Hope this find you well and feeling like listening to a history podcast. Today, it's the conclusion of the Rabban Bar Sauma series. It's Bar Sauma's return to the Ilkhanate and the results of his journey. It's the end of the line for him and his friend the catholicus, and it's the changes that were going on in the Ilkhanate and how they affected the Church of the East and our main characters. Also, a note at the end about the text itself.
Hope you enjoy!
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, 2014.
Grousset, René. Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia. Rutgers University Press, 1988.
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.
Lambton, Ann K. S. Continuity and Change in Medieval Persia. SUNY Press, 1988.
Rossabi, Morris. Voyager from Xanadu: Rabban Sauma and the First Journey from China to the West. Kodansha International, 1992.
When Rabban Bar Sauma returned from Europe to his khan, Arghun, he perhaps had reason to feel at least a hint of nerves. For one whole year he had been abroad, through 1287 and into 1288, and what did he have to show for it? He had his personal experiences, to be sure, in travelling all that way, meeting and mingling with emperors, monarchs, and popes, and, far more importantly from his perspective, encountering what relics and sacred spaces that Constantinople, Rome, and Paris had to offer, and receiving religious benefit from them.
But what of his other purpose, that given to him by Arghun, that assignment to win the sympathies of the Christian pope and kings and their support in the war to come. What of that? Of that, despite his friendly reception, there was no actual commitment; there was enthusiasm yes, but no real promise of boots on the ground: not from King Edward of England, not from King Philip of France, and least of all from Pope Nicholas in Rome. It seems to me then that Rabban Bar Sauma might have felt a little uncertain as he came home to the khan.
But for all that, there’s no hint of misgivings, no suggestion that he should feel worried where his khan was concerned. On the contrary, in our source, it was all a smashing success, a truly happy occasion. Something of victory had been won. However, though the day was crisp and clear, the sun was setting, on Bar Sauma, on Yahballaha, on Arghun, on a chapter in Euro-Ilkhanid relations, and on a chapter of the Ilkhanate itself.
Hello, and welcome. My name is Devon, and this is Human Circus: Journeys in the Medieval World, the history podcast where I, your host, follow medieval travellers of one kind or another and tell the stories around them. At this time, I would like to direct your attention to my Patreon, where for a low monthly subscription, the cost of one coffee a month really, you could be enjoying this episode ad-and-interruption-free or referencing the script as you go, you could be helping me out in turning this hilariously time-consuming hobby of mine into something more like a profession, and you could be doing all of that at patreon.com/humancircus or via my website at humancircuspodcast.com. And on that note, I’d like to say thank you to newest patrons, John and Ryan, for coming aboard. I really appreciate it.
And now, let’s get back to the story, that of the humble monk who rose to play a role in the greatest kingdoms and empires of his day, of his friend the catholicus of the Church of the East, of two friends who’d left China together so long ago and set out to Jerusalem on pilgrimage. It’s the end of the line for them, the what comes next, and the conclusion of our story.
Let’s get to the arrival of Rabban Bar Sauma. He was returning to his adopted home within the Mongol Ilkhanate, to his close friend, and to his khan, Arghun, who welcomed him and received the letters and gifts he brought with him. And as I said, there’s no sign at this stage that the trip he was returning from had not been a tremendous accomplishment. Bar Sauma spun a story of how happily he had been welcomed, how each ruler had taken Arghun’s words gladly, and how wonderful were the sights that he had seen and how mighty the kingdoms. And fair enough, really. It was all true. There had been abundant positivity at every stop of the tour. Real commitments may have been thin on the ground, but there had been a lot of extremely friendly noises. Arghun Khan evidently liked what he heard, and he thanked his ambassador for his service, saying:
“We have made [you] to suffer great fatigue, for [you] are an old man. In future we shall not permit [you] to leave us; nay, we will set up a church at the Gate of our Kingdom, and [you shall] minister therein and recite prayers."
And so it was to be.
A church was set up, maybe something resembling a tent, with its curtains close enough to mingle with those going to Arghun’s throne, though that might be a bit of an exaggeration, a way to say, very close indeed. Bar Sauma’s friend and patriarch, Yahballaha, was called for and came to receive his letters and greet his old teacher. A great feast was given by the ilkhan, and when I say a great feast, I mean one lasting three days and in which Arghun honoured his guests. According to the text, the ilkhan even brought food to the catholicus himself, though how many times it doesn’t mention, and I have trouble picturing him trucking out top-ups for three days of eating and drinking.
