Rabban Bar Sauma 2: Ilkhanid Infighting, Ilkhanid Envoy

Francesco Hayez - Sicilian Vespers

This is the script for Rabban Bar Sauma Part 2! In this episode, our monkish friends attempt to navigate the violent waters of Ilkhanid politics, and Bar Sauma himself embarks on another long journey, this time heading for Rome.. 


  • The Monks of Kublai Khan, translated by Sir E. A. Wallis Budge. The Religious Tract Society, 1928.

  • Aigle, Denise. The Mongol Empire Between Myth and Reality: Studies in Anthropological History. Brill Academic Pub, 2014.

  • Benjamin, Sandra. Sicily: Three Thousand Years of Human History. Steerforth Press, 2010.

  • Grousset, René. The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia, translated by Naomi Walford. Rutgers, 2002.

  • Jackson, Peter. The Mongols and the Islamic World. Yale University Press, 2017.

  • Jackson, Peter. The Mongols and the West: 1221-1410. Pearson Longman, 2005.

  • Kolbas, Judith. The Mongols in Iran: Chingiz Khan to Uljaytu 1220–1309. Routledge, 2006.

  • Pfeiffer, Judith, "Reflections on a 'Double Rapprochement': Conversion to Islam among the Mongol Elite during the Early Ilkhanate," in Beyond the Legacy of Genghis Khan, edited by Linda Komaroff. Brill Academic Pub, 2006.

  • Rose, Susan. Medieval Naval Warfare, 1000-1500. Routledge, 2002.

  • Rossabi, Morris. Voyager from Xanadu: Rabban Sauma and the First Journey from China to the West. Kodansha International, 1992.


When the Patriarch of the Church of the East died and was mourned in February of 1281, his people did not mourn for long. They did not wait for weeks before finding a replacement or argue for months as could be the case with selecting a new pope. Church leaders came together quickly on the day after the burial according to our source, and, as we ended off with last episode, they did not look to a local as a replacement.

Gathered there were metropolitans with jurisdictions ranging from present-day Iraq and Iran out to Turkey and China. With them were the “nobles, and governors, and scribes, and lawyers, and physicians of Baghdad.” And all of these people put forth their ideas as to who should be elevated, with each having their own favourite, but eventually they all arrived at a unanimous decision: Mar Yahballaha should be patriarch.

Like the former-patriarch before them, these worthies of the Church of the East were not only drawn to Yahballaha’s committed spiritual seriousness or impressive interior life, though both may have been in evidence. Like Mar Denha, they were more enamoured with the way he slotted into the political realities of the moment just so. They required a person familiar with the Mongol tongues, customs, and governance, a person thought to be able to manage affairs with Mongol administrators to the benefit of their church in all of its widespread territories, and there, in their need, they had found one. Or at least, that is how our source presents the situation. 

We are told that the prospective hire did not see things entirely that way. He protested that he was “deficient in education and in ecclesiastical  doctrine,” and that he was besides entirely ignorant of the Syriac language, which it was not proper for a patriarch to do without. But how real were his objections? The way it's set up in the text, he’d dreamed of receiving this power and of sharing its joys like fruits from a tree, so did he actually push back against the offer, and if he did, was it only formulaic, only performative?

Of course, it’s hard to say now, but in any case, it seems that whatever problems were raised were not found harmful to his candidacy. The boy who had once overwhelmed opposition to his dream of going off to learn under the mountain monk, Bar Sauma, had now lived to see another of his dreams fulfilled some 6,300 kilometres to west. There’d been threats under the previous patriarch of his being sent back east, but now Mar Yahballaha was to be patriarch; and his friend and mentor, Rabban Bar Sauma, wasn’t going to need to worry anymore about being parcelled off either. Quite the opposite actually.

Hello, and welcome. I’m Devon, and this is Human Circus: Journeys in the Medieval 

World, following the stories of medieval travellers and exploring both their history and the history around them. In Patreon related news, I see that we are closing in on our next goal, just $14 a month away. When we reach that, we’ll get bonus material added onto new episodes for patrons listening on their Patreon feed, so if you can help me get there, please do. And speaking of which, thanks go out to my newest patrons, Paul, Etienne, and Scott, for your support. Thank you!

Now, back to the story.

