Kublai Khan

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 patreon.com/humancircus, or through the website at humancircuspodcast.com. 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. 

In other Patreon related news, I’d also like to send special thank-yous out to my newest Patreon supporters Stian Skarsbo Solheim and Andy Alexander. Thank you both very much. 

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. https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/eastasia/781nestorian.asp

  • 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 humancircuspodcast.com. 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:

...to 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.     

Marco and the Polos 6: The Grand Tour

Marco Polo Catalan Atlas

You must know that on leaving the port of [Quanzhou] you sail west-south-west for 1500 miles, and then you come to a country called Champa, a very rich region, having a king of its own. The people are Idolaters and pay a yearly tribute to the Great Kaan, which consists of elephants and nothing but elephants.

You have heard that the king of this land was old and had no stomach for the fight which Kublai Khan’s commanders brought into his lands, and that he lacked the forces to oppose them. Or perhaps, you think, he instead had wisdom to see that peace could be more cheaply bought in elephants than in blood.

The king, in fear or in wisdom, sent his messengers to the khan, offering to submit to his rule, and asking him to call upon his general to withdraw and leave in peace the realms that the king had long ruled in peace. Moved by pity, or perhaps relief at the ease with which his cause was won, Kublai Khan accepted this proposal, and from then on received “every year a tribute of 20 of the greatest and finest elephants that were to be found in the country.”

There are very great numbers of elephants in this kingdom, and they have [eagle-wood] in great abundance. They have also extensive forests of the wood called [ebony], which is jet-black, and of which chessmen and pen-cases are made. But there is nought more to tell, so let us proceed.

Hello, and welcome back. I’m Devon, and this is Human Circus: Journeys in the Medieval World. A quick reminder before we get going that that you can find me online at humancircuspodcast.com and on twitter at circus_human, and that rating, review, subscribing, and signing up for the podcast Patreon is how we keep our astonishingly large fleet afloat in terrible weather. And on that note, a huge thank you to Alan T and Juan Alvarez, my newest patrons. Thank you both very much. 

My initial plan for this episode had been the theme of Yuan failure in Southeast Asia and Kublai’s ongoing inability to effectively extend his power into its jungles and heat, and in the face of persistent and occasionally brilliant resistance. I felt like doing something different though, having just talked about Kublai’s problems with imperial overreach during the last episode, so I’m putting that aside. 

One of the areas of the Marco Polo text I really haven’t done justice to yet is his description of the world outside of China, so that’s what I’m doing today: talking about the images he brought back to Venice and Europe. It’s Marco the travel guide; it’s one late 13th-century understanding of the world, or at least that part of it between Southeast Asia and the African coast.  

I’m doing something slightly different today. It’s not the usual format. It’s you as Marco, so when I say, for example, that you think of a people as beasts, I am neither saying that I think they are beasts nor saying that I think you think they are beasts. It’s only that Marco thought so, or at least the text said so, which is maybe not the same thing. Anyways, what I’m trying to do here is present a picture of the world as he reported it, the things he found interesting to relate to his European audience. So that’s why you’re going where he went. Some of today’s destinations he visited himself, others most definitely not.

Your journey starts as you sail from Champa and arrive at the island of Java. It is vast, held by the most knowledgeable navigators you’ve met to be maybe the largest island in the world, and it is ruled by one king who is beholden to no other power, not even to the great khan himself. You do notice that the people here worship idols, but your attention is drawn quickly to the abundance of pepper, nutmeg, spikenard, galangal, cubebs, cloves, and all manner of other drugs and spices which are to make their way around the world from this place. Ships come laden with other goods to trade for those spices and make their owners a rich profit, or to collect the gold which is produced here (a likely confusion with Borneo) and take it back to China. You yourself find a way aboard one of these ships, but you are not bound for China.

Your destination is much closer at hand. Java the Lesser, which some know as Sumatra, sits just to the northwest, and its name belies its great size. Like the one you have just left, this island produces spices, some of which are not to be found anywhere else in the world, and the perfumed eagle-wood too. Unlike Java, it is not united. You find fractured kingdoms and peoples, some friendly to you, but others less so. In one area of coastal towns you find mostly those converted by the frequent visits of Muslim merchants, living according to the laws of Muhammed, while up the in the hills and away from the water, the people live like beasts. You find that they worship for a day the very first thing they had set their eyes on that morning, and, significantly more worrisome, they eat human flesh. You don’t linger long, but then the neighbouring kingdom is little more to your taste. 

Here too, you find beasts, this time lacking either law or religion. They call themselves the khan’s subjects, yet they pay no tribute nor receive any emissaries. However, the area does not lack for wildlife. There are wild elephants in great numbers, and you see unicorns too. You find they are nearly as large as elephants and hairy as buffaloes, with heads like wild boars, and equipped in the middle of their foreheads with a thick black horn. They are altogether uglier than you’d imagined, and not at all like in the stories, generally mired in mud when you see them, not in maidens’ laps. There are also monkeys in the area, and the thought occurs to you that these are probably the pygmies that people bring home and claim are brought from India; really there is no such thing, just Sumatran monkeys, hair plucked but for the beard, and skin dried and then treated with saffron and other substances. Satisfied at least to have solved this mystery, you move along. 

In the next kingdom, contrary winds detain you for five months, but fortunately you are not alone for you fall in with a company of 2,000 men. You’re able to dig in deep ditches and fell trees for walls, and good thing too, for some the people are fearsome and wild, and well known to be eaters of men. Others are less unfriendly and keep you well supplied. They have the best fish in the world here. They have coconuts. They have bread made of flour that is found under the bark of a tree. They have an excellent wine derived from trees which remind you of date palms, and in a pleasant haze, the months pass quickly enough. 

However, you meet savage men in the hills with tails the thickness of dogs, and you meet others whose practices disturb you more than that. When one of them is sick, they call on a sorcerer to determine if the patient is to live or die. If the sorcerer foretells that they won’t recover, then they the matter is not left to play out as it will. They are promptly suffocated with cloth, cooked, and consumed by all their kin, down to the last of the marrow, and the remains of their bones are carried off in a chest. Captured enemies who cannot afford the ransom receive similar treatment. This, of Sumatra, you won’t be missing. 

To the north, you encounter small islands. At one, the people go entirely naked in stark contrast to the high prices which the spices and wood will fetch. At another, the people’s faces put you in mind of large dogs, as does their cruelty. You do not stay long. 

From these islands, you sail south by southwest for a time, covering nearly a thousand miles of water and crossing the Bay of Bengal until at last, you come to Ceylon (Sri Lanka). It is a large island, but you’ve heard it was once even larger, and that the strong north wind and the low and flat nature of the island at that end have conspired to submerge much of it. 

The people are idolaters and scarcely clothed. They live on rice, meat, and milk, and drink tree-wine much like that you’ve had before. But none of that is what interests you most, for you know what interests Kublai Khan. He has sent embassies on multiple occasions asking after a great ruby. No other country in the world produces rubies, but this one does, and sapphire, and topaz, and amethyst besides, and the island’s king has a ruby unlike any other. It is thick as a man’s arm and without flaw, and it seems, in the light, to be a piece of flame. Many times, Kublai has asked what price he might pay to possess it, and many times, the king has said it is not to be had for any price. Still, it seems there may be an even greater treasure on the island, and this one Kublai has sought more successfully.

There is a large mountain at the island’s centre, difficult enough to approach that massive iron chains are fixed to its sides to make it at all possible; however, many do make the climb. They come in pilgrimage to the sepulchre at its peak though there is some disagreement over whose relics are within. There are those who say that they are the remains of Adam, the first man, others, that they are of the very first of the idolaters, the son of a wealthy and powerful king.

This prince, you are told, would not be moved by worldly affairs, even when tempted by all the king would offer, and seeing his steadfastness, the king built a wonderful palace to be his prison, for he had no other sons to name as heirs. Within that palace, the prince was ensconced in beauty and untroubled by illness or aging or any of the ugliness of the world, until one day, when he went outside and he saw a dead man, and then a very old man, and both sights troubled him terribly. He was greatly disturbed, and asked after what he had seen: do all people age so? Do they all die? The prince refused to return to his comforts. He went on to live the life of a great saint, to take himself to mountains lofty and pathless where he endured many hardships. And he did not die only once. He died fourscore times and more, as a man and then an ox, and then a horse, and so on, and on, until after his 84th life he became a god. This is the story you have heard, and you know too that your khan has acquired some of those relics for himself, whether they be of Adam or the Buddha, that his envoys have paid a rich price to bring back two teeth, some hair, and dish from their resting place to the court of Kublai.       

You leave the island and its mountaintop sepulchre behind you, and you go west but not far, only until you reach the mainland, and the coast of India. There, you learn something of the local pearl industry, how in the months of April and May, the divers work all day on and under the water for the shells, and how they are protected by fish-charmers who keep the more dangerous sea-life at bay. The merchants must pay both groups from their profits, and another 10% for the king, and you chance to see that king yourself. He’s a striking figure, with a cloth around his waist, a necklace of gems, and a silk thread strung with 104 pearl and ruby prayer beads. When you see him, he is astride his horse but bound by a circle that has been traced in the ground. The people here will not cross outside of a circle drawn about them by one who they owe until they have made good on that debt, and you see the king himself so confined, a credit to his sense of justice. You also see a man paraded on a cart through the streets. He has 12 knives, and he takes one up, shouting that he is slaying himself for the love of his god, and runs it through his arm. You gather that he is a condemned criminal who has been permitted to sacrifice himself to his chosen deity rather than be slain by the king’s men for his crime, and you turn away after the fourth knife. 

You find the climate here difficult to endure at times. It is hot beyond measure, hot enough, that were you to put an egg in one of the rivers, the very heat of the sun would boil it before you could leave it far behind. The rains come only a quarter of the year, saving what would otherwise be an entirely uninhabitable country, and then there are the pests. Light cane-work beds which can be lifted by cord to the ceiling are necessary or else you will be bitten by tarantulas, fleas, and other vermin. Meanwhile, outside, the poor sleep on the ground. 

In this region also is a small town. It’s largely unvisited by merchants but pilgrims both Muslim and Christian go there, you’ll be going there too. Pilgrims come to take up red earth from the ground, for it is known for its healing properties, and particularly for its power in curing fevers. It was here in this small Indian town that Saint Thomas came and eventually died, and you’re told the story of that tragic accident. The saint was praying outside his hermitage one day, surrounded by the peacocks which are so plentiful in the region, when a local hunter, who would claim to have seen nothing but peacocks, fired an arrow which struck Thomas in the side. The saint would quickly succumb to his wound, but it was not the last he was seen in the town.

Apparently, a local baron was stuffing all the Christians’ houses with his rice so that no pilgrim could find shelter. Though the people pleaded with him to move his rice and no longer hinder their devotions, he ignored their entreaties. This bitter situation went on unchanged until one night the saint himself was suddenly there before the baron. He was in his home, pressing a fork to his throat and promising an evil death if the man did not empty his rice from the houses. In the morning the baron submitted, and Saint Thomas is said to have here worked many more great miracles since. 

Further to the north is a place you hear of where the king has been dead for forty years, but he is not missed, for the queen, who rules still, is more beloved than ever any other lord or lady. In her realm, diamonds are abundant beyond belief, but they are hard to come by. You are told that they often lie in unreachable valleys and amongst the most venomous of snakes. Fortunately, the people of the region have contrived a solution to this. They throw pieces of meat down into valleys and gullies, and then watch as white eagles swoop down to take the meat, now pebbled with gems from the valley floor. All that remains to be done is then drive the eagles from their nests, or else wait longer and take the eagles themselves or, later still, sort through their droppings for the diamonds. But that’s not where you’re going. You’re headed west from the hermitage of Saint Thomas, and into Kerala, and in just a moment, we’ll be going there too. 

The Indian province of Kerala is where you understand all Brahmans to come from. You identify the Brahmans as the best and most honest traders of the world, and unswayed by temptation. However, they are also, to your way of thinking, excessively swayed by signs and omens, seeing them everywhere. The length and character of their shadow in the morning sun on a particular day of the week, the path of a bird seen as they walk, the source of a tarantula on the wall: any of these might be seen by a Brahman as a good or bad omen and acted on accordingly. 

In Kerala, you meet merchants whose ships have come from the west, from Hormuz, Aden, and elsewhere, and from all about the country, people come to trade with them, bringing a thriving business to the region. And in the city of Kollam, there are more merchants still, from China, Arabia, and the Levant. They come for the pepper, the brazilwood, the ginger, and the indigo, a herb which is prepared in large vessels that boil beneath the sun. They find, as you do, a population mostly of idolaters, but with some Christians and Jews, and they find, as you do, people everywhere chewing at a certain leaf, sometimes prepared with spices and quicklime, and spitting out the saliva that plentifully results.   

And perhaps they too are struck by the creatures of this country, for all its birds and beasts are altogether strange, most unlike your own. It must be that incredible heat which makes them so. The peacocks are beautiful and larger than you’ve seen and the lions black all over. There are parrots of all colours, kinds, and sizes, and even the rooster and hen is different here. From, fowl to fruit, everything differs from what you know, and is finer, and better. The palm-sugar wine is excellent also, and strong, and you rub at your eyes as you look at monkeys so peculiar, you would take them for men.

Further north and west along the Arabian coast of India, you see the North Star, which had been hidden from Java, rise to two cubits above the horizon, and you come to Mangalore. It has language and king all its own, and it offers tribute to no other ruler. 

To this place, ships come in from all quarters, but especially from China, bringing copper, gold, and silk, cloves, and spikenard. They take back pepper, ginger, and cinnamon. And from here, one hundred vessels of corsairs set out every year, the pirates even bringing their families with them. They form up in fleets and spread out in cordons across the water, sometimes as long as 100 miles. When one corsair has sighted a vessel to be taken, they signal the rest with smoke, so that the surrounding pirates will close in too and join them in the plunder. They do not kill unnecessarily though, and when they then let the ship go, considerably lighter than before, they bid its masters to go out and amass still more wealth so that it may be brought back to them again. At your next destination, you hear that the pirates force their victims to drink a preparation of tamarind and sea water to make them vomit up any gems or other valuables they might have swallowed and thought hidden. 

That next province is Gujarat, home, you’re told, to the most desperate pirates in existence. The people here grow pepper, ginger, indigo, and great quantities of cotton. They produce the skins of goats, oxen, buffaloes, and unicorns, all to be shipped off to Arabia, and they make lovely mats in blue and red leather, with figures of animals and birds worked into them, and gold and silver wire embroidery. 

Soon, you’ll be coming to the end of your travels in mainland India. As the land curves west into Makran, and the people are less and less likely to be idolaters and more and more to be Muslims, you will put once more to sea. You regret that you cannot see or indeed describe all the islands of India, for there are said 12,700 of them. For now, you are going 500 miles south to the islands of Female and Male. 

The islands, 30 miles apart, are very much out of stories you have heard of places elsewhere in the world, but never seen yourself. As the names of islands imply, on one live the men and on the other the women, all Christians who follow the Old Testament. Only for three months of the year - March, April, and May - do the men move over to women’s island, returning with the coming of June to their own island, and their work. They fish most productively, drying their catch to provide ample food for the year and more to trade with besides. Chief among them is a bishop who answers to the archbishop of another island, where you are going next. 

That is the island of Socotra, near the mouth of the Gulf of Aden. Its archbishop answers to Baghdad, not Rome. The people, Christians, are practised in spearing whales with a cord and float attached, so that when the whale dies they may easily locate it and bring the whale to shore where they take oil from the head and, in great quantity, ambergris from the stomach. However, though the population is Christian, the island also produces the greatest enchanters in the world. They have spells which will turn the wind and confound passing ships, that will produce terrible storms and disasters, and that will have much viler effects than you care to recall.

Trade comes to island, picking up gold, cotton, ambergris, and salted fish, and there are pirates in abundance too, who come to sell their plunder to willing buyers. And among all these travellers and traders from near and far, you hear stories of other lands. 

You are told of Madagascar, a noble and beautiful island 1,000 miles to the south where four elders govern over a Muslim populace. Due to the curious nature of the currents, ships rush south to the island in three days over distances that will take them twenty to return, but still they make the trip with gold and silk which they trade for the ambergris, sandalwood, and elephant tusks produced there. They can go no further south though; those currents are such that if they go any further, they will not be able turn back north, in any season. 

On the island are elephants in quantities beyond those in any other country; there are camels, whose meat the people eat exclusively; there are leopards, bears, and lions; and there is another creature, which you had heard of at the court of Kublai Khan. It is said that there is a gryphon, though not of the kind you have read of before. Not half-lion and half-bird, it looks more like an eagle but of such great size and strength that the bird apparently swoops down to snatch up an elephant in its talons, carry it high into the air, and then send it smashing to the ground and its death, to be eaten at the bird’s leisure. The bird is known as the rukh, and word of it had reached the great khan himself. 

You remember how Kublai had heard tell of the rukh even from his capital, and had sent out an envoy to ask after the matter, and then another when the first became detained. His men returned safely and with strange stories to tell, chiefly of the rukh, but they didn’t bring only stories. They brought two boar’s tusks weighing more than 14 pounds each, from creatures big as buffaloes, and they brought a feather of the rukh far beyond the proportions of any known bird. How delighted had Kublai been, and what gifts he had given those who had brought it to him. But you are far away from all of that now.

Some thousand miles northwest of Madagascar is the island of Zanzibar. You drink wine there made of dates, rice, good spices, and sugar. You watch the trading in elephant tusks and ambergris. You admire the giraffes at length, for they really are beautiful. You note the strength of the people, that they may carry for four and eat for five. But you write at length that they are hideously ugly, in a way you have not throughout your other travels, that the men “look like very devils,” and the women are a “disgusting site.” Your customary cosmopolitanism seems to be slipping.

Eventually, you reach the mainland coast of Africa and the great province of Ethiopia with its elephants and ostriches, lions, apes, and leopards, its six kingdoms and its six kings, three Muslim and three Christian. Its Christians are marked on their faces with hot iron as part of their baptism, and their history in the region traces back to the preaching of St Thomas the Apostle as he passed on towards India. Here, the people are skilled soldiers and practised horsemen, and they have no shortage of practice in struggle with the Nubians and the Sultan of Aden.

Actually, you hear one particular story of how the greatest king of Ethiopia, a Christian, had recently thought to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, there “to adore the Holy Sepulchre of Our Lord God Jesus Christ the Saviour.” But his advisors would not have it. Were he to go himself, they counselled, he would be far too vulnerable to the predation of his enemies, who were powerful. Instead, he ought to send a holy man in his stead. 

The advice seemed good, and the king selected a bishop who would make the trip on his behalf. And that bishop did set out and arrive at the sepulchre and there pay it honour and make a generous offering on the king’s behalf. It was on his return journey though that the sense of the king’s men was born out. As the bishop passed through Aden, its sultan heard word of his passing, a Christian, a bishop, and an envoy of the Ethiopian king. He was seized, questioned, and forcibly circumcised; you have been put to shame in spite of your king he was told, and then he was released. 

Time it took to recover and to make his way home to the king, but he did recover and make it home. His king greeted him with happiness, and listened with delight as the bishop told of all he had seen in Jerusalem and of every detail as to the sepulchre itself, but then the tale turned to return journey, to his mistreatment at the hands of the sultan, and to the sultan’s parting words. Then the king was not so pleased. Such was his grief and wrath over this offence that “he was like to die of vexation. And at length his words waxed so loud that all those round about could hear what he was saying. He vowed that he would never wear crown or hold kingdom if he took not such [fitting] vengeance on the Soldan of Aden that all the world should ring therewithal, even until the insult had been well and thoroughly redressed.” 

The Ethiopian king mustered men, horses, and elephants with castles on their backs. He gathered these around him and made over land and gulf for the Kingdom of Aden in great force, and the sultan’s men came forward to meet the Ethiopians at a strong point, a pass near their frontier where they thought they could hold the invaders. But you’re told that vengeful king would not be stopped, that his were better soldiers and slew a “marvelous number” of their enemies and drove them back into their own land. Repeatedly, they were attacked in the narrows of the pass but each time prevailed, killing more. You’re told that the king entered his enemy’s land and remained there for a month, killing and destroying until his appetite was satisfied, and then he returned in triumph and joy to his own country, his rival humbled, his bishop and his honour avenged. As for you, you will be travelling on to Aden yourself.  

At the port of Aden, you marvel at the traffic, and at the volume of goods which pass through. Ships carry horses out to India, where they’ll fetch a higher price than anywhere else, and others arrive with pepper and spice. The incoming ships are often unloaded onto smaller boats to continue on for seven days before the goods are transferred onto camels for a further journey of 30 and so come to Alexandria; that is how all that city’s spices arrive. 

No wonder then that the sultan is counted one of the richest princes of this world. On all of this traffic, he collects duties, and you detect no sign that he has been damaged significantly or set back in wealth or influence by the Ethiopian invasion you’d heard so much about.

His rule extends to your next destination, whose king is subject to him, the great city of Esher, its lord a Muslim who governs his people justly and well. He makes a good profit on his frankincense monopoly, the product of trees like small firs from which sap is allowed to flow through small cuts and is collected. Aside from frankincense, his lands produce dates, of which wine is made, and fish in something beyond abundance, so much so that two large tuna can be had for a single Venetian silver. Smaller fish are caught in astonishing quantities in the months of spring and then fed to beasts throughout the year, for there is no grass for them here in this place which is perhaps the driest in the world. And in some ways, the people eat little different from their animals: larger fish are cut into pieces of a pound or so, dried, and then eaten like biscuits all year. And the sheep! You will remember those best of all of this place. They are pretty little creatures, but they have no ears, only horns.

With some regret, you leave the lovable sheep behind you and carry on up the Arabian coast, moving northeast, until you come to Qalhat, a noble city with strong fortifications. It sits at the mouth of the Gulf of Oman, where its ruler can choke off trade passing into the gulf and so force his rivals to bend to his will or else lose out on the massive revenues that result from that trade. As you set out over the gulf yourself, bound for Hormuz, you think yourself very tired of salt fish and dates.

You have been to Hormuz before, on your way east, and you think now, as you did then, that the heat is truly horrifying, stiflingly, fatally so. The temperature is only made at all bearable by the cunning ventilation on the windward side of their homes. However, the countryside is home to beautiful birds of kinds not seen elsewhere, and you are able to reacquaint yourself with the city’s good wine of dates and spices. The first drink induces uncontrollable vomiting, but after that, one is all the better for it. You sit by the harbour and sip and you look with alarm on the boats. You have seen boats on the rivers of China, the Ocean of India, and many else besides, but these scarcely deserve the name. They are made of planks stitched together with coconut fibres and then rubbed with fish oil, and you are not in the least surprised to learn that many are lost to storms on the journey to India. 

As you move homeward, the end of your journey in sight, you hear stories of other places. You hear, for example, of somewhere to the north known as the Land of Darkness, where it is always night and neither moon nor stars appear. Its people are tall and colourless, unruled by any king, and amass many valuable pelts through hunting. Mongols go there sometimes, raiding upon mares that have left foals behind so that when they are ready to return home they simply allow the horses beneath them to return to their foals, which they do, unerringly, through the darkness. You feel some regret at never having seen such a thing yourself, but only a little. For you have seen many things, not the Land of Darkness and not the great province of Russia with its sable fur, silver mines, and unbearable cold, but much else besides, and you are ready to go home, 

You are making your own way overland towards Constantinople from which you will sail for Venice, and as you near your goal, your writings taper off. Many merchants and others have been there, and many of your audience will already know of where you walk now, so you do not bother to record further descriptions. And there you leave me. And there we leave our grand tour. 

We’ve seen now some Marco Polo’s broader picture of the world outside of China, and of the networks of trade which he encountered, around Indonesia with its spices, from China to India, or India to Arabia, and on to Egypt and elsewhere. We’ve seen some of the products and practices that interested him, a 13th-century European understanding of the Buddha’s origin story, and the end of Saint Thomas at the hands of an Indian peacock hunter. 

There is some misleading information in there to be sure, everything from locations out of any rational order to the rukh and other such myths from off the side of Marco’s path which, as with your own, likely did not cross Madagascar. That said, there was also a lot of quite accurate information that would have been new to his audience, and that was a relatively huge audience. This is pre-printing press we’re talking about, but the book was something of a bestseller in its time. It was written out again and again, and, though we lack a patient zero, we have a multitude of other manuscripts to prove it, 150 surviving medieval and renaissance copies, which, if you’re not sure, is indeed a lot. In its first twenty years alone, the book would be reproduced in Latin, German, Venetian, Tuscan, Franco-Italian, and French.

And I’ll talk more about that next time, when I’ll be back with the final Marco Polo episode, or at least the final one for now. I’ll be following Marco’s adventures on his way back to Venice - his awkward parting with Kublai, the mysterious or maybe not so mysterious Kokochin, the massive loss of life the homeward trip entailed -  and I’ll also be taking up the writing of the book itself.

Marco and the Polos 5: The Echoes of the Wind

Kuniyuki Japanese Armies Defeating Mongol Invaders

Near the gates of the Hakozaki shrine of Fukuoka, Japan, is a stone marker with characters cut into its surface. They form the words of a song, and that song, in translation, goes something like this:

From four hundred states and more

Hundreds of the foe appear,

Looms a peril to the nation

In the fourth the Koan year.

What should be our fear? Among us

Kamakura men will go,

Martial discipline and justice

To the world with shout we’ll show.

From the [Mongol] shores barbarians,

What are they, The Mongol Band,

Fellows insolent and haughty,

‘Neath their heaven we will not stand.

Onward now our arms were practiced

For our native country’s sake,

For our country now a trial

Of these Nippon swords we’ll make.

To the waters of Tsukushi

We advance through flood and wave;

We with bodies stout and vigorous,

If we die, and find a grave,

Dying, we become the guardian

Gods of home, for which we fell,

To Hakozaki’s God I swore it,

And he knows the pure heart well.

Heaven grew angry, and the ocean’s

Billows were in tempest tossed;

They who came to work us evil,

Thousands of the Mongol host,

Sank and perished in the sea-weed,

Of that horde survived but three,

Swift the sky was clear, and moon beams

Shone upon the Ghenkai Sea.

It all sounds like a legend, a patriotic song of supernatural forces sweeping away the barbaric threat like ants. It tells of the sea, twisted by some great power into an irresistible weapon and striking down the enemy without mercy, and striking again, and again, until only three of their number survived, and then laying calm, resting, as the moon shone down on its now still waters, and on the broken boats and bodies of a Mongol invasion.

It’s not, as it’s sometimes been thought, purely the stuff of song and legend though. It’s a fascinating chapter of Mongol history which is often ignored, and it’s an important piece of Japanese history too, with its theme of divine protection echoing into modernity. It’s a snapshot of Kublai Khan’s Yuan Khanate reaching the limits of its abilities. It’s mentioned in Marco Polo’s text, and it’s what we’re talking about today.  

Hello, and welcome back. My name is Devon, and this is Human Circus. I’d like to take this opportunity to remind you that rating, reviewing, and subscribing is how we keep our dishes brimming with delicious fermented milk beverages, and also to let you know that the podcast now has a Patreon. Patreon, if you’re not familiar with it, is a subscription platform where you can pledge a monthly amount towards a project such as this one and receive something nice out of it for yourself. I currently have 1, 3, and 5 dollar monthly options, and you can find them at patreon.com/humancircus or via my own website at humancircuspodcast.com. And now, let’s get back to the Travels of Marco Polo.

During the last few episodes, I’ve focused on Marco’s time in China and his relationship to Kublai Khan, and I ended the last one by saying that we’d be headed next for Myanmar, Japan, and elsewhere. Slight change of plans: this is all going to be about Japan. There’s just too much to the story to cut it down and cram it in to an “also visited” episode, so I’ll be talking about 2 attacks, how they’re covered in Marco’s text, how they’ve been remembered, and what we’ve learned since. This then will be an episode of invasions, and, unusually for Mongol stories, they won’t be successful ones. 

In Southeast Asia and across the sea, Kublai Khan’s empire was reaching its limits. Remember that story of Kublai’s financial minister Ahmed, the one who may or may not have been guilty of the vilest corruptions and sorceries? I mentioned then that he had the unenviable responsibility of sustaining the purse of a khan who kept dipping in deep for massive project after military expedition after naval adventure. Now, Kublai would hardly be the first Mongol khan to look to enlarge his territories - it would have been a real first if he hadn’t - but he was going to experience some costly setbacks along the way. Japan was one his costlier ones, and it revealed an outer limit to the whole world domination project that had long been the Mongols’ stated goal in life. 

Marco Polo would not be going to Japan himself, but he speaks of what he calls Zipangu, “an island in the eastern ocean,” where a king ruled over his people and their inexhaustible supply of gold. Except it was more like his inexhaustible supply of gold, for he did not allow it to be exported. Few merchants from elsewhere thus visited the island, and this contained bounty of treasure, Marco says, must explain what he’d heard of the king’s palace from those who had been there. The roof was plated entirely with gold, and the ceilings of its halls too; even the furnishings were gold, and the size and quantity of the pearls were apparently no less impressive. It was real storybook stuff, an island of riches and its greedy king.

Putting issues of treasure aside for a moment, Marco turns to religion, first considering Zipangu’s many-shaped idols, their animal heads, sometimes many heads, and their many limbs. He says Christians - he doesn’t say which Christians exactly - had enquired about the shapes and been told that they were that way because they had been in the past and so they would be transmitted into the future, that these were the idols of the practitioners’ parents and so they would also be those of their children. And then the text takes on a suddenly aggressive tone: the rituals done before these idols were “wicked and diabolical,” nothing short of an abomination to even relate in written form. Really, like HP Lovecraft’s indescribable evils, the author could not bring himself to tell us of such foul deeds, but he does insist on telling us, as the passage gathers steam, that, quote:

...the idolatrous inhabitants of these islands, when they seize the person of an enemy, who has not the means of effecting his ransom for money, invite to their house all their relations and friends, and putting their prisoner to death, dress and eat the body, in a convivial manner, asserting that human flesh surpasses every other in excellence of its flavour.

