Rabban Bar Sauma 1: The Monks of Kublai Khan

The Journey of Rabban Bar Sauma

In the 1280s, Arghun Khan, lord of the Ilkhanate, might well have given hard thought to his situation and to his family’s recent past. His father, Abaqa, Kublai Khan’s nephew, had died in 1282, the final years of his reign and life consumed with an ultimately unsuccessful campaign against the Mamluks in Syria. Arghun’s uncle had been Abaqa’s successor, and had sought to deal with the Mamluks in a different way, reaching out to their Sultan as one Muslim ruler to another, asking for their submission. But after only 2 years, his uncle was gone, opposition to his Islamization of the khanate and the violent uprising of Arghun himself having led to his displacement and death. And Arghun Khan, great-great-grandson of Genghis Khan, stepped into power. His way was very much that of his father.

Like Abaqa before him, he seems to have viewed the Mamluks as a threat that might better be overcome with Latin Christian cooperation. Abaqa had been in communications with then-Prince Edward on crusade; his envoys had gone to Pope Gregory X’s Council of Lyons in 1274, and in 1276 and 77 to the court of Philip III in France and that of King Edward I in England. They’d been to see Pope John XXI before his brief papacy was cut short by a collapsing ceiling, then to Edmund again, and to the crusader states of Tripoli, Cyprus, and Acre ahead of the 1281 push against the Mamluks. But he’d had little to show for it in the end, perhaps only the aid of some Knights Hospitallers. If Arghun were now going to succeed against his rivals in Egypt, he would need to do better than that.

His first attempt in that direction was a 1285 message delivered by a Christian astronomer to Pope Honorius IV. The message referenced the khan’s mother’s Christianity, his family’s history as defenders of Christians, and his charge from Kublai to seize and hold “the land of Christians” under his protection. And it continued with something like this:

As the land of the Muslims, that is, Syria and Egypt, is placed between us and you, we will encircle and strangle it. We will send our messengers to ask you to send an army to Egypt, so that us on one side, and you on the other, we can, with good warriors, take it over. Let us know through secure messengers when you would like this to happen. We will drive out the Saracens, with the help of the Lord, the Pope, and the Great Khan.

And less than two years later, with nothing concrete to show for that first attempt, Arghun was again looking for an alliance. This time, he sent a man known as Rabban Bar Sauma.

Hello and welcome. I’m Devon, and this is Human Circus: Journeys in the Medieval World, following medieval travellers and the broader histories their stories wove through. Before we get going, I’d like to request that if it’s an option for you, if you are enjoying the podcast, appreciate the hilariously long hours that go into it each of these 50 minute episodes, and place some value on what you hear, that you consider signing up to my Patreon at, or through the website at There are $1, $3, and $5 options, and honestly, if I could get %10 of you to join in at the $1 option, it really would make a substantial difference in my life. 

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And now, to the story.

I’ve talked before on this podcast about the journey between Europe and eastern Asia, as far as China. I’ve followed the stories of friars and merchants going off to see the Mongols, and those have been some of my favourites so far. Today, I’m covering something related, but something a little bit different from those other travellers. 

I’d considered doing this story as part of the Marco Polo series, or right after, but at the time, I felt like a break from the Mongol world, felt like maybe if you’d been listening all the way through, you could use a bit of a palate-cleanser too. But it’s time to get back to the Mongols, only to follow a traveller going in the other direction from all those friars, to trace his steps from the Mongol Empire to the cities of Europe on imperial business, to tell the story of Rabban Bar Sauma and his protege Marcos.

In the preface to the 2010 edition of his book on our subject, historian Morris Rossabi mentions that his friends had urged him to use the title From Beijing to Paris: A Reverse Marco Polo, but he had resisted their suggestions. He recognized that the title might grab readers’ attention, but he said that the comparison to the much more famous Venetian, the framing of this story as that of a Turkic Marco Polo out of the east, would quote “slight Rabban Sauma’s mission,” that the Marco Polo reference would undersell the significance of Bar Sauma, for the latter’s voyage had “greater potential to change the course of Eurasian history.” As we’ll see, that wasn’t just the standard case of a writer setting out the colossal nature of their particular pet topic. Bar Sauma’s story is as important as it is fascinating.

Even the story of how the text comes to us is an interesting one. Bar Sauma’s account had been translated into Syriac, with some deletions, sometime soon after his death, but then both versions seem to have disappeared. There were brief references to his presence in the accounts of the Vatican, and in France and England, but nothing to draw much interest, and none in Chinese sources. 

Bar Sauma’s doings might have remained unnoticed for longer still were it not for a chance encounter between a Mr. Solomon of Northwestern Iran and a young Turkish man in the spring of 1887. The young man had a Syriac manuscript he invited Solomon to see, and Solomon saw it at once for what it was: a thing of interest. He had it copied and shared it with a specialist, and out of the publicity that followed that discovery, another manuscript was turned up. Rabban Bar Sauma, long sleeping, had resurfaced.  

The journey Bar Sauma undertook started as a pilgrimage, and then, after long years of delay, developed into something else: an embassy which revealed the changing nature of the quote/unquote Mongol Empire, and a fascinating look at medieval Europe from the outside in. So let’s get started. Let’s go back before the beginning of his travels, to his early life. Who was Rabban Bar Sauma? To answer that question, we shouldn’t look first to the western cities he visited such as Rome or Paris. We shouldn’t look to Baghdad or some other site within the Ilkhanate. We should look much further east, to China, to the region of what had been called Zhongdu, what would be known as Khanbaliq, Daidu or Dadu, what is now known to many, many more people as Beijing. That was where our protagonist is said to have been born and grown up, and that’s where we’ll find him. 

But first, his parents, because, pretty much uniquely among the texts I cover here, this one actually tells us a little about them.


There was a certain man who was a believer, and he was a nobleman and a fearer of God. He was rich in the things of this world, and he was well endowed with the qualities of nature; he belonged to a famous family and a well-known tribe. His name was Shiban, the [Inspector]. He dwelt in … the royal city in the country of the East. He married according to the law a woman whose name was Keyamta.

And you might be wondering, with this mention of believers and fearers of God, what belief and what God were being referred to. Shiban and Keyamta are sometimes identified as Uyghurs, sometimes as Ongguds, but always as Christians. In particular, they were what are commonly called Nestorians, though as I think I’ve mentioned in the Mongol or Marco Polo series, that is a term imposed from the outside, a name that refers back to one-time Patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius and his teachings, which were deemed heretical at the 431 Council of Ephesus. We might instead use the Chinese term Jingjiao, “the luminous religion,” or call it East Syriac Christianity. We might say they were ärkägün, a Mongol term for Christians, though there’s not much then there to set them apart from Latin Christians, or that they were Yelikiwen, a term for Christians under the Yuan dynasty. 

The terminology I’ll be using here is to say that they were of the Church of the East, and I won’t covering this here and now, but that church had a long and interesting history in China, one which can be traced back at least to a monument erected in 781 for a patriarch of the religion of the Roman Empire. 

Now, some 450 years later, our Shiban and Keyamta wanted themselves a child, but none was forthcoming. However, they prayed constantly to God to provide for them, and, quote, “Everyone who asks receives; and he who seeks finds, and to him that knocks it is opened.” 

It’s written that God interceded, that a child miraculously was born around 1225. They named him Bar Sauma; the term Rabban would be applied later, like Rabbi a term for a teacher. His name meant “the son of the fast,” referring to self-imposed food-deprivation rather than speed, and a pious picture of his early days started to take shape, one of “strict chastity and humility,” and looking every bit as much a hagiography as anything else.

Bar Sauma’s parents saw him educated and, when the time was right, sent to a teacher and then betrothed to an appropriate match, all proceeding as they thought best for him. He became a priest and a keeper in the church, and all was going according to plan. But then at 20 years old his devotion took a turn which made his parents less happy. 


He cast away forthwith the shadow of the world, and renounced straightway the desirable things thereof. He esteemed dainty meats as things which had no existence, and he rejected wholly the drinks which make a man drunk.

It was, to be clear, not just charcuterie and artisanal liquors which Bar Sauma was turning from. It was the things of this world more generally, and among them, that marriage his parents had arranged for him, for unlike priests, a monk had to be celibate. And that really seems to be the main issue here. In the text, they mourn that their son was separating himself from them, but the primary worry that comes across is that there would be no one then to continue the family line and to inherit what was theirs. Who, they demanded, was then to be master of their toil’s results?    

Their arguments worked for a while, moving Bar Sauma sufficiently for him to remain living with them, but he was only outwardly convinced, and in that only for three years. That was when he divided up his things and gave them to the poor. His wedding was called off; he was welcomed as a monk, and for the next seven years, he took himself off to a cell, away from the family and community concerned with this world. But still, he felt himself too much of the world, too entangled in its shadowy distractions, and kept from his calling. 

He found a mountain cave, next to a spring and a day’s journey from his parents’ city, and he settled into a life of asceticism, removed from distraction, and, as you might be thinking, also very removed from any path you’d expect to  lead him to one day traverse the length of the Eurasian continent. But that was coming still. It was in 1260, while Bar Sauma was living his cave-bound life, that he met the man who seems to have diverted his life, the same man who would journey from the east to one day sit as Patriarch in the city of Baghdad. 

There had been others. As ever was the case when you just wanted to go off on your own and be a hermit, people heard of this wise man of the mountain, and they came to sit before him and hear him speak. They honoured him, so that the mountainside maybe became a bit of a busy place at times, or so I like to imagine it at least. But one particular visitor, born to the name Marcos and into the family of an archdeacon, was a little bit different from the rest.

From what the text tells us, Marcos had always been an eager student, surpassing his older brothers and then his teachers, and then looking ever further afield. He’d heard of this Bar Sauma too, but it was far, too far for a young man of about 15 years old who’d never travelled alone. It seems that his community and his family pressed him to give up on his idea; however, his mind was not changed by their pressing. For all their attempts, they felt they were speaking “to a statue rather than to a rational man,” and Marcos wasn’t discouraged. He travelled 15 hard days to Bar Sauma’s cave and declared himself there ready to live, to learn, and, as was his goal, to become a monk.

“My son, from where did you come,” asked Bar Sauma. “And how did it happen to you that you have come to this mountain? In what city do your kinsfolk dwell? Who is your father, and whose son are you?” The monk did his best to dissuade his young visitor, probably listing some of the reasons his parents had once given to him, but, perhaps seeing a little of himself in Marcos, he eventually allowed him to stay. He clothed him in wool, taught him, and, only three years of ascetic labour later, saw him take his monastic vows.

And there in the cave, their life may have remained, had it not been for one of them, probably Marcos, musing aloud: 

It would be exceedingly helpful to us if we were to leave this region and set out for the West, for we could then [visit] the tombs of the holy martyrs and Catholic Fathers and be blessed [by them]. And if Christ, the Lord of the Universe, prolonged our lives, and sustained us by His grace, we could go to Jerusalem, so that we might receive complete pardon for our offenses, and absolution for our sins of foolishness.

And after this quick break, we’ll find out what came of that proposal.

At first, Bar Sauma was very much against Marcos’ idea to go visiting abroad. He tried to impress upon him the difficulties of the journey, its great length, the dangers of transcontinental travel in the 13th-century, which Pax Mongolica or no Pax Mongolica, were many. But Marcos had a vision, specifically a vision of the west, and the spiritual treasures that waited for them there, and he persisted. The two of them agreed that whatever might come, they ought not to be separated, even if that meant that one must choose some evil for himself to keep them together. Finally, as you may have already guessed, Bar Sauma was the one to make that sacrifice. 

It was about 1275, sometime around the year that Marco Polo was said to have arrived in China. And to situate that on the Mongol timeline, that was 4 years after Kublai Khan had established the Yuan Dynasty in China, but a year before the surrender there of the Southern Song. It had been some 10 years since his brother Ariq Boke’s surrender had marked the conclusion of the Tuluid Civil War over control of the khanate, with Kublai the victor, but his cousin Kaidu of the house of Ogeidei still threatened, Kaidu’s long-running war on Kublai bursting again to the forefront in 1275 with new invasions. Such was the situation as our two monks began the move west. But first their resolve would be tested. Because of course it would. What kind of story would this be if it were not?

