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 5: The Echoes of the Wind

Kuniyuki Japanese Armies Defeating Mongol Invaders

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

From four hundred states and more

Hundreds of the foe appear,

Looms a peril to the nation

In the fourth the Koan year.

What should be our fear? Among us

Kamakura men will go,

Martial discipline and justice

To the world with shout we’ll show.

From the [Mongol] shores barbarians,

What are they, The Mongol Band,

Fellows insolent and haughty,

‘Neath their heaven we will not stand.

Onward now our arms were practiced

For our native country’s sake,

For our country now a trial

Of these Nippon swords we’ll make.

To the waters of Tsukushi

We advance through flood and wave;

We with bodies stout and vigorous,

If we die, and find a grave,

Dying, we become the guardian

Gods of home, for which we fell,

To Hakozaki’s God I swore it,

And he knows the pure heart well.

Heaven grew angry, and the ocean’s

Billows were in tempest tossed;

They who came to work us evil,

Thousands of the Mongol host,

Sank and perished in the sea-weed,

Of that horde survived but three,

Swift the sky was clear, and moon beams

Shone upon the Ghenkai Sea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marco Polo and Kublai Khan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kublai khan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Marco and the Polos 2: Of Assassins and Other Things

Marco Polo Venice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To See the Mongols 7: Mongol Civil War

Hulagu at Siege of Alamut

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Syria was next. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To See the Mongols 6: The Road from Karakorum

William of Rubruck’s Route

As the painfully cold December of 1253 became the still-painfully-cold January-through-March of 1254, Friar William settled into life at the court of the Mongol emperor, Mongke Khan. But as that turned to May and to June, he began squirm. Mongke had granted them a two month stay on the 4th of January, but though they were never made to feel unwelcome, by early summer they were really pushing things to the point of impoliteness.

William wasn’t quite ready to leave yet though. He waited in hope of hearing news of those German prisoners that Andre de Longjumeau had spoken of, the ones who had been moved when their master had fallen afoul of Batu and lost his life for it. But no word of them arrived. He waited in hope of the King of Armenia’s appearance. But that wouldn’t come until later in the year, after he’d left. Finally, as neither German nor king materialized, his thoughts turned to the journey home. Having weathered one Mongolian winter in Mongke’s camp, he did not relish the thought of waiting long enough to travel home during another, and he sent word to the khan to inquire about their situation. Soon, he’d be headed home with us following behind, but he wasn’t entirely done in the khan’s camp.  


Last time we talked, William was coming to grips with the nature of his new Armenian monk colleague and taking part in the great inter-religious debate of 1254. Today, we’re going to start in and around that period, covering some of his time with Mongke’s court before turning back west with him to recover some of what he had lost, cross an Alexandrian divide, and consider the future of both the crusades and Latin-Mongol relations.

The Mongol court was not still during all that time of squabble, strife, and popping in to the khan’s nephew’s for a drink which we witnessed last episode; the company was mobile, maintaining their nomadism even as they ruled over enormous stretches of the world, and around the beginning of April, 1254, they reached the area of Karakorum, the Mongol administrative capital established by Ogedei. Immeasurable wealth in treasure and material culture had been dragged back there, had been brought to this new-born centre of the world from an empire which spanned from Korea to Poland. And it was apparently all quite underwhelming.

William rated the city as “not as fine as the town of St. Denis,” and the St. Denis monastery as “worth ten of [Karakorum’s] palace,” but we are here to talk about Karakorum, not St. Denis. The Mongol city was surrounded by mud walls set with four gates at which different kinds of trade occurred, in grains, sheep and goats, cattle and wagons, and horses respectively. Within those walls were a Persian quarter where traders gathered, a Chinese quarter full of craftsmen, palaces for the court secretaries, and twelve temples, two mosques, and one church.

More impressive to William’s eye, was the khan’s great palace, biannual home to his drinking sessions of Easter and June and set amongst cruder, barn-like structures housing treasure and supplies. William thought the palace like a church, with its “middle nave,” its “two rows of pillars and three doors on the south side.” At the north end, the head of the church, sat the khan, and a flight of stairs ran up towards him from either side. 

Perhaps the most striking feature of the palace sat at the entrance and had only just been completed. It was the work of a Parisian silversmith who’d been captured by the Mongols, and it sounds like quite the contraption. William describes silver branches, leaves, and fruit affixed to a “large tree made of silver, with four silver lions at its roots, each one containing a conduit-pipe.” And there were four pipes to match these leading into the tree, all topped by serpents with their tail curling around the trunk. What was this all for? Well, one pipe was for wine, another refined mare’s milk, a third for a honey drink, and a fourth for rice ale.

When the khan called for something to drink, the word would be passed along by servants to a man concealed within the trunk of the silver tree, and that man, either overjoyed to have something to do or terribly bleary from having just been woken up, would blow on a pipe causing the angel atop the tree to sound its trumpet (apparently bellows had initially been experimented with but then a human found to be necessary); then, some servants would pour the appropriate liquids into their pipes up above, while others down below would catch them in basins and bring them off to the khan for his enjoyment. It was all delightfully cumbersome, unnecessary, and silver.  

While in Karakorum, the friars celebrated Easter with a great crowd of “Hungarians, Alans, Russians, Georgians, and Armenians.” William heard public confessions, and he preached a fairly dangerous message, one which spoke to an issue I’ve mentioned before, that conflict between Christian ideals and the life one had to live: the Mongols had carried off much of other people’s belongings, William said, and thus, these conquered people before him, forced to live among the Mongols, might permissibly steal from them the “necessities of life.” However, they were on no account excused in attacking fellow-Christians “and should sooner let themselves be killed.” He makes no mention of how this last injunction was received, only that he rather suspected that the Nestorians would soon denounce it to Mongke, and expecting them to do so, he proclaimed himself willing and ready to state the same before the khan himself. All considered, the occasion was held to be a happy one, for more than 60 people had been baptized by the Nestorians on Easter Eve.

There were other sources of community there too; the friars dined one night with that Parisian artisan who’d crafted the khan’s silver booze tree, joining a company that included a man named Basil whose father was English and a Hungarian-born woman whose mother was French. There is no mention of what they ate, but William counted it a “most jovial dinner.”

However, jovial or not, they were going to need to be moving on at some point. William, as I said, got the ball rolling, and soon he heard back from the khan’s secretaries, inquiring again as to why he and Bartholomew had been visiting them this whole time, a question one might have thought settled over the last 5 months. But as it turned out, and as I mentioned at the end of last episode, Louis’ letter was lost and with it the khan’s memory of the whole matter. So William explained again how they had come to be there, adding, now that the letter no longer hung over his head, that he had come because it was his duty to preach the gospel to all. 

The next day, he received his answer:

The lord khan says you have been here a long time. He wishes you to return to your own country and asks whether you would be willing to take his ambassador with you.

Just as Carpine had before him, William refused, politely explaining that being but a poor monk, he would be unable to protect the ambassador in the hostile lands they would need to pass through and that, therefore, he could not risk it. Whether this was his only motivation or he was mindful of the threat posed by such Mongol visitors, as scouts for an invasion to come, he does not say.  

William did have one last audience with Mongke, one that Bartholomew with his lifetime ban could not attend. There, on the eve of the friar’s departure, the khan spoke on the topic of religious belief, drinking four times while he spoke William thought, and William waited for the translation: 

We [Mongols] … believe that there is only one God, through whom we have life and through whom we die, and towards him we direct our hearts. … But just as God has given the hand several fingers, so he has given mankind several paths.

And then he turned accusatory: 

To you God has given the Scriptures and you Christians do not observe them. You do not find in the Scriptures, … that one man ought to abuse another, do you? … And likewise you do not find that a man ought to deviate from the path of justice for financial gain. … So, then, God has given you the Scriptures, and you do not observe them; whereas to us he has given [shamans], and we do as they tell us and live in peace.

Mongke made it clear that he did not include William in his accusations - and a secretary spoke up to vouch for the total lack of greed William had displayed even when given opportunities for blameless gain - but it was also pretty clear that the khan wouldn’t be seeking baptism any time soon.

Mongke promised provisions for the friar’s journey and an escort to the kingdom of Armenia and asked in turn that William take a letter with him. Then, he said “There are two eyes in one head, and yet in spite of being two they have only one sight, and where one turns its glance so does the other. You came from Batu, and by way of him, therefore, you must return.” Far from a subservient position, Mongke firmly placed Batu as his equal neighbour in the great skull of Mongol leadership.

As their time together drew to a close, William asked if he might have the kahn’s approval to return again, once more referencing the missing Germans as he did so. Mongke said it was certainly acceptable for him to come, if his masters were to send him. But William pushed on. What if he was not sent? Whether or not envoys were going be sent, did he have the khan’s own permission to return. After a long silence, Mongke replied “You have a long journey ahead: recruit your strength with food, so that you may reach your own country in good health.” The friar left, feeling powerless and wishing for the strength to make miracles and humble the great emperor.

In the following days, the letter was prepared, and William generally took in the goings on of the court. An ambassador from India happened through, with 8 leopards and 10 greyhounds, and an envoy from the Seljuk Sultan with rich gifts, gifts to which the khan apparently replied that presents were all very well, but what he really needed was men. And then there was the envoy from the Abbasid caliph of Baghdad. The caliph had less than 4 years to live, and his dynasty would be ended, his city sacked, and its inhabitants massacred when the Mongols besieged it in 1558. For now though, the future was uncertain. William heard talk from some that they had made peace and that the caliph had pledged to provide 10,000 horsemen; others claimed that Mongke had demanded the Abbasids destroy their fortifications, to which their ambassador was said to have retorted: “When you remove all your horses’ hooves, we shall destroy all our fortifications.”

Eventually, the letter was ready. It addressed itself as an edict, as a command, to “King Louis, ruler of the French, and to all other rulers and priests and to the great Frankish people,” Frankish here standing standing in for a much broader category than the people of France. Interestingly, the letter then seems to have set out to erase all previous communications: “The order of the everlasting God was issued to Genghis Khan,” it read, “but neither from Genghis Khan nor from anyone else after him has this order reached you.” The 1248 embassy to King Louis was written off as that of a liar, while the letter that Longjumeau brought back was discounted because it had come from the late Guyuk’s wife, and Mongke told William that she “was the worst of witches, and that with her sorcery she had destroyed her entire family.”

Finally, after establishing the context of the letter and its delivery, it got down to business:

It is the order of everlasting God that we have made known to you. When you hear and believe it, if you are willing to obey us, you should send your envoys to us: in that way we shall be sure whether you wish to be at peace with us or at war. When in the power of the everlasting God the entire world … has become one in joy and in peace, then it will emerge what we shall do. But if, on hearing and understanding the order of the everlasting God, you are unwilling to observe it or to place any trust in it, and say, ‘Our country is far away, our mountains are strong, our sea is broad,’ and relying on this you make war upon us - how can we know what will happen? He who has made easy what was hard, and brought near what was far distant, the everlasting God - He knows.

After all that effort to supersede previous communications, this one doesn’t seem to establish anything particularly new. Be at peace with us or suffer what God alone can know, for wherever in the wide world you may be, you are on our land. It was by now a pretty well trod path, with “peace” really meaning submission, and Guyuk had said something very similar in the letter Carpine had taken home. However, that embassy to Louis which Mongke dismissed as a liar’s work had been sent by someone who Mongke had done away with in his violent cleansing of Ogodei partisans upon coming to power. Additionally, remember that this “liar’s” embassy was the one that had sounded the king out on the idea of military cooperation and let it be known that Guyuk Khan and certain of his family members were baptised Christians. Mongke Khan had in the end made it pretty clear to William that he was not a Christian, and, however a Christian may have taken the repeated reference to “everlasting God,” in his letter to Louis and the lords of Europe, he did the same.

Message received, William was ready to head home, and he found out just before his departure that Bartholomew wasn’t coming with him. Winter or not, the other friar simply couldn’t face the return trip, and without William’s knowledge he’d gained permission to remain in Karakorum with the Parisian silversmith. “You are not leaving me,” he told William, whose first reaction was to say he would stay there by his fellow-friar’s side. “I am leaving you, since if I accompany you I see danger to my body and my soul, for I cannot face the unbearable hardship.”

So it was that on July 8th or 9th of 1254, William took tearful leave of his colleague and made to go, together for the first three weeks with the Indian envoys who were taking the same route, and then with just his interpreter, a Mongol guide, a servant, and an order entitling them all to a sheep every four days, if they could find someone to give them one. They were taking a different route than they’d come by, and for more than two months, they travelled towards Batu with no “trace of any construction other than graves.” They passed only one town on the way, a small village which could provide no food, and for two and sometimes three days in a row they consumed only mare’s milk. Maybe Bartholomew had made the right choice.       

They reached Batu’s camp on September 15th, a year after they had left it, and there they found the unfortunate Gosset, their servants, and, presumably, Nicholas the purchased boy. Gosset and the others were alive, but they were in rough shape. It was a potentially pretty miserable limbo they’d been caught up in, awaiting another’s return, and a reminder of all the inglorious side stories found at the edges of history, many of them irrecoverable. We don’t know much about that year in their lives, but William does say that it was only the King of Armenia’s intervention, drawing their plight to Sartaq’s notice, which had saved them. It was starting to be generally assumed that the friars were dead and never coming back, and Mongols were already asking the stranded Gosset and co. if they “knew how to tend cattle and milk mares.” Before William’s reappearance, they’d been beginning to appear available. 

Batu asked William where he wanted to go, and if William had only known that Louis was by that point already home in France, he might have made his way quickly there, from Batu’s territory into Hungary; but he didn’t.

It would be a month before Batu could find them a guide, and even then the man in question seemed concerned more than anything with maximising his gain out of the whole transaction. There were to be no payments forthcoming from William, so despite the Franciscan’s instructions to the contrary, the guide made arrangements to escort them to the Seljuk Sultan in Anatolia, where he hoped he would be generously rewarded. 

On October the 18th they headed south, travelling along the Volga and its branches, and compelled to cross them 7 times by boat. Along this stretch, William reconnected with some of the belongings he’d been forced to leave behind with Sartaq’s people on the way east. He recovered most of their vestments, their silver vessels, and their books, but he never got back that illuminated psalter which the queen had given him.

Early November brought them to the mountains of the Alans, who still held out against the Mongols. The threat of raiders emerging to attack their livestock necessitated Mongol guards watching over the passes and an armed escort for William and his company, 20 men who brought them to the Iron Gate. They were now on the coast of the Caspian Sea in present-day Dagestan, and between the water to their east and the impassable mountains of the North Caucasus to the west was a small plain barred entirely by a long and narrow walled city through which travellers were forced to pass. Beyond the city was the remains of another barrier, one with a history that stretched into legend. William identified it as the Gates of Alexander.

And this was of course Alexander the Great he was referring to. In particular, what we’re talking about is from the Romance of Alexander, the collection of legends telling of his origins, his wars with Persia, invasion of India, and the miraculous deeds and encounters with strange beings in between. These legends had captured the medieval imagination with images of Alexander pulled through the sky by griffins, moving beneath the water in variations on the submarine, and confronting my favourite monstrous humans, the blemmyae, the headless people with faces on their chests. The barriers the travellers now crossed were said to be the ones which Alexander had put up to keep out the barbaric tribes and monstrous races, and also, William briefly mentions, to wall out the Jews. William had now been to the lands beyond the barriers, and while his travels seem to have left him skeptical of any dog-headed men, just the sort of thing which featured heavily in the stories, this great act of Alexander’s, the barring of the uncivil from the civilized world, is treated as truth and fact which had now been lived in a new way. He had been on the other side of that divide, and it hadn’t made him cease to believe in it. What did he now think of what was found on the other side?

