Article for Public Domain Review - The Khan's Drinking Fountain

The fountain, the Silver Tree, at Karakorum

By the time Friar William of Rubruck arrived at the camp of Möngke Khan in the last days of 1253, he had pushed his body to its breaking point. The trip from Acre had taken him by way of Constantinople, across the Black Sea, and then on a punishing overland journey featuring extreme cold, a demon-haunted pass, and little enough food that his travel-companion, Bartolomeo of Cremona, had been close to tears, exclaiming “It seems to me I shall never get anything to eat.” And then there had been the Mongols themselves. Passing into their territory was like passing “through one of the gates of hell,” and leaving their presence comparable to escaping “the midst of devils.” Safe to say that the Mongols seemed quite alien to this Flemish friar.

William grumbled at their (in his view) incurable greed, commented repeatedly on his distaste for the women’s noses, and spoke of the foolishness of their religion. Though in many ways a clever traveller and, despite this xenophobia, an at times astute observer, he was in other ways a fish out of water, even going about at first in bare feet on the frozen winter ground. But not everything was so unfamiliar, so strange to him…

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Guest Post at Dirty, Sexy History - Fake Monks and False Envoys: To Live and Lie in the Khan’s Court

Giovanni di Pian del Carpine appears before Guyuk Khan

It may come as some surprise that a Mongol khan’s encampment was a pretty international place to be. When the Flemish Franciscan, William of Rubruck, arrived at Mongke Khan’s court in 1253, he found Hungarians, Alans, Russians, Georgians, and Armenians; there were Greek knights, Chinese clergy, an Indian envoy, a Parisian silversmith, Korean and Nicaean ambassadors, the son of an Englishman named Basil, a Christian from Damascus who represented the Ayyubid Sultan, and a woman from Metz who’d been captured in Hungary and since married a Russian builder.

Many, like this last couple, had of course not come there by choice but had been violently wrenched away from their lives. Others, though, had gone there for different reasons. For the right kind of person, the Mongols’ Asian steppe offered an opportunity for self-reinvention, though the consequences of a misstep could be severe (quite literally, if you set foot on the threshold of the khan’s tent, you were killed). Despite these risks, William’s report of his travels gives us two characters–con men, really–who lied about their identities before the great khan himself.

Read the rest of the article over at Dirty, Sexy History.

Guest Post at Dirty, Sexy History - I Thought they Had Been Nuns: Great Wine and Failed Sexual Transactions

The island of Zante

On January 31, 1599, John Chamberlain wrote a letter to his friend and relative Dudley Carleton. There, sandwiched between the Duke of Florence complaining of English piracy and poor Sir Henry Poore’s non-life-threatening shot in the head, were the following words: “Here is a great and curious present going to the Great Turke, which no doubt will be much talked of, and be very scandalous among other nations, especially the Germans.”

This “great and curious present” departed England on The Hector in February of 1599, bound for the court of the Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed III. It went as a rather overdue acknowledgment of his becoming Sultan upon the death of his father in 1595, and it was to be presented by the English representative, Henry Lello, so that he could kiss the hand of the Sultan and be recognized as England’s ambassador. The gift was a magnificent clockwork organ, sadly smashed just a few short years later, and its maker, who travelled with it on The Hector, was Thomas Dallam.

Dallam is a fascinating figure. He was no sailor, soldier, diplomat, or spy; he seems never to have even left England before. But from February 1599 to April 1600, he’d journey to and from the city he mostly called Constantinople (and once or twice Stamboul), and he’d write all about it. He’d write about encounters with Dunkirker pirates shortly after departure, his annoyance at the captain’s behaviour, “an infinite body of porpoises,” and the behaviour of Turks. He runs for his life on a few occasions, notes as the ship passes the birthplace of Pythagoras or of Saul, and eventually gives an incredibly stressful solo performance for the Sultan and 400 of his attendants.

Read the rest of the article over at Dirty, Sexy History.