Rabban Bar Sauma 1: The Monks of Kublai Khan

The Journey of Rabban Bar Sauma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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And now, to the story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well this was what they said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marco and the Polos 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.

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.

The Travels of Johann Schiltberger 3: Timur the Conqueror

Timur and the Delhi Sultanate

"After Tamerlane had overcome Bayezid and returned to his own country, he went to war with the king-sultan, who is the chief king among Infidels. He took with him 12 hundred thousand men, went into his territory, and lay siege to a city called Hallapp, which contains 4 hundred thousand houses. Then the lord and governor of the city took with him 80 thousand men, and went out and fought with Tamerlane, but he could not overcome him, and fled again into the city, and many people were killed in his flight. He continued to defend himself, but Tamerlane took a suburb on the fourth day, and the people he found in it he threw into the moat of the city, put timbre and mire upon them, and filled the moat in four places. The moat was 12 fathom deep, and cut in the solid rock. Then he stormed the city, and took it by assault and captured the governor, and fully occupied the city… ."

Last episode we had a look at Schiltberger’s time among the Ottomans, and a tumultuous time it was, as he first sought escape, then rode with his long-time captors, if we can still call them that, on a series of military expeditions that culminated in the Battle of Angora. Bayezid’s sons are going to be struggling to put the pieces back together after that disaster, and, as you might guess from the fact that the Ottoman Empire would live to see World War 1, at least one of them would find some success in doing so. However, we’re not going to be following that today. We’ll continue with Schiltberger as he tells of his new circumstances, and of Timur the Conqueror.  

As I mentioned last episode, some of the events in this one actually occurred before Timur defeated Bayezid and before Schiltberger’s time with him, but I’m telling the story in this order partly because it’s the order Schiltberger told it in and also because it lets us bundle all the Timur material neatly together. Some items to clarify immediately: the Tamerlane referred to a moment ago in that Schiltberger quote, is, in fact, Timur. “Tamerlane,” perhaps the name you’re more familiar with, is an anglicization of the Farsi, Temur-i lang, meaning Timur the Lame, the “lame” part being the unfortunate result of an early-life sheep raid that had earned Timur an arrow in the leg. Further clarification, this king-sultan Schiltberger mentions is the Mamluk sultan of Egypt who we met last episode, Nasir ad-din Faraj, and, finally, the “Hallap” which Timur was besieging was in fact a city you’ve probably heard quite a bit about in recent years. Timur was besieging Aleppo. 

Schiltberger’s description of this event, though he clearly wasn’t there himself, gives us a picture of the kind of brutality that Timur is well known for. Remember him bloodlessly, oh so bloodlessly, burying the defenders of Sivas alive? Here we see him filling a 12 fathom moat with people, at four places. 12 fathoms, if you’re not sure what that equates to, is apparently 72 feet, or about 22 metres, and I haven’t found a good source for how deep this moat really was, and if this is even remotely accurate, but that’s a lot of space to have to fill with human bodies.

It should be noted, for fairness, or at least completeness, that Timur perhaps did feel provoked into action. He had sent an envoy to the Mamluk Sultan, but the governor of Damascus had ordered this ambassador taken and then cut in half at the the waist. Maybe Timur needed no excuse to engage in warfare - he rarely did - and maybe shared faith would never have deterred him from invading Syria - it wouldn’t deter his attack on the Otttomans - but this killing of an ambassador was a clear end to any possibility of peace. 

In the fall of 1400 Timur moved south, putting the Ottomans aside for a few years and taking one fortress after another until he reached Aleppo. Following battle before the city, in which a feigned flight, a classic Mongol tactic, led first to envelopment of the defenders and then a successful siege, Timur’s army gained the city. Schiltberger describes what follows very briefly: they “pillaged it.” Other sources, however, paint a picture of widespread violence, days of massacre, burning, and looting culminating in Timur’s grisly trademark: looming pyramids of heads. 

This might be as good a time as any to rewind a little and establish who Timur was. If you’re not familiar with him, you might be wondering who exactly we’re talking about, this shadowy figure appearing out of the void to crush the Ottomans and sweep across Syria. Something of an answer to that question will become clear in the telling, but for now we should establish the basics before looking at Schiltberger’s depiction of Timur’s deeds. 

