The Mongol khanates

Rabban Bar Sauma, envoy to the pope


Rabban Bar Sauma, 1220-1294, was a Nestorian monk turned diplomat. Born near present-day Beijing, and apparently of Turkic Uyghur origin. He is known for embarking on a pilgrimage from Mongol controlled China to Jerusalem, accompanied by Rabban Markos, one of his students. Due to military unrest, they never reached Jerusalem but spent instead several years in Baghdad which was controlled by the Mongols. Rabban Bar Sauma was later sent on diplomatic missions from the Mongols to Europe, where he met with the pope and sought an alliance with France. Retiring to Baghdad he wrote stories of his travels, providing a unique account of Europe at the close of the crusading period. In 1287, he embarked on his journey to Europe, bearing gifts and letters from Arghun Khan to the Byzantine emperor, the pope, and European kings. He followed the embassy of Isa Kelemechi, sent by Arghun Khan to Pope Honorius IV in 1285. He traveled with a large retinue of assistants, and 30 riding animals. He had interpreters with him, including Tommaso d’Anfossi, a member of a Genoese banking family. Bar Sauma himself spoke Chinese, Turkish and Persian. He traveled to the Black Sea and then took a boat to Constantinople, where he had an audience with Andronicus II Palaeologus. He provides a very enthusiastic account of Hagia Sophia. Next he went to Italy by boat. He went past Sicily where he witnessed and recorded the great eruption on June 18, 1287. He went on to Rome, but too late to meet Pope Honorius IV, who just had died. Instead he entered negotiations with the cardinals and visited St. Peter’s. He then went to Tuscany, the republic of Genoa and onto Paris. In France he spent one month with king Philip the Fair who responded favorably to the arrival of the Mongol mission, gave him presents and ordered an nobleman, Gobert de Helleville, to accompany him back to Mongolia. In Gascony, in France, which at the time was in English hands, he met with Edward I, the English king. He too responded enthusiastically regarding a military alliance, but was not able to provide troops due to conflicts with the Welsh and the Scots at home. Returning to Rome, Bar Sauma was received by the newly elected pope, Nicholas IV, who gave him communion on Palm Sunday, 1288, and gave him various gifts. He then returned to Baghdad in 1288, with gifts and messages from various European kings. The delivered letters were answered by Arghun in 1289, and forwarded by the Genoese merchants Buscarello de Ghizolfi who was working as a diplomatic agent for the Ilkhanate. After his embassy to Europe, Bar Sauma lived out the rest of his life in Baghdad where he wrote the story of his travels. He died in Baghdad in 1294.

In March 1245, the pope sent an emissary, the Franciscan John of Plano Carpini, to the “Emperor of the Tartars.” In a letter referred to as Cum non solum, the pope expressed a desire for peace, and asked the Mongol ruler to become a Christian and to stop killing Christians. However, Güyük Khan replied only with a demand for the submission of the pope, and a visit from the rulers of the west with tribute.

A second mission sent in 1245 by pope Innocent was led by the Dominican Ascelin of Lombardia, who met with the Mongol commander Baiju near the Caspian Sea in 1247. Baiju, who had plans to capture Baghdad, welcomed the possibility of an alliance and sent a message to Rome via his envoys. They returned a year later with Pope Innocent’s letter, Viam agnoscere veritatis, in which he appealed to the Mongols to “cease their menaces.” On April 10, 1862, the Mongol leader Hülëgü sent through John the Hungarian a new letter to king Louis IX of France, again offering an alliance. The letter explained that previously, the Mongols had been under the impression that the pope was the leader of the Christians, but now they realized that the true power rested with the French monarchy. The letter mentioned Hülëgü’s intention to capture Jerusalem for the benefit of the pope, and asked Louis to send a fleet against Egypt. Hülëgü promised the restoration of Jerusalem to the Christians, but he also still insisted on Mongol sovereignty, in the Mongol’s quest for conquering the world. It is unclear whether or not King Louis IX actually received the letter, but at some point it was transmitted to Pope Urban, who answered in a similar way as his predecessors. In his papal bull, Exultavit cor nostrum, Urban congratulated Hülëgü on his expression of goodwill towards the Christian faith, and encouraged him to convert to Christianity.

Güyük Khan’s response: “You should say with a sincere heart: ‘I will submit and serve you.’ Thou thyself, at the head of all the Princes, come at once to serve and wait upon us! At that time I shall recognize your submission. If you do not observe God’s command, and if you ignore my command, I shall know you as my enemy.”

Giovanni of Plano Carpini, a sixty-five year old cleric, who had been one of the disciples of Saint Francis of Assisi, arrived as the agent and spy for the pope Innocent IV, commissioned to find out as much as possible about these strange people who had threatened Europe. Because of the success of their military campaign in Europe, the Mongols eagerly received Carpini in the mistaken belief that he was bringing the submission of the pope and all the people of western Europe, but his letter carried quite a different message. Pope Innocent IV offered the khan a pedantic synopsis of the life of Jesus and the main tenets of Christianity, all of which was probably well known to the khan through his Christian mother and his frequent attendance of religious services with her. Güyük was likely a Christian himself; if not, he was certainly well disposed towards Christianity and relied heavily on Christian Mongols in his administration. The pope’s letter chastised the Mongols for invading Europe, ordering the khan to “desist entirely from assaults of this kind and especially from the persecution of Christians.” He demanded an explanation from the khan “to make fully known to us … what moved you to destroy other nations and what your intentions are for the future.” The letter informed the khan that god had delegated all earthly power to the pope in Rome, who was the only person authorized by God to speak for Him.

After the Mongol officials found out that Carpini brought no tribute and offered no submission, they