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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Apr 5, 2021

“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 Sa'ora. He dwelt in the city which is called [...] KHAN BALIK , [...] the royal city in the country of the East. He married according to the law a woman whose name was KEYAMTA. And when they had lived together for a long time, and they had no heir, they prayed to God continually and besought Him with frequent supplications not to deprive them of a son who would continue [their] race. And He who giveth comfort in His gracious mercy received their petition, and He showed them compassion. For it is His wont to receive the entreaty of those who are broken of heart, and-to hearken unto the groaning of those who make supplications and petitions [to Him]. [....]

Now God made the spirit of conception to breathe upon the woman Keyamta, and she brought forth a son, and they called his name " SAWMA.” And they rejoiced [with] a great joy, neighbours of his family and his relations rejoiced at his birth.’


    So begins the history of Rabban bar Sauma, as translated by E. Wallis Budge. There were a number of travellers, missionaries, diplomats and merchants who made journey from Europe to China during the height of the Mongol Empire. While Marco Polo is the most famous of these, we have also covered a few other travellers in previous episodes. Yet, there were also those who made the harrowing journey from China to the west. Of these, none are more famous than Rabban bar Sauma, the first known individual born in China who made the journey to Europe. Rabban bar Sauma was a Turkic Christian monk who travelled from Khanbaliq, modern-day Beijing, across Central Asia, the Ilkhanate, the Byzantine Empire, Italy, all the way to the western edge of France, visiting Khans, Emperors, Kings and Popes.  Our episode today will introduce  you to Rabban Sauma and his incredible journey across late 13th century Mongol Eurasia. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.


    Sauma was born around 1225 in the city of Yenching, on which Beijing now sits. Yenching of course, we have visited before, when it was known as  Zhongdu, the capital of the Jurchen Jin Dynasty. The Mongols took the city after a bloody siege in 1215, which we covered  back in episode 7 of this season. Sauma was born to Turkic parents, either Onggud or Uighur, two groups which had long since recognized the supremacy of Chinggis Khan. Sauma’s parents were Christians of the Church of the East, often called, rather disparagingly, Nestorians. Nestorius was a 5th century archbishop of Constantinople who had argued, among other things, the distinction between Christ’s humanity and his divinity, and that Mary was mother of Jesus the man, but not of Jesus the God. For if God had always existed, then he could not have had a mother. For this Nestorius was excommunicated at the Council of Ephesus in 431 and his followers scattered across the east. From the Sassanid Empire they spread across Central Asia, reaching China during the Tang Dynasty. By the 12th century, the adaptable Nestorian priests converted several of the tribes of Mongolia, from the Naiman, the Kereyit to the Onggud, to which Sauma likely belonged. These Eastern Christian priests stayed influential among the Mongols for the remainder of the 13th century, with a number of prominent Mongols adhering to their faith. Sorqaqtani Beki, the mother of Great Khans Mongke and Khubilai, was perhaps the best known of these.


    The young Sauma took his Christian faith seriously; so seriously, his parents sought to dissuade him, fretting the end of their family line if their son became a monk. Refusing fine meats and alcohol, Sauma instead hungered for ecclestical knowledge and purity. Accepted into the Nestorian clergy of Yenching in 1248, at age 25 he donned the tonsure and garb of the monk. Developing a reputation for asceticism beyond even his fellow monks, he largely secluded himself in his own cell for 7 years before leaving the monastery for the mountains. His devotion to Christ made him famous among the Nestorians of North China and Mongolia, attracting the attention of a young Onggud Turk named Markos. From the Onggud capital of Koshang in modern Inner Mongolia, Markos was mesmerized by the stories of the holiness of Sauma. The 15 year old Markos marched by himself to Sauma in 1260. Impressed by the youth’s tenacity even as he attempted to dissuade him from joining the monastery, Sauma eventually took Markos under his wing. Markos proved himself an excellent student, and within three years was accepted into the Nestorian monastic life. 


