This is Rabban Bar Sauma part 3 of 4, the story of his diplomatic efforts in Paris, Bordeaux, and Rome, and what he saw when he travelled western Europe as 1287 rolled on to 1288. In some ways, the Bar Sauma story has been a frustrating text to work with, for reasons I'll get into in the next episode, but I think it still makes for some pretty fascinating and unexpected encounters. Hope you enjoy it!.
The Monks of Kublai Khan, translated by Sir E. A. Wallis Budge. The Religious Tract Society, 1928.
Epstein, Steven. Genoa and the Genoese, 958-1528. University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
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.
Lower, Michael. The Tunis Crusade of 1270: A Mediterranean History. Oxford University Press, 2018.
Nicol, Donald M. Byzantium and Venice: A Study in Diplomatic and Cultural Relations. Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Prestwich, Michael. Edward I. Yale University Press, 2008.
Rossabi, Morris. Voyager from Xanadu: Rabban Sauma and the First Journey from China to the West. Kodansha International, 1992.
When we last left our protagonist, he was in Rome. He’d arrived to speak to the pope on behalf of the Ilkhanid khan and of his friend the patriarch or catholicus of the Church of the East. But he’d found that there was no pope, not then, not yet. He’d met with the cardinals that were in the city to consider a successor, announced his intentions, and then retired to rest and to wait for their word on what was to happen. And they were not yet sure how to deal with him, not yet sure what to make of this cleric from the east and from the Mongols.
He had arrived at somewhat of an inopportune time for them, what with there being no pope, but then their inability to respond to Arghun Khan’s call for an alliance against the Mamluks, may not have troubled them much. They had in effect received an unexpected visitor to the office just as the boss had stepped out of the building. And they’d have loved to be able to respond to this rather complicated request, but the manager was out for the moment, and no, it wasn’t quite known when they’d be back. They were gone for lunch. They might be taking the day. Were they gone for the weekend?
The cardinals had the luxury of time, but maybe their visitor did too. After all, politics does not seem to have interested him nearly so much as pilgrimage, and if he could not have his answer right away, then maybe he could take advantage of being in the city to see the religious sites. Maybe he’d even leave the city, spread his wings a little, expand his tour to some other destinations, and in the process, look to bring assistance to the Ilkhanate from the western kings.
This was to be Rabban Bar Sauma’s summer in Europe and then some.
Hello, and welcome. I’m Devon, and this is Human Circus: Journeys in the Medieval
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And now, back to the story, to a kind of religious summit, the first visit of a Mongol ambassador from so far away as China, and a tale of two kings and a pope.
Rabban Bar Sauma did not need to wait long for his interview with the cardinals. After only three days, he was called in again to appear before the twelve of them, none standing to meet him of course. They had him sit and again asked after his origins and reason for being in Rome, but then they moved on to other matters, and the conversation, carried on with the help of interpreters supplied by both parties, became more interesting.
“Which of the Apostles taught the Gospel in [your] corner of the world?” they wanted to know. By what ways had the Christian teachings reached him? St. Thomas, St. Thaddeus, and St. Mari went his answer, counting off the apostle that was said to have carried Christianity all the way to India where Marco Polo said his body was buried, and the two others, said to have nurtured its practice in Syria and Persia, to have been foundational there. “[they] taught the Gospel in our quarter of the world,” he said, “and we hold at the present time the canons which they delivered unto us.”
The cardinals then asked where this catholicus, his patriarch, was to be found, and what role Bar Sauma had in that place. Baghdad, he answered, declaring himself “deacon in the Cell of the Catholicus, and the director of the disciples, and the Visitor-General." And the cardinals appear to have been hugely impressed by all of this, delighted to receive a Mongol ambassador who, just as Arghun Khan had planned, really ticked all their boxes. “It is a marvellous thing
that [you] who [are] a Christian and a deacon of the Throne of the Patriarch of the East [have] come upon an embassy from the king of the Mongols,” they told him.
And seeing the positive effect his words were having, Bar Sauma pressed on.
Know ye, O our Fathers, that many of our Fathers have gone into the countries of the Mongols, and Turks, and Chinese and have taught them the Gospel, and at the present time there are many Mongols who are Christians. For many of the sons of the Mongol kings and queens have been baptized and confess Christ. And they have established churches in their military camps, and they pay honour to the Christians, and there are among them many who are believers. Now the king [of the Mongols], who is joined in the bond of friendship with the Catholicus, has the desire to take Palestine, and the countries of Syria, and he demands from you help in order to take Jerusalem. He has chosen me and has sent me to you because, being a Christian, my word will be believed by you.