After giving away what possessions they had to the poor, they left their mountain cave for the city, looking to join up with a caravan, or find escorts, and to gather provisions for the long trip ahead. However, once the Christians there heard of their plan, they did not think it a good one. “Do you not know how far away your destination is?” they asked, gathering around in a kind of intervention. “Have you not heard, or have you just forgotten, the danger of the road, and the fact that you will never arrive? Why not instead stay where you are? And perform works here, where you have been called to do so.” But the monks replied that they had withdrawn from this world already, and neither toil nor death troubled them at all. They asked only for these peoples prayers that their desires to come to Jerusalem be fulfilled. Leaving in peace, they travelled on. 

In our text, the next recorded stop, though there must have been many others, was the one where Marcos’ family lived, Kosheng in our source, sometimes identified as Marco Polo’s Tenduc. It’s a fascinating place where excavations have uncovered a walled settlement with wooden houses and palaces, elaborate gardens, Chinese tile, and crosses, and here too, the monks’ plans were not happily received. They themselves were very welcome, as the Christians of the city and the monk’s parents came out to greet them with joy. But as it emerged that Marcos had not returned to be close to his family again and was instead departing for a horribly distant land from which he was never likely to return, they were deeply saddened and did not offer their encouragement. The trip was not proving to be a popular one.

Next up in the chorus of disapproval, in some versions of this story at least, was a pair of  more powerful voices. This time it wasn’t parents. It was the lords of the city, who’d heard of this odd pair passing through their territory and called them in to hear more about it. And these were not your average commanders of a regional outpost; they were members of Mongol royalty, sons by marriage to the great Kublai Khan. And they wanted to know why these two peculiar men would ever want to leave their wonderful homeland.

“Why are you going west?” they asked. “We have  taken very great trouble to draw hither monks and fathers from the West. How can  we allow you to go away?" It was an interesting question, especially as an indication of the deliberate effort to collect literate men from afar - remember Niccolo and Maffeo Polo being asked to bring back 100 Christian scholars as another example. But what could our monks give by way of an answer? 

Well this was what they said:

We have cast away the world. And as long as we live in the society of men there will be no peace to us. Therefore it is right that we should flee because of the love of Christ, Who gave Himself unto death for our redemption. Whatsoever is in the world we have cast behind us. Although your love moveth us not to depart, and your gracious goodness would hold us fast, and your alms are bestowed upon us lavishly; and although it is grateful to us to sojourn with you, we remember the Lord's word which saith, 'What shall it profit a man if he possess the whole world and lose his soul? And what shall a man give as a substitute for his soul?' We earnestly desire the separation, but wherever we shall be we shall always remember, according to our feebleness, both by night and by day, your kingdom in [our] prayers.

Seeing they would not be held unless by force, the two lords now offered gifts, of rugs, gold and silver, and animals for transport, and at first the monks would not accept the gifts, for what were they to do with worldly things of which they had no need? As the lords pointed out in response, they very clearly could and should use those worldly things. The two monks did not know what the two lords did, that the path ahead was a dangerous and expensive one. The climates they made to pas through would be extreme, the risk of natural disaster substantial, and the potential for a violent death considerable. There were levies to be paid, the traveller’s protection money, and there was food needed for 6 months or more, with every potential for the “or more” to extend pretty much indefinitely. 

They would need those gifts, and if they did not, well they could just distribute them among the monasteries they found at their destination. Unable to argue with all of that, Bar Sauma and Marcos took the gifts and took their leave, going then from the city and continuing the journey west. 

In some versions of this story there’s no mention of their being sponsored by Mongol royalty; in others, Kublai himself was the sponsor, giving them clothes which they were to baptize in the Jordan River and then place upon Jesus’ sepulchre. But whether it was he or his extended family members, it seems pretty clear that somebody subsidized the trip, and somebody who required no financial return too. And that sounds like royalty, like people who could afford the costs and be content with diplomatic or religious returns on their investment, and who could also supply them with letters of safe passage.

In his discussion of the travellers’ requirements, Morris Rossabi talks about what was needed to facilitate the journey: “camel grooms, interpreters, baggage handlers, cooks, and guards,” the pack animals themselves, and new escorts for each distinct leg of the journey. For all that the monks insist in our source that they are simple men who need for nothing of this world, some 12-40 other men might have been involved in getting them where they were going.

The monks and their party, whoever may have been included in it, travelled southwest along the Helan Mountains, south of the Gobi Desert. They met fellow Christians and finally found communities that were supportive of their quest, greeting them with warmth and then showering them with gifts to aid them.  

On they went, the next stretch taking them along what’s sometimes called the Southern Silk Road, south of the terrifying Taklamakan Desert, the “Sea of Death.” They avoided the worst of the desert, but still it was “a toilsome and fatiguing journey of 2 months; the region was a bare and barren desert and it was without inhabitants.” It was largely without water too, the text reporting that during those 2 months, there were only 8 days when, with some difficulty, they managed to find water to fill their skins. Sandstorms were frequently reported in the region, and heat-induced hallucinations which, in a place that allowed no margin for error, might easily lead to death. By good fortune or good guidance, our monks would not succumb to either one. They’d be travelling through to Hotan.

That oasis town had long traded on its rich resources in black and white jade, had traded with the Chinese as far back as 200 BCE, and had later developed into a major Buddhist center, and an important link in the spread of the religion. Over time, and after conquest by the Turkic Kara-Khanids and then the Mongols, it had become something else. Marco Polo had reported its population to be entirely Muslim, but the place the monks arrived at was home to a variety of languages and religions. And though the text makes no mention of it, they must have found some friendly faces they could stay with because they were stuck there for six months, a helpful reminder, if any were needed, of how little control you sometimes had over your own timetable, when regional conflicts got in the way. 

We read that the caravan routes were cut by war between Kublai’s forces and some local commander, that grain was scarce, and that many starved as a result. Fighting between Kaidu and Kublai had come to area, and Bar Sauma and Marcos were witness to some of the results when they went on to Kashgar.

Marco Polo had been to Kashgar himself and written of vibrant markets for trade and craft, beautiful gardens, vines, and fruit trees, and the monks would have known it as home to a metropolitan see of their church. But the city they found was emptied of inhabitants and had been picked over by plunderers. There was nothing and no one there for them. At least they themselves were not attacked though. And they would find some help on that front just up the road, in the camp of Kaidu.

They’d reached him by a somewhat circuitous route, adding further weeks to the journey and fording a river, but evading the violence that was all around them in the land. They found Kaidu in Talas, where forces of the Umayyad Caliphate had once clashed with the T’ang Chinese, and where they were now going to need to be a little bit clever in order to come away safely.

Kaidu Khan, just to review, was head of the house of Ogedei and for long stretches held sway over the Chagatayid Khanate too. He was something of Kublai Kublai’s personal nemesis during his reign, a tireless adversary, even outliving Kublai himself to carry on the war against the great khan’s son. 

That was who the monks appeared before to ask for assistance, an imposing figure, one who seems to have wished them no harm, but one was no friend to the rulers they left in their homeland or those of the Ilkanate where they were bound. They could not afford to appear to be too friendly to either, and they same to have done well for themselves. Having prayed for the khan and his khanate, they came away from the meeting with an order of safe passage through his realms. An order which it sounds like they badly needed. 

The text is not specific here, but there is mention of their travelling in “a state of exhaustion [to which] fear was added.” They would have traversed difficult mountain landscapes, where the cold, winds, altitude sickness, and avalanches all threatened, and then deserts and bandits too. They would have passed the skeletons of fellow travellers and their pack animals, and when they came to Khorasan, where present-day northeastern Iran spills into Afghanistan, they had somehow lost much of what they had with them on the road, though whether that was due bad weather or banditry, it doesn’t say. 

When Bar Sauma and Marcos arrived at Tus, something of a Khorasanian capital for the Ilkhanate, they would have found a town that was again thriving following its Mongol devastation. According to Juvaini, the 13th-century historian, Tus had been reduced to “nothing … but the name and there were not more than fifty habitable houses in the whole town and even these scattered, one here, one there, in odd corners.” The Mongol governors had not left the town in that state for long though. During the 1240s they’d worked to rebuild it, complete with gardens, parks, and a restored palace, but our monks indicate none of this, only that they stayed in a nearby monastery where they were welcomed by fellow-Christians, and that they were grateful to god for having delivered them from the worst of the journey’s dangers. There were, they hoped, much easier times ahead of them, with brigandry, inter-Mongol warfare, and some of the more perilous features of the Central Asian landscape now safely behind. We’ll be having a look at those times in just a moment, after this short break. 

Bar Sauma and Marcos were in Ilkhanate territory passing between the Dasht-e Kavir Desert and the Caspian Sea, heading for Azerbaijan. They had planned from there to travel south to Baghdad, and to meet the head of their church, Patriarch Mar Denha, but it turned out that they wouldn’t need to go that far to see him. In the spring of 1280, he was in the area. He was in Maragheh, the site of Hulagu’s capital and of Nasir al-Din al-Tusi’s magnificent observatory, where astronomers from as far afield as Spain and China studied and contributed to an immense library of knowledge. And when our monks came before him, quote: 

… at the sight of him their joy grew great, and their gladness was increased, and their minds were made to be at peace, and their anxious thoughts were set at rest. And they fell down on the ground before him, and they wept as they did homage to him and they behaved as if they saw our Lord JESUS CHRIST in the person of MAR DENHA, the Catholicus. May his memory be for blessing!

And when they had spoken, the patriarch looked and wondered, and he asked, where have you come from? From Khanbaliq, they answered,

… from the city of the King of Kings Kublai Khan. We have come to be blessed by you, and by the Fathers, and the monks, and the holy men of this quarter of the world. And if a road opens to us, and God has mercy upon us, we shall go to Jerusalem.

Over the next few days, I’m sure they rested themselves and recovered from their long journey, and they met regularly with Mar Denha. They asked permission from him to go on to Baghdad, to see its religious sites and receive blessings, and to visit the monasteries of the land, and they were given permission, letters of introduction, and a guide to take them that way. Baghdad, like Tus, had quite recently suffered under a Mongol invasion. The sack of the city in 1258 by the armies of Kublai’s brother, Hulagu, had been a horrifying affair. It’s written that the three days of pillage and general slaughter had perhaps been provoked by attacks on Mongol envoys and the caliph’s unwillingness to immediately surrender, though there is some disagreement over exactly how indiscriminate the killing had been. 

I’d love to have seen a little of Baghdad as it was just over two decades years later, through Bar Sauma’s eyes, but our monks don’t give us any idea of what they saw. They say that they went to the great church at nearby Ctesiphon, where the Patriarch, the Catholicus, of the Church of the East was consecrated, that they went on to the monastery of Saint Mari the apostle. They went to Beth Garmai, where Ezekial was said to be buried, to Sinjar, Nusaybin, and Mardin, Erbil and Mosul, to the shrines of saints, and everywhere they remarked on blessings received, relics visited, and the warm welcomes of their coreligionists. 

Rossabi has speculated that some degree of that warmth was due to mounting hostilities in the region between the Muslims and the Buddhist and Christian communities, hostilities which the Ilkhans seem to have managed in classic colonial fashion. He’s put forward the idea that these Mongol-favoured visitors from afar were seen as potentially being very useful tools in those hostilities. And maybe he’s right, because Bar Sauma and Marcos were not allowed to while away their time in the local monasteries for too long. They had arranged for a cell all to themselves but quickly received word from the patriarch that he wanted to see them, and when he saw them, he said that he had heard they had been received into a monastery and that the idea did not please him.

He was not just happy to see these pilgrims from the east. He wanted to make use of them, perhaps saw in their arrival the apparent blessings of the Mongol khan and wanted to take advantage of it. If you enter a monastery, he said, you shall only be furthering your own peace; whereas, if you stay, you can support the Door of the Kingdom with your hands and aid the entire community. He wanted them to go the Ilkan on his behalf and request a letter confirming his appointment as Catholicus. That business done, they would be permitted to continue on to Jerusalem, as they had wanted to. 

Well, this was perhaps more a case of aiding the patriarch than of aiding the community, but then the monks had at least managed to maneuver their own own goal onto the itinerary even if it meant that they did have to go some 7-800 km out of their way and ever further from Jerusalem. So off they went, from Baghdad to Tabriz for a meeting with Abaqa the Ilkhan, a meeting which is almost casually passed over in the text. 


And when the two monks went to the Blessed Camp, the Amirs brought them in before the King, and he asked them about the object of their coming, and what their native country was; and they made a reply to him which revealed unto him their object. And Abaqa Khan commanded the nobles of his kingdom to fulfil their petition, and to give them the written orders which they had asked for. And the two monks sent the written order which [the] Catholicus had demanded to him by the hands of his messenger, and they and their companions set out for Jerusalem.