His time with Mongke’s court had given him access to people who had travelled there from every direction, and he’d heard many things from them. In one conversation, he spoke with a priest who had come from China. Unfortunately, he didn’t get any more specifics as to what kind of priest this was or where he had come from, but he that’s not to say he learned nothing at all. He learned of a people who lived in the north and “tie[d] varnished bone under their feet and skate[d] over the frozen snow and ice at a speed that enable[d] them to catch birds and animals.” From another Chinese priest, this one dressed in “the finest red,” he heard of a place in the east where the rocky cliffs were inhabited by “creatures who [were] built like human beings in every respect except that their knees [did] not bend and they move[d] along in a kind of hopping, and … the whole of their little body [was] covered in hair.” These little monkeys of some sort were apparently lured out and made drunk on rice ale, so that they could be non-fatally bled in their slumber for the making of a purple dye. He also heard, though he did not believe it, that there was a place beyond China where you did not age but remained just as you were when you had arrived. And what of the monsters, William wanted to know. Had any of the monstrous races been seen? He was told they had not.

William had been on the other side of the Alexandrian divide and had seen no dog-headed men, but that does not seem to have shaken his belief in the story of Alexander’s Gate. If he had not seen much in the way of monsters, there had certainly been barbarism enough for his tastes, as he’d made clear from his first encounter with the Mongols, and there’d been demonic activity too. There was that pass the party went through on the way to Mongke’s encampment where demons were said to prowl, and then there was the demon William identified as the cause of Mongke’s wife’s sickness. And he heard stories of other demons. When he writes about what he’s learned of the shamans and their roles in Mongol society, demons, from his perspective, play a part in that too, being conjured up to dispense oracles or shouting over a dwelling to warn of an escaped Hungarian who hid within. All of that was on the other side.

They came down into the Mughan plain of what is now Azerbaijan. They crossed a bridge of boats secured to an iron chain where the Kura and Araxes rivers met, and then they followed the Araxes, going southwest, and stopping in for wine at the home of Baiju, the commander that Ascelin of Lombardy had met with in 1247. From November they followed the river, extremely thankful, I’m sure, to not be spending their winter in the Mongol camp, but it was wintery enough still for William to regret not being able to visit the source of the Euphrates because of the great snowfalls which had made such side-ventures impossible. William and Gosset celebrated the Christmas feast as best they could in a tiny Armenian church, one of what had once been 800 but was now only 2, in a once “very large and beautiful city,” “reduced by the [Mongols] almost to a wilderness.” The next day, its priest died.

Now, on this side of Alexander’s walls, they were in a world permeated by magic of a different kind. They were near the Church where St Bartholomew had been martyred, and St Judas Thaddaeus too, and not far away was the mountain where it was claimed Noah’s ark had come to ground and wood brought down from it to the church by an angel. And from an Armenian bishop, he heard of a prophecy. He had heard it before, from Armenians in Constantinople, but now he gave it more attention.

It was said that a great race of archers would come and conquer the entirety of the east; they would take everything from north down to south, would come to Constantinople itself, and would take its harbour. But then, one of them, known as the Wise Man, would enter the city. He would would see the churches there and he would see himself baptized before advising the Franks on how to kill the Mongol leader. Chaos would then reign in the Mongol empire, and Franks and Armenians alike would take up the pursuit of the shattered enemy, resulting in Frankish rule in Persia. “Then [would] follow the conversion to the Christian faith of all the people of the east and all the unbelievers, and such peace [would] reign in the world that the living [would] say to the dead, ‘Alas for you who have not lived to see these times.’” 

“Just as the souls in Limbo [were] waiting for the coming of Christ so as to be set free,” the bishop told William, “so we are waiting … in order to be delivered from this slavery we have been in for so long.” The Armenians had a while still to wait.

For another 3 weeks the snow held them before they could journey on. They reached the north east of present-day Turkey at the beginning of February, arriving at Ani, “the city of 1001 churches,” and capital of the old Armenian kingdom, and William noted that indeed it had “a thousand Armenian churches” and two mosques. From there it was west to Erzincan where a terrible earthquake that year had that killed 10,000, “not counting the poor;” the ground visibly split open where they rode and earth piled down from the mountains to clog valleys. More earthly violence was ahead at the sight of the Mongols’ 1243 victory over the Seljuk Sultanate. There, the quake had opened up a great lake on the plain where battle had occurred and William seemed to savour the thought that, quote “the whole [plain] had ‘opened her mouth,’ to swallow now the blood of the [Muslims].”

By the end of April, they were in Sivas, or Sebaste, the sight of the Forty Martyrs, the Christian Roman soldiers who had been executed by exposure on the frozen lake in the 4th century, and William visited their grave. 

The travellers were not proceeding as quickly as they might. Their guide was intentionally holding them back so as to be able to make the most of the requisition order he carried, and when they were in areas where it didn’t apply, it was worse. He’d pocket the money intended for food and then seize a sheep by force when the opportunity presented itself. William didn’t complain though. He was too concerned about the possibility of he and the servants being slain or sold into slavery.

They did eventually reach Konya, the Seljuk capital, around the 19th of April, 1255, and their guide presented them there to the sultan. Between the sultan and a helpful Genoese trader, Friar William and his company were dispatched on to the coast despite their lack of gifts to their guide, and now William was only a few hops from the end of his journey. It was Cyprus on June 16th and Antioch on the 29th, and from these he travelled in the company of another friar, arriving at Tripoli in time for the meeting of their chapter on the 15th of August. It was 27 months since he’d embarked on the Black Sea. 

William didn’t want his journey to end there. At least in writing he expressed the wish that he could report to King Louis in person, which would have meant travelling to France to see him, but the Minister of his order wouldn’t have it; maybe it was discomfort over William’s coziness with the king, maybe the pressing need for him to the remain in the region and work; maybe William didn’t really want to do any more travelling at all. Whatever the cause, now that he had returned, he was to teach in Acre and could communicate whatever he needed to the French king in writing. Just as well for us that that was the case, or perhaps we would not have such a record to go by.

The Franciscan wrapped up his report with an assessment of the Anatolian situation. It was overwhelmingly not Turkish, he reassured his king; it was Greek and Armenian, and the Seljuk Sultanate was weakened by scheming, plotting, infighting, and defeat by the Mongols; “Hence it is,” he said, “that Turkia is ruled by a boy, possessed of no funds, few warriors and numerous enemies. [The Nicaean Emperor] is sickly and is at war with the [Bulgarian Tsar], who is likewise a mere lad and whose power has been eroded by the [Mongol] yoke.”

It would be so easy, he was telling the king, for Christian forces to pass through or conquer all these regions. The time was ripe, and it was but forty days’ journey with wagons to reach Constantinople from Cologne and fewer than that to then travel on to Armenia; and you didn’t need to pay the costs of travel by sea or endure its dangers. Finally, if the Christian peasants were only “willing to travel in the way the [Mongol] princes move[d] and to be content with a similar diet, they could conquer the whole world.” The friar was extremely enthusiastic for King Louis to return to the crusade, and Louis would be back eventually, but not until 1270. Even then, he would not be going overland into Anatolia as his friar friend had suggested; he would take the sea route, and he would die of dysentery outside Tunis, roughly a month after landing.

What else had William reported? Unlike Carpine, he had little to say of tactics, capabilities, or recommendations on military matters of any kind, but he did cover other points extensively, giving information on the various peoples who lived within the enormous Mongol domains, their religious practices, the Christians of the east if through a distorted glass, the political positions of Batu and Mongke, and their reception of embassies and other missions.

Potential crusades and the Mongol use of weapons were not the main thrust of his journey after all. What was William’s conclusion as to his religious expedition among the Mongols? First, we should note that he failed to find those German slaves which he’d been asking after. He passed quite close, but knew nothing of it at the time, only later learning that they had all been relocated and employed in mining and in the making of weapons, another abandoned splinter of written history, to my knowledge at least. 

Then there are his thoughts on further religious ventures. In Ani, that city of 1,001 churches, he’d met a party of Dominicans who were on their way to Mongol lands with letters from the pope to Sartaq and Mongke asking that they be allowed to remain and preach; it was very similar to what William and Bartholomew had been doing, but astonishingly, they had “only one serving-lad in poor health, who knew Turkish and a few words of French.” That didn’t scream success, and William had a pretty good idea of what kind of welcome they’d receive. He told them of his own experience, that the letters would indeed get them through safely if that was what they wanted, but that if their only reason for being there was to preach then they would be listened to by nobody, especially without a capable interpreter, William by now really understanding the value of good translation. 

In the conclusion of his audience with Mongke and in the closing words of his report to Louis, William further emphasised this idea that a purely religious mission to the Mongols was pointless. In that final exchange with the khan, he’d bemoaned that as he was not an ambassador he was not free to say what he would like to. An ambassador could speak his mind and would always be asked if there was more he wished to say. As a simple visitor invited to appear before the khan, the friar could only answer the questions which were put to him. 

And his report ended with much the same thought, that no friar should make any further journey of the kind he had made to the Mongols, for to do so was futile. William had shown up in costume, with beautiful books and sacred objects, and chanted in song, but it had made no dent in their courtly attitude of curiosity. Friar William had been received as but another exotic tidbit washed up on the Mongols’ beach. Now if the pope were to send a bishop as an official ambassador and make a real show of it, to do so “in some style,” and to answer the Mongols’ letters in strength, then that would be useful. However, he concludes, the effort would need to be supported by “a good interpreter - several interpreters, in fact - and plentiful supplies.” No more shoestring operations, in other words, featuring friars in ones or twos to appear as humble little figures before the emperor; what was called for was the big gesture, a grand show of power to match that of the khan and to address him on equal footing, a difficult thing to project all the way to Karakorum.

Finally, we can look at William’s words as he left Mongke’s encampment, a quantitative summary of his time: “We baptized there a total of six souls.” It was no great turning of the tide.

And that’s where we’ll leave Friar William to his teaching in Acre. There are other stories in his report, and maybe I’ll return to them at some point. I’d love for example to do something from the perspective of the apparently incompetent interpreter Homo Dei / Abdullah, but that would need to be more speculative than what I’ve been doing here. Then there’s the khan having learned that 400 of the Assassins had been sent in disguise to kill him, which is clearly the plot for a movie. And there’s more too, but that’ll have to be for another time. Thanks for listening, everyone. I hope you’ve been enjoying this run of episodes on the Mongols and travellers to them because there will be more on the way. In fact, the most famous of travellers among the Mongols is still to come, and I’ll soon be starting in on the story of Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. But we need to get there first, so next episode, we’ll set the table with the rise of the brothers Hulagu and Kublai. Talk to you then.


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

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

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

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

To See the Mongols 5: The Great Debate

Audience with Mongke Khan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To See the Mongols 4: A William Leaves Town


When last we spoke, Mongke Khan was cleaning up after his rise to power. He’d gained the support of the khan in the northwest, Batu the kingmaker, the most senior of the Genghisid royal family still remaining. He’d turned back the attempts, both political and more confrontational, of his cousins in the Chagatai and Ogedei lines. He’d violently disposed of the former regent, who sank beneath the surface of a river wrapped in cloth. And soon he’d be issuing orders for the next phases of the Mongol Empire’s expansion: sending his brothers out, Hulagu into Persia and Kublai further into China.

His counterpart in this story and the focus of this episode had also been busy, but with perhaps less grandiose impact upon the world. He’d been in Cyprus as 1248 turned into 1249. He’d travelled with King Louis IX’s army into Egypt. He’d parted with King Louis IX in Jaffa in 1253, had stopped in Acre, and then preached in crusader-held Constantinople on April the 13th of the same year, receiving a letter of introduction from the Latin Emperor Baldwin to the closest Mongol commander. And from there and then he had departed, to evangelize and to provide comfort and instruction, particularly to a population of German prisoners who were said to be held by the Mongols. Fortunately for us, he wrote a letter to Louis detailing his journey and all that he had learned, more a book really than a letter. His name is sometimes recorded as Willem van Roeysbroek and sometimes as William of Rubruck. I’ll be going with just William here. 

Last episode, we saw the end of Guyuk Khan’s rule and covered some of the travellers who went east or west in his time to connect the empire to Latin Christendom: Ascelin of Lombardy, Andre de Longjumeau, the Mongol envoys David and Mark who met with Louis on Cyprus, and Aibeg and Serkis who travelled to the Pope in Lyon. For this episode, we will be following in the footsteps of Friar William as he makes his way across the Black Sea and to the east, towards the camp of Mongke Khan. We won’t quite get there today, but we will be meeting with Mongol royalty. 

From the comparative luxury of Carpine’s fairly well documented origins, we must now return to a pretty vague picture of our central character. Let’s start with a date of birth. That was somewhere between 1215 and 1230, and that broad range gives us a pretty clear indication of how painfully un-clear this man’s early life is to us. 

We do know that he was a Flemish Franciscan and that he either travelled with Louis on the crusades or, as there is some indication of, was already teaching in Nicosia and joined Louis there. But either way, he does seem to have been close to the royal family. There’s the implication that he counted the king among his quote/unquote “spiritual friends,” and his few belongings which he took on the trip included a beautifully illuminated bible given to him by the queen. We should also consider the purpose of William’s journey. It has sometimes been presented as a kind of undercover diplomatic mission on Louis’ behalf, the French king feeling understandably hesitant after previous efforts, but William’s own statements on the matter as well as his actions seem to indicate a more personally motivated religious mission. 

Even so, when William departed, he did so with Louis’ clerk Gosset who carried coins donated by the king and a letter to Batu’s son Sartaq who, it had been widely reported, had converted to Christianity. William clearly had Louis’ support. Perhaps the king still held out hope that Christianity among the Mongol leadership might lead to cooperation, or maybe he just recognized the value of the kind of first-hand intelligence the mission might provide. As we’ll see, Friar William was an exceptionally observant fellow. From the practices of the Mongol shamans, to the physical traits he found so unappealing, to the day to day dietary concerns of his journey, he was going to provide no shortage of details to the man he addresses at the beginning of his report as “most Christian lord, Louis, by the grace of God illustrious King of the French.”

William did not go alone. With him were Gosset the aforementioned clerk, an Italian friar named Bartholomew of Cremona, a boy named Nicholas who they’d buy in Constantinople, and an interpreter who was going to cause him some trouble. This last member of the party is recorded by William as Homo Dei, or “man of god,” but some have suggested that his name may actually have been Abdullah/Abd-Allah, or “servant of god.”

The travellers entered the Black Sea on the 7th of May, 1253, and immediately, we know we are traversing a religious landscape, one alive with spiritual history and with miracles. There, on what we would call the Crimean Peninsula, was the city where St Clement was martyred, exiled from Rome around the end of the first century and executed by being thrown in the sea tied to an anchor. There, William writes, they sailed past “a temple said to have been built by the hands of angels,” said in fact to have risen in marble on the very spot where the saint had been cast into the water.

William also connects the area to more contemporary relations and trade. He notes the city of Soldaia, or Sudaq, where they landed, as being a gateway through which merchants passed between what he terms Turkia and the northern regions, carrying squirrel and other valuable furs to the south, and cotton, silk, and spices in the other direction. Further east was the city of Matrica, where Constantinople’s traders would come to buy dried fish, sturgeon, shad, and eel, and surrounding cities are also described in terms of whose territory they fall within and to whom they pay tribute.