The way it reads in the text, the cardinals chose not to bite on this invitation to join the Mongols in Holy War and in the Holy Land. They were in no position to sign up during the papal interregnum, and they may have not liked their chances of bullying such an army into action; it had, after all, been a losing effort on the part of the previous pope.
Instead, they chose to pursue a more strictly religious line of questioning. What was his confession of faith? What way did he follow? Was it the one held by a pope, or was it something else? No pope had sent any man among them, he replied, and their beliefs remained those of the teachers he had already named.
Yes, and what were those beliefs, they then demanded. Recite them for us, please, one by one.
Here, Bar Sauma was in something of a sticky situation. He would not have wanted to lie about his faith, but his purpose was to present himself in the most appealing light he could in order to further the Ilkhan’s cause. That was why he had been chosen, not to score points for the Church of the East in a theological contest. He was therefore careful in how he described his understanding of the Trinity, and he might have been helped in this by his translators perhaps looking to smooth over any differences between the two sides.
He talked about the One God and the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which would not have bothered his hosts, though with a whisper of dyophysite belief, the idea of two distinct Jesuses, one human the other divine, which certainly would have. Still, whether because of the vagueness in his explanation or the polishing up it received in translation, this particular stumbling block didn’t catch their attention, at least for now.
What followed started to look like less of an interview and more of a debate, with Bar Sauma posing his own questions to the cardinals who at one point seem to have falsely represented their beliefs in order to test his own. There were potential points of controversy - had their visitor suggested that the three aspects of the Trinity were not co-equal? - but the cardinals don’t seem to have been interested in having an argument; they appear to have been genuinely curious and wanting to know more about this Church of the East or at least more about this Mongol ambassador who the text, for what it’s worth, tells us they were very impressed by.
And if they wanted no argument him, then he really wanted no argument with them. He was not there to stir up controversy and may have recognized or been informed that with no pope in place, this was not the right time to push the Ilkhanid agenda. So he brought matters back around to his own interests, those of a pilgrim.
I have come from remote countries neither to discuss, nor to instruct [men] in matter of the Faith,” he said, “but I came that I might receive a blessing from [the pope], and from the shrines of the saints and to make known the words of [Arghun Khan] and the Catholicus. If it be pleasing in your eyes, let us set aside discussion, and do [you] give attention and direct someone to show us the churches here and the shrines of the saints; [if you will do this,] you will confer a very great favour on your servant and disciple.
It was a well-mannered enough changing of the subject, and the cardinals were busy men with the pressing work of papal selection on their plates. They would not refuse his request. Our source tells us that they “summoned the Emir of the city and certain monks and commanded them to show him the churches and holy places that were there.” And of those, Rome had then, as now, no shortage.
First to be mentioned is the “church of Peter and Paul,” and that would be the old Basilica of San Pietro. This was of course some centuries prior to the work of Bernini, Caravaggio, and Bramante, but the visitor still remarked on its splendour beyond description. He then does describe the layout, the altar at which the pope would celebrate mass, and the resting place of St. Peter, a golden sarcophagus in another of bronze, beneath a great golden cross and ensconced in more elaborate gold-work.
He was also shown an image of Christ fixed in linen. King Abghan of Edessa was said to have sent an artist to paint a picture of Jesus, but the painter had been unable to see through the light pouring forth from his subject. So Jesus had pressed the cloth against his face, leaving the image there to be sent back to Edessa, and from there to make its way to Constantinople and then on to Rome where Bar Sauma saw it.
Finally, he mentions an unusual ceremony. He is shown another altar, where the Christian king of kings, the emperor, received the laying on of hands and was crowned, and where, quote, “[the pope] takes up the crown with his feet and clothes the emperor with it, that is to say, places it upon his head, [to show] the priesthood reigns over sovereignty.” And at first here, my eyes passed over this, not catching “the feet,” and then I had a bit of a chuckle over it, picturing the pope clutching the sides of his throne for balance and awkwardly grasping the crown between his -perhaps bare- feet, and swinging his elderly legs up to place it on the emperors head.