When Mar Yahballaha, formerly Marcos, arrived back at the monastery, he was greeted by its monks and by Rabban Bar Sauma. They’d already heard that the patriarch had died but now learned that he had already been replaced. Yahballaha was met with happiness, approval, and also with Bar Sauma’s rather canny suggestion that they ought to go and see Abaqa Khan to hear what he made of the appointment. There, they would, quote, “receive the conclusion.” There, when they had put the matter in the Ilkhan’s hands, would their position be guaranteed.

They went together then, the two old friends, teacher and student, the latter now head of the Church of the East, and they had company. They went with monks and fathers of the church to the area of Azerbaijan, to the summer home of Abaqa, and they put the matter before him. Quote:

The Catholicus is dead, and all the Christians wish and have agreed together that this Metropolitan who has come from the countries of the East to go to Jerusalem should stand in his place. What does the khan command?

The khan’s command seems to have been to declare that he was entirely pleased with Yahballaha’s appointment and his appearance before him. He is to have taken Mar Yahballaha by the hand, to have covered his head with a cloak and given him his own chair of state, a parasol to conceal him from the sun and to mark him with honour, written orders as to his dominion over his fellow Christians, the seal of the catholicus, and the money which his ascension was to require. 

Yahballaha was to be made patriarch that November of 1281 in a ceremony in Baghdad which would see him enthroned and was witnessed by metropolitans from Armenia, Tripoli, Samarkand, and elsewhere. He was 36 years old then, and he had come quite a long way since his family had discouraged his going so far abroad as Rabban Bar Sauma’s retreat. His reign as patriarch would become known to us through sources such as Gregory Bar Hebraeus, and really his might have been expected to become the more famous name of the two that had set out together from China. But theirs were lives with stories still to tell. 

For a time, the pair simply enjoyed the fruits of their situation. Ongoing conflicts on the road would have dissuaded Bar Sauma from making the move back east should he have actually wanted to take up his station there, should he not in any case already have been convinced to assist Yahballaha with church affairs. And in regards to those affairs, things were looking up for the two. The spirit of the moment was very much on their side, and the winds of imperial benevolence really blowing in their direction. It was a great time to be well liked leaders of the Church of the East. 

Morris Rossabi and others have speculated that it was Abaqa Khan’s ongoing conflicts with the Muslim Mamluks and the Golden Horde that moved him to more generously support the Christians in his realm, but whatever the cause, there he was in Baghdad as 1281 turned to 1282, hearing their concerns and dispensing yet more gifts as well as granting the authority to collect taxes on behalf of the churches, monks, and monasteries. 

However, before these taxes could actually be collected, the winds shifted against them, and on April 1st of 1282, Abaqa Khan died. Excessive alcohol consumption was the most likely cause, a common enough story among Mongol rulers, though in another well-travelled twist, there were also accusations of poisoning. Either way, Abaqa was out, and his brother, Tekuder, was in, and unlike Abaqa, Tekuder was to be no great friend of our monkish-duo. He had rather different policies in mind. 

Tekuder, the son of Hulagu, broke with family tradition. He took the name Ahmed and title of sultan, and he converted to Islam. He released and reinstated a minister of finance set to be punished under Abaqa as a Mamluk-linked traitor, and he reached out to the Ilkhanate’s longtime rivals, seeking an alliance. There seems to have been little danger that the Mamluks were going to accept this offered hand - they actually seized the members of his embassy and greeted the attempt with extreme mistrust - but Ahmed’s conversion, as much a state matter as one of private religiosity, alarmed not a few Buddhist, Christian, and other concerned Mongols. And as you may have picked up on by now, the smooth and bloodless transfer of power was not always carried off well within the Mongol Empire.  

A lot of very powerful people would have felt ignored, disrespected and also suddenly distant from power, as Ahmed pursued avenues not traditional to his family. There had been his decision to ignore the council of those who wished to continue the war on the Mamluks, and then where was the immense amount of time he spent in Sufi ceremonies, a practice which, according to one source, caused him to entirely ignore matters of governance. On top of this, where Ahmed was taking action, it did little to reassure those worried for the impact of his Islamic rule. There is some possibility here that Ahmed’s Islamizing policies have been overblown by his enemies, that complaints to Kublai Khan that the Ilkhan was somehow un-Mongol, were grounded more in the quite familiar struggle for power among Mongol royalty, rather than discomfort over a new and unfamiliar Ilkhanid direction, but whatever combination of factors was driving it, opposition soon coalesced around Abaqa’s son, Arghun. 