In Soldaia, we get the first taste of what will become an ongoing and delicate issue for William and his colleagues. Were they envoys and official representatives of the king, and to be treated as such? Not according to William, but here, he was given little choice to define himself, for, contrary to his publicly stated words, a group of merchants had arrived in the city before him and let it be known that official ambassadors indeed were on the way; they warned William that if he contradicted them, he would not receive the safe-conduct which was provided to ambassadors.

As it happened, everything went smoothly in the city. Its prefects happened to be away delivering tribute to Batu, but their deputies welcomed the friars, putting them up in a church, and telling them “many favourable things about [Sartaq],” which, a trifle ominously, William notes “were not [his] own later experience.” 

They also offered the party a choice, a choice which gives us a bit of a window in on the logistics and practicalities of this kind of arduous land journey. Would they prefer ox-drawn wagons or pack horses for their baggage? Choosing horses granted a plus 8 bonus to speed, but naturally their were also drawbacks to balance the game. William was advised that covered wagons would be best, or else they’d need to unload everything wherever and whenever they stopped to rest for the evening. The advice seemed sound to him, as it does to me, but he writes that they later regretted it. Instead of the one month the trip to Sartaq might have taken by horse, theirs was to take two. 

But off they went, the five riding horses, and with them wagons containing wine and rich biscuit to give as presents, bedding, vestments, and presumably some food options other than the wine and biscuit if they weren’t to consume their presents before their arrival. 

Two days after leaving Soldaia, they encountered Mongols. William writes: 

When I came among them I really felt as if I were entering some other world. Their life and character I shall describe for you as best I can.

As best he could turned out be quite well. William was an observant traveller with a good eye for details. He described the breeches made of pelts, lined with silk for the wealthy and with cotton cloth or soft wool for the less fortunate; he noted the process for making the fermented mare’s milk and how it stung the tongue but left an appealing aftertaste of almonds and “a very agreeable sensation inside;” he expressed an uncharacteristic degree of alarm at the appearance of the Mongol women: “[They] are astonishingly fat,” he wrote. “The less nose one has, the more beautiful she is considered… .” And this won’t be the last we hear from William on the topic of Mongol women’s noses, which seem for some reason to have really bothered him.

William’s first encounter with the Mongols, the one that left him feeling as though he had entered some other world, appears to have gone reasonably well, though he might not agree. The party was surrounded and, being made to wait, they sat in the shade of their wagons for shelter from the sun. They were asked first if they had ever been in region before. The answer being a no, the welcoming committee demanded, quite brazenly William felt, some of their rations, so our travellers coughed up some of the biscuit and wine they’d brought from the city. Finishing the first flagon, the Mongols, number unspecified, pressed for more drink saying, “a man does not enter a house on one foot.” Exasperated, William and his colleagues gave it to them, indicating also that they could really give no more. 

Other questions were asked, and the topic did eventually come around to the friars’ purpose, with William stating that they carried a letter to Sartaq and being very careful to avoid presenting himself as an envoy or giving any impression that he had been sent by the king. And there were questions as to what rich delights they might be carrying to Sartaq and whether they might bring them out to show; there were requests for bread and close inspection of all knives, gloves, purses, and belts in sight, but against all of this William stood firm, saying that the travellers still had too far to go to be unloading useful items now. At this, he was called an imposter, a pretty serious charge as we’ll see, but their interrogators let them pass with a 2-man escort and off they went.

As Carpine had before him, William grumbled at what he took to be an incurable greed carried out in “highly persistent and impudent fashion.” He complained that actually giving something to these people was entirely wasted, for it was met with no gratitude, while failing to do so could have consequence later were you to require some service. He took his leave of this group feeling, quote, “as if [he] had escaped from the clutches of demons.” Unfortunately for William, the journey to the heart of the Mongol empire was going to necessitate a series of such demons holding him in their clutches.

The next one was going to be a relation of Batu’s who William names Scacatai, and our travellers don’t find him encamped. They encounter him on the road, his dwellings carried on carts towards them, and they’re amazed at the sight of this rolling city passing over the land, at the great flocks of sheep, the vast herds of oxen and horses, and at the comparatively few men who could be seen steering it all. This Scacatai, they learned, had only 500 men beneath him, and half of them were elsewhere at another camp.

Despite the relatively modest number of his men, he was of course going to require some gifts. Such his interpreter made clear to them after first indicating that he himself would need some food and cloth for bringing them before his commander. Mustering another flagon of wine, a jar of biscuits, and a plate of fruit, the friars went forward to Scacatai’s tent on the 5th of June, 1253. 

They found him seated at a couch with a guitar-like instrument in his hand and beside him his wife, and William presumably didn’t voice his reaction to her nose, that he was “really under the impression that she had amputated the bridge of [it].” And things went quite well really. Their somewhat apologetic offering was accepted and shared out on the spot, their intentions to go speak of the Christian faith with Sartaq were restated, and their letter from the Emperor in Constantinople was received and sent away to be translated. Until that translation was returned, they were to travel with Scacatai, and, again, two men were assigned to them

William’s time travelling with the commander was not without value. It brought the friars into contact with some interesting people and gives us a look at their religious work. First, was a group of Alans, a people of the Caucasus region and Christians of the Greek rite. These men were concerned, as William writes many Russian and Hungarian Christians were, that they might not be saved because of the life they led beneath the Mongols. They could not observe feast days, even if they knew when they were, and had to drink the fermented mare’s milk and eat what had been slaughtered by Muslims and, quote, “other infidels.” No mention is made here of the violence they were obliged to do to fellow Christians on behalf of the Mongols but presumably that also weighed on their minds. It was a tension that was not at all unique to the enslaved, that the life one was obliged to lead did not seem to correspond to Christian ideals. William unfortunately does not go into further detail here, only that he “set them right as best he could.”

The practical difficulties of living a religious life are immediately enforced in William’s story by the arrival of a Muslim who in the course of their conversation becomes interested in converting. Just on the cusp of baptism, he leaves hurriedly saying he would need to consult his wife, and when he returns, he is adamant that he will never convert; it is believed by Christians of the region that one could not be Christian and drink the fermented mare’s milk, and this man’s claim is that survival without the drink is not possible, that the local conditions and manageable diet do not allow it. William tries to convince the man that in fact it’s very possible to drink and be Christian - he’s already tasted the milk himself - but he cannot be convinced, and the episode ends with William in despair at the misinformation spread through the region about Christianity, a situation he blames squarely on the Russians.

Meanwhile, the translated letter had returned, and now the friars were sent on to Sartaq, their intended destination, with an escort, a goat, several skins of cow’s milk, and a little mare’s milk. And this was badly needed. Their wine had recently run out, and William credits only their biscuits and the grace of God for staving off death.

It was the 9th of June, and as they reached the edge of Scacatai’s territory, they felt they “had passed through one of the gates of hell.” The party travelled with the sea to their south, recording the geography that the Kipchaks had once inhabited. William writes: 

As we headed east, then, all we saw was the sky and the ground and on occasions, to our right, a sea called the Sea of Azov; and also Kipchack graves, which were visible to us two leagues off, owing to their practice of burying members of one family all together.

He also notes the ceaseless and brazen thieving of their guides, but it wasn’t only the guides who were making matters difficult for them. When they stopped at encampments, they were pressed on all sides, quite literally and physically, by crowds who trampled over them to get a look at what they had, and all the while their limited food ran low. 

Putting a cap on this bundle of negativity, William was extremely frustrated in his attempts to preach to the locals, the only possible saving grace of their mobbing round the party when it stopped. His interpreter was not at all up to the task of communicating religious ideas of any sort. Indeed, when William picked up some small amount of the Mongol language he’d realize the danger of communicating through the man at all, that whatever William or his companions said, this interpreter was just as likely to present it as something entirely different. 

Additionally, it appeared that their guide was little better. A misunderstanding on his part led to them losing their animals, and though they managed to find replacement oxen, they would need to walk with the wagons. And they don’t seem to have known where they were going. They were exhausted, slogging through unfamiliar wilderness with no sign of other people. Only the appearance of a pair of horses, rushing at them out of nowhere, provided a bright spot and allowed the guide and interpreter to go off together in search of human habitation. 

Finally, “like shipwrecked men coming into harbour,” they found people, found horses, found oxen, and found their way to the yam system, allowing them to hop from station to station and into Sartaq’s encampment on July 31st.

Sartaq was the son of Batu, and in just a few years, in 1256, he’d be very briefly inheriting command of Batu’s ulus, the House of Jochi, the Golden Horde. For now though he was encamped 3 days journey from the Volga river and to the northwest of the Caspian Sea. The friars’ particular interest in him was religious. It had after all been reported that Sartaq was a Christian, and this was why Louis was writing to him in particular. Was Sartaq a Christian though? Was he just a Mongol ruler whose territory saw many people of many faiths pass through, including religious figures who competed for influence at his court? Was he merely happy to receive gifts from all?

There are some indications that he was in fact a Christian. Firstly, he said so, or his chaplain did  before the pope in 1254, a year after William met him. Of course, we can’t necessarily take his word on this; there may well have been other motives, but other people said he was Christian too. Contemporaries in the Syriac and Armenian Christian worlds viewed him as one of their own, and Muslims of the time also identified him as Christian. So what did William think?

William’s first impression was simply of an incredibly large camp, each of his 6 wives apparently having to themselves up to 200 wagons to start with. Their first audience was with a Nestorian named Quyaq, an important member of the court, and their guide was appalled to see they were bringing nothing to this Quyaq as a guest; perhaps it would reflect poorly on him. However, when they presented themselves to the man, as he sat with people dancing to the sounds of a guitar before him, he waived away their apologetic statement that “as one who had relinquished his own belongings, [William] could not be the bearer of what belonged to others.” Despite the guide’s misgivings, Quyaq found the explanation entirely proper, and after reassuring them that he would rather give them something of his own if they were in need, had them seated and served with milk. The meeting seems to have been friendly enough; Quyaq requested that they say a blessing for him, and they encountered one of the men who’d travelled to meet Louis back in Cyprus.

The next day they appeared for Sartaq himself, and they were requested to do so with their books and ornaments, and all their vestments. Quyaq seems to have initially believed that they intended to give it all to his master, but that unfortunate misunderstanding having been navigated, they came before Sartaq’s tent, looking, I’m sure, quite exotic to the Mongol court within, who had the felt hanging at the entrance thrown up for the viewing. William stood in his best vestments, a fine cushion held to his chest, the Bible given to him by Louis, and “a most beautiful psalter given [him] by … the Queen, containing very fine illuminations.” Beside him, Friar Bartholomew held a missal and a cross, while Gosset the clerk bore the thurible. They were told to chant a blessing and, dutifully singing the Salve Regina, they entered, and behind them came a crowd of Mongols who’d gathered round to watch the show. 

Within the tent, there was a bench with drinks and goblets to the side and in front of them Sartaq and his wives, whose noses seem all to have escaped William’s critical eye. Quyaq passed around the Christian curiosities, to Sartaq first, and to the wife sitting next to him. They examined the thurible and incense, the psalter, the Bible, the cross, and they asked questions. “Does this contain the Gospel?” “Is this the image of Christ?” They seem to have been genuinely curious. William meanwhile, took a dim view of the Nestorian practice of not putting Christ on their crosses. The audience wrapped up with the presentation of Louis’ letter which was then, again, to be translated.

But it seems like Sartaq didn’t quite understand or believe that they weren’t there as ambassadors for King Louis, and there was a good reason why. The letter Louis wrote was supposedly a greeting from one Christian leader to another with the request that William and Bartholomew be allowed to stay and preach in the Mongol leader’s territory. However, William would later realize that somehow in translation it had become a request that the Mongols come to his aid against the Muslims. This rather more substantial matter was really something that Sartaq felt he couldn’t rule on independently; the issue needed to go higher up, so William and the rest were headed off to see the father, Batu.  

They wouldn’t see Sartaq again on the way out the door, but they would be seeing more of Quyaq and his brother the priest. And irritations were in store there. On the day of their departure, Quyaq’s brother was going to be merrily pulling out the books and vestments from among their belongings. When they protested that they were supposed to appear before Batu with them, they were dismissed with a “Do not talk so much, and be on your way.” With there being no way for them to seek Sartaq’s intercession and with the unpleasant possibility that their somewhat suspect translator had made a generous gift on their behalf, they simply had to swallow their loss and be on their way.

So what did William make of his host’s supposed Christianity? Was his assessment coloured at all by being plundered on departure? William here relates an interesting thing he was told by Quyaq and a number of other court secretaries: “Do not say that our master is a Christian. He is not a Christian; he is a Mongol.” William took this to mean that they understood the term “a Christian” much as they did “a Frank,” as the name of a people, a people of which they were not a part. “Whether Sartaq believes in Christ or not,” William wrote, “I do not know. What I do know is that he does not wish to be called a Christian: in fact my impression is rather that he makes sport of Christians.” William believed that Sartaq’s professed Christianity was very much a product of being on a route taken by Christians and, when they passed through on their way to his father bringing gifts, he was entirely welcoming to them. His uncle Berka, on the other hand was on a route taken by Muslims and, low and behold, proclaimed himself a Muslim.

For what it’s worth, Sartaq’s Christianity was, as I mentioned, widely accepted by his contemporaries. Maybe when they said of him that “he is not a Christian; he is a Mongol,” they meant only that he was, above and beyond all else, a Mongol first, and that if challenged to define himself in one word, that word would not be “Christian.” Clearly, it would not be William’s first choice of words to define him. 

As his journey into Mongol lands continued, William would grow more disillusioned with the Christian possibilities of his hosts, particularly those of the Nestorian Christians. In his issue with the Nestorians, specifically the Naiman people, he leads us back to our recurring companion, and eventual subject of a future series, Prester John. What was the connection there?

William speaks of a Christian King John among the Naiman, brother to Genghis’ benefactor and protector turned adversary Ong Khan. He says of the the Nestorians that “only a tenth of what they said about him was true.” He himself was going to pass through the very lands where this most glorious John had apparently ruled and find nobody beyond the odd Nestorian who even knew remotely who he was talking about; and this is not the limit of the misinformation he lays at the Nestorians’ feet. They were, he argues, more broadly prone to lies and rumour-mongering. It was they who had made it known that Sartaq was a Christian, that Mongke and Guyuk were Christians, “And yet,” William writes, “the fact is that they are not Christians.”

William was headed next to Batu, a man we’ve already visited on the Carpine journey, and he was not at all feeling confident about the trip. Just as Carpine had mentioned the risk of Ruthenians along the way, William and his party moved in some fear of imminent attack. There were Russians, Hungarians, and others who had been enslaved and then escaped, and in small groups they were very likely to kill any who they encountered. The friars’ guide was himself apparently quite scared of this possibility, and this can’t have been reassuring. That, and there were the legends of local “dogs so large and ferocious that they attack[ed] bulls and kill[ed] lions.” And if this weren’t enough, food or lack thereof was, as always, a source of worry. By biscuit now, they sustained life as they reached the Volga, the great river that was something of an elevator, bearing arrivals like themselves to whichever floor Batu then happened to be dwelling on.

Batu’s camp, you see, moved with the seasons. The grandson of the great khan Genghis, he was not so far removed from their nomadic traditions as to be settled in a static position, and he moved along the east bank of the Volga, upstream in the summer and then, as the friars found him, beginning to move downstream. 

A boat carried them from a settlement Batu had established on the west bank for the purpose, it’s ferrymen finding the khan’s court on the east, and, again, William was amazed at the sight of a full Mongol camp. He’d seen one commander’s tents rolling towards him, then Sartaq’s, and both times he’d been quite taken by their appearance. Now, as he neared Batu’s camp, he was “struck with awe.” It was like a large city, stretching out lengthways in every direction for 3 or 4 leagues, every direction save for to the south of Guyuk’s residence itself, the direction which its entrance opened on. 