He was happy though, very happy with the diplomatic victories his Christian subjects had won him and the promise that they may one day turn into military ones. He took good care of the people of the church, the bishops and priests, deacons and monks, the “beater of the board” who gave the call to prayer, and Bar Sauma. Bar Sauma was made director of the imperial camp’s church, in charge of distributing food and necessities among its priests, caretakers, and visitors, and it was commanded that the prayers said for him should never cease.
Arghun’s warm feelings towards his Christian subjects continued unabated into 1289. His 8-year-old child was baptised, and according to the text, Christian teachings spread and flourished at that time in the khanate. Even those who were not Christian came to Yahballaha then with their requests, indicating the substantial power he had come to hold.
The year 1289 also saw another attempt by the ilkhan to solidify Latin Christian support for his war on the Mamluks. This time, it was a man named Buscarello de Ghisolfi who would carry the message. He was a quiver-bearer by rank in the ilkhan’s guard, or keshig, and also a member of a powerful Genoese-Jewish family. And we know what message he brought to King Philip in France.
By the power of Eternal Heaven and under the auspices of the Supreme Khan, this is our word: King of France, we invite you to set forth on campaign in the last winter month of the year of the panther and to pitch camp before Damascus about the fifteenth day of the first month of spring. If you on your part will send troops at the time fixed, we will recapture Jerusalem and give it to you. But it will be useless for our troops to march if you fail at the rendezvous.
As if making an invitation to a chronically late friend, Arghun pressed upon the French king the importance of a timely arrival in February of 1291, and he even offered to supply everything that was needed himself. Just show up, he implored him, as if to the least reliable contributor to the group project; he would bring the paper, the scissors, the pencil-crayons, the provisions, and the 30,000 horses. Just show up.
But Buscarello returned from meetings with Philip, with Edward of England, and with Pope Nicholas with no more to show for his efforts than Bar Sauma had. There was praise for Arghun, celebration of his noble intent, and a total lack of commitment to follow through. So what was going on in Europe? Why was this friendly invitation going ignored? In part, it was because everyone involved was very busy closer to home.
Philip had clashes with Rome in the near future, and the destruction of the Knights Templar too. But even now he had his eye on expanding into Flanders and was embroiled in Aragonese politics and making every effort to see Charles of Valois placed upon its throne. Tensions between himself and Edward were building towards open hostilities and warfare, and financial tensions were building towards the economic disaster which is often thought to have spurred his move against the Templars.
Meanwhile in England, Edward was caught up in many of the same matters, in increasingly antagonistic diplomacy with Philip, in affairs in Aragon. And there was would also be rebellions in Wales to see to all too soon and war in Scotland. It was hard to see a place there on the itinerary for adventures abroad, but Edward did at least offer some advice. Look to the pope, he said. Gain papal approval of the project and all else would fall into place.
And as for the pope, he would be moving in that direction, but not with the kind of conviction that Arghun desired. It was going to be envoys and missionaries, not galleys or calls to take the cross.
The Ilkhanate did receive some military assistance in this period from one of Rabban Bar Sauma’s destinations, just not enough, and not from the one you might expect. 800 Genoese arrived in 1290 to assist the Ilkhanate in producing a fleet capable of threatening the Mamluks at sea, but little would come of it in the end. A renewed agreement with the Mamluks would lead Genoese leadership to abandon the project, and as for those 800 themselves, they would turn on one another in bloody altercations in the port of Basra.
Meanwhile Arghun had his own troubles and this time not with the Mamluks. There was rebellion in his eastern lands, and there were attacks from the north by forces of the Qipchak Khanate, also known as the Golden Horde. And then there was Arghun’s health. He was not well. But despite these distractions he tried one more time in 1290, with Buscarello again as part of the mission, one more trip to Rome to see if they couldn’t whip up a crusade. The embassy remained in Europe into 1291, long enough for news to arrive from Acre that just two years after the loss of Tripoli, that city also had fallen.
The loss of this last stronghold of the crusading Kingdom of Jerusalem to Sultan Khalil’s Mamluks seems to have come as a shock, enough to induce the pope to call for crusade, though perhaps that had already been on the agenda. Nicholas wrote to Arghun, pressing him to be baptized and to attack the Mamluks at once, but as the letters wound their way east, Arghun Khan was already dead.