I thought at first it might be a mistake in the translation I’m reading, but it seems to have been a mistake somewhere earlier in the transmission, perhaps on Bar Sauma’s part in hearing the interpreters. In any case, just to clear things up, the pope was not given to using feet to lift the crown. Rather, the emperor had, in the past, kissed the pope’s feet, and that may have been where the confusion slipped in.
Having gone round the sites within the city proper, Bar Sauma was taken to the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, beneath which the saint’s body was said to be buried. He was shown Paul’s staff, the chain that was said to have been used to bind him and drag him to that place, and relics of two saints associated with Paul, though in very different ways. One was the hand of Saint Ananias, who had returned his sight and christened him Paul, and the other was the head of St. Stephen, the martyr, stoned to death with Paul, then Saul the very-not-yet-Christian of Tarsus, standing by as witness.
From there, the tour continued to the site of Paul’s own martyrdom, where, Bar Sauma’s guides told him, “when [Paul’s] head was cut off it leaped up thrice into the air, and at each time cried out CHRIST! CHRIST!” And from those spots where the head had landed, miraculous healing waters poured forth. They lingered a while at a shrine containing the bones of other renowned martyrs and fathers, and they carried on.
There was the Church of San Giovanni in Laterano, given over to the bishop of Rome by Emperor Constantine in the early 4th-century. If you’ve been yourself, you would not have seen the same building as Bar Sauma, for in 1287, that structure was just 20 years away from being burned down, not its only brush with death. And unfortunately, the ambassador had little to say of the building he saw. Really, he never does, save for the number of pillars which for whatever reason really struck a chord with him. Here, for example, the church was “very large and broad, and there [were] in the nave one hundred and forty white marble pillars,” and there were also four pillars of brass said to have been brought from Jerusalem. Bar Sauma was not otherwise particularly interested in architecture.
As his friend Marcos had said back before they’d left China for Jerusalem, the goal there was to visit the tombs of the martyr and fathers and to be blessed by them. Bar Sauma was not here for the buildings, though a grand structure may have caught his attention at times; he wasn’t there for doctrinal discussion. He had come to see and venerate the relics and so receive their blessings.
Bar Sauma and the rest of his company saw a selection of saintly arms, heads, and feet. They were shown a polished black vessel in which Constantine was said to have been baptised and the sight of Simon Magus and Saint Peter’s debate in which Simon is sometimes said to have fallen from the air and been killed but in the version they heard only had his bones broken. And after Bar Sauma and his company had had their fill, they returned to the cardinals, and the ambassador thanked them for all he had been shown and asked permission, seeing as they could not yet give him an answer, to leave their city for a while and journey on. And as we’ll see after this quick break, that’s what he’d be doing.
When Bar Sauma parted from the cardinals and said goodbye to Rome, he and his people went north to Genoa. They found the city with disaster just beyond the horizon, but still at the height of its powers. Just a few years before, it had achieved a great naval victory over the fleet of Pisa, one its rivals, and a few years later would also find success against Venice in the War of Curzola. The city was a cosmopolitan commercial powerhouse which traded wherever there was trade to be had, and a Genoese poem of the time read, in translation:
And so many are the Genoese
And so spread out throughout the world,
That wherever one goes and stays
He makes another Genoa there.
So this was where Bar Sauma now travelled, and with a Genoese interpreter in his party he would not have seemed strange to the citizens of this place. They were people of the world, and Mongol ambassadors had walked their streets before; actually, the members of an Ilkhanid embassy had fought with a Mamluk one there when they’d chanced upon each other in the piazza in the winter of 1268, the Mongols on their way to see Pope Clement IV, King Louis IX, and James of Aragon to do some alliance building, and the Mamluks off to see Charles of Anjou as he laid siege to Lucera, in their own bid to dissuade Charles from joining that alliance or perhaps to redirect it. But to get back to Bar Sauma, he and his party were warmly received in Genoa. They were greeted by a “great crowd of people,” and they were brought inside.
As is so often the case in the version of the text that has come down to us, a product of translation, transcription, and editorial deletion, we don’t get all we might have liked on how the visitor saw the city. But we do hear of a visit to a church, the Cathedral of San Lorenzo in fact, and a showing of the silver coffin of John the Baptist and an emerald dish from which Jesus was said to have eaten at the Last Supper, an item which is still kicking around by the way and has since been identified as glassware brought back by crusaders.