And in all of this, it seems that Bar Sauma and Yahballaha were caught up in the middle of the struggle for power that followed their benefactor’s death, and that their enemies, or perhaps only their jealous rivals, took advantage of this moment.

According to our source, two of these rivals, a metropolitan and a bishop, set their sights on our two main characters and also on a governor of Mosul. They decided to use the political upheaval to take what the three had and to make it their own. These “envious old men” had connections close to the Ilkhan, that reinstated finance minister among them, and the two enlisted their allies’ help in getting close to Ahmed to denounce the two monks. And it seems like there was no shortage of this sort of thing going around. There are stories, for example, of the dervish Hasan Mengli, a close associate of Ahmed, fabricating tales of mass murder on the part of his own competition and trying to stir the sultan to vengeful punishments.

In the case of Bar Sauma and Yahballaha, it was claimed that their hearts were with the sultan’s nephew, Arghun, that they along with that governor had written treasonable things against Ahmed to Kublai Khan himself, that they had told the great khan that Ahmed had “abandoned the way of his fathers.” And the accused faced these charges in person, bewildered in front the sultan and his judges, asking “What have we done?” only to be informed that the “holy men, and the scribes, and the men of [their] communion [had] made accusations against them before the [khan].” Then witnesses were brought forth, one after the other, to personally attest to these charges.

While this all quite troubling, Yahballaha proved himself a quick thinker under pressure. If the issue was with their written communications to Kublai, then surely the matter was easily settled, for the judges had only to fetch back the messengers and see for themselves what was written. If it was treasonous, Yahballaha said, then he would “die ungrudgingly and in his own blood.” But if it was not, then he left it up to those judges to insure that justice was his. 

Of course, this was pretty reasonable, and however much our source may play against Ahmed - and it does refer to him as “lack[ing] knowledge and education” - his judges allowed that they could indeed simply pursue the messengers and find out what the message was. So, issue resolved we might think. Patriarch status restored, we might think. But then again no. It was not. 

The judges would do the reasonable thing and send for those messengers. The messages would be reviewed, and it would be found that our friends were indeed guiltless. But that wasn’t going to get them off the hook right away. This was not press a button and receive an answer type stuff. It was going to take time to track down those post-people, making their way across central Asia and on to China. 

It was a long walk or ride, and someone, somewhere in the system, was not totally keen on the response getting back quickly. In our text, we can imagine the whole thing playing out in a Kafkaesque judicial nightmare. The monks knew their own actions, but they did not know what was to become of them. They did not know what had become of sending for the couriers and attempting to clear their name. They did not know if the messages that had been sent would be the ones that were read. They only knew that that they’d made their case, but that the patriarch’s authority had been taken from him, and then later, that they had spent a biblical 40 days imprisoned in, quote, “great anxiety, and bitter suffering and anguish all day long.” 

Matters seem to have been touch and go for the two, with the Ilkhan said to “thirst to shed [Yahballaha’s] blood” just “as the thirsty man long[s] for cool waters.” Only the intervention of Ahmed’s Christian mother and certain counsellors preventing him from doing so. Eventually, the accused were released, but their situation still looked bleak, vulnerable to the whims of Ahmed and to the plotting of their rivals. But another change was about to come, one which, once again would be signalled by a vision experienced by the man who had been Marcos. While in prayer, he received this vision, and from it he knew that he would never see Sultan Ahmed again. 

As predictions go, it seems to me a rather ambiguous one, something along the lines of Croesus finding from the oracle that were he to go to war against King Cyrus, a great empire would fall, but Yahballaha appears to have been entirely confident that the vision was not indicating his own imminent death. And soon enough, there was another vision in support of his interpretation.

This time, Yahballaha dreamed that a handsome young man approaching him with a cloth-covered plate. “Stand up,” he was told, “and eat what is here on this dish.” He took it, and underneath the cloth he found the boiled head of a man, which he proceeded to eat almost in its entirety, leaving only the jaw. “Do you know what you’ve eaten?” the young man asked then, a little unnecessarily you might think, but when Yahballaha shook his head no, the answer came. “This was the head of [Sultan] Ahmed.” 

Yahballaha sat bolt upright, frightened out of his sleep. And days later, the news followed, that Sultan Ahmed had died and Arghun Khan now ruled.