However, it was neither religion nor rumours of cannibalism which stirred in Kublai a desire to take it all for himself. It was all that wealth, or so Marco says. He tells us that a great fleet was fitted out for the purpose, and that a substantial army was loaded aboard under the command of two officers, two men who were apparently going to be the source of problems to come.

The invading army reached land in safety, but the poison had already set in at the top. There was a jealousy and bitter hatred between the two commanders which would not allow for cooperation on the task at hand. Plans of the one were resisted or ignored by the other, and though they were in their target’s territory, in their mutual animosity they could not get it together to actually take anything of consequence, whether fortress or city, except for one. And even there, they met with problems. They had cut off the heads of everyone within the walls, but there were eight people whose heads they simply couldn’t cut off, who, quote, “by the efficacy of a diabolical charm, consisting of a jewel or amulet introduced into the arm,” were rendered invulnerable to blades, uncuttable and unkillable. 

Approaching the problem pragmatically, the Mongols beat them to death with clubs, but not all the would-be conquerors’ challenges were going to be overcome so easily. Their leadership was as paralyzed as ever by a terrible working relationship, and nature was about to turn against them too. A great wind, some in Japan would say a divine wind, was making its way towards them. 

When the storm came, a decision was made to load the troops back aboard and ride it out at sea, but this second part of the plan proved impossible. The violence of the wind increased, sinking several ships, and scattering the rest. Those of the invasion force who survived, limped home across the waters to their khan, leaving behind them 30,000 men. Those soldiers who’d washed ashore on a small island with wreckage from the fleet, now found themselves utterly abandoned and without any hope return, but despite their desperate situation, they seem to have done quite well for themselves without the burden of their generals.

When the gale ended, a force came across from the mainland by boat, hunting for the survivors, but not in an organized way. The Mongols occupied the highland at the island’s centre, and watched as their enemy circled around, following the road, and then, the Japanese forces having gone on their way, the Mongols swept down and took their boats. They didn’t use them to go home, for these probably weren’t boats suitable for sea crossings. Instead, they used them to enter the, quote, “principal city of Japan,” friendly colours flying, and occupy it unresisted.

So there they were, this 30,000, having done what their commanders hadn’t really been up to, but now quite stuck. They had a captive city, apparently the “principal” one, but what were they to do with it? What were they to do when a blockade went up around them, and all hope of escape save for surrender had gone? They could only give themselves up after six months, having negotiated for their lives to be spared, and this, Marco tells us, is what they did. They exited the city and disappeared from our story entirely. 

Meanwhile, the story of those two commanders was reaching its own conclusion, though it would take some time for things to play out. Apparently some years passed before Kublai came to understand exactly what and who had been responsible for his army’s failure, but he did at last come to understand it and decide on appropriate punishment. The one commander was beheaded, but the other was less fortunate. He was sewn tightly into a fresh buffalo skin and then left to die as the skin dried and contracted around him, leaving him unable to move and succumbing to a nightmarishly suffocating end. 

But how accurate was all of this? And I don’t mean the buffalo skin here. I mean the invasion of Japan. How does Marco Polo’s depiction of this chapter of Mongol history compare with what we think now? Though it was once thought of as a bit of a fable, we’ll see that the basic contours of the story are there.

For Kublai, the treasure to be acquired in Japan was likely not so much gold as it was the prestige he stood to gain, and I think this goes back to an inherent insecurity in Kublai’s position. He had become Khan of the Mongols in a manner that was not entirely above board, a kurultai on his own territory which was far from universally attended and then a civil war, and then he would become Yuan Emperor of China too. In both roles, he needed to prove his worth and his mandate, and that meant expansion. 

He also likely wanted to head off the Japanese-Song connection. Kublai’s early engagements with Japan came as he was still dealing with the Southern Song, and cutting them off from this friendly trading source across the water would hardly have hurt those efforts. 

Kublai first reached out to Japan by way of his Korean vassals. He sent envoys as soon as 1266, but the Koreans didn’t keep their end up. They were expected to bring the embassy over the sea to their destination - the Mongols were not naturally an ocean-going power themselves - but they did not want to keep that particular end up. They had a decent relationship with the Japanese rulers who had fairly recently interceded to halt Japanese piracy on their shores, and they had no desire to become embroiled in a Mongol-Japanese conflict. So they played up the problems that awaited the envoys: the ocean was too violent, the weather too unpredictable, the way too hard to pass safely. And it worked. They entertained their visitors into the winter months; they gave them a taste of the crossing in stormy weather; and the envoys, apparently more alarmed by the ocean than by the prospect of returning to Kublai Khan empty handed, headed for home. 

Of course, Kublai was immensely displeased by all of this, both with those envoys and with the Koreans, and he still wanted to reach out to Japan. In 1268, his second attempt arrived on Japanese shores, this time with effective Korean assistance. There was an official from the Ministry of Rites along, and one from the Ministry of War too, and they informed the Japanese that their leader, Kublai Khan, was the emperor of China and that he required appropriate tribute immediately. This, in part and in translation, was the letter which they brought with them:

The great Emperor of Mongolia notifies the King of Japan that history shows that a small country is to be dependent on a large one, and that the benefit of such an arrangement is mutual.

Since ancient times, the sovereigns of small countries whose territories adjoined each other have taken it as their duty to cement peaceful relations by upholding good faith. How much more so [should this apply in this case], since Our ancestors received a clear mandate from Heaven and controlled all of China, and those from distant places and other regions who fear Our awesomeness and embrace Our virtue have been countless.

When We first ascended the throne, as the innocent people of Korea had long suffered from spearheads and arrowheads, We immediately disbanded the soldiers and returned their frontier fortresses and sent their old and young back [to their homes]. The Korean sovereign and subjects came to Our court to express their thanks. Although in righteousness we were sovereign and subject, we were as happy as father and son. We believe that your subjects also already know this.

Korea is our Eastern frontier. Japan is close to Korea. From the founding of your country you have also occasionally had contact with China, but to Us you have not sent even an envoy with a single cart to communicate friendly [intentions].

Fearing that your kingdom knows this but has not considered it [carefully], We have specially dispatched an envoy with a letter to proclaim Our intention…

The letter continues on, with allusions to how one really doesn’t want to resort to weapons, and soldiers, and so on. And the Japanese, well, they did not respond at all, and this needs some explanation. Who were the Japanese we were talking about here? It’s obviously a pretty generalizing term, so who exactly didn’t answer this charming declaration? Who was making the decisions? In just a moment, we’ll find out.


Japan of the era we’re talking about, the late 13th-century, was in what’s known as the Kamakura period, a time usually marked as beginning in 1192 with the establishment of the shogunate. It was a time when power was split between two centres of authority but had swung well in the direction of the one at the expense of the other. At one end of this imbalanced balance of power was Kyoto and the emperor’s court, and at the other end was Kamakura, home to the shogun’s military administration, the bakufu. By our period, the shogun himself was but a figurehead. Truer power rested with a regency long held by the powerful Hojo family and with a military council that the Hojos had established.

So when that letter showed up, it went first to Kamakura and then on to Kyoto where it was received with alarm and offence. It prompted debate and eventually also a written response issued from Kyoto which was then promptly rejected by the council at Kamakura. It was the military leadership which was turning the envoys away empty-handed. 

Apparently undeterred by this lack of fellow-feeling, Kublai tried again in 1271. He was after all the most powerful man in the world. Surely, this “king of a little country,” as he is sometimes translated as addressing the Japanese emperor, could not continue to ignore him so rudely. But he did, or the bakufu did, and again the Mongol embassy was turned away with nothing to show for it. This time, they went so far as capture a pair of Japanese fishermen on their way home. They brought them back to their khan who then entertained them, told them to tell their rulers of all they had seen, and had them released back to Japan, but again, amazingly, there was no response. 

I’m sure by this point Kublai was quite flabbergasted; what kind of people wouldn’t even answer him? And when he’d been so unfailingly polite! One last effort was made in 1272, but it too led nowhere. The imperial court again showed signs of being willing to respond; however, the leadership at Kamakura was not, and war became inevitable. 

It’s interesting that the military administration chose this path because it’s possible that they didn’t need to. They had access to information from Korea as to the Mongols’ intentions and preparations for war, and there was a real possibility that some nice words on the khan’s most supreme supremacy and a well chosen gift might have forestalled the whole thing. The invasion would be no easy operation for the Mongols to manage. They were not inclined to ship-building themselves and had to press their Chinese and Korean subjects to the task, and the whole process put a tremendous strain on everyone. The advance elements of the Mongol forces in Korea even exhausted the local resources and food had to be shipped out to sustain them. 

Maybe that Korean-supplied intelligence reassured Japan’s military leadership that they had nothing to worry about. Maybe their ocean-bound seclusion gave them a false sense of security, that they were impervious to attacks from outside. Maybe they had no much to worry about from problems inside. Maybe their pride rendered them unable to concede the khan’s supremacy, even for the time it would take to write a letter, or maybe they just assumed that the attack was coming anyways and that they could not prevent it, only prepare. 

And maybe they were right, because of course the attack did come in November of 1274. As usual, there’s some disagreement as to how many attackers there were. Some estimates place the Mongol and Chinese forces at 15,000 and their reluctant Korean companions at 8,000, while others have argued, on the basis of the Mongols’ apparent unwillingness to venture far from their boats, that it may have been as few as but a few thousand. 

However many they were, their waves broke over the islands of Tsushima and Iki, easily overwhelming them, before reaching Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands, on November 19th, 1274, and at first, things seem to have gone well for the attackers. They took the city of Hakata and they burned it down. The Japanese fighters were skilled but faced unfamiliar tactics and weapons; I’ve seen it said that their emphasis on individual valour and excellence was not ideally suited to oppose the Mongols who fought as units. However, other commentators have seen something more even in these confrontations, and maybe this view is closer to truth, because what happened next is that the Mongols withdrew.

The story goes that a coming storm gave them cause to flee, that their ships’ Korean crews insisted on taking the fleet safely away from the shore and that was why the invasion ended. Not everyone has found this story convincing though, and other possibilities have been put forward. Some have suggested that the Mongol army was too fractured. Others, that their attack was disorganized or that all their arrows had been used up, and this would have indicated either quite serious disorganization on their part or perhaps only that they had never planned on staying long. And this, I think leads to another interesting hypothesis. Maybe it wasn’t a failure at all. Maybe they withdrew because their mission had already been completed. 

The invading forces had burned down Hakata and denied or disrupted the substantial income that the Southern Song received in trade from the city. That could have been all that this fairly modest force had been trying to do. Perhaps the whole thing was more of a scouting raid than an invasion, certainly an idea that would fit comfortably within the Mongol practice of war, and the real goal for now was still in Southern China. Or maybe the Mongols left primarily because their commander had been shot in the face, because that had indeed also happened.

Cause aside, the reprieve was not indefinite, but then Japan’s military administration had known that it wouldn’t be, and the years after that first Mongol invasion were not wasted. They monitored preparations in Korea for another invasion, pondered a disruptive strike to sabotage those efforts, constructed walls around likely landing sites, patrolled the coast, and they cut off the heads of the latest round of Mongol ambassadors. It was a gross act of indecency and an open invitation to war, but then the Japanese leaders probably felt that particular ship was already well on its way out of the harbour, with no chance of bringing it back to dock. They had, after all, already been invaded by the Mongols just the year before, so killing a few more on their shores wouldn’t have seemed an unnatural thing to do. That second invasion was coming. 

It didn’t happen right away. Korea had to recover from 1274 first. It had to spring back from having its grain seized, its people taken from the fields, and the crop shortfalls that resulted. It had to rely on Kublai’s relief shipments for years. And Kublai, he had to deal with the Southern Song, but once that issue was wrapped up with the death of the last claimant to the throne, Kublai was free to exert more of his considerable strength in the war against Japan and he also had an extra reason to do so. As the Yuan Emperor now ruling all of China as a foreigner, he needed more than ever to establish his authority, and just as it had always done and would always do so for rulers facing domestic challenges, foreign military adventure looked like the perfect solution.

This time, an enormous force was to be mustered for the purpose. 40,000 men were to leave from Korea in 900 ships while the southern army of 100,000 men travelled from the south in 3-4,000 ships. The numbers of soldiers here are, as always, highly suspect, but the number of boats is not as crazy as you might think. These weren’t fleets of perfect cookie-cutter uniformity. The vessels would have been a mix of new, purpose-built craft and refitted ones from the quite massive existing stock of merchant and pirate ships, and they would have varied in size too. Both Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta mention that Chinese ships would travel in pods with smaller boats attached to the sides of larger ones, towed behind, or, in the case of the smallest, actually carried aboard, ready for use after the ocean crossing had been safely completed. All things considered then, 900 in one fleet and 3-4,000 in the other, starts to look a little less unreasonable than at first glance. It’s not on the same scale of impossibility as battles you sometimes read about where one and a half million men on one side faced a million on the other, with sundry elephants scattered in between. It is probably still an exaggerated number though.

The two fleets were to arrive on Iki island together in mid-June of 1281, but of course it didn’t go that smoothly. The northern army left Korea on time. They reached their goal, and they waited, and they waited. And then they waited some more. They waited as their ships rotted and their supplies ran short. And back in China the southern army was only just departing. Their greater numbers required more time to prepare, their commander had become sick and had needed replacing, and somehow the Mongols’ vaunted postal system had let them down or, maybe more likely given Marco’s talk of conflict among the leadership, those in charge of the southern army were not as communicative as they might have been with their colleagues to the north.

Eventually though, the southern army did arrive. It hadn’t happened exactly as it was supposed to, but the Mongol war machine had finally started to roll. Now, surely, the samurai would succumb as so many had done before, and the Mongols would spread even further across the map. Except they didn’t. The second invasion was going to make no more of a dent than the first. What could have happened? 

The story goes that the kamikaze happened. First came sulphurous smells from the sea, then sightings of a green serpent, and then the divine winds themselves, terrible storms heaven-sent to smash the southern fleet and kill as many as 80% of its soldiers. Much of the Korean fleet seems to have found shelter and headed safely for home, but the broken remains of the southern army were left struggling among themselves and fighting for space aboard what few boats were left. The stragglers who could not find a ship were hunted and finished off by the Japanese defenders. There were stories of massacres committed by the Yuan invaders on the smaller islands and of their captives being strung to the sides of boats through holes cruelly pierced through in the palms of their hands, and the Japanese fighters weren’t looking to take many prisoners. There’s one story of three Mongols taken captive who each sought to preserve his life by claiming that he was the important general, but unable to distinguish between their claims, their captor simply killed them all.  

Some of the Mongol survivors would have been slaughtered in the shallows as they dragged themselves exhausted towards land. Others, already ashore, would have been caught against the water and surrounded by warriors looking to earn the rewards which valour in combat and before witnesses could bring them. There would have been nowhere for the invaders to go, and so they mostly died. 

For the Mongols, the story of the storm was something of a double-edged sword. To some degree it lets them off the hook in questions of their military might. If either nature or the gods themselves had intervened, then who could blame the generals or their soldiers if they did not secured victory? They could still be undefeated in regular-season play, for this was something entirely different. It just didn’t count. For Kublai himself though it was quite another matter. Establishing his authority as emperor of China might have been his primary motivation in launching the invasion in the first place, and now it seemed that he did not have the mandate of heaven at all.

In Japan, the issue was less muddy. There was no problem of explaining away either a massive defeat or the hostility of the gods, and in the courtly and priestly sources, the supernatural origins of the victory are celebrated. One courtier wrote of the first invasion that, “this great protection [could] only have happened because of the many prayers and offerings to the various shrines … around the realm,” and of the second he said the following:

On this past first day [of the seventh month] a typhoon sank most of the foreign pirates’ ships. Several thousands were killed or captured. Not one [enemy] boat remains at Iki or Tsushima. Most of the foreign invaders who came [to Japan] lost their lives or were captured. This event reveals unprecedented divine [support]. A source of great rejoicing in the realm - what could exceed this? This is no random event. Even though we live in the final age, the gods’ support has not ceased. One must more fervently worship the gods and buddhas.

And this courtier wasn’t alone in his assessment. In 1309, the head priest of the Takeo Shrine in Kyushu took direct credit for the event, saying that the shrine’s god had risen to fire three arrows at the invading fleet, and that right before the coming of the storm, three purple banners had turned to point in that direction. 

The victory gained religious significance in part because a religious victory was what many had been calling for all along. First Kyoto’s imperial court and then Kamakura’s military leadership had called on temples to pray for their enemies’ destruction even before the invasion of 1274, and in 1281, the emperor himself had issued a prayer with the accompanying wish that his own life be sacrificed should Japan suffer any damage during his time. They had asked, and the gods, apparently, had answered.  

Of course, not all analysts have looked to the sources and found the weather, divine or otherwise, to be responsible for the Mongols’ lack of success. In just a moment, we’ll get into what else may have contributed to their failure.

There is plenty of evidence that the attackers faced stiff resistance from the outset and that they never really established any momentum. After all, by the time the storms are supposed to have hit, they should have been well inland if the weather was all they had to be worried about. But there was more. The landing sites were fortified against them, and the walls, constructed since 1274, seem to have held them at bay, keeping the attackers in the open, unsheltered, and vulnerable to skirmishers and storms. 

The northern army cleared the outer islands and landed at Hakata Bay to find that wall and its defenders waiting for them, and they were driven back, back to the water, and back to their ships. From there, they bombarded the shore trying to soften up the defenders, but they had stalled entirely. They couldn’t take the beach back, and they were constantly threatened by raids, on the small island where they were pasturing their horses and on their fleet. Their ships were chained together into a kind of floating fortress to prevent individual vessels becoming surrounded, but small boats of fighters threatened them still, boarding and fighting hand to hand or crashing in with boats filled with burning hay. They managed to sink many of these boats on their way in and kill the occupants of others as they came aboard, but not all. There are stories of individual samurai lacking their own transportation, lying and coercing their way aboard others’ boats just to get at the enemy, and then there are scrolls showing them as they cut their way across the Mongol decks in close-quarters combat. They could storm a ship, set it on fire, and make off with the heads of their enemies before reinforcements arrived, and the northern army grew pretty tired of this treatment. They pulled even further back, to the island of Iki, and they never got any closer. 

Meanwhile, the southern army, what should have been the dominant force, made for land 30 miles south of Hakata, at Imari Bay, and there, they too faltered. Fighting on land carried on for weeks, while off-shore the southern fleet also strung itself together into a defensive formation connected by boardwalks, and fought off probing attacks by small boats, burning and otherwise. And I wonder if this fortress formation was, in part, why they were so decisively finished by the storm, why they failed to adequately respond to it. Maybe their reactions were hobbled, and they could not maneuver as they would have, and that was why the divine wind left them completely shattered. As one Korean account tells us, quote: “The vessels were jammed together in the offing, and the bodies of men and broken timbers of the vessels were heaped together in a solid mass so that a person could walk across from one point of land to another on the mass of wreckage.” Looking out at all that destruction, and their enemies made suddenly helpless, it’s easy to see why the relieved Japanese would have seen an otherworldly hand at work.  

But if it was the weather that had caused so much damage and brought the whole effort to a sudden halt, it hadn’t exactly saved those defenders in the nick of time, just as their positions were about to be rolled up and their lands rolled into the Yuan Empire. They’d been doing just fine for themselves, and this second attempt on the part of Kublai’s forces seems, if anything, to have been less successful than the first, despite the vast expenditure of resources involved. Maybe those defenders wouldn’t have needed the gods, or the weather, on their side after all.

1281 was not the end of Kublai Khan’s overseas ambitions, nor of his plans to take Japan as his own. As we learned from Marco, he blamed his commanders for their poor efforts, perhaps fairly, perhaps a convenient bit of scapegoating, and he set about planning a third invasion. In 1283 he was ordering the construction of a new fleet in southern China, and in 1285 calling on northeastern China to build another 200 ships, for Korea to provide supplies of rice for the operation, and for a number of captured pirates to be pardoned and to join the invasion force; but that invasion never came. He’d overloaded the Koreans, and others, with excessive demands on their resources; he’d squandered much of the navy which he’d inherited from the Southern Song; and he’d sunk a lot of blood and treasure into the project with nothing to show for it. There were complaints about the costs of the boat-building, revolts over the resultant taxation, and his advisors pressed him to abandon all thought of Japan, at least for now. 

In Japan too, the Mongol attacks left their mark economically. They didn’t know that they’d seen the last of the Yuan invaders, and that though they had heard word of preparations in Korea, those would come to nothing. As a result, the Bakufu, the military administration, remained in a state of war for years longer than necessary. Warriors were mobilized, patrols maintained, fortifications built, and the departure of ships strictly policed. They were braced for a strike that never came, and the claims on their limited resources piled up. Unlike recent civil conflicts, the fighting with the Mongols had produced no new wealth or holdings to be distributed to the multitude of warlords, shrines, and monasteries which now clamoured for rewards or compensation. Complaints piled up, and tensions grew. The system couldn’t be sustained. So one of the legacies of the Mongol invasion of Japan would be fall from power of the Hojo clan, and the collapse of the Kamakura Shogunate in the 1330s.

That wouldn’t be the last this legacy was felt in Japan either. The story all but disappeared following the Sakoku Edict of 1635 as Japan moved towards seclusion. Their policies, vigorously enforced, were more pointedly anti-Catholic and anti-European, but other foreign influences were also policed, including any mention of the Yuan attacks of the 13th century. Even in 1808, you find the example of a writer censored for including the invading Mongols in his novel, and by that point, understandably, the story had left the public consciousness, not to return until an imperial power again threatened their shores.

That moment came in 1854 when the gunboat diplomacy of American Commodore Matthew Perry and his fleet forced the Japanese to open their ports and bring an end to two centuries of self-imposed isolation, and the years that followed which included events such as the bombardment of Kagoshima by the British. Soon after, the Mongols were back. In a woodblock print of the 1860s, they were there on the beach again, samurai driving them into the water, but the left panel of the triptych is particularly interesting. Cannon-fire rains down, smashing the invaders’ ships, and the ships themselves are black with steamboat side-wheels. To many viewers, they would have been reminiscent of the “black ships” of the Europeans and Americans, and the message was clear: divine assistance had allowed Japan to defend its coastline against powerful enemies before, and it could do so again. 

Japan went through immense changes in the 19th century, enormous societal shifts which I can in no way do justice to here. The feudal system was gone, the samurai, the bakufu. Loyalty was to be directed to the nation in the person of the emperor. New institutions were developed to safeguard it, and new stories were needed to underpin the divinity of the emperor, the heavenly protection of the country, and the idea of sacrifice in the service of Japan and its ruler in the face of foreign threats, or rather old stories were needed, and the Mongol invasion one suited the situation perfectly. The scrolls of Takezaki Suenaga, a samurai whose 13th-century exploits had been recorded, just happen to have been dusted off at this time and all kinds of poems, stories, books, songs, and paintings produced of them to bring the past to vivid, heroic life. Later, tragically, as the end of World War II closed in, the kamikaze, the divine wind, was evoked again, and thousands of men from Japan’s Special Attack Units sacrificed themselves in an effort to again keep an enemy from its shores. 

The thread which carries this story into the present can be picked up in late October of 1944, with the sinking of the Japanese cruiser the Maya, and it 336 of its crew with it. The survivors were rescued by the battleship Musashi, but it too was sunk, and another 143 of the Maya’s crew were killed. One man who survived the wrecks of both the Maya and the Musashi, and tuberculosis besides, was Torao Mozai. He was the retired engineer who went to Hakata Bay in the early 1980s, armed with a sonoprobe for scanning the seabed and looking for the truth behind legendary tale of the Mongol invasion. 

That man’s search produced many artifacts such as swords, spearheads, Chinese storage jars, and anchor stocks, and also revealed ones which local fishermen had already found, like the commander’s bronze seal which had been living in someone’s toolbox. And then, more recently, other projects have brought up bones, leather armour scraps, bronze mirrors, tortoiseshell combs, helmets, bundles of arrows, and a bowl with its owner’s name: Wang, commander of one hundred men. They also found bombs, ceramic bombs packed with gunpowder and pieces of iron shrapnel, real 13th-century explosives, and then, in 2002, hundreds of pieces of the wooden ships themselves were brought up from beneath several feet of mud, some marked by fire. 

They were made of camphor, a wood commonly found in Chinese boat construction, but they were not shining examples of that industry. The Southern Song navy that had been passed on to Kublai, is said to have included iron armour, Greek fire flamethrowers, gunpowder bombs hurled by trebuchets, and sailors experienced in combat with coastal raiders, pirates, and Mongols, and in protecting the increasingly important trade by water which land pressures had necessitated. 

These people were not new to the sea; however, the final decades of the Song had been hard on them. Corruption, inefficiencies, and the grotesque cost of staving off the Mongols had badly depleted resources which were not making it through. An official report on the state of one naval base in the 1230s found that of 5,000 men, a mere 500 were in any state to serve; quote, “the rest of the men were weary, dispirited, deaf, moronic, emaciated, short and frail. Look at them and one can see what the men [in other bases] are like. They cannot ride the waves and thrust with their spears. This is the result of thirty years of neglect. They cannot be used for combat and yet they cannot be demobilized.” They were not exactly the cream of the crop.  

Closer examination suggests that the boats found off the coast of Japan were rather shoddily put together, the products of rushed builds or repairs, with several pieces of wood made to do the job of a few strong ones and in places held together with rough clusters of nails. There were all sorts of signs that the work was poorly done, and it’s possible that it wouldn’t have needed such a great storm to scatter these ships to the ocean floor. Maybe just a regular storm would do. 

Some of the other finds too, the jars and anchors in particular, speak to similar problems, with shortcuts of all kinds seeming to indicate quick and crude preparation on the part of the khan’s forces, either with an eye more to meeting a Mongol khan’s deadline than to matching any level of quality control or because that navy still hadn’t recovered. Tellingly, the chronicles and the archaeological record both indicate that the Korean fleet was not sent to the bottom by the storm. It simply turned for home once the mission had so clearly failed.  

The pieces recovered also reveal another aspect to the invasion. There has been very little definitively Mongol material found; it’s mostly Chinese, so maybe it’s not right to speak in terms of a Mongol invasion of Japan at all. More accurately, Kublai Khan was responsible for two Yuan Empire invasions of Japan, but both would fail, whether through a lack of readiness, internal conflict at the command level, skill and steadiness on the part of the defenders, or the weather itself, perhaps divinely ordered, perhaps not. The likely answer, lazy as it may sound, looks like being all of the above.   

Marco Polo had brought many tall tales home with him. This one, of the invasion of Japan by Kublai Khan’s Yuan Empire and of fractured leadership and a storm contributing to its failure, has largely been borne out by all we’ve learned since. There’s been no progress as to those “diabolical charms” which Marco had described, the ones that rendered their wearer impervious to blades, and it seems reasonable to conclude that talk of Mongol survivors snatching up undefended principle cities was just a face-saving fabrication, but the rest of it all seems to be pretty solid. 

Kublai’s failure to take Japan revealed a new weakness in Yuan power and an inability to project it over the sea, and it wasn’t a unique stumble for the khan. Late in his life, he poured money and men into a series of expeditions that broke down in the tropical heat, forests, and disease of southeast Asia, his armies finding Vietnam every bit as difficult to subdue as future empires would. In Japan and elsewhere, late-career Kublai overextended himself and came away with little to show for it, only a severe financial burden that had to be shouldered by his increasingly unsupportive Chinese subjects and managed by a series of roundly despised financial administrators.     

And that’s where we’ll leave things for today. I’ll be back again in a few weeks with more from the universe of Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. As you may have noticed, plans sometimes change episode to episode, so I don’t want to be too definitive on what the next one will include, but I think we’ll be going to Vietnam.


  • The Travels of Marco Polo, the Venetian, translated by William Marsden, edited by Thomas Wright. George Bell & Sons, 1907.

  • The Travels of Marco Polo: The Complete Yule-Cordier Edition, translated by Henry Yule and revised by Henri Cordier. Courier Corporation, 1993.

  • Chase, Kenneth W. "Mongol Intentions Towards Japan in 1266: Evidence from a Mongol Letter to the Sung." Sino-Japanese Studies 9, no. 2 (1997).

  • Conlan, Thomas D. In Little Need of Divine Intervention: Takezaki Suenaga's Scrolls of the Mongol Invasions of Japan. Cornell University (2010).

  • Delgado, James P. Adventures of a Sea Hunter: In Search of Famous Shipwrecks. Douglas & McIntyre, 2004.

  • Delgado, James P. Khubilai Khan's Lost Fleet: In Search of a Legendary Armaga. Douglas & McIntyre, 2008.

  • Delgado, James P. "Relics of the Kamikaze," Archaeology.56, no. 1 (January/February, 2003).

  • Larner, John. Marco Polo and the Discovery of the World. Yale University Press, 1999.

  • Mass, Jeffrey P., ed. Court and Bakufu in Japan: Essays in Kamakura History. Stanford University Press (1995).

  • Olschki, Leonardo. Marco Polo's Asia. University of California Press, 1960.

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

  • Sasaki, Randall J. The Origins of the Lost Fleet of the Mongol Empire. Texas A & M University Press, 2015.

  • Yamada, Nakaba. Ghenko, the Mongol Invasion of Japan. London, Smith, Elder, 1916.

Marco and the Polos 4: Did You Go to China, Marco?

Marco Polo and Kublai Khan

At times in this series I’ve talked about the near-mythical nature of this character we’re discussing, how Marco Polo can easily fade into legend in our minds, and how there was that story of him on his deathbed being challenged by a friend to correct the record and remove any fabrications while he still could. On that occasion, he is to have said that if anything he’d actually held material back, and that the truth was only more wonderful, not less.

That end-of-life acquaintance was not the last person to question Marco Polo’s story. His medieval audience often read it as romance or fable, and there’s been a tradition of scepticism ever since, where his accounts are concerned. Was his role with Kublai Khan as he said it was? Did he get out of Kublai’s capital to see the rest of China? Did he even go to China at all? Did he actually even make it east of the Black Sea? Was he instead spending two decades in Constantinople and his family’s other places of business? Was his book only a patchwork of previous Persian travel narratives? It’s a line of questioning that has long existed and was reignited in the 1990s by a new book on the topic. Today, I’ll be picking up those questions. 