    Sauma and Markos became fast friends and pillars of the Nestorian community around Yenching, which by then was the capital of the new Great Khan, Khubilai, and renamed to Dadu, “Great City,” or Khanbaliq, “The Khan’s City,” to Turkic and Mongolian speakers. Khanbaliq is the origins of Marco Polo’s somewhat distorted version of Cambulac. While Sauma was happy to spend his life in the mountains near Dadu, Markos was much more energetic, and sought to convince his friend to partake in the most difficult of journeys; to the holy city of Jerusalem to be absolved of their sins. Sauma tried to scare Markos off this goal, and it was not until around 1275 that Sauma was convinced to accompany his friend. They went to Khanbaliq for an escort and supplies, and here news of their mission came to the most powerful monarch on the planet, Khuiblai Khan. Several sources, such as the Syriac Catholicos Bar Hebraeus, attest that Sauma and Markos were sent west by Kublai to worship in Jerusalem or baptize clothes in the River Jordan. Such a task is similar to the orders Kublai gave to Marco Polo’s father and uncle, instructed to bring back Catholic priests and sacred oil from Jerusalem for Yuan China. Khubilai often tried to appear a friend to all religions within his realm, and may have felt the need to honour his own mother’s memory, as she had been a Christian. That Sauma and Markos went with the blessings of the Great Khan holding his passport (paiza) would explain the favoured treatment they received over their voyage. Interestingly though, the main source for Bar Sauma’s journey, a Syriac language manuscript compiled shortly after his death from notes and an account he had made in his life, makes no mention of Khubilai’s involvment. Historian Pier Giorgio Borbone suggests it was deliberately left out, instead playing of the religious aspect of the pilgrimage as emerging from Markos and Sauma themselves, rather than imply they only made the journey on the order of Khubilai.


    Setting out around 1275, Sauma, Markos and an escort began their journey to the west. Through the Yuan Empire they were met by ecstatic crowds of Nestorians coming out to see the holymen, showering them with gifts and supplies. Two Onggud nobles, sons-in-laws to the Great Khan, provided more animals and guides for them, though they warned of the dangers now that the Mongol Khanates were at war. They followed one of the primary routes of the Silk Road, via the former territory of the Tangut Kingdom, the Gansu Corridor, to the Tarim Basin, cutting south along the desolate Taklamakan desert, the harshest stretch of their journey. After staying in Khotan, they moved onto Kashgar, shocked to find it recently depopulated and plundered, a victim of Qaidu Khan. Passing through the Tien Shan mountains to Talas, they found the encampment of that same Khan. Here they minimized any connections they had to Khubilai, instead portraying themselves on a mission of personal religious conviction and prayed for the life of Qaidu and his well being, asking that he provid supplies to assist in their journey.  Qaidu let them through, and Sauma and Markos continued on a seemingly uneventful, but strenuous trip through Qaidu’s realm, the Chagatai Khanate and into the Ilkhanate.


    Sauma and Markos’ journey to Jerusalem halted in Maragha,  chief city of the Ilkhanate. There, the head of the Nestorian Church, Patriarch Mar Denha, found use for these well-spoken travellers affiliated with the Khan of Khans. Mar Denha had not made himself many friends within the Ilkhanate, in part for his hand in the violent murder of a Nestorian who had converted to Islam. As a result the Il-Khan, Hulegu’s son Abaqa, had not provided letters patent to confirm Denha in his position, wary of alienating the Muslims of his kingdom. Mar Denha believed monks sent from Abaqa’s uncle Khubilai would be most persuasive. Abaqa Il-Khan treated Sauma and Markos generously, and perhaps influenced by his Christian Byzantine wife, on their urging he agreed to send Mar Denha his confirmation. In exchange, Mar Denha was to provide an escort for Sauma and Markos to reach Jerusalem, but the roads were closed due to war between the Ilkhanate and the Mamluk Sultanate. When Markos and Sauma returned to Mar Denha, he told them visiting his own Patriarchate was just as good as visiting Jerusalem, and gave them new titles. Both were made Rabban, the Syriac form of Rabbi. Markos was made Metropolitan of the Nestorians of Eastern Asia, essentially a bishop, and given a new name: Yabhallaha, by which he is more often known, while Rabban bar Sauma became his Visitor-General. Suddenly promoted but unable to return east due to a breakout of war between the Central Asian Khanates, Rabban Sauma and Mar Yabhallaha stayed in a monastery near Arbil until the sudden death of Mar Denha in 1281.