Yet another Mongol civil war of succession had played itself out. Ahmed’s argument had been that he had every bit as much the same right to their father Hulagu’s throne as Abaqa; he had only temporarily given over his share of rule to his brother. And now, now it had been his turn. But his rule had badly divided officers of the royal household as they took the part of Ahmed or Arghun, and even the royal family itself. Ahmed’s own mother seems to have sided with Arghun and brought supporters to his cause, and in early 1284, the sultan had a younger brother arrested and then killed for having plotted against him. 

Ahmed had at first experienced success against his nephew’s challenge. He’d hunted Arghun and his armies and finally encircled and captured him on the July 11th, 1284, but then he’d made a shocking blunder. Perhaps he thought further entanglement in such affairs beneath him, or simply tired of the war; maybe he, quite understandably, had no great appetite for seeing his nephew slain. He did not stay to see Arghun trampled beneath horses’ hooves, his rebellion and body ground into the dirt. He left the matter to others and turned for home. 

And as he headed back to his comforts, behind him, those “others” saw the opportunity for what it was. Rather than solidifying Ahmed’s rule by killing his nephew, they freed Arghun and rallied round an opposition that was soon stronger than ever, emboldened by the defection of those closest to Ahmed, and quickly going on the offensive, they now hunted the sultan. 

Ahmed thought to look to the Ilkhanate’s rivals in the Golden Horde for assistance, but he was too slow to react, too late, and, increasingly, too lacking in allies to turn to. He was seized by his own followers, handed over to Arghun, and, on the 10th of August, 1284, less than a month after he’d thought himself the victor in capturing Arghun, he himself was executed. Arghun was said to be reluctant to kill him, but he was not going to repeat his uncle’s mistake. 

The death meant big changes were coming for the Ilkhanate and for our friends Bar Sauma and Yahballaha, and we’ll get to those changes right after this quick break.

Our Rabban Bar Sauma source informs us that when he and the patriarch heard that Ahmed was dead and Arghun sat as Ilkhan in his place, they were overjoyed, and you can see why. Sultan Ahmed’s reign had not been a kind few years for them, and apparently it was only set to get worse. Orders were said to have already gone out that when Prince Arghun’s credible challenge was snuffed out  Prince Arghun that credible challenger, so too were our monks to be killed along with all the royal children and also others seen as potentially hostile to Ahmed’s rule. But that, if indeed it had ever actually been the plan, was now avoided. 

Bar Sauma and Yahballaha went happily off to see the new Ilkhan, to pay their respects, offer congratulations, and solidify their own positions in the wake of all that chaos. A new administration meant imprisonment for some, execution for others, and the establishment of new figures in power. It was a time to make sure one was seen as being a friendly face, and in this, they were very much assisted by their recent experiences. They wore the old ruler’s persecution like a badge, and when Arghun was made to understand all that they had been through at the hands of his enemy, he paid Yahballaha great honour and was immediately ready to have the two treacherous churchmen who had plotted against them destroyed. 

Yahballaha would talk him out of including the plotters in his post-war clean-up. Instead they would be judged by members of their community; their offices would be stripped from them, and they would be excommunicated. Peace had returned to the lives of our protagonists. But for how long? We know after all that the blissful lifelong embrace of the monastic cell was not to be theirs.

For now, Yahballaha went about the business of religious governance. He rebuilt the church in Maragheh in grand fashion, rejecting the old roof for a double-naved design. And every day, his honour before the Ilkhan increased, until a new request came their way. 

When Arghun took the throne, he had found his Ilkhanate under threat from all sides, from the Golden Horde in Azerbaijan, the forces of Kaidu further east, and the Mamluks in Syria. And these threatening parties had been looking on with interest as the Ilkhanate was consumed by internal strife. One contemporary Mamluk historian wrote, after Arghun had defeated Abaqa:

God willing, may [the Mongols] ever continue at odds with one of them killing another until God has purged the earth of them. May God cause every enemy of our lord the sultan to perish, and make His name blessed everywhere.

Arghun’s most powerful ally on the other hand was Kublai Khan who was much too distant, too otherwise engaged, to be of much assistance, and local supporters, such as Lesser Armenia, that were not powerful enough. Other solutions were needed, and he looked, as his father had, to western Europe.

Granted, Abaqa had never had much success in that direction. European powers were, understandably not that quick to trust the Mongol ruler; the memory of the terror from the east that had halted in central Europe before rolling back was not so terribly long ago, and besides, they had their own concerns and difficulties, local wars, or crushing financial issues that made ventures to the Ilkanids’ part of town difficult to accomplish. And that was broadly speaking still true in the 1280s. 