Hello, and welcome back. I’m Devon, and this is Human Circus. At this time, I’d like to remind you that rating, reviewing, and subscribing is how we keep the horsemen from our walls, and that you can find me online at humancircuspodcast.com. I posted a little written addition to the last episode there, on The End of the Song in Marco and otherwise, and I’ll keep doing that with the pieces that don’t, for whatever reason, quite fit into the main podcast narrative. So do give that a look if you’re interested. 

I also have an announcement to make, that the podcast now has a Patreon, and that you can find it at patreon.com/humancircus, so please do find it at patreon.com/humancircus if helping me tell stories of medieval history and helping yourself to some medieval history podcast related rewards sounds like something you might be interested in. And on that note, I have some patrons to thank. Angela, David, Caz, Ashley, Shoni, Chris, and Rosa, my very first patrons, thank you all very much! And now, let’s get back into the story.

Last episode, I told you about Marco Polo’s peculiarly triumphalist depiction of Kublai Khan as the bearer of the Genghisid dynastic legacy, and we left off with the mention that Marco is said to have been on-site, or at least in the city, to witness the violent end of the khan’s head of finance, Ahmed. This episode, it’s on to the questions of whether he was in China at all and, if so, what he was doing there. We’re going to talk about some of the answers that have been proposed in response to these, but we’ll start with what the text has to say. What does it tell us he was doing? 

Of course, the short answer is that it doesn’t tell us a whole lot, at least explicitly. In a few of his few personal references, Marco says that he acquired the wool of a yak and the dried head and hooves of a musk deer, that he was once kidnapped along with many of his companions who lost their lives, or that he had to recover from illness for a time in the crisp, clean mountain air of what is now Afghanistan, and all of these fragments pass the reader by quickly. They come and they are gone again without further explanation. But if as the reader you’re wishing for more, you find to your amusement that when he does stretch out into a personal anecdote, it’s straight into one of the book’s most renowned falsehoods; it’s the story of the siege of Xiangyang, the Song fortress-city which blocked the tributary south. The siege had actually concluded in 1273, a few years before Marco had even reached the Khan’s court, but that didn’t stop him from writing his family in or from giving them a real starring role in the proceedings.

Xiangyang, along with its pontoon-bridge-linked sister city, Fancheng, had been proving a tough nut to crack. Its population of 200,000 was protected by six kilometres of 7 meter walls and a 90 meter wide moat with one side opened onto the river, itself a 500 meter wide avenue for resupply when in flood, and at other times a tangled maze of shallows. Actually getting at those walls was exceedingly difficult, let alone storming or undermining them, but it had to be done. Marco positions the city as a last hold-out at the end of war against the Song, falling only after the rest of the empire had already been defeated; really though, it was an earlier move in that campaign. The city was the door that needed to be opened in order for the Mongols to move south along the waterways, and the defenders knew it. 

They’d been prepping. They’d been strengthening their fortifications and securing supplies, and then they’d been busily resisting nearly 3 years of siege. There’d been occasional attempts to break out, quickly stifled, and there’d been periodic battles as resupply fleets tried to fight their way into the city, getting men and resources in but suffering massive losses in the process. While the Mongol besiegers were coming out on top in these encounters, and capturing many ships in the process, there was little progress being against the city itself and little sign that things were going to change soon. Something had to be done, so that’s when the Polos stepped in, and, in Marco’s telling, really showered themselves with glory.

They stepped up before the khan at his court, and they addressed him like this: 

"We could find you a way of forcing the city to surrender speedily;" whereupon those of the army replied, that they would be right glad to know how that should be. All this talk took place in the presence of the Great Kaan. For messengers had been despatched from the camp to tell him that there was no taking the city by blockade, for it continually received supplies of victual from those sides which they were unable to invest; and the Great Kaan had sent back word that take it they must, and find a way how. Then spoke up the two brothers and Messer Marco the son, and said: "Great Prince, we have with us among our followers men who are able to construct mangonels which shall cast such great stones that the garrison will never be able to stand them, but will surrender incontinently, as soon as the mangonels or trebuchets shall have shot into the town.

Well, that certainly sounded alright to Kublai, and he “bade them with all his heart” to begin at once. 

The Polos set to work. They gathered timber and those followers they’d spoken of, according to one translation “a German and a Nestorian Christian, who were masters of that business,” and in another, Nestorians who were not their followers at all but rather “some of the ablest smiths and carpenters” under the khan’s command. The Polos and their team constructed a pair of mangonels capable of hurling 300 pound rocks at their target, and once completed, the two siege engines were demonstrated for the khan, who marvelled at their effectiveness. Then, to quote Marco: 

And what shall I tell you? When the engines were set up and put in gear, a stone was shot from each of them into the town. These took effect among the buildings, crashing and smashing through everything with huge din and commotion. And when the townspeople witnessed this new and strange visitation they were so astonished and dismayed that they wist not what to do or say. They took counsel together, but no counsel could be suggested how to escape from these engines, for the thing seemed to them to be done by sorcery. They declared that they were all dead men if they yielded not, so they determined to surrender on such conditions as they could get. Wherefore they straightway sent word to the commander of the army that they were ready to surrender on the same terms as the other cities of the province had done, and to become the subjects of the Great Kaan; and to this the captain of the host consented.

So the men of the city surrendered, and were received to terms; and this all came about through the exertions of Messer Nicolo, and Messer Maffeo, and Messer Marco; and it was no small matter.

Marco wasn’t wrong about that; the collapse of Xiangyang wasn’t small at all, but it wasn’t quite all as he’d described it either. As it happens, Kublai had not sat about in helpless vexation until his illustrious Venetian guests proposed a solution. He’d dispatched a messenger who in only 5 weeks had reached the city of Tabriz to find the khan’s nephew Abaqa, heir to Hulagu’s Ilkhanate. What Kublai needed were better siege engines, capable of the power and range the city’s situation required, or rather he needed better siege engineers, and that was what the Ilkhan Mongols had. They’d used massive counterweight trebuchets when they’d taken Baghdad, Aleppo, Damascus, and other cities, and it turned out that they could spare an engineer or two for their eastern cousins. 

So it wasn’t Niccolo, Maffeo, and Marco who engineered the fall of Xiangyang. It was Ismail and Ala al-Din who wintered with their families as guests of Kublai and then, in the spring of 1272, started the work that was needed. By the summer of that year, their creation stood ready to fling over 200 pounds of rocks around 200 metres, and the last phase of the siege began. First to go was the bridge connecting Xiangyang to Fancheng, and then the defences of Fancheng itself. Its walls were broken and its people brought out and slaughtered. They were piled high and in easy sight of Xiangyang’s defenders as a preview of what they could expect for themselves. Then Ismail turned his machine towards Xiangyang and with the first shot struck a watch tower, shaking the city and throwing its people into complete confusion. Soon after that, a surrender was arranged.  

It was all kind of how Marco had said it had been, but then again not quite, not quite when he said, or where he said it fell in the Song campaign, or who he had said deserved credit for all that siege engine brilliance. 

Moments like this in the text are, I suspect, what really leads people to start to doubt the veracity of the entire work, to point to them and say “Well if he’s lying here, why should we believe any of it at all?” Clearly, he wasn’t really where he said he was. Maybe, as John W. Haeger argued, he’d gotten as far as Daidu but no further, gathering up the stories on which his book would be based. Or maybe it was all just a fantasy that Marco had cobbled together from the safety of his family’s trading post in the Black Sea port of Soldaia, or maybe as far east as Bukhara if we’re being generous, its sources no more first-hand than first-hand encounters with Persian travellers and their reports on which the whole thing must have been based. The older Polos may well have been to see the khan all those years earlier, and got their hands on one of those golden tablets, but little Marco had not been nearly so ambitious.  

That was basically the contention of Frances Wood in her aptly titled 1995 book Did Marco Polo Go to China? She argued that he didn’t, and not only because of what appear to be lies regarding his personal involvement, with the siege being the prime example. Wood pointed to errors in dates, distances, and descriptions, including numbers of arches on bridges, gates in walls, and that sort of thing. However, this is not an argument I find compelling; I don’t remember how many windows there are on the front of the building where I work and I walk past it multiple times, most days of week. If Marco had not written down exactly when an event had occurred in his roughly 2 decades away, exactly how far it been between this city and that, or exactly how many arches were on that particular bridge in that particular city, well I can’t really blame him for not getting it all quite right. 

In addition to these slip-ups, Wood brought up a lack of Chinese names and terms in Marco’s account, but this also, isn’t really convincing. It seems reasonable enough to begin with that Marco would have relied on the terminology of the administrators, of Persian and Turkic. And then we have historian Stephen Haw pointing out that a number of the place-names used really do seem to be transliterations of 13th-century Chinese, only run through the garbling pens of subsequent generations of scribes to whom the words would have been entirely unfamiliar and meaningless. Though it was not always the case, the vast majority Chinese locations he was referring to can now be identified with relative ease.

So that’s all very understandable, but what about Marco’s failure to include fairly striking aspects of Chinese culture? There were no observations as to the writing, tea-drinking, or book-printing. Where was the foot-binding and where was the great wall? After this quick pause, I’ll try to answer those questions


As was mentioned last episode, Marco does not seem have been enormously interested in Chinese culture or, with few exceptions, the Chinese themselves, and this lack of interest and might go some way to explain why he didn’t really settle into descriptions of the writing system and why there’s no tea-drinking going on. His interests were those of his patron, Kublai; they were those of the conquerors and the administrators. He was not, in this sense, a man of the people. 

That point aside, let’s look at the specifics. It’s true enough that he doesn’t write of the wonders of book-printing, but he does seem impressed by money printing; there’s actually a fairly detailed passage on its production. As for foot-binding, it should be noted that one manuscript does contain a reference to certain Chinese women walking with extremely small steps and this could have been reference to foot-binding. If so, whether the women in question were bound themselves or were mimicking the walk of those who were, it would have been a much more readily observable phenomenon than the binding itself. Finally, as others have noted before me, if we are to say that Marco has been caught out in not including some of these aspects of Chinese culture and that he must have gotten his information from other sources, other more genuine travellers, then we would have to ask why those sources had no information on these aspects, and so on, and so on.   

So what else did Wood have to say? One of the main points she and others have relied on to challenge Marco’s presence in the east, is the total lack of any mention of him or his family in the Chinese sources. If he really was, as he’d claimed, governor of Yangzhou for three years, then where were the records verifying this? Why was there no record of him at all? Firstly, it has to be acknowledged that Marco probably wasn’t the governor of Yangzhou for three years, that this was a lie, an embellishment, an exaggeration to some degree at least. But that aside, we don’t know if he appears under a different Mongol or Chinese name; we don’t know what name we should be looking for. Additionally, we should not be surprised if his presence, assuming he didn’t really govern a city, was simply not noted at all. Other well known travellers such as Odoric of Pordenone and Giovanni da Montecorvino also passed through unnoticed in Chinese sources, and Giovanni de Marignolli too. An absence of evidence, of this kind at least, was not an evidence of absence. 

Alright, you may be thinking, but what about the wall? What kind of person goes to China and doesn’t mention the Great Wall? 

The simple answer to the wall question is that the Great Walls have not always been so great. While the idea of the Long Wall had long existed, it’s thought that Marco would have only chanced to see something pretty unimpressive: pounded-earth remains held together by bundled wood and forming a not particularly great sight on the journey between Shangdu and Daidu. Consider this early 14th-century poem:

The high mounds of earth beside the road are said to be the ruins of the ancient Great Wall.

The water in the caves of the pools along the way is good for my horse to drink.

I am very lucky to live at a time of an honest and enlightened government.

Peace reigns in this border area where the flames of war raged in the past.

The crops are growing luxuriantly and cattle and sheep are all over the fields.

It is a pity that I cannot sing the full praises of our wise sovereign.

Clearly, these are not awe inspiring sights of power and strength. These are hillocks. They’re remnants and reminders of another time, suitable for this kind of stopping-by-the-ruins reflection on past and present, and for Marco, they would not have carried that same cultural weight. Among all the more recent signs of war and conquest, would he have even registered these shadows of borders and dynasties that had passed from the world? If so, he didn’t bother to write about it.  

Before I move on from the question of Marco’s veracity, I want to quickly compare his observations to some of his near-contemporaries. Odoric had written of foot-binding and cormorant fishing besides. If Marco was in China, was he really such a dull fellow as to miss so much? Not at all. In fact, the renowned world traveller Ibn Battuta hadn’t mentioned foot-binding either, and Odoric himself had said nothing of the writing system or of tea. Besides, Marco had his own strengths, reporting on topics which others did not, or did not manage so clearly: porcelain, coal, paper money, and salamanders among them. And note that by salamanders he meant asbestos and identified it as not, as was commonly thought, the skin or fur of some amphibian but rather as something to be mined and then formed into fibres, with all the unusual properties around fire which the old lizard-skins were said to have had.

Marco’s reporting on China has generally since been corroborated. You find, perhaps surprisingly, that once you get past issues of personal experience in the design and direction of siege engines and in governing cities, Marco was very reliable. The details concerning paper currency, administrative structure, and taxes and levies have all been found to be accurate, and on everything from the penalties for cattle theft to the work on the “magnificent” Grand Canal, from his description of Chinese ships to the post-mortem marriages of Mongol children, from the attempted invasion of Japan to the planting of roadside trees, and on a multitude of other topics too, Marco has been vindicated by more recent research. 

The scholarly consensus then is that Wood’s arguments were unconvincing and contained a number of misinterpretations or errors, but if we set that matter to rest and accept that Marco did indeed make it to China, that leaves us still with the question of what he was doing there. One of the more believable answers the text provides is that he was frequently present in the old Song Dynasty capital of Lin’an, or, as Marco calls it, the “celestial city” of Kin-Sai, the “celestial city,” so let’s hear what he has to say about it.

He describes its busy waterways and streets of stone and brick, its crowded markets and plazas, and its most pleasant situation between lake and river. He describes the joy of taking a boat out on the canals, to sit at table and chair and be propelled along the banks by boatmen with long poles, a “gratification,” he says, which “exceeds any that can be derived from the amusements on the land.”  He says that the bridges thrown across the main canals were high enough for masted ships to pass beneath, and, in an often-cited gross exaggeration, he refers to a common saying that the city contained 12,000 bridges. There were large stone warehouses for the goods of traders from India and elsewhere, and sources other than Marco record a community of Arab merchants. There were public baths, moderately priced wine shops, and stores selling “spices, drugs, trinkets, and pearls.” He speaks of delicious fruits: peaches white and yellow, imported raisins, and unusually large pears. He speaks of plentiful game of all kinds; the highly productive lake contained geese and ducks that were cheaply available, and enormous loads of fish were brought from the sea. However, he also notes that the poor had to eat whatever kind of meat they could come by, no matter how unclean; it was not a paradise.   

Of the people of the city, Marco has more to say than the usual rundown of idolaters, Christians, and Saracens. He notes the courtesans were in all parts of the city in numbers which “[he] dare[s] not venture to report,” and he has nothing but high praise for them, in their appearance and charms. Travellers who experienced their company could never forget it, he says, and when they had gone away, they said they had been to the heavenly city and wanted nothing more than to be able to return. And he finds the other people of city charming too, if perhaps in other ways. They were openly friendly with one another and with strangers too, inviting them into their homes and sharing food and advise with them freely, but they had no love for soldiers. They remembered who they were conquered by, and they resented it.   

At times, the sheer size of the place seems to have startled Marco. I have seen estimates that the city was home to a population of 1-2 million and that it was the largest in the world at the time, and Marco was amazed at the number of fish which were brought into the city and all sold in only a few hours. He tries to communicate the vastness of the numbers here, of people and of goods, and he settles on pepper as his example, citing his source as a customs official. The daily tally of imported pepper was 43 loads of 243 pounds each, for a total of 10,449 pounds. And he makes the point again later, saying of the port of Quanzhou, that so much pepper passed through it, that the amount shipped on to Alexandria for western consumption was perhaps less than a hundredth of the total. 

I’ve pointed out that the Marco Polo text was a little short on wonders, with not much in the way of monstrous races, fantastic beasts, and that sort of thing; however, the picture of China he presents really would have been fantastic to his European audience. These would have been astonishing images he was describing, of a place beyond the Muslim world and beyond the marauding horsemen of the Asian steppes, where the massive cities of an advanced civilization rose and were inhabited by unbelievable numbers of people. Even if they don’t seem that way to us, these were the wonders which would filled his readers with amazement and doubt.

Bridge quantities aside, the depiction of the city is highly believable and full of detail. The text tells us that “This city was frequently visited by Marco Polo, who carefully and diligently observed and inquired into every circumstance respecting it, all of which he entered in his notes… .” And if you’re wondering whether Marco spun the whole thing from memory, then this is a reassuring point. He was taking notes, and he would have had to to produce a text so packed full of descriptive detail and information. He would also have had to if he was to do as the text tells us, and travel the wide realms of the great khan, reporting to him on what he saw. 

This is probably the prevailing image of Marco Polo, that of the imperial raconteur, regaling Kublai with tales of all that he could not go out and see for himself, and it’s presented in the text’s prologue. We read that Marco picked up the most commonly used languages and, having proven himself to Kublai, was sent about on the khan’s business or travelled for his own private reasons; and everywhere he went, he observed and he enquired. He saw that his khan took great pleasure in hearing of new things, of the customs and practices of peoples, and of the many eccentricities of the lands under his rule. So Marco wrote them down as he went, returning now and then to his khan to speak of what he’d seen and heard in the wide world, to earn his khan’s favour and the envy of others at the court. And then he returned to Venice and did the same thing for us, or rather for his contemporaries, in the form of this book. 

It’s interesting, if inconclusive, to imagine that as he was apparently working from those notes, he might have told his readers some of the same stories he’d once told the khan. I always like to ask myself, when reading travel narratives, what seems to have most interested the writer. Here, I find it entertaining to think that what we may be getting, muffled by the layers of transmission, is what Marco thought would most interest Kublai Khan. And what was that? Whether we take them be driven by a Mongol emperor’s tastes, those of Marco himself, or his imagined audience, what themes leap off the page again and again?

The basics are clearly who the people are, what they do, and what they produce; for example, he might say that at such-and-such-a-place they are mostly idolaters, a blanket term which encompassed Buddhists but also many others that Marco did not or could not differentiate, that they live off the fruits of the land, and that they grow great quantities of the most excellent rhubarb which is then carried abroad. I mention this first because it’s very tempting, as a reader, to let these elements fade to white noise in the foreground of the text and jump straight to the sex and magic, but that wouldn’t really be representative of the text’s contents. Once, we get past the basics though, what do we see? We see astonishment at the scale of business and transactions, the numbers involved. We see curiosity as to different currencies, the making and use of paper money but also when he comes across salt-cakes, porcelain, or seashells being used for the purpose. We see a clear interest in ships, whether they be the huge numbers of Chinese river boats - 15,000 seen at one city he claims - or the detailed workings of vessels along the Indian coast. We see, as I’ve already mentioned in this series, an enthusiasm for hunting, whether it be simply a potentially fruitful area or the large-scale operations of the khan and his court. Finally, as people have often commented on, we see sex and magic, and after this pause, we’ll get into that.


One of the categories that seems to always catch Marco’s attention is marital and sexual norms, and fair enough; he was encountering some ideas that would have challenged the ones he grew up around. In one province of what he broadly terms Turkistan, he’ll write that if a woman’s husband is away from the home for 20 days then she may seek another if she wishes. Another area was likely off the track of Marco’s travels and perhaps somewhere he heard about from the elder Polos or other travellers entirely; there, he says that the men would go away when a traveller arrived, leaving the women of the house to entertain the new arrival for as long as he wished to stay. Elsewhere, among the idolaters, and here he likely means Buddhists, he finds the laity living as, quote, “beasts of the field,” taking mortal sin with indifference, while those in the monasteries were deemed to “lead more correct lives.” 

Mongol marriages, even polygamous, are given the stamp of virtuous approval, and praised for the chastity, modesty, and solemnity involved, and also for the superior population they allowed, a population that could accomplish great conquests or a tremendous postal system over unimaginable distances. Tibet, on the other hand, gets much more morally judgemental treatment, their customs deemed “scandalous,” “shameful and odious.” Apparently, unwed young women would bring travelling merchants home with them, asking only a token in return that they might hang about their neck, and the girls with the most tokens were considered the most beautiful and most favoured in future marriage. In some versions of the text, following the moral leanings of a scribe or translator, this was disgraceful, but in others Marco only says he relates it “as a good story to tell, and to show what a fine country that is for young fellows to go in.”

Marco also tells us about magic, and maybe he told Kublai too. There are demons in the empty places of nature, luring us to our deaths; there are spirits in the darkness whose voices horrify us when we make camp for the night. There are the magicians of Kashmir and Tibet, “filthy and indecent,” and supposedly eating the flesh of executed criminals, but according to Marco more skilled in magic than anywhere else in the world. And what magic exactly? He tells us that they would climb to the roof of Kublai’s palace when the clouds were threatening, and shield their khan from bad weather, even while rain and lightning stormed all around. They could also “cause tempests to arise, accompanied with flashes of lightning and thunderbolts, and produce many other miraculous effects.” They could make vessels of wine and milk fill the khan’s cups, as if done by an invisible hand, and then cause the cups to float through the air to his table, untouched. They did whatever they willed with their “infernal arts,” though Marco admits that this last example stretched credibility.     

Elsewhere, we read about the Yunnan province, which does not get a glowing review in this travel guide. The atmosphere was so foul in the summer that merchants would actually leave for healthier air “in order to escape from death.” The people used poison on their arrows and carried poison on their person, ready to swallow it rather than endure torture at the hands of their enemies if they were captured. Distinguished strangers were murdered in order for their spirits to be captured to the benefit of the murderer’s household. And when a rich person fell ill, there was sorcery. Or rather there was shamanism, which amounts to much to same thing in Marco’s account: long ritualized sessions of music and dancing leading to possession by the evil spirit that had caused the illness and, having found from that spirit which deity had been offended, a sacrifice of sheep, followed by feasting on the meat by the shamans themselves. “And thus do the demons sport with the blindness of these deluded and wretched people,” or so one description concludes, perhaps another bit of editorializing on the part of a scribe along the way.

These were some of the things Marco might have told Kublai about, as he apparently wandered his khan’s domains, but what took him on those travels? As I mentioned, Marco is said to have gone out on the business of the khan, gathering stories of what he’d seen and heard. He apparently resolved an unspecified “important concern” in one city, earning Kublai’s trust; he went west as the khan’s ambassador for a time; he was sent elsewhere to examine the customs revenues; he governed Yangzhou for three years, though, again, it’s generally thought that he didn’t.         

One analysis (that of Paul Pelliot) regarding Marco’s activities is that he was involved in salt administration, and certainly there are no shortage of references to salt in the text. In what is now north-eastern Afghanistan, salt was mined from the mountains; in Tibet, it was collected from salt springs and boiled down in small pans; in Yunnan province, it was produced from brine wells to the enrichment of the locals and their khan alike; in the region governed by Hangzhou, it was harvested from the salt lagoons which dried up in the summer. All told, it was a very salty book, but all of this is not to say that Marco necessarily played this role either. Salt was immensely important to Yuan China’s economy and the revenues involved would have of course excited his interest in demonstrating the vastness of this distant civilization. And besides, the idea of a salt-based empire would have been cozily familiar to the Venetian, his old home-city itself having established a great deal of its power on a monopoly over the very same resource. So Marco the salt administrator, well, maybe. 

What seems fairly likely is that Marco was involved in administration of some sort, as an overseer or accounting official. His grasp of Yuan finances, customs, organizational structure and taxes seems to indicate it, and something of an itinerary has been mapped out along these lines by Peng Hai, and fairly convincingly too. Starting from early 1275 he has Marco in Ningxia for three years and then in Yunnan and Vietnam until 1280; from there he’s in the capital of Daidu for 2 years and then sent as an accounting official to Yangzhou from 1282 until 1284, and then to Hangzhou into 1285. He was in the field with Kublai in 1287, when his khan dealt with the challenge of Nayan, as covered in a previous episode, and then he was off to Southeast Asia for three years before heading for home. Is this accurate? It certainly could be. There’s a lot of supporting, or at least suggestive, evidence, if nothing one would call conclusive. 

We have then this developing picture of a man who really did go to China, really did meet the khan and serve him in some capacity or at least live in his immediate world, and who may or may not have worked in the salt industry or as a roving accountant. And maybe we can zoom in a little further.

Stephen Haw and others have zoomed in and suggested that the picture we get could match that of one of the keshig, the khan’s 12,000-strong personal guard whose members were often dispatched on tasks as needed and could even rise to become generals or senior administrators. It’s a tantalizing possibility. It’s also a fairly realistic one that still fits with our romantic image of Marco as a loyal servant to the khan whose business might believably take him abroad in the empire. You can picture him there, waiting upon the khan and available for his order to spin him to this town or that to see to some managerial need or financial assessment, and then returning to thrill Kublai with intricate descriptions of all that he’d seen. It’s all very cinematic. And Marco himself mentions the keshig too. 

"You must know,” he says, “that the Great Kaan, to maintain his state, hath a guard of twelve thousand horsemen, who are styled Keshican, which is as much as to say ‘Knights devoted to their Lord.’ Not that he keeps these for fear of any man whatever, but merely because of his own exalted dignity."

Of course, what Marco does not say is that he was one of these “Knights devoted to their Lord.” He does not say that he did the khan’s bidding as a member of this fiercely loyal personal guard, and maybe there was good reason for that. Maybe, even with all that carrying on about the near heavenly nature of his most supreme wonderfulness, the khan of khans, it was a step too far to be communicating to his European audience that his adoration had extended to this point, that he, now a respected citizen of Venice, had, as historian John Man puts it, “actually worshipped a pagan emperor as if he were god.” Or maybe this is another case of projecting the fantastic back on Marco’s story. Maybe the reason for the omission was something less complicated. Maybe Marco simply wasn’t a member of the keshig.

Marco Polo remains a charmingly mysterious fellow. If he’s now been solidly tied to a real stay in in 13th-century China, there’s still a great of uncertainty that surrounds him, with the potential for new information to be discovered or old ideas overturned. Peng Hai thinks he has identified the illusive Marco in the pages of the Yuanshi, the History of the Yuan, and in the figure of a courtier who clashed with a powerful family at Kublai’s court. This courtier had been arrested for breaking a rule which did not allow men to walk on the same side as women within the palace, but he had been a favourite of the khan and Kublai had asked after him, and, hearing of his predicament, had him freed. The courtier’s name is recorded as Buluo. It fits nicely enough with the material of the Polo text, and it would indeed be quite something, the long-sought sign of Marco’s passing in a Chinese source. But that’s about as definite as we can be at this point. Perhaps more signs will emerge.     

That’s where I’m going to leave things for today. This has been a far from all-encompassing look at the topic. There’s a lot more out there, and I haven’t even got to the question of authorship yet, but I hope I’ve given some idea of how Marco and his book have come to be viewed and why.

If you’re enjoying the podcast, please do check out the Patreon page, which, again, you can find at patreon.com/humancircus. There are rewards which include early access to ad-free episodes and also scripts if you like to read along or look something up after, and from the $1 per month level on up you’re entered in draws for thematically appropriate books in which I’ll try to transcend my usual, shockingly ugly handwriting to convey my thanks. And on that note, thank you again, those of you who have already signed up.

In a few weeks, I’ll be back with more Marco Polo. We’ve got a couple of episodes left in this series still, and with this next one we’ll be getting away from China and heading for Myanmar, Japan, and elsewhere, and seeing the limits of Yuan Mongol expansion. I’ll talk to you then.


  • The Travels of Marco Polo, the Venetian, translated by William Marsden, edited by Thomas Wright. George Bell & Sons, 1907.

  • The Travels of Marco Polo: The Complete Yule-Cordier Edition, translated by Henry Yule and revised by Henri Cordier. Courier Corporation, 1993.

  • Haw, Stephen G. Marco Polo's China: A Venetian in the Realm of Khubilai Khan. Routledge, 2006.

  • Larner, John. Marco Polo and the Discovery of the World.Yale University Press, 1999.

  • Man, John. Marco Polo: The Journey that Changed the World. HarperCollins, 2009.

  • Olschki, Leonardo. Marco Polo's Asia. University of California Press, 1960.

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

  • Vogel, Hans Ulrich. Marco Polo was in China: New Evidence from Currencies, Salts and Revenues. Brill Academic Pub, 2012.

Marco and the Polos 3: Marco and the Great, Great Khan

Kublai khan

People often like to say that in sports they pull for the underdog. Maybe it’s boxing, and you’re desperately hoping an apparent mismatch will become something more interesting or that the clearly anticipated and carefully planned narrative will be overturned entirely. Or maybe it’s more of a team sport and there’s a particularly arrogant franchise you’d like to see end their season in disappointment, or at least be forced to put on a bit of show before the coronation. But it might be different if you found yourself parachuted into the A-side’s locker-room, if you shared in their celebrations, their triumphs, and their broader culture too, if they told their stories to you, and if you maybe developed an appreciation for where they’d come from and why, and of how they came to occupy this place at the top and all that made them champions. Maybe you wouldn’t be so keen to see them knocked off.

That is, in a sense the position Marco Polo found himself in. He was there at the summer palace of an undefeated champion who’d lost little in the way of confidence over a long and successful career, and he seems to have settled into the culture there, to have heard their stories, and their songs. He’d picked up the origin account and the anecdotes and seen the highlight reel; he’d spent some time, some solid years, embedded there, and he’d gotten a bit of a sense of why they’d succeeded. He’d found them at their most glorious and could not have imagined how it would ever have been otherwise. 

Little wonder then that Marco wasn’t too interested in upsets. 

Hello, and welcome back. I’m Devon, and this is Human Circus. If you haven’t yet, please do rate, review, and subscribe on iTunes. It helps me out and it secures a steady stream of medieval travellers in your direction. If you have a topic you’d like to hear about, a question about something that’s come up already, or just want to say hi, then you can do so by way of my new and shiny website at humancircuspodcast.com where you can find any and all human circus related material. I’ll be posting some new writing there also, some previews of upcoming topics, and perhaps a few other things too, along with episodes and sources, etc, so please do come by and check it out. Asks and invitations aside, let’s get back to the story.