And Bar Sauma also remarks on the city-state’s governance, something he seems to have found striking enough at least to note down. There was no king. Rather, as he describes it, the people chose “some great man with whom they [were] pleased,” perhaps a somewhat novel concept, and, as you might expect, a pretty rose-coloured simplification of Genoese politics.
Leaving leadership specifics aside, there’s no discussion of military alliance or aid mentioned in the text, and our story carries on with Bar Sauma’s embassy going next to Paris, presumably with some stops in between that go unmentioned. They were there to see King Philip, the Fair and the 4th, a young king by any measurement, only two years into his reign and nineteen years old, but one whose territory, by Bar Sauma’s assessment or as he was told, covered more than a month’s journey, and one who still offered the hope that he would depart from his father’s disinterest in crusade.
Philip sent out a company of men to greet them and to bring them into the city with “great honour and ceremony.” He set Bar Sauma up with a place to stay, as was customary, and, as was also customary in our source, called on him after exactly three days, time which was likely very much needed for the weary traveller to recover. Philip rose to greet his visitor, not remaining seated as the cardinals had. He asked why Bar Sauma had come and who had sent him, though I assume by that time that he’d had those questions answered. Still, the visitor declared himself, his ruler, and his intentions, presenting the letter and gifts he had been sent with, and they seem to have been happily received.
If the Mongols, though not Christian, were to go and fight the Mamluks for control of Jerusalem, Philip declared, then he and his Christian people should be there in strength to fight by their side, if God willed it. And that last qualifier would of course be the sticking point - Philip too might have been waiting to see what came of the Papal election - but this does at least seem to have been the first hint of interest, the first bit of positivity in Bar Sauma’s diplomatic efforts.
Content for now with that, he heaped compliments on the king and the glory of his kingdom, and, as ever was his practice, asked Philip to provide him with men of Paris to take him to the city’s churches and its shrines, and Philip readily assigned men to be his guides, telling them “Go forth and show them all the wonderful things which we have here, and afterwards I will show [them] what I have.”
Paris presents another opportunity to see a western European city through the eyes of this visitor from afar, and there is, of course a visit to a Great Church, to that of Saint-Denis, its begun centuries earlier and completed just six years prior to his arrival. There, he was shown the tombs of the French kings with gleaming effigies atop each. As usual, Bar Sauma’s narrative makes no mention of the building’s features, its magnificent stained-glass for example, but it does mention the presence of 500 monks, who “ate and drank at the expense of the king,” and who prayed before the monarchs.
Bar Sauma spent a month in Paris, watching summer turn into autumn in the city and taking in the sights. But what seems to have really caught his attention is the number of students. There were, he reckoned, 30,000 scholars engaged in studies, of religious commentaries and exegesis, but also of philosophy and rhetoric, healing, geometry, arithmetic, the science of the planets and the stars, and the constant work of writing, and they were all paid by the king. Now, the numbers may be a little off, more than 25,000 off by any estimate I’ve seen, but it is true that in this, the century of Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas, there were a great many masters and students in city, and they were subsidized to some extent by Philip. It really was a studious place, and it impressed Bar Sauma, who presumably wasn’t present for one of the “town and gown” clashes that had occasionally marked, and marred, the presence of the University of Paris in the city.
After seeing all that “was splendid and renowned,” the visitor and his companions returned to the king. Philip had told them that he had something he would show them once all other sights had been seen, a certain special something, and when they went to him, he brought them up to a chamber of gold. There, were displayed two things. The first was a fragment of the cross, and I’ve come across so many of these in my readings that they’re starting to lose their lustre, but obviously that would not have been the case for a 13th-century Christian come to venerate the relics of the saints and other sacred objects. And the second was the Crown of the Thorns.
The king explained that his fathers had brought these objects back with them from crusade, from when they’d taken Constantinople and sacked Jerusalem though in fact the crown had taken a much more winding road. The constantly cash-strapped Baldwin II, last Latin Emperor of Constantinople, had used it as security on a Venetian loan and then, when the relic had been shipped off to Venice and past the Nicaean Emperor’s attempt to intercept it at sea, convinced Philip’s grandfather Louis IX to acquire it from the Venetians.
Maybe this was the story Philip actually told and something became lost in translation at one step or another, or maybe, as with the rest of Bar Sauma’s visit, Philip wanted to emphasize the crusading spirit in himself and his kingdom. As was so often the case, he had other matters on his plate, but he might still have wanted to make clear his sympathies for the anti-Mamluk cause and commitment to one day going to the Holy Land. One day.