The Conqueror was by this point already well established as an enormously powerful figure. For roughly 30 years, his armies had been on the move, from Baghdad to Moscow to Delhi, building what we now call the Timurid Empire, the Turco-Mongol power that spread across Central Asia in the late 14th century. Timur was born near Samarkand, in present day Uzbekistan, at a place called Shahrisabz, the green city. You’ll often see April 9th, 1336, listed as the exact date of birth, but this may simply have been an invention of the chroniclers. That aside, it’s hard to be more precise than some time in the 30s. 

The area he was raised within had been part of the Mongol Khanate, specifically, the Chagatai Khanate where Genghis Khan’s second son Chagatai had ruled, and the tribe he was part of, the Barlas, marked its descent from within Genghis’ confederation. Their religion was Islam, their language Turkic, and, in keeping with their Mongol history, they were nomads, or at least semi-nomadic, reliant on the horse in all things, and in battle and hunting on the composite bow, crafted of wood, horn, and sinew. His armies were modelled on the old Mongol decimal system, divisible in neat units of tens and hundreds, and with subsumed peoples scattered throughout. 

He was ever active. In him there seems to have existed a constant thirst for fresh conquest which might have been driven equally by a drive to embody Genghis and a need to retain the loyalty of his great horde. Recognizing that an army which regularly had opportunities for plunder was a happy army, a well payed and a unified one, he was constantly campaigning, pressing for fresh conquests even when his advisors cautioned him against pushing on. In his military campaigns, Timur would, for the most part, not break new ground. His advance was that of a tide coming back in, retracing the steps of the earlier Mongol conquests or actually coming at the expense of fellow heirs to Genghis’s legacy, as in the case of his ongoing conflict with the Golden Horde. 

The narrative value of that legacy was not at all lost to Timur, who sought to connect himself to the great khan, for example through marriage to a dead rival’s widow, the daughter of the region’s last Chagitai Khan, allowing Timur to trace a line right back to Genghis. This he did, referring to himself as son in law to the Great Khan, and later establishing a puppet Chagitati Khan as supreme ruler. 

Even as he sought to evoke the memory of a proud Mongol past, he looked, if often in a highly selective way, to the laws of Islam and declared himself “the sword of Islam.” Timur recognized as his teacher Imam Sayid Baraka, a man he held in such high esteem that he wanted to be buried next to him, facing him, so that, as one chronicle has it “... at the day of judgement, when every one should lift up their hands to heaven to implore assistance of some intercessor, he might lay hold on the robe of this child of the prophet Muhammed.” On Timur’s banner, the horse’s tail, a powerful Mongol symbol, flew alongside the crescent. This mixture, of Genghis and Muhammad, carried forward through aggressively militant expansion and atrocity, had proved a potent one, and from early opportunism in seizing local power, Timur had swept outwards with little in the way of setbacks or defeats. By the time he enters our story, he’s at his peak, an old man certainly, but one wielding immense power and still doing so in the field, not from the safety of his palace. As Schiltberger tells us, after Aleppo fell, Damascus was not far behind.

Schiltberger pauses briefly over the wonders of Damascus, turning, as he sometimes does, to a kind of travel writer for a moment, selling us on the sights to be seen. The temple, he says, is grand enough to require 40 external gates, and within are hung 12 thousand lamps, many being silver and gold, of which 9 thousand are lit daily, save on Friday when all of them are lit. That established, Schiltberger tells us of the Mamluk Sultan coming out to intervene on Damascus’ behalf, sending 12 thousand men to its defence and with 30 thousand moving to meet Timur. Nasir ad-din Faraj will not oppose Timur in battle however, instead retreating back towards his own capital in the face of the conqueror’s advance, leaving poisoned water and grasslands behind him to blunt pursuit. Timur, rather than lose further men in such a chase, turns back to Damascus. 

Schiltberger has this to say of what happens there:

Then he turned against Damascus and besieged it for 3 months, but could not take it. During those 3 months they fought every day, and when the 12 thousand men saw that they had no assistance from their lord, they asked Timur to be allowed to pass. He consented, and they left the city at night and returned to their lord. Then Timur stormed the city and took it by assault. And now, soon after he had taken the city, came to him a [ kind of bishop ] and fell at his feet, and begged for mercy for himself and his priests. Timur ordered that he should go with his priests into the temple; so the priests took their wives, their children, and many others, into the temple for protection, until there were 30 thousand young and old. Now Timur gave orders that when the temple was full, the people inside should be shut up in it. This was done. Then wood was placed around the temple, and he ordered it to be ignited, and they all perished in the fire. Then he ordered that each one of his soldiers should bring him the head of a man. This was done, and it took 3 days; then with these heads were constructed three towers, and the city was pillaged.