And that was the full extent of their audience with one of the most powerful people in the world, within the perspective of the text only a diversion on the road to Jerusalem, only a delay, and not one of the most serious ones.

Their road took them next through Armenian Ani, “the city of a thousand and one churches” with so much to wonder at, and then on  with an eye to finding a safe route onward, but that safe route was not to be found. They heard from people of the region that the way forward was cut by murders and theft, and perhaps by Mamluks. They heard that it was impossible to go any further in safety, and I have to think that this was not a casual mention from a man coming the other way. There must have been a seriously escalating narrative of an absolute bloodbath on the road ahead. Because they’d travelled more than 6,000 km as the crow flies to put them where they where, well north of 7,000 when you start to take into account the actual on the ground movement. They’d come all that way to visit all the holy sites of the region but most especially, it seems from the text, to visit Jerusalem. And now they gave up. They listened to to the warning, very wisely I’m sure, and they turned back. They went back to the patriarch, and he was again very happy to see them, for he had another little job in mind.

But first Denha applied the butter. The two visitors from afar had “received blessings from all the Houses of God, and the shrines which [were] in them, and it [was his] opinion that when a man  visit[ed] them with a pure heart, the service thus paid to them [was] in no way less than that of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.” Besides, it was no time at all to be going to Jerusalem; they had seen that for themselves. These niceties aside, he got down to what he really wanted. He wanted them to travel to China, so he could take advantage of their good standing there.

He wanted Marcos to be made metropolitan, a leader of the Church of the East in China, and Bar Sauma to be given his own office. High honours indeed, but though the monks wouldn’t have known it at the time, being appointed by this patriarch wouldn’t end happily for the last metropolitan in China. Simon had  been named just the year before but, even before departing, had not been thought loyal to the patriarch. Simon was said to have planned to make accusations against Denha to Kublai, and he would be ordered into a monastery in China. He’d escape, only to be recaptured, and then he and many of his followers would wind up dead in that monastery. 

It was a dangerous job, but Bar Sauma and Marcos didn’t need to know of Simon’s sad story to know they weren’t interested in the offer. However, they were going to need to go about their refusal gently, tactfully. His word was the same to them as the command of Christ, they assured their superior, but they had to give voice to what was in their hearts. They had come a very long, long way.

They had come a long way, and they had not done so only to turn back again now. They, quote: 

...[did] not intend to endure a repetition of the hardship which [they had] already suffered. For the man who is tripped up twice by the [same] stone is a fool. And moreover, [they] declared that [they were] unworthy of this gift, and for defective creatures [like themselves], a responsibility of this kind was too difficult.

But unfortunately or them, the patriarch did not agree. He saw the gift as an entirely suitable one, and he let them know it. The monks were out of excuses. Bar Sauma had spent years of his life in seclusion from wider society, but now he was very much involved in its politics, whether he liked it or not. He and Marcos could only agree. 

As luck with have it, however, the same issues that had plagued their attempt at the holy city now reared their head again, only this time in the monks’ service. It was only a few days after the decisions had been made that news arrived that their way home could not be managed at that time. They were wholly cut off from travelling that way for, quote, “the hearts of the kings of the two frontiers were changed.” 

Which was of course all a rather poetic way of saying that the fighting between Kaidu and Kublai, never far from the surface, had boiled over yet again. To go would be perilous, beyond the usual dangers even, and perhaps impossible. Bar Sauma and Marcos would be staying for the time being. But they would be doing so in new and interesting circumstances because before the trip had been called off, the ceremonies had gone ahead. 

A Syriac name had first been chosen for Marcos, the new metropolitan. Suitable candidates had been written down and placed face down before the altar, and then “pious divination” had been used to make the selection. Where Marcos had been now stood metropolitan Mar Yahballaha. Newly credentialed, and one of them newly named, they then retreated back to the monastery, and to the peace they’d been rudely yanked out of. There, the text tells us, “they sat down in their cell for two years, more or less.” They turned their thoughts inward, or at least, I think one of them did. 

It’s entirely fitting, and no accident, that Marcos would become metropolitan and not Bar Sauma. Remember it had been the younger Marcos that was said to have inspired their journey in the first place, and maybe it’s an invention of the text, but it’s worth wondering if Bar Sauma would ever stirred from his mountain retreat were it not for his more ambitious protege. Mar Yahballaha was a man with dreams. 

And this time that dream was again quite specific. He dreamed that he had entered a great church, and in it he saw images of the saints, and among them the cross. He reached out his hand towards it, to receive its blessing, but it receded from him, pulling away and up towards the roof, until he grasped and kissed the cross. And then he went outside, where there were high trees full of fruit, both hard and soft, and he plucked them and ate some, giving others to the people gathered all around. 

When he woke up, he shared his dream with Bar Sauma. What did his older colleague make of it? And I do in part wonder if he was not already very sure of what he’d make of it, if he knew that Bar Sauma would say that his arm outstretched for the blessings of Christ and the saints meant that he was attain a great stature, greater than metropolitan, and that his shared enjoyment of the fruit meant that he was to enjoy a heavenly gift and spread its joy to many people, or something of the sort. 

And the dreams returned. This time, Yahballaha dreamed that he was seated upon a high throne with students gathered before him, hearing his teachings. As he talked, his tongue grew from his mouth, longer and longer, and then dividing into three with fire on the tip of each. The people watching marvelled, and they glorified God. 

This time Bar Sauma told him it was not a dream at all; it was a sign and a revelation that surely the patriarchal throne would one day be given to him, so that he could complete his service. All he needed was an opportunity, and of course, in time it would come.

It occurred to Yahballaha that he ought to go again to Baghdad to receive his blessing, but as he neared his destination, news reached him. Denha was not yet buried, but he was dead. 

Yahballaha rushed on to the church to join the mourners. He tore at his clothes and wept in bitter anguish, falling to the ground in a manner which, though I don’t want to cast judgement at 700 years distance, may have been a trifle performative. The table was set for him to realize his dream, but we’ll get to that next episode, that and the adventures of his mentor Rabban Bar Sauma. 

Thanks for listening everybody. I very much appreciate you joining me on this journey, this one in particular, and on the podcast more generally. I will have another episode out around the end of the month, but this will be my last before Christmas, so merry Christmas, Christmas-y folk, and happy holidays to all of you.


  • The History of Yaballaha III Nestorian Patriarch and of his Vicar Bar Sauma Mongol Ambassador to the Frankish Courts at the End of the Thirteenth Century, translated by James A. Montgomery. Columbia University Press, 1927.

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

  • Nestorian Tablet: Eulogizing the Propagation of the Illustrious Religion in China, with a Preface, composed by a priest of the Syriac Church, 781 A.D.

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

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

  • Keevak, Michael. The Story of a Stele: China's Nestorian Monument and Its Reception in the West, 1625-1916. Hong Kong University Press, 2010.

  • Rossabi, Morris. Khublai Khan: His Life and Times.University of California Press, 1988.

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

Marco and the Polos 7: Marco Polo Comes Home

Marco Polo.png

I’m going to start this story at the end. Marco Polo comes home in 1295, a man of 41 or 42 years. And maybe we shouldn’t call it home because he’d been away about 24 of those years, longer than he’d ever lived in Venice.

Anyways, he comes back, and pretty quickly he’s in trouble again. The details are a little murky here, but somehow, somewhere, he’s taken prisoner by the Genoese. Maybe they get him at the Battle of Laiazzo, but that seems too early, or maybe it’s Curzola, but that seems too late. One writer gives up on being exact and has him, quote, “taken prisoner at some obscure and otherwise unrecorded engagement of armed merchantmen in 1296.” 

The details don’t really matter though. What’s important is that he is a prisoner. And we probably shouldn’t picture a barren cell rounded out by beatings and bad food here. His was more the imprisonment of a gentleman kept for ransom, likely enjoying some freedom but not beyond the city walls. 

Marco did not pass his time alone. He spent it in the company of a Rustichello da Pisa, a writer of Franco-Italian Arthurian romance, and together, they wrote the Travels of Marco Polo. Marco narrated the events and spoke of the many wondrous people and places he had seen, and Rustichello recorded his words, glued them together, and provided the stylistic flourishes that at times echoed his Arthurian stories. Or at least, that’s how the story goes.

Maybe at the time of the 1299 peace with Genoa, maybe not, Marco was free to again return to Venice. There, he lived a fairly unremarkable life; he’d had all his adventures already.  He seems to have been comfortable. He married up, to the daughter of a more prestigious family than his own, and he had three daughters who likewise married into the elite. He inherited money, lent money; sometimes he lent to relatives who he then brought legal action against for failure to repay. And he engaged in business ventures in musk and other goods. And of course, he received visitors, who were drawn to the book.

Marco was not going to die in obscurity, only to have his work gain new life after his own had ended. As I mentioned at the end of the last episode, the book was widely translated and transcribed even within his own lifetime, and we know that Pietro d’Abano of the University of Padua came to consult with him and also Thibaut de Chepoix, a representative of Charles of Valois, to obtain a copy of that book.

But obscurity or not, Marco did die. During the night of Sunday the 8th of January, 1324, he died, and he was buried at the church of San Lorenzo. But that was not the end of his story, and besides, we have some catching up to do.   

Hello, and welcome back. I’m Devon, and this is Human Circus: Journeys in the Medieval World. If you’re enjoying the podcast, please do rate and review it on iTunes, and perhaps also sign up to the Patreon for as little as a dollar a month, for that is how we avoid being scooped up by giant birds and sent crashing to the ground like helpless elephants. You can find information about the Patreon, and all other things Human Circus, at Now, back to the story, and to the conclusion of the Marco Polo series. Today, I’ll be talking about two journeys: that of a book, and that of a man making his way back to Venice after many years away. 

When Marco Polo died, he did not leave behind mountains of gems, jewels, and expensive exotica. There had been substantial losses on the return trip, and in the end, the spoils of his two decades abroad, though tantalizing, were not chests of rubies and sacks of silver. There were however silks, including quite expensive ones that had Mongol designs worked into them with gold thread and other materials; there was a Buddhist rosary, the silver belt of a Mongol noble, the tall headdress of a Mongol woman, complete with pearls and gold, and the golden tablet of authority that the khan had given to him. Aside from his Mongol slave, who we know as Pietro and who Marco released when he made his will, there was nothing else to show for having been to the other end of the continent and been, by his own account at least, somebody pretty important there. 

He didn’t exactly end his life in poverty though. His household included 24 beds, and his share of the Polo property had grown. At the time of his death, his holdings included stocks of musk, horsehair, silk, and white silk cocoons intended for sale. His purse was full of silver, and there actually was a chest of silver too; he left behind respectably pious donations, and the rest to his daughters and to his wife. But, unless you were his wife or daughter, that wasn’t really his legacy. The legacy was the book.

The book travelled far, and it started to take on different forms. By the 16th century you apparently had one manuscript that was a Tuscan translation of a Latin translation of a Tuscan translation of the Franco-Italian in which the original is thought to have been written, and this is an extreme example, but it didn’t take anything so dramatic for the the text to change. 

Some time in the years before 1314, while Marco was still alive, Francesco Pipino of Bologna was directed by his Dominican superiors to produce a Latin translation of the text, and in his preface, he made his purpose clear. “Let none deem this task to be vain and unprofitable,” he said. “For I am of the opinion that the perusal of the book by the faithful may merit an abounding grace from the Lord; in contemplating the variety, beauty and vastness of God’s creation, as herein displayed in his marvellous works… .” 

The book was cast as one of marvels yes, but as the varied marvels of god’s earth, and of course the reader was not intended only to idly ponder such great diversity. Pipino hoped also that the, quote, “sloth of undevout Christians may be put to shame, when they see how much more ready the nations of the unbelievers are to worship their idols.” “Moreover,” he continued, “the hearts of some members of the religious orders may be moved to strive for the diffusion of the Christian faith, and by divine aid to carry the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, forgotten among so vast multitudes, to those blinded nations, among whom the harvest is indeed so great, and the labourers so few.” It was a great big world, and of its population, Christians were coming to realize that they made up a smaller percentage than they would have ever thought possible; it was time, Pipino urged, to go out and do something about it.