“God the Lord of the universe, the Lord of death and of going forth, removed Arghun Khan to the seat of joys and to the Abrahamic bosom. And at his departure grief fettered the whole Church which is under the heavens, because the things which were done before his time and were done badly were rightly straightened in his time.”
The health problems I alluded to had been serious indeed, and Arghun’s efforts to dispel them had done him no good. A parade of alchemists, priests, and holy figures thronged to his court offering curative potions which he eagerly bought up and consumed. Some sources blame such potions for worsening his condition, some for killing him. Whatever the cause, the tricky question of Mongol succession was just ahead.
And this seems a good time to point out that this series isn’t the first we’ve seen of Arghun Khan on the podcast. He made an appearance back in the Marco Polo series, but we never quite got to meet him. Remember that story of the Polos accompanying Kokochin and her Ilkhanid escort as she made her way to marry the ilkhan. Well that ilkhan she was to marry was Arghun, but of course he had died, right here in 1291, before she reached him, so she had married his son Ghazan. But Ghazan was not to be ilkhan himself, not yet, not until 1295, and not until two other Ilkhans had warmed his father’s throne.
First up, was to be Arghun’s brother Gaikhatu, and with his rise to power and the passing of Arghun, a window seemed to be closing on Euro-Ilkhanid cooperation. Gaikhatu Khan was not hostile to Christians; far from it. He was a “shower them in gold” type of ruler, a fountain of royal generosity, and you can see some of this in our source. He, quote, “burst forth … took the sceptre of the kingdom and sat upon the throne of his brother… All creation was at peace, rebellion died and hid itself, the light of righteousness rose and made itself visible, for Gaikhatu, the blessed king, did not turn aside from the way of his fathers.” In other words, the money did not cease to flow. “His alms were boundless, and there was no end to his gifts in charity.” He gave to the Catholicus lovely vestments of silk and gold and no small amount of money besides, and one can see why he was well liked.
But it was in all seriousness, not just the money that pleased the Christians in his khanate. After this quick break, we’ll dig further into that, and into the place of our friend Bar Sauma in all that was to follow.
So as I said, it was not only the new Ilkhan’s free and easy way with the gifts that had him on the good side of our chronicler. It was no small thing to have his favour, or even is even hand, or to at least not, as we saw earlier in the series, suffer of the predations of his inner circle. No small thing at all for the rulership to turn over and for the next guy up to not send you packing or worse. There were no guarantees.
Under Gaikhatu, quote:
“... the glory of the … Church became as great, nay greater, than it was before. And the hearts of the Christians gained courage and waxed strong, when they knew the mind of the victorious king and heard his words, for his good qualities and his gracious acts could be felt with hands. And from day to day the glory increased, and the splendour of their Church grew apace, and this took place through the great care and foresight, and the wise rule of Mar Catholicus, [in which] he used his understanding for the glorification of the children of the kingdom.”
All was clearly well with the eastern church and with its catholicus, but what of Latin-Christian Europe? I mentioned a moment ago that a window seemed to have closed on the kind of cooperation Gaikhatu’s brother had looked for in that direction. Indeed, though an envoy from Edward I was received in 1292, none would head back the other way.
There are two side to Gaikhatu’s reign that seem telling here. The first is found in an anecdote, maybe to be treated as apocryphal, from the early days of his rule. The ilkhan asks a shaman why his brother’s reign had been so short and is told in response it was his brother’s thirst for blood that was the cause. The second is the debauchery he’s generally credited with.
He was, in summary, said to have been weak and ineffectual, to have drunk away what he didn’t give away, ruined what he did not consume. He’d encounter financial difficulties and then seek to top his treasury back up with such measures as a disastrous experiment with paper money. What thoughts he may have had of expansion do not seem to have involved European cooperation. But in our source, he doesn’t seem such a bad sort.
As for Bar Sauma, he was getting on a bit now, in miles and in years, and he had not, despite Arghun’s words of greeting been allowed to settle into sedate retirement. Or at least, he had not been set up with a church at which he might while away his later days or a cell to which he could confine himself in peace. Perhaps surprisingly, the Ilkhanid court had not entirely settled and set aside its nomadic past, so he travelled still, only now with the Ilkhan’s camp. It was not travel at its most arduous to be sure, but then not perhaps what he wanted. In fact, as the text tells us, this “prolonged sojourning in desert places, became intolerable to him.” Having got a feel for the new khan, Bar Sauma decided to do something about his situation.