King Edward of England for example, may well have wanted to come. He’d been a life-long proponent of crusading and demonstrated indisputable enthusiasm for it, but then there was the revolt to deal with in Wales. There was always something. However, plans were in the air for crusade. Pope Honorius and Edward were in negotiations over an expedition that was proposed to take place by 1285, and perhaps a little Ilkhanid assistance against the Mamluks would be a welcome possibility. Such had been Arghun’s thinking when he sent his first ambassador in 1285, and such was still the case in 1287, when he thought to try again. 

As with his first attempt, he wanted someone to elicit Christian sympathies and also someone impressive, well-travelled, and fluent in the languages of the world, someone experienced and comfortable in moving among different cultures. That someone sounded very much like our friend Rabban Bar Sauma, and when Arghun came asking, that was exactly what Yahballaha thought too. He made his suggestion to Arghun, who thought the choice an excellent one, and to Bar Sauma who was, somewhat surprisingly, very enthusiastic. He said, according to our source, that he desired it greatly, that he “long[ed] to go.”

From the Ilkhan, Bar Sauma was given letters to the rulers whose lands he would travel through, and gifts for each. He was given gold in abundance, and “thirty good riding animals.” From Yahballaha, he received more letters, and gifts for the pope, but there the parting was more difficult. 

The two had sworn, some twelve years earlier, that they were never to be separated, but now that was exactly what was to happen. Yahballaha mourned their parting, though he is to have caused it. “How can this possibly take place?” he cried. “[You have] been the governor of my cell, and [you know] that through [your] departure my affairs will fall into a state of utter confusion.” And I can’t be sure here, but I think he meant something more deeply personal than the distance of time and translation perhaps allows us to see, that his life had been bound with his teacher’s for so long, that it would collapse into disorder and meaninglessness without Bar Sauma’s presence. Weeping, they embraced, and once again, Rabban Bar Sauma made to depart, this time from the Ilkhanate to Rome and the courts of western Europe, a very long way from that cave on the Chinese mountainside. 

This trip would not be so long as his last, nor so dangerous. There was nothing in the landscape to compare with the deserts and mountains he’d already been through, and little of the risks he’d run of dying of hunger or thirst. But it was still an impressive journey by any measurement, with bandits, pirates, and stormy seas all posing very serious obstacles to success quite aside from the difficulties of satisfying Arghun’s aspirations for alliance and assistance.

Which brings me to wonder why Bar Sauma might have wanted to go? Was it only because his friend had asked him to? Did he feel compelled to do so by the word of the Ilkhan? As Morris Rossabi points out, it might have been very much similar to the impetus for having first left China; the holy sites and relics of the Byzantine Empire and of Latin Christian Europe were very likely more important to him than any Ilkhanid diplomatic goals. 

For one reason or another, Rabban Bar Sauma left in early 1287 on the second great leg of his life’s journey. With him were assistants to aid him with the animals, the route, and interpretation. There was a member of his church named Sabadinus, and there was a pair of Italian interpreters named Ughetto and Thomas, the latter a merchant from a Genoese banking family and both very possibly on their way back from from China.

The party made their way north through friendly territory to the Black Sea and to the territory of the Romans, by Rossabi’s assessment likely travelling by well-known roads through “Mosul, Jazirat, ibn-’Umar, and Diyarbakr,” to come to the sea, and the Greek Christian world at Trebizond. Unlike the barren, waterless, paths he’d trod in the past, here they would have made use of the caravanserais along the way, the walled-courtyards alongside water sources that served as travellers’ inns, providing supplies, information, shelter, and security.

From the coast, they put out on a ship crowded with 300 other passengers, the eastern Christian apparently winning his eastern Roman audience over with daily sermons and talks. This voyage was not long, just along the coast of the Black Sea to Constantinople, but reefs, shallows, storms, and active pirates made it potentially a very uncomfortable one.

Fortunately for these travellers, nothing of the sort troubled them on their trip. They came safely to the city of Constantinople, and two young men were sent up to the palace gates to make it known that an ambassador had arrived from Arghun Khan. That accomplished, orders came back the other way, and Bar Sauma was greeted with great ceremony and honour, brought into the city, and taken to a large house, a mansion, which was to be theirs while they were in Constantinople. Having rested his legs there, he then made his way to the palace to pay his respects to the Byzantine emperor, Andronicus II.