Of course, as the purpose changed, so followed the text. The chivalric style of the original was replaced. The opening passage, directed at emperors, kings, and dukes, was gone, and so were others. The chapters were reorganized, and non-Christian religions became hemmed in by new descriptors: they were “wretched,” “abominable,” or “wicked.” There was to be no question as to impartiality or cosmopolitanism when it came to religious matters in this book. And this wasn’t the only alteration the text underwent.

One 15th-century Irish-Gaelic rendition slapped on an origin story of a Francesco the Franciscan having translated the book from an original Mongol version, and it really put some sparkles on the battle scenes too. Different versions featured magnificent illustrations that seemed to spring from an illuminator’s lazy scanning for key terms or just from their expectations as to what a book of the east should contain, rather than from the text itself. Still others might lead you to believe the book to be the work of, quote, “a gentleman of Venice who went sailing there with his four sons, descendants one after the other.” The text could be found bound up with the Romance of Alexander and Jean de Mandeville, or with Odoric of Pordenone and other travellers to the east. The variations were many, and you’ll find if you read the Travels of Marco Polo now that the footnotes will be full of references to how version X gives Y date as being 10 years earlier, or that another manuscript orders the passage you’re reading entirely differently. For these reasons and more, it’s been said that it’s more accurate to speak of “the books” of Marco Polo than “the book.”  

If those books may at first have been greeted with some measure of disbelief, or bound up with romances, in the early decades of the 14th-century, an increase in merchant and missionary traffic connected Europeans to China, developing small communities there and bearing witness to the truth of this grand civilization beyond the Muslims and the Asian Steppe. There were Franciscan houses in Zaiton, Hangzhou, and Yangzhou. There was a community of Genoese merchants at Yangzhou, where the gravestones of one family’s son and daughter have been found. There was a church in the Yuan capital, built there by a Venetian merchant named Pietro. 

Though the situation would not last, letters and travellers returned from these trips confirming much of what Marco had seen and moving the text solidly away from pure fantasy. Given all this, it is interesting then to find a Florentine transcriber in 1392 who explains that he has copied down the book, quote: pass the time and to keep melancholy away. Since these seem to me incredible things; and what he [Marco Polo] says seems to me not so much lies as more than miracles. And yet what he speaks of could be true, but I don’t believe it - though in the world one finds very different things from country to another. But these, it seems to me - though I’ve enjoyed copying them - are things not to be believed nor to give faith to, so it seems to me.

At the end 14th century, as with now, there were those who were not convinced by Marco’s wild tales. 

Christopher Columbus at least does seem to have been convinced. His copy of the book is peppered with marginal notes on “gold in the greatest abundance,” “infinite spices,” “much incense,” and more. 

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves now. We know that the books travelled far and wide. We’ve seen them in the shops or on our own shelves. What about Marco himself? What brought him back from China? 

The question of what caused Marco Polo to return to his estranged birthplace is an open one. Why then? Why at all? A few answers present themselves. It’s been suggested by John Man that Marco may have lost someone close to him in China, a courtesan perhaps, and no longer had anything tying him there. Marco was no monk, and people love to muse over his potential relationships, especially in connection with the Princess Kokochin. 

Others, have suggested that the Polos sensed the imminent demise of their patron, Kublai. The khan’s wife and favourite son had died; he was suffering health problems likely tied to his increasing weight and alcoholism; and, though still staggeringly powerful, he was reeling from one failure to another at home and abroad. The end could not be far off, and the Polos may have decided that they did not wish to remain without his protection and with the prospect of being caught up in a potentially-bloody Mongol succession. Or perhaps Kublai’s love was like an excessively drunk friend’s embrace, pleasant at first but then suffocating and exponentially less so, and the Polos simply leapt at a timely opportunity to disentangle themselves. 

Here, I’ll tell you the story that Marco and Rustichello concocted, or at least the one that has been transmitted down to me. But first, a quick break.

According to the text, the Polos were feeling more and more that they had stayed long enough, that their wealth was great enough, that they would very much like to make the return journey, and that, quote, “however honoured and caressed by the [khan], this sentiment was ever predominant in their minds.”

So they were looking for a way out. They were pondering how they might extricate themselves from this luxurious prison; they were waiting for opportunities, and they had a deadline. They didn’t know when exactly the clock would run out, but they could see the khan deteriorating, and they worried about how they would get home without his support. The text says that they considered his help absolutely necessary, that were he to die before they could make their journey, then they would not get another chance. They needed Kublai to be on their side in this while he was still around to do so.  

It was Marco’s father, Niccolo, who made the approach. He waited for a day when Kublai seemed most especially cheerful, and you can imagine this was not a comfortable wait. He’s maybe keeping an eye on the khan - how is his mood today? How much has he had to drink? What news has he had? Has anyone angered him? And all the while, time ticks along, Kublai gets a little older, and they’re still wanting to leave. Finally, Niccolo picks a time that seems good to him; he throws himself at the khan’s feet and makes his plea for “his majesty’s gracious permission for their departure.”     

However, for all of Niccolo’s care, he had not chosen the right time. And maybe there was never going to be a right time because Kublai Khan did not give his gracious permission. He seems instead to have been rather hurt that they should have considered leaving at all. Why would they want to go, and risk themselves on such a difficult journey? What could there be for them out in the world that he could not provide right there and then? Was it wealth or honour? If so, he would gladly grant them whatever they could wish for, but out of his respect for the Polos, he could only refuse their petition to leave. So, they were still looking for a way out.   

Of course, this is all a little hard to swallow now, these heaping mounds of self-glorification wrapped in hardship that Marco ladelled on. Were they really so beloved by the khan that he could not bear to part with them? Maybe they were. They’d been about for two decades and would eventually come home with at least some kind of endorsement in the form of those golden tablets. Perhaps they really were such personal favourites. Either way, they apparently needed a good reason to leave, and this needs a bit of consideration itself. 

Marco Polo often seems entirely free to do as he pleases in the Travels. At least, he claims to have moved about quite independently within the khan’s domains. What was to stop he and his family from going where they wished? From the riches they are said to have gained, they should have been able to afford the costs of the trip, and they were experienced travellers too. It seems though that for at least Marco, if not the other Polos, the situation was not unlike that of a soldier, bound to the serve his lord - John Man has suggested that this could have been exactly what he was - and if he was free to roam his lord’s realm, he was not so free as to be able to strike off on his own without penalty. 

When that good reason the Polos had been waiting for first arrived, Marco was away on one of his wanderings. An embassy had arrived from Kublai’s great-nephew, Arghun Khan, grandson of Hulagu and lord of the Ilkhanate. Arghun had sent a request. His wife, Boloḡān Kātūn, had died in 1286, first making known her last wish that none should replace her but one of her own family. Now, Arghun’s ambassadors had arrived at the khan’s court to make good on her wish. 

It’s a somewhat odd story, particularly when you consider that Arghun had several other consorts already and would add another also named Boloḡān Kātūn before his ambassadors could even return; however, the idea that he would have sought another woman of royal Mongol lineage, of Genghisid heritage, is certainly plausible enough, and there are other sources that refer to the marriage and the embassy. 

At first, all of this had nothing to do our Venetian friends. Kublai greeted his great-nephew’s men with honour and hospitality, and a woman was sent for, a 17 year old whose name was Kokochin, and you’ve probably come across her before. In tellings of Marco’s story, few writers seem able to resist her as a love-interest for Marco, but really the text gives us no reason to think she was any such thing. She was however described variously in the two translations I’m looking at here as “beautiful and charming,” and “handsome and accomplished,” and the ambassadors, upon meeting her, “highly approved.”

All was made ready for their departure, and attendants were chosen to form a suitable escort for an Ilkhan’s consort. Kublai Khan saw them off in great style. They set off back the way the embassy had come, overland for Baghdad, and if all had gone well, they would off ridden right out of our story, and maybe the Polos would never have found their reason to return. But all did not go well. Just had been the case for Niccolo and Maffeo all those years earlier, there was war in the way. 

Having travelled for eight months, their further progress was obstructed and the roads shut up against them, by fresh wars that had broken out amongst the Mongol princes. Much against their inclinations, therefore, they were constrained to adopt the measure of returning to the court of the grand khan, to whom they stated the interruption they had met with.

The text is no more specific, but these fresh wars very likely involved Kaidu of the House of Ogedei, or of Dawa, the Chagataid khan he had appointed. From a distance of seven centuries, Kaidu’s whole life appears one of restlessness and struggle, a consistent effort of the body, mind, and will against his cousins in Yuan China and the Ilkhanate, and around this time, he was also fighting to support his pick for Batu’s old throne. Somewhere in all that constant exertion, the ambassadors’ path home was blocked. There was to be no Pax Mongolica for them, no easily hopping along the much-praised relay network with its rest-houses and fresh horses, so back to Kublai they went, doubtless adding another little grain of irritation to his lifelong grievance against his cousin, and back into the path of the Polos. 

It happened that Marco was also returning to the khan at that time, with much to tell him of all that he’d seen. He’d been away on one of his wanderings, this time on the seas of Southeast Asia, which he reported were safely navigable. And of course the news, when it reached the ears of the Ilkhan ambassadors, was extremely interesting. The khan had a man who was familiar with the seaways south. They had been three years gone from home, and if they were not to go by land, then perhaps they might return by water. They reached out the Venetians, and a confluence of interests began to form. 

The ambassadors needed a safe trip home with Kokochin, and the Polos a pressing reason to make that trip. Both parties wished to convince the khan that they should be allowed to go together. Maybe the Polos  simply agreed to accompany them home, without going into their own issues at all, but I like to imagine here a series of furtive meetings here on how best to proceed with their cause. Who knew what fits of vexation might result if the Polos bothered Kublai bothered again with the same question. This time, it was agreed that the Ilkhanids would make their approach with Kokochin and point out “with what convenience and security they might affect their return by sea, to the dominions of their master,” Kublai’s great nephew, how much less expensive it would be to dispatch them this way, and how much swifter too. Once they had the khan’s agreement, they would turn to the topic of the Polos, for Kokochin’s voyage would be far safer in the company of a fellow like Marco, who had so recently sailed south. 

The Ilkhanids got their audience, they made their requests, and the khan pulled a face. As the most powerful ruler of his time, I don’t imagine that he was much in the habit of needing to conceal his feelings on anything much at all, and he did not disguise his displeasure at what was being asked of him. The idea of parting with the Polos was “exceedingly displeasing” to him, as he’d already made abundantly clear. However, constrained by politeness and the “importance and urgency” of the case, the khan agreed. He would let his beloved Venetians go from his grip.

And I feel I must interrupt the story here to rain on Marco Polo’s extra-special self-importance parade a little. We’ve seen in the last episode how developed the trading networks were between China and India. It seems really unlikely that there was nobody about who could equal Marco in navigating the oceans they were to sail, but, to be fair, it is possible that there was nobody about in the court at that particular moment, no known quantities or figures of real standing who would be suitable to escort a member of Mongol royalty and also be familiar with large parts of the route. It is worth noting that Rashid al-Din, writing in the early 1300s, and Yuan sources, would both speak of this mission to deliver Kokochin to the Ilkhan, though admittedly neither would mention the Polos by name.

The text has Kublai Khan grudgingly call them before him for one last audience. He greets them with warmth and reassures them of his lasting love and regard. He provides them with a golden tablet, those passports which provided free, safe, and well-supplied passage throughout his realms. He made them promise that once they had spent some time with their family, that they would return to him immediately. Finally, he either granted them authority to act as his ambassadors to the pope and kings of Europe, or he attached men to their party for that purpose - it depends on the version you’re reading. At last, having given their word that they would not be leaving him forever, the party was ready.

A fleet was prepared for them, of 13 or 14 ships. At least 4 or 5 of these were large enough to carry crews of 250, and 4 masts, while the others were perhaps the smaller boats mentioned elsewhere in the text, that would work as pods around the larger vessels and tow them where necessary. Marco is, for what it’s worth, very complimentary of these boats, speaking highly of their construction and maintenance. They were made of fir-timber, fastened with good iron nails, and sealed with a substance made by kneading together hemp-fibers with wood-oil and lime. There were 50-60 cabins, and there were 13 water-tight compartments within the hull in case of leaks caused, Marco helpfully adds, “by running on a rock or by the blow of a hungry whale.” 

On the khan’s orders, they were provisioned for two years, and rubies and gems given to them as gifts. And then they embarked. It was around the beginning of 1291, and Kublai, for all his insistence that they return, was never going to live long enough to see if his uncaged birds would come back to him.    