He went to Gaikhatu, asking and receiving permission to leave the camp, to construct a new church, to endow it with costly vessels and vestments, the relics of 40 saints, and for the funds to see it maintained. Bar Sauma threw himself into life at the church he established, and he had what seems to have been a fulfilling couple of years. He was content.
Then, in October of 1293, Bar Sauma made his way to Baghdad in the service of his old friend Yahballaha. He was in his company when the Ilkhan’s cousin Baidu gave a feast in Yahballaha’s honour. There at the feast, Bar Sauma rose in some confusion and distress and fell. A fever took hold of him. The next day he made his last journey, to Erbil to settle some final “urgent affairs,” and then back to Baghdad to await his old friend who was away on church business. He was sick and in severe pain, but he wanted to see Marcos again. And his health held. Yahballah reached him in time for the two to say their goodbyes.
They had shared a lot, some thirty years as teacher and student, as travelling companions and friends, as assistant and catholicus. They had seen Kublai Khan’s China, met with Kaidu Khan of the House of Ogedei, travelled to Abaqa’s Ilkhanate, and survived the reign of Sultan Ahmed and the plots of their rivals to live in the favour of Arghun. Bar Sauma had travelled on to meet with a Byzantine Emperor, a pope, the French and English kings. They had done as they’d set out to do and come if not to Jerusalem then at least to the saints and holy places for which they’d begun their religious quest. And they had both overcome the resistance of those around them to become the people they’d wanted to be. And now one of them was done.
His, quote, “disease waxed heavy, healing took to flight, his life was despaired of, and he departed from this world of nothingness and tribulation to the world of holiness and to the City of the Saints.”
In the month of January, 1294, Rabban Bar Sauma died and was buried among the patriarchs. Yahballaha, whose extremely demonstrative mourning I’ve questioned in the past, here wept openly and, I’m sure, honestly, for the loss of his friend. For three days he grieved, receiving consolation from the leading people of the city, and “his weeping reach[ing] the Heavens.”
Eventually, he would regain himself. He would be sad, but he would get on with things, as people do. He would get on with being head of the Church of the East, with continuing a correspondence with his counterpart in Rome, though nothing much seems to have come from it, and with overseeing a thriving church. Monasteries were built and generous gifts were received from the ilkhan, but, though he may not have realized it, this momentum could not be sustained. It was a train-car which still carried on though the connection to its engine had been severed.
Maybe the catholicus saw some of this coming, but in the text it arrives like torrential rain on a bright, sunny day.
“Then suddenly storms broke, and the waves of confusion rose high in the kingdom; the emirs acted treacherously towards the [khan] and the tempests of suffering waxed strong on the world, and turmoil fell on creation. And men were slain without sufficient cause, and very many villages were looted by the soldiery with violence. And in the winter of the year , the roads ... were cut, and the fighters did not cease from the quarrels which they had set afoot, and at length they destroyed Gaikhatu Khan by violent death, and delivered the kingdom to Baidu Khan.”
So things had clearly taken a bad turn for Gaikhatu and apparently for society around him more generally: violence, disorder, and so on. What had brought this all on?
The short answer is that the good reviews the ilkhan receives in our source were outliers. He had been generous to the catholicus and the Church of the East; he had been generous more generally, but that willingness of his to give is most often viewed as a careless unwillingness to actually govern. He was too consumed with wine and sensual or sexual pleasures to care for anything so uninteresting. And I should note here that by some accounts, those of the chroniclers Rashid al-Din and Wassaf for example, this wasn’t much removed from the usual, run of the mill level of engagement for Ilkhanid rulers until Ghazan would come along. They’d pursue their pleasure of choice and for the most part turn over governance to viziers and amirs, to administrators of one kind or another. But then I need to also note that Rashid al-Din was, as Ghazan’s vizier, pretty invested in establishing how wonderful and different his regime was from those that came before.