Now the reign of Andronicus II is not regarded as having been a particularly successful one. He was going to oversee a long decline, punctuated by the Palaiologan Civil War and the loss of much of Anatolia to Turks such as the early Ottomans as well as a great deal of European territory to the Bulgars. And all of that was still to come, not yet written into the story by Bar Sauma’s 1287 arrival; however, Andronicus already faced difficulties that might have prevented him from responding to an Ilkhanid request for military support. Since becoming sole-emperor upon the death of his father in 1282, he had faced crippling financial problems severe enough to make him disband his navy. He may not have had the funds to help, and that was if he wanted to. 

There was also the Byzantine attitude towards the Ilkhanate at that time to be considered. The emperor’s father had married his daughter, Andronicus’ sister, to Abaqa, but he had cautiously avoided becoming entangled in Ilkhanid conflicts, both internal and external. He had entertained ambassadors from both the Mamluks and the Ilkhanate, and Andronicus seems to have maintained this course of nurturing diplomatic and commercial ties with both of these powerful neighbours. He could afford neither for an enemy and may have anticipated needing their help if again attacked by Turks or Bulgars. So while he would have welcomed this newest visitor from the Ilkhanate, he also had his own ambassadors and merchants accompany Golden Horde embassies to the Mamluks.

Maybe that’s why Bar Sauma says nothing of diplomatic affairs in their meeting. Maybe he met with not even a hint of success to pass along when it came to military alliance building. It is also possible that it was lost in the editing, that such matters did not sufficiently interest either Bar Sauma or the translator/editor to make it into this document. But there’s no mention of it.

Instead, we read that Emperor Andronicus asked, “How [are] you after the workings of the sea and the fatigue of the road?” and that the ambassador answered, “With the sight of a Christian king fatigue [has] vanished and exhaustion [has] departed, for I was exceedingly anxious to see your kingdom, the [kind] which may our Lord establish!” Food and drink was enjoyed, and then Bar Sauma requested of the emperor that he be allowed to go and see the churches and the holy places of that great city, and he was given both permission and the company of nobles to see him round the sights. 

And what sights did the city have in store for a late 13th-century traveller? If you’re fresh off the Fourth Crusade series, I should remind you first that Bar Sauma was arriving in 1287, so this was 83 years after Robert de Clari and Geoffrey de Villehardouin had much more violently entered the same city in 1204 and 26 years after the last Latin Emperor had fled in 1261. And you may be relieved to hear that even after all the pillaging of sacred spaces which we heard about in that series, there seems to have been no great shortage of relics, though of what age or origin it’s hard to say. 

Bar Sauma reported first going to the Church of Divine Wisdom, the Hagia Sophia, its 360 pillars all in marble, and its dome. 180 feet high, set upon four arches, and ringed by 40 windows, it was, he said, “impossible … to describe … to one who [has] not seen it, and to say how high and how spacious it [was].” And this bears emphasizing I think, that he felt beyond the capacity of his contemporaries’ imaginations, having no frame of reference to contemplate such a building and not primed as we are now by movies and travel photography.

He also mentions being shown a picture of Mary, said to be painted by Luke, the hand of John the Baptist, and bodily relics of Lazarus and Mary Magdalene. There was a stone which Mary had wept upon and which remained wet, no matter how often if it was wiped dry. He saw the funerary chest of a holy woman that was open to the public once a year, when every sick person laid under it was cured. He saw the coffer of John the “golden-mouthed” early 5th-century archbishop of Constantinople. There was the rock that Simon Peter sat upon when he’d denied Jesus for the third time and the rooster crowed. There was the resting place of the 318 bishops whose bodies lay uncorrupted by the passing of time. He saw many shrines and amulets, images and icons. He said he saw the tombs of Constantine and Justinian, and he reported them in among the relics and other religious items, the sacred objects and pilgrimage sights that had also so interested him when he’d arrived in the Ilkhanate.

But though he may have thought himself as much a pilgrim as anything else, he had another objective on this journey, and after this break we’ll see how that would go.

His tour of the city complete, Rabban Bar Sauma appeared before Andronicus again. He gave the emperor his thanks for his hospitality and for the things he had been allowed to see, and he was given gold, silver, and permission to depart.

