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. 

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

And now, to the story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well this was what they said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marco and the Polos 2: Of Assassins and Other Things

Marco Polo Venice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To See the Mongols 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 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.