The City of Light is the journal of the travels of Jacob D’Ancona, a 13th century pious Jewish merchant. Readers follow Jacob on a three-year journey, starting from his hometown of Ancona in present-day Italy, overland through Damascus and Baghdad, and then by sea, stopping at various ports and places until he reaches the city of Zaitun, modern-day Quanzhou, where he stays to buy goods and talk to the scholars of the city. It consists of equal parts travelogue/memoir and a philosophical discussion of medieval Jewish and Chinese ideas.
This was a time when Jews had restricted access to jobs or freedom to run their own lives. In medieval Europe, Jews often had to wear physical signals of their faith: yellow stripes or stars. Jews had restricted job and social opportunities: they were often forbidden from interaction with Christians. In Muslim lands, the restrictions for Jews were somewhat more relaxed, but Jews still paid higher taxes than Muslims did — though not as high as those paid by the non-“People of the Book”.
Jacob himself is an interesting exception to many of the typical rules. He travels with both Jews and Christians, and frequently mentions his young female Gentile servants’ romantic lives. Furthermore, Jacob is a jack-of-all-trades, a Renaissance man in pre-Renaissance times. He’s a traveler, a merchant, a scholar, a physician, an authority who is consulted by Jewish and Chinese communities alike. He speaks and writes in fluent Hebrew, Italian, Latin, Greek, and Arabic. Nearly everyone who meets him likes him. He’s a bit too good to be true: in modern terms, he’s a pretty big Mary Sue.
But the most compelling parts of the book are not Jacob, but the world he’s seeing for the first time. The descriptions of Chinese life are vivid and lengthy, and the variety and extensiveness of the Chinese market was stunning and often unbelievable to European eyes. Jacob engages in lengthy discussions (through a translator) with Chinese scholars and even spends several weeks stuck in the sordid underworld, full of gambling, prostitutes, and illicit sex.
There’s also political intrigue, and the threat of very real danger: At this time, northern China was under the rule of Kublai Khan and there was a very real threat of invasion by the “Tartars” — for Europeans and the southern Chinese alike. Meanwhile, the Chinese community of scholars was divided itself between old and new ways of thinking.
Jacob finds many points of contact and connection between himself and several of the Chinese scholars, especially a man named Pitaco, who like Jacob was worried about the lack of respect in the younger generation, the stability of the country’s morals, and the justification of trickle-down economics. Perhaps most fittingly for a book about contact and conflict between Western and Eastern cultures, Jacob’s habit of pontificating ends up rubbing many Chinese scholars the wrong way. As the inhabitants of the city get upset about the amount of influence the foreign Jew has in the city, Jacob concludes his business and leaves in a hurry, fearing for his life.
There’s really just one problem with the narrative: Jacob D’Ancona may have never existed.