The day after their arrival, they were called before Batu. They came before him, not, as William says Carpine had, adapted to local dress so as not to invite derision towards a representative of the pope, but in habits, with heads uncovered and in bare feet. They came to the centre of the tent, and they saw him there, on a sofa overlaid entirely in gold, three steps up from the ground and with one of his wives beside him, with his other wives on his left and men to his right. They stood before him, and William was struck by his red-blotched face and his bodily resemblance to the lord John of Beaumont, a man whose dimensions are sadly lost to us. They stood before him in silence, long enough William thought to recite Psalm 51, “Have mercy on me, O God … Do not fling me from thy presence.” The time passed. And then he told them to speak.

On one knee they went, and then it was signalled that they should be on both. What should one say in such a situation? How do you begin? Like interviewing for a job before a one-way mirror, the cultural divide, and the language divide bridged only by interpreters you could not entirely trust, would make it difficult to feel your way through the situation, to move reactively. You had to simply speak your piece, to present yourself as best you could and hope you got the job or at least that you were allowed to return with your head still attached. What to say? 

Thinking himself on both knees as if at prayer, William said a rather pointed one: 

My lord, we pray God, from whom all good things do proceed, that having conferred on you these earthly possessions, He will in time grant you heavenly ones, without which these are nothing. ... Be absolutely sure that you will not possess the things of Heaven without having become Christian. For God says, “He that believeth and is baptized, shall be saved: but that believith not shall be condemned.”

By other tellings, William told the Khan of the west that he “would perish eternally and be condemned to everlasting fire.” And there was laughter in response, maybe at William’s words or maybe at Batu’s response, that where a nurse allowed a few drops of milk to fall into the baby’s mouth, the sweet taste encouraging it to suck, this foreign teaching had been offered with the encouragement not of sweet milk but of everlasting punishment. There was derisive clapping, jeering probably, but all of this went untranslated over William’s head. He heard the laughter and saw his translator’s stricken face, but he pressed on. “I came to your son [Sartaq] because we heard he was a Christian, and brought him a letter from my lord the King of the French. He sent me here to you. You must know the reason.” 

The interview eventually hit its stride, however uncomfortably it had begun, and William and his colleague were invited to partake of the ever-present mare’s milk and questioned as to their lord and who he was at war with. William didn’t know it then, but it was presumably a line of questioning that related specifically to their apparent request for military support. 

They sat and drank in Batu’s company, and if we are tempted to think this a regular day at the office for William, its strangeness is underlined by the demands that they raise their heads. William didn’t know if it was simply because the Khan wanted to see their faces or because of belief in some kind of witchcraft, that a downturned or sad face in his presence foreshadowed evil, but he complied.

Again, though, the meeting was successful enough. Certainly, nobody would be losing their head, and the friars were not about to be firmly asked to vacate the Mongol domains. However, it brought new burdens. Batu had decided that they ought to present themselves to the Great Khan, Mongke, so that’s where they’d be headed next.

And that’s where we’ll be headed next episode. I hope you’ve enjoyed William’s journey so far, and I hope you’ve enjoyed our journeys together in 2017. It’s been fun to do these podcasts, to have some outlet for this reading and writing I like to do, and it’s much more so to know there is somebody, that there are somebodies, at the other end of this process listening. It means a lot to me. So I hope you’ve been enjoying it too. 

Happy New Years, everyone. I hope you enjoyed your Christmas, your Saturnalia, your Festivus, or whatever other winter festival you choose or are obliged to partake in. Thanks all of you, and I’ll talk to you again in a few weeks.


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

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

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

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

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

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

To See the Mongols 3: An Interregnum

Ascelin of Lombary Delivers a Letter from Pope Innocent IV to Baiju the Mongol General

Hello, and welcome back. I’m Devon, and this is Human Circus.

It is written that in 1235 a member of the Dominican order set off from Hungary on a kind of quest. This Friar Julian had learned of another, older land of Hungarians, or Magyars, to the east, ones who had never left their ancestral homeland for what would be Hungary, so he went to look for them. In the course of his journey, it’s said that his entire party died one after the other, leaving him to go on alone, but he was ultimately successful, indeed finding a community of Magyars living in what he called Magna Hungaria and finding himself entirely able to communicate with them. And entirely able to hear from them of a storm approaching from the east, of an enemy that was beginning to threaten their borders. Friar Julian brought a warning to his king, Bela IV of Hungary, that they were coming, that they wanted world domination, that Rome was next, and that they were particularly aggrieved with Bela for his taking in the Kipchak refugees after their defeat by the Mongols. 

Two years after his first excursion, he would be unable to return the same way, for that enemy had arrived and had shattered the Magyars, killing or taking them into captivity. And as we know from last episode, in 1241 they would be in Hungary itself. Bela’s army would be obliterated, and the king himself would be fleeing from town to town, desperately making deals to claw his way back into control over his kingdom. And Latin Christendom would have to take notice. There had been warnings before; the Queen of Georgia had apologized in writing for her inability to contribute to the 5th crusade because of a barbaric invasion from the east, but now they would be scrambling to understand the new reality. A big part of that would involve the gathering of intelligence and the delivering of pleas and demands, and that would require the great efforts of human individuals exposing themselves to the unknown in unfamiliar lands, realms which had to some extent receded from their view into the haze of Plinian fantasy, Alexandrian epic, biblical time, and the tantalizing promise of the priest-king Prester John. 

Over the last two episodes, we heard about Euro-Mongol relations through the unlikely body of Friar Carpine. We’re going to continue with that theme today touching on a couple of different diplomatic missions to and from the Mongol empire. I’ll also be covering some of the history, some of the events occurring between the Carpine mission and that of our next major traveller. When we look at the khanate of this period, we’ll see another death, another interregnum, and a new khan. First though, let’s get ourselves caught up. 

I didn’t spend much time last episode on saying who exactly the Mongols were save for who they were in Carpine’s view, but I think it might be helpful to quickly establish the basics here before continuing. Who are we talking about when we say someone is a Mongol? The answer to this question in a way depends on when you ask it.

You could ask the question in 1167, 1162, or maybe 1155. Those are some of the dates given for Genghis Khan’s birth. Then the answer would be something like this: A Mongol is a member of one of a number of independent nomadic clans seasonally migrating across a space in the north/northeast of Mongolia with the Kereyids to the south, Merkids to the northwest, Naimans to the east, and the Tatars, with whom they were constantly confused, to the southeast. There had been one before who had attempted to unite the Mongols, but there was no longer. Life revolved around the sheep and the horse: the former for meat, milk, and cheese, as well as for clothing and the construction of their tents, or gers; the latter for transportation, hunting, raids, warfare, and the fermented mare’s milk which they seem to have enjoyed so heavily. Religion was shamanistic, with powerful figures providing prophecies, facilitating ancestor worship, and liaising between the immediate world and the land’s spirits which pierced it, with the highest place given to Tengri the Eternal Sky. From The Secret History of the Mongols, we have a sense of a world of familial feuds and cycles of violence from which one could not entirely shield oneself, but only flee for one’s life.

Consider the circumstances of Genghis’ birth. A Merkid man is travelling on horseback. With him him on a cart is his new wife who he is bringing home, but to his folly, he is otherwise travelling alone. Happening to spot him is another man, a Mongol who is out hawking and who, seeing the unusual beauty of the woman in the cart, races off to gather his two brothers. Shortly after, the Merkid sees the three brothers riding towards him and has no doubts as to their intentions. Also seeing them, his wife speaks: 

Do you see the look on the faces of those men? They wish to kill you. As long as you remain alive, there will be girls on the front seats of carts and women in the black-covered wooden carts. If you live, you will perhaps find a girl or a woman for yourself… Save yourself.

And that’s often how it seemed to be in these early Mongol stories. Faced with raids, the men who could do so would escape, would evade their attackers and hope to later retake what they had lost or just to strike a blow in return. So it was in this story, as the Merkid man rode off, eventually losing his pursuers over the hills. The hawker who had brought his brothers with him was Genghis’ father, the woman who was now led away on the cart, his mother. Years later, the Merkids would raid Genghis’ family, driving him from his home and seizing his wife Borte. And so the cycles went. 

Born with a blood-clot clutched tightly in his fist, Genghis was given the name Temujin at birth, after a Tatar recently captured or killed, and his early circumstances were not auspicious for the future domination of much of the Eurasian landmass. When he was quite young, his father was poisoned by Tatars who recognized an old enemy; his little family group was abandoned by their clan, its member seeing no benefit in supporting two women and 7 children; he’d feel it necessary to murder his bullying older half-brother; and he’d be taken captive and enslaved by that former clan. No, it was not a promising start in life, all in all, and his early years in the Secret History tend more towards his mother’s foraging for birch-leaf pear and wild onion and his learning to fish or hiding in thickets than to terrifying towns, cities, and cultures into submission. 

Thing were of course going to get better though, and my favourite description of this process is from writer David Morgan. This is his succinct summary of the tale of Genghis Khan. Quote, “First, individual followers are attracted by the young warrior’s personal qualities; then the support of a powerful patron is gained; ultimately there is a breach with that patron, and a gradual increase of strength is maintained as various tribes are one by one defeated and either killed, enslaved, or, in most cases, simply incorporated into the new Mongol military machine.” And that’s the whole story really. Sure, there are details missing, and taking the the whole thing as a story we might focus first on the relationship with his blood brother Jamukha, a close friendship leading to the bitterest of rivalries over Mongol leadership, but the general shape is there. After that, it’s just a matter of expansion. 

I’m not going to rehash the Genghis/Temujin narrative in its entirety, but I do want to pause for moment over this one part of the Morgan quotation, that “various tribes… were … incorporated into the new Mongol military machine.” Again and again in those early conquests, Genghis wasn’t just leading the same Mongol force against a series of opponents; he was growing the Mongol force and, as he did so, changing what it meant to be Mongol. His, what we might call, anti-aristocratic attitudes would certainly not appeal to all and many would be killed upon their defeat, really an understatement of the violence of Mongol growth, but my point is that many also joined this swelling Mongol nation and not only, as would also happen in large numbers, as slaves to be spent without care. Those who joined bent in some ways, in allegiance to their new Khan and in lining up within his system of military organization, his rules and expectations for conduct, but they came as Tatars, Kereyids, Naiman, Merkids, and later as Uyghers, Tanguts, and Khitan; they came as Nestorians or Buddhists or Muslims; they came as stockbreeding nomads, as hunters and fishers, or as more settled agriculturalists. And they changed what it was to be Mongol. So when the Mongols are entering Central Europe, they are not quite the same Mongols who’d successfully overcome their neighbours in Northern Mongolia. 

By this point when we ask the question, “what is a Mongol?” from an outsider’s perspective at least, our answer might be something more like this: one of a diverse many whose allegiance was to the khan and his family. Later still, the answer to our question would change again, as increasingly distinct reaches of Mongol rule became Persianized in the case of the Ilkhanate, or settled into China as with the Yuan Dynasty, or to some other corner of the great empire.

A fun example of this diversity in our period can be found in the European invasion, though it’s also a definite outlier not to be taken as indicative of the general run of things, and the source is not always reliable. I’m referring here to the writings of Matthew Paris, the 13th century chronicler of St Albans Abbey who records a letter sent to the Archbishop of Bordeaux from an Ivo of Narbonne. One the high points is this little tidbit: that eight Mongols were taken prisoner in fighting near Vienna and one of them, who had been employed by the Mongols as their envoy to the Hungarian King, was from England. There’s a little more in the letter of the Englishman’s history, of him being banished for crimes from England, losing all he had gambling in Acre, and wandering on lost to the world, only to be picked up by the Mongols who were impressed by his mastery of languages. I don’t know if any of this is true or not -there’s actually a highly speculative book on the topic of identifying this man if you’re interested- but it is a really scintillating possibility.

Matthew Paris has other material on the Mongol invasion of Europe, and what I find most interesting is the range of attitudes to the invasions which is revealed. In the same letter from Ivo which gave us the English Mongol, there’s an account of the unspeakable horrors of the attack, of brutal violence and its grisly aftermath including the cannibalism practiced by the Mongols’ dog-headed followers. More interesting to me though is the explanation of this disaster as resulting from the, quote, “heresy, and many other sinful things arising among us Christians,” that “the Lord has been roused to anger, and become an angry devastator, and most fearful avenger. This I say, because a fierce race of inhuman beings, whose law is lawlessness, whose wrath is fury, the rod of God’s anger, is passing through and horribly ravaging a wide tract of country, horribly exterminating with fire and sword everything that comes in their way.” If you listened to the Schiltberger series, you’ll already be familiar with this idea, that the successful enemy, Mongol or Turk, be considered God’s rod, an instrument of punishment for the sins and misdeeds of Christians. 

Elsewhere in the Paris writings, the recent disasters are given more earthly causes. A Jewish conspiracy is trotted out by way of explanation, along with the claim that the Jews of Europe believed these invaders to be long lost kinfolk who had been sealed up by Alexander behind the Caspian Mountains and that some even sought to bring aid to the Mongols in the form of smuggled weapons.  There is talk that the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II might have opened the door to the Mongols in seeking to use them to dominate the region and could thus dismiss them whenever he saw fit, but this is dismissed by Paris as only being said by those who were jealous of the emperor and not be believed. On the other hand, we have Frederick accusing the pope of turning Europe against him and thus dividing it, crippling its ability to respond to this danger. And the pope countered this accusation with his own, that Frederick had made some secret arrangement with the invaders, but of course, regardless of whether or not malicious intent or cooperation with the Mongols was involved, Europe was very divided. For example, Duke Frederick of Austria, a different Frederick, didn’t come to the aid of his neighbour in Hungary; he came to snaffle some free land, and that was really indicative of the possibilities of any united response, an expression of Carpine’s fears that Christian Europe would not be able to effectively cooperate, even in the face of such a fearsome adversary.   

Another fascinating moment from Paris,  if again not a well-supported one, is the arrival in England of a warning said to come from quite a surprising source. An embassy had apparently come to the French king and a representative sent on to the English telling of a monstrous and inhuman race that was a threat to them all, of men with outsized heads, and eaters of raw flesh, even human flesh. They were expert archers on swift horses, believed to have been sent forth as “a plague on mankind,” and only by combining all available forces in response to this terrible threat could it be overcome. Who had sent this warning, this call to armed cooperation?  According to Paris, it was the Old Man of the Mountain, the leader of the Assassins. Rashid ad-Din Sinan, to whom the Old Man of the Mountain usually refers, was in fact dead in 1192, but it remains a possibility that a later Nizari leader sought allies in Western Europe, and in England in particular. They’d had diplomatic dealings with the Crusader States, and they certainly had every reason to be concerned about the Mongols.  

Whoever it was that looked to England for help, Paris records the answer of the Bishop of Winchester, who “happened to be present,” and would not let them finish speaking, but rather interrupted, quote: “Let us leave these dogs to devour one another, that they may all be consumed, and perish, and we, when we proceed against the enemies of Christ who remain, will slay them, and cleanse the face of the Earth.” There would be no joint Anglo-Assassin anti-Mongol league born on that day. 