In one version of events, Gaikhatu’s cousin Baidu brought about his demise. And this more personal version goes back to the ilkhan’s tendency to avoid bloodshed; remember what the shaman had told him about his brother’s reign, that his own violence had brought him down. The way this story goes is that Gaikhatu doesn’t clean house when he takes over. Too many threats are ignored and sleights forgiven. And when his cousin Baidu drunkenly insults him one night, Gaikhatu temporarily confines his cousin but does not, against everyone’s advice, punish him. He accepts his apology and releases him, but Baidu does not feel safe, secure, and thankful. Instead, in a kind of Carlito’s Way moment, he returns at the head of a conspiracy to overthrow his cousin and kill him.
Our source, on other hand, has Baidu becoming Ilkhan only reluctantly, placed there by the conspirators who’d removed Gaikhatu and ruling in constant fear for his own life. Either way, he would not have long to worry. If Gaikhatu’s reign often gets relegated to a page, Baidu’s is more like a paragraph. His time in power was short, only the five months from April to September of 1295, only five months until some of the same commanders who had betrayed his predecessor now left his side and went over to that of Arghun’s son, Ghazan. On October 4th of that year, Baidu was dead, and Ghazan at last became khan.
With Ghazan, the Ilkhanate had again some stability in its leadership. It also had ruler capable of turning back invasions from his Chagataid cousins, overcoming a rebellious commander, and campaigning actively against the Mamluks. There was even some success on that last front, including the capture of Damascus. Ghazan was said to speak 7 languages, to be well versed in history, astronomy, chemistry, and medicine, to be skilled with paint, wood, and metal.
Ghazan and his vizier Rashid al-Din carried out a series of economic and agricultural reforms and sought to address some of the corruption which had characterized previous administrations really at all levels from the elite to the local, or according to Rashid al-Din they did. He got to write his own history, and there’s some question as to just how effective this all was, to what degree the policies were put into practice and took effect, to what degree al-Din may have exaggerated both the ineffectual villainy of those previous administrations and the success of the Ghazan reforms.
There is, in any case, no sense of this reform or stability at all in our source, more like turmoil, persecution, and one hated enemy named Nawruz. This Nawruz has come up already, but not by name. It was his rebellion that had been keeping Arghun Khan busy back in 1289, after Bar Sauma had returned. He’d needed to find shelter with Kaidu Khan for a while after that, but he was a powerful man and would find an opportunity to return. That had come when Ghazan had prepared to move against Baidu. Nawruz had offered his very considerable assistance in taking power but only if Ghazan would, as much of his military already had, convert to Islam, and Ghazan, raised a Buddhist, had agreed.
In our source Narwuz was a source of terror with whom there could be no peace. He spread word through the khanate that, quote:
"The churches shall be uprooted and the altars overturned, and the celebrations of the Eucharist shall cease, and the hymns of praise, and the sounds of calls to prayer shall be abolished; and the heads of the Christians, and the heads of the congregations of the Jews, and the great men among them shall be killed."
What followed wasn’t quite that bad, but it seems to have been close. Yahballaha was seized and beaten, churches pillaged or destroyed. The catholicus was eventually ransomed but matters did not greatly improve. He hid for a time under the protection of an Armenian king, hid for a time while his people were beaten and hung upside down in the cold, had his belongings taken from him, his money, and then had to borrow more money as more men came looking for him, orders in hand that the catholicus should provide them with this or that large sum.
And through all of this, our source carefully avoids placing any blame for the situation at the feet of the ilkhan himself. It’s always Nawruz or another apparently even more evil man who goes unnamed who is responsible. Ghazan seems sympathetic, treats Yahballaha well when they meet, provides him with some money against all that he’d lost, intervenes not entirely successfully on his behalf. You get the sense that matters in the khanate were running out of his control.
The Mongol khans had generally taken a hands-off approach to religion and beyond that been quite willing to receive blessings from priests of this sort or that. They were happy to enjoy the benefits, ranging from those blessings to being able to position themselves as defenders of Christianity in their diplomacy. And among Ilkhanid royalty, you found a mixture of Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims, and you found Mongol Tengriism, but as we’ve seen at times, this didn’t mean there wasn’t inter-religious strife in their lands. After this break, I’ll talk a little a bit about that strife, about how it affected Yahballaha and his people, and about the conclusion of our story.
When Ghazan took power, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, and Zoroastrian places of worship were destroyed, despoiled, or repurposed, images and icons smashed, and practitioners assaulted, slain, or forced to convert. Buddhists and Zoroastrians, not people of the book, suffered the lasting brunt of this mistreatment under Ghazan, but it was no easy time for Christians either.