The famed traveller Ibn Battuta had visited Damascus in 1326, around 75 years earlier. He had said of it then that it “surpassed all other cities in beauty, and no description, however full, c[ould] do justice to its charms.” Of its ill-fated Umayyad Mosque, he said it was “the most magnificent mosque in the world, the finest in construction and noblest in beauty, grace and perfection; it was matchless and unequalled.” As a man who had seen a great many great cities, he had some basis for comparison. 

The details of the taking of Damascus, unsurprisingly vary significantly in the telling. Accounts other than Schiltberger’s actually place the Mamluk Sultan’s army within sight of the city walls, a sight which inspires the defenders to stream forth to establish positions outside the walls and offer battle, thinking the winds turning in their favour. Imagine their bitter surprise to find one morning that by the rising sun, Nasir’s army was no longer visible. It had melted away in the night, and was bound for Cairo to face down a rival’s bid for power. 

Another detail which Schiltberger’s telling omits is of a negotiated surrender on the part of the city. This was apparently followed by a spirited assault on Timur’s soldiers made by a group of hold-outs in the citadel. Perhaps this was what provoked Timur’s orders that the city was to be destroyed, its people slaughtered, and its treasures and other material goods plundered. There is some argument as to whether or not Timur did in fact order the burning of the Umayyad Mosque; some even say he wished to save it from the fires that had spread. There is little disagreement over the aftermath, the ruinous violence that was done to the city and its people. 

The 15th century Egyptian historian Ibn Taghribirdi wrote of 19 days of killing and rape. performed on a mass scale, after which survivors were bound and taken away, leaving children under the age of 5. The city was then torched. He concludes, “Timur, may god curse him, departed from Damascus having been there 80 days. The whole city had been burned, the roofs of the Umayyad mosque had fallen in because of the fire, its gates were gone, and the marble cracked - nothing was left standing but the walls. Of the other mosques of the city, its palaces, caravanserais, and baths, nothing remained but wasted ruins and empty traces; only a vast number of children were left there who died, or were destined to die, of hunger.” It’s not an image I like to linger over, but we should recognize that Timur does not merely seem a brutal figure across the great distance of time and culture. He is a brutal figure, and, as we’ll see, is said to be responsible for a number of atrocities of this sort. 

These horrors aside, there is another episode to the story of Timur in Damascus which I’d like to touch on. Timur was not the only giant of his era present there. Damascus was a thriving centre, and doubtless housed many prominent figures of the time, but there was also a guest then in the city, a man born in Tunis but widely travelled, a lifelong intriguer and player of politics, a qadi, or judge, familiar with power, but also a philosopher of history of startling originality, a famed historian in fact, widely respected long after his death: in Damascus at the time was Ibn Khaldun.

Ibn Khaldun spent 35 days about Timur’s camp, often in conversation with him, and in a letter written shortly thereafter, he spoke of the him in terms that were somewhat surprising given his position as a qadi appointed Timur’s enemy, the Mamluk Sultan in Cairo. He wrote:

This king Timur is one of the greatest and mightiest of kings. Some attribute to him knowledge, others consider him a Shi‘ite because they note his preference for the members of the family of the Prophet; still others attribute to him the employment of magic and sorcery, but in all this there is nothing but rumour. It is simply that he is highly intelligent, addicted to debate and argumentation about what he knows and also about what he does not know. He is between sixty and seventy years old. His right knee is lame from an arrow which struck him while raiding in his youth, as he told me; therefore he dragged it when he went on short walks, but when he would go long distances men carried him with their hands. He is one who is favoured by God—the power is God’s, and He grants it to whom He chooses of his creatures.”

Unfortunately for us, Ibn Khaldun, with his 35 days of familiarity, his knowledge and theories of history, and his general worldliness, was really in a better place to provide observations on Timur than our friend Schiltberger was. It would be more than a year after the taking of Damascus that Schiltberger himself would fall under Timur’s control, and even then, what must his life have been like? Unlike his time with the Ottomans, there will be no indications of any agency whatsoever, no “and I was also there and went with them.” Not for a while at least. Perhaps this was because his freedoms were severely limited; maybe he lived in chains for a period, or in a similar situation, simply unable to really go anywhere once dragged back to Samarkand after the battle of Angora. And yet, Schiltberger does eventually say of Timur that he “rode after him,” meaning he followed him, among his retinue or army. Possibly then, he simply did not want to speak of taking part in actions on Timur’s behalf of partaking in the slaughter that implied, and who could blame him for that? 