There was one last holy site to be seen on the way out of the city, a Roman monastery on the shore, where, in boxes of silver, were the purported heads of John Chrysostom and Pope Sylvester, and then it was to the sea. It was “a terrible sea,” he said, where “very many thousands of people [had] perished,” and he wasn’t wrong about that. Bad weather, bad captains, and bad cases of piracy could all bring death or miserable misadventure. But it was for all that not so terrible, not so terrible that it didn’t form a well-travelled web of interconnectivity on the eastern Mediterranean.

Like many, many others, Rabban Bar Sauma did not succumb to the crossing. It was exhausting he said, and he was a man who knew hard travel but also not so young as he used to be, now 60 years old and with 7 years having passed since he last went on a long trip. He doesn’t record particular sources of the exhaustion, natural or otherwise, but he does mention stories of a “great serpent,” though not one he saw, and he does mention seeing something pretty exciting on the way. There was, quote, “a mountain from which smoke ascended all the day long and in the night time fire showed itself on it. And no man [was] able to approach the neighbourhood of it because of the stench of sulphur.” He had of course seen a volcano on his crossing; specifically, he had seen the eruption of Mount Etna on Sicily in June of 1287. 

That aside, he gives no further details of his time at sea, only that he arrived “after two months of toil and weariness,” but Rossabi points out that this timeframe itself is potentially noteworthy. The voyage, by his estimate, should have lasted less than one month, so what had happened? It could simply be that there had been an unrecorded stop or two on the way, or maybe there been something that happened to that ship on the open seas. There was certainly going to be something that happened when they arrived in Napoli.

The text reads as if they’d hardly entered the city, made their presence known, and been greeted and honoured, when violence broke out. And this was not a drunken punch-up at the docks either. Rabban Bar Sauma and his companions watched in amazement from the roof of the mansion they’d been assigned, as an immense battle was fought before them in the Bay of Naples. 

What they were witnessing was a chapter in what’s generally termed the War of the Sicilian Vespers, and this requires that I rewind here a little. The vespers in question would be the evening prayer at the Church of the Holy Spirit on the edges of Palermo, on Marco 30th, 1282. That was where and when years of resentment had spilled over against the occupying French soldiers of Charles of Anjou. A drunker officer is said to have put hands on a married local woman and her husband to have promptly stabbed him to death. The other soldiers had leapt in and then the other locals. As word went forth from the church, there had been a general massacre of the French in Palermo, and then that word had spread to other towns and cities, and the massacre had a spread also. What had started as an altercation quickly became a revolt. 

And it spread, and it grew. Its leaders reaching out to Pope Martin IV for help against Charles’ inevitable response but finding little sympathy and less support, they looked to get themselves another monarch and some measure of protection from the storm to come. They looked to Peter, or Pedro, III of Aragon, or rather they looked to his wife Constance who was daughter and heir of Manfred, the last Hohenstaufen king of Sicily, and they asked if she might now accept her throne. As it happened, she would, and on September 4th of that year, 1282, Peter, who had brought a substantial army with him, was made King of Sicily. Queen Constance would be his regent in Messina near the northeastern tip of the island. 

Neither Peter or Charles much wanted full-blown warfare. Neither they nor their lords would have much wanted to pay for it, so there was much diplomatic jockeying; there was some skirmishing; there was actually a duel proposed and agreed to, to take place in Bordeaux, but on that day, the two kings deliberately arrived at different times, left without crossing paths, and then, in a real display of excellence all round, both declared themselves the victor, their opponent having evidently forfeited out of cowardice. 

On things went. Charles of Anjou died in 1285, but that resolved nothing. If anything it added to the confusion as the Sicilians, three years now having passed since their rebellion, now found themselves with three ostensible rulers: Peter of Aragon who really had concerns elsewhere such as being subjected to the Aragonese Crusade, which I won’t get into here, and was represented by his wife and regent Constance; Charles’ son, Charles of Salerno, who had blundered into an Aragonese fleet when out aboard some new galleys and was, as a result, now a prisoner; and the pope, for Pope Martin recognized neither king’s legitimacy and had declared his own consequent authority over the island. 

By the time of the Ilkhanid embassy’s 1287 arrival in Napoli, matters had obviously still not been resolved, though the players had turned over somewhat. Peter of Aragon had died and left Sicily to his son James II. Charles of Salerno had, in prison, declared a willingness to surrender his Sicilian claim and later showed every indication of wanting to honour that declaration and to pursue peace at some cost to himself; however Pope Honorius IV, Martin having died the same year as Charles’ father, did not want an Aragonese king on the throne and would have none of it.