    His experience with the Mongols and knowledge of their language made Yabhallaha a prime candidate to succeed Mar Denha, and the other Metropolitans anointed him Patriarch of the Nestorians. Wisely, Rabban Sauma encouraged Yabhallaha to immediately seek confirmation from Abaqa Il-Khan, who appreciated the move and rewarded Yabhallaha and the Nestorians of the Ilkhanate with gifts, such as a throne and parasol,  as well as tax privileges. Abaqa soon died in 1282, and Yabhallaha and Sauma faced scrutiny under Abaqa’s successor, his Muslim brother Teguder Ahmad. Accusations were made that the Nestorians were defaming Teguder Il-Khan in letters to Khubilai. Placed on trial before the Il-Khan, the two friends fought for their innocence and outlasted him. In 1284 Teguder was ousted and killed by Abaqa’s son Arghun. Mar Yabhallaha immediately paid homage to Arghun, in him finding a firm supporter. With Arghun’s backing, Yabhallaha removed his enemies from within the Nestorian church and strengthened his power. Desiring to complete the war with the Mamluk Sultanate, under Arghun efforts to organize an alliance with Christian Europe against the Mamluks reached new heights. Since the days of Arghun’s grandfather Hulegu, the Il-Khans had sent envoys to Europe in an effort to organize a Crusader-Mongolian alliance against the Mamluk Sultans of Egypt. Despite some close attempts, there had not yet been successful cooperation. Arghun was determined to change this and organize the coalition which  would finally overcome the Mamluks.


Desiring the most effective envoy possible, Arghun turned to Mar Yabhallaha to suggest an influential, well travelled and respectable Christian to send to spur Crusading fervour, aided by promises that Arghun would restore Jerusalem to Christian hands. Yabhallaha had just the man. Turning to his longtime friend, Yabhallaha asked Rabban bar Sauma to carry the Il-Khan’s messages westwards. Provided letters for the Kings and Popes, as well as paizas, gold, animals and provisions, in the first days of 1287, after a tearful goodbye with Mar Yabhallaha, the 62 year old Rabban Sauma set out, accompanied by at least two interpreters from Italy in his escort. The first steps of his route are unclear, likely taking the caravan routes from northern Iraq to somewhere along the southeastern Black Sea coast. From there they took a ship to Constantinople and met the Byzantine Emperor Andronikos II. As recorded in the Syriac history of Rabban Sauma, quote: 


“And after [some] days he arrived at the great city of CONSTANTINOPLE, and before they went into it he sent two young men to the Royal gate  to make known there that an ambassador of [Khan] Arghon had come. Then the [Emperor] commanded certain people to go forth to meet them, and to bring them in with pomp and honour. And when RABBAN SAWMA went intothe city, the [Emperor] allotted to him a house, that is to say, a mansion in which to dwell. And after RABBAN SAWMA had rested himself, he went to visit the [Emperor, Andronikos II] and after he had saluted him, the [Emperor] asked him, "How art thou after the workings of the sea and the fatigue of the road?" And RABBAN SAWMA replied, "With the sight of the Christian king fatigue hath vanished and exhaustion hath departed, for I was exceedingly anxious to see your kingdom, the which may our Lord establish!"


Emperor Andronikos II politely welcomed the embassy, dining them and providing a house for their stay. Giving the gifts and letters from Arghun, Rabban Sauma met his first frustration as efforts to broach military aid led nowhere. The Emperor Andronikos provided gifts, excuses, and promised exactly no military aid for the Il-Khan. Whatever disappointment Rabban Sauma felt was offset with a tour of the sites of Constantinople, especially the great church of Hagia Sophia. In his homeland churches were small buildings or even mobiles tents; in Ani, in Armenia, he saw a city famous for its many churches. But nothing could compare to the majesty of the Hagia Sophia, the quality and colour of its marble, its 360 columns, the great space and seemingly floating roof. The mosaics, the shrines and relics alleged to date to the earliest days of Christianity, all captured Sauma’s heart. Of the church’s famous dome, Sauma wrote:  “As for the dome of the altar it is impossible for a man to describe it [adequately] to one who hath not seen it, and to say how high and how spacious it is.” In his  often laconic account of his travels, it is these icons of Christianity which earn the greatest description, and stood out to him more than his usually unsuccessful diplomatic efforts. 


Departing Constantinople, by sea he set out for Rome. The voyage was rough, and on 18th June 1287 he was greeted by a terrifying spectacle, the eruption of Mt. Etna where fire and smoke ascended day and night.  Passing Sicily he landed at Naples, where he was graciously welcomed by Charles Martel, the son of the Napolese King Charles II, then imprisoned in Aragon. From the roof of the mansion  Sauma stayed at, on June 24th he watched Charles’ forces be defeated by the Aragonese fleet in the Bay of Sorrento. Sauma remarked with surprise that the Aragonese forces, unlike the Mongols, did not attack the noncombatants they came across. European chroniclers attest that later in June, after Sauma had moved onto Rome, the Aragonese began ravaging the countryside anyways.