Whatever the case may be, we have, in the meantime, Schiltberger the reporter, giving his account of further episodes he was certainly not present for. There are two of those items I think I should cover here, events which Schiltberger must have learned of one way or another after being captured from the Ottomans. In the first case, he had not yet even left Bavaria and could not have imagined the life ahead. 

It was 1387, and Timur was besieging Isfahan, a city south of Tehran described by ibn Battuta as “one of the largest and fairest of cities,” boasting “apricots of unequalled quality with sweet almonds in their kernels, quinces whose sweetness and size cannot be paralleled, splendid grapes, and wonderful melons.”

Timur actually seems to have come to the city willing to enjoy a peaceful takeover, and he had every reason to think things might come off that way. He had, in recent years, received a letter from the region’s ruler, Shah Shuja Muzaffar of the Muzaffar dynasty, a Persian family that had come to the forefront as the Mongol Ilkhanate had collapsed. The Shah wrote in his letter, quote “... I have tasted all the pleasures I could reasonably expect during the fifty three years I have stayed upon the earth . . . In brief, I die as I have lived, and I have abandoned all the vanities of the world. . . Although it is not at all necessary to commend to you my loved son Zayn al Abidin - God grant him a long life under the shadow of your protection - I leave him to the care of God and your Majesty.” As he departed the earth, Shah Shuja was turning over his domain, his sons’ domain really, to Timur. Even as he left his cities to his sons and nephews he’d signed their futures away, and now Timur was knocking on the gates of Isfahan and making known his intention of cashing that cheque. 

Initially, Shah Shuja’s nephew, Shah Mansur, seemed ready to fulfill his uncle’s commitments without violence, and Isfahan’s people gave themselves, and their city, up to Timur and agreed to accept his rule. He, in turn, left 3-6000 men and departed, but when the people knew he was clear of the city and, in other tellings, had an inkling of the ruinous taxation they could expect, they revolted. Schiltberger relates that the people waited until they knew Timur was out of the region, and that they then slaughtered 6000 of Timur’s people. Though the number was likely lower, the risk may have been higher, for other sources tell us that Timur and his army were actually encamped before the city at night when the drumming of an anonymous blacksmith roused the city’s people to violent revolt. By morning at the latest, Timur would have perceived the betrayal, and he would not have been happy. 

Indeed, Timur was so unhappy at the turn of events that he ordered the city’s population killed, 70 thousand of them, and he accomplished this in traditional Mongol fashion. Every group of soldiers was responsible for a certain number of Isfahani heads, to be presented for inspection to the officers. It is reported that some of Timur’s men were a little squeamish about proceeding with the mass slaughter and that this drove a healthy market in gently used heads. Such qualms do not seem to have lingered long though, as the killing accelerated, and, as would become typical in stories of cities taken by Timur, great pyramids of skulls formed outside the city. The historian Hafiz-i-Abru is said to have walked round Isfahan after the slaughter and counted 28 towers of 1500 hundred heads each, but I have to imagine he didn’t actually count them; this was a very rough guess, a kind of jelly beans in the jar for crueler times, and I question how accurate such an estimate could possibly be.

But none of this is yet really the horrible part. Schiltberger reports, in an odd complication, that Timur doesn’t just wake up and sack the city. Instead, he tells its rebellious people that he can forgive their transgression, and he will do so, but he’s going to need their archers first. He has something he needs to do, and simple task really, and archers are needed, so the hopeful city sends him 12 thousand of theirs. And he takes them and he cuts off all their thumbs, and he releases them back into the city. He then enters the effectively archerless Isfihan and commences the slaughter. But the horrible part is still to come. For me at least, it comes when Schiltberger tells of the children of Isfahan. Those under 7, and there 7000 of them, are placed on the plain outside the city, and, unlike Bayezid, Timur will not listen to his councillors’ pleas on their behalf, does not allow himself to be moved to mercy. Instead he orders them trampled by horse and he actually makes the first passes himself when his people are initially reluctant to do so. Then he sets fire to the city, and he leaves. 

The other event that Schiltberger reports on, which brings us forward again to March, 1398, is Timur’s invasion of Northern India. Schiltberger, working in nicely balanced figures, tells us that Timur made preparations for four months, for he was set on a destination that was four months distant from his capital, and that he eventually went forth with an army of 400 thousand. Let’s hear his description of the expedition:

When the time came … he crossed a desert of 20 days’ journey; there, is a great want of water, and then he got to a mountain which it took him 8 days, before he came out of it. On this mountain there is a path, where camels and horses must be bound to planks and lowered. Then he came to a valley where it is so dark, that people cannot see each other by the light of day, and it is of half a day’s journey. Then he came to a high mountainous country, in which he travelled for three days and three nights, and then got to a beautiful plain, where lies the capital of the country.