In just a moment, we’ll follow the Venetians, Ilkhanids, and Kokochin on their way south and then west, but first, a quick pause.

The Marco text covers this journey in the barest of detail, offering for example that after three months of navigation they arrived at Sumatra, but leaving the rest for elsewhere in the book. We know from elsewhere in this series how Marco found it splintered into kingdoms, each with their own language, how he was struck at being so far south he could no longer see the North Star, how he noticed a clear difference between the coastal populations, often Muslim, and the hill peoples, often cannibals. 

Marco and company were detained on Sumatra by weather, waiting for the winds to change, and they observed the trade in spices and wood, they witnessed those hideously ugly unicorns, and they drank excellent wine, fit to cure dropsy, and tisick, and spleen. For five months they waited, and then they sailed on, west across the Bay of Bengal, and then northwest along the Indian Coast and the Arabian Sea, encountering many things that were strange to them. 

They saw fine cotton cloths that put them in mind of spiders’ webs. They saw how the bodies of great lords were burnt upon death, and that his attendants threw themselves upon the same fire saying “that they [had] been his comrades in this world, and that they ought also to keep him company in the other world.” They saw temples in which families would consecrate their daughters, presenting them to their gods, and where the monks would call on the girls to make a banquet and dance before the gods, leaving the meat a respectable length of time until it was said to be consumed by the deities and then taking it away to eat. 

They saw people who Marco deemed members of a class of idol-worshipping Brahmin, chughi in his words, or yogis. These ascetics ate only a little, mostly rice and milk, and drank twice a month a strange potion of sulphur and quicksilver that granted them their long lives, 150-200 years, Marco reported. He went on that they went naked, wearing only a small ornament tied about their forehead, that they daubed themselves with a powder made of burnt cow dung, and that they ate no from bowls but from leaves, and of those never green leaves, for those were said to still contain a soul and it would be a sin to eat from them. 

In some versions of the text, the description continues in a rather more judgemental tone:

They are such cruel and perfidious Idolaters that it is very devilry! They say that they burn the bodies of the dead, because if they were not burnt worms would be bred which would eat the body; and when no more food remained for them these worms would die, and the soul belonging to that body would bear the sin and the punishment of their death. And that is why they burn their dead!

That opening exclamation seems very much the sort of thing that Francesco Pipino might have written into the account.

For eighteen months, they sailed the waters around India, and they didn’t have it all their own way. On the contrary, the death toll was severe, particularly so in some versions of the text. One has only 8 surviving of an initial company of 600, sailors not included, a real blood bath, while the rather more reasonable version has 600 total dying, including two of the three Ilkhanid ambassadors. I keep talking about medieval travellers who made it home - funny how the chronicles are all written by people who survived - but it’s moments like this that are a helpful reminder of what kind of enterprise long distance travel was at this time. It meant years away from home and a pretty good likelihood of death by disease or violent misadventure while you were out there. Really, I should do a series on travellers who didn’t make it. Mini episodes maybe.        

Of course, we already know that’s not what happened to Marco. The Polos, Kokochin, and that sole surviving ambassador arrived safely at their destination, often thought to be Hormuz, at the narrows between the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf. They got there, but they found that they were too late. They were like waiters trucking out long-delayed dishes from the kitchen only to find their frustrated customer had in the meantime moved on. Kokochin’s fiancé, the one who had his sent his ambassadors all the way to Great Uncle Kublai in China, was dead. 

Arghun was the grandson of Hulagu; great, great grandson of Genghis Khan; and the fourth Ilkhan, and I’m not going to do him justice here. If you’re an Arghun fan, be reassured that I will be returning to him some time down the road, that there’s another story he’ll be part of. For now, know that he’d sent away for a royal consort, and that he had, in the meantime, been convinced by an Indian monk to take a steady course of those mercury and sulphur mixes which were said to prolong life. Eight months of that program, and he became ill and died in 1291. And maybe it hadn’t even been his unfortunate new diet plan that had killed him - there is talk that it was murder - but it’s certainly a tempting enough theory.  

So when our travellers arrived, all was not quite as they’d expected. Likely, their arrival was not quite expected. Arghun’s eldest son, Ghazan, was still young to occupy the throne, or so the text tells us. But Ghazan had been 20 years old when his father had died, young, but not exactly an infant in need of a regent. It seems instead that circumstances had prevented Ghazan from making the grab for power when the opportunity presented itself. Sometimes being close to the center of power, being the first qualifying candidate to apply for the job, is enough, and it was Ghazan’s uncle, Gaykhatu, who had filled the vacancy. 

Ghazan did not challenge his uncle’s rise to power. Relations, indeed, seem to have been friendly between the two, and it was Gaykhatu who received the travellers and directed them to escort Kokochin on to Ghazan. As it happened, that future 7th Ilkhan was in the northeast of their territory with an army of 60,000 men, guarding the passes against any attacks from Kaidu’s direction, and so there the Polos had to go, getting further away now from the city of Venice, and likely wondering if they might ever be free to go there. 

Marco tells us that Gaykhatu’s rule was unpopular, perhaps consider illegitimate, and that they went to and from Ghazan under heavy escort, for “the people were disposed to commit insult and proceed to outrages, which they would not have dared to attempt under the rule of a proper sovereign.”

Still, despite threats and outrages from an unhappy populace, they brought Kokochin at last to her new husband, though what she thought of it we do not know. She’d been dragged halfway around the world with no prospect of ever returning, and all to marry a man she had never met before. In some versions of the Polo text, he says that she wept in sorry when the Venetians left; and that’s not impossible - after 2 years of travel they were among the few familiar faces in her new life - but in a way it’s more about him than her: see how loved and respected our most wonderful narrator was among the Mongol royalty, the text seems to shout, and how none of them wished him to go!

On their return journey, the Polos paused again at the court of Gaykhatu, and there stayed for another 9 months, and how long that must have seemed, now they were so close, relatively speaking, to their destination. What could have held them there? Perhaps they were waiting for the best possible circumstances in which to depart - it was still not a journey to be taken lightly - or maybe this was yet another Mongol ruler who found them simply too charming to be allowed to leave. 

Leave they did though, going by way of Trebizond on the Black Sea. Marco doesn’t say anything of it, but we know from other sources that they had a little trouble in the area. The Empire of Trebizond, a Byzantine successor state, was in the midst of a dispute with Venice, and the Polos were unlucky enough to wander into the middle of it. We know they would later claim to have had goods worth 4,000 Byzantine golden coins seized from them on the way through and that by 1310 only 1,000 would have been regained. But when the time came to record his story, this didn’t make it in. 

After that setback, it was on to Constantinople, to Negroponte on the Greek island of Euboea, and, at last, to Venice. It was 1295, and they had been gone for a quarter-century. Who of their family would still have recognized them?

There is a tradition recorded by the 16th-century scholar Giambatista Ramusio that indeed no one did when they appeared on the doorstep. Like Odysseus, they were said to arrive unlooked for and unknown, and who could have blamed their sceptical relations? Here were three strangers of bizarre manner and garb, claiming to be family members long considered dead. They had to quote Ramusio in translation, “an indescribable something of the [Mongol] in their aspect and in their way of speech, having forgotten most of the Venetian tongue. Those garments of theirs were much the worse for wear, and were made of coarse cloth, and cut after the fashion of the Mongols.” 

Clearly, the Polos weren’t in the kind of fine silks to be found in Kublai’s China. They were dressed for travel, and had travelled far. They would have been deeply foreign to their Venetian relatives, and looking very much more the impoverished con-men than long-lost kin. 

They were so foreign in appearance, that, according to Ramusio, their family did not accept them at all. The Polos actually had to withdraw and plan a new approach. They had to invite all involved to an enormous feast at which they paraded in their silken fineries, displayed multiple crimson wardrobe changes, and cut open their ragged clothes to let spill gems of great value and variety upon the table, all to the amazement of their guests. Then, in all that grandness, the guests were somehow convinced that they did after all recognize these good people as their noble friends of times past, that these were indeed the Polos who had gone away. 

Maybe that wasn’t quite how it happened, but one way or another, the returning Polos were accepted into their family home and grew comfortable there. And they aged, and did business, and one by one they died. First Niccolo, around the time of their arrival. Then Maffeo, in 1309. And then, as I said at the beginning, Marco Polo himself, in 1324.

By then Gaykhatu was dead, and Ghazan, and Kokochin too. And Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan and founder of the Yuan Dynasty in China, he had died in 1294, when the Polos had not yet even completed their journey home.     

As for Marco, I want to read one last quotation from the book. It’s the end of the prologue, the end of the “story” portion of the book really, where the reader gets this tale of a trip to the khan’s China and back again, once for Niccolo and Maffeo alone, and then once more with Marco. It reads:

The foregoing narrative may be considered as a preliminary chapter, the object of which is to make the reader acquainted with the opportunities Marco Polo had of acquiring a knowledge of the things he describes, during a residence of so many years in the eastern parts of the world.

Like travel narratives before and since, Marco Polo’s takes pains to assert its own truth. You can believe this, it says. I have stepped on these shores, and sailed these seas; I have seen these far off places, observed their peoples, and spoken to their lords. And I have lived at the court of the greatest lord of them all, of Kublai Khan, the Yuan Emperor. Believe me.     

The Travels of Johann Schiltberger 2: The Battle of Angora/Ankara

Timur and Bayezid after Angora

"And when Karaman saw that Bayezid was entering the city, he attacked him with his warriors, and fought with him in the town, and if he had received the least assistance from the inhabitants he would have forced Bayezid out of the city; but when he saw that he had no assistance, he fled, but was taken before Bayezid, who said to him: “Why wilt thou not be subject to me?” Karaman answered, “Because I am as great a lord as thyself.” Bayezid became angry, and asked three times if there was anybody who would rid him of Karaman. At the third time came one who took him aside and cut off his head and went back with it to Bayezid, who asked what had he done with him? He answered, “I have beheaded him.” Then Bayezid shed tears and ordered that another man should do to the killer what he had done to Karaman, and he was taken to the place where he beheaded Karaman and he was also beheaded. This was done because Bayezid thought that nobody should have killed so mighty a lord, but should have waited until his lord’s anger had passed away. He then ordered that the head of Karaman should be fixed on a lance and carried about the country, so that other cities might submit to him on hearing that their lord was killed."

This was Schiltberger’s description of his new lord in action. Last episode, we left Schiltberger as he left Nicopolis and told of a long captivity to come with the Ottomans. Here that new Ottoman lord Bayezid was facing, in the figure of this Karaman, a brother-in-law, but more importantly the powerful leader of a Turcoman dynasty to rival the Ottomans, the Karamanids of southeast Anatolia. According to Schiltberger, Karaman had refused to be subject to him, being, as Karaman was, feeling slightly “Rains of Castmere-ish,” as great a lord as he. So Bayezid sets out with 150k men, and Karaman to meet him with 75k, or at least with large numbers of men. 

They meet on the plains before the city of Konya, battling twice that day before retiring, neither side conclusively the victor, and in the night, each commander has his own plans for how to proceed. Karaman gives orders for his men to create a great disturbance with horns and with drums, much like soccer fans outside the visiting team’s hotel, but Bayezid has his soldiers keep their fires to a minimum, only for cooking and those quickly extinguished. Under cover of darkness, 30k men are sent round to the rear of the enemy and ordered to attack in the morning as Bayezid launches his own assault. When the next day came, it was Bayezid’s plan that would bear fruit, and Karaman fled back to the safety of the city’s walls upon seeing himself threatened on two sides. Then, a state of siege set in, ending after 11 days, when the city’s people sent word that they would fall back from the walls and not oppose him, if only Bayezid would guarantee their lives and belongings. This he readily did, and then stormed those walls to face, as we heard, Karaman and his soldiers within the city. Soon it was taken, and Karaman killed. 

Remember that this Karaman was Bayezid’s brother-in-law. His sister and nephews would surrender themselves, walking out the gates of a nearby city which Bayezid was besieging. They gave themselves up to his mercy, and indeed, it is treated in Schiltberger’s narrative as an act of great mercy that Bayezid does spare them, has them raised up by his men and brought back to his capital. Being a blood relative was no guarantee of safety. 