We know what happened in Eastern and Central Europe next, how, if there had been warning signs before, the Mongols now well and truly stormed into Central Europe, and European consciousness. And then left. Paris seems to indicate they were beaten back out of Hungary, which is a bit of an optimistic assessment of the strategic situation, but however the circumstances were being read, there was concern enough on the pope’s part to dispatch the religious diplomat/spy, Friar Carpine, who we learned about over the last two episodes. And if you listened to those, then you’ll remember that Carpine did not return with reassurances. Rather, he came with testimony as to the menace the Mongols posed, if any were now needed, a disturbing ultimatum from Guyuk Khan, and Carpine’s own assessment that the khan’s special attentions would be turned towards Europe next. What was to be done?

As I also alluded to last episode, other embassies had been sent out. A pair of Dominicans, Ascelin of Lombardy and Simon de Saint-Quentin, had made their way to the commander Baiju’s camp west of the Caspian Sea around the same time that Carpine was dragging himself back through Kiev, and at least one of them managed to make themselves very unwelcome. It seems Ascelin would offer neither the thrice-bent knee nor any form of gifts or tribute, instead taking to the offensive in speaking of the greatness of the pope and demanding the conversion of his hosts. However, this did not have the desired effect, not at all. Baiju was apparently all for flaying the friars alive and maybe even returning their newly stuffed skins to the pope by way of reply, but perhaps through the intervention of his wife, he restrained himself. Still, it was only with the arrival of Eljigidei, who Guyuk had sent west with the command of his armies, that the Dominicans were really out of the woods. Eljigidei packed them off with letters that echoed Guyuk’s earlier sentiments and in the company of two Mongol envoys, exactly the thing that Carpine had saw the need to avoid. Aibeg and Serkis, the one possibly a Uyghur and the other a Syrian Nestorian, actually made their way to the pope in Lyon and met with him in 1248. Oddly, those particular Mongol agents seem to have left no great mark on history, but this was not the limit of Eljigidei’s diplomatic efforts. He also sent out representatives to King Louis IX of France, and Louis was not in France. Louis had ignored the pope’s pleas to stay and take on the emperor, pleas carried by our friend Carpine in fact. Louis was on crusade in the Holy Land.      

Eljigidei’s representatives, a pair of Nestorians, caught up with Louis before he’d gotten properly settled into the business of crusading, actually intercepting him at Cyprus, and the picture they painted must have been an extremely enticing one. From them, Louis heard that the Great Khan and his mother were baptised Christians, that Eljigidei had been charged by Guyuk with the protection of Christians in his domain, that Eljigidei would even be willing to assist him in driving the Muslims from the Holy Land, and that if Louis landed in Egypt while the Mongols made for Baghdad, well then those two great Muslim powers would be unable to assist each other. It was a clever proposal on Eljigidei’s part, and how could Louis resist such an offer, especially when presented to him by Christians? He sent out Andre de Longjumeau as part of a duo of friars, as one does, and with them gifts, letters, a purpose-built tent chapel of fine scarlet cloth, chalices, books, and wood from the true cross... It would be two years before they returned to him, their arrival delayed by, among other things, temporary imprisonment by the Sultan of Aleppo.

In the meantime, Louis also had a rough go of things. For him, that was two hard years of crusading and included imprisonment by the Ayyubid Egyptians after defeat at the Battle of Al Mansurah because while the Mongols had not yet moved on Baghdad, Louis did actually land in Egypt. Did his friars bring good news?

Naturally, they brought a confused story of the Mongol nation’s origins on the edges of Prester John’s land, but also an account of travelling past one broken city after another, the bones of its people piled on the ground, so that they wondered that the Mongols should have overthrown so many and hold power over such a great distance. They brought Louis a gift of cloth and a letter, but it did not promise the assistance that he had hoped for, that he had been promised really. According to one source the letter went very roughly as follows:  

A good thing is Peace; for in a land of peace, those that go on four feet, eat the grass of the field in peace; and they that go on two, till the earth whence all good things in peace proceed. This is for a warning unto you, for you can not obtain peace save from us. Prester John rose against us, and many other kings, and all of them have we put to the sword. Therefore we bid you send us so much of thy gold and of thy silver each year, that thou mayst keep our friendship. And if you do not, then will we destroy you and your people, even as we have done to those others.

Not totally supportive then. 

Upon arrival, the Longjumeau mission had not been welcomed as that of an equal there to talk terms of an alliance. It had been received as a subservient power come to offer formal submission and the magnificent chapel-tent accepted as a gesture of tribute. Louis’ biographer records that the king bitterly regretted ever having sent the friars in the first place.

Some interesting information did come of it all however. There were tidbits on Mongol life such as their riding with raw meat below their saddle, the meat worked by the heat of the horse and weight of the rider and then either eaten or tossed in a bag for later, a bag which was said to emit a fairly repulsive smell. There was information on the route and on matters such as the German prisoners held by the Mongols, all of which was somehow passed along to Willem van Ruysbroeck to guide him on his own journey. There was the promising news of some Christian prince among the Mongols, so powerful as to have defeated the Emperor of Persia. There was the news that Guyuk Khan was dead. 

And yes, this was not so long after Carpine had witnessed the kurultai for Guyuk’s elevation in August of 1246, less than two years after, in April of 1248. The exact cause of death is open to some debate, but the circumstances seem pretty well agreed upon. The tensions between Batu and Guyuk, those Jochi and Ogedei family tensions we talked about last episode, those had not gone away with Guyuk’s enthronement. In 1248, Guyuk and Batu had moved towards one another. Batu had been summoned, but he went cautiously; he must have been suspicious of Guyuk’s intentions to start with, and soon he received confirmation in the form of a warning. Then, as the pair closed, one of them died. 

What had happened? Longjumeau has Guyuk dying as the result of some medicine, with the suspicion cast heavily on Batu, but Ruysbroeck would hear that Batu had sent his brother on ahead and that this brother and Guyuk had slain each other in an argument. Others have found it more likely that the great khan’s brutally unhealthy lifestyle combined with the hardships of the journey simply finished him off naturally. Either way, control of the Mongol Empire now passed again to a regent, this time to Guyuk’s widow Oghul Qaimish.

This itself is a really fascinating thread in the story of the Mongol Empire, that the wives of the dead great khans would rule for very substantial periods of time, and we touched on this in the Carpine story with regards to Guyuk’s mother. Qaimish’s reign would be less successful however; it was not going to lead to the elevation of her son. Instead, another powerful woman was going to fatally outmaneuver her.   

The woman in question was Sorghaghtani Beki, the widow of Ghengis’ son Tolui. She had been administering to the Tolui family lands since his death in 1232 and had kept herself independent from Ogedei’s repeated attempts to join their lines either through himself or his son Guyuk. And this wasn’t her first act in direct opposition to the Ogedei line. She had suffered a loss in power and influence under Guyuk’s rule and had apparently been the one who had warned Batu that Guyuk was coming his way with ill-intent. Now, with Guyuk dead and the throne vacant, she was not looking to let Qaimish smoothly pass the title from the father down to the son. She had her own sons in mind, in this case Mongke, and she was going to call in the goodwill she’d presumably earned with Batu to do so. Batu meanwhile had no interest in seeing the Ogedei line continue to rule, and when Sorghaghtani sent Mongke to him, Batu received him favourably having likely been promised a great deal of autonomy in running his own not-so-little khanate-corner of the world. 

A kurultai was called, a grand council of the Mongols, but it was not your normal kurultai. Batu called it in his home territory. He summoned the Mongol world to his own backyard to make Mongke the great khan, and some of that world came when he called. The Jochid line was represented of course, as were the Toluis, but of the Chagataid and Ogedeid lines all either left when they realized what was happening or never actually showed up in the first place, staving off the appointment. There is talk at this point in the chronicles of Persian historian Juvayni, of “those who spoke evasively and postponed on this matter, fabricating tales and inventing stories.” 

Not to be dissuaded, Batu now sent his brother to call a second kuriltai to elect Mongke, this time in the Mongol heartland. Again, the Ogedei and Chagatai families were invited, but they still refused to endorse the validity of the event with their presence and participation. Some came late, while others dawdled to an almost unbelievable degree, stretching the bounds of acceptability to the breaking point. These were those not quite yet ready to admit defeat. 

They came for Mongke with many armed men, a violent coup attempt disguised as the proper paying of respect to the new khan, and according to Juvayni, they might have been successful were it not for a man possibly named Keshik, though this might just be a corruption of a word descriptive of his role in the story rather than a name. In any case, this Keshik as I’ll continue to call him was a falconer who had lost his camel, and he was clearly not one who was quick to forget such a thing. While others feasted and toasted Mongke’s elevation, this Keshik searched tirelessly for his missing camel, and in doing so he happened upon a great caravan of men, animals, and wagons, the latter supposedly loaded down with food and gifts. Unconcerned, Keshik persisted in seeking that camel, asking after it among these men until he happened across a broken wagon and in aiding its driver found it to be full of weapons. “What’s all this,” he asked, or something of the sort. “The same as in all the other wagons,” replied the driver, still taking him for one of their own. Soon, Keshik had the truth of the matter, that these men planned to make violent mischief under cover of the drunken feasting which would surely be put on to welcome them. Still feigning indifference, he made off quietly, and then raced back to warn Mongke and the others. It’s worth noting that this is also pretty much the story that Ruysbroeck would be told in 1254

In Juvayni’s telling, Keshik’s urgent pleas that the festivities be set aside and that all make ready for impending danger are at first scarcely believed, such an act on the part of family members being beyond the limits of comprehension, but in all tellings, defensive rings are set up, making certain that none may approach or leave. Then a party is sent out to capture the offending parties, in particular Shiremun, Guyuk’s son and likely the Ogedei choice for succession, Shiremun who did not yet know his plan was ruined, that he already lost. 

He and his followers were seized and brought before Mongke to receive their punishment. A whole host of advisors, administrators, and generals who’d guided Guyuk, and Ogedei before him, were promptly executed, including Chingkai who had Carpine dealt with in our last episodes. Ruysbroeck heard that 300 such notables were put to death, and that women were beaten with burning brands to elicit confessions before being killed. Another source puts it at 77 including the Eljigidei who had dealt so cleverly with King Louis. Shiremun was dispatched to China which would seem very lenient but he was then murdered or executed there. The Chagatai prince Buri on the other hand had argued violently with Batu on that European campaign and was turned over to him to be killed. And Oghul Qaimish, the regent who had failed to see her family continue to sit upon the throne, she was either wrapped in felt or sewn into a sack, and then she was thrown in the river to drown. There was little margin for error in seeking the Mongol throne, for yourself or for another.

These challenges turned aside, Mongke Khan’s position was solidified, and so I suppose was Batu’s. But it would be Mongke who would sit as great khan when Friar Willem van Ruysbroeck departed in 1253. And that’s the pair we’ll be discussing next: the one already making plans for further Mongol expansion into Song China and through Syria into Egypt, the other on a mission more religious than diplomatic in character and flung into one of the more cinematic debate scenes in written history. For that and more, I’ll see you next episode. 


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

  • Joinville, Jean. The Memoirs of the Lord of Joinville. John Murray, 1906.

  • Paris, Matthew. English History. From the Year 1235 to 1273, translated by J. A. Giles. George Bell & Sons, 1889.

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

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

  • The Secret History of the Mongols, translated by Urgunge Onon. RoutledgeCurzon, 2001.

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

  • Jackson, Peter. "Medieval Christendom's Encounter with the Alien." In Travellers, Intellectuals, and the World Beyond Medieval Europe, edited by James Muldoon, 347-369. Routledge, 2016.

  • Man, John. Kublai Khan. Bantam, 2007.

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

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

  • Waterfield, Robin. Christians in Persia. Allen & Unwin, 1973.

To See the Mongols 2: A New Khan

Carpine, Rubruck, and Polo

Welcome back everyone. I’m Devon, and this is Human Circus. Last episode, I started a new series, but I didn’t really explain what I’d be doing. I guess I was just excited to finally be putting out something new after a pretty long silence. Anyways, I want to take a minute here to very broadly outline what’s to come. I’m going to be doing a set of episodes looking at travel narratives that illustrate the contacts between Western and central Europe and the Mongol Empire. I’m still sorting out how many episodes that will be and what I’ll be covering, but there are a number of really fascinating characters, really interesting stories of people going one way or another and recording what they saw. There are figures like Willem Van Ruysbroek, Friar Julianus, and Rabban Bar Sauma, and there are also some great side topics I might dig into too where they don't quite fit into the main narrative, so, vague as that may be, there will be good things to come.

Last episode, I started to talk about Giovanni Carpine, the 65 year old overweight Franciscan given the mammoth diplomatic task of converting the Mongol khan to Christianity and convincing him not to trouble Latin Christian Europe again, or, failing that, to at least learn something of him and his terrifying people. To that end, Carpine left Lyon in the Spring of 1245 and off he went, travelling overland to Bohemia, north into Poland, and then east, and then rather further east still, meeting with Batu Khan roughly a year after his initial departure. 

And that was roughly where we left him last, contemplating the vastness of the world to the north, west, and south of him, and then going on, him, Benedict, and the rest of their nameless party. They went on the same as before, switching horses through the system of relay stations, or Yam, and apparently going through 5-7 of the animals per day. For 8 days they rode through what had been the lands of the Kipchaks, maintaining a punishing pace, and then for 20 days through those of of the Kankali Turks. There, they met few people, only deserts and the occasional salt marshes, and Benedict reports finding the skulls and of dead men scattered like dung across the ground. If the landscape needed to get any more ominous, both Benedict and Carpine would later note in their reports that when Grand Prince Yaroslav had gone that way, many of his followers had died of thirst and left their bones on the ground where the friars now rode. 

They passed through what had been the Khwarazmian Empire, had been until some 25 years before when the Mongols had arrived at the door and, following some unpleasantness over slain emissaries, destroyed them utterly. Over the course of less than two years Genghis and his sons and generals, including Subutai, had conducted a campaign that is generally regarded as quite brilliant and extremely bloodthirsty. Now, as Carpine and Benedict rode where the shahs had ruled, they saw ruined cities and forts without number, and villages in which no sign of life was seen. They don’t seem to have seen Samarkand, Bukhara, or Nipashur; they were further north, along the edges of the shahs’ former domains, passing Otrar which Carpine calls Ornas, the city which held out for 5 months against an army commanded by Chagatai and Ogedei before falling in 1219. 

And this all starts to take on the feel of a kind of travel guide to conquered nations, because next Carpine comes to the realms of the Qara Khitai, a former nomadic empire, and then after that to the city-less land of the Naimans, also since defeated and absorbed into the Mongol body. Still further east they went, getting closer now.

The land they describe was sometimes plains and sometimes mountainous, largely unfruitful, only rarely featuring water and streams, and beset by extreme acts of weather. Its midsummer brought lightning storms that Carpine says were responsible for many deaths, and also surprising quantities of snow. At times, the wind would blow so fiercely that travel became impossible, the strength of the wind and the blinding dust forcing them to fling themselves to the ground. At other times, hail fell in abundance, sometimes so much that the following thaw would create great floods. Carpine claims that one such flood swept away 160 men and many tents from an encampment. Overall, the picture was one of severe weather in nearly all its possible forms, which the friars were clearly unprepared for. The countryside to them was vast, wild, and, to quote Carpine, “much poorer than [they could] say.”

The Eurasian Steppe was, and in fact still is, an enormous strip of grasslands pinched into semi-distinct regions, occasionally interrupted by mountains, and stretching from China all the way to Romania with an offshoot in Hungary. With forested regions to its north and drylands to its south, it has, for thousands of years facilitated trade and the growth and spread of the nomadic and semi-nomadic communities who many people know best for their periodic intrusions, those the of Scythians, Huns, Magyars, Bulgars, and Seljuk Turks into other people’s history. 