In Rome later in 1287, Sauma’s hopes to meet the Pope were dashed as Pope Honourius IV had died in April that year. Finding the Cardinals in the midst of a long conclave to choose his successor, Sauma was welcomed before them as the envoy of the Il-Khan. Unwilling to commit to any alliance without a Pope, the Cardinals instead asked where Sauma came from, who the Patriarch of the East was and where he was located. Avoiding Sauma’s attempts to get back to his diplomatic purpose, the Cardinals then shifted to theological matters, grilling Sauma on his beliefs. The Nestorian impressed them with his knowledge of the early church, and managed to deftly slide past the disputes which had caused the excommunication of Nestorius some 860 years prior. Finding no progress on the diplomatic mission, Sauma engaged in a more personal interest, exploring the ancient relics and monuments to Christendom.  The account of Sauma’s journey indicates he visited “all the churches and monasteries that were in Great Rome.” At times, he misunderstood the strange customs of the locals, believing the Pope enthroned the Holy Roman Emperor by using his own feet to lift the crown onto his head. 


With no progress to be made in Rome until the new Pope was elected, Sauma searched for Kings of the Franks most known for Crusading. After a brief tour of Tuscany, by the end of September 1287 Sauma was in Paris, there greeted with a lavish reception by King Phillip IV, who hosted a feast for this illustrious envoy. In Rabban Sauma’s account, he wrote”


 “And the king of France assigned to Rabban Sawma a place wherein to dwell, and three days later sent one of his Amirs to him and summoned him to his presence. And when he had come the king stood up before him and paid him honour, and said unto him, "Why hast thou come? And who sent thee?" And RABBAN SAWMA said unto him, "[Khan] ARGHON and the Catholicus of the East have sent me concerning the matter of JERUSALEM." And he showed him all the matters which he knew, and he gave him the letters which he had with him, and the gifts, that is to say, presents which he had brought. And the king of FRANCE answered him, saying, "If it be indeed so that the MONGOLS, though they are not Christians, are going to fight against the Arabs for the capture of JERUSALEM, it is meet especially for us that we should fight [with them], and if our Lord willeth, go forth in full strength.”


Moved by the willingness of the Mongols to restore Jerusalem to Christian hands, Phillip promised to send a nobleman alongside Rabban Sauma to bring his answer to Arghun. With at least one king seemingly onboard, Sauma spent the next month touring Paris, visiting churches and impressed by the great volume of students within the city. Phillip showed Sauma the private relics of the French Kings, including what Phillip claimed was the Crown of Thorns, sold to his grandfather by the Emperor of Constantinople in 1238. 


    Around mid-October 1287, Rabban Sauma had moved across France to Gascony, where the King of England Edward I, old Longhsanks himself, was staying at Bordeaux. Edward was known to the Mongols, having gone on an inconclusive Crusade to Syria in 1271. Abaqa Il-Khan had attempted to coordinate movements with Edward during his campaign, but neither side had been able to line up their forces. Edward, then just the crown prince of England, had succeeded in doing little more than carry out small raids, assist in organizing a treaty between the Kingdom of Jerusalem and Mamuk Sultan Baybars. and survive an assassination attempt. Abaqa had sent envoys in 1277 apologizing to Edward for being able to provide sufficient aid and asked for him to return, but to no avail. Edward, by then the King of England, was by then rather more concerned with France and the conquest of Wales.


Ten years in early 1287, Edward had promised to take up the Cross again, and was excited by the arrival of Rabban Sauma late that year. Promising assistance, he invited Rabban Sauma to partake in the Eucharist with him, gave him leave to visit the local churches, and provided gifts and assistance when Sauma went back on the road to Rome. Feeling himself successful, by the time he returned to Rome in early 1288 a new Pope had been elected, Nicholas IV. The first Pope from the Franciscan Order, Nicholas was a man keenly interested in missionary efforts and the restoration of the Holy Land to Christian hands. It was under his aegis that John de Monte Corvino would travel to Dadu to establish a Catholic archbishopric there. Having interacted with each other during Sauma’s first visit to the Cardinals, Sauma and the new Pope got on splendidly. Kissing the hands and feet of Pope Nicholas, Sauma was provided a mansion for his stay in Rome and invited to partake in the feasts and festivities around Easter. Sauma on occasion led in the Eucharist beside the Pope, drawing crowds from across Rome eager to see how this foreign Christian undertook Mass. Though the language differed, the crowds were ecstatic that the rites themselves seemed the same. 