He provided Bar Sauma with gifts, a letter for the Ilkhan, and with an ambassador of his own who would later join the Ilkhanid embassy on its return trip. And Bar Sauma blessed the king, and on they went to his next diplomatic target, the king of England.
Edward I was not to be found in London at that moment. There was to be no channel crossing for this traveller. The king was in southwestern France, then a possession of the English crown. It would not be Edward’s for long, as Philip would be seizing the region in just seven years, but for now, the king was in his city of Bordeaux. And that’s where Bar Sauma could find him.
He and his party were met by people who evidently were not expecting them. “Who are you?” they asked. And when the reply came, "We are ambassadors, and we have come from beyond the eastern seas, and we are envoys of the King, and of the Patriarch, and the Kings of the Mongols,” the welcoming party scurried off, to inform the king, and then to bring them into his presence with none of the customary three days to wait.
Edward seems to have given them another warm welcome and, like Philip, to have been at least outwardly enthusiastic about Arghun Khan’s invitation. He took his letter and his gifts, he rejoiced at the mention of Jerusalem, declaring, quote, “We the kings of these cities bear upon our bodies the sign of the Cross, and we have no subject of thought except this matter. And my mind is relieved on the subject about which I have been thinking, when I hear that King Arghun think[s] as I think." And this was not purely performative. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this series, Edward was very keen to go crusading. He’d been before, and he wanted to go again. And Bar Sauma surely felt his mission a success, now seeming to have the kings of England and France both on his side, and what happened next could only have increased his confidence.
And the king commanded Rabban Sauma to celebrate the Eucharist, and he performed the Glorious Mysteries; and the king and his officers of state stood up, and the king partook of the Sacrament, and made a great feast that day.
And this I think needs a little underlining, a little emphasis. This was, in 13th-century Bordeaux, the King of England taking the sacrament from a monk, really more than a monk now, born in China. It was quite a moment. And afterwards there was food to celebrate the event. Bar Sauma, who did not really care to mention such things, doesn’t tell us of the menu, but we do know that Edward did not feast lightly. One such event which is recorded included veal, 22 pheasants, 204 partridges, 192 ducks, 72 plover, and a very solid 1,742 chickens. This, the arrival of an Ilkhanid embassy, was an unlooked for occasion, but I would like to imagine they still did alright for themselves.
Edward provided rich gifts, money against the costs of the road, and some parting words. Tell the khan when you return, tell them all, quote:
We have seen a thing than which there is nothing more wonderful, that is to say, that in the countries of the Franks there are not two Confessions of Faith, but only one Confession of Faith, namely, that which confesseth Jesus Christ; and all the Christians confess it.
Edward wanted it known that Latin Europe was not divided by religion, though of course it was, for all that, quite, quite divided, and Bar Sauma would come to know that himself, if ever he doubted it.
He left then and returned to Genoa, a nice enough place for one to spend the winter and await news from Rome, and after this break we’ll pick his story up there.
Rabban Bar Sauma enjoyed his time in Genoa. It was, in the summer, not too hot, and in the winter, not too cold, and he was now in position to comment knowledgeably on both. There was a garden which resembled paradise, green foliage which remained green throughout the year, and, quote, “trees, the leaves of which do not fall, and which are not stripped of their fruit” and “a kind of vine which yields grapes seven times a year, but the people do not press out wine from them.” And I do find it surprising that among this text’s general dearth of detail at almost every turn, and in light of the fact that this man had traversed basically the breadth of the Eurasian landmass, that this observation made the cut, but then that is the joy of seeing things through another’s eyes, I suppose, and clearly, Bar Sauma was deeply taken with Genoa in the off-season.
However, one senses that for all his success with the French and English kings and the pleasant nature of his surroundings, he was becoming frustrated by the situation in Rome and his helplessness in the face of it. And when I say one “senses,” it’s really there to be read on the page, for as the winter ended, he received a visiter, a man on his way through town and bound for Rome who heard, as one would if one moved in such circles, that there was an Ilkhanid ambassador staying in the city.
I’ve heard you wish to go to Rome, said the visitor when they met, to which Bar Sauma replied with some exasperation.
What shall I say unto thee, O beloved and noble man? I have come on an embassy from King Arghun, and the Catholicus of the East to [the pope] on the subject of Jerusalem. Behold I have been a year of days [since I came], and a Pope has not sat. When I go back what shall I say and what answer can I make to the Mongols? Those, whose hearts are harder than flint, wish to take the Holy City, and those to whom it belongs never allow the matter to occupy their minds, and moreover, they do not consider this thing to be of any importance whatsoever! We shall go and say we know not.