So having said all that, what exactly was going on in the Bay of Naples as Bar Sauma looked on from his mansion roof? The king who had welcomed them to the city was very likely Charles Martel, the son of Charles of Salerno. On June 23rd, 1287, his fleet was drawn out into the bay to do battle with the ships of James II under the command of his admiral, Roger of Lauria, in what’s sometimes referred to as the Battle of the Counts owing to Charles’ side being commanded by five counts and to differentiate it from a battle between the same two sides in the same bay just 3 years earlier.. 

Lauria’s forces were said to have been outnumbered but perhaps to have managed a feigned retreat followed by flanking and partial encirclement. Details are somewhat sketchy and there’s some suspicion that the chronicles conflated the two battles in the bay, but either by tactical brilliance or by the superiority of his more battle-hardened and experienced crews, Lauria would be victorious. 

Bar Sauma was no military expert, and he tells us little of how the battle unfolded, only that the Aragonese/Sicilian side of James II overwhelmed that of his host, killing 12,000 men and sinking many galleys. There is of course likely some exaggeration here in terms of numbers killed, but Bar Sauma had the big picture right. Charles’ men fled as they were able to, maneuvering their ships back to port and leaving behind many galleys to be captured, and when I say “many,” I should add that there were thought to be 40-50 galleys on one side and 70 on the other. Though this doesn’t set it apart as “largest naval battle ever,” it still leads me to contemplate what kind of a chaotic spectacle that would be, some 120 large ships coming together in a swirl of violence on the water; it’s not easy to picture and would have made quite a spectacle for the visitors.  

What stood out for Bar Sauma was his interesting observation that the forces involved attacked only each other, that the violence never spilled over into the killing of civilians. He admired this, and his admiration seems pretty telling of warfare as he had known it, the kind of total war pursued by the Mongols that could often result in the slaughter of non-combatants or enemies who had already surrendered.

One result of this more limited scope of combat was that it in no way hindered Bar Sauma’s departure. The Ilkhanid embassy was able to leave Naples behind it, likely after only a very short stay, and by horse move inland. They went through towns, villages, and housing in general, and Bar Sauma was struck that all along the way, there were people. They were everywhere, and it was all quite strange to him. He’d been through great cities was evidently unused to this kind of widespread habitation in contrast to somewhere like Constantinople or Baghdad on the one hand and some of the deserts and other barren landscapes he had passed through on the other. 

Then, as they travelled inland, serious news reached them. The pope was dead. And this, just by way of reminder, was Pope Honorius IV, and no, you’re not misremembering. He really did only just enter the story a few minutes ago.

Pope Honorius had stepped in for Martin IV back in April of 1285, and, already 75 years old and not a healthy 75 either, he’d had a rather short run of it. He’d actually died back in April of 1287, while Bar Sauma was only just out to sea or maybe just about to be, but of course the ambassador hadn’t heard about it then. He was hearing about it now as he came overland from Naples, and maybe it made him pick up the pace a little, the opportunity to be early in the door with a new pope, to get him talking about the policy you were interested in before he got bogged down in the concerns of others and the business of the papacy.

But as it happened, there was no need to rush. When the party reached Rome in July, there was no pope to be had, and this is really no great surprise. As we’ve touched on in other series on this podcast, selecting a new pope could be a painfully drawn-out affair and was not at all the kind of thing you wanted to be depending on to wrap up quickly. In this particular instance, though Bar Sauma couldn’t know it yet, six of the electors were going to die during the process. But that was for later.

The council of cardinals that the ambassador found told him to recover from the journey, and he was given, as was customary, a great house for his stay and taken to it. After three days, they called him in. “What is [your] quarter of the world, and why [have you] come?” they asked. “For what purpose [have you] come hither?” And he told them, “The Mongols and the Catholicus of the East have sent me to [the pope] concerning the matter of Jerusalem; and they have sent letters with me.” “For the present rest [yourself],” they said, “and we will discuss the matter together later,” and so  he did, leaving the cardinals and retiring to wait for further word from them.

And that is where we’ll leave him for now, his audience in Rome having not quite yet gone exactly as hoped. Next episode, I’ll get into his fascinating conversation with the cardinals as they quiz him on all manner of religious matters, and we’ll see him see the sights of Italy and of France. We’ll see him meet with the King of England. All that and more, next time.