    Despite their friendship, no promises of organizing a crusade against the Mamluks were forthcoming. The Pope lacked the influence to send a large body of armed men on yet another disatrous journey. The crusades of the 13th century to the Holy Land had been catastrophes. The most thoroughly organized crusades of the century were those organized by King Louis IX of France. The first had ended in his capture by the Mamluks in Egypt in 1250, while the second had resulted in his death outside of Tunis in 1270. If even this saintly, highly prepared king had been met with failures, then what chance would any other force have? Nicholas wanted to convert Muslims and retake Jersualem, yes, but was very aware of the practicalities involved by this point.


 And so, Rabban Sauma decided to return to the Ilkhanate. Nicholas asked Sauma to stay in Rome with him, but Sauma insisted he was only there as a diplomat, and it was his duty to return east. The Nestorian did convince the Head of the Catholic Church to give him, somewhat reluctantly, holy relics: a piece of Jesus’ cape, the kerchief of the Virgin Mary, and fragments from the bodies of several saints. Along with those were several letters for the Il-Khan, Mar Yabhallaha and Rabban Sauma. Copies of these letters survive in the Vatican archives, and though the letter to Yabhallaha confirms him as head of the Christians of the East, it is surprisingly condescending, explaining basic tenets of Christianity. Embracing Rabban Sauma one final time, he was dismissed and by ship, returned to the Ilkhanate.


    On his return, he was warmly welcomed by his longtime friend Mar Yabhallaha and the Il-Khan Arghun. Arghun hosted a feast for them, personally serving them and richly rewarding the old man for his great efforts. Yet his efforts came to naught. The Pope had provided no assurances, and despite continued correspondence neither Phillip nor Edward committed men to the Holy Land, too preoccupied with their own conflicts. Arghun sent an embassy in 1289 telling the two monarchs that he would march on Damascus in January 1291 and meet them there. Distracted by turmoil on his borders, Arghun instead died of illness in March 1291. Acre, the final major Crusader stronghold, was taken by the Mamluks two months later, ending the Crusader Kingdoms and the possibilities of European-Mongol cooperation. Despite some outrage in connected circles in Europe, the fall of Acre merited no revival of any Crusader spirit for the region.


    Rabban Sauma largely retired to his own church for his last years, but along with Mar Yabhallaha continued to visit the court of the Il-Khans, particularly Geikhatu who continued to patronize minority religions of the Ilkhanate.  Perhaps in 1293 they met another international traveller; Marco Polo, who spent much of that year in the Ilkhanate during his return from China. We have no way of confirming this, though we can imagine Geikhatu Il-Khan introducing two men who had both travelled across the continent, humoured by the individuals brought together by Mongol rule. Polo had arrived in China around the same time that Rabban Sauma and Markos had begun their own western journey. As Marco had spent much of his time in China in Bar Sauma’s city of birth, perhaps Polo told him of the things he had missed in the last twenty years, what had changed in Dadu and what had stayed the same, stirring memories in Rabban Sauma of land and family that he never saw again.


    Rabban Sauma died in January 1294, leaving his friend Mar Yabhallaha alone in an Ilkhanate that, after the death of Geikhatu and conversion of the Ilkhans to Islam, grew increasingly mistrustful and hostile to non-Muslims. By the time of Mar Yabhallaha’s death in 1317, the brief flourishing of the Nestorian church under Ilkhanid patronage was over, and their influence across Central Asia dissipated with the continued conversion of Mongols across the region. The journey of Rabban Sauma was forgotten. His persian diary on his voyages was translated into Syriac not long after his death but was lost until its rediscovery in the 19th century. Translated now into several languages, Sauma’s journey shines another light on the integration of East and West under the Mongols, when for the first time a Christian Turk from China could travel to the Pope and Kings of Europe. Our series on the Mongol Empire in the late thirteenth century and fourteenth century will continue, so be sure to subscribe to our podcast. If you’d like to help us keep bringing you great content, please consider supporting us on patreon at, or consider leaving us a review on the podcast catcher of your choice, or sharing this with your friends. All your efforts help immensely. This episode was researched and written by our series historian, Jack Wilson. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.