As much as he may have been enjoying Genoa, he seems to have been ready to go home, to be among people he could speak openly with and without translation, and to again see his friend who now sat as head of the Church of the East, but he was at a loss as to what he’d say to the Ilkhan when he got there.
Fortunately, the fellow who he was venting to was no mere merchant or minor noble. He was a papal legate named John returning from negotiations as to the Holy Roman Emperor’s enthronement, and this John was very sympathetic. In our source, he even promises to go to Rome and confront the cardinals with the truth of Bar Sauma’s concerns, to press them to come to a decision.
But it turned out that all of that was unnecessary. John wouldn’t needn’t to go and harangue the surviving papal electors - and there were now only seven of them left alive - and bully them into selecting a pope. They had, at last, chosen. They’d chosen one of their own in mid-February and by the end of the month, he’d agreed. By the time John reached Rome, the first Franciscan pope, Nicholas IV, had greeted the legate, heard him out on the matter of the Ilkhanid embassy, with which he was familiar after Bar Sauma’s own visit to Rome, and sent messengers at once to Genoa to invite the ambassador to join him.
Naturally, Bar Sauma was delighted, delighted to hear that his lord’s proposal would now reach papal ears, and delighted to pack up and be in Rome in two weeks’ time. Whatever else happened, he would have done his job. He’d been, as he’d told John, a year away, and the relics of France and Italy were not enough to keep him.
And he had some reason to be delighted too for the man who would be receiving him in Rome. It was a cardinal he’d previously met and spoken to at length who now would be pope, and though he would not have known it, it was, from a foreign policy perspective, a pretty promising appointment as far as his mission was concerned. Before being Nicholas IV, he’d been to Constantinople in the early ‘70’s looking to bring the churches of east and west closer together; he’d been about the world a bit, and knew of Mamluks and Mongols and Christians whose beliefs were not quite his own.
That was who was sat there in Rome, where Bar Sauma rushed forward, bowed down, and kissed his hands and feet. We might think that this was not the head of his church, but it clearly meant something pretty momentous to meet him. And if in doubt of this, we can simply listen to his words, as he steps back, hand to heart, and he begins to speak, to gush even:
"May your throne stand for ever, O our Father! And may it be blessed above all kings and nations! And may it make peace to reign in your days throughout the Church to the uttermost ends of the earth! Now that I have seen your face my eyes are illuminated, and I shall not go away brokenhearted to the countries [of the East]. I give thanks to the goodness of God who has held me to be worthy to see your face."
It was quite an outpouring, whether protocol or personal. And maybe it was the former, but given just how delayed this particular gratification was, one can well imagine that Bar Sauma truly felt what he said and that this sense of the moment’s importance led it to be recorded, transcribed, and kept, to survive the cull and come down to us now.
He presented the pope with letters and gifts from the khan and the catholicus, the words of the one surely calling on Nicholas to call his kings to a crusade but the other less certain. Yahballaha’s letter has not survived, and it’s interesting to wonder what the patriarch of the east would have said to the pope of the west, what he might have proposed or asked, and maybe the answer to this question was nothing at all, and that this, though the pope would not have seen it in such a light, was simply a greeting between equals, from one leader of Christians to another.
Nicholas received the presents happily, invited his visitor to remain in the city and celebrate Easter, and provided him with a house and servants for his needs. And a few days later, a fairly remarkable scene played itself out there in Rome.
At their visitor’s request, the people gathered, the pope among them, to watch and “see how the ambassador of the Mongols celebrated the Eucharist.” And when that “very large number of people were gathered together,” and had seen, they were delighted and proclaimed aloud, “The language is different, but the use is the same.” The Christianity of this Christian from afar seems not have been so alien to them as they expected, and his visit seemed to be going well.
Next on the itinerary was Palm Sunday when thousands up thousands gathered before the pope in his throne. He blessed olive branches, giving them first to the Cardinals and Bishops and then throwing them out to the crowd. Then, he led them into the church. Nicholas took to the altar dressed all in red, with threads of gold and precious stones and pearls down to his sandals. He gave a sermon and then communion, going first to Rabban Bar Sauma who “received it with tears and sobs, giving thanks to God and meditating upon the mercies which had been poured out upon him,” clearly deeply moved by the occasion.