Last episode, we saw the 3 Polos extricate themselves from their Venetian home and the delays posed by papal elections and we made our way to Acre, up to Lesser Armenia, and east on to the summer palace of Kublai Khan at Shang-du, with some pauses on the way to talk Assassins and Priest-Kings. We left off with some questions about the Polos’ time in China and the creation of the text itself, and I must admit that I won’t be answering those questions yet today because we also left off with the Khan’s very warm welcome of the youngest Polo and the idea of a friendship to come, and that’s what we’re onto today: Marco’s glowing depiction of Kublai Khan and general enthusiasm for the while Mongol imperial project. And I should note that for convenience I am for now going to be say Marco here when I talk about the voice of the text rather than “Marco Polo author,” or Rustichello, the man generally credited with doing the actual writing, but that’s an issue for later on. For now, let’s talk about Marco’s new best friend, the khan of khans.

I have in my notes here a section simply marked off as “the wonderful wonderfulness of the khan,” and that should give you some idea of the kind of 5-star reviews which he gets in the Polo text. The khan is introduced as “lord of lords… [who] ...in respect to number of subjects, extent of territory, and amount of revenue, … surpasses every sovereign that has heretofor been or that now is in the world.” And there’s more buttering up to come, that Kublai is “brave and daring in action” and “considered to be the most able and successful commander that ever led the [Mongols] to battle,” that “his limbs are well formed, and in his whole figure there is a just proportion. His complexion is fair, and occasionally suffused with red, like the bright tint of the rose, which adds some grace to his countenance. His eyes are black and handsome, his nose is well shaped and prominent.” 

Just a great a guy, was the khan, and he was not merely a brave and handsome fellow either. The khan, we are told, was remarkably generous, acting with quote “admirable and astonishing liberality … towards the poor,” providing grain and cloth for those families who needed it, and adored by all. And if that weren’t enough, in an old Mongol khan ploy, he claimed Christian sympathies too: it was only that these idolaters around him demonstrated the strength of their religion so ably, and if the pope were only to have sent those hundred men who could refute their arguments, if the power and effectiveness of Christianity were only to be demonstrated, well, he was very much on their side, really. 

We see Kublai on the hunt, on rather large scale hunts, borne about by up to four elephants in a beautifully carved wooden litter, lined inside with cloth of gold and outside with the fur of lions. His twelve best falcons and twelve favourites of his officers accompany him, and when a bird is sighted, he lifts the curtain and orders the release of his falcons, looking on with delight from his couch as they overpower their prey. And he whiles away the day this way before retiring to his camp, a massive array of tents and pavilions to house the nobility, the ladies of his court, the guards, and ten thousand falconers, 10 thousand really just meaning “a lot,” with all that would have been needed to accompany them.

We see Kublai in his grand hall, enjoying a great feast with his empress at his left and eldest son at his right, blood relatives at lower tables, and then further out, lesser officers lower down, and more still seated on the floor or waiting outside, hoping to make their petition. There is wine and mare’s milk without end, and there is such abundance of food that Marco here allows himself a rare, and soft, critique of the khan’s ways, deeming them “excessive.” At his signal, the khan is served by officials with their faces veiled so that their breath will not trouble his food or drink, figures who immediately withdraw three paces to prostrate themselves. Music plays as he eats and drinks, rendering the act momentous, that of a god eating from their table, and when the eating is done, the tables are cleared to make room for jesters, jugglers, and gymnasts, amusing all until the night is done, and the company make their stumbling exit, the strict rule not to touch the the threshold on the way momentarily relaxed to account for those too heavily affected by alcohol to avoid it. 

We see Kublai at his birthday party, a great festival. He’s a September baby, apparently, and he appears dressed all in gold with the nobility and officers all similarly dressed, some “ornamented with precious stones and pearls,” if less grandly than the khan. He receives gifts from all over his realm: precious metals, stones, and cloths. There are parades of richly adorned elephants, and of camels too, and sometimes, a lion is led forward, specially trained to prostrate itself before the khan in a clear demonstration of his absolute dominance over even the most wild and powerful manifestations of nature.

And we see Kublai at war. We see it in detail with the rebellion of Nayan, a prince of sorts and ruler of four provinces. It’s one of the passages where the text really zooms in for a moment on an event.

We read that Nayan was moved by the power he had accumulated, and a certain amount of youthful arrogance too, to become his own master and to overthrow the khan. And why not, you might think. The khan had after all won his throne by force of arms and was fair game. Nayan reached out first to Kaidu, head of the house of Ogedei and lord of the Chagatayid territory, seeking his assistance, and Kaidu, ever up for opposing Kublai in all things, agreed, promising to contribute one hundred thousand horsemen to the effort. But such large scale arrangements were not so quickly or quietly made, and before they could properly begin, Kublai had heard and he had acted.

In some sources, he sent his foremost general to investigate and Nayan revealed his treacherous and deceitful nature by hosting the general at a feast and then failing in his attempt to trick and trap the general, who escaped. According to Marco, he mustered what men were within 10 days journey and came up with 360,000 horse and 100,000 foot, obviously absurd quantities which apparently included his “falconers and domestic servants.” Maybe this indicated that he was indeed grabbing up whatever troops he could find quickly, before more extensive preparations could alert his enemy and, worse still, allow Kaidu’s forces to unite with Nayan’s, but by “domestic servants” the text likely means the keshig, something between a personal guard and civil service, not just a case of grabbing up the butler and the cook and getting out there. 

Kublai’s army moved quickly, coming close to Nayan’s without the enemy’s knowledge, coming so close that only a range of hills separated them, and still the one side did not know the other to be there, still did not know even as their enemies camped for two days and waited, as the khan consulted his astrologers for the proper time to strike. Then, one morning when he was told his victory was assured, he did strike. 

His men poured down into the plain, and only then did Nayan wake to their presence. He lamented that the connection with Kaidu hadn’t been achieved sooner, and, I can only assume, that he and his commanders had completely failed to secure a basic awareness of their surroundings. Perhaps they’d thought themselves to be safe there in their base of operations while their target sat comfortably ignorant in the luxury of his palace. But no, the target was here, now, approaching them in person in “a large wooden castle,” flying the sun and moon standard, bristling with bowmen. and “borne on the backs of four elephants,” their bodies covered in hardened leather and gold cloth.

“An infinite number of wind instruments” sounded then, and cymbals and drums and “such singing, that it was wonderful to hear,” and then they closed, first by arrow, then by lance, sword, and mace, until the piles of horses and men were high enough that it become difficult for the two sides to advance upon one another. So it went, from morning to noon, undecided, but at some point Nayan saw the threat of being surrounded and in attempting his escape he was taken and brought before the khan. Death was quickly arranged, wrapped in a carpet so that his noble blood would not spill beneath the sky, and with his surviving supporters pledging their loyalty to Kublai, that was an end to things.          

The text plays it all for glory, celebrating this special occasion which saw Kublai Khan go out in person to meet a military challenge long after he’d relaxed into his role as emperor and handed over such the bulk of such responsibilities to his sons and generals. But the story carries a bit of a double-edged message. Marco is, as always, here trumpeting the greatness of the Genghisid dynasty, the unifying power of its claim to the conquest of the world; however, for all this grandness, and Marco’s talk of a ruler who surpassed all others, in some respects Kublai did not even surpass his Mongol khan forebears. Yes, he would gain pretty vast parts of China, but he lacked in Central Asia the Chagatai Khanate lands, in the west the Golden Horde or Kipchak Khanate, and centred around present-day Iran, the Ilkhanate. He lacked things which even his older brother Mongke had possessed, so even as Marco doesn’t break stride in his narrative of unbroken greatness from Genghis Khan all the way up through to Kublai, the Nayan story serves as a little reminder that something had changed. 

That process of crumbling imperial unity which we followed through the To See the Mongols series was reaching its conclusion by this point, and of the different Mongol khanates only the Ilkhans would continue to offer any kind of allegiance, and that only performative. As a leader ascended to rule the Ilkhanate, they would look back east for legitimization and approval, but they wouldn’t be taking orders, marching to the assistance of Kublai and his descendants or participating in a vast pan-familial invasion of the kind that had seen princes of all the Ghengisid branches slicing into Central Europe and Southern Syria. Kublai Khan was still the founding emperor of the Yuan Dynasty in China, and that was still something pretty substantial; however, he was not really the khan of khans and the lord of lords, not any more, and, despite Marco’s description to the contrary, he was aging into obesity and alcoholism, and he stood only with great pain. 

Not that any of this halted Marco in heaping on the praise, for Kublai and for the Mongols more generally. The Franciscans who’d travelled to the khans before him had expressed disgust or irritation at a broad range of Mongol characteristics and behaviours, but not so with Marco. He found much to like.    

He describes the Mongols’ bravery in battle and in danger of all kinds, their ability to survive in any circumstance. “No people upon earth,” he claims “can surpass them in fortitude under difficulties, nor show great patience under wants of any kind. They are perfectly obedient to their chiefs.” And it goes one. The woman are praised for their “decency of conduct … their love and duty to their husbands,” and the men for their loyalty to their wives, whether they be few or many.  

This sort of thing wasn’t entirely new. Those friars before him had come to some of the same conclusions, but they’d also followed up with disapproval and even rancorous hostility. Friar Carpine had eventually concluded that the Mongols’ “evil habits [were] so numerous, they [could] hardly be set down,” while Friar William declared his willingness to preach war against them as best he could the world over. Now, Marco does admit that “[the Mongols’] disposition [was] cruel,” but he was otherwise overwhelmingly complementary of these people most perfect in marriage and perfect in war, patient through hardship, and loyal to their leaders. When he describes Genghis Khan’s initial conquests, he even attributes to the khan such an inclination towards, and I’m quoting here, ”justice and other virtues, that wherever he went, he found the people disposed to submit to him, and to esteem themselves happy when admitted to his protection and favour… .” He makes it sound like terror-tactics, large-scale butchery, and military conquest would have been entirely unnecessary to achieve expansion, only the realization of the tremendous goodness to be found in the supreme khan’s affectionate embrace. 

But that had been some time ago, hadn’t it. It had been in the first years of the 13th century when Genghis had been becoming Genghis and unifying the neighbouring clans under his rule, and now that century was almost over. 

This brings us to Marco’s one real critique of the Mongols, and it’s an interesting one: that the Mongols he came to know were not the Mongols who had spread across Asia and spilled triumphantly beyond its limits. They had, he says, started to forsake their own laws and to take up the customs and habits of the idol-worshippers and the Muslims. They’d started to settle in among the peoples they were to have conquered, to enjoy life among them, to soften and become corrupted by civilization, to lose the characteristics that had made them so uniquely capable of conquest in the first place. 

It’s a theme Marco returns to later, though he doesn’t make the connection himself, in spinning a bit of a fairytale of the Southern Song’s demise. Their ruler, we are told, was kind, generous, and just, but too safe for his own good, too secure behind his walls, and too given to whiling away his hours in the royal park with the thousand most beautiful women he could find. And that, we are told, led to his flight by ship before the khan’s approaching armies, that softness, that fleshiness of his character, bringing the entire empire to destruction. As a historical depiction of the the Southern Song’s final days, it’s been roundly dismissed, but the way it’s presented in contrast with the khan’s character is fascinating.

Quote: “Very different from the temper and habits of [the Song ruler] were those of Kublai Khan, emperor of the [Mongols], whose whole delight consisted in thoughts of a warlike nature, of the conquest of countries, and of extending his renown,” or so we are told. But the depictions of these two rulers have more similarities than he lets on. After all, in the Marco Polo text, we see Kublai at feasts, celebrations, and, at about his most active, on the backs of elephants, peeking out through the curtains to admire the ferocity of one of his falcons from the comforts of a couch. Marco says of this Song ruler that he ignored the world of war and weapons for the company of beautiful women, but the khan had an entire infrastructure in place to facilitate exactly that, scouting them from a particular region and then bringing them in for periods of training and tryouts, which Marco tells us all about. 

It’s seems an inconsistency, his apparent admiration for Kublai while seeing something similar as rot at the root of a dynasty’s collapse, and I don’t believe he is here trying to make a subtle go of predicting the decline and fall of the khan’s empire; that apparent admiration of his for Kublai and the Genghisid legacy appears to be very real and quite untroubled by doubts as to its future. And admittedly, the Mongols could not in the end be accused of forgetting all things to do with war, even if their rulers did spend their fair share of time in the park.

The whole idea of the Mongols experiencing a kind degenerative gentrification as they got used to the life of their new neighours makes for an interesting point, but not because it’s unique.

What Marco was touching on was the sort of traditionalist challenge that may have informed Nayan’s rebellion, likely motivated Kublai’s brother in their civil war, and was at the root of the challenge Kaidu long presented to Kublai’s rule and even that of his successor. In other words, it’s the kind of attack that Kublai fought off throughout his entire reign, militarily and culturally. What’s interesting here is that Marco would voice it at all, an uncharacteristic note of criticism of Kublai’s Mongols in China when he makes no such acknowledgment of this idea as a powerful one in propelling inter-Mongol conflict, of moving Nayan or others to rebel. He’s very much the voice of the establishment, spinning tales that likely echo those of court historians and entertainers. Quite possibly then, when he worries that the Mongols are being corrupted, he’s expressing not only the contention of those who rebelled against Kublai’s rule, but also an anxiety that was present at the court of the Yuan ruler himself.  

At the end of August, the milk of the khan’s special herd of white mares was sprinkled on the ground, and Marco and the rest of that court followed his beloved khan to Kublai’s capital. Remember that their first meeting was in Shang-Du, his summer retreat; it was still a pretty grand affair, and still really quite new, but Kublai had needed something different. He no longer wanted something Mongol and Chinese, as he had in the past, when he’d ordered the construction of Shang-Du. He’d wanted something entirely Chinese as the site and symbol of a new and Chinese empire like those which had governed before. For that, he had looked to an old imperial home, to Zhongdu, the Jin Dynasty capital which the armies of Genghis had destroyed in 1215, and he ordered construction to begin there where an overgrown parkland surrounded a beautiful lake. 

That’s where Marco, the khan, and thousands of others were bound, and over the course of some 20 years, he likely made the trip often, but he doesn’t describe the route in any great detail. Elsewhere, there is drama to be found in the act of travel; there is a place where tangled piles are made of the bones of wild goats, to mark the way when the path is too covered in snow to see; and there is another, a desert, where voices are heard, malicious spirits which lure stragglers away from their parties and to their doom with familiar-sounding calls, and where the sudden sight of phantasmal brigands cause the unwary to flee in terror and become terminally lost in the dunes. 

By comparison, the grand procession from summer home to imperial capital was evidently less exciting. However, as a logistical feat it is really quite impressive, involving an army of human and animal life to be settled and fed at established towns along the way, at least one them an old imperial stronghold itself, the refurbished skeleton of yet another empire. And the journey to the capital had other significance too, as a parade to the new centre of the Yuan Mongol world, more than 1300 kilometres from Karakorum. 

Marco records the name of Kublai’s new capital as Cambaluc, a decent enough attempt at Khan-baliq, literally the Khan’s city, but it was also known as Daidu, and if you looked for it now on a map, you’d be looking for Beijing. 

As Marco entered it, he described another nested city, like Shangdu, with the palace within an inner city within another city, walls within walls within walls. For the construction, Kublai had again turned to his advisor Liu Bingzhong, the Shangdu architect, as well as the ingenious water-engineer Guo Shoujing, and possibly also a Central Asian Muslim named Ilkhtiyar al-Din. A temple sprang up dedicated to Kublai’s ancestors and granting Genghis Khan a Chinese title. There was a Buddhist temple too, a white pagoda which still can be seen. An astronomical observatory. A Green Mount to which the khan ordered the most handsome trees in his realms be brought and replanted and a pavilion at its peak. Bridges, lakes, and gardens, abundant wildlife and game in the parklands, and fish, swans, and aquatic birds in the waters. And the palace. 

The palace was a single story but high roofed, and covered in tiles of different colours, of “red, green, azure, and violet,” raised on marble and accessible on all 4 sides by marble staircases. Within were halls, chambers, and apartments, all beautifully decorated with gilding, and carvings of dragons, warriors, beasts, and battle scenes. This was where Kublai had founded an imperial Chinese dynasty, where, again with the help of Liu Bingzhong, he had taken the name Yuan to refer to that dynasty, a word carrying the senses of source, of origin, of prime mover, of spring, of eldest, and of much more besides. Mongol touches were present - the ermine skins in the khan’s sleeping chambers, the gers, or tents, in the parks, the soil of the Mongol steppes for the royal altar - but this was recognizably a Chinese imperial city, its buildings, rituals, and institutions an open appeal on the part of its ruler.    

Marco doesn’t only linger over this palace and the greatness of its occupant. He also turns to outer city, and the world of its inhabitants, and in his telling reveals a discontent among them under Kublai’s rule, if one he blames a Muslim minister for. 

He tells us that Khan-baliq was a city of astrologers, a city of 5,000 of them, and that these astrologers, based upon their charting of the heavenly bodies, would make predictions about the future, that in one month there would be lightning and heavy rains or in another sickness, discord, and conspiracy. They would write their predictions up on small squares and sell them to those desiring a look at the future, with the most proven forecasters being the most honoured and the most sought after. Or they would provide more specific readings, for the beginning of any great venture, in war, business, travel, personal life, or the development of a new capital. It seems that one of the readings offered as to Kublai’s new capital spoke of rebelliousness and treachery in the city, and this only further fed a suspicion in the khan’s mind which already had some history behind it.

Even back before Kublai Khan had been Great Khan, there had been a rebellion in northern China led by a local leader who had fought on behalf of the Mongols against the Song. More importantly, it was assisted by one of one of Kublai’s long-time Confucian advisors, who he’d had to execute, and this betrayal really seems to have stung. Quite aside from the fact that there would, naturally, be an abundance of uprisings in the occupied Song territory, historians such as Morris Rossabi have pointed to a growing distrust of the Chinese on Kublai’s part, a distrust that would impact his policies moving forward. So even as he moved to make himself familiar to the Chinese, taking up a number of his advisers’ suggestions to adapt in rituals, laws, institutions, and material culture, he refused to take other steps such as continuing with the traditional civil service examinations. He recognized that doing so would have limited his officials to those with a demonstrated familiarity with the Confucian texts. And he didn’t want that. Where possible, he’d actually look to govern China with administrators from elsewhere.

With all this in mind, Kublai kept a pretty tight grip on the locals. A great bell rang out every night, and from then on, one had to remain inside or find yourself swept up by patrols with your fate to be decided on in the morning. Only a dire emergency would excuse going out and then you had to carry a light. It must have been an eerie place to be of an evening, with all its people sealed up inside, the odd few dashing out on urgent matters, or scurrying silently as they could in the darkness, avoiding the roving guards who moved through the streets in groups of 30-40. It was an occupation. And it was the scene of building displeasure under the governance of Ahmed, one of a powerful council of twelve that saw to the empire’s affairs, and one who apparently was particularly favoured by Kublai.

Ahmed is described as a “crafty and bold man.” He filled public offices to further his interests, and extracted “presents” from those he’d seen appointed; he manipulated, bribed, and threatened to gain the most beautiful women as wives and otherwise; he brought about the execution of any who opposed him; and he and his sons generally seem to have reigned as tyrants beneath the khan’s nose, massively enriching themselves over two decades. 

That was the picture Marco offered at least, but Ahmed appears in other sources too; and he was not, or at least not only, the entirely self-interested predator we see in Marco’s sketch. Born near present-day Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan, he was Kublai’s finance minister, the man in charge of the khan’s tax collection and financial policies and thus likely an unpopular fellow at the best of times. And this was an expensive time; there were the intermittent incursions from Kaidu to be dealt with on the Central Asian border, support required for the Korean vassal, the conquest of Myanmar, and disastrous overseas adventure in Japan, all of which had to be paid for, in addition to non-military costs such as massive new construction and infrastructure projects. Ahmed was the one responsible for squeezing the fruit, and Kublai was a ruler who needed a lot of juice.       

That may partially explain the evisceration Ahmed receives in the Yuan sources, and it’s worth noting that he’s not the only villainous financial administrator to be found there. He appears as a man who abused the very economic policies he had created for his own profit, whose appointments were driven by nepotism, and who leaned heavily on false accusations in order to undermine political opponents and see them retired or executed. On the other hand, in Persian sources such as Rashid al-Din, Ahmed gets a much kinder portrayal, as someone who held his office “with honour for nearly 25 years,” who encouraged trade, and, if he had brought his supporters and family members into offices around him, well that was perfectly natural, and indeed necessary to see his policies enacted in the face of a great deal of personal hostility. Maybe he was simply a successful player for power whose successes and position as a foreign-born finance minister over a conquered people made him hateful in the eyes of those who felt the effects of his decisions and those he outmaneuvered at court. 

Of course, there is no question of such nuances in Marco’s dramatic telling. As he has it, the khan had been bewitched, had actually fallen victim to magic spells that had brought him under his cunning minister’s sway and rendered him blind to the man’s corruption and abuses. He goes on to say that the people of the city waited for a chance to deal with Ahmed, and two conspirators in particular were waiting. Marco identifies them as Vanku and Chenku, leaders of men, either militarily or as civil officers, while from others we see them as Wang Zhu and Gao. The former was a military commander who’d found himself a brass club which he was saving just for Ahmed, and the latter was a Buddhist monk and magician who’d apparently once murdered somebody to fake his own suicide after one of his magic tricks had proven less than magical. 

This delightful pair chose a time when Kublai was away from the city, gone early to his summer retreat on the night of April 10th, 1282, and they went into action, to assassinate Ahmed and then send out word to their contacts that the uprising should begin and that all with beards should be killed. There are variations on the plan, but they all revolve around faking the arrival of Kublai’s son Zhenjin. In the Marco version, Wang Zhu and Gao sneak into Zhenjin’s palace and light up one of his apartments before having a messenger sent to Ahmed, telling him that the khan’s heir, who Ahmed feared and respected, had arrived suddenly in the city and required his attendance. All seemed to go well, but they didn’t know that Ahmed, in hurrying through the city had bumped into a commander of the guard who was bemused to hear that the Zhenjin should have come so secretly that he hadn’t heard of it and followed after Ahmed. So when the target entered that lit up room and perceived a seated figure, he prostrated himself before it, and Gao stepped forward and cut off his head. But then the commander stepped forward too from the doorway, and he raised the alarm with a cry of treason, and he shot Wang Zhu where he sat. 

In other tellings, the conspirators also came at night but with a group of followers, presenting themselves as the prince and in his escort. Killing one set of guards who saw through their disguise and tricking another into escorting them to the palace, they called Ahmed forth. And here Wang Zhu got to use that brass club of his, killing Ahmed with a single blow to the head before being seized in the chaos that followed. 

There was to be no revolution after the killing. Instead, there was a swift roundup of conspirators. When he heard what had happened, an enraged Kublai promptly ordered the execution of all involved, and then he sent an officer to look into the matter. Marco has it that this officer reported back with information that enraged the khan again, that this was when evidence of Ahmed’s use of magic came to light, that Ahmed’s body was disinterred and torn apart by dogs, that his sons were flayed alive, and that even his fellow Muslims were punished for his deeds, some as his colleagues or appointees, but others simply as his coreligionists, with new laws at least temporarily imposed on their practices, and new restrictions. 

And in other versions too, it’s in the aftermath where Ahmed was really vilified. His home was searched, and suspicious quantities of wealth were uncovered along with a pair of tanned human skins, and, the real clincher, a jewel that had specifically been given to the khan. But as others have asked before me, why was this incriminating jewel so easily discovered? Why did his family not get rid of it or hide it elsewhere? Did they not know of its origin, or had it been planted on them by Ahmed’s enemies? Of course, it’s difficult to know at this point.

The Ahmed anecdote is an important one in the Polo text. It hints at a lot of issues in Kublai’s reign: financial difficulties, corruption, infighting among his advisors and officials, problems caused when he was seen to privilege one religious group or another, the idea that try as he might to present as a Chinese Emperor, he was still one of the ones with beards, and the list goes on - but it’s also important for another reason. It includes the claim that Marco Polo was present in the city for all of this, there in the capital in 1282 when Ahmed, fairly or unfairly, met his violent end.

And this is significant because the text rarely gives any such indication; you mark them all down as you’re reading through it, but you’re not left with much, just a few snippets really outside of the prologue. You read at one point that he was ill for some time and was cured by the clean air in the mountains of Badakhshan, the northeast of modern-day Afghanistan, and at another that he and the older Polos spent a year in a Tangut city, for reasons he declines to expand on. He says he spent a lot of time at the old Song dynasty capital at Hangzhou, known by the Song as Lin’an and referred to as Kin-Sai by Marco, and in the relative abundance of detail, one can easily believe he spent some time there.

His doings generally have remained a mystery though, a topic still of contention and disagreement, with some even claiming that he never actually went to China at all. And that’s what I’m going to get into next time. I’d originally thought to do so in this episode, but I wanted to really focus here on Marco’s Kublai, on this picture of a khan caught in a curious moment: governing over a conquered population that vastly outnumbered his own forces and doing so, at the direction of his advisors, by making himself more familiar to that population, but also clearly uncomfortable with going too far in that direction, and all the while alienating many in the Mongol world with the moves which he did make. And I wanted to focus on this idea of Marco himself not just as some kind of trans-continental flaneur, but perhaps to be thought of as more of a mouthpiece for empire and a trumpeter for Kublai Khan as the bearer of Genghis’s dynastic legacy. So next time, the doings of Marco Polo in China as governor, ambassador, builder of siege engines, outright liar, or something else entirely. That’ll be the story next episode.


  • The Travels of Marco Polo, the Venetian, translated by William Marsden, edited by Thomas Wright. George Bell & Sons, 1907.

  • Larner, John. Marco Polo and the Discovery of the World. Yale University Press, 1999.

  • Man, John. Marco Polo: The Journey that Changed the World. HarperCollins, 2009.

  • Olschki, Leonardo. Marco Polo's Asia. University of California Press, 1960.

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

Marco and the Polos 2: Of Assassins and Other Things

Marco Polo Venice

The text we’re dealing with today is about travel, but it isn’t really a travel narrative. In fact for the great majority of the book, or books, there’s very little narrative at all. It follows the journeys of a Venetian merchant family, and there are prices to be found, and products, and quantities too, but it is no merchant’s handbook. The characters within are in circumstances which virtually guarantee adventure, but this is no adventure story either and what little there is seems amongst the books’ most suspect material. It might be said to be a work of geography, and here we’re closer to the truth, but then it’s not easy to use as such and is often hindered by the skeleton of a story that does exist. As a work of history, it’s frequently misleading, and as a book of wonder, it’s rather short on wonders, or at least those of the fantastical kind.

The books of Marco Polo, are, in summary, a pretty frustrating read. But there is something there, sometimes actually there on the page and sometimes more in the space formed by omission, something that has captured people's imaginations for hundreds of years and continues to do so today. With this episode and the next two, I’ll try to get at what that is. 

Hello, and welcome. I’m Devon, and this is Human Circus. At this time I ask of you, like a khan to a pope, that you and all your kings and princes please rate and review the podcast, on iTunes, Stitcher, or your platform of choice, and that you impose upon your cousins, vassals, and land-bound labourers to do the same. Thank you, all of you who have already supported the podcast in this way or with donations, and thank you too, all of you who have supported the podcast just by downloading it. It’s extremely nice on my end to see that people are indeed listening. Now, all of that aside, let’s begin.

Over the next few episodes, I’ll be talking about the Marco Polo text, a book that goes by various names, and I'll be looking at both the history of the book and the history contained within it. I’ll also continue to follow the story, such as it is, that the book gives us of the Polos and their travels. Today, we’ll be looking at their departure from Venice, their journey towards Kublai Khan, and some of the themes of the text as well a bit of the history/mythology it contains. 

Last episode, we started in on the prologue, that of our story and that of the books themselves, following Niccolo and Maffeo from Constantinople, across the waters of the Black Sea and east to meet with Berke Khan of the Golden Horde or Kipchak Khanate, and then, their way home blocked, rather further east, seeking first to find a bit of a long-cut back to the Mediterranean and then taking up the envoys’ invitation that brought them to the palace of the emperor Kublai Khan. When we left them, their mission on the khan’s behalf, the delivery of a letter and the request for holy oil and a hundred men, was stalled by events beyond their control, a papal election or lack thereof. The Polos were forced to wait, and as they did, they dropped in on the family back home in Venice. Let’s pick things up from there.

Marco’s Venice had sailed through the rough patch that followed the fall of the Latin Empire of Constantinople as well as could be expected. The returned Greek emperor had allied himself with Venice’s Genoan enemies and barred the Venetian fleet from its critical anchorage at the gateway to the Black Sea. But the exile hadn’t lasted for long. The emperor had his own motives in not favouring Genoa too much and in playing the two rivals off against each other and had his own troubles with attempting to restore the rest of the old empire, and he soon let them back in the door. Venice’s exclusivity, which it had enjoyed under the Latin Empire, wasn't coming back, but it's colony was allowed to remain in place and most of its trading privileges were restored. If the city was no longer the only player at the table, at least it again had a seat. 

Venice was growing, in prestige and prosperity. From the sacking of Constantinople, it had drawn in the treasures of an empire, and the wealth and goods brought by trade continued to fill its purse, as carpets, cloves, cinnamon, pepper, ginger, silk, slaves, and perfume sailed into its port.   

And what about Marco himself? Given that the book leaves our main character behind to focus on his father and uncle’s time abroad, what can we say of his early years? That he grew up in the shadow of all this imperial splendour. That he was raised in a merchant family. That he lived in the parish of San Severo with his other uncle following his mother’s death. And that he was very likely brought up on the kind of math which we would term “word problems.” 