But of course, this was not, as it may have seemed to inhabitants of the northeast Achaemenid Empire or 13th century Hungary, a fantastical un-land of perpetual darkness which irregularly pulsed outwards in great, displacing surges of violence. And its people didn’t exist solely to sally out every few decades and knock around some Europeans. Gaining a better understanding of the Mongols seems to have been one of Carpine’s goals, and we’ll follow him into it, to see what it tells us of them, or perhaps him.   

Though in the last episode I lingered over some of the more bizarre details which Carpine relates, he did make a significant contribution to a 13th century European understanding of Asia as what we might term a “real place,” not one of divine or monstrous possibility, of paradise or end-times related beings or fantastical legions, but rather one of mountains, rivers, deserts, forests, fortresses, and peoples, and the people he actually encountered, whether he seemed to like them or not, were decidedly human, not of the “monstrous races” out of Pliny. So let’s get to Carpine’s attempts at understanding the Mongol people, humanizing them really if not always in the most flattering terms.  

“Their appearance is quite different from everyone else,” he begins. Clearly making some pretty broad generalizations along the way, he then goes on to describe hair-styles, eyes, waists, noses, “middle-size feet,” and cheekbones. He talks clothing, tunics, and the women's headdresses, outlined in wonderful detail, and then the hats which for whatever reason he finds totally indescribable. He writes of large felt tents with their openings to the sky to allow the passage of light in and smoke out, and of how some are easily dismantled for travel while others must be moved intact with ox-drawn carts. And horses, he writes of how they have so many horses that he had not known that there existed that number in the entire world.

Carpine also tries to understand and communicate their religion. He reports on its material manifestations: the shrine at the centre of every camp, the felt idols and images of men on their tents, the felt udders placed beneath the doorways to protect their flocks. He writes of idol-making ceremonies involving the most important women of the camp and the sacrifice of a sheep, its meat eaten and its bones burned. He writes of the use of those idols to heal the sick, and the offerings made to them of food, drink, the first of the mare’s milk, and the hearts of freshly killed animals. And he writes of the burial of their noblemen: either beneath the roots of plants, or in some place in the field, buried in their tents and at their tables with meat and mare’s milk, with horses, saddles, and hay all buried with them, and the bones of a horse burned for them.

From there Carpine expands into the Mongols’ beliefs. They believe in an afterlife much like this one, he explains, only much more abundant, where their flocks multiply and they eat and drink and do all that the living do in this world, but more so. They believe in the power of divination and of magic, and they speak with and hear the voice of their god. They believe in the power of the moon to which they pray, and believe it to be the child of the sun. They believe in the purifying power of fire, and are sensitive to the messages of falling stars. They believe in the power of shamans or sorcerers to intercede on their behalf. They believe in one god, a creator of all things. 

Here, Carpine is taking on a difficult task, and he’s hindered at the outset by an apparent assumption that these people he’s trying to come to grips with in fairly short order actually have an overarching belief structure that is common to all, that all Mongols are followers of the same god and have the same beliefs. But they didn’t. They, if we’re understanding “they” to encompass the confederation centred around the Mongol royal dynasty, included Buddhists, Nestorian Christians, Muslims, and Daoists, along with the worshipers of Tengri, the sky god, the “one god” identified by Carpine. If he’d made it to Karakorum on his travels, as he very nearly did, he would have seen that the city included temples to all these religions. I wonder what he would have written then. Would his assessment have been different if he had seen these varied beliefs so publicly displayed? Maybe it would have made no difference at all. Carpine does note the Mongol toleration of diverse religious practices. Perhaps he just doesn’t regard those diverse practices as being Mongol. Still, that tolerance, along with the apparent monotheism, likely gave him hope in his task of converting the Great Khan and, in a top-down spiritual coup, his followers also. As we’ll see later, there was reason for at least a sliver of hope.

Some of that hope might have been diminished, however, when Carpine turned to consider those followers themselves. In one of the more fascinating sections of his report, he considers what he found to be good and bad in the customs, habits, and character of the Mongols with all the confidence of a man who’s spent months among his subjects.   

First, the good, or at least Carpine’s good: they seldom argued or were brought to blows; there was very little murder and no theft or robbery to speak of; food was readily shared even when scarce; lost animals were dealt with in all fairness; there was an overall absence of envy and an incredible willingness to help one’s neighbours. These inclinations towards community survival and internal order, obviously beneficial for people living in a fairly harsh and unforgiving environment, were reinforced by some equally harsh punishments where waste or theft were concerned. Stealing could result in death, and Carpine noted that, quote, “if a piece of food is given to anyone and he cannot eat it and he spits it out of his mouth, a hole is made beneath the tent and he is drawn out through the hole and killed without mercy...  And they have many similar customs that are too numerous to recount.” 

But then the litany of Carpine’s complaints begins. The Mongols were arrogant beyond belief, treating all outsiders from lords on down as dirt beneath their feet. They lied easily to them too, were highly prone to treachery, and would think nothing of killing them. Quick to anger, when they were mild it was the subtle and cunning calm of a scorpion soon to sting. Furthermore, he says, they were unbearably filthy, absolutely refusing to wash their clothes, and their diet included such unappealing items as lice, mares’ afterbirth, and, in a seemingly unsupported accusation, human flesh. They drank to the point of illness and then continued drinking right next to the results of their illness. They greedily demanded gifts, yet they were terribly stingy in return. At one point Carpine just gives up on the job of cataloguing their shortcomings which he'd set himself and simply states “In short, because their evil habits are so numerous, they can hardly be set down.”  

The final stretch of our travellers’ journey was hurried along by a desire to arrive in time for Guyuk’s election. They rode from morning until night without stopping for food or rest, and often they halted too late to eat, and would eat nothing until the following morning. Horses which tired were left behind, for they always had new ones to replace them. It was a hard ride, but they were going to arrive on time.

Ahead of them, the kurultai, the grand council to elect the great khan or khagan, was shaping up. And you may have noticed something here. If Carpine and co. were rushing feverishly to reach the gathering in time, rushing from Batu, then how was Batu going to get there on time? The answer was that he wasn’t. Batu would not be attending at all.

This takes us back to something I mentioned in the last episode, that Batu and Guyuk had a bit of history together. It seems they hadn’t entirely gotten along during the sweeping westward campaign that had begun in 1236 and carried them into Europe, and yes, Guyuk had been there. Though, as I’ve mentioned, it was Batu’s operation and Subutai is generally considered to have been the mastermind of the whole thing, there was a whole host of Mongol royalty on hand for the campaign, all of whose names I will now merrily butcher. There were Batu’s brothers Orda, Berke, Sinkur, and Siban; Chagatai’s son and grandson, Baidar and Bur; Tolui’s son Mongke; and Ogedei’s sons Kadan and Guyuk. This grand assemblage of Genghis’ grandchildren was, broadly speaking, pursuing the Mongol’s self-identified destiny of world domination, but it was also carving out Batu’s inheritance. And the issue of that inheritance, that line of descent from Genghis, leads us to a potential root of the discord between Batu and Guyuk.

I don’t want to get excessively bogged down here in Mongol genealogy, but Batu you see was the son of Jochi. Jochi’s mother was Genghis’ wife Borte, but he was born following her return after being held by the Merkits, a neighbouring tribal confederation destined to become part of the Mongol world, and there was always pretty deeply held suspicion that he wasn’t really Genghis’ son. To his credit, Genghis does seem to have treated Jochi as an eldest son and repeatedly affirmed this view, but rifts did develop between Jochi and the other children, coming to a head during the Khwarezmian campaign. There was anger, disagreement over the handling of a particular siege, and the replacement of Jochi by Ogedei as commander of that siege. After that, Jochi would take to his land near the Caspian, and he would refuse to come forth again, even at Genghis’ direct summons. Such was the situation until first Jochi then Genghis died in 1226, on the eve of apparent open hostilities.

So the Batu-Guyuk conflict is not just a matter of personal disagreement. It’s a matter of familial rivalry, the divide between the lines of Jochi and Ogedei, and, in the not too distant future, there would not be one united Mongol khanate, but rather a handful of competing ones: the Yuan Dynasty, the Golden Horde, the Chagatai Khanate, and the Ilkhanate.

But all of that was for the future. For now, the kurultai was going ahead, though not without without contention. It had been a long, drawn-out process; there had been a lot of support for Tolui’s son Mongke; and Batu, in open defiance of his family, was not there at all.       

Such was the situation the friars were riding into, quite blindly, in July of 1246. Upon arrival, they were given a tent and their letters were received. They waited, attended court in a rather larger tent that Carpine estimated would hold 2,000 people, and generally experienced a wonderful outsider’s perspective of the whole series of events. 

They hardly had a front row seat, were hardly of any importance at all to the proceedings, but they saw the leaders arrive, riding in with their men from the surrounding hills. Carpine saw that on the first day he watched, all who attended dressed in purple, on the second in red, in blue on the third, and on the fourth in their best silk. Within a great tent the leaders spoke of Guyuk’s elevation while outside the others drank. And Carpine and his fellows were made to drink with them. They were given ale because they did not care much for the fermented mare’s milk, and they were compelled to drink so much of it that they could not remain at all sober, complain as they might.

The Franciscans were not the only visitors from afar. There were Russian dukes, a Seljuk sultan, Korean princes, a pair of Georgian princes, an ambassador from the Caliph of Baghdad, and ones from ten other Muslim leaders, or so Carpine was given to understand. Actually, he claims that there were more than 4,000 ambassadors, lords, and governors there to bring tribute and gifts, and to submit to the new great Khan. All were made to drink together, and so they did for a good four weeks, hailing Guyuk each time he left the tent in the belief that he had just been elected. 

In the bustle of comings and goings around the tent, and in Carpine’s state of enforced intoxication, he wasn’t sure exactly when the big moment of the kurultai occurred, or really what was going on within that tent at all, but the whole thing did eventually move to another site for the enthronement itself, a “beautiful plain next to a river between hills,” where multitudes gathered. On the day, all who were present faced south, while certain notables stepped before them and, to the complete lack of comprehension of Carpine and likely many other foreign observers, gave lengthy speeches. Then, all knelt in the direction of the south, but Carpine and Benedict quote, “did not know whether they made incantations and knelt to God or to other things [and] did not want to genuflect.” Guyuk was placed upon an imperial throne and his immediate leaders came forward to bow to him, and then all his people knelt, now to to him. Later there was cooked meat with broth and seasoning, and drinking, of course, tremendous quantities of drinking.  

After the festivities, Carpine’s party was called forward to bend the knee 4 times and warned again not to touch the inner threshold of the tent. Guards searched them for weapons, and they joined the other emissaries within a large tent for the presentation of gifts. There were silks and other rich cloths of various kinds, gold-work, furs, and all manner of nice things. There was a kind of portable canopy covered in gems, a set of camels and matching decorated saddles, horses in iron or leather, and gold, silver, and silk enough to fill 50 wagons.      

But celebrations and gift-givings aside, there was the business of diplomacy to be done, and the circumstances were not ideal. One might easily, as Carpine did, wander into the wrong cemetery grounds and narrowly escape the death penalty, or, as he managed to avoid, innocently take a stick from the wrong bush and, again, be faced with death. Alternatively, you might simply starve as you waited your turn to speak to Guyuk. 

That’s what happened to Carpine and his party. They were given food for one which was to split between four stomachs, and there was no nearby market for them to trot down to pick up supplies; they had trouble finding any means to provide for themselves at all and might have even died of hunger if Guyuk’s goldsmith, a Ruthenian, had not intervened and supported them somewhat. Meanwhile, they were sent away from one potential appearance before the Khan because, or so Carpine was told, Guyuk intended to raise his standard against the west… so that was a little ominous. 

No matter how experienced Carpine was, here he had been flung into a new and entirely unfamiliar situation, and he was not well prepared. The supply of pelts which they’d amassed for gift-giving had run dry, and now they were in the situation that their Russian advisor had warned them against before they set out for Kiev: meeting a Mongol leader with nothing to offer, nothing at all to pile onto those 50 wagons. How important could they, or the pope who they represented, really be, if they could not even manage the most meagre of gifts? It’s probably why they were kept waiting for so long. After all, Guyuk had already heard the purpose of their visit and would have felt no urgency to see them in person.

The waiting did give them more time to mix with those who came to bring their business before Guyuk and those who served the Mongols in one capacity or another, they were only too happy to speak with the friars. Carpine writes that they knew exactly what he wanted and did need not be asked, instead volunteering all kinds of information on the Mongols, their practices, and past. Perhaps it was one of these sources that provided Carpine with this optimistic assessment of Guyuk’s religious leanings. 

The khan, who is rather flatteringly described as being serious, intelligent, and morally strict, with no mention of his possibly alcohol-related sickliness, was said to be very supportive of Christians, to pay their expenses and retain a Christian choir; in fact, they were absolutely expecting him to convert. There certainly were Christians around Guyuk. Though I’m sure there was much to their beliefs which Carpine would have found alien and strange, there were a great many Nestorian Christians who occupied positions of power with the Mongols, and the Franciscans point of contact with the new great khan was in fact himself a Nestorian, one named Chingai. However, we know now that conversion wouldn’t be happening, that there would be no such religio-diplomatic victory for Carpine and his pope, and actually that Guyuk did not have many years to live, but Carpine and Benedict waited with high hopes.  

Things did finally move forward by November, and they demonstrate how capable the Mongols had become in dealing with foreign diplomats and communicating across the barriers of distance and language. Various meetings with Guyuk’s secretaries and ministers led to careful written translations of the Pope’s letters and of all that Carpine and his party had previously said before Batu. These materials were brought before Guyuk for his consideration, and then it was arranged for a letter to be recorded that they would carry back with them. Did the pope have people who could read the languages of the Rus, the Muslims, or the Mongols? He did not, they replied, or rather, quote, “there were Muslims in our part of the world, but they were distant from from the Lord Pope.” Translation on the spot thus being necessary, a letter was brought to them to be rendered into Latin, and once completed it was translated back word by word to insure its accuracy and Carpine was made to read it twice and be certain no questions remained. “See that you understand everything well,” they told him, “because it is useless if you do not understand something since you must travel to such distant lands.” “We understand everything well,” Carpine replied.

Actually Guyuk rather thought it would be a good idea for some Mongol representatives to return with them, but Carpine was less enthusiastic about this. Wouldn’t this just be an invitation for them to scout the lands they visited? And when they came and they saw the terrible divisions that existed within Latin Christendom, wouldn’t they be more encouraged to attack? Worse, what would happen if these representatives were to be harmed, killed even, while away? The Mongol response to the death of their ambassadors would be as predictable as it would be merciless. No, none of that sounded beneficial, so Carpine simply did not extend any such invitation. 

Instead, he collected his pass, his letters signed with the imperial seal, and his gifts from Guyuk’s mother, fox fur cloaks with silk liners which were promptly grabbed up by the Mongols who had long been accompanying them, and he turned at last for home. 

The return journey he relates in hardly any time at all. It was of less interest him, I suppose, and did not pertain to his mission, but it was again an impressive feat: proceeding overland pretty much from one end of the Eurasian landmass to the other, and travelling, Carpine writes, for an entire winter. The ground was often covered with snow, and when they paused to rest they stamped it down with their feet to make a little space for themselves to lie.  