And the festivities continued. Bar Sauma described the pope’s appearance at a church, with a congregation so large that when Nicholas had finished speaking, the gave an “Amen” so loud that the ground with the force of it. He described a show of humility on the pope’s part, how he washed the feet of the people of his household. And he described a great feast for two-thousand, the ordaining of three bishops, and the baptism of three children.
There was more, and Rabban Bar Sauma and his companions took part in all of it, but eventually they were ready to go. He had attended to his Ilkhan’s business, to his own desires as a pilgrim, and to the anticipated interest of Yahballaha and others in the ways and rituals of Latin Christians. He went once again to the pope, this time asking for his blessing to leave Rome, deflecting the perhaps formulaic insistence that he stay, and, in a bit of cheeky move I would think, asking that he be provided with a to-go bag of sacred relics for the journey home.
Now I don’t know if this was a request the pope often received, and he pointed out that if popes had been in the habit of handing out bits of saints to everyone who knocked at their door, then no matter the mountain they started with, it would soon be entirely depleted. Still, for this particular trick-or-treater, he was willing to make an exception, and he called for a piece of Christ’s clothing, another from Mary’s, and an unspecified assortment of saintly body parts. Bar Sauma would not be going home empty-handed.
There was also a crown for Yahballaha, all in fine gold and gems, red vestments threaded with more gold, socks and sandals sewn with pearls, and a letter which, quote, “authorized him to exercise Patriarchal authority over all the children of the east.” There were gifts and a letter for Arghun Khan too, and for Bar Sauma himself, a letter empowering him as “Visitor-General” for all Christians and a generous supply of gold for the road. Nicholas embraced him, kissed him, and dismissed him, sending him on his way back to the Ilkhanate.
But what was he really going back with besides fond memories of Paris and Bordeaux, Genoa and Rome? There was the warm response of the French king and an envoy who returned with him, which was nice, and there was the very warm response of the English one, again nice, but what commitment did he have that troops might next year meet those of the Ilkhan so that together they might sweep south, scattering the Mamluks before them. Of that, there was none, and Pope Nicholas offered least of all.
Thanks to copies kept of the papal letters Bar Sauma carried home, we know what was offered instead. There was the granting of authority to Bar Sauma and Yahballaha, implying of course, that the pope had the power and right to grant it. There was for the catholicus also another letter, which opened in a friendly enough manner but then turned quickly to a lengthy doctrinal lecture in which the Trinity, bigamy, sin and sacrament all were touched upon, as was the primacy of Rome. There were other letters too, to various men of European origin living within the Ilkhanate, merchants or counselers who were urged to do their utmost to, quote, “extend the boundaries of the Christian faith.” And there was that letter to the Ilkhan, surely the most important of all where Bar Sauma’s mission was concerned, so what of that? Were there promises to go to war?
There were not.
You had some acknowledgement of Bar Sauma’s visit and Arghun’s message, of the Ilkhan’s friendly disposition towards Christians and Christianity, and then you got the argument for the pope’s worldly power as descended from that of Jesus, “son of the highest King,” a passage urging Arghun to convert, for “no one [was] exempt from the law of death,” and lastly, the suggestion that instead of seeking to conquer Jerusalem to be baptized there, he ought to be baptized immediately and encourage others around him to do so, for that would secure the Mongols against their enemies and ensure their success in taking the Holy Land.
So that wasn’t much to be bringing home with him after a year abroad. And those letters were dated April, 1288, so it was about a year since he’d left, and I’m sure Bar Sauma, with or without an alliance to show, was pleased to be on his way. His party stopped in Veroli, southeast of Rome, where, for reasons that are not entirely clear, he joined local church authorities in placing his seal on a parchment of indulgence, a parchment which comes downs to us and can be seen complete with its Latin inscription of “Barbazoma Tartarus Orientalis.”
And then, as the text says, “Bar Sauma returned. He crossed the seas which he crossed when he came, and he arrived in peace at the place where [Arghun Khan] was, sound in body, and with soul safely kept.”
And that’s where we’ll leave him for now. I’ll be back next episode with a kind of postscript to this series, the conclusion of Bar Sauma’s story and of Yahballaha’s, the end of the Ilkhan’s reign, and the results of this Ilkhanid embassy, this journey of a man from a Chinese mountain to the thrones of western Europe.