And we have examples. Maybe you’ll feel closer to Marco to think of him sitting down to a kind of lesson that in some ways sounds oddly familiar: 

Make me this calculation. 2 merchants have their wool on a ship. One of them put 13 sacks and the other of them put 17 sacks [on board]. And when they had arrived in Venice the captain demanded his freight charges from the merchants and they said to him, "Take one of our sacks from each of us and sell it and pay our freight costs and return the remainder." And the captain took 2 of these sacks and sold them and gave 10 coins from the proceeds to him who had 13 sacks and the freight had been paid. And he returned 3 coins to the man who had 17 sacks and his freight was entirely paid. And the merchants said to the captain, "We want to know how much you sold the sacks for, and how you calculated what you took from it for freight charges."

Of course you, or little baby Marco, had to speak for the captain, give the final answer, and show your work. 

Along with this kind of applied math, Marco would have learned about conversions of currencies, weights, and measurements, assessing the value of different products, the movement of silver about Europe, and helpful proverbs like “Good words and evil deeds deceive wise man and fool alike.” All of it appears in the early 14th-century Venetian merchants’ handbook, the Zibaldone da Canal. It’s a few decades later, and of a different merchant family than the Polos, but it’s a taste of the culture Marco would have been brought up in while his father and uncle were away.

Once they were all back together in the city, they waited; they waited for quite a while for a new pope to be declared; they waited until they grew tired of waiting, until they could do so no longer. They waited during the longest papal election in history, as the cardinals were locked in, placed on rations of bread and water, and had the roof removed from over their heads all in order to encourage their timeliness. Two of the cardinals in question actually died during this painful 3 year process, as well as a third who had, perhaps wisely, managed to make himself absent for the whole thing. Understandably, the Polos gave up on waiting, and they left before a new pope was named. 

It was three Polos this time, for Niccolo and Maffeo were joined by Marco for their trip back to Kublai Khan. In fiction, this is often dramatized with Marco convincing his at first reluctant father to bring him along, but really there’s no reason to think this was the case. Certainly there’s no suggestion of this in the text, and if the Mongol khan’s court was a far stretch for a first turn at travelling merchant’s apprentice, it was about time for the younger Polo to get out and experience the world. 

The three of them made first for Acre, where they met again with the papal representative, Teobaldo Visconti, and then went inland to Jerusalem. If they couldn’t get a pope to give them a hundred men, then at least, Visconti had indicated, they might bring the khan some oil. The expedition to the holy city was no great trek as journeys covered on this podcast go, a mere 80 miles as the crow flies, but it may still have presented dangers. They were in the Mamluks’ territory now. 

There had been some limited cooperation between the Mamluks and the crusaders when the former had gone north to face Hulagu’s Mongols in 1260, but a decade since had made quite a difference in where things stood. Since then, the armies of the Mamluk Sultan Baibars had swept out of Egypt and into the remains of the Crusader States, besieging Acre, unsuccessfully, in 1263, but taking a number of towns and castle. They had gone as far north as Lesser Armenia, looting its cities as they went, and in 1268 they had had taken Antioch and massacred or enslaved its people. Antioch’s ruler, Bohemond VI, had not been present at the time, but he had received a letter from Baibars, filling him in on what he’d missed:

Death came among the besieged from all sides and by all roads: we killed all that thou hadst appointed to guard the city or defend its approaches. If thou hadst seen thy knights trampled under the feet of the horses, thy provinces given up to pillage, thy riches distributed by measures full, the wives of thy subjects put to public sale; if thou hadst seen the pulpits and crosses overturned, the leaves of the Gospel torn and cast to the winds, and the sepulchres of thy patriarchs profaned; if thou hadst seen thy enemies, the Muslims, trampling upon the tabernacle, and immolating in the sanctuary, monk, priest and deacon; in short, if thou hadst seen thy palaces given up to the flames, the dead devoured by the fire of this world, the Church of St Paul and that of St Peter completely and entirely destroyed, certainly thou wouldst have cried out “Would to Heaven that I were become dust!”

This was all pretty recent too; less than five years had passed. And Jerusalem was in Mamluk hands when the Polos went. Though the text makes no mention of it at this point, it was likely a tense little shopping trip for the Venetians. Like so much of the Marco Polo text, it’s the stuff of a single sentence, but you can so easily imagine it spun out into a book or a movie. 

Once they had the oil, the Polos were on their way, heading north through Little Armenia, but it wasn’t open roads ahead to China. Instead, they received a letter summoning them straight back to Acre. Larger dramas had played themselves out and now imposed themselves on the Polos, for that long wait we talked about was finally over. There was a new pope, and his name, well his name was now Gregory X, but right up until it was that, it had been Teobaldo Visconti, the Polos’ man in Acre. 

It was quite a stroke of luck for our Venetian friends. The ruler of Lesser Armenia set them up with a galley and sent them back down the coast, and their acquaintance, the brand new pope, set them up with blessings and new credentials. However, he didn’t set them up with 100 well educated Christians. You might have thought that 100 moderately capable men who would do in a pinch might have been scared up for the occasion, but Pope Gregory doesn’t seem to have gone that route. Instead, he kept with tradition where adventures to the Mongol khans were concerned. He sent them with papal letters and a pair of Dominicans, Nicolo da Vicenza and Guielmo da Tripoli. Friars were something that came in twos, not in hundreds, and the Polos weren’t waiting around for another 98. Back up through Lesser Armenia they went.

That's how far they’d gotten last time before being called back by the new pope. This time, that’s how far they got before alarming intelligence reached their ears, and their two friars abandoned ship on the whole project. Clearly, these were not the hardy Franciscans of previous decades, sternly braving starvation, stone-cracking cold, and death by Mongol to venture into alien lands from which some would literally never return. These two apparently just needed to hear about the Mamluk Sultan Baibars laying waste to the country to turn over the papal letters to the Polos and their own safety to a nearby body of Knights Templar. And the timing of this is a little odd, coming solidly between notable two periods of Mamluk incursions into Lesser Armenia and Anatolia. 

It doesn’t seem like any major invasion ought to have caused them any trouble. Still, it’s believable enough that fighting, or rumour of it, was creeping north through Syria at the time our party was passing through. Or maybe this was just a literary device intended to show-off the Polos’ unshakable fortitude in the face of threats that would make lesser men scurry to the relative safety of the nearest crusader outpost. Either way, I fear our days of following Franciscans and Dominicans to the courts of khans may be behind us. There was to be no great friar-Mongol adventure this time. The Venetians continued on, surely not alone, but no longer bringing even 2 of the requested 100, on towards Kublai Khan. 

And this is how that great journey reads in one of the editions I’m using:

Niccolo, Maffeo, and Marco, however, undismayed by perils and difficulties (to which they had long been inured), passed the borders of Armenia, and prosecuted their journey. After crossing deserts of several days’ march, and passing many dangerous defiles, they advanced so far, in a direction between north-east and north, that at length they gained information of the grand khan, who then had his residence in a large and magnificent city named [Shangdu]. Their whole journey to this place occupied no less than three years and a half… .

Like I said, the book is no travel narrative, no great feat of adventure story-writing. Here we have yet another purported three year period which must indeed, as the text admits, have included hard marches over deserts and through “dangerous defiles,” and much more besides, even with that golden tablet of imperial favour and entitlement that Kublai had granted them. But this short paragraph is all the text includes on the matter, a great emptiness into which an imagination might pour all kinds of stories.

And maybe we can fill in some of those blanks by looking elsewhere in the books of Marco Polo. I should explain here, that the narrative part of the books is really very short. It’s a prologue, a set-up for the main body of the text, a justification or explanation for it. The main body is something like a cataloguing of selected towns, cities, and regions from Lesser Armenia on east, with the odd story interspersed. You’ll read that such-and-such a town is noble and good and populated by people of W and X religions who produce Y and Z crops and products, and sometimes things then move hurriedly on to the next noble city with little to differentiate them. In one location, it’s only the swollen legs and glands of the populace that stand out. In other places there are other details that start to colour in the gaps in the narrative or establish other patterns.

Of Lesser Armenia for example, we read that the game was plentiful, both birds and beasts, a feature that always seems to have drawn Marco’s attention; we also read that the air was not particularly healthy, that the city on the coast from which they moved inland was heavily frequented by merchants from Venice, Genoa, and elsewhere trading in spice, silk, and other goods, and that the nobility of the area had in the past been renowned for their expertise as soldiers but now were fallen on drunkenness and cowardice. 

This last point raises questions for me. Was this a generalization based on a personal encounter or two, something like the generalized grumbling of a tourist who once had a disappointing breakfast somewhere? Was it something said locally of the region’s nobility that the travellers picked up on? Or did Marco simply prefer places to people? We’re going to see that cities are often magnificent and noble, but their people, nobles and commoners alike, are often treacherous and bloodthirsty criminals with few redeeming characteristics. And there’s an immediate example of this as the Polos moved east from Lesser Armenia. The Turkomans had excellent horses, and sold fine mules, but the human inhabitants themselves were, like others we’ll meet, “rude people, and dull of intellect.” 

Further east, the Venetians started to pass through lands that were to them alive with the life and legends of Alexander the Great: places where his gates had sealed off the uncivil world, where his army had fought with that of Darius the Achaemenid Emperor, where he’d married Darius’ daughter, or where animals descended from Alexander’s own beloved horse Bucephalus had still, until only recently, still walked the earth; had done so until their owner, the king’s uncle, had refused to surrender them up to the king and been killed for it, and his widow had then destroyed the horses.

The city of Baghdad is described as the “the noblest and most extensive city to be found in [that] part of the world,” home to silks wrought with gold, “velvets ornamented with the figures of birds and beasts,” and studies in “[Islamic] law, magic, physics, astronomy, [and] geomancy.” It is also identified as the place where Hulagu had defeated the last Abbasid caliph and sealed him away with all his riches to ponder, in his last starving, dying days, the uselessness of all that gold. Not the way the caliph’s end is usually believed to have come, but certainly a memorable story.  

The city of Tabriz on the other hand is, of course, “large and very noble,” abundant in precious stones and pearls, delightful gardens, and merchants from Europe and India. Those who were part of such trade were wealthy indeed, but the bulk of the inhabitants very poor, and the Muslim there were singled out as “treacherous and unprincipled.” You might be starting to notice a pattern here. 

As the books wind their way east, Muslims are pretty regularly associated with villainy of one kind or another: in one area given to “savage and bloodthirsty” acts of violence which they’d happily inflict on travellers and traders alike were it not for their fear of Mongol retribution, in another as covetous and sordid merchants, prone to all manner of ill-dealings. Muslims in the books’ depiction are dishonest even with themselves, condensing wine and then giving it another name so as to sidestep prohibitions and drink it, and they are too easily redeemed by the confession of their faith and thus feel free to commit even the most serious criminal acts without repercussions. Piling on to this, there are stories of Muslim persecution of Christians and of miraculous interventions by which they are foiled, in Baghdad and Samarkand in particular. 

Along with all of this though, there are some counter examples which start to stand out. 

Sometimes this might be physical admiration, as in the case of an area of northern Iran where the Muslims are described as, quote, “a handsome race, especially the women, … the most beautiful in the world.” Other qualities stood out too, and not just of appearance. In one area the Muslims are “civilized in their manners, and accounted valiant in war.” In another they are considered keen and skilled sportsmen and hunters, not an inconsequential compliment from one as interested in hunting as Marco seems to have been. Then, on a more personal note, he records learning much from a very wise Turkoman travelling companion, a Muslim. My point here is that the text is hardly immune to the biases of its times; they’re here in abundance. But it does, very occasionally, rise above them or, perhaps more accurately, shuffle around them. The Other in the Marco text is a pretty interesting topic in itself, and I’ll get into it more next episode with its treatment of Mongols and Chinese, but for now let’s turn to the topic I think of as stories of the road.

On the Polos’ travels, they heard stories of the lands they passed through, and these vary quite a bit. You get the humble shoemaker of Baghdad who once accidentally saw the leg of an attractive slipper-buyer and then scooped out his own eye before causing a mountain to move and an Abbasid caliph to secretly convert; you get recent Mongol history given in some detail like Kublai’s war with Kaidu of the house of Chagatai; and between fairytale and rough history, you get things like the Assassins.

I’ve talked a little about the Assassins before on this podcast, about their legendary mountain strongholds and how they fell to the invasion of Kublai’s brother Hulagu, and I’ve long planned to work them more fully in as the focus of an episode, but that won’t be this episode. I bring them up again here though because the Marco Polo telling, which he “testifies to having heard from sundry persons,” is one that has been largely discounted but is also one that has really stuck with us since. It’s a synthesis of the Assassin legends that were already circulating among Europeans, with perhaps a few additions, but it quickly became the standard version, and it might be the one you recognize.

“Having spoken of this country,” it opens, “mention shall now be made of the old man of the mountain.” What comes next is an explanation of how “the old man of the mountain,” Ala al-Din Muhammad III, commanded total obedience from his followers and sent them out into the world to reliably do his bidding in the face of death.  

Between two lofty mountains, there was a beautiful valley, a luxurious garden paradise into which Ala al-Din brought the most delicious fruits and the most fragrant bushes and flowers, all in abundance. There were palaces, richly decorated in gold, paintings, and silks. There were, arranged to flow into them, streams of the purest water, and of wine, milk, and honey. And there were women, skilled in song and dance, in music, and in, quote, “dalliance and amorous allurement.” It was a garden of delights and fascination, an unearthly paradise to satisfy all the senses and every desire. It was in short a place one was meant to want to stay, to cling to, to remain and never to leave, and if you must go, to claw your way back in as quickly as possible. 

Over this garden valley, Ala al-Din had absolute power. You could only get there through a secret passage from an impregnable mountain fortress, and you only entered when, if, and how he wanted you to. The chosen were young men from the surrounding area, those who showed bravery and a certain promise in the martial disciplines. He secluded these youths at his castle, lecturing them daily on his power to grant entrance into paradise, and dosing them with opium. You’d awaken to find yourself in a palace apartment within the valley, surrounded by beautiful women, with milk and honey flowing through the room and a head full of drugs and, soon exquisite, exquisite wine too. A few days of this and all its joys and you’d again be moved in your sleep, whisked away to the unpleasantly normal world outside. Where had you been, you would be questioned before Ala al-Din and his people; in paradise, you confidently replied, by the favour of the old man of the mountain. 

Such were the rewards which waited for those who did his bidding, and so his followers had no fear when thrown into danger. Fear was for those who crossed him and his people, whether king, vizier, or caliph, for their fate was a very public death by dagger at the hands of a man who knew his own fate already to be assured in the happiest of ways. 

The text wraps things up with the Mongols dismantling that legendary fortress, and this did indeed happen, but it should be noted that there are no reports of heavenly garden valleys. Possibly they had just been very well hidden. Then, the text wanders on to other things, to a waterless desert and to a town which produces the best melons in the world, cut in long thin spirals and dried in the sun for shipment. Such is the peculiarity of the Marco Polo text, mixing these details which can seem to us somewhat mundane with highly dramatic bursts of history or legend.

And the Polos also wandered on, their experiences on the road very occasionally bubbling to the surface in the text in little hints and allusions. Maybe Marco was kidnapped at a certain point, losing many of his fellow-travellers as they were sold into slavery or put to death. Elsewhere, he might have been present to witness winds of such an extreme temperature that the locals would submerge themselves in water up to the chin to save themselves from the suffocating heat. It was said to be so bad that the baked remains of anyone caught out in the open would fall apart on contact, limbs dropping to the ground as people tried to clear their corpses. It was all very colourful and unpleasant. 

These moments of Marco’s personal experience come up very rarely after the prologue, really forming an infinitesimal portion of the text, so much so that their purpose is slightly unclear. Are they intended to entertain, to break up a sometimes monotonous geographical parade? Honestly, there's really not enough of them for that, and, that being the case, “why not?!” I want to ask, want to ask while roughly shaking Marco by his shoulders in fact. The man and some immediate relatives make a 13th-century land journey to China and the court of Kublai Khan and the text has fairly little to say about it. Again, I think it's part of what makes the subject matter so appealing to turn to fiction, a great sea of possible and even likely adventures that exist in these openings, just waiting to be coloured in, but it's also more than a little aggravating.

Verification seems another likely reason to reference personal experience. You can believe these things I'm telling you to be true because I was there and I saw them. It’s a common enough inclusion, sometimes quite repetitive even, in medieval travel narratives, but that's not the case here. The aspects Marco is attested to have experienced on the journey east are few - you wouldn't get to your other hand in counting them off - and they seem almost inconsequential the details that are supported in this way, not at all matters of great importance or attached to key locations where it's crucial to establish that he was there.

In the end the personal material in this section feels a little like accidental inclusions, inadvertent slips that made it into the text. So let’s put them aside for now. We’ll be returning to Marco’s role in his own story next episode, and to the creation of the text itself, but for now let’s turn to another section of legend and history. Let’s turn to Prester John. 

Yes, it's the return of that mythical priest king who I keep threatening to do a series about so often does he pop up. And here’s another example, in the Marco Polo text. What’s he doing there? Well, he’s serving as a father figure and a mentor to Genghis before falling out with the great khan and being overthrown by him. If you’re familiar with the Genghis story, then you’ll have heard this one before. This was the Ong Khan, the regional ruler whose favour Genghis had sought out long before he himself rose to any kind of great stature. This seemingly odd association, of local ruler long defeated with Christian saviour, is not unique to this book. The Ong Khan had been associated with Prester John in the past. Friar William makes a mention of the connection, and speaks of crossing Prester John’s supposed realms but finding none save the odd Nestorian who recognized what he was talking about. And communications from the Mongols also included reference to themselves as the conquerors of the priest-king and the inheritors of his lands and authority. As travellers like the friars we followed went into Mongol territory, there was a great deal of curiosity as to Prester John, and lo and behold, there he was found. But he had changed. 

This was not the otherworldly figure, the dispenser of miracles who lived among monstrous beings and went to war with an invincible army forming up in unlikely numbers behind jeweled crosses. This was someone more modest, someone who had diminished in stature as they had drawn closer to him, someone who had faced and been defeated by Genghis Khan. And it wasn’t relegated entirely to the past either; there’s a present-day descendant of Prester John serving as the Mongol Khan’s vassal in the Marco Polo text, and his realm produces fine quality azure stone and camel-hair products. It’s an interesting transition which I need to get further into at some point, but one can immediately see the obvious propaganda value in it for the khans, their power eclipsing this nearly all-powerful Christian saviour even as their armies seemed at first to realize the promise of defeating the Muslims in the Holy Land. And this was Marco Polo’s little part in it all, as he, his father, and his uncle, travelled across countryside that had been Prester John’s, making their way towards Kublai.  

The Polos may well have been concerned that when they finally arrived at the khan’s court, they would find themselves unwelcome, perhaps forgotten; something of the sort may have been going through their minds when they made to leave without waiting for a new pope. It would after all have been years since Niccolo and Maffeo had left Kublai’s company, 8 years by the book’s accounting of time, in some editions at least. Who could know what other whims, interests, or ideas might attract the attention of a Mongol emperor in such a long interim, and whether or not he would still care to see them when they arrived. 

As it turned out, they needn’t have worried. The text informs us that they were given the royal welcome, met 40 days’ journey from their destination and with orders given to ease their way and give what comfort could be offered as they approached. That was how they came to Shangdu and found Kublai Khan waiting for them.

If you’ve listened to episode 7 of my Mongols series, you’ve come across Shangdu before, though not by that name. Back then, when Kublai had first established it, back when his brother Mongke had still ruled as great khan, it been Kaiping, the shiny new capital designed for him by his advisor Liu Bingzhong. In 1264 it had been renamed Shangdu, or Upper Captital, but it was no longer Kublai’s primary city. As of 1267, that had been another city, at present-day Beijing, but when the Polos visited the khan, they did so in Shangdu, now his summer capital. 

The city of Shangdu was three nested cities within one square outer wall of two and a half kilometres of pounded earth on all sides. On a map, the outer city took up an L shape across the top and down the left side, while in the lower right quadrant, more than a quarter really, was the imperial city, and then boxed within that, the palace city. For a closer look than that, we’ll need Marco’s help.

The text describes a palace of marble and other attractive stones, elegant in design and skillful in execution, its chambers and halls all in gilt and exquisitely painted with the figures of people, beast, birds, flowers, and trees, paintings that you could only regard “with delight and astonishment.” But it’s the khan’s special park and hunting enclosure that really receives the attention here. There were rich and beautiful meadows, watered by many rivers and brooks and dotted with fountains, and stocked with animals of all kinds that were not “ferocious in nature” and which roamed among trees and plants brought to that place for the khan’s enjoyment. More than 200 hundred hunting hawks and falcons were kept on the grounds and at least one hunting leopard which was carried on horseback, presumably on a horse with no sense of smell or self-preservation, until it was to be loosed at the khan’s command. At a particularly lovely spot, by a grove of trees, was the khan’s pavilion, its gilt pillars, wrapped in dragons, supporting a roof of varnished bamboo. It was in short a place to which the resources of a great power were exerted to facilitate the leisure of one man’s summer months.

That was was the Shangdu the Polos arrived at, and the text relates that all the khan’s highest officers were there when they were ushered into his presence, and that the travellers stepped forward and prostrated themselves on the floor before him. Kublai commanded them to rise, and they did so. Then he asked after their mission on his behalf. What of their travels, and what of the pope? What of the oil and those one hundred men? How had it all gone? 

Now we know there were to be no 100 forthcoming, but that doesn’t seem to have bothered the khan overly. He listened in silence to their story, and then greeted with enthusiasm first “the letters and presents of Pope Gregory,” and then the holy oil. The latter was received with reverence, we read, and instructions given for it be “preserved with religious care,” though whether that meant being assigned to some of the city’s Nestorians, placed within Kublai’s own chambers, or something more like the warehouse from Indiana Jones, it does not say. The pope’s letters, on the other hand were read out on the spot, much to the enthusiasm of the khan, who commended “the fidelity, the zeal, and the diligence,” of his ambassadors. 

Around this point, Kublai noticed Marco Polo, and he asked who he was. To this Niccolo answered, “This is your servant, and my son;” upon which the khan replied, “He is welcome, and it pleases me much.” It was to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Marco and his family were going to be staying on in Shangdu and, so the text tells us, elsewhere throughout their host’s empire, particularly in China. What would be going on during this time? What would Marco be doing for all those years? The text offers some possibilities - ambassadorship, governorship, building war machines - but how believable is all of this? And what of this text itself. What of the circumstances of its creation, its spread, and its popular reception? All that and more, next time. I’ll talk to you then.


  • The Travels of Marco Polo, the Venetian, translated by William Marsden, edited by Thomas Wright. George Bell & Sons, 1907.

  • The Mission of Friar William of Rubruck, translated by Peter Jackson. The Hakluyt Society, 1990.

  • Cathay and the Way Thither, Being a Collection of Medieval Notices of China, Vol. III, translated and edited by Henry Yule and Henri Cordier. London, 1916.

  • Ackroyd, Peter. Venice: Pure City. Chatto & Windus, 2009.

  • Daftary, Farhad. The Assassin Legends. I. B. Tauris, 1994.

  • Larner, John. Marco Polo and the Discovery of the World. Yale University Press, 1999.

  • Madden, Thomas F. Venice: A New History. Viking, 2012.

  • Olschki, Leonardo. Marco Polo's Asia. University of California Press, 1960.

  • Steinhardt, Nancy Shatzman. Chinese Imperial City Planning. University of Hawaii Press, 1999.

Marco and the Polos 1: From Venice to the World

Polos Leave Constantinople

Certain historical figures are so steeped in layers of legend that they start to lose focus in our eyes, and we almost need to remind ourselves that yes, this was a real person. For me, and I suspect for many people, the character we’re getting into today is one of those figures, an almost fantastical being existing in the strange in-between of myth, history, and poetry, and this illusory element isn’t helped by his cultural appearances, his destination in Coleridge’s opiated dream, his tall tales of the empire in Italo Calvino’s novel, his adventures in a Netflix series, and so on. To one degree or another they swing wildly away from any attempt at historical accuracy, but they remain tethered to Kublai Khan and his Mongol Empire, giving our character’s life a surreal quality, that of a fable, but one grounded in this very real 13th century.

And if you are skeptical about his story, then your reaction is not unlike that of his contemporaries. There’s an anecdote of his death bed, where a friend brings him one of the manuscripts and urges him to set the record straight, to speak out against some of the book’s more incredible statements. However, far from offering any retraction, he’s supposed to have replied that on the contrary he had not told half of what he’d seen.

Of course, we’re talking about Marco Polo here, the 13th century Venetian traveller, merchant, ambassador, adventurer, administrator, and many other roles too, both more and less likely. And yes, he was indeed a real person. 

Hello and Welcome. I’m Devon, and this is Human Circus. I should start out today with an apology for the lateness of this episode. As you can probably still hear in my voice, I’ve had a head cold which won’t go away. I’ve been waiting until its gone to record, but for now I’ve given up on the gone part, so we’ll see how this goes.

I also have an announcement to make, that I’ve found a new home since I last recorded. That’s a new hosting service, which shouldn’t affect you at all, but also a new podcast network. Human Circus is now part of the recordedhistory.net podcast network. It’s full of great shows, which I can happily recommend, and I’m very excited to be joining them all there. One change which you will notice is that ads will start to appear on the show. Sometimes that will be for the other podcasts on the network and sometimes for sponsors’ products. I realize that, given the choice, you’d probably opt for no-ads in your podcast listening, but these sponsors are going to help make the whole project more sustainable for me and also help me make improvements to the show, so I ask you to bear with them, and me. Now, announcements out of the way, let’s get to the story. 

If you look at the title of this episode, you’ll see I’m starting a new series, focusing on the travels of Marco Polo, but we’re not starting from scratch here. The previous run of 7 episodes, To See the Mongols, led up to this point, tracing exchanges between Mongols and Western Europeans and wrapping up by looking at the rise of Kublai Khan. So if you haven’t listened to those yet, they do give a lot of good background and context for this series and you may want to hear them first.

Today, we won’t be seeing much of Marco himself, just a glimpse of him at the end. Instead, we’re going to set the scene with a look at his city of Venice and its role in Mediterranean competition and Eurasian trade; and we’re going to look at the first Polos’ meeting with Kublai Khan, that of Niccolo and Maffeo. This is the prelude.

The story of the Polos could begin at many points. You could go with the origins of Venice as a 6th century safe haven for those escaping invasion in the lagoons, but that would be crazy. You could look at the centuries of allegiance to the Byzantine Empire culminating in the Golden Bull of 1082 which allowed special trading rights and exemptions, most importantly with regards to trade in Constantinople. You could follow the early crusades, and the Venetians response to them, slow, by some tellings, to sabotage their trading success in the eastern Mediterranean until they sensed the possibility of success, and then plunging in to earn privileges and advantages in the resultant crusader kingdoms. All of those would make sense, but not wanting to turn this into an extended history of Venice podcast, I’m going to start with the Latin Empire of Constantinople in the beginning of the 13th century.

Now, sometimes it’s easy to lose any sense of time in historical events. You hear a story, and it becomes a little bubble in your consciousness, adrift from any connection to all the other little bubbles bobbling about in there. So let’s try to raft some of those bubbles together. Today, we’re starting in 1204 and then jumping forward to the main storyline starting around 1260. What do those dates mean? What else is happening? What can we tie this particular bubble to?

Well, the first years of the 13th century gave us the rise of Genghis to become great khan of the Mongols, the founding of the Franciscan and Dominican orders, and also that of the University of Cambridge. And in 1215,  on the 15th of June, the Magna Carta was signed. In the second half of the century, when our story will be taking place, we get the University of Paris, the birth of Dante Alighieri, the work of Thomas Aquinas, King Edward’s struggles with Scotland and with William Wallace of Braveheart fame, and the beginnings of the Ottoman Empire. There’s more of course; there always is, but hopefully there’s something there for you to hang this story next to. Now, let’s get back to 1204.

In that year, Constantinople had fallen to the fourth crusade, with Venice taking a role that has been depicted as opportunistic, morally malleable to the moment one might say, even villainous some have said. Others have painted a more complex picture in which the Venetians and their doge appear less Machiavellian, and more just playing the cards they were dealt. It’s a great story in itself, and I’m going to put that aside as part of a near-future topic.

For now, know that Venetian involvement had secured the city a significant share of the spoils. That meant countless works of Byzantine art and treasure, the great bronze horses of the hippodrome, statues of the old Roman tetrarchs, and the 50,000 silver marks still owed for the fleet they had supplied, but it also meant a full 3/8s of the city and its empire. The Venetian leader, Enrico Dandolo, managed to arrange for right of conquest to a run of coastal territory and ports that connected his city to the Black Sea: the coast of western Greece, the Ionian islands, the Peloponnese, Naxos, Adrianople, Gallipoli, and control of key harbour districts of the imperial capital itself, to which he added the island of Crete, purchased for a thousand marks. He negotiated all of this and also the exclusion of Genoa and Pisa, their Italian rivals in trade and more fatal forms of competition. The exclusion was part of a long running, bitter back and forth, a sometimes bloody contest for the riches which the Mediterranean and its ports could provide. And this latest move placed Venice in an excellent position.

The lagoon city had problems certainly. It now had an empire of sorts to administer to, and Crete alone was going to cost it years of fighting with the Genoans. But it also had opportunities. Whether on through the Red Sea by way of its trading relationships in Egypt for which it had received a papal dispensation, from the Crusader Kingdoms and east to the Persian Gulf, or overland from Constantinople and the Black Sea ports, Venice was now admirably situated for business in the goods of the east, of Central Asia, China, and India. It’s the last of the three routes, the overland one, that we’re concerned with today, and that was deeply impacted by the rise of the Mongol Empire. 

Linking China and India with the Mediterranean was hardly a new invention; Seneca, the first century Roman, had bitterly complained of the popularity of Chinese silk in his time, and money and goods had flowed back the other way too. However, if you’ve listened to my last run of episodes, and you should, you’ve seen the degree to which western Europeans friars of the 13th century felt themselves to be entering a new and strange world, one which Alexander the Great had sealed away with walls of biblical proportions and which may or may not have contained dog-headed men. At least one Roman embassy is said to have actually visited China, yet a millennium later, we have these Franciscans taking their plunge into total darkness. What had happened?