Pulling back from Schiltberger’s depiction, we know that Bayezid had taken Karamanian territories in Southeast Anatolia, through force and negotiation,  and left them under the governorship of a man named Timurtash before turning to other matters in Bulgaria. The Karamanian leader, appearing in Schiltberger’s story as Karaman but identifiable to us as Alaattin Ali Bey, took the opportunity to regain control and seize Timurtash as a prisoner, but Bayezid, “the Thunderbolt,” responded quickly with his army. Alaattin surrendered Timurtash immediately in the face of this experienced force, one which apparently included Greeks, Serbians, Bulgarians, and Wallachians. He hoped for a return to the previous peaceful arrangement. However, this was not to be. Timurtash himself would command Bayezid’s response. Following the ensuing battle he would take Alaattin prisoner, and perhaps motivated by an anger more personal than political, would see him kill. All of this was of course tremendously convenient for Bayezid, who is reported to have been rather pleased to be rid of his rival and without any blood on his own hands.  

Both versions of this story of the Karamanian leader’s demise give us the beginnings of a picture of Anatolia at the close of the 14th century. Closely examined, the picture is not one of early Ottoman hegemony. Rather, the Ottomans had striven in competition with neighbouring beyliks. Some of these beyliks, the territories of “beys” or lords, had not only rivaled but had overshadowed the Ottoman beylik on the Anatolian peninsula. Perhaps it is time to take a closer look at the Ottomans and their story. 

The origins of the Ottomans are somewhat difficult to tease out, for contemporary sources are those of their neighbours, neither detailed nor unbiased, and Ottoman perspectives are available only from some time later on. However, the Ottoman origin story is that of a dream. 

Osman, son of Ertugrul, was sleeping one night in the home of a holy man when a powerful vision took him:

He saw that a moon arose from the holy man’s breast and came to sink in his own breast. A tree then sprouted from his navel and its shade encompassed the world. Beneath this shade there were mountains, and streams flowed forth from the foot of each mountain. Some people drank from these running waters, others watered gardens, while yet others caused fountains to flow. When Osman awoke he told the story to the holy man, who said “Osman, my son, congratulations, for God has given the imperial office to you and your descendants and my daughter Malhun shall be your wife.”

Obviously the truth of the matter, that Osman dreamed such a dream, is quite beyond us at this point. We can say that the earliest surviving references to the dream are dated to long after Osman’s, or even Bayezid’s, time. But we can also say that it is a lasting narrative of real power. It granted, by divine right, the Earth as a protectorate to Osman, his children, and his children’s children, to take, to nurture, and to protect. In building an empire that would be contemporaneous with both the Eastern Roman Empire and the Soviet Union, those descendants took a pretty good run at realizing that dream. And we still refer back to Osman in referring to that empire, Ottoman being but an anglicization of the Turkish Osmanli.  

What became the Ottomans had been merely among the many Islamic Turkoman tribal groups that had moved into Anatolia, modern-day Turkey, following the victory of the Seljuk Empire over the Byzantines at Manzikert in 1071. The Seljuk successor state, the Sultanate of Rum, meaning of the Romans, was itself overturned by the Mongols, and became an Ilkhanid vassal for the region. The Ilkhanate, that administrative area of the Mongol empire centring on modern-day Iran, had its attention elsewhere, and as Seljuk power weakened, various beyliks came to prominence on the peninsula. They thrived in the spaces that were now available between the receding reaches of two crumbling powers: the Mongol dominated Seljuks and the Eastern Roman Empire, the Byzantines. In the southeast, one of those beyliks which we have already met, Karamanogullari, that of the Karamanids, took Konya from the Seljuks and put an end to their struggling dynasty. In the northwest, pushing up against Byzantine rule, were the Ottomans. 

The Ottomans seem to have had various things going for them. Their proximity to the Constantinople allowed for trade, cultural exchange, and alliances, and the city no longer had the ability to really project power as it once had. I don’t want to go into the whole story of the Eastern Roman Empire here, but a combination of internal and external pressures had brought things to a breaking point. 

The arrival of the Seljuks in Anatolia from the east had pushed the Byzantines out of much of that peninsula and brought constant seasons of raiding; To the north and west, further territory was lost to rebellions or attacks on the part of Serbs, Bulgars, and Venetians, among others;  and Crusader assistance throughout all of this was often every bit as threatening to the Byzantines as anyone else; Indeed, Constantinople had been sacked by crusaders in 1204 and only retaken in 1261 after which vastly expensive repairs and reconstruction were needed. 

Not at all helping matters were the endless rounds of civil war and usurpation which have come, with good reason, to partly define the Byzantine Empire in our imagination. Time after time, internal wars were waged, power seized, relatives violently blinded, facially mutilated, and packed away to monasteries, or simply killed, and the Ottomans got in on this. They hired on as mercenaries during civil war and enjoyed active alliances or inter-marriage with the sitting emperor at different times. 

They were also ideally situated to benefit from Genoa’s conflict with Venice, and it was on Genoan ships that they first had their troops ferried across the Bosphorus, the strait separating what is now Asian Turkey from European Turkey. On the other side, a Byzantine regent gave them their first foothold, hiring on Turkic mercenaries to garrison a fortress only to see those mercenaries offer their services, and their fortress, to Suleyman Pasha, son of the Ottoman Sultan, Orhan. 

Though it is their beylik which we now remember, as they grew into an immensely powerful and lasting empire, the Ottomans were not initially the most powerful group of Islamic Turkoman raiders in the region, and this actually stood to their advantage. Various other, taller, nails were hammered down around them, and this seems to have served them well in outlasting and outgrowing their immediate competitors who came to the attention of Byzantines, mercenaries, crusaders, Seljuks, and Mongols. And the Ottomans grew very quickly indeed. Our first picture of them from the Byzantine side comes from a 1301 record of their loss in battle to a group led by a man named Osman. By 1333, Emperor Andronicus would be paying Osman’s son Orhan for peace, and by the end of the century, Osman’s great-grandson Bayezid would be soundly defeating the future Holy Roman Emperor at Nicopolis. 

An important observation here is that what we commonly call “the Ottomans” was by no means a homogenous group. We’ve already seen that later on, in battle, they will present a very international army, and the following quotation, from Uyar and Erickson, indicates a similar variety in their earlier constitution. The Ottomans were...

"...a loose group of pastoralist nomadic tribes that were in the early phases of moving from nomadic life to a sedentary one. Even though semi-nomads were the core group, there were many others coming from different backgrounds and regions, including refugee villagers, artisans, and townsmen coming from inner and eastern Anatolia as well as unemployed Seljukid officials and scholars. Of course, there were fugitives from the various rebellions, especially heterodox dervishes. All these very different people with conflicting identities came to settle the very complex and fragmented frontier... The people called the Ottomans, a terminology largely devised by early European historians, were obviously not simply a unitary nomadic tribe."

Divisions of allegiance are not rigid here. There were Turkoman fighters employed by the Byzantines and “the Ottomans,” as we’ll continue to call them here, seem to have included recently Byzantine magistrates, officers, and soldiers who had left collapsing military institutions. I have seen the Ottomans of this very early period termed a kind of “predatory confederation” for whom the promise of treasure and slaves was a unifying force that overpowered any ethnic, religious, or cultural divisions that might have driven them against one another. 

And unity is important when you look at early Ottoman history. Other groups around them grow but then disintegrate as success leads to new local assertions of power. The Ottomans seem to have identified this risk and sought to centralize power and military loyalty, shifting it over from time from the lords under their influence. 

But that’s enough on Ottoman development for now. We should return to Schiltberger. We’ve heard already how he came to live among the Ottomans and his reports on the doings of Bayezid. Let’s hear about his try for freedom. Quote: 

"And when Beyazid came to his capital, there were sixty of us Christians agreed that we should escape, and made bond between ourselves and swore to each other that we should die or succeed together; and each of us took time to get ready, and at the time we met together, we chose two leaders from amongst ourselves by lot, and whatever they ordered we were to obey."

Here we have a return to something much more personal, not simply reports of what he has heard, but something Schiltberger has obviously taken part in, a mass escape attempt on the part of 60 Christian captives. This group who had bonded over their pact and chosen leadership, rises in in the early hours of the morning, some time after midnight. They arm themselves, and they ride off. They make for a mountain first, reaching it by daybreak. There they rest a little while, letting their horses recover, but not for very long. They must know they’ll be chased when their absence is noted, and even such prolific captors as the Ottomans could hardly have failed to notice 60 prisoners gone, and with horses to match. The escapees wait only until the sun has risen and then ride again, this time for a day and a night. No mention is made of a rest this time, though perhaps there was one or two in there somewhere. 

Meanwhile, their absence has indeed been noticed. Bayezid has dispatched 500 horsemen to retrieve them. These 500 were not ordered to kill those they found, but rather to bring them back and present them before Bayezid to receive his judgement. And despite the head-start of the escapees this pursuit overtakes them near a narrow gorge.

Bayezid’s men call for surrender, but this Schiltberger and his fellow escapees will not do. They think it better to fight and die here together than to be dragged back and killed later. Remember that the memory of the slaughter at Nicopolis was still very fresh, and these men had no reason at all to expect mercy from Bayezid, no matter their age. The 60 Christians dismount from their horses, and prepare to defend themselves, perhaps seeking shelter in that narrow gorge. Fighting ensues, but it’s hard to say how fierce. After all, the 500 had been ordered to bring these prisoners back, not slaughter them on site, so they may have simply tightened their hold, drawn in and increased the pressure, allowing the weight of their numbers to press the 60 into giving up. 

Schiltberger has it that the man leading the pursuit is deeply impressed by the fighting resolve displayed before him, and he steps forth, requesting an hour’s peace, that they might talk, and to this the 60, or however many of them there were at this point, consent. A truce established, the officers goes on to make an offer: surrender now, and he would answer for the safety of their lives. Schiltberger tells it this way:

"We said we would consult, and did consult, and gave him this answer: We knew that so soon as we were made prisoners, we should die so soon as we came before [Bayezid], and it would be better that we should die here, with arms in our hands, for the Christian faith. When the commander saw that we were determined, he again asked that we should give ourselves up as prisoners, and promised on his oath that he would ensure our lives, and if Bayezid was so angry as to want to kill us, he would let the Sultan kill him first. He promised this on his oath, and therefore we gave ourselves up as prisoners."

So Schiltberger and his fellows were brought before Bayezid and they can only have felt so confident about this, their lives dangling from this man’s word. And Bayezid does nothing to increase their confidence at first. He’s furious. He orders that they should each one of them be killed immediately. But the commander who had made the promise does step forward here and intervene. He says that he had trusted in Bayezid’s mercy and on it had promised the captives their lives. He says that he had sworn that they would be spared. Bayezid asks of him if the escapees had done any harm, and the commander responds that they had not. So Bayezid spares their lives, instead merely imprisoning them. Of course, 12 of them, a full 1/5th of the original contingent, do die during that imprisonment, so this is not exactly a boundless act of mercy. Schiltberger and his surviving comrades would be in prison for 9 months before someone, apparently Bayezid’s son, would speak up for them again, and beg that they should be set free. This Bayezid did, first extracting a promise from the prisoners, then returning their horses and increasing their pay.

So that’s interesting. If you were picturing Schiltberger and his colleagues chained up in a galley or something similarly dire, well he was actually a paid employee at this point, and apparently with his own horse. This should put the story in the second 6 years of Schiltberger’s Ottoman timeline, when he deserved to be allowed to ride, and thus somewhere between 22 and 28 years old, if the timeline is to be trusted at all. But of course it is not to be trusted, and Schiltberger’s assessment, that he spent 12 years with Bayezid, is not consistent with the rest of his story as to that period. We know that it was bookended neatly by two battles, and one, Nicopolis, is dated 1396, while the other occurred in 1402. So we have 6 years, not 12, spent with Bayezid, and Schiltberger was somewhere between 16 and 22 for the episode of the escape, perhaps older than 19, if Schiltberger is to be believed on not being allowed to ride during the first half of this time. 

Another interesting element in Bayezid releasing the prisoners is the nature of the promise he asks them to make. In Schiltberger’s telling, this is a simple statement that they will not try to escape again, but was there more to it than that? Schiltberger elsewhere refers in passing to the matter of an Eastern Bulgarian duke and his son who were both taken captive. While the father died in prison, the son, quote, “became converted to the faith of Infidels, so that his life might be spared.” This really begs the question, did Schiltberger and his fellow captives convert to Islam so that their life might be spared? He says nothing of the sort, and identified as Christian in the tale of his escape, but this fragment of a story suggests he might have had to. 