Their route is not entirely clear. Probably, they followed the same Yam system back, eventually coming to meet Batu again and being sent on. They met again with that particularly greedy local administrator, and he tried again to press them for gifts, only this time he had no success, for they had nothing. They arrived in Kiev in early July and were greeted as if they had returned from the dead, and one can certainly understand this reaction on the part of the city’s inhabitants: the elderly Franciscan and his company had crossed deserts of sand and of snow, traversed ludicrously large stretches of land, sometimes tied to their horses so as not to collapse from the saddle, and often on the most meagre of rations and in the worst of health. More than that, they’d been to visit the monsters who’d shattered the city completely just 5 years before, and then they’d come back. 

They still had a long way to travel. They were bound for Lyon after all, where they were to present the Pope with Guyuk’s letter, and, if it seems like the bulk of the trip is behind them, it’s worth considering that they still had more than 1,200 miles to go. Carpine was going to make it though. 

The closing section of Carpine’s narrative is among my favourites. It’s where he reaffirms that he is to believed, that he did indeed see these things or, where he had noted, hear of them from some credible person. And he lists off the people who witnessed their passing and could confirm their travels in one location or another: the merchants of Bratislava who accompanied them to Kiev, a Duke Oleg, Michael the Genoese, Manuel the Venetian, Renerius of Acre, and many more either named or less specifically cited. Any who doubted Carpine’s words need only consult these witnesses to be assured of their truth. 

And Carpine was happy to tell any who would listen of what he had seen himself. The Italian friar Salimbene met Carpine in Lyon after he’d returned, and Salimbene wrote that Carpine could often be found describing his journey, holding forth until he could speak no more and then actually having his book read aloud and explaining any points that weren’t understood. He had a lot to talk about: his journey, interactions, observations, and all that he heard on a broad range of Mongol-related topics, including how they fought and how to fight them. 

Yes, one thing I haven’t touched on so far, is that this plump, moderately elderly friar returned from his there-and-back-again with descriptions of the Mongol armies and their practices, and they are pretty recognizably what we think of when we think of Mongol military organization. There’s the decimal system, with its units of tens, hundreds, thousands, and so on, and there’s the fierce collective punishment these units faced for underperforming: if one of a group of ten flees, the rest are killed; if all of a group of ten flee, then the hundred to which they belong are killed. There are details on everything from the weapons of the Mongols, to the fashioning of their armour, to their method of cross rivers. There’s the consistent use of scouting parties who take nothing, only kill or injure if they can, to be followed by occupying forces and the deployment of skilled raiders to pluck the land clean. There’s the classic feigned retreat which followed initial attempts to overwhelm the enemy with the first rush of arrows, the fading back that so often drew Mongols’ opponents to their doom at a pre-arranged ambush point, as had happened to the combined Qipchaks and Rus in 1223. 

Carpine points to the Mongols willingness to withdraw from large armies only to destroy them piecemeal once they’ve disbanded, the use of non-combatants or outright dummies on horseback to mislead as to numbers and deployment, the use of captives and other peoples front and centre with stronger forces circling round the wings, and the way, once the enemy was surrounded, that the Mongols gave them a path out, let them see freedom, and let them string themselves out in disorganized escape through the offered opening, only to close in and slaughter them as they fled. I’m sure Carpine had heard something of the Mongol victory over King Bela’s Hungarians. 

Even strong fortifications were no guarantee of safety. When faced with such positions, Carpine writes, Mongol armies would press day and night with bows and siege engines, not allowing the defenders any rest while cycling their own men through in shifts. Greek fire could be used, even burning grease from the flesh of their dead enemies, an intimidating weapon which Carpine helpfully notes could be extinguished with beer or wine, or perhaps not helpfully at all if the results are anything like putting water on a grease fire. If a river was present, the Mongols might use it to flood the target. They might tunnel in and set fire to it. Ideally, they might politely but firmly request surrender, call everyone in the city out to be counted, and massacre them on the spot, saving only the skilled artisans and useful slaves. They “are most clever in war,” reads Carpine’s account, “because they have been at war for more than forty years with other people.” 40-something years of wildly successful warfare brings us on to Carpine’s next point: the Mongols, he said, were terrible to be ruled by, unbearable tyrants who were treacherous and would promise one thing but then take anything, abusing high and low born alike. 

What then was to be done? Was Carpine’s message one of impending and unavoidable doom, that the people of central and western Europe should do best for themselves and their families by rushing to the Pacific and hurling themselves in? No, Carpine wasn’t simply fear-mongering. He was saying that it was the Mongols’ open intention to conquer the entire world, and that the Christian world was their most immediate target, that Guyuk himself had stated his intention to invade Prussia and Livonia. Given that they were, according to Carpine, vicious scorpions who would be intolerable to live under, preparations must be made. Carpine had solutions, or at least he had suggestions, and they’re pretty interesting too.

The first point concerned cooperation. It was a common theme of Mongol invasions that they would take advantage of local divisions and exploit them utterly, isolating their opponents and then defeating them bite by manageable bite. Christians must, Carpine insisted, band together as one body operating under one plan if they were to stand a chance. They should be armed pretty much as the Mongols were, with bows, arrow-tips tempered as the Mongols did, hooked lances for pulling riders from their horses, thick chest-plates, and armour for body and horse. They should organize their armies as the Mongols did with commanders of 1000s, 100s, and 10s. They should punish those who retreated from the line of battle as the Mongols did, or at least severely if not actually fatally. 

There’s obviously a bit of a theme developing here, but “do as the Mongols do” wasn’t Carpine’s only advice. He also made good points about choosing battlegrounds next to thick forests so as to avoid  easy encirclement on that side, making heavy use of scouts to monitor attempts at that encirclement, fielding armies composed of distinct battle groups rather than single bodies, keeping leaders in position to direct aid where it was needed, and, as many had learned too late, not following the Mongols when they retreated. And there’s more too, on the preparation of fortresses and of the countryside itself. Carpine was quite thorough. He had travelled among the Mongols, talked to them and those who had been devastated by them, and he seems to have come away from them with a mix of respect, fear, and disgust. 

We will be returning to these Mongols again, following other figures who travelled one way or the other and created exchanges between 13th century Latin Christendom and the still united Mongol empire. However, here is where we’ll end things with our friend Friar Carpine, a man of toughness and intelligence whose greatest adventure in life came after 60. He wouldn’t be going east again, but he would become Archbishop of Antivari, in present-day Montenegro. His work on the Mongols and his travels among them would be read by many when reworked into part of Vincent of Beauvais’ great encyclopedia, but he’d die in 1252 in the midst of a legal struggle with a rival archbishop.

As we finish this episode, there’s one more subject I want to mention: Guyuk’s letter. I’m sure you’re wondering what the great khan wrote to the pope. Did he promise conversion to Christianity and assistance in retaking the Holy Land? Did he inform him that his end was near and that the Mongol armies would soon again be on his doorstep? Let’s end things off for today with that letter:

Having taken counsel for making peace with us, You Pope and Christians have sent an envoy to us, as we have heard from him and as your letters declare. Wherefore, if you wish to have peace with us, You Pope and all kings and potentates, in no way delay to come to me to make terms of peace and then you shall hear alike our answer and our will. The contents of your letters stated that we ought to be baptized and become Christians. To this we answer briefly that we do not understand in what way we ought to do this. To the rest of the contents of your letters, that you wonder at so great a slaughter of men, especially of Christians and in particular Poles, Moravians, and Hungarians, we reply likewise that this also we do not understand. However, lest we may seem to pass it over in silence altogether, we give you this for our answer.

Because they did not obey the word of God and the command of Genghis Khan and Ogedei Khan, but took counsel to slay our envoys, therefore God ordered us to destroy them and gave them up into our hands. For otherwise if God had not done this, what could man do to man? But you men of the West believe that you alone are Christians and despise others. But how can you know to whom God deigns to confer His grace? But we worshipping God have destroyed the whole earth from the East to the West in the power of God. And if this were not the power of God, what could men have done? Therefore if you accept peace and are willing to surrender your fortresses to us, You Pope and Christian princes, in no way delay coming to to conclude peace and then we shall know that you wish to have peace with us. But if you should not believe our letters and the command of God nor harken to our counsel then we shall know for certain that you wish to have war. After that we do not know what will happen, God alone knows.


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

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

  • The Secret History of the Mongols, translated by Urgunge Onon. RoutledgeCurzon, 2001.

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

  • Jackson, Peter. "Medieval Christendom's Encounter with the Alien." In Travellers, Intellectuals, and the World Beyond Medieval Europe, edited by James Muldoon, 347-369. Routledge, 2016.

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

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

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

To See the Mongols 1: Giovanni Carpine Goes East

Giovanni Carpine

In 1241, Latin Christendom awoke to a nightmare. The horror wasn’t “on its doorstep” so much as it was kicking in the door and smashing the windows having first slaughtered the neighbours, burned down their homes, and taken their livestock.

It had arrived at a time when the two most powerful figures in Western Europe, Pope Gregory IX, who would die in August, and Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, were vying for power. It had arrived at a time when, leaving aside the Cathar stronghold still holding out in southern France and the state of the Reconquista in Spain, there were 4 separate crusades on the books: in the Holy Land, in Romania, in Novgorod, and against Frederick himself. It had come through the Carpathians into Hungary and Poland, and it had beaten down all that opposed it. And then it had left. 

I am reminded of a scene from a slasher film, and I’m not sure which film exactly I’m thinking of here, maybe no particular one at all, but it’s a scene where you’re locked away somewhere with the protagonist, the bathroom let’s say, and they’re screaming in fear as the killer smashes the door and rattles its handle, and the volume builds and builds and builds until, suddenly, there’s silence. The killer is gone. And then the protagonist turns and there he is, right behind them, there in the room somehow. Except in our story it’s a little different. The Mongols arrived showing every sign of being unstoppable by any door or army that could be mustered against them, their raiding parties going as far west as Vienna and then, mysteriously, they didn’t come into the bathroom at all. They went away.

Hello, and welcome back. I’m Devon, and this is Human Circus. Today, we’re taking a break from Elizabethan voyagers for a look at a different kind of narrative. We’ll be following the journey of a 13th century Franciscan as he travels east in 1245 on an epic trek, pre Marco Polo, pre Niccolo and Maffeo Polo even. His name was Giovanni da Pian del Carpine and he went in search of Mongols. Why would one do such a thing? Let’s rewind a little.

By the time the Mongols enter our story, they are far from their humble beginnings as steppe nomads easily lost from view among other steppe nomads on the edges of Chinese imperial domains. They had defeated and then united their local rivals, the various “people of the felt-walled tents,” as The Secret History of the Mongols puts it; they had destroyed the Jin dynasty in China, then the Khwarezmian Empire in Persia and Central Asia, and they had overrun more peoples, princes, khans, and kingdoms in between than I care to list here, at times absorbing them relatively peacefully where submission was offered, and at others proceeding with massive devastation and massacres. 

When Genghis Khan had died, his son Ogedei had succeeded him and armies had gone west under the command of Genghis’s grandson Batu and the legendary general Subutai. They’d defeated the Bulghars, the Bashkirs, the Kipchak, and the princes of Rus, sacking Kiev in the winter of 1240. They were on Latin Christianity’s borders... And by this point, “they” is pretty clearly not anything like a single tribe from the steppe. It was a diverse confederation encompassing a range of religious beliefs, bound by dynastic loyalty, and supported by auxiliaries and specialists from across the breadth of its conquests, from Persia to China. In 1241, they soundly defeated Hungarian and Polish-German armies, annihilated them really, just days apart from each other, and then, months later and for no apparent reason, this poorly understood nightmare withdrew.   

From our vantage point here in the future, we have some idea of what was happening. Ogedei, the khan of khans, was dead. The reasons likely lay with his extremely heavy alcoholism though Carpine will report that the khan was poisoned by his sister. Whatever the cause, the Mongol leadership had to withdraw to address the succession; its notables needed to assemble at the kurultai to elect, or at least confirm, their new leader, and this transition of power was not going to be entirely smooth. It wouldn’t be until 1246 that Guyuk, one of Ogedei’s sons, would take power, and in the intervening years Ogedei’s second wife, Töregene would sit as regent. Batu, the khan presenting the most imminent threat to come west, had long been feuding with Guyuk and would not be pursuing plans to carve into central Europe, not for a while, nor would he be hurrying east to see Guyuk quickly installed on the throne and the business of empire once more advancing. 

Batu’s failure to go and see to the succession has some led to believe that it was not in fact this business of installing a new Khan which halted westward Mongol expansion. I think that his trouble with Guyuk might explain that failure and the fact that other leaders around him, especial Subutai, did return to the east could account for his not pressing on with the invasions, but there is an interesting alternative hypothesis, that it was changes in the climate which led to the Mongols’ withdrawal from Hungary. A measurable turn for the colder and wetter was followed by spring thaws that would have left the Hungarian soil very marshy, posing military problems and making it difficult to find sufficient grazing land to support the army’s horses. And this was just as displaced populations, abandoned fields, and widespread destruction were all going to contribute to an imminent Hungarian famine. Perhaps it was simply evident to Batu and Subutai that this land would not support an occupying army of horsemen at that time. Whatever the cause, for the moment the tides had receded, and they’d left some breathing space. Into that space stepped Carpine.

So far, I’ve often found myself starting descriptions of our primary characters with phrases like “but we know nothing of his earlier life,” or something to that effect, but this time we actually do know a little. Born around 1180 near Perugia, in central Italy, Carpine was an early and rather important member of the Order of Friars Minor, the Franciscans. Apparently he’d actually been a contemporary and follower of St Francis of Assisi himself, a fellow Umbrian, and he’d taken posts in Saxony and Cologne, and been appointed as Provincial of Germany and then Spain. He was over 60 years old when he received his new call to serve, hardly a young man considering the road to which he was called. Pope Innocent IV was sending him east and into the unknown, to meet the Mongols and to learn everything he could of them.

It may seem an odd choice on the face of it. This was neither an explorer nor a skilled warrior, but he had other things going for him. The Mongol toleration of religion and religious figures meant he might safely travel where a soldier would be slain on sight, and he’d be in the position to urge and provide counsel on conversion to Christianity. In this endeavour, Carpine was following in the footsteps of other Franciscans on evangelical missions. He had apparently been responsible for sending friars out to Bohemia, Poland, Hungary, Denmark, and Norway. Others had gone to Islamic Spain, to the Slavs of Eastern Europe, and to North Africa, and they’d accompanied crusades into the Holy Land. Francis of Assisi himself had been an example for his order to follow and had travelled in his final years to meet the Ayyubid Sultan in Egypt and seek, unsuccessfully, to convert him. 

And other Franciscans, and also Dominicans, were being sent out with messages for the Mongols: Lawrence of Portugal, Ascelin of Lombardy, Andre de Longjumeau, and Dominic of Aragon, but none of their stories were quite like Carpine’s. Dominic may have actually been sent as an envoy to the Armenians; Andre and Ascelin handed their letters off to Mongol lords, or perhaps the same lord, in present-day Iran; and Lawrence may or may not have actually gone on the road at all; we don’t know. We do know that none of them would ever go as far or see as much as Carpine would.  

Carpine may not have carried a sword or had first-hand knowledge of the Asian Steppe, but, as a member of a mendicant order, he was no cloistered monk either. Apparently somewhat overweight and clearly not of an ideal age for going overland to China, he had diplomatic experience and, through his earlier work in establishing monasteries he had contacts among the lords of eastern Europe. Maybe Carpine could achieve through religious diplomacy what the armies of Poland, Hungary, and Russia, among so many others, had been unable to do: deter the Mongol threat. It was, unsurprisingly, one of the primary concerns of the First Ecumenical Council of Lyon which “advise[d], beg[ged], urge[d] and earnestly command[ed],” all to be mindful of the approaches to Christian lands and by all means possible to fortify those routes against the Mongols’ return. With another member of his order, a Stephen of Bohemia, Carpine set out from Lyon on Sunday the 16th of April, 1245. 