The short answer is that Western Europe had largely retracted from the broader Eurasian trade system. And this is not to say that “the Silk Road,” as these routes are popularly known, went unused. Jewish Rhadanite traders had travelled those paths, and as the Islamic caliphates had stretched from Spain to the Indus River, so had Muslims.  But Latin Christendom had become detached from all of this in the periods between the fragmentation of the Western Roman Empire and the Crusades. Now, with much of Asia unified under a Mongol Empire and a reignited European taste for what the east had to offer, Venetians and others would join them and re-engage in the trade from the Mediterranean, and through it from the cloth-producing markets of the north, to India, to China, to the quote/unquote “spice islands,” and elsewhere.

This moment of relative unity that allowed them to ease into transcontinental business has been called the Pax Mongolica, a reference to the idea of the Pax Romana, the “Roman peace” that had stabilized the realms within its ambit and allowed for the kind of easy exchange of goods and ideas that could only occur under such conditions. Of course, it may also bring to mind the words that Tacitus had put in the mouth of a Caledonian chieftain, that the Romans had made a desert and then called it peace. And there’s some truth to that here. The Mongols had done their fair share of desert-making as their conquests had forged a vast empire. But leaving aside how they had gone about it, the Mongols had, for a moment, made one what had been many, or at least they very briefly had. Mongol Peace is a bit of a misleading term, as by this point the Mongol khanates are already fighting each other. Still, for mile after mile, you travelled under Mongol authority.

And this is credited as having had an enormous impact. People, goods, and ideas could move more easily under this semi-unified rule. They were subject, broadly, to one set of laws and stable tribute gatherers, not ambushed figuratively and physically by this bandit lord’s men and that local king’s extortionate demands. Of course, there was still danger. As we saw in the preceding episodes, the natural environment itself could be terminally daunting, and the threat of physical violence was clearly not entirely banished from the situation. Demons and less supernatural sources of death still lurked in the shadows of possibility. Mongol force had not entirely tamed all within its domains, and in the conquered territories of the empire we find those who still held out; Friar William mentions Alans in the Caucasus and also those who had escaped Mongol service and now clawed out a living through raids and brigandry. But it was still easier. 

There was a system of law that discouraged local warfare and theft, an ability to anticipate to some degree the costs one would accrue in travel, and a saving in securing and protecting the goods in transit. I think a lot of people probably imagine the Mongol-controlled steppes as a land where you were promptly shot on sight by ruthless, mounted archers, but as should be becoming pretty clear, religious figures, ambassadors, and, most importantly for us, merchants, were generally able to move through it without experiencing such misfortune.

Venice was one of the powers which was going to be doing well out of this. The city’s merchants had been doing very well in fact, trading, among other things, in cloth, spices, and slaves, and this Pax Mongolica, however misleading that “Pax” part may be, opened new possibilities, many of which could be found in Constantinople. 

In that city, they had the deck stacked pretty well in their favour. I mean, it’s true that much of the local populace likely hated them. The Venetians were inseparably associated with the bloodshed of the 4th Crusade, and events in which Constantinoplites had been violently juiced by their rulers to pay off the crusaders and seen significant sections of their city, significant numbers of their homes I should say, burned in massive fires for which Venetians were in no small part to blame. So there was that. But they very much had the run of the city. In the port they had six jetties, they had churches, and they had two large fondachi, the facilities which catered to travellers and merchants with warehouse space, an inn, and a central courtyard to receive caravans of goods. They had a governor, or podesta, making trade agreements on their behalf, and they were propping up a faltering Latin Emperor whose barons even pawned the crown of thorns, supposedly THE crown of thorns, to them in desperation. They shipped silk, spices, slaves, wood, and riches home to Venice. They had the run of the city and the gateway to the Black Sea, but it couldn’t last forever. 

Venice could not support such an unsustainable regime indefinitely. The Latin Empire Of Constantinople increasingly lacked the approval of the locals, was weak from the start both militarily and financially, and was soon hemmed in on land by Nicaea, one of the Byzantine states that had survived exile from the imperial capital, and at sea by the Genoans, who wanted back in. The end couldn’t be long, and in July of 1261, it came. The forces of Michael Palaiologos, who’d schemed and fought his way to Nicaean dominance, reclaimed Constantinople as Byzantine, not with the assistance of Genoan naval pressure, but simply by way of a poorly secured section of the walls. No prolonged siege was required, just the timely presence of Michael’s general who acquired two vital pieces information: one, that the Venetian fleet and much of the Latin garrison were away raiding in the Black Sea and two, that there was a convenient passage by which his men might enter the city quietly, open a gate, and secure large portions of its walls by dawn. And so it went. The Latin Emperor Baldwin II awoke to an unpleasant surprise and was forced to escape in such a hurry that he left his sceptre and crown behind him, and the city’s Venetians rushed to follow. But two of Venice’s most famous men had already left the city.        

Two of the sons of Andrea Polo da San Felice, Niccolo and Maffeo Polo, had been carrying on their business in Constantinople since around 1254. We read that “these respectable and well informed men, [had] embarked in a ship of their own, with a rich a varied cargo of merchandise.” The third brother in this fraterna compagnia, Marco but not that Marco, remained behind in Venice, likely to continue to conduct the merchant family’s transactions in his brothers’ absence. It was a standard enough business arrangement and made sense when partners would be gone for seasons or years at a time. In this case, the partners were going to be gone a little longer even than that. 

Niccolo and Maffeo apparently spent their time in the then still Latin imperial city trading their varied cargo for “fine and costly jewels,” and just how much time they spent doing this is totally unclear. Dates generally in this part of the story are speculation and the tying together of known events, so you’ll see the brothers Polo leaving Venice anytime between 1250 and 1255 and in some sources staying until as late as 1269; this last date is clearly incorrect though as they are to have left when the Latin Emperor still reigned and that puts a cap of 1261 on things. I’m going to follow historians such as Peter Jackson, who I relied on frequently in the Mongols series, and say that they departed Constantinople in 1260. They did so then, safely ahead of the Byzantine recapture of the city, but they may have been pushed to go by the increasing threat of political and economic instability, may have sensed the inevitability of coming change. It’s fairly likely that they did, and that this led them to convert their stock to the gems which of course carried the benefit of being highly portable and easily sewn away into their clothing. Across the Black Sea they went, bound for the city of Soldaia, a trading centre on the Crimean Peninsula from which foods, furs, and slaves passed on into Europe, Egypt, and elsewhere. 

It was much the same itinerary we saw Friar William follow, and William had mentioned meeting many merchants in the city from Constantinople. The Polos themselves had a trading house there, so they weren’t strangers to Soldaia, but, as with William, they wouldn’t be staying in they city. Maybe they had not found business to their liking on arrival; perhaps the demand for their jewels was not what they’d thought it would be or the competition too fierce for profits to match their desires. More likely though, it had been their plan all along to strike out overland from the Black Sea port. They would have heard, certainly, from their time in Constantinople, that the Mongol rulers had a tremendous appetite for gems both as luxury goods and as currency, and that they could expect to find ready buyers for what they carried. Whether by necessity or, more likely, by prior intent, they went east.

Their mode of travel now was the horse, The Travels of Marco Polo tells us, but it tells us little else. As we’ll see when we get deeper into the text in the next episode, it really isn’t a travel narrative and is often a frustrating read from which to try to piece together any kind of coherent story. And this is still just the prologue to Marco’s journey proper which we’re dealing with. We need to look elsewhere then for the details on what the road may have been like.   

They would have travelled northeast until they reached Tana, where the Don River meets the northeast corner of the Sea of Azov. There we can pick up the thread of Florentine trader Francis Balducci Pegolotti, who would write about the route nearly a century later in his Merchant’s Handbook. He describes the road from Tana to the Volga River as 25 days by ox-wagon or 10-12 by horse-wagon, and then from there up to Sarai by river. Salt-fish and flour you’d need to set out with, enough to last, but you could buy meat along the way. Pegolotti reckoned it to be the most dangerous stretch of the whole long road to China, though if you had 60 men in your company, you’d still “go as safely as if you were in your own house,” but even more than armed men, he emphasizes the absolute need to hire a good guide and interpreter before leaving Tana. It was foolish to imagine you might save money on a translator of lesser skill and expense, for you’d surely end paying much more than what you’d saved at every step and possibly find yourself in real danger.

What arrangements the Polos made, we do not know. We do know that they had several Christian servants who they had brought with them from Venice, and would be with them for the duration of the trip, and we know that they made it. They made it to Sarai, and they made it to Berke Khan. And we should quickly cover who this was. 

This was a grandson of Genghis Khan by way of Jochi, Genghis’ eldest son though perhaps not his biological son. Berke was by this time khan of the Golden Horde, the Jochid domain that Batu Khan had carved out and which stretched from central Ukraine to Eastern Kazakhstan.

Maffeo and Niccolo reached the Jochid khan at an interesting time, but then, as I’ve said before, it was really always an interesting time in the Mongol empire. In this case, Mongke, the great khan, had died, and there was a civil war, the Toluid Civil War between his brothers, to decide who would replace him, with Berke supporting the claim of the traditionalist youngest brother against that of the eventual victor, Kublai. More regionally, the years building up to the Venetians’ arrival had seen hostilities brewing between Berke and his neighbour to the south, his cousin Hulagu Khan, whose Ilkhanate now stretched across Persia, much of Anatolia, and northern Syria. Hulagu had committed various acts of mass violence against Berke’s Muslim co-religionists; most notably he had sacked Baghdad and killed its Abbasid Caliph; he may also have been responsible for the deaths of up to three Jochid princes who’d died under unclear circumstances as part of his campaign; and finally, he’d occupied land in northwestern Iran and around the Caucasus that had been part of the Jochid Mongols’ territory. Balanced against all of this, “he’s my cousin” started to looked pretty inconsequential.

For what it’s worth, chroniclers tend to favour religion as Berke’s primary motivator for going to war again his relative, but he had financial reasons for doing so too. Because Hulagu had cut him out of the immensely profitable trade routes running through Iran, Berke and his successors, while continuing to fight for that territory, were going to need to look elsewhere. And this would actually lead to Golden Horde khans really elevating trade through the Black Sea, something which had previously gone largely ignored. What had once been a distant second was now by necessity their first option in trade, and this pivot towards the Black Sea could have already been taking shape in Berke’s mind as the Polos arrived.

They would have found him holding court at either Sarai or Bolgar along the Volga River. The former was by then a walled palace surrounded by tents and pavilions and complete with markets, religious buildings, and public baths, while the latter was something more established, a centuries old urban centre that had been the capital of the Volga Bulgars and was taken by the Mongols in 1237. 

And again our source is pretty sparse here, with none of the details with which the Franciscans had coloured their encounters with the khans. It mentions Berke giving them a warm reception, and it mentions an exchange of sorts. Apparently, the Polos laid some of their stock in jewels before the khan and seeing how much they pleased him, made him a generous present of the lot. And Berke, pleased indeed and unwilling to be shown up as less generous, ordered them given double the jewels’ value and “several rich presents” too. It’s an interesting moment. Perhaps we are meant to admire the merchants’ daring success here, the immense profits of their largesse, but clearly they had not come so far with the fruits of their trading in Constantinople to hand them over without expectation of reward. This was a predictable mode of transaction which, with the one participant being royalty, was performed as an exchange of gifts. These Venetians were not the Franciscans of earlier decades, navigating unknown waters, and they had surely picked up, in Constantinople and Soldaia, from the readily available body of knowledge on dealing with Mongol royalty. 

Whatever their expectations, the Venetians seem to have done well out of it, but for reasons we don’t know, they didn’t take their winnings and turn for home. They apparently stayed on for a year in the khan’s domains, but doing what? Were they trading this entire time, had the khan requested they stay, or were they simply really, really enamoured with life at Berke’s court?      

Whatever kept them, they waited too long. They waited until Constantinople had fallen back into Byzantine hands, cutting off their return, with Venetian merchants blinded or otherwise maimed in the violent aftermath; they waited until open war between Berke and Hulagu blocked the possibility of passing down between the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea and to the city of Tabriz; and rather than wait any longer, they chose to  embark on an absurdly long detour. They were going to try and circle round to the north of the Caspian Sea, pass down well to the east of it into what’s now Uzbekistan, and then make a sweeping turn south toward Turkmenistan and Afghanistan and west for the Mediterranean. It’s probably for the best that it didn’t come to that. 

As it was, their jumping off point was Ukek, midway between Sarai and Bolgar, and it was a substantial hike to their destination, the city of Bukhara, a grinding 2,300 km according to Google Maps, which doesn’t offer a horse option but estimates it to be a 473 hour walk. Of this epic trek, the text has only this to say: that at one stretch they crossed a desert for 17 days and that they found there “neither town, castle, nor any substantial dwelling, but only [Mongols] with their herds, dwelling in tents on the plain.” It’s been pointed out that this was an old caravan route and that, contrary to claims of having seen nothing but tenting Mongols, they must have passed through substantial commercial centres like Urgench and Khiva along the way. The text does say they took an “unfrequented route,” -they were carrying a great deal of wealth and likely fearful of being caught up in fighting or attacked by thieves- so maybe they avoided these centres, but that doesn’t seem likely. Their survival doesn’t seem likely, if that was the case. It’s more probable that this was just another missing element in the text. This wasn’t after all their story, and storytelling was not the strength of the text.

In Bukhara, the brothers found an ancient city and an important centre of trade and religion, but one that had fallen on hard times and had more to come quite shortly. Genghis Khan and his army had arrived in 1220, and the garrison had left. With little other choice, Bukhara had surrendered; its people were taken out of the city, and the Mongols stormed in. They took everything they could, killed everyone that they found still within the walls, and left a burning ruin in their wake. One chronicler tells us that Genghis “contented himself with slaughtering and looting once only, and did not go to the extreme of a general massacre.” The useful artisans and women were enslaved, the young men enlisted to be driven up against the walls of the next city and soak up the casualties. Everyone seems to have been taken, slain, or scattered, but then we read of a rebellion in the area in 1238 and new slaughter, and still the city seems then to have been reestablished. Sorghaghtani Beki, an immensely powerful and capable administrator, and mother of Kublai and Hulagu, had overseen Bukhara’s rebirth, financing an important madrassa there among other projects. 

Though there would be more violence ahead, for now the city was again on the upswing, helped by its position along well travelled and long established trade routes. However, as Niccolo and Maffeo arrived it was also caught in the middle of a war. Its connection to continental trade was strangled off, and so was the Venetians’ progress. They were stuck in that city for three years, and we really don’t know what they were doing. Maybe they took part successfully in the local trade that still continued; maybe they took advantage of the opportunity to absorb knowledge and language from the diverse array of people that had repopulated this centre of trade, the Persians, Mongols, Turks, Chinese, and more. Maybe they simply settled into the everyday life of a trading city on the tense knife-edge of being swallowed up in civil war.

However they occupied their time, they were eventually offered a curious escape route, not a door opening back to their home in the west, but further east and further in. Some men had come to town, were passing through actually, and they happened to hear of these two Venetians who were living there. They were envoys of Hulagu, the khan of Persia, and they were on their way to the court of Kublai Khan, ostensibly still great khan of all the Mongols, though the empire was cracking apart at its dynastic seams. Would the brothers like to join them?  They could promise safe and secure passage, an honourable reception, and a khan who would be most interested to meet them. Between that and being stuck in Bukhara, it was not a hard choice. Would they like to come? Certainly, they would. 

Again, we’re given little detail as to the journey, but this time we’re given a reason up front. The brothers witnessed “many things worthy of admiration” in the area, but those are to be saved for later, for Marco Polo’s telling. Fair enough then. I’ll do the same. But I will comment on the time this is supposed to have taken them, a full year from Bukhara to Kublai’s court, on account, apparently, of the extreme weather, the snows and flooded rivers. Having just followed the journeys of elderly and overweight friars making the full trip from Constantinople or Hungary to the Karakorum region in less time, this seems a little weak on the Polos’ part. Perhaps I’m being a little harsh on them though. Maybe even in the envoys’ company, war still slowed their advance; maybe the envoys had business along the way somehow pressing enough to delay them in their dealings with Kublai; or maybe the weather really was particularly bad; they were going through some pretty punishing terrain after all. And maybe it wasn’t really a full year. 

However long it took, it’s worth noting that even in this time of strife, they were able to make the journey at all. They’d been stranded in Bukhara for three years, but a traveller with the title and tablet of a khan’s envoy could still freely move about in safety, likely by way of the system of relay stations that dotted the empire and facilitated rapid travel for those on official business.  Whether one year or not, these envoys delivered them to Kublai Khan just as they had promised.

And I’ve been following friars over the long roads to the Mongols for 7 or 8 episodes now, so I fear I may be becoming a little blasé about meeting the Mongol khans. Make no mistake though; this was quite a big deal. According to the book, this was an enormous deal and Kublai Khan had never seen a, quote, “Latin” before. That does seem a little suspect. Mongke Khan’s camp had been brimming with all manner of European artisans, slaves, and soldiers. Still, this was a milestone, a new kind of encounter, certainly the first Venetian merchants that we know of making the trip and meeting the great khan of the great Mongol Empire and the founder of the Chinese Yuan dynasty in what was to be his summer palace. 

We don’t have a great deal of information about the meeting, of course, but with what we do have, we can contrast the Venetians’ experience with those of the friars who came before them. Those Franciscans had been successful in gathering information about these barely known horse-people but had been repeatedly frustrated in efforts at making any kind of spiritual or diplomatic headway among them and had generally come away with more threats than promises to carry home. 

Kublai Khan greeted these guests warmly, “with great honour and hospitality,” and then, as previous khans had of their visitors, closely questioned the Venetians on the European emperors, quote, “how they maintained their dignity, and administered justice in their dominions; and how they went forth to battle, and so forth. And then he asked the like questions about the kings and princes and other potentates.” The Mongols seem always to have been seeking to learn and ready to take opportunities to discover what they could of far-off lands, peoples, and their rulers, from interviews like this right up to the reconnaissance which preceded their invasions. 

Next, we read that:

...he inquired about the Pope and the Church and about all that is done at Rome, and all the customs of the Latins. And the two brothers told him the truth in all its particulars, with order and good sense, like sensible men as they were; and this they were able to do as they knew the [Mongol] language well.

Now there are a few things to note here. First, that they had learned the language during their long travels, maybe in Bukhara. It was an enormous advantage over early visitors to the steppes, men like Friar William who had eventually picked up only enough to realize that he could not at all trust his translator and had struggled horribly as a result of these limitations. However, those previous travellers had generally had a bit of a different attitude towards sharing information with the Mongols. They had also answered questions about who the most powerful men in Europe were, but they had been very aware that the people they were speaking to may very well soon be coming over the plains and through the mountains to use any information they were given against them. Previous travellers had also usually found excuses to not return with Mongol ambassadors, recognizing that these were potential spies and scouts they would be bringing home with them. Not so with the Polos. They seem to have been only too happy, when Kublai requested it, to accompany one of his men back to Rome. Maybe this  was because the idea of Kublai taking action against Christian Europe was no longer really a live threat. 

While previous messages from the Mongols had offered only promises of invasion if the pope and all his kings did not promptly offer their submission, the tone here was dramatically different. This was a khan whose efforts were entirely focussed on China and whose western domains were really no longer actually under his control; Berke Khan’s Golden Horde was independent, and Hulagu’s Ilkhanate recognized Kublai’s official supremacy but not really his governance and was in any case entirely caught up in fighting the Golden Horde and the Mamluks. So for Kublai, Europe was much further away than it had been for his predecessors. It was quite out of mind, as a prospective conquest at least. So what did Kublai Khan want?

What he wanted was holy oil from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, a curious request, but not one that necessarily indicated any interest in converting. What he was asking for was, aside from anything else, a token of spiritual power and prestige to be delivered to him by a foreign religious leader; it was, as such, an instrument, among many I’m sure, which could demonstrate his greatness and the power and reach of his empire. I’m thinking here of the way the gifts from King Louis of France, of a specially made chapel tent and various books and relics, had been used 20 years earlier, how they were displayed to visiting leaders and ambassadors in a way which said “look how the Franks have offered their submission; look how all the world’s powers bow before me.” I think the holy oil might be put to similar use.

Kublai may have also wanted the oil for quite a different kind of power. This was after all a holy object, held to be so by the Christian world, and as we saw in the last series, Mongols were often quote syncretic about these things. Spiritual power was, after all, spiritual power. So long as it worked, they weren’t necessarily picky. 

He also wanted people. Specifically, he wanted the pope to send him 100 well-educated Christians, well-suited to argument and to disproving the words of the “idolaters” and other folk. If they could accomplish this, it was claimed, then he and all his people would become Christians, but again, I don’t think conversion was ever on the menu.

It’s quite conceivable that these promises simply made their way into the story by way of its Christian transcribers, an issue I’ll return to in later episodes, but, that aside, the possibility of a Christian Mongol khan had been dangled about before, with little to show for it. Moreover, Kublai had long relied heavily on the Buddhist and Daoist advisors who were very close to him, and it’s unlikely he would reject them and potentially damage his rule in China. Instead, I think it’s more probable that Kublai wanted the Latin Christians as a balancing force. He’d witnessed firsthand in Northern China the violently disruptive effects of religious conflict and had been called on then to facilitate a fierce debate to decide the issue. These 100 of the pope’s men could be brought in to counteract the dominance of Muslims, Buddhists, and Daoists in his counsel and administration, or they might be put to use as officials in conquered regions to deflect local resentment from the Mongols themselves. Religious or otherwise, a purpose could always be found for 100 well-educated individuals.  

And with that, the Venetians had their commission, and they’d be given something to aid them in carrying it out: a golden tablet granting the bearers rights to make use of the system of imperial stations for shelter and fresh horses, and to call on local governors to escort them and on cities and towns to provide provisions. They’d taken the long way to Kublai, but the way home should have been much smoother with that golden tablet in hand.

Yet all does not seem to have gone smoothly. Their Mongol ambassador companion fell ill, quickly and seriously, and had to be left behind, and again weather seems to have caused delay to an unreasonable degree. This time it was said to be three years, owing to the “extreme cold, the snow, the ice, and the flooding of the rivers,” and they probably weren’t three years; likely the time span here is just meant to convey the great difficulty of their travels, the grand nature of their feat. But however long it took them, the reached Layas in Lesser Armenia, about as far east as you can go on the south coast of Anatolia before the land curves south.

From Layas they were sailing for the crusader city of Acre, arriving in April of 1269, or 70, or 72, or 60, depending on the manuscript. And immediately they received bad news in regards to their Mongol-commissioned errand, that mission to deliver a letter to the pope and secure holy water and a full 100-strong complement of his best Christian minds. It turned out that the pope was dead. This was pretty fresh news, working from the 1269 arrival date. Pope Clement IV had died recently, in November of 1268. What were they to do? They weren’t going to be making the return journey to Kublai just yet, not if they were to complete their business with the pope. They were going to need to wait for a new one to materialize. That’s what the papal legate in Acre, Teobaldo Visconti, apparently urged them to do, and that’s what they did. They, quote, “determined upon employing the interval in a visit to their families in Venice,” which was very sweet of them. 

As it turned out, they wouldn’t be in and out the door. This would be the longest papal interregnum on record, an excruciating electoral ordeal, in which the cardinals were physically locked up in a building to motivate the decision making process. Niccolo and Maffeo didn’t yet know that though. 

They arrived in Venice to find that while they had been away time had passed there also. Niccolo had left a wife, and he returned to find her dead. He’d surely heard while in Constantinople that his son had been born, but he returned to find that baby-Marco was already a young man of around 15 years old.

And that’s where we’ll leave Marco Polo and his family for today. With my next few episodes, we’ll get into the travels of Marco himself. We’ll pick up his story as he joins Niccolo and Maffeo on their return journey. We’ll get into the long quest to separate fact from fiction, and we’ll get into the story of the books themselves. I’ll talk to you then.


  • The Travels of Marco Polo, the Venetian, translated by Willam Marsden, edited by Thomas Wright. George Bell & Sons, 1907.

  • The Mission of Friar William of Rubruck, translated by Peter Jackson. The Hakluyt Society, 1990.

  • Cathay and the Way Thither, Being a Collection of Medieval Notices of China, Vol. III, translated and edited by Henry Yule and Henri Cordier. London, 1916.

  • Abu-Lughod, Janet L. Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350. Oxford University Press, 1989.

  • Ackroyd, Peter. Venice: Pure City. Chatto & Windus, 2009.

  • Ciociltan, Virgil. The Mongols and the Black Sea Trade in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries. Brill Academic, 2012.

  • Larner, John. Marco Polo and the Discovery of the World. Yale University Press, 1999.

  • Madden, Thomas F. Venice: A New History. Viking, 2012.

  • Olschki, Leonardo. Marco Polo's Asia. University of California Press, 1960.

To See the Mongols 7: Mongol Civil War

Hulagu at Siege of Alamut

In the mid-1250s, Friar William returned from his travels, and the princes of the house of Tolui set about the tasks that their brother, the great khan Mongke, had assigned to them. And these tasks, these new conquests, were not just further acquisitions of a Mongol Empire. Like the fruits of Batu’s successes in the west, to have and to hold, and to pass down through his family, they were legacies, seeds of new and distinct dynasties, dynasties that were soon to grow apart from one another and even lead to armed clashes between the great Mongol families.

The next years were going to bring changes to the empire. There’d be growth, as Kublai and Hulagu stretched it new directions; there’d be real adversity, as they ran up against the Mamluks of Egypt and the Southern Song of China; and there’d be upheaval in the east and in the west as both Batu and Mongke would die and leave room for new faces, new directions, and new conflicts as the far-flung members of the Mongol imperial houses, the descendants of Genghis Khan, would turn against one another: the leader of the house of Chagatai fighting against the Jochid Golden Horde of Batu’s successor, the Jochids against a new Toluid khanate in Persia, a civil war within the house of Tolui over who would replace Mongke as great khan, and then an Ogedeid challenge to the victor’s supremacy. It was, to quote Lone Wolf & Cub and Liquid Swords, a bad time for the empire. But it was not all bad. If the Mongol Empire was growing apart, it at least was certainly still growing. 

Hello and welcome. My name is Devon, and this is Human Circus. At this time, I gently remind you that ratings and reviews are highly appreciated, and that if you choose to do neither, then like Mongke Khan says, “how can we know what will happen?” And of course, as always, donations are always welcome in lieu of reviews. They keep me in hosting money for the podcast, help pay the late fees at the library, and subsidize my crippling mare’s milk habit. That business out of the way, let’s begin. 

We’ve been following Friar William for a few episodes now, so it’s been a while since we’ve checked in with the wider world to see how things are going out there. First though, I want to note that last episode I left the poor friar stranded in Acre against his stated will, saying he’d be stuck teaching there; he would in fact make it to France a few years later though, likely thanks to the intervention of his royal patron, King Louis. He would get there to meet with English philosopher and fellow friar, Roger Bacon, who would write about the meeting. 

That postscript aside, we’re going to catch up on that wider world now, and we’re going to roll that world forward through the difficult process of establishing a new great khan and its ramifications for the many only-slightly-less-great khans who held sway over much of the Eurasian landmass. We’re going to prepare the way for the great celebrity traveller of the 13th century, the Venetian Ibn Battuta, and the star of Italo Calvino’s excellent Invisible Cities, Marco Polo. He’ll be making his grand entrance next episode, and that means we’ll be dipping into yet another fascinating period of turmoil in the ever-shifting Mongol landscape (because it’s really always an interesting time in Mongol history). Today, it’s the rise Hulagu and Kublai. Both will carve out important new Mongol territories and navigate a civil war, but only one will live to join us next episode. 

Checking in with our characters, Mongke Khan was right where we left him, solidly in command of a still-unified empire; Hulagu was invading Persia; and Kublai was conquering the Dali kingdom and administering to his Northern Chinese holdings. Let’s start with Kublai, the subject of one of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s most productive dreams.

Dali, in the Yunnan province, wasn’t an end in itself. It was part of a longer term goal, the opening of a new front on the west of the Southern Song Dynasty, and it had gone beautifully for Kublai. With the assistance of Uriyang-kadai, son of the famed general Subedei, he’d defeated the main Dali army, executed the chief minister and the officials who had unwisely killed his envoys (hardly ever a good idea when visited by Mongol ambassadors), and seized the territory without any unnecessary slaughter of the general population or its ruling family. It was a show of restraint for which the Chinese sources credit his Confucian advisor, and as we’ll see, maybe more critical spectators did too. For now though, the campaign, the first entirely under his own command, was considered a great success, and Kublai settled down to govern and enjoy what he’d earned; but of course his choices in governance and enjoyment were going to have consequences.

Kublai ordered the construction of a kind of capital. It was placed carefully at the edges of the two worlds, of the Mongol pasture and the Chinese agrarian lands. K’ai-p’ing, it was initially called, but you might know it better as Xanadu. The new city was quite a picture of luxury, with its marble palace and its hunting park, and for all its grandeur, it drew negative attention to match. To many Mongols it represented a weakening of the traditional ways, a corruption even, and in its design a worrying sign of Chinese influence over its owner’s thinking. He’s gone soft, they might have said; he’s settled down and become something that smacks more of the conquered than it does of the conqueror; he relies too much on his Chinese advisors, on those Daoists, Confucians, and Buddhists. And they weren’t entirely wrong. Kublai was substantially influenced by people like the astronomer and mathematician, former administrator and still Buddhist monk, Liu Bingzhong. In some ways, their man in the east was not as much like them as he had been. 

Likely there was something of these concerns in the tension that grew between Kublai and his brother Mongke; maybe Kublai’s opponents at the khan’s court whispered in Mongke’s ears that his little brother had succumbed to the softening effects of a sedentary life; maybe they just had to tell him of Kublai’s new palace, and how it threatened to outshine his own; or maybe the charges of financial misdeeds and favouring Chinese laws over Mongol ones really were at the heart of the matter.