It’s an evocative description, but it doesn’t quite communicate how dramatic a venture this was. Know first, that this is a 1,500 km road trip, about 1,000 miles, but that this number does not take into account the varied and difficult terrain involved, terrain that could easily turn it into a 2,000 km endeavour. There are rivers, deserts, and the Hindu Kush mountain range with its stunning 25,000 foot peaks; no easy task for 400k or even, as it more likely was, 90k people to accomplish, and with perhaps twice that many horses along as well. The whole thing would have been a tremendous feat of logistics and survival: here building a bridge over the Oxus so that they might cross; there turning aside with a fraction of his army to deal with the Katir. 

The Katir were a tribal group inhabiting this mountain region, and Hilda Hookham describes their near legendary status well: they were “fire-worshippers… they were said to be huge as giants, speaking in an unknown language, clad in black, with hearts as dark as their clothes; others were said to go quite naked.” They were said to have resisted Alexander the Great when he’d gone East, and now Timur was not going to leave them at his back as he proceeded towards Delhi. But to dislodge them was not going to be easy. He and this section of his army were operating at over 12,000 feet in treacherous, icy, conditions. At points, his men would need to lower him, supposedly 1,000 feet, on a litter. They’d try the same with horses, but it wasn’t feasible; the horses didn’t survive. So they went on unmounted, Timur included, until they reached the Katir stronghold. The resistance was fierce, but that only guaranteed the result, towers of skulls, and Timur went on, rejoining the main body of his troops and getting closer to Delhi. 

They would stop at Kabul in August, receiving ambassadors, promises of loyalty, and treasure, and then they’d move on, reaching the Indus in September, there again building a bridge for the purpose and crossing the river in two days. By October, they reached Multan, in present day Pakistan, where Timur’s grandson Pir Mohammed had, with the army’s vanguard, been besieging the city. Both besiegers and besieged were in dreadful shape, beaten down by disease and starvation, even said to be reduced to eating human corpses inside the walls, but the coming of Timur and his fresh men and horses broke the deadlock, prompting surrender. The full army moved on, levelling villages that may have been complicit in resisting Pir Mohammed. There are stories here of massacres, and of mass imprisonments, the countryside starting to empty out before him as he destroyed what could not be plundered. 

By December, the trek is nearly over. Delhi is waiting, described by Arabshah as “a great city, where men skilled in various arts are gathered; a home of merchants, a mine of gems and perfumes. Too great to besiege.” And even if it’s been weakened by internal division, it’s still waiting with a Sultan Mahmud who was not inclined to surrender and had 10 thousand horse, 20-40 thousand infantry, and, most terrifyingly, 120 war elephants to support him. 

The first encounter is but a small battle, advance units against a cavalry sortie from the city, but it seems to have triggered two things. One: Timur, not wanting to get bogged down in a sustained siege, found that he could in fact draw the city’s defenders out into open battle. Two: the prisoners taken thus far on the campaign cheered uproariously as they saw those defenders riding out, and this apparently made Timur extremely nervous. So overcome with apprehension was he, that he ordered all of the prisoners killed immediately, purportedly as many as 50 to 100 thousand of them. Supposedly, Timur objected to the inclusion of these numbers in the court chronicles, comparing himself to a chef, and arguing that his work ought to be judged by the meal produced, and not by the gore on his hands as he prepared it. But either way, he now needn’t worry about uprisings from within his encampment and he could focus entirely on the task before him.    

And before him were those war elephants. People often argue that elephants in war are nowhere near as effective as you might think, but I suspect that’s not something you internalize when you’re across the field from them. These were 120, 400 in Schiltberger’s telling, living, breathing, war machines, giants wrapped in armour, boasting squads of archers, greek fire, protective turrets, and, though it at first sounds unnecessary, tusk mounted scimitars that were, though it sounds spectacularly unnecessary, said to be poisoned. Your first sight of these monsters could, I’m sure, easily make you forget you were there along with a nigh-invincible 90,000 man army, an army that had itself spread terror across a huge stretch of the world. Timur needed an answer to this problem, and the one he would arrive at was cruel, clever, and effective. 