In his writings, this was how he would assess the task before them, quote:

We feared harm because of the Mongols proximity to God’s church and so even though we feared death or permanent captivity by the Mongols or others, and though we feared hunger, thirst, cold, heat, injury and troubles beyond our strength, all of which happened to us many times and more than we would have believed earlier (except death and permanent captivity), we still did not dissuade ourselves from carrying out God’s will according the order of the Lord Pope, so that we might help the Christians, somewhat at least, to know the Mongols’ attitude and intent, and so we can show this to the Christians lest, by appearing very suddenly the Mongols should discover them unprepared, as happened once before through men’s sins, and do a great massacre of the Christian people.

Initially they made for the Bohemian king, Vaclav I, as a launching point, and yes, we are fast-forwarding ahead a little here, from France to Bohemia, but then that’s also what Carpine did in his account. Vaclav, also known in English as Wenceslaus, but not the “Good King Wenceslaus” you may be thinking of, had had his own brush with the Mongols, having brought an army close to engagement with them in 1241. He counselled a route that would take the friars through Poland and Russia, paid their immediate expenses, and provided them with letters of safe conduct. He saw them through his realms and, by way of his nephew Duke Boleslav V of Poland to a Duke Conrad of Lanciscia, a  man with close ties to the Russian princes, and it was through Conrad that the friars, recently joined by a Brother Benedict of Poland, came into contact with the Russian prince Vasilko. 

I’ve seen it suggested that there may have been hope in planning the journey, that through Conrad some anti-Mongol alliance with the Russian princes might be arranged, but that by this point the Russians were in no way inclined to rise up against their conquerors, having so recently suffered devastation at their hands. Whatever the truth of these expectations, Vasilko was at least able to arrange safe conduct for the group to travel on towards Batu Khan, the ruler whose ulus, or territory, included the Rus. Further, he was a good source of helpful advice thanks to his own dealings with the Mongols. Chiefly, this advice was that they must acquire some gifts, for appearing before the khan without generous presents would all but guarantee failure. So acquire some gifts they did, relying largely on charitable donations and the assistance of certain knights as well as of the Bishop of Krakow to amass a suitable collection of beaver and badger pelts. This accomplished, the three went on in Vasilko’s company, and as they did, we’re able to see their secondary, or perhaps tertiary, goal. 

Vasilko arranged for them to meet a bishop, a man whose name and affiliation Carpine leaves unsaid; it’s clear though that this was a cleric of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and that in the recent disasters Pope Innocent had seen an opportunity. What we now view in retrospect as the Great Schism between East and West had lasted for roughly 200 years, but it was not a static situation. Events could move elements of the two sides towards or away from reconciliation and friendly relations; most recently, events would seem to have widened the gap: there had been the sack of Constantinople by crusaders in 1204 follow by the conversion of its holy sites, and its occupation was still ongoing as Carpine spoke to this bishop; and more recently there had been the extension of the Northern Crusades into Orthodox realms such as Novgorod. But the rather more impactful Mongol invasions might have change matters significantly. Come back to the unity of the Holy Mother Church, went the letter that Carpine read to this bishop and his lord; come back, it warned them. An immediate answer, Carpine writes, was impossible, and the party went on their way.

They were guided on the road to Kiev by one of Vasilco’s men, but safe conduct or not, there was still danger to be found. Lithuanians were known to regularly make raids in the region, and, it being now so depopulated after the Mongol invasion, there was little to prevent them from doing so as they pleased. By skill or good fortune though, the travellers suffered no such trouble, only terrible sickness. 

Despite their poor health, they came to Kiev, and they saw what had become of it. The once great city of the region had been reduced, Carpine wrote, to almost nothing, “hardly two hundred houses.” In the fields that surrounded it were “countless human skulls and bones from the dead,” too numerous in comparison to those who remained for anything to have been done about in the intervening half decade. Years had passed, and those bodies had sat out there, outside what was left of the city.  

Those that remained seem to have been very hospitable towards the travellers. When consulted, the local nobles warned the friars against proceeding any further with the horses they had brought with them. Those horses would not know to dig beneath the deep snows after the grasses beneath, as the Mongols’ horses did; there would be no straw, no hay, no fodder to be had for the animals, and they would starve and die, with the consequent death of the travellers themselves being a very likely possibility. This advice seemed wise, and with a little follow-up gift-giving and buttering-up, adequate horses were also forthcoming. Our travellers were ready. Carpine had already come some 2,000 km, or 1,200 miles, from Lyon as the crow flies, and still they had yet to encounter any Mongols.

The next step did not go entirely well; a local village prefect lured them into his domain, lying about its necessity if indeed they were ambassadors, and then, much to Carpine’s annoyance, aggressively milked them for gifts before allowing them to proceed. In a theme that will be familiar to those of you who listened to the episodes on English interactions with Ottoman officials, Carpine grumbles early and often in his writing about the great gift-greed of the Mongols and the problems it presents. Here, having parted with much more than they’d have liked, or could really afford, they were finally allowed to continue. 

At sunset one night, a group of armed Mongols rushed upon them as they camped and demanded to know their business, surely an intimidating encounter out in the wild and far from any friendly assistance, but having been informed that they were papal emissaries, and taken a share of the travellers’ meal, the group let them be. The next day, officials of some kind who were responsible for the area, found them as they rode. Again, they were asked their business, and again they announced themselves, this time, rather assertively adding that the Pope had sent them because he wished all Christians to be the Mongols’ friends, that he wished the Mongols to be glorified in the eyes of God, that they should become Christians or not be saved, that the Pope was appalled by their slaughter of Christians, and that they should do penance and avoid any further such transgressions; further, the Mongols should submit in writing their future plans and intentions because he would very much like to know. How the Mongol officials received this declaration, he doesn’t say, but, again, gifts were given and the officials were at least convinced enough of their importance to lend them horses and bundle them off to the local lord, leaving Stephen behind. He was too sick to continue, and his personal adventure would be going no further.

Now this lord that Carpine and Benedict were being taken to was in fact a commander of some 6-8,000 men whose station was to guard against sudden attacks from Europe, and it won’t surprise you to learn that he was going to be asking for gifts. “What do you wish to bow with?” his followers asked of Carpine, meaning, “what gifts have you brought?” When the initial response to the question was deemed insufficient, more was sought, and the lord made it clear that he could be very helpful if only they would be appropriately generous. And so, of course, they had to be. 

But I don’t want you to think that Carpine travelled overland from France to Mongolia and had nothing to say save for complaints. The pope would not have been pleased if Carpine had come home with nothing but grumblings over gifts, and Carpine clearly took the task of information-gathering extremely seriously. He was good at it too. He recorded remarkable details on a broad swath of topics related to the Mongols: their lands, lives, habits, religion, organization, tactics, and history.

So when our travellers get to this western Mongol lord, this demander of presents, we get other details too. We get the necessity of bowing three times upon the left knee before the tent doorway. We get the dire warnings not to step on the doorway threshold itself or else suffer death. We get the inconvenience arising when the interpreter, already paid in Kiev, turns out to totally incompetent and, having apparently over-promised on his linguistic abilities, is in fact useless for the task at hand. And, when our travellers are sent on their way despite the interpreter’s shortcomings, we get a peek at the Mongol practice of cycling through fresh horses when they travelled. That was what Carpine and his companions did, along with their Mongol escort, switching mounts 3-4 times a day and riding from morning to night, for roughly 4 weeks, eating up the miles to be sure, but making for rough going for a man in his mid-60s.

The way took them along the frozen Dnieper river which connects Kiev to the Black Sea, what Carpine knew as the Great Sea by which one may reach Constantinople. They crossed the Don river also and carried on. As they went, Carpine recorded not only the geography but also the local rulers and any important connections they may have had, that in one area a man named Mouci ruled, and in another, a prince who was married to Batu’s sister. 

It was Batu Khan they were riding to, recent terrorizer of Eastern Europe, founder of the khanate popularly known as the Golden Horde, and the man identified by Carpine as the most powerful of the royal family save for the Great Khan himself. And Batu was waiting for them. He’d been forewarned of their arrival, and something of their purpose, and at his encampment his officers received them. What would they be bowing with? What gifts had they brought? Walk between these fires. 

The fires in question were intended to purify, to carry away any poison or evil plans hidden within the gifts, in this case 40 beaver skins and 80 badgers, or the givers, and Carpine elsewhere describes a more elaborate variation of the process, quote: “They make two fires, and place two spears besides the fires, and a cord across the top of the spears, and on this cord they tie bits of fabric; and underneath the cord and rags, and between the two fires, men, beasts, and tents must pass. And there are two women, one on one side, the other on the other, who sprinkle water and sing charms; and if any cart breaks down while passing through here, or anything falls to the ground, the sorcerers take it.” Presumably, stumbling or falling while passing through and thus being found to be personally impure would lead to a result much worse than this taxation by sorcerer, sorcerer being Carpine’s term, in translation at least, and not mine. 

This ritual of passing between the flames is also recorded when St Michael of Chernigov, a grand prince of the Rus, presented himself to Batu. Mikhail was called to go between the fires too, but unfortunately he then refused to bow in the direction of a dead man, of Genghis Khan in fact, finding it to be an un-Christian act of worship. As the Mongols would not shed the blood of a noble captive, Mikhail was promptly trampled to death. 

Better things were in store for Carpine though after the fire. In his narrative he makes no mention of being asked to do any such thing before Genghis, but Benedict tells of “a chariot bearing a golden statue of the [Khan],” which it was customary to worship. The two friars, he says, would not do so, and were allowed to merely bow their heads, perhaps in a show of the well known Mongol tolerance for religious practitioners or simply out of respect for their status as representatives. In any case, they weren’t put to death, bloodlessly or otherwise, and a “shallow bowl of millet” was even provided to the visitors that first night, that and a pair of more adequate interpreters to translate the pope’s letters into Russian, Arabic, and the Uyghur script that the Mongols used. Some deliberation would then be required. 

In the meantime, while Batu considered the Pope’s message, Carpine seems to have found much to admire in the khan, who he describes as “quite magnificent,” an emperor who sits on the highest seat in his beautiful linen tents, tents apparently taken from King Bela IV of Hungary no less. When he rides anywhere, a, quote, “canopy or little tent is carried over his head on a spear point,” a kind of delightfully battle-ready umbrella, we might say. “He is very good to his people…” Carpine writes, “yet they fear him greatly. He is most savage in battle and very wise and most clever in war because he has fought so much.” 

Batu the “very wise and most clever” did not take long to make his decision. On “the day of the Resurrection of Our Lord,” the party was summoned and informed they were to be sent on to see Guyuk. I say “the party,” but they didn’t actually all continue their journey from Batu’s camp. It’s one of the footnotes to this story that some were urged to remain and to carry letters back to the Pope, but those selected were simply held after Carpine’s departure and not allowed to go anywhere until he returned. Sadly, there is not, so far as I know, any written record of the extensive time these men spent in Batu’s camp. 

Of course Carpine was not among those held back; he wouldn’t be getting out of the trek ahead so easily. It had been a year since Carpine had left Lyon, and now they were starting the next stage of their journey in tears, he writes, unsure if they were going to their death, half starved on a diet of salted millet and melted snow, and so sick they could barely ride. 

They were going into the unknown, to places where they were but a few steps removed from real edge of the map stuff, the other side of the wall of the Alexander Romance, the land of Gog and Magog, and the realms of Prester John. Carpine looks to the north and writes of the peoples and places in that direction. He gets to the Samoyedi and he writes that, quote, “after the Samoyedi are people at the edge of the ocean bordering a wasteland who are said to have dog faces.” The edge of the map was calling, but those two words, translated here as “are said,” are important here. As I’ve said, Carpine was on, among other things, an information gathering mission. We’ll see that it’s very clear in reading his report what material should be taken as his word and what is to be attributed to some less immediate source. 

Where we really get to see this is in Carpine’s section on the history of the Mongols. It’s a quick run through the rise of Genghis as a unifying local leader and up to and including imperial expansion under Ogedei, and, obviously, this is territory that Carpine was not covering from personal experience. He was relying on what he was told, and for the most part that seems to have served him well; however, when we get to India, it all starts to get a little weird. Lesser India falls to the advance of one of Genghis’s sons without detail, but further advancement runs up against the king, Johannes Presbyter, the man you probably know as Prester John, the legendary priest-king who haunted the perimeter of the medieval European world. 

When the Mongols clashed with Prester John’s army, they apparently faced ranks of deviously prepared dummies, copper horses filled with greek fire which, by way of pumps, was sprayed over their men and horses, burning many and filling the air with smoke and confusion. Volleys of arrows followed and drove back the Mongols who, we’re told, did not return. Of course, this is all quite some way from the reality of Mongol activities in the Indian subcontinent. The opposition they faced there took more the form of the Delhi Sultanate or the last Khwarezmian ruler who they pursued into India than it did armies of copper horses filled with greek fire and commanded by Christian priest-kings.

On the return journey from this defeat, the Mongols apparently passed through wastelands populated by female monsters, and I’m not sure what kind of monsters we’re talking about here; the text is not specific. Further inquiries led the Mongols to understand that the males of the land were in the form of dogs. These dogs were seen to gather in numbers. They would plunge into the water despite the fierce cold and emerge to roll in the dirt and then go back again into the water, forming dense layers of icy armour. Then they attacked. The armoured dogs rushed at the Mongol intruders. To their horror, the Mongols found that their arrows bounced from the ice as if from rocks, and that their other weapons were equally ineffective. Such was not the case for the jaws of the dogs which tore at them, killing many before driving them from those lands of dogs and monsters. 

And there were other strange delights to be found off the beaten path of the Mongol invasions, as Carpine coloured in the periphery of a great unknown. There were the people whose mouths were too narrow to take in food and who instead took sustenance by inhaling the steam from meat and fruit. There were those who lived beneath mountains, beyond a vast wasteland, and did so for fear of the terrible noise the sun made when it rose above the horizon, a noise so fearful that it would cause death or insanity. There were others across the water whose human forms were bookended by the feet of cattle and the faces of dogs. There were, in a wasteland, quote:

...certain monsters (as was told to us for certain), who had only one arm and hand in the middle of the chest and one foot so that two of them shot as one person with a single bow, and they ran so fast that horses could not catch them. They ran jumping on this one foot and when they tired of going that way they would go on hand and foot revolving as in a circle.

Carpine seems to have found some of these details sufficiently dubious to specify that he heard them from a certain Ruthenian cleric. But, he and his companions had more immediate concerns than dog-headed men and ice-covered dogs. He had a hard ride ahead, so hard that they had to bind their limbs with bandages against the strain of constant riding and be tied to their horses, and he couldn’t be sure if the very human-headed men at the end of it all were going to be particularly hospitable. After he writes of what lies to the north, ending with the dog headed men, he turns south, to Constantinople, the Georgians, Armenians, and Turks, and he looks west to Hungary and Rus. “This land is great and wide,” he writes. He never writes of what there is to the east. 

We’ll be finding out, next episode.


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

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

  • The Secret History of the Mongols, translated by Urgunge Onon. Routledge Curzon, 2001.

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

  • Jackson, Peter. "Medieval Christendom's Encounter with the Alien." In Travellers, Intellectuals, and the World Beyond Medieval Europe, edited by James Muldoon, 347-369. Routledge, 2016.

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

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

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