Nawruz, who seems to have initiated the attacks on Christians in our source would not himself be lasting very long. He was too powerful, too ambitious, to coexist within the khanate. He would again fall from grace, would be defeated by Ghazan’s forces, and later captured and executed. The khan would, quote, have “rest from the waves of his wickedness and from the storm of his cunning desires and crafty deceits. May [Nawruz’s] portion [the writer than continued] be with Satan, his counsellor and fellow-servant!”
With the death of Nawruz, obviously not mourned by our chronicler, Yahballah’s relationship to the ilkhan seems to improve. He receives more, has less taken from him, and is able to build a new monastery, a grand one but not in itself to compare with what had been lost. This is how Yahballaha is said to have explained matters to two of the khan’s men.
“I had a cell in Baghdad, and a church and endowments which were settled upon me; they have been taken. The church and the cell that were in Maragheh have been torn up by their roots and cast down, and everything which was in them has been plundered, as you are well aware. ... As for the church and the cell which were in Tabriz, there remains only a flat plot of ground with no building upon it, and everything that was in them has been plundered. The places whereon the cell and the church stood in the city of Hamadan it is wholly impossible to point out. There remain now the cell and the church in the fortress of Erbil and one hundred souls, and do you wish to scatter them also and to plunder them? What is the good of life to me? Let my lord the khan command either that I return to the east, whence I came, or that I go to the country of the [Franks] and bring my life to an end there.”
But Yahballaha would neither be sent east to Yuan China nor to the lands of the Latin Christians. He would stay and survive an ambush that saw him struck with an arrow. He would grow in Ghazan’s favour. He would actually outlast Ghazan and live on into the reign of his brother Oljeitu. But things would not improve, and the final years of Yahballaha’s life were not going to be easy.
When Oljeitu took the throne in 1304, his brother having lived a little past 30, it seemed at first a promising development. Surely this new ruler would honour the church as his father and brother had come to, and the catholicus rejoiced. But the joy returned by the ilkhan when they met was less than full, and doubt entered in.
Abroad, Oljeitu continued to chase after the familiar Ilkhanid goals of victory against the Mamluks and diplomatic ties with Christian Europe. His letters and envoys went west, but now not coyly dangling the possibility of baptism. Like his brother, Ghazan, Oljeitu challenged the Mamluks for supremacy explicitly as a Muslim ruler.
At home, he had little time or love for the Church of the East and this proved an embittering experience for its leader. Yahballaha had felt the full support of Ilkhanid royalty, had basked in its glow. As he soon discovered, its absence was absolutely perilous.
He found himself with few friends and little shelter against the violence that was to come. He had allies still though he had come to find that when help was needed, their words came slowly and their actions not at all. He could not stop the pillaging and destruction of more churches, and for all he tried, he could do nothing to prevent the massacre of Christians at the fortress of Erbil in 1310. He was barely able to preserve himself.
In July of 1310, Yahballaha went again to the camp of the ilkhan, and he presented himself. He blessed Oljeitu and they exchanged cups, as was customary, but then they passed the rest of the audience in utter silence. And Yahballaha was devastated.
You didn’t just walk up to the khan and talk about whatever you wanted; you didn’t set the agenda. If he asked nothing of you, well then nothing was said. And Yahballaha had needed things to be said. He’d needed Oljeitu to ask of him, as ilkhans perhaps had in past, what had become of him and his flock. The catholicus had not been born to it, but he had come to know the Ilkhanate very well. He’d lived there for 30 years under Abaqa, Ahmed, Arghun, Geikhatu, Baidu, Ghazan, and now Oljeitu, and he was heartbroken now at being effectively turned away by its ruler, heartbroken and surely in fear for what the future held.
For a month he waited in the camp, first assuming and then hoping that “some new thing might happen, or that someone would ask him what had happened.” But it never did. He went away to the monastery he had built under Ghazan. There, “he made up his mind that he would never again go to the Camp, saying, ‘I am wearied with the service the Mongols.’”
Yahballaha was not entirely without resources. He still had villages for his maintenance, stayed at that monastery without much further trouble, weathered the storm you might say, but never again rose to the heights of imperial favour which he’d come to enjoy.
He’d live for seven more years after that last audience with the khan. And then one night, the 15th of November, 1307, he’d die, to be buried at that monastery.