It was the 17th of December when Sultan Mahmud’s army came out to offer combat. Timur’s astrologers had not offered him positives signs, but his reading of the Quran for that day spoke of better things, an omnipotent figure destroying a people, and so the day was approved. From the chronicler Yazdi, we read: 

“So hot a battle was never seen before. The fury of soldiers was never carried to so great excess; and so frightful a noise was never heard: for the cymbals, the common kettle-drums, the drums and trumpets, with the great brass kettle-drums which were beat on the elephants’ backs, the bells which the Indians sounded, and the cries of the soldiers, were enough to make even the earth to shake.”

Initial maneuverings went Timur’s way, and his enemy’s left flank was in disarrayed retreat when the elephants were signalled forward.

On Timur’s side, trenches had been dug and reinforced, buffaloes lashed together as living walls before them, caltrops fashioned and placed, and something else was made ready too. As Schiltberger tells us, one of Timur’s councillors had stepped forward and offered some advice, advice that was put into practice and executed:

...Suleyman advised, that camels should be taken and wood fastened on them, and when the elephants advanced, the wood should be ignited, and the camels driven up against the elephants; thus would they be subdued by the fire and the cries of the camels, because the elephants are afraid of fire. Then Timur took 20 thousand camels and prepared them as above described, and the Sultan came with his elephants in front. Timur went to meet him, and drove the camels up against the elephants, the wood on them being on fire. The camels cried out, and when the elephants saw the fire and heard the great cries, they took to flight, so that none could hold them.

When the elephants broke, running in fearful panic from Timur’s burning camels, they inflicted terrible damage on their own side. It needed only one last push, a charge from Pir Mohammed on Timur’s right, to send the soldiers of Delhi running for the shelter of their walls. The day, the field, and the city were all Timur’s. 

In Schiltberger’s telling that was about the end of it. The brilliant and repulsive burning of 20 thousand camels had brought about his victory and all that was left was for his opposite number to pledge allegiance, military support when it was asked for, many precious stones, and 2 zentner of the gold of India, roughly 200 pounds. Timur then returned to his own country and took with him 100 war elephants, elephants which, as we know, he’d be putting to use soon at Angora. 

But there was a bit more to his army’s taking of Delhi than this. It was not nearly so neat and tidy as an agreement made after the battle and both sides going their peaceful ways. There was the triumphal entry into the city first, with Timur accepting the submission of its most noteworthy people and viewing with approval a parade of the elephants, themselves made to kneel before him to the accompaniment of celebratory music and commemorative poetry. Then there was the business of the city’s ransom, collected from each citizen according to their rank and wealth. There were a lot of Timur’s soldiers within the city now, accomplishing their various tasks, and more streamed in, for over the next week the city gates were left open out of respect. Soon there were said to be 15 thousand of Timur’s fighters inside the walls, and the result starts to seem inevitable, building towards an ugly end. 

It’s hard to pick out a first act here, a kicking off of violence, an initial disagreement, but there are reports that the terrible ransoms being demanded and the abuses of the soldiers caused people to rise up, either in violence against the soldiers or against themselves as they torched their own houses and flung themselves in. Timur’s emirs are said to have tried to contain matters by shutting the gates, but his men forced them open again, letting those outside pour in to take part in the extremely bloody sacking of Delhi and the construction of the usual towers of skulls. 

There is disagreement over exactly to what degree these events were beyond Timur’s foresight or control. He was, as Hookham points out, not in the habit of leaving sources of wealth behind after a conquest, and he was much more inclined to satisfy his own troops than he was to any acts of mercy. Whether or not he was, as reported, enjoying a banquet at the time, it seems unlikely that would have objected to what happened. 

There were other battles, other sieges and slaughters, on this campaign, but we’re going to leave Timur and his men to stagger home under the weight of obscene wealth. We’ll wait for them in Samarkand, the city Schiltberger was bound for after the Battle of Angora. We have little in the way of clues as to his life there, but we know quite a bit of about his new home. 

One source for this knowledge is a Castillian ambassador by the name of Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo of Madrid who left us a wonderful travel narrative titled “Life and Acts of the Great Tamerlane, with a description of the lands of his empire and lordship.” Among those present at the Battle of Angora had been a pair of knights sent by Henry the third of Castile, who sent his embassies widely. They had been well treated by Timur, and, soon after, Henry had received an envoy with gifts and greetings from Timur. On the 21st of May, 1403, he responded in kind by sending a party which departed from near Cadiz in Southwestern Spain. With Clavijo along, they hoped to reach Timur before he left Anatolia, but in this they would be unsuccessful. Unanticipated adventure awaited.