The topic of slavery and conversion under the Ottomans is something we could pursue much further than we have room for here. Suffice for now to recognize that in the 14th century Christians did serve within Ottoman ranks without having converted first, and that, again, this was a very heterogeneous world we look back on simply as “Ottoman.” As for Schiltberger’s conversion, it must remain in doubt, as an intriguing possibility. Our picture of the period has grown much more complex since a Commander J Buchan Telfer, in introducing Schiltberger’s travels, wrote that

"...our traveller is careful to avoid saying anything that might be construed into a semblance of his having renounced his religion, under whatsoever circumstances; but that he must have done so, inevitably, may be accepted as an unquestionable fact, for where is the page in history of Beyazid, of Timur, and of his successors, that tells of a Christian having been spared persecution, followed by torture and death? Nor is it credible that the presence of a slave, professing Christianity, would have been at all tolerated in the camps of those barbarous and fanatic rulers."

While quite possible, I don’t think we should consider Schiltberger’s conversion to be “unquestionable fact.”

That converted son we referred to earlier was apparently rewarded with conquered land over to which to administer, and Schiltberger has a rather strange tale to tell regarding that land. It’s the first taste we get of the fantastical, an element which will increasingly crop up here as the story goes on. It is said to have occurred while Schiltberger was elsewhere, and he makes no claim to having witnessed these events. This is what he says happened:

There is a city. It sits near both the sea and the forests. Round the city come vipers from the forests, and serpents from the seas. They come in such great numbers that they take up the space of a mile all around the city so that nobody dares go out. The snakes make no move to enter the city, but remain outside for 11 days. They fight each other, the serpents against the vipers, but they harm neither humans nor cattle. On the tenth day, the lord of the city rides out with a few others for a closer look. They find that the one side must succumb to the other, and that they are losing at every turn. Early the next morning, the lord rides out again, and he finds only the dead, 8000 of them, and he orders them buried and sends word to Bayezid to tell him of this marvel. There is some confusion in my translation here, but it appears that the serpents of the sea had slaughtered the forest vipers. And when Bayezid hears this, he rejoices. Why, one might ask? Apparently he sees himself as a lord of the coast and takes this for a sign that he will soon also be lord of the sea. 

Really, it’s as good an interpretation as any. Stories of this sort appear in the Schiltberger narrative, sometimes without a great deal of context beyond “This is something interesting I’ve heard about from somewhere far away.” In this case it’s presented as being more local, occurring in lands where he tells of Bayezid campaigning. Perhaps it is one of the pieces borrowed from other books - remember that the Travels of Johann Schiltberger does this fairly extensively - but it seems just as likely to be a local tale he had heard in his time among the Ottomans.

Before we start building up towards the end of our protagonist’s time with Bayezid, and the coming of Timur into our story, we should look over the treatment of the Ottomans and their character, and the history of the Schiltberger book in that treatment. 

At first look, I don’t find the Schiltberger depiction of the Ottomans, and of Bayezid, to be a particularly unsympathetic one, which is interesting. It is worth noting that Bayezid’s mercy is often brought about by the pleas of those around him, after an initial outburst of violent anger. He, as a character, is not necessarily inherently merciful; rather, he is portrayed as a leader who will, eventually, listen to his sons and other advisors, which is not such a terrible thing to be of course. 

Aside from the slaughter in the aftermath of the battle at Nicopolis, which I realize is a bit of a large “aside,” we really don’t see Bayezid being terribly cruel. Tremendously successful, militarily speaking, yes, and thus responsible for no shortage of death, but cruel and/or unusual, no, not really. There’s none of that excessive slaughter we’ll see when Schiltberger writes of his time with Timur. Bayezid does trot the defeated lord’s head about on a lance, but he doesn’t make towers of heads, conduct mass killings of children, or bury large numbers alive. So there’s that, but material from Schiltberger’s later travels could be called upon to firmly establish the narrative of the “cruel Muslim” and then easily lumped in with the immediate Turkish threat.

The Travels of Johann Schiltberger was used repeatedly in polemics against the Ottomans. There’s a great article covering this by Samuel Wilcocks, who goes into the history of the book’s publications. It’s a topic we’ll return to at different times, but here we’ll focus on that polemical factor.

In 1595 and 97 pamphlet editions were issued in Frankfurt and Vienna, and these were not books; these were 4-8 pages. They consisted of material on Islam that the Schiltberger scribe had actually drawn from an earlier writer who in turn had borrowed it from a 13th century text. The source material is said have been quite a sympathetic portrayal of Islam, “uncommonly tolerant” even, but over time it had been reworked to emphasise the desired levels of cruelty and barbarism. It also had a bit of prophecy tacked on, that Islam would end with the next Muhammad, likely referring to Mehmed III and obviously not quite accurate. 

People had earlier read Schiltberger as a “wonderful and diverting history, ” if one to be treated with some scepticism, or as a narrative of travel or pilgrimage, but now he was repurposed as an authority on Islam and the evil Turk. One publishing house which had earlier issued the full travels was now responsible for an 8-page pamphlet titled “Of the Turks and Mahomet: a true, thorough report from the historian Johann Schiltberger.” So the text’s audience changed just as society, its concerns, and its fears changed, and under Schiltberger’s name more editions were published, often including prophecies, biblical verses, couplets about Islam as Christianity’s Satanic corruption, hymns urging readers to take arms in the call to crusade, and finally the Schiltberger material itself. That material could make up a fairly small percentage of the work, actually, and it was generally altered for maximum villainy. As Wilcocks argues, these pamphlets did not offer knowledge; rather they offered “reassurance: that the Turks could be resisted by a chivalrous Christian soldier, or by a skeptical European observer, or at the least by a prophecy.” 

All that in mind, let’s get back to the dawn of the 15th century to check in on Schiltberger and Bayezid. The one would soon be dead, his burgeoning empire badly shaken though not broken, and the other captured once again and bundled off to a new and exotic location. 

This shattering of both their worlds is foreshadowed in my edition of The Travels in a chapter whose title is both deeply misleading and hilariously benign: “How the infidels remain in the fields with their cattle, in winter and summer.” These were the words which, in our story at least, foreshadowed Bayezid’s doom. A reader might be tempted to file this section away under “minimal cultural interest,” but this is where the wheels of international power start grinding into motion.

The chapter opens innocently enough: 

It is the custom among the Infidels for some lords to lead a wandering life with their cattle, and when they come to country that has good pasturage, they rent it of the lord of the country for a time. There was a Turkish lord called Osman, who wandered about with his cattle, and in the summer came to a country called Tamast, and the capital of the country is also so called.”

But the situation soon deteriorated. Osman, actually Kara Yuluk Osman Bey, and his people, sometimes referred to as “The Horde of the White Sheep,” stay the summer in Tamast, which we would call Sivas, with the permission of its lord, Kadi Burhan al-Din Ahmad, and all is well. In the fall, they leave, but they do so without that lord’s permission. This doesn’t seem like it would be a huge problem, but Schiltberger tells us that Burhan al-Din was furious. He took one thousand horsemen, encamped on the pasture land where Osman had stayed, and sent a further four thousand horsemen in pursuit, ordering them to drag this Osman back, his life and belongings intact. Osman hears word of his pursuers though, and he and his people conceal themselves on a mountain, where by good fortune, or good planning, they see their blissfully oblivious pursuers set up camp on the meadow below, passing the night apparently unaware that they were under observation and under threat. As Schiltberger describes it:

"...when the day dawned, Osman took one thousand of his best horsemen to look at the winds, and when he saw that they were not on their guard, and were without care, he rode towards them and suddenly took them by surprise, so that they could not defend themselves, and many of them were killed; the others took to flight. The king was told how Osman had annihilated his expedition, but he would not believe it, and thought that fun was being made of him, until some of them came running to him. Even then he would not believe it, and sent one hundred horsemen to see if such was the case; and when the hundred horsemen went to see about it, Osman was on his way with his people to attack the king; and when he saw the hundred horsemen he overtook them, and came with them into camp."

So Burhan al-Din, referred to here as the king, really could not believe events were turning against him. Even as survivors from the initial encounter reached his camp, he would not hear their warning, thinking himself made a joke by his underlings. He clearly didn’t trust them, or, as seems to have been the case with his already shattered expedition, could not believe that he would be attacked. He doesn’t make preparations for combat; he sends out a party for confirmation and that party comes bundling back into the camp with Osman and his men on their heels, and then it’s too late. The camp is overtaken and the soldiers run. Burhan al-Din himself makes it out of the camp, but he is chased by one of Osman’s men. The man catches up to him, and, after calling on him to surrender, is about to shoot him with his bow, but Burhan al-Din makes himself known. He offers great rewards - a castle, the ring on his hand- if only he could be allowed to escape, but instead he is dragged back before Osman, who’s been busying himself cutting down fleeing men as they ran. Osman receives this prisoner as a valuable piece to be played, and he goes out to get himself a city. And don’t worry - this is getting back to Bayezid and Schiltberger, I promise you. 

Osman sends word to Burhan al-Din’s capital: he has their king and they should deliver themselves and their city to him in exchange for his promise of peace and security. But the city, Sivas, isn’t going for this. They have lords enough, thank you, and do not require the king to be returned at all. So Osman tries again. This time he sends the king himself to make his case. Al-Din goes before his people and asks them for his life; he asks them to give up the city. Even if he began confidently, as a beloved lord returning home, he must have felt a very special kind of desperation, alone at the walls, for the people replied : “We will not give up the city to Osman, because he is too feeble a lord for us; and if thou shouldst no longer care to be our lord, we have thy son whom we will have for our lord.” Needless to say, Osman is not pleased by this response, and he promptly has the valueless al-Din beheaded before the city and in clear sight of its apparently uncaring citizenry. The body is quartered, and the parts, along with the head, are placed on stakes. 

Now the king’s son within Sivas needs a powerful friend, and quickly, and he sends off to his father in law, the ruler of what Schiltberger terms White Tartary, in other words a Turko-Mongol ruler. This ruler takes his request seriously, moving with all his people, literally all the people, cattle, horses, etc, to remove the threat of Osman. And much like the  last time he was threatened, Osman takes to the mountains. The tartar lord camps before the city, and, in another now familiar move, Osman swoops down out of the mountains at night, arriving from two sides with loud cries, spooking the tartar lord and causing him to bolt for shelter within the gates of Sivas. And his people in turn flee at the news that their leader has abandoned them, and Osman pursues them, again cutting down many from behind. The ruler does follow and rally his people, but cannot not convince them to return to the attack, so Osman is left to continue with the siege. And you may be wondering when, if ever, Schiltberger, or even Bayezid, will reenter our story. Well, this was when the people of Sivas turned to Bayezid for help, offering in exchange their surrender to him. When Bayezid responded by sending a reported 20 thousand horsemen and four thousand foot soldiers under the command of his son Suleyman, Schiltberger was with them. 

As Suleyman’s men meet Osman and his soldiers, the Ottomans are apparently a little scattered, a common side effect of moving sizeable armies overland. They are almost broken immediately, but Suleyman rallies them and a hard three hours of fighting ensue with the Ottomans victorious. Osman escapes, to be heard from shortly,  and, as he seems very comfortable doing in times of stress, takes for the mountains. 

Matters thus settled, the contested city of Sivas opens its gates to Suleyman, but he doesn’t get to keep the city to himself. Bayezid will present it to another son, Mehmed, and send Suleyman on to deal with a certain White Tartar lord, perhaps the one we have just encountered. 

This is not the the only Ottoman military expedition which Schiltberger tells us he was part of, but it is the earliest one. In another expedition, he was dispatched, as one of 20 thousand men, to help the new Mamluk sultan of Egypt, Nasir ad-din Faraj, secure his rein against a rival bid for power. The effort was likely undertaken as a diplomatic one on Bayezid’s part. He anticipated an imminent threat, that posed by Timur who you may known Tamerlane, and probably hoped for the Sultan’s assistance in the coming war, but Nasir had reason beyond not wanting to send his troops away from home for declining such a request. It had not been so long before that Bayezid and Nasir’s father, Barquq, had come into conflict over the city of Malathea. Bayezid had come away with it, but he would likely have forgone this success if only any help were to be his in the battle to come. Timur was on the way.  