He’d been an ambitious boy, our Marcos, and he’d wanted more than his limited setting could offer him, religiously speaking. He’d followed that desire to his teacher and lifelong friend Rabban Bar Sauma, and made a place for himself there. He’d fulfilled his desires to take in the saints and holy places of the holy land, and he’d ascended to the peak of the Church of the East, a role in which he mixed and moved among the elite of the Ilkhanate. He and his friend had risen far in Mongol Iran for a pair of monks from China. They had, with the exception of Jerusalem, ticked off all their goals and then some, and now they were both dead.
The story of Euro-Ilkhanid engagement was not done with Bar Sauma’s efforts. There’d been other embassies in the first decade of the 14th-century, and then in 1313 there was another and signs that it might meet with success. But little came of Clement V’s call for crusade from Avignon. Edward I, the English king who had greeted Bar Sauma with such enthusiasm was long dead by this point, and the French king, Philip IV, initially took the cross but then died in France, a victim, some would come to say, of the curse of Jacques de Molay, last Grand Master of the Knights Templar. Though many Europeans did take part in the Ilkhanid-Mamluk conflict, that vision of large-scale cooperation, of a crusading army joining that of the Ilkhanate, never came to fruition.
And by this point, that conflict did not have long to play itself out. Oljeitu’s son Abu Sa’id would come to an agreement of peace with the Mamluks. He would later die of the plague along with his sons, and as the Ilkhanate would start to fall apart, a new Islamic power would rise to challenge the Mamluk Sultanate and, eventually, to destroy it. The Ottomans were coming, but that’s a whole different story.
This has been the story of Marcos, later known as Yahballaha the catholicus, and his friend, mentor, and one-time envoy to the thrones of Europe, Rabban Bar Sauma. In a way, it can be viewed as a kind of “what if” story, the way the Ilkhanate almost formed up alongside Latin-Christian allies and then, what next? The defeat of the Mamluk Sultanate? It’s possible. A halt on the development of the Ottoman Empire? Getting a little more far-fetched and speculative.
But it’s not just what almost was that makes this a fascinating story. It’s the sheer fact of a man born in the 13th-century near what would come to be Beijing, walking the streets of Paris and commenting on its student body, conversing with the French and English kings, and demonstrating his beliefs before the most powerful men in Rome. It’s his travelling companion rising to the highest position in the Church of the East and holding it through a rolling series of ilkhans. It’s the window in on the issues facing western European and Ilkhanid rulers, and to what degree they were entangled.
There were topics here that deserved much greater attention than I’ve given them. The Islamization of Iran, for example, is quite a big deal which we’ve just danced across the surface of here, and the history of Buddhism in Iran too, another really fascinating topic I’d like to have done more with. And the Mamluks. Here they’ve been very much the shadowy other in relation to which the other players move their pieces, but of course, they were so much more than that.
I guess what I’m saying is that you can’t tell all the stories all at once. These are couple at least I’ve noted here that I’d like to return to in the future, and if you hear something you’d like to hear more about, do let me know.
Before I finish up, a word about the text, “our source” as I’ve been calling it over the last four episodes. The text in question, which you can find copies of or can read for free online, is of course a translation. I got off to a bad start in languages with school French and a disastrous attempt at Italian in first year university, and despite my abortive attempts since, some Duolingo based, some not, very little has stuck beyond menu-reading and the odd snippet that for whatever reason sticks somewhere in my mind. But in this case, I’m not entirely to blame.
Bar Sauma’s Persian writings are, for now at least, lost. We don’t have an English translation of those to work from. What survived was a Syriac translation of those writings, and not one which made any attempt to convey the fullest sense possible of the original either. This is how the translator describes their work. Quote:
“... because it was not our intention to relate and set out in order all the unimportant things which Rabban Sauma did and saw, we have abridged very much of what he himself wrote in his narrative in Persian. And even the things which are mentioned here have been abridged or amplified, according to necessity.”
I really wish they had set out in order all those unimportant things which Bar Sauma did and saw, that we could dive in and swim among all those glorious unimportant things. Who knows what kind of details we’re missing out on, and who knows, maybe they’re not lost forever. But for now, we have this, these words that the unnamed editor and translator of Bar Sauma transmitted on, that others have translated since into other languages. And that’s still something pretty special.