There’d be mishaps at sea, split sails, lost rudders, and shipwreck. There’d be an unplanned winter near Constantinople. There’d be continually disappointed hopes of catching up to Timur at the next stop. They’d deal with hard roads, bandits, tolls, and death, and Clavijo would record the features of interest as he passed, architecture, embassies, marketplaces, and foods; Clavijo comments extensively on the topic of food. At last they were brought to Samarkand on September the 8th, 1404, at the end of a 15 month, and almost 6,000 mile, journey. “How is my son, the king? Is he in good health?” Timur apparently asked them when they finally arrived, not the only time he referred to their king this way. 

The Samarkand they found, the one Schiltberger would have found, was truly a grand place. 

If I have given the impression that Timur was given to willy-nilly fits of slaughter and delighted in indiscriminate taking of heads, then I’ve been somewhat misleading. Timur did indeed discriminate when taking heads. He valued highly the heads and bodies of all kinds of artisans and craftsmen, and, as a result, had gathered from across the great stretch of his conquests, the best his time had to offer. As Clavijo reports, “From Damascus he brought weavers of silk, and men who made bows, glass, and earthenware, so that, of those articles, Samarkand produces the best in the world. From Turkey, he brought archers, masons, and silversmiths. He also brought men skilled in making engines of war….”

The outskirts of the city were named after the great cities he had conquered, Baghdad, Damascus, Shiraz, and so on, establishing Samarkand itself as the truly great city, the seat of an emperor. The city was filled with formal gardens, exquisitely laid out, and with names like Garden of Paradise, the Model of the World, the Sublime Garden. Each was large enough to accommodate streams, lakes, orchards, and palaces. As an example, the Northern Garden featured a palace made of Tabriz marble; its frescoes, painted by Persian artists overseen by a master taken from Baghdad, depicted the conqueror’s many victories, many kings, lords, and sultans offering tribute, many feasts and banquets, and the many realms that were his. Another garden was reported by Arabshah to be so large that when one of the builders lost his horse in the enclosure it was 6 months before the wandering animal was found again.

Samarkand’s natural setting was ideal. Aided by the Zarafshan river, the land produced enormous amounts of fruit, wheat, and cotton. There were vineyards in abundance and space enough for plentiful livestock. Clavijo was apparently quite impressed by the food situation, being not immune to the temptations of the belly, and he commented approvingly on everything from the plumpness of the animals to the reasonable prices of meat, fruit, and grains. He also noted the contents of the markets: furs from Russia; silks and gems from China; spices from India; and cloth, glass and metal from Syria and Anatolia. Samarkand benefited heavily from the trade caravans that passed through it, and also of course from the staggering wealth which decades of war had drained from the surrounding world and brought to the city. 

Clavijo and his party spent about 3 months in and around Samarkand, 3 months in which they observed Timur flitting from garden to garden, pavilion to pavilion, and palace to palace: one night enjoying a banquet here and the next a feast at a new location: roast horse and sheep, rice, and wine, tremendous amounts of wine whether one was so inclined or not, tarts made with flour, sugar, and herbs, and a drink of sugared cream. On Wednesday the 8th of October we read that the ambassadors chose not to eat, when given the option, and returned to their lodgings, a sure sign that Clavijo had been indulging heavily. 

Timur received one embassy after another, conducting the day-to-day business of empire: he ordered a variety of amusements be performed; he ordered hangings and punishments; and he played chess, chess to which he had apparently added both spaces and pieces to increase its complexity. 

But Timur would not be content to while away his last years in the splendour of the imperial capital. His eyes, Schiltberger tells us, had turned to China, the domain of the Yong-le Emperor, Zhu-Di of the Ming Dynasty. Timur’s pivot towards China shows up in Clavijo’s narrative too. When the Spanish ambassadors are first seated near Timur, they are initially placed beneath the Chinese embassy, but Timur intervenes, conveying to the Chinese representative that “those who were ambassadors from the King of Spain, his son and friend, should sit above him; and that he who was the ambassador of a thief and a bad man, his enemy, should sit below them.” 

This “thief and bad man,” the Chinese emperor, had sent word to Timur that his land was only his as the Chinese emperor allowed, that Zhu-Di required payment every year, and that it had been 7 years, 5 according to  Schiltberger, since such payment had been offered. In both narratives Timur agrees that this is true, but informs Zhu-Di’s representatives that he will not pay, that he will not be subject to him, and, in Schiltberger, he continues to say that he will be paying the Chinese ruler a visit. 