Schiltberger tells us that when our friend Osman had been driven off by Suleyman, he had not remained up in his mountain retreat for long; he’d gone to his lord Timur to complain of Bayezid and ask for Timur’s help in dealing with him. Was Timur interested in such an expedition? Indeed he was. So interested was he, that he mustered 10 hundred thousand men, a large number even on the scale of historical troop estimates, and decided to take Sivas from Bayezid. As a first step he simply demands, in writing, that Bayezid hand it over. 

This is not their first communication by the way. Although Schiltberger makes no mention of it, they have been exchanging letters for years, letters which range from the diplomatic to the personally insulting and threatening. In one report we hear of Timur addressing Bayezid like this:

Believe me, you are nothing but an ant; don’t seek to fight against the elephants because they will crush you under their feet. The dove which rises up against the eagle destroys itself. Shall a petty prince, such as you are, contend with us? But your boasts are not extraordinary, for a Turk never spoke with judgement. If you do not follow our counsel, you will regret it. This is the advice we give you. Behave as you think fit.

Bayezid, in turn made no effort to forestall war. Rather, he seems to have welcomed it:

For a long time we have wanted to wage war against you. God be praised, our will has now been achieved and we have decided to march against you with a formidable army. If you don’t advance to meet us, we will come and seek you out and pursue you as far as Tabris and Sultaniya. Then we shall see in whose favour heaven will declare and which of us will be raised in victory and which abased by a shameful defeat.

Sivas gives us our first look at Timur in action against the Ottomans. It is described by Syrian chronicler Arabshah as “among the finest of great cities, set in a beautiful region, remarkable for public buildings, fortifications, famous qualities and tombs of martyrs renowned above all.” It’s Seljuk-built walls were high and thick, but Timur set up his siege, using war machines and battering rams, towers from which they could strike down at the wall tops, and sappers beneath the walls, tunnelling and setting fires. According to Schiltberger, he took the city by force after 21 days. In other accounts, those within the walls asked for peace when they realized their defences could not hold. Timur is said to have made a promise to spill no blood, and it was a promise that he would keep in his own special way. Having ordered great pits to be dug, Timur gathered the horsemen who had defended the city. There were between 3 and 5 thousand of them, soldiers brought there by Suleyman who had himself since escaped. Timur had them painfully bound in suffocating, constricting positions, and he had them buried alive, bloodlessly. Then, he destroyed the city, and carried off its surviving inhabitants into captivity. 

Schiltberger disregards chronological norms with the events that follow, placing Timur’s attacks in Syria after the Battle of Angora with Bayezid. We’re also going to put aside Syria for next episode, but keep in mind that this was what Timur was up to following the destruction of Sivas.

When Timur returned to the region following his attacks on the Syrian cities, Bayezid could not allow his opponents to come further into his territory than they already had. It was the season when a ripening harvest was at stake, and thus an invading army could not only live off the land but also deal a lasting blow to Ottoman resources that would be felt throughout the following year. Bayezid gathered his Turkish troops from Europe, Balkan vassals such as the Serbians, groups of Kipchaks, and other Turkic nomads, and he moved swiftly east to Angora. There at least some of his commanders urged that he remain, by the ready supply of water, and wait for Timur, but this he would not do. He pushed on, seeking to cut off Timur’s advance in the direction his scouts reported. By doing so he was also moving into more wooded ground, suitable to an army that with large contingents of foot soldiers. Where, not that long ago, the Ottoman military had overwhelmingly been mounted, it had become increasingly infantry reliant, and it was soon to face the kind of horse-centric army the Ottomans themselves had once formed. 

Timur, was very aware of Bayezid’s movements. He made use of scouts and of local emirs who looked forward to regaining their land should Bayezid be defeated. Based on their information, and having first given indications of going north-west, he circled round to the south-west, pillaging the land as he went to support his army, moving quickly and evading any contact. Grain harvests were brought in and wells dug where necessary. Quick marches were interspersed with days of rest and refreshment, and the army moved swiftly but did not exhaust itself. 

Bayezid meanwhile seems to have entirely lost track of his enemy, that great horde becoming strangely invisible as he groped towards it with his own vast army. For 2 weeks he chased phantoms until word came that Timur had resurfaced just southeast of Angora. In a matter of weeks Timur’s army had maneuvered itself into position at that well-supplied site by the water from which Bayezid had only recently departed. Success in this achieved, orders were given for the city itself to besieged, the river to be diverted, and the army to be spread out to take advantage of the surrounding grasslands.   

Here Timur had already scored an enormous advantage, eating off the land and managing to rest his army before encamping at a water source, while at the same time denying that source to the Ottomans and causing them to rush back in a panicked series of forced marches that left them exhausted and terribly dehydrated before the battle had begun. Arabshah characterized them as “perishing with distress and violent thirst,” or, in another translation, “perishing with distress and murdered by thirst,” and indeed some estimates have 5,000 of Bayezid’s men actually dying before the fighting could begin. 

As the Ottomans arrive, Timur has to act quickly. He calls off the siege of Angora itself, and calls in his soldiers from the surrounding grasslands; they’d been taking advantage of the pastures, and so there was a real opportunity there for the Ottomans to take advantage of a scattered enemy. But they couldn’t. They were too weary from the march, a gruelling back and forth under Anatolia’s summer sun, weighed down by armour and armaments, the constant threat of battle with Timur the Conqueror’s horde, and the not so simple process of moving a vast body of humans as quickly as possible on a mix of boots and hooves. It’s been pointed out that Bayezid need not have initiated battle at this point. Instead he might have done as Osman had and withdrawn to the mountains, forcing Timur to expend strength in taking Angora or to leave his water source to pursue the recovering Ottomans. However, that was not to be, and the two sides formed up in opposing positions. 

On the Ottoman side, where Schiltberger was, Lazarovic of Serbia, Bayezid’s brother in law, commanded heavily armoured cavalry on the right wing, perhaps 20 thousand of them. On the left was Bayezid’s son Suleyman with loyal Anatolian troops and a variety of horsemen identified by Schiltberger as being from White Tartary. In the center was Bayezid and three of his sons with around 5,000 Janissaries and groups of Sipahi cavalry. Another son, Muhammed, commanded the rear guard. All told, they may have numbered somewhere between 20 and 500 thousand, with Schiltberger putting the number at fourteen hundred thousand men. In a truly epic confrontation, this giant faced one more than its equal in size, for Schiltberger attests to sixteen hundred thousand fighting under Timur’s. Hyperbolic assessments aside, we can fairly say that these were two great armies, both proven in warfare: Bayezid’s at Nicopolis and in other actions since, and Timur’s against the Golden Horde, the Delhi Sultanate, and just recently in Syria. 

At Angora, the order of battle for Timur’s army is a kind of Timurid family tree, that I won’t trouble you with at present, commanding troops from a great empire that now stretched from Syria to Delhi, and up to Russia. Front and centre were 32 war elephants from which arrows and Greek fire could be cast down. Actually both sides are sometimes said to have had Greek fire at this battle, though its role in the proceedings is pretty unclear as is that of the elephants.

Schilterberger’s portrayal of the battle is alarmingly sketchy for a man who was present at what appears to us to be such an immense event, really a momentous historical occasion, and one he had a real stake in too. He’s by this point lived among the Ottomans for most of his adult life, 12 years by his own, apparently faulty, reckoning, and presumably he had some feelings on their victory or defeat, not to mention the matter of his own potential death, in battle or afterwards. But we have to remember that he was not writing this as he went, likely did not write it at all in fact, but rather was reporting many years later what he remembered, and this was far from his only military experience, as huge a moment as it seems to us now. In any case, we shall have to turn to other sources for a story of the battle that goes beyond its barest of brushstrokes. Perhaps that speaks as much as anything to the confusing nature of such a clash and the difficulty of gaining any clear sense of it from down in the press of things and without the benefit of a helicopter or even a hilltop from which to see what was going on. 

It’s unclear to us how things kicked off, but the following passage from the writer Justin Marozzi at least paints an imaginative picture: 

"All was still on both side. A ripple stirred through Timur’s lines of cavalry as the horses sensed a charge. Then, slicing through the silence, came the heavy rumble of the great kettle-drums, joined by cymbals and trumpets, the signal for battle. Below the valley echoed to the thundering of horses’ hooves, the swoosh of arrows and the clash of metal upon metal. From the first blows struck the fighting was ferocious."

As the battle went on, the efficacy of Timur’s preparations was made clear. For months he had been engaged in diplomatic efforts with two primary goals. The first, through contact with Constantinople and Genoese Pera, to keep Bayezid’s European troops in Europe had not come to fruition; likely everyone involved was only too happy to see them go east. But the second had paid off. Bayezid’s cavalry irregulars, variously identified as Turcoman or Tartar, numbered perhaps a quarter or more of his men, and these men had been in contact with Timur for some time and had been persuaded to switch sides. This gets told in a few different ways, but they were either at the front of the  left wing and simply turned about or, more devastatingly, they attacked Suleyman’s men from behind, breaking them. In either case, Suleyman, commander of the left wing, fought hard but was forced to flee with what remained of his forces. 

It is also said that many of Bayezid’s Anotolian troops either refused to take part in the battle or switched sides themselves.  They were of beyliks conquered by Bayezid, had much to complain of, and may have been informed that their former lords were now serving Timur, having taken refuge in his court. 

All of this was, understandably, a disturbing turn of events for the Serbian vassal on Bayezid’s right wing. His cavalry seems to have had some success, beating back their enemies, but ordered not to pursue for fear of encirclement, and indeed that may have been just what Timur’s men intended by their retreat. When he saw, though, that Bayezid’s son was retreating, Lazarovic deemed the day lost and he withdrew. Only Bayezid’s centre, where he himself was, remained.

The battle apparently lasted all day. Timur is said to have returned at nightfall from pursuing the retreating Ottomans to find Bayezid and a loyal core still fighting, and this perhaps accounts for stories of Bayezid dispersing Timur’s troops, who believed Timur had lost, only to have Timur return in great strength and in turn surround the Ottomans. 

Bayezid would make his stand on a hill, encircled by his enemy. Maybe that’s where Schiltberger was too. Bayezid is said to have struggled to the last. We read: “The Thunderbolt continued to wield a heavy battle-ax. As a starving wolf scatters a flock of sheep, he scattered the enemy. Each blow of his redoubtable ax struck in such a way that there was no need of a second blow.” He and his man could not hold that hill indefinitely however, and, perhaps while attempting to fight his way down, his horse fell, and he was finally taken and bound as a prisoner. 

Arabshah gives the following characterization of Bayezid’s men at the battle:

"… they were like a man who sweeps dust away with a comb or drains the sea with a sieve or weighs mountains with a scruple. And out of the clouds of thick dust they poured out upon those mountains and the fields filled with those lions’ continuous storms of bloody darts and the showers of black arrows and the tracker of Destiny and the hunter of Fate set dogs upon cattle and they ceased not to be overthrown and overthrow and to be smitten by the sentence of the sharp arrow with effective decree, until they became like hedgehogs, and the zeal of the battle lasted between those hordes from sunrise to evening, when the hosts of iron gained the victory and there was read against the Ottomans the chapter of “Victory.” Then their arms being exhausted and the front line and reserves alike decimated, even the most distant of the enemy advanced upon them at will and strangers crushed them with swords and spears and filled pools with their blood and marshes with their limbs and Bayezid was taken and bound with fetters like a bird in a cage."

That “bird in a cage” line would really echo through fiction and history. It may be where we get the Christopher Marlowe version of what came after the battle, of Bayezid humiliated and kept in a cage by his captor. This is now generally not believed to have been the case, but certainly happy times were not ahead for the Ottoman ruler. His army had been shattered. He had seen the defection of many recently conquered beyliks. His son Musa had been taken prisoner with him, along with his son Mustafa, and his Serbian wife Despina. Some would actually blame Despina for the loss, saying she had corrupted Bayezid, while other focused this accusation of moral laxity, and resultant inattention, squarely on the Sultan himself. His Ottoman Empire was about to enter into a phase of contraction, infighting, and civil war as Bayezid’s sons fought for its diminished throne, but Bayezid would not be witness to this. We’ll end this episode with Schiltberger’s characteristically terse depiction of events.

"Then Timur remained 8 months in the country, conquered more territory and occupied it, and then went to Bayezid’s capital and took him with him, and took his treasure, and silver and gold, as much as one thousand camels could carry; and he would have taken him into his own country, but he died on the way. And so I became Timur’s prisoner, and was taken by him to his country. After this I rode after him. And what I have described took place during the time that I was with Bayezid."