligated to fulfill this commandment at least once in his life. But, for Muslims in the middle ages, it was only one of many opportunities for Muslims to explore the far-reaching Muslim empires.

These empires were dominated by trade, and the imperial trade routes offered merchants and adventurers countless opportunities to leave their homes and see new places.

Cover of “Muslim Travels in the Middle Ages”


Among the hundreds of thousands of books and manuscripts stored in the Islam and the Middle East Collection at the National Library of Israel is a book that looks innocent enough. It title is  الرحالة المسلمون في العصور الوسطى or “Muslim Travels in the Middle Ages” tells the stories of some of these travelers and provides a glimpse into the strange and distant land they encountered on their journeys.

A sketch of the earth by Muhammad al-Idrisi, born 1100 in Spain. One of the great Muslim geographers

Among the many names in the book, the most famous is probably that of Ibn Battuta, who lived in the 14th century. The words of the renowned scholar and Muslim traveler illustrate in great detail the Muslim custom of taking an additional, local wife when one arrives in a new land. Whenever he was in a particular country for business, he would stay with his local wife (or wives). We know that Ibn Battuta had at least six different wives during his lifetime – two in Egypt and four in the Maldives. Of the women he met in the Maldives he said:

“Marriage is easy on these islands. Dowry is rare, and it is good and proper to socialize with women…they never leave their country, and I have never seen anything more beautiful in the world than these women… [here he includes a description of how these women pleasure their men] and the custom is that the woman does not eat with her husband, and that the man does not know what his wife eats.”


Kill an enemy to marry a woman. Soleiman al-Tajir’s description from the book.

Another example of marriage customs is seen in the travel diary of Soleiman al-Tajir, who wrote about his travels to ninth-century India. “There is much gold there. They eat coconuts and use them to fight and draw. If any of them wants to get married he need but bring a man’s skull back from their enemies. Killing two people allows him to marry twice, and he who kills fifty will marry fifty women…”

In Morocco, North Africa, the traveler Zakariya ibn Muhammad al-Qazwini  (1203-1283) came across a city that had very different customs than any other found by previous travelers. This was the city of women. Al-Qazwini wrote, “They are women whose men do not control them. They ride horses and engage in war all on their own. They have strength and power…and they have slaves. Every servant belongs to his mistress, and they rise before the dawn.”

Muslim travelers did not only meet women on their journeys, however. Abd al-Basset tells of an encounter with a Jewish doctor he met in Algeria in the 15th century. At the end of this century, all Jews and Muslims who refused to convert to Christianity were expelled from Spain. He writes, “I needed the most skilled physician Musa Ben Samuel Ben Yehuda of Israel…I have not heard of or seen one so skillful and professional in his field as he, knowledgeable in contemporary science as well as in ancient science…he is of the Jews of Spain originally and is a great expert in the field… “

Thanks to Tehila Bigman of the National Library’s Arabic catalogue for her help in translating the excerpts and in composing this article.

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The Jewish Lawyer Who Drafted the Constitution of the Weimar Republic

Hugo Preuss is still considered to be the “father” of the constitution of the Weimar Republic today.

Weimar constitution

From the National Library of Israel collections.

The collapse of monarchic rule following the defeat of Germany in World War I and the revolution of November 1918 gave rise to a new and almost completely unknown political order in Germany: democracy. The nascent political forces understood the need for drafting a new constitution that would suit the democratic regime and prevent the aristocracy from obtaining any political power.

The assembly of the German people that gathered in the city of Weimar included a special committee for drafting a new constitution. Members of the committee were jurists with expertise in constitutional law and legislation.

The committee’s discussions continued for a number of months until the new constitution was approved by the general assembly in Weimar on August 11, 1919. One of the permanent members of this committee who also served as its chairman for several months was the Jewish lawyer Hugo Preuss (1860-1925). His contribution was so great that today he is considered the “father” of the constitution of the Weimar Republic.

Hugo Preuss
Hugo Preuss, image from the Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Preuss presented the first draft of this important text and considerable portions of it became part of the final version approved by the representatives of the general assembly. For the first time in German history, a constitution was passed that included basic civil rights.

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Among the many innovations that Preuss suggested in his draft was a new internal division of Germany, necessitating the dismantling of Germany’s historical states, including the largest state of Prussia. This suggestion was unacceptable to the more conservative assembly representatives – though it seems to have anticipated the future since the idea was carried out in the prevailing political reality after 1945 with the founding of the new German state.

Hugo Preuss, image from the Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Hugo Preuss was born in Berlin to a family of merchants, studied law in Berlin and Heidelberg, and completed his doctorate at the university in Göttingen. He decided to devote himself to academic research and joined the faculty of the University of Berlin as a “private lecturer” (a special status of senior lecturer without a position but with teaching obligations). He remained in this position for 15 years since Jews were not awarded the status of professor unless they agreed to convert to Christianity. While conversion was not a formal legal requirement, in the minds of German academics it was still required. Only with the establishment of a private trade school in Berlin in 1906 was Preuss hired as a professor of law.

Beginning in 1895, Hugo Preuss became a member of the Berlin City Council. In 1918 he became one of the founders of the German Democratic Party DDP. From 1919 to his death, Preuss was a member of the Prussian parliament. He also served as Interior Minister of the Weimar Republic. He resigned from this post in protest when Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles. In this treaty, Germany relinquished its sovereignty in certain areas and committed to paying hefty reparations to the Allies. Preuss’ resignation as minister brought about an absurd situation: the signature of this brilliant jurist does not appear at the bottom of the constitutional text despite the fact that most of it was his brainchild, as the constitution was approved only after he had stepped down.

B3 Weimarer Verfassung1--780X1015
The title page of the printed constitution that was distributed to male and female pupils upon finishing their school education. From the National Library collection.

In 1949, when German jurists drafted the “Basic Law” of West Germany (instead of a formal constitution, which Germany lacks to this day), they used the Weimar Constitution as a basis for their work. Considerable portions of the original constitution migrated to the “Basic Law,” though certain articles that proved to be ineffective or even dangerous to democracy and state stability were amended.

Ultimately, it should be recalled, Hitler established his reign of terror based on Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution, which enabled the revocation of basic civil rights as well as human rights when state security was at risk, a provision that the Nazis exploited for their own interests.


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Who Is the Israeli Who Won 10 Olympic Medals?

During the Holocaust, she escaped the Nazis using forged documents. Only a decade later she was known around the world as one of the greatest Olympic gymnasts of all time. Discover the amazing story of Ágnes Keleti.

אגנס קלטי

The entire State of Israel may have racked up just one Olympic gold medal in its short history, but Ágnes Keleti, a resident of the Israeli city of Herzliya, is the proud owner of no less than ten Olympic medals – five of them gold.

Keleti was born on January 9, 1921 in Budapest to a well-to-do Jewish family. At the tender age of 4, Keleti began taking “swimming lessons” thanks to her father, who enjoyed tossing her into the lake during family vacations. She was also enrolled in gymnastics at a young age. Despite showing obvious physical talent, Ágnes did not begin to take the sport seriously until age sixteen. Instead, she spent most of her time practicing and playing the cello.

Unlike many other athletes, whose distinct competitive drive pushes them to compete at an international level, Keleti says it was not necessarily her hunger to win medals that motivated her.

“The medals were nice, but I didn’t play sports solely for the accolades. I enjoyed the day-to-day routine and the opportunity to see the world. The Communist regime in Hungary was very tough and not at all to my liking. At the time, most people could not even leave Hungary. I decided to excel in sports in order to see the world. I was fortunate enough to visit places that most people didn’t even dare dream of,” she said in an interview several years ago.

Ágnes Keleti, from the Maccabiah Archive
From the Maccabiah Archive

Keleti survived the Holocaust by using a false identity. During the war years, she adopted the name “Yuhasz Piroshka” and assumed the identity of a village maid. Later, she worked in an ammunition factory. Her mother and sister were also saved, thanks to the famous Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who was later recognized as one of the Righteous Among the Nations by the State of Israel. Unfortunately, the same luck did not extend to the rest of her family. Her father and uncles were murdered at Auschwitz.

When the war ended, Keleti returned to gymnastics. In 1946, she won the title of ‘Hungarian National Champion,’ which she held until she fled the country in 1956. Her meteoric rise to world fame came at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. At the age of 31, Keleti won four medals: a gold medal in floor exercise, a silver medal in the all-around team competition, a bronze in the uneven bars and a bronze in the portable apparatus team event.

אגנס קלטי (משמאל) עם אורי זמרי, ברוך בק, ואלינור רוזוולט 23.2.1962, צילום: לע"מ
Ágnes Keleti (left) with Uri Zimri, Eleanor Roosevelt and Baruch Beck – February 23rd, 1962, photo: GPO

In 1956, she competed in the Melbourne Olympics, this time at the age of 35 (twice the age of most of her competitors). She won six medals in Melbourne: three gold medals in individual events (floor, uneven bars and balance beam), another gold in the portable apparatus team event and two silver medals in both the individual and team all-around events.

By the end of her career, Keleti had won ten Olympic medals overall, placing her seventh in terms of all-time medal winners in Olympic history. For comparison, the legendary Carl Lewis also has ten medals to his name, while Mark Spitz has eleven medals in total. In fact, Ágnes Keleti holds more medals than other familiar sports legends like Nadia Comăneci and Usain Bolt. Yet what is perhaps most impressive about Keleti’s medal run is that she won nine out of her ten Olympic medals after reaching the age of 30.

Escape from Hungary and Immigration to Israel

While Keleti was halfway across the world competing in the Melbourne Olympics, a national rebellion was brutally put down by the Soviet regime in her native Hungary. When the revolt broke out, Keleti made the difficult decision not to return to the country for which she was competing. Together with other Hungarian athletes, she appealed to the Australian government for asylum. Their request was granted.

In fact, Keleti had already begun plotting her escape from Hungary prior to her departure for the Melbourne Olympics: “I had had enough of this bloody regime. One day I was swimming in the national team’s heated pool and a young man offered to drive me home. I agreed, but after a while I noticed that we weren’t heading in the direction of my house. He took me to the communist party headquarters and, there, they tried to convince me to spy on my teammates. In that very moment, I realized that I must escape” she told an interviewer.

Although she was an international Olympic star, Keleti was unsuccessful at finding acceptable work in Australia. One day, she received a telegram from Professor Gifstein, her physical education teacher from the Jewish gymnasium in Budapest. In the telegram, he told her that he had decided to immigrate to Israel.

עיתון "דבר" 25.8.1957
“Introducing: Ágnes Keleti” Davar, August 25th, 1957


Gifstein invited her to come to Israel to continue her training while adding a warning: “There is nothing here. Bring equipment with you.” Keleti decided to accept his invitation nonetheless and arrived in Israel in 1957, just in time to participate in the Fifth Maccabiah Games.

From the Tel Aviv Municipality Collection
From the Tel Aviv Municipality Collection

The press in Israel was very excited by Keleti’s arrival in the country. Because of her success at the previous Olympics, she became one of the biggest stars of the Fifth Maccabiah. The stands were packed as Ágnes Keleti took to the floor, this time in her new home of Israel.

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Rare Documents from Belgrade Tell Tragic Tale of Lives Taken Too Soon

The documents from the Historical Archives of Belgrade tell the story of Isak Darsa, a young boy murdered in the Sajmiste concentration camp at the hands of the Nazis.


Application to the Merchants’ Association, courtesy of the Historical Archives of Belgrade

Tracing the lives of average Jewish citizens who perished during the horrors of the Holocaust can be extremely difficult- especially if there were few to no survivors in their immediate family. The Historical Archives of Belgrade holds several documents that have helped retrace a part of the story of Isak Darsa, a young man with a bright future ahead of him, that was cut short by the Nazis.

Benjamin Darsa, Isak’s father, was registered for the first time as a citizen of the Belgrade municipality in 1924.  Benjamin’s certificate of permanent residence can be found in the Citizens’ Cards Register within a collection marked Administration of the City of Belgrade. The certificate reveals that Benjamin was born in 1896 to parents Isak and Gintil Elic in Zemun, which at that time was considered a seperate city but today forms part of Belgrade.

Certificate of permanent residence of Benjamin Darsa, courtesy of the Historical Archives of Belgrad.

Benjamin worked as a clerk in a French-Serbian bank and on November 18, 1923, he married Estera-Stela nee Kalef of Belgrade at the old Synagogue Bet Israel. The young couple lived together in a leased house in the center of Belgrade.

Isak himself was born to the couple on May 29, 1926, and the next year, the little family moved into their own home on Prince Evgenie Street (modern-day Braca Baruh Street) in Dorcol, a Belgrade district where Jews formed a majority of the population. Technical documentation belonging to the city of Belgrade has preserved the floor plans of the Darsa family house and show that the architect who designed and built their home was Franja Urban, who would later become famous for his work in designing the new Belgrade Synagogue, also known as Sukkat Shalom Synagoue, in 1929.

Floor plans of the Darsa family house, courtesy of the Historical Archives of Belgrade.

Isak Darsa attended a local elementary school in the neighborhood. A glance at his school register shows that his grades were nothing more than average as he was marked with a three on a scale of five in all of his school subjects.

In 1938/39, after finishing four grades of elementary school, Isak Darsa continued his education in the First Male Gymnasium. While he may have proven himself to be average in elementary school, he did not manage to keep to that standard in secondary school as his grades in the Gymnasium were even poorer. Isak barely managed to pass his final exams. While it is unclear if it was due to his poor grades or due to the rise in anti-Semitism across Europe, at the age of 13, Isak did not return to the Gymnasium for the next school year.

Isak Darsa’s grade report from the First Male Gymnasium, courtesy of the Historical Archives of Belgrade.

While school may not have been the right place for him, Isak Darsa did manage to leave us another clue as to what he accomplished in pre-war Belgrade. In February 1941, three months before the war broke out in Yugoslavia, Isak began working with a merchant’s apprentice in a fashion store named Benvenisti and Pinkas on Kolarceva Street in the city center. At that time, sixteen-year-old Isak put in a request with the Merchants’ Association to be issued an occupation license. He submitted his photograph along with his application to the association as a part of his request for a license.

Isak Darsa’s application to the Merchants’ Association, courtesy of the Historical Archives of Belgrade.

Unfortunately, the Darsa family met the same fate as most Jewish families living in Belgrade during the Holocaust. Benjamin, Stela and young Isak were murdered by the Nazis.  Isak’s aunt and Stela’s sister, Regina Kalef Eskenazi, who survived the war, reported the deaths of all three Darsas in 1945. Stela and Isak met their end in the Sajmiste concentration camp in 1941 and Benjamin was shot at the Tasmajdan killing site in October 1941. Regina also submitted their war damage claim describing their destroyed and confiscated furniture, clothes, and jewelry.

The Darsa Family in Yad Vashem’s records.

Benjamin, Stela and Isak Darsa have since been registered in Yad Vashem’s victims’ database.