Those were the accusations that Mongke’s representatives brought to Kublai and the cause for their investigations, and they hadn’t come to hand out slaps on the wrist. After inspecting the records, they conducted a round-up of officials involved and had them killed, notably sparing those with powerful connections to Mongol nobles but largely following a policy of culling the Chinese from Kublai’s administration, reducing that cultural influence in the Mongol government and at the same time cutting Kublai off at knees. And who knows where the investigation was going, and if it might have crept closer to Kublai himself if he hadn’t intervened, but he had to. He initially sent representatives to argue his case, but then he took the more personal route and went himself, seeking to make a personal appeal to the khan and cut out any considerations of taxes, traditions, and Chinese influence.

And the appeal worked. The histories tell us that at the beginning of 1258, the siblings embraced and erased their differences, but some have questioned this sentimental picture of brotherly reconciliation. There were after all other reasons for the khan to forgive Kublai those little oversteps in his territory. Mongke had big dreams, and he needed his little brother to realize them. His sights were still set on Southern China, and he would need every advantage to succeed; losing the support of Kublai and his Northern Chinese connections might have been something he simply could not afford. 

All this time, Hulagu had also been busy. His own campaign had begun more like a multi-year migration, a more than two year march, and it was an enormous operation said to include up to 150,000 people and who knows how many animals. Resources had to be allotted in advance; actually, land had to be allotted in advance. With the number of horses involved, setting aside and preparing pastures for them to pass through was absolutely necessary. When they approached western Iran for example, the commander Baiju and his men were ordered out of the way and into Anatolia to relieve some of the pressure on the grasslands, incidentally bringing fresh violence into those lands. And it was not these considerations alone that made the approach complicated and cumbersome. 

This was also the last great unified Mongol campaign. Much like when the other princes had ridden with Batu as he carved out his Toluid inheritance, Hulagu was not the only Mongol royal at the party; he had three Jochid princes, a Chagatayid, and men from all arms of the imperial family. As the campaign progressed, he would also have Georgian and Armenian armies with their Christian leaders; he’d have Muslim rulers: the Seljuk Sultan, the Atabeg of Fars, the ruler of Mosul, and many more, with their fighters too; he had siege weapons, Islamicate and Chinese, maybe as many as 1,000 Chinese engineers who operated catapults and naphtha-throwers; there were giant crossbows and trebuchets; there were massive bolts, enormous rocks, pots of “Greek fire,” and explosive devices using gunpowder. All of this enormous war machine was directed first of all at the Persian Nizari Ismai’ilis, the Assassins in their legendary mountain fortresses.

The Assassins had at first submitted to the Mongols and been left alone, but that been before the killing and general lack of cooperation, the murder of of a Mongol general, the refusal of their master to present himself in person to the khan, and the rumoured threat of 400 killers in disguise which had apparently menaced Mongke. The Mongols simply couldn’t afford to leave such a potential enemy at their back as Hulagu advanced, and so they didn’t. They besieged and bombarded Master Rukn al-Din Khurshah in his stronghold. They forced him to submit and then used him to unlock all the other fortresses save only one or two which held out for a whole year. Finally, his usefulness having expired, he and his family were killed. And Hulagu’s forces moved on. 

Next to fall was the seat of the Abbasid caliph, Baghdad. The city had a fearsome reputation, but in truth, its best days were behind it. There is some suggestion that its soldiers had gone unpaid, and that many had for that reason left the city, and there may even have been treachery on the part of a chief minister who was said to have misled his caliph as to the degree of imminent risk while at the same time informing the attackers of his city’s poor defences. Treachery or not, the Mongols and their vassals reached Baghdad in mid-January, 1258, having already destroyed a large part of the garrison, and by early February the caliph and his family had realized the inevitability of their defeat and come outside to give themselves up, but it was too late. The Mongol policy on surrender had been pretty consistent: you give up now, when we arrive or preferably sooner, and life gets to go on; you don’t, and it doesn’t. Letting people call it a day a few weeks into the siege just encouraged the next city down the road to try their luck at resisting too. In such a policy, examples had to be made.

When Caliph al-Musta’sim ventured outside the walls, it didn’t save his city from being sacked. His soldiers were disarmed and they were slaughtered; the men were killed, the children and women rounded up and shipped out, another violent population displacement in the violent Mongol century. In some sources, the number of the dead is as high as one or two million, and even if we discount that entirely, we still need to understand that the chroniclers are telling us that appalling numbers of people had been killed.

There are two stories on the end of Abbasid caliph himself. The most likely version has him and his family feasted by Hulagu before being wrapped or sewn in carpets or cloth and then either bludgeoned to death or trampled by horses so that their noble blood didn’t splash upon the ground. The other, perhaps suspiciously poetic, version has Hulagu gaining access to the caliph’s treasure and then demanding to know why he hadn’t used it to defend his city; in this telling, the conqueror then seals the caliph in with nothing but his riches and waits for him to die in a “see if your gold will help you now!” type situation.

Syria was next. 

Back on the eastern front, some 6,500 kilometres away, a massive and multi-pronged invasion was coming together. Not all of Mongke’s advisors had been keen on the idea of going south; it was hot, they said, and full of disease, unfamiliar conditions, and inconvenient rivers. It’s worth noting that it also represented a politically united giant, managed by an exam-proven bureaucracy, supported by a well-organized tax system, and containing some of the world’s most populous cities, including Lin-an at the top of that list. Mongke would not be talked out of it though. It was, aside from all those things, an incredibly rich prize, and it was besides that within the khan’s destined domains, as was all of Earth. He had the usual rituals conducted, and he set his plans in motion. 

Leaving his youngest brother,  Ariq Boke, at home to run things in his absence, Mongke himself went out with one of four armies in 1257; Kublai, despite questions as to his gout, lead another which was intended to meet up with a third. With the fourth arriving from Yunnan almost 1,500 kilometres to the southwest, they were set to link up around Ezhou. Some 1,000 kilometres to the west of Ezhou, Mongke would be taking Chengdu in Sichuan, but these were big distances they were talking about, and this could never be a quick campaign.

And it wouldn’t be. The summer of 1257 found Mongke in the Liupan mountains, and in the spring of 58 he was taking Chengdu; but then it was 1259 by the time he reached the Chongqing region, and there his progress was halted. There was a fortress on a ridge above a town called Hechuan, and as the rain storms of late spring gave way to heat of summer, disease set in. It was just as his advisors had feared, but Mongke still was not dissuaded.

Meanwhile in Syria, Hulagu’s Mongol machine of death was rolling forward and gathering steam as regional rulers and Ayyubid princes saw the writing on the ruins of the walls and submitted. Not everyone gave way though. Some cities held out, for a while at least, and the governor of Aleppo, Damascus, and Hims, Sultan al-Nasir Yusuf, was not giving in either, or rather he was not doing so with quite the desired levels of speed and commitment. His representatives had been there for Guyuk’s kurultai, and he’d followed up with Mongke and more recently been in touch with Hulagu. But he’d neither appeared in person before Mongke nor offered gifts to Hulagu. His fortresses in northeastern Syria fell first. Then Aleppo suffered a seven-day siege and a slaughter with its citadel holding out for another month. After that, Damascus opened its gates, and it’s said that the Christian Mongol general, Kedbuqa, entered the city side by side with the Prince of Antioch and the King of Lesser Armenia. 

Then - and stop me if you’ve heard this one before - the great khan died, and the future of the whole thing was thrown into uncertainty. Yes, it was Ogedei’s death all over again, and just like Batu had pulled back from Hungary, so did Hulagu from his advance through Syria. There’s some debate over the exact timing and cause of his movement, but it’s known that he left an army under the command of Kedbuqa and withdrew with the bulk of his forces to what we’d called northwestern Iran, west of the Caspian. Things weren’t all the same as they had been for Batu though. He didn’t have a powerful enemy waiting for him back east, as Batu had, didn’t appear to have any reason for delaying matters of succession by his absence, as Batu had. But just like Batu, he was going to stay away. Why?

The answer may have had something to do with Batu actually. You see, Batu Khan, long stable figure of power in the Mongol west, had died. He’d died shortly after Friar William had seen him, in 1255 or 56, and his son Sartaq, confirmed in Karakorum as ruler of the Batu’s Golden Horde and heir to the Jochid rule, had died on the way back west from there. Settling into the Jochid throne now, was Batu’s brother Berke. 

Berke has entered our story before, but only briefly. It was Berke that Batu had charged with seeing Mongke placed on the throne back when that was happening. And William had mentioned him in connection with his disparagement of Sartaq’s Christianity which he found not up to snuff; he’d likewise impugned Berke’s Islamic beliefs as opportunistic and not entirely authentic, more a product of Berke’s base of operations being along a trade route travelled by Muslims than by any deeper held beliefs. But Berke’s beliefs appear to have run a little deeper than William had imagined.

Berke had a number of reasons for opposing Hulagu. In him, Berke was dealing with a fellow Mongol lord, it’s true, but also with a competitor, most immediately one whose land-claims around Azerbaijan and northwestern Iran overlapped with what Berke viewed as having properly been Batu’s and thus part of his own Jochid inheritance. And he was also dealing with a competitor who had attacked a major Islamic centre of culture and power in Baghdad. It was not quite the city it had once been, and tales of the Mongols running the river black with the ink of the books they callously tossed in may have overblown, but it was a major Islamic centre nonetheless, home of the caliph, and its destruction part of a wider campaign against the Islamic realms. Berke, despite what William’s assessment may suggest to the contrary, appears to have been quite angry about Hulagu’s assault on the great Islamic city. 

If land and religion weren’t cause enough, there’s also the fact that three Jochid princes had died during Hulagu’s campaign, and they hadn’t died in battle. One of them had possibly been poisoned, but in other tellings, the three had all been executed at Hulagu’s command after some disagreement over who had authority. It’s a murky chapter in Mongol history, but in some of the sources these deaths are, quite understandably, tied to the outbreak of hostilities between Hulagu and Berke. 

And with these hostilities, we’re finally getting to that moment I’ve been hinting at for some time, that period when the great Mongol Empire begins to split apart at the familial seams and becomes a set of slightly less great Mongol Empires, plural. This was no fleeting division in the Mongol core. This would be open war In a few years between the Jochid Golden Horde and Hulagu’s Ilkhanate, but for now, Hulagu was merely pinned down by conflict and not going east to participate in raising Mongke’s replacement. Actually, he faced threats on two different fronts. In addition to that of Berke in the north, another power also demanded his attention: the Mamluks.

The Mamluks were the Turkic slave soldiers of Ayyubid Egypt who had recently risen against the ruling dynasty and were right in the messy part of establishing their own. Despite the struggles, assassination, and infighting that defined that process, they could still prove more than a match for the forces Hulagu had left behind with Kedbuqa in Syria. And they weren’t mincing words about it either. When they received the Mongol envoys and their demands for surrender and submission to Hulagu Khan, they killed them; they cut their bodies in half and they spiked their heads over Cairo’s gates. It was not normally a recipe for success. It had meant complete obliteration for the Khwarazmian Dynasty, and for others since then, but that was not to be the Mamluks’ fate.

They did not wait locked away in their cities and fortresses for the horsemen to knock at their door. They prepared themselves for war, and when they realized that Hulagu and much of his armies had left the neighbourhood, they went on the offensive. North, they rode, gathering other fighters to their cause including men who’d formerly served the Ayyubids and others who’d fought for the Jochid princes in Hulagu’s great army. They also reached out to their crusader neighbours to propose an alliance.

And this must have been a difficult proposition for the crusaders. In recent years, they’d surely been thrilled to see the Mongols sweeping in like the legend of Prester John come back to life and better than ever, sacking Baghdad, taking Damascus, devastating Aleppo and favouring Christians over Muslims as they did so. But longing for Prester John at a safe distance, all the way to the furthest reaches of Asia, was quite a bit different from having his overpowering armies on your doorstep and spilling over into your house. John of Beirut and Julian of Sidon, Christian lords both, had made raids into the now-Mongol lands and the resultant massacre at Sidon when Kedbuqa hit back had significantly cooled local enthusiasm for the Mongols as saviours of Christianity, and so had Pope Alexander IV’s new policy of excommunication for anyone cooperating with the Mongols. 

All this was then theirs to consider, and though they did not militarily support the Mamluks in their bid to remove the Mongols from Syria, didn’t ride in their company, the crusaders didn’t hinder their passage either. Far from it, they even agreed to resupply the Mamluks at Acre where the army rested beneath their walls. Nothing then stood between the Mamluk forces and Kedbuqa’s Mongols, who came south to meet them. On September the 3rd, 1260, the two sides collided. They were likely roughly equal in numbers, probably 10-12 thousand a side, both heavily reliant on skilled cavalry, and in this contest, the Mongols were about to be out-Mongoled. 

First contact was made by the soon-to-be Mamluk Sultan Baybars. He and the vanguard clashed with the Mongols and then withdrew, thrown, their enemies thought, into retreat. And Kedbuqa’s forces gave chase, as so many of the Mongols’ enemies had before. They rode in confident pursuit until the Mamluks reached a predetermined point at ‘Ayn Jalut, “the Spring of Goliath,” where David was said to have slain the giant, where the plain narrowed between Mount Gilboa and the hills of Galilee, and where the bulk of Mamluks waited in the hills under the command of their leader, Qutuz. There, Baybars turned back about and Mamluk cavalry poured down around the Mongols, the attacker, as had happened so many times the other way, becoming the attacked. 

And for all that, it was still apparently a very close thing. One wing of the Mamluk army was said to have been on the verge of breaking and only rallied when Qutuz threw aside his helmet to reveal his face and called them to his side. He’d be dead soon, murdered by a Baybars-led conspiracy, but his terrible gamble or act of martial defiance in butchering Hulagu’s envoys was going to pay off. The Mongols’ Syrian conscripts abandoned them. Kedbuqa either fell there and then or was taken and put to death, his last words defiant. And his army fled, hunted, before turning again to engage, but they were shattered. 

This was not an ending to Mamluk-Ilkhanid Mongol hostilities; there were interesting times ahead, as the Golden Horde and the Mamluks supported each other against Hulagu and his heirs, and then further shifts as those heirs converted to Islam themselves, but for now, for our purposes, I think we can see why Hulagu may have felt himself too engaged in regional events to make the trip east to meddle in imperial politics. And how was that going by the way? How was that succession playing out?

Not smoothly, one has to say. When Mongke Khan had collapsed on campaign in the August heat, Hulagu had broken off his military engagements, but Kublai does not seem to have done the same, does not seem to have immediately turned for traditional Mongol territory, the burial of the great khan, and the selection of a new imperial ruler at the kurultai. “Let us pay no attention to this rumour,” he is instead reported to have said, “We have come hither with an army like ants or locusts. How can we turn back, our task undone?” Maybe Kublai felt he needed a fresh military triumph to bring to the table for succession talks. His army pressed forward.

They laid siege to Ezhou and were helpfully joined first by Uriyang-kadai’s army, slightly depleted by fighting and disease, and then less helpfully by Song reinforcements. Somehow - it seems the siege was not exactly watertight - these reinforcements made their way into the besieged town, and further months passed. The Song commander, the emperor’s chancellor actually, offered a deal: yearly tribute if only the Yangtze would be acknowledged as the new border; however, Kublai was not interested. What could such a deal offer them now when they had already crossed the Yangtze by force, and could do so again in the future as they pleased? As it turned out, it was going to need to be in the future because there was troubling news arriving, much more so than that of Mongke’s death. Word came from Kublai’s wife that the little brother they’d left at home, Ariq-Boke, was in the process of mustering forces, his intentions as yet unknown.

It wasn’t clear just yet what these forces were to be used for, but it soon would be. Two days after the news had arrived, messengers came from Ariq-Boke, innocently inquiring after Kublai’s health and offering greetings, and they claimed to have no idea of any troops being raised at all. Naturally, Kublai was suspicious. He left generals in charge of the siege of Ezhou and went north to assess matters for himself. Messages were sent back and forth: to Ariq-Boke, asking about the troops and animals being gathered; why weren’t they being sent to aid efforts against the Song? And then back again to Kublai, with gifts of falcons and calming words of reassurance, that an army was no longer being raised. Ariq-Boke is said to have been counselled to soothe his brother’s suspicions, “so that [Kublai] may feel secure and grow careless.” But Kublai neither felt secure nor grew careless. He accepted the gifts and parted peacefully with the messengers as if all was well and his heart truly at ease, but then he immediately wrote to his generals: “Abandon the siege ... at once and come back, for our mind, like the revolution of Fate, has changed.” 

The next escalation was to be that of the competing kurultais. Each man called his supporters to him and announced himself to be the one and only Great Khan; however, these ceremonies were both not quite legitimate, and it was a fact that would return to haunt Kublai long after this chapter in his life had ended. 

There’s some disagreement over who made the first move, whether Kublai was reacting to Ariq-Boke’s declaration, or whether it was the other way around. One version finds Ariq-Boke gathering what supporters were at hand, not near Karakorum where Kublai might more easily strike at him and where such gatherings were traditionally held, but in the Altai mountains where he summered. Though he is portrayed in sources such as Rashid al-Din as the usurper, the schemer, and plotter, he can also be seen to represent the more traditionalist inclination within the Mongol empire, and he had no shortage of support. He counted amongst his allies the old khan’s sons, one of Mongke’s wives, and grandsons from the Ogedei, Chaghatai, and Jochi lines, but it seems doubtful they were all able to attend his hastily summoned kurultai. Even more doubtful than this was his claim to the support of both Berke and Hulagu, but that was exactly what he trumpeted across the empire in an effort to cement his authority and to paint Kublai as the rebel outsider under excessive Chinese influence and trying to manipulate his way to the throne. 

Of course, this would have enraged Kublai, but if the story is true, it’s likely that Ariq-Boke’s dishonesty also drove many Mongol notables away and into the arms of Kublai, the only viable alternative. In this telling, this is the point where Kublai calls an assembly of his own, a kurultai but again not one at Karakorum. His would be at K’ai-p’ing. He likely had Hulagu’s support but that was going to have to be in spirit alone. He did have northern China though, with its wealth of men and resources. He had the army he’d taken to war against the Song. And he had powerful allies, lords like his cousin, Khadan of the House of Ogedei  who was going to aid him in cutting Ariq-Boke off from southern supplies. Kublai was going to try to starve and squeeze the Karakorum his rival had returned to. 

Whoever had gone first, they were both out in the open now with their positions announced, and already they were beginning to take one another’s pieces off the board. An Ariq-Boke loyalist, and Ogedeid grandson, was caught leaving Kublai’s kurultai to tell his khan what he’d seen, and he’d be killed. Meanwhile, Kublai tried to have one of his own supporters set in control of the Chagadaiyid lands, but Ariq-Boke intercepted him and his 100-man escort and had them all killed.

Like Kublai, Ariq-Boke sought to place his own creature in charge of the Chagadaiyids, a man named Alghu; however, he didn’t have quite the hold over him that he thought he did. Alghu was supposed to send supplies once established, but instead he turned on Ariq-Boke and his ally Berke, raiding his territories and substantially expanding Chagadayid holdings at the expense of both the Golden Horde and his former political patron. 

Maybe he sensed the way events were moving. Ariq-Boke, for all the traditionalist support he must have had around him at Karakorum to even contemplate the whole endeavour to begin with, was becoming isolated within the traditional Mongol lands, and that was no longer such a great proportion of the empire.

In a series of battles, Kublai was closing in, and Ariq-Boke was being driven deeper into the north, running low on allies, supplies, and hope, while his opponent now wintered in Karakorum itself. He needed some good news, and he did receive something of a reprieve when a rebellion in China demanded Kublai’s personal attention, but he gained little from it in the end. As 1263 turned into 1264, starvation set in among his army, and his friends became fewer. Alghu threatened from the one side and Kublai the other. There’s a story of a great wind sweeping in and carrying off his own tent and breaking its supporting post. It was not a good omen, and indeed Ariq-Boke did not have great things in the future. He had made his play for the throne, and he’d come up short. Really, there could only be one outcome.

As the end closed in, Ariq-Boke tried to make a last brotherly appeal. Much like Kublai had done with Mongke, he presented himself and asked or peace, submitting to his brother’s will. There, in Rashid al-Din’s account, “The khan looked at him for a time and was moved with brotherly feeling and sorrow. Ariq-Boke wept and tears came to the khan’s eyes also. He wiped them and asked: “Dear brother, in this strife and contention were we in the right or you?” Ariq-Boke answered: “We were then and you are today.”” Morality had been decided in force of arms and political maneuvering. 

Feasting followed, and for the moment, Ariq-Boke took his place among the other princes, but the whole matter could not go so easily forgotten. Ariq-Boke is said to have taken the responsibility entirely upon himself, declaring himself the author of the crime; however, so much damage and strife called for more than one scapegoat. Kublai had his defeated brother’s commanders asked what fate ought to befall ones such as they who had brought about such discord. At first there was silence, and then a senior member among them spoke: “O emirs, why do you not answer ? Have your eloquent tongues become mute? That day when we set Ariq-Boke upon the throne we promised each other that we should die in front of that throne. Today is that day of dying. Let us keep our word.” 

Perhaps the moment was not staged quite so dramatically as that, but it came to the same thing in the end: death for those leading men, powerful, but not enough that they couldn’t be killed in the circumstances. But Ariq-Boke himself was another matter, a deeply awkward one that was to be decided at the kurultai Kublai then called for. He’d won the war. Now, he wanted the prize: the ceremonial legitimization of his authority by all branches of the royal family and perhaps also advice as to the fate of his little brother. His messengers went out, and again I’m relying on al-Din here in saying that it seems the khans all had other pressing matters on their plates. 

Alghu, who the messengers reached first, replied that he too had taken power without the approval of either Kublai or Hulagu, and when all the worthies of the Mongol world were assembled and spoke on whether they thought him right or wrong, then he would say what he thought. Hulagu, who they reached next, said, more or less, that when Berke set out for a kurultai, he would go also. And Berke, wouldn’t you know, had something similar to say: just let Kublai and Hulagu arrange a time and a place, and he would be there. Alghu worried for his own unofficial status, and Hulagu and Berke worried about each other. 

We know that the Jochid lord and his Ilkhanate counterpart would not be meeting in peace in the Mongolian interior. It was open war ahead between them, civil war one might say, and what was broken would never be whole again. And Kublai, he would get neither a proper kurultai to declare his election nor any assistance or at least shared responsibility in dealing with Ariq-Boke. There’d be no moment of mutual guilt, no Ides of March at which he and Hulagu could stick their knives in together.

And maybe Ariq-Boke’s death came entirely innocently, the exhaustion of the losing campaign and an unhealthy lifestyle. It’s possible he was just another member of the Genghisid bloodline with a severe drinking problem and health problems to match. But under the circumstances it’s a little hard to believe he went in peace, in his tent, and by natural causes, that as Rashid al-Din so tersely puts it: “in the autumn … Ariq-Boke was taken ill and died.” Poison seemed likely to many observers then, and it seems likely enough now too.

More deaths followed in 1265 to 67: Berke Khan, ruler over the Jochid Golden Horde; Hulagu, founder of the Ilkhanate that was to become its own Mongol-Persian empire; and Alghu too; he’d taken power of the Chagatayid Khanate rather opportunistically but would then die in the midst of struggles with Kaidu of the House of Ogedei when Kaidu rose against Kublai Khan. It was all falling apart, and there’d be less and less to bind it all together. 

A mighty empire would remain in the east though, and we’ll be going there. There’d be unity enough still for travellers to pass from one end of the continent to the other, and Kublai was going to do alright for himself, proper kurultai or not. He was going to survive those bloody years of the mid-60s, and he’d play host to our next journey. 

In the last years of the Latin Empire of Constantinople, in 1260, a pair of Venetian merchants left that city ahead of a storm and made their way, like William had, across the Black Sea to Soldaia, and, like William, from there they went east. Their names were Niccolo and Maffeo Polo, and it’s their story, theirs and that other, lesser-known, Polo that we’ll getting into next. Thanks for listening. I’ll talk to you soon. 


  • Al-Din, Rashid. The Successors of Genghis Khan, translated by John Andrew Boyle. Columbia University Press, 1971.

  • Asbridge, Thomas. The Crusades: The War for the Holy Land. Simon & Schuster, 2010.

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

  • Lambert, Malcolm. Crusade and Jihad: Origins, History, and Aftermath. Profile Books, 2012.

  • Man, John. Kublai Khan: From Xanadu to Superpower.Bantam Press, 2006.

  • Marshall, Robert. Storm from the East: From Genghis Khan to Khubilai Khan. University of California Press, 1993.

  • Rachewiltz, Igor de. Papal Envoys to the Great Khans.Faber & Faber, 1971.

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

To See the Mongols 5: The Great Debate

Audience with Mongke Khan

In 1253, the Mongol Empire was showing no sign of faltering or of falling inward under the now-solid rule of Mongke Khan. That was the year the khan’s brother Kublai conquered the Yunnan province and extended Mongol dominion further into China while at the other end of the empire, their brother Hulagu was soon to be embarking on an infamously bloody campaign to destroy the Nizari Ismailis, and the Abbasid and Ayyubid states.

To the northwest, it’s true that Mongke, or maybe Batu, seemed content with what had already been achieved, satisfied with a little push, pull, and occasional military action to keep the King of Ruthenia, the “Russian King,” in check. There were not the same immediate rumblings as there’d been under Guyuk Khan that armies of horse-archers would soon again come pouring through the mountains and into Central Europe. However, the Mongol question had hardly receded entirely from consciousness for those in the Latin Christian world. We’ve already seen the degree to which it was on King Louis’ mind while on crusade, and the year 1253 is actually also significant for the beginning of a new crusade: the papal legate and Abbot of Mezzano was headed into Poland to drum up support for just that very thing, though it wouldn’t come to much. Such was the situation as our Friar William made his way deeper into Mongol imperial territory to meet the khan of khans.      

Hello, and welcome. I’m Devon, and this is Human Circus. At this time, I ask that if you’re enjoying the podcast, and I trust you’re not inflicting this on yourself if you’re not, that you please consider supporting it with ratings, reviews, shoutings about it from the rooftops, and donations of always-needed sushi money. And I want to express my gratitude to those of you who have donated. It really does brighten my day. Thank you. Also, a quick other note: this is a bit of a longer episode today than I have been doing. That’s just how the story worked out. If you’re like me, you’re listening on the way to work or while you’re doing dishes, or our walking somewhere, the length doesn’t matter too much, but if you’re just sitting and listening, hopefully you’re sitting somewhere comfortable. Now, let’s continue with the story of William’s journey east.

When last we talked, the friar and his companions, Bartholomew, Gosset, and the disappointing translator, had beetled their way across the Black Sea and into the encampment of first one Mongol commander and then another. They’d arrived before Sartaq, son of Batu, to deliver King Louis’ letter, and then to express their doubts as to the validity of Sartaq’s self-professed Christianity, and then they’d been forwarded to Batu himself, the man who’d put Mongke on the throne. Things with Batu had gone well enough - nobody had been slain or banished - but their journey was not at an end. William and his colleague Bartholomew were carrying on to see the emperor, Mongke Khan, and what we didn’t get to last episode, is that they were not to do so together.

Perhaps it should have come as no great shock to them as much the same separation had been demanded of Carpine’s party before theirs, but this last piece of news struck the travellers most unpleasantly by surprise, and it struck some a fair bit harder than it did others. On the one hand, the interpreter was upset to learn that he’d be travelling on to Mongke’s court with William, while Bartholomew kicked up quite a fuss at being informed that he wouldn't be. Faced with the prospect of returning to Sartaq’s camp to wait, he proclaimed that “he would sooner they cut off his head than [that he] be separated from [his fellow friar].” In the end, the pair remained united thanks to William’s intercession, for he was, in his own chronicle at least, very much the more capable of the two; on August the 14th, 1253, they left, taking their less enthusiastic interpreter with them and leaving King Louis’ secretary Gosset behind along with Nicholas, the purchased boy. 

For our part, we will be following the Franciscans as they make their way towards the court of yet another member of Mongol royalty, this time that of the great khan himself. There were many miles ahead of them, of course, and also terrifying demons and frozen toes, crushingly awkward social situations in the khan’s encampment, and finally the great debate, an almost too good to be true scene of competing religious truths. It was going to be an eventful year.

The first part of their journey was in the company of Batu’s travelling court, but that doesn’t mean they proceeded in courtly luxury, with as much meat as they could stuff down and fermented mare’s milk to match. You see, they weren’t actually lodged with the khan; they were dispatched to another caretaker, one who apparently did not keep them quite as fed as they might have hoped and, having received no gift from them, “did everything with a bad grace.” For five weeks they rode along the Volga under this man's care, and William has Bartholomew saying, near tears, “I feel as if I have never eaten.” Either remarkably stoic, or content to play the part in his report to the king, William makes no mention of his own concerns.

Finally, in mid-September, they received a Mongol visitor, the son of a commander. The man informed them that he was to guide them to Mongke, but their first conversation hardly inspired confidence:

“I am to take you to Mongke Khan,” he said. “It is a four month journey, and the cold there is so intense that rocks and trees split apart with the frost: see whether you can bear it.” “My hope.” [William] replied, “is in God’s power to help us endure what other men can.” At that he said, “If you prove unable to bear it, I shall abandon you on the way.”

William understandably protested this, saying that they were after all being sent by the man’s master, Batu, but perhaps he was not so uncaring of their fate as his words indicated. He inspected their belongings and had them cast away all that he deemed unnecessary, and he returned the following day with coats and pants of sheepskin, boots of felt, and fur hoods. They were as ready as they’d ever be, and with a pair of pack-horses, they passed to the north of the Caspian Sea moving east.

They were in solidly nomadic country now, of city-less herdsmen, and William connected the land with the invasions of the past, those of the Huns, the Vandals, and the Bulgars. Sometimes, the travellers would be able to change horses two or three times in a day, moving quickly, while other days took them more slowly through uninhabited lands offering no such opportunities. When it came time to choose horses, the last picks were always those of William’s colleagues, the Mongols taking the best for themselves, but in a rare personal detail, William mentions that due to his great weight, he at least was always given a strong horse. 

Of food, they had little, and they were “famished, thirsty, frozen, and exhausted.” It was millet broth or some other drink in the morning and nothing solid until the meat they'd eat when they stopped for the night. And they really had no choice in the matter. They were in no position to comment or complain as to how things were going, only to bear what William starts to term “severe trials,” days that left their horses exhausted so that the riders would beat them into continuing, trade off onto a pack-animal, or ride two men to a horse to rest another. It was all very much in the tradition of suffering and strain in the medieval travel narrative, and, I’m sure, required little or no embellishment to make it so. They were still new to this life, to this place, and William refers to himself and his fellows as “wretched folk” for whom their guides initially had nothing but contempt.

Despite that contempt, the Franciscans value did soon become apparent. Their guide took to bringing them by the camps of wealthy Mongols for whom they would pray. It does not seem that those they prayed for were Christians, at least as William understood the word, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t respect spiritual power, doesn’t mean they weren’t quite happy to have a holy person of one kind or another engage with the realm beyond on their behalf. Just as Timur more than one hundred years later would consult both Islamic and Shamanistic advisors before battle, maybe these “wealthy Mongols” would see the truth of a religious position born out in its utility and in its power in worldly events. It’s a theme we’re going to come across a few times in this episode; like Guyuk had written to the pope, what could man do to man if God were not on his side?

But William doesn’t give enough information for us to really know these people’s religious inclinations, didn’t have it himself actually, and was more than a bit frustrated by the situation. Here they were, being brought before Mongols of influence and power who wanted to be prayed for, and his interpreter was still as incompetent as ever, or else, as he puts it, “much good seed could have been sown.” William recognized that Genghis’ sons were multiplying and spreading across the great sea of the Eurasian Steppe; if only they could just be Christians as they did so. As a religious mission, the whole thing was proving extremely frustrating.

William and Bartholomew went where they were directed and said their blessings, turned down offers of gold, silver, and cloth, and they answered questions about where they’d come from. Was the Great Pope 500 years old? Did their countries contain much in the way of cattle, sheep, and horse? Small talk of this sort, their interpreter could apparently manage. On, the friars went.

Their travels show us something of the political situation between Batu and Mongke. The latter was ostensibly the superior, but the balance may actually have been something closer to equality or shared rule. There is reference to the governor of a town coming out to meet them with ale and cups as was done for all envoys of Batu and Mongke, as if the two were of similar standing, and then there’s also the point in their journey where they started to move among Mongke’s people. There, their guide was met everywhere with “singing and clapping,” a respect that was shown to all of Batu’s representatives by Mongke’s people as it was shown to Mongke’s by Batu’s. However, Batu’s people were apparently less quick to do so, less likely to think it necessary, and this attitude might have come down from their leader. Maybe Batu the kingmaker rather felt that having put Mongke on his throne, he needn’t bow before it quite so low as all the rest. On the other hand, we have the guide in Batu’s camp telling them that his lord was requesting they be allowed to stay in the country but that he had no power without Mongke. The situation was complicated.  

In whatever way the balance of power was then aligned, William’s observations again foreshadow the divisions to come. Already, here was Batu’s khanate at least somewhat independent from imperial rule; one day not so long in the future, the Golden Horde, as it’s often called, would be entirely so.

The land the friars passed over now was itself being reshaped by Mongol dominion. One plain William mentions had once held many towns; however, they’d been destroyed to make way for better grazing, a pretty pressing concern for the horse people. And this was not the only instance of deliberate land conversion. During the invasions of China, farmlands were destroyed and allowed to revert to pasture, and there’s a story, maybe true, maybe intended to emphasize the Mongols as barbaric, that during Ogedei’s rule there were elements which spoke for the large scale killing of the conquered Chin population just to better facilitate this process.  

That town where the governor greeted the travellers was not the only one they passed through in what is now southeastern Kazakhstan. In one, they were surprised to discover the inhabitants to be Persian-speaking Muslims, far from where they’d expect to find them. At another, William inquired into the fate of the German prisoners that Longjumeau had mentioned, but he learned nothing save that their master, Buri, had drunkenly offended Batu and lost his life for it. Then, at a place where many merchants converged at a market, the party stopped for an astonishingly luxurious 7-12 days, an unusually restful time even at the low end. There, in Qayaligh, they waited for one of Batu’s secretaries who was needed to arrange their visit to Mongke’s court, and there William went forth and into various temples, meeting Nestorians, Muslims, and “idolaters,” and trying to make sense of it all.

In particular, it was that last religious category that piqued his interest, at least to the extent that he wanted to see their, quote, “stupid practices.” Who were these “idolaters,” with their temples at which they laid lamps, incense, and offerings of bread and fruit before an altar, where there was a statue of a winged figure that reminded William of St Michael and others which looked more like bishops with their “fingers held as if in blessing.” Who were they? Our friar friend caught sight of what looked like a black ink cross on one man’s hand and took them all for Christians led astray by improper doctrine, but they were most likely Uygher Buddhists.

William visited their temples and found them in their shaved heads and belted saffron tunics, seated silently in rows upon the ground with benches before them on which they occasionally placed the books they held. He tried to get them to speak, by many means he says, and we can only imagine what absurd means he may have resorted to try to make them break their silence; however, they would say nothing, probably because they were meditating or something of the sort and, despite appearances to contrary, actually quite busy. He tried to ask about these silent, saffron figures around town, but the Muslims he spoke to took offence and were unwilling to tell him of this other religion. 

Eventually, William did manage a bit of a dialogue inside a temple, and he found that many of the human figures, the statues which surrounded him, were actually effigies of the dead brought in by family members; thinking of the wider Mongol practice of making felt effigies, William erroneously concluded that all Mongols were part of this sect which he’d encountered in Qayaligh. Learning about new religions was hard, especially through the veils of language, culture, and the starting position that you were looking at what were essentially “stupid practices.” Despite his shortcomings though, I find this early record of European observations of Buddhism quite fascinating. I’ve actually seen this referred to as the first such record, but I’m not sure if that’s true. I’m curious though. Maybe one of you listening can let me know if you’ve come across an earlier one. 

Not far outside of Qayaligh, that secretary apparently having finished his business by November 30th, they found a Nestorian settlement and celebrated their first church in a long time by marching straight in to a joyful chanting of the Salve Regina, and probably causing a bit of a disturbance in the process. Then, it was back to the wilderness for them. They passed a lake which seemed to them like an ocean, so choppy was its surface, and gales ripped through the valley so fiercely there was said to be danger of being carried down into the water. Across the valley, they turned north in early December towards what was likely the snow-covered peaks of the Tarbagatai range in eastern Kazakhstan. Along narrow mountain roads they went, finding little habitation but following the yam/iam horse stations and moving at great pace through increasingly intense cold for which they were given another layer of goatskin.

One particularly nightmarish evening, the party was entering a steep-cliffed pass when word came from their guide to prepare for demons. Along that pass, it was said to be commonplace for demons to appear suddenly, to seize men and to leave no trace. At times, they might take just the horse, leaving the rider behind; on others, it was the rider’s innards they were after, and the corpse would be left otherwise undisturbed on its steed. Now, William was skeptical about dog-headed men and the legends of Prester John, but he certainly believed in demons. With the threat of supernatural horrors hanging over the party, it was an uncomfortable ride through a cold and deepening darkness. The friars chanted the Credo in unum Deum as loudly as they could all the way through, and when they all reached the other side safely, their Mongol companions were most impressed. They requested written charms which they themselves could carry on their heads for safety, showing an openness to different religions, just so long as they worked in this world. William wrote them out a prayer and tried again to accompany it with instruction, but once more his efforts were frustrated by the translator.

They were closing in on Mongke Khan’s camp, and at this late stage of the journey, William learned something troubling from that secretary they’d waited for, something I brought up last episode. He learned that the letter Batu was sending to Mongke stated that King Louis was requesting military aid in the Holy Land. He knew the letter to be doing no such thing, only “urging [Sartaq] to be a friend to all Christians, to exalt the Cross, and to be the enemy of all who are enemies to the Cross,” and maybe that last point was the source of the confusion, but William did not think the confusion was accidental. He suspected that the letter’s Armenian translators had tweaked its contents deliberately and produced something more to their own liking than to Louis’ original, but wanting neither to endorse this new message nor to openly contradict Batu, he chose to say nothing for now. 

Diplomacy was a difficult and dangerous business. Only the year before, a man had arrived from Acre under an assumed name claiming to be an envoy of the papal legate on crusade, and telling a story of a disobedient horse having carried off the gold-lettered message from heaven which he’d been sent to give Mongke. That man, whose story had ended in a Nicaean prison when he’d try his game on one too many rulers, had in fact also been pushing the idea that only some inconvenient Muslims separated Mongke from the friendship and loyalty of King Louis. Apparently, such false ambassadors were not uncommon, and the Mongols killed them when they could. William was going to need to be careful not to be taken for one when they reached the khan. 

They’d left Constantinople in April, and now, finally, on December 27th, the friars arrived at the camp of Mongke Khan. At last, the party could rest, and this they did, their guide, the commander’s son, in a large dwelling where he received many visitors and drank from flagons of excellent rice ale, and William, Bartholomew, and their interpreter in something more modest, just large enough for themselves, their belongings, and a small fire.    

Outside, Mongke’s camp was a pretty international place to be. They met Hungarians, Armenians, Greek knights, ambassadors from Nicaea and Korea, Chinese clergy, a Christian from Damascus who represented it’s Ayyubid sultan, and a woman from Metz, Lorraine who’d had the misfortune to be captured while on business in Hungary and since married a Russian builder who’d also been taken, the couple’s story a good reminder that the camp’s diverse character was hardly by the choice of its inhabitants. 

The friars went about at first without shoes on the frozen, winter ground, and caused quite a stir, and it wasn’t only their deeply inappropriate bare feet that elicited confusion. What were they doing there? They’d put forward their story of coming to Sartaq because of his Christianity, and then being forwarded on and on. But why were they there, they were still asked. Did they want to make peace on Louis’ behalf? No, William answered. Louis didn’t need to make peace, for he had done no injury. At this, their interrogators were astonished and would repeat, “Why have you come, seeing that you did not come to make peace?” 

William thought this a profound arrogance on their part, that they imagined that the world wanted nothing more than to come to them and beg for peace. If allowed, he said, he would have, “preached war against [the Mongols], to the best of [his] ability, throughout the world.” Fortunately, he kept his thoughts on the matter to himself and said no more of their intentions other than that they’d been sent there by Batu, but he was pretty optimistic about how that war would go if it happened. When he mentions the Teutonic Knights and their conquest of Prussia, he goes on to say that they would most certainly also easily conquer Russia if they tried, for if “the [Mongols] were to hear that the great priest - that is, the Pope - were launching a crusade against them, they would all flee to their wastes.” Of course, we know that the Pope was indeed launching a crusade and that the Mongols didn’t look ready to take their toys and go home, but William was not alone in this assessment. Matthew Paris and even Carpine with all his well-grounded reasons for concern had both voiced similar sentiments.

The friars, having answered all questions, now waited to be summoned. It was a strange world they found themselves in even after months of travelling through a harsh and alien environment. Remember that William had felt he’d already plunged into something quite different and barbaric in his first meeting with Mongols on the road. Now, he was truly submerged in it. In all this strangeness though, they would make an acquaintance who would really shape their time at Mongke’s court.

They were first drawn to the small cross on the dwelling’s roof, and in they went to find a richly decorated altar and an Armenian monk named Sergius. This Sergius greeted them, prayed with them, and told them his story. He’d been living as a hermit near Jerusalem when he had experience two visions of God, and in both of these, God had commanded him to go to the Mongols, but he had done nothing. On the third appearance, God had thrown him to the ground and threatened his life if he did not go; so he had went. He had travelled to Mongke’s court and, a little rashly it seems, promised that if the khan were to become Christian then all the “Franks and the Great Pope would obey him.” Now that the friars had arrived, he wanted William to say the same. 

Before anything else, though, the friars needed to appear before the khan. On January the 4th, they stood before the door of his residence, and the felt before it was lifted. Their bodies were searched for knives, and, it being Christmas, they chanted A solis ortus cardine and entered a space covered in gold cloth. There was a small fire burning in the centre, and the khan sat on a couch dressed in fur with a wife beside him and children behind. William, displaying his usual nasal sensitivities, described Mongke as a snub-nosed man of medium build, and maybe forty five years of age, and then singled out an adult daughter for her ugliness; he doesn’t mention what exactly he found so unappealing about her, but I strongly suspect it was the nose. 

While they waited, they were offered and accepted some sweet rice wine which they sipped at to show respect. Mongke took a moment to inspect some falcons, and then he called on the friars to kneel and to speak. William opened with prayer and praise, to God and then to Mongke, wishing he be granted a long life. And then he went into his now well-rehearsed explanation as to their presence, how one Mongol ruler had led to another completely naturally and innocently. He concluded by expressing the hope that they be allowed to stay and serve God on Mongke’s behalf and by apologizing for their lack of gold, silver, or precious stones to offer as gifts.

Mongke’s reply began as follows: "Just as the sun spreads its rays in all directions, so my power and that of Batu are spread to every quarter;” - and notice here we have Mongke speaking in what seem to be terms of shared power, at least in this translation - “and therefore,” he went on, “we have no need of gold or silver from you.” 

So far, so good, but then Mongke continued speaking and while his interpreter also continued, William no longer had any idea what he was saying and realized to his horror that the man had not held himself back from the rice wine and was now completely and totally  drunk. And then it seemed to him that Mongke too was drunk. William could just make out from his interpreter’s slurred delivery that the khan seemed unhappy that they had first visited Sartaq rather than coming straight to him, but he wasn’t sure. It was a kind of socially comedic nightmare, except that the consequences were potentially dreadful. Knowing the interpreter wasn’t up to much, William limited his words to a quick apology and then fell silent. Soon after, they were shown the way out. 

It hadn’t been the best of audiences, and their interpreter had again made himself painfully conspicuous in the process, but at least they’d received the khan’s approval to stay in his lands, a request William had made on Bartholomew’s behalf. His colleague was far too physically weak now to consider travelling for home during the winter. The trip would have almost certainly killed him; he’d begged William to gain permission for them to remain, and Mongke, for all their bumblings before him, had granted it. The friars went back to their cold little home where they were brought some fuel for a fire and a little food. Their prolonged visit may have saved Bartholomew’s life, but it was still going to be a punishing time.  

The weather was cold, very cold. Clear skies could turn to great snowfalls which needed to be cleared by wagon. By May, William writes, the ground would thaw in the warmth of the sun, but there in the thick of the winter it remained frozen all day. To their credit, the Mongols tasked with their care did provide them with extra layers when the weather turned particularly bad. William at first declined such offers, saying no to the sheepskin, but when the temperature dropped, he didn’t say no to the lynx fur; Bartholomew, on the other hand, appears to have accepted any and all offers of warmth, quite understandably I think.

Bartholomew, by William’s report, was having a bad time of it. His body seemed to be breaking down under the combined weight of arduous travel, an extreme and alien climate, and an unfamiliar and possibly insufficient diet. It was “millet with butter or dough cooked in water with butter or sour milk, and unleavened bread baked in cattle or horse dung.” Now, “dough cooked in water” sounds like pasta, and maybe it was, but he later describes “dough boiled in water” as producing a drinkable gruel, so maybe thinking of this as a pasta and butter diet would be a little misleading. Whatever the cereal cooking specifics were though, there were certainly no vegetables to be had, and while a “scrawny ram” was on at least one occasion provided, this just drew the starving to their home in droves, prompting William to, somewhat obnoxiously, declare that “it was there that [he] experienced what a martyrdom it is, when destitute, to give bountifully.”

Maybe it was his poor health that led poor Bartholomew to his near-fatal blunder at the khan’s tent. They’d been warned, after all, not to step on the threshold, just as Carpine had been before them; but Bartholomew, twisting to bow awkwardly on his way out the door and then turning too quickly to catch up with the others had stumbled right onto it. Some unpleasantries had followed; however, it was decided that there had been no interpreters present to tell the unfortunate friar, and he escaped with merely a lifetime ban from entering the Khan’s residences. The usual penalty of death was not applied. Poor Bartholomew was saved, but he may have been wasting away into nervous infirmity. 

Meanwhile, their new friend Sergius the monk was claiming to subsist on a saintly, Sundays-only diet, a weekly meal of “dough cooked with vinegar for him to drink.” Really though, he was keeping a box of “almonds, grapes, dried plums and ... other fruits” below the altar, and he’d eat from it when nobody was around. When William and Bartholomew fell in with this Sergius, they unknowingly joined something like a cliquey school setting midterm, or maybe a prison. They were with him because he was a Christian, but being unquestionably part of that gang was not always going to be comfortable for them.

From the top down, the situation was like this. Mongke treated the different religions syncretically, which is to say that he was happy to receive blessings from a Christian, and even to accept their efficacy, but that he was also going to be consulting the charred shoulder-blades of a sheep because that too was powerful and useful. This kind of buffet-table religiosity was not William’s cup of tea, and we can easily see how it started to look to him like manipulative and cynical opportunism, which admittedly there may sometimes have been a little of. 

On holy days, Mongke Khan would hold banquets. This meant that when shamans would pronounce a day to be holy, it would be so; when the Nestorians did the same, the results were much the same; and when they left after praying for the khan and giving their blessings, Muslims would immediately arrive and provide the same services. Mongke was, one might say, really hedging his bets on the religious issue, or perhaps simply did not see them as being at all mutually exclusive, in much the same way as one might now attend for example a Buddhist temple on certain occasions and a Daoist one on others. William, however, muttered darkly, or at least that’s how I’m picturing what he’s written, that, quote, "the Khan believes in none of them… And yet they all follow his court as flies do honey, and he makes them all gifts and all of them believe they are on intimate terms with him and forecast his good fortune.” Our friar was having none of it.

As part of the camp’s religious community, William made the rounds of the royal family with Sergius and the Nestorian priests. They’d drop in on a son of the khan, giving him their blessing then sharing a drink with him, and then it’d be on to the home of a wife who was sick in her bed where William was annoyed at his new colleague’s insistence that she drag herself out of bed for prostrations before the cross. Next was the home of royal daughter, who greeted them happily and called for drink and sheep’s meat. Once, “a good deal of drink [had been] consumed,” which William apparently declined to partake in, it was off to another woman of the court. There too, they were welcomed and she prostrated herself before the cross before calling for yet more drinks for the priests, again “a good deal to drink,” and at the next stop, an older wife, they drank again. Clearly, visiting each member of the royal family in turn was a pretty jolly affair for the Christians, and they rounded the day off with boisterous chanting and howling in the oratory which William reported was not locally disapproved of.

In mid-February, Mongke’s first wife Cotota’s (sometimes Qutuqui) condition worsened considerably, to the point of death. Sorcery, in Willliam’s terms, was first tried but did no good. Looking elsewhere for answers, Mongke turned to Sergius for help, and Sergius committed a bit of an over-promise. Of course, he could help Mongke and cure Cotota! Why, if he didn’t, then the Khan could cut off his head. It was rash, very rash, and William likely told him as much when the monk tearfully revealed what had happened and begged for their help.

For all his questionable behaviour, the Armenian was now part of the team, or they were part of his, so even as his religious practices, increasing belligerence and vanity, and elements of his personal appearance really started to bother William, they did help him with the cure. They were there with him for the all-night vigil, the mixing of holy water with some kind of rhubarb drink that Sergius made, and readings from the bible over the patient. 

While she did get better, William observed with quiet condemnation that Sergius and these priests who ministered to her illness, did nothing for her soul, did not recommend baptism or offer religious instruction, did not dissuade the use of sorcery in placing four half-drawn swords around the bed and a silver cup full of ashes on the wall. He’d later be less quiet when he discovered that Sergius was treating yet another patient: “Either go about like an apostle,” he said, “genuinely performing miracles by the power of prayer and of the Holy Spirit, or play the physician in accordance with the art of medicine.” It was becoming very clear to the friars that Sergius was not like them.

And Sergius continued to stir up trouble. He’d had a bit of a fall from grace with Mongke and then tried to patch it up by suggesting he might travel to the pope and bring all of Latin Christianity in submission to the khan. Clearly having learned nothing in his narrow escape from his last reckless promise, he was soon questioning William as to the likelihood of it all: would the pope be willing to see him? Would he give him horses? Would King Louis go along with sending his son to Mongke? William again cautioned against making “fraudulent pledges.”

Unfortunately, this was not the only source of tension arising from the Armenian’s actions. There was an ugly bit of business when a senior Nestorian fell badly ill, and the man who was brought in to examine him arrived at the conclusion that, quote, “A lean man … who neither eats nor drinks nor sleeps in a bed is angry with him: were he able to obtain his blessing, he could recover.” Everyone involved immediately identified this as Sergius, which is pretty damning in itself, and friends and family begged him to give his blessing, but Sergius said to William “Let him be, for he and three others who will go the same sorry way had hatched the design of going to court and securing from Mongke Khan my banishment and yours from these parts.”

Sergius did eventually attend the sick man. However, this was only when he’d heard word of his improving condition, and he did not provide his blessing. He trampled on his bed and, in William’s absence, fed him with unknown medicines. The next day brought a noticeable relapse, and William was convinced to leave the man’s side so as not to be polluted by death and barred from Mongke’s presence - the Mongols being at times oddly squeamish about death, something that comes up quite a bit actually. Soon the man was dead, and when William spoke to Sergius, the monk, far from denying it, really took the credit: “Do not be concerned: it was I who killed him with my prayers. He alone was educated and was opposed to us; the rest are ignorant. In future, all of them, and Mongke Khan too, will be at our feet.”

It was becoming clear that their monk friend was a man of questionable morals, enormous ambition, intermittent manic recklessness, and, to William’s way of thinking, deeply unsound religious practices too. Piling into the negative column was the new revelation that Sergius was regularly consulting a man who may have been a Muslim geomancer and also had a Russian deacon divining for him. Now, William was truly “shocked at his stupidity,” but he still couldn’t really part ways; they’d been directed at some point, assigned even, to Sergius’s company by the khan himself. They would just have to put up with him for now.

And that meant putting up with quite a bit. The monk was now openly trash-talking Muslims, calling them dogs with no incitement from their end, and generally creating what one might term a really poisonous workplace. A confrontation occurred when a group of Muslims goaded Sergius in return, and unable to use reason in his defence, he attempted to lash out at them with a whip. Things were escalating.

Maybe Sergius’ provocations were partly responsible for bringing on the debate. Maybe it would have happened without him. Perhaps it had been William’s own verbal sparring with a Muslim seeking to be sent as an ambassador to King Louis that had been the cause. Whatever the case, the message came through on May 25th that Mongke wanted to see them all. “Here are you, Christians, [Muslims], and [Buddhists], and each one of you claims that his religion is superior and that his writings or books contain more truth.” The khan wanted to test those claims. He wanted the three sides to present their truths in discussion before him. He was concerned with power and efficacy in his religion and perhaps also with quelling the arguments within his camp, so the date was set and preparations were made.

William and the Nestorians gathered on May the 30th in the oratory. For all their shortcomings in his eyes, that was his team, and this was their locker room and soon their arena. The Nestorians had prepared some writings, the creation of the world, Christ, his ascension, and the coming judgment, writings which William naturally found fault with, and this is perhaps the part of the whole story where I find relying on William’s view most frustrating. I’d love to have all of this from the side of the Nestorians, who to start with would not name themselves after Nestorius the 5th-century archbishop of Constantinople, and when we get to the debate it would be wonderful to have some idea what a Buddhist thought of the whole thing, or a Muslim. But we don’t have that. So we have to settle for William being clever. 

They talked strategy, and the Nestorians were all for going at the Muslims first, maybe due to the recent hostilities William and Sergius had been part of, but William shot that down right away. The Muslims were after all basically in agreement in regards to the one God, and it was better to have them for allies against the third side at the start. He then suggested a test-run, a little sparring session or role-play to prepare. I’ll be the Buddhists, he said, and assuming I deny that God exists, prove to me that he does. They tried, but it didn’t go well. Their efforts were entirely in the form of quoted scripture, and this, William pointed out, was never going to work. The Buddhists had their own scripture, he said, and were hardly likely to be swayed so easily by someone else’s: “If you tell them one story, they will quote another.” William decided it would be best for him to start things off.

Three secretaries arrived to serve as umpires, a Muslim, a Buddhist, and a Christian, and the ground rules were laid:

This is Mongke’s decree, and let nobody dare claim that the decree of God is otherwise. He orders that no man shall be so bold as to make provocative or insulting remarks to his opponent, and that no one is to cause any commotion that might obstruct these proceedings, on pain of death.

There was silence among the gathered throng, both participants and onlookers. The threat of death aside, it was all very polite.          

And then it began. The Christians placed William at their centre and told the Buddhists to address him, and, kind of like the rumble at the end of The Outsiders, one of theirs stepped forward to meet him. “Friend, if you are brought to a halt,” he said, “you may look for a wiser man than yourself.” What was to follow was going to be messy.

Mongke appears to have done what he could, what with the referees and the ground rules. However, there were certain difficulties that were going to be hard to overcome. Language, in particular, was an issue. William had acquired the assistance of a more component translator, which helped; however, the debate to come would have had to accommodate Mongolian, for the benefit of the khan at least, and something in the range of Chinese, Persian, Arabic, Latin, and/or French for the participants. Furthermore, it would not be your garden-variety travellers’ small-talk. Complex religious ideas would be in play, ideas which are not always easily captured in a second language at the best of times. 

And of course in looking at the text now, I’m at a further step or two removed, reading a translation of a 13th-century friar’s hopefully sincere attempt at reporting the translation of unfamiliar belief structures, likely reframing them within his own system of understanding as he did so. There’s even some question as to whether the “Buddhists” were in fact Buddhists; after all, William didn’t call them that, and some commentators have in the past taken them instead to be Daoists. We can only do our best.

How to start this kind of thing. William’s opposite number among the Buddhists asked if he’d like to begin with “how the world had been made, or what became of souls after death.” Neither, answered William. It was God over which they disagreed, and all things were from him, so that was where they should start. The umpires ruled this very fair, and the event rolled on.

The glimpses we get of what follows are fascinating. William relates that a child from China had been produced to illustrate the way souls could, quote, “escape after death to any place where they would not be compelled to suffer.” The boy was no more than three years old to look at but demonstrated himself to be rational beyond his years, able to read and write, and claimed to be a third incarnation. William doesn’t seem to have allowed himself to be distracted by such matters though. He kept the debate focused on the issue of God. Was there only one God in perfect unity? Were they as numerous as were the lords of different regions? If God was so good, why had he made so much evil? That last one, the theodicy question, caused William to answer that God had not created evil, and that all that existed was good. This caused amazement in many of the onlookers who apparently took special care to write that one down as a most obvious error.

Eventually, William’s strategic decision to go after the Buddhists first paid off as he scored a point, and earned gales of laughter from the Muslim side. His opponent had admitted to the belief that no god was all-powerful, and then been cornered by William’s incisive line of questioning, falling silent and refusing to continue even when urged to speak up by the khan’s referees. Of course William’s clever reasoning had won out; it was his report after all.

And if his effortless victory over the Buddhists doesn’t give us pause, then he has the Nestorians stand and make to open the next line of argument only to find that the Muslims have thrown in the towel and admitted to the truth of the Gospel and that they prayed to God that “they may die a Christian death.”

And we can picture what this scene might have been like: probably the most powerful man in the world at that time seated and looking on, while representatives of three massive religions debated the big truths before him. It was surely tense and, given the language barriers, full of misunderstandings. We can imagine that, as Peter Jackson and David Morgan have pointed out, the Muslims present may well have acknowledged their own belief in Jesus as prophet, or something of the sort; there may well have been some truth behind William’s implausible knockout punch. We can imagine a much more substantial conversation between faiths, but with William’s reading we can only imagine.

What importance did he himself give to his supposed great triumph? Perhaps surprisingly, not much. After the other contenders had surrendered the field, the Nestorians stood and held forth on the “coming of Christ in judgement,” and other matters. Nobody interrupted them; but then, nobody was convinced either. Nobody, in his words, stepped forward and said “I believe, and wish to become a Christian.” Like much else of his religious mission among the Mongols, the episode has to be counted a disappointment, whether or not he filed it under the win column. As the gathering neared its inevitable conclusion, Nestorians and Muslims alike were singing boisterously while the Buddhists sat silent, and then “everyone drank heavily.” I have to think the friar counted it an empty victory.           

And that’s about where we’ll finish things off for today. First, though, we’ll bid a very fond farewell to Sergius. We’re going to start next episode with the end of the friars’ stay with Mongke, but we’re leaving our Armenian friend here. What a odd monk, you may have thought at times during this story. Well, as it happened, he wasn’t one. William was going to discover on his way home that Sergius was an illiterate cloth weaver, just another oddball opportunist making himself a new life out on the steppes. And there’s one more thing I want to mention before we part. You might have wondered since our protagonists arrived at Mongke’s camp, what became of that troublesome letter, the one in which King Louis had supposedly requested Mongol military aid, the one that had pushed William to near-silence as to the reason for their very presence. Well, it would turn out that the letter had been lost, and Mongke had forgotten what it said. That left a relieved William pretty free to present himself as he saw fit, and it also tells us that maybe the Christian crusaders, and their potential as foes or friends, just weren’t that important to the Mongols after all.

Thanks for listening everyone. I’ll talk to you again in a few weeks, and we’ll cover William’s departure from the Mongol camp and his return journey, and we’ll catch up on the wider world and take a look ahead.


  • Carpini, Giovanni. The Story of the Mongols: Whom we Call the Tartars, translated by Erik Hildinger. Branden Books, 1996.

  • The Mission of Friar William of Rubruck, translated by Peter Jackson. The Hakluyt Society, 1990.

  • The Mongol Mission: Narratives and Letters of the Franciscan Missionaries in Mongolia and China in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, edited by Christopher Dawson. Sheed & Ward, 1955.

  • Gladysz, Mikolaj. The Forgotten Crusaders: Poland and the Crusader Movement in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries, translated by Paul Barford. Brill, 2012.

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

  • Morgan, David. The Mongols. Blackwell, 1986.

  • Rachewiltz, Igor de. Papal Envoys to the Great Khans. Faber & Faber, 1971.