Clavijo’s visit was actually cut short because, he was told, Timur was sick to the point of death, but a week later Timur and his armies were on the march to China. This was not a spur of the moment decision, a sudden fit of irritation. Timur had been putting the pieces into place for quite some time. 

In late 1401, one his emirs, a man named Allahdad, had been dispatched to lay the groundwork for invasion. He was to map the route and make preparations for the movement of a large army. To this end much had been done. Allahdad had chosen a path and developed agricultural land to support an army of horse and men; he’d raised crops and built forts at key points and provided Timur with a map, even as the conqueror was still in Anatolia. East of Samarkand, all were put to work, preparing the soil to feed an invasion; the region was put on a footing of total war. Despite all this, the challenge was still great, perhaps too great for a ruler who was now likely 70 years old, perhaps older. 

Schiltberger tells us that 1 million, 8 hundred thousand men went east with Timur, but even if we accept the lower estimates of 200 thousand, it’s still an enormous army, and an equally enormous logistical puzzle. They had 4,000 kilometres and a winter to go. And it was going to be too much. 

Who knows what might have happened, had Timur been a younger man on that journey, but even for the young and fit this was a punishing adventure. Perhaps better to say, who knows what might have happened had he left at a different time of the year. Maybe the two questions are not so different actually. Timur had been planning and preparing this for years, but maybe he knew his time was short and this was what hurried his departure that winter when he might easily have waited for spring. As it was, Arabshah has the following to say:

“The wind blew on the breath of man, it quenched his spirit and froze him on his horse and also the camels, until it destroyed all softer constitutions… Therefore, many perished in his army, noble and base alike, and the winter destroyed great and small amongst them… Yet Timur cared not for the dying and grieved not for those that had perished.” 

It was January, and they were about 250 miles from Samarkand. Scouts sent ahead reported the roads covered with snow to the depth of two spears. No matter what was tried, they couldn’t keep Timur himself warm and well, and his diet couldn’t have helped. At times he gave up on solids, pressing on with wine and spirits. He became sick in his stomach and bowels, and some said it a result of his drinking, but he would not alter his habits and his sickness did not lessen, understandably in a 70 year old man who ate poorly, drank heavily, exerted himself, and exposed his body to the harsh winter. 

In Schiltberger’s telling he turns back now, forced to by the loss of men, horses, and cattle. In other tellings it is his health that stops him. In Arabshah we see him stricken, “cough[ing] like a camel that is strangled, his colour was nigh quenched and his cheeks foamed like a camel dragged backwards with the rein; and if one saw the angels that tormented him, they showed the joy with which they threaten the wicked, to lay waste their houses and utterly destroy the whole memory of them… .” He continues “The hand of Death gave him a cup to drink … then they brought garments of hair from hell and drew forth his soul like a spit from a soaked fleece and he was carried to the cursing and punishment of God, remaining in torment and God’s infernal punishment.” 

In Schiltberger, Timur’s death is an almost comedic affair. He says: “It is to be noted, that three causes made Timur fret, so that he became ill, and died of that same illness.” The first cause was that one his vassals had gotten greedy and disappeared with a sizeable tribute payment. The second was that another of his vassals had had an affair with his youngest wife, and upon learning of this, Timur had that wife beheaded. Thirdly, when he ordered a pursuit of this vassal, the commander of that pursuit sent warning on, so that the vassal escaped. As Schiltberger reports, “it fretted him so much that he had killed his wife, and that the vassal had escaped, that he died, and was buried in the country with great magnificence.” 

What should we make of Schiltberger’s version of events? Presumably, this was the story he heard, but what was the purpose of a narrative that removed Timur’s death from the icy campaign against China? Perhaps it was an issue of local politics, difficult to reconstruct, or perhaps it was a case of finding the great conqueror’s weakness, not on the trail of conquest, but domestically, with a woman. Stories of deaths or defeats so often find ways to make themselves acceptable, to not jar too much the ears of the listener.     

And Schiltberger? He would be just fine. As he’d lived through other changes, he would live through this one. We’ll end this episode with Schiltberger’s telling of his circumstances: 

You should know that Timur left two sons. The eldest was named Shahrukh, who had a son to whom Timur gave his capital and the country that belonged to it, and to each of his two sons, Shahrukh and Miran Shah, he gave a kingdom in Persia, and other large territories that belonged to them. After the death of Timur, I came to his son named Shahrukh, who had a kingdom, the capital of which is called Herat. Here I remained with Miran Shah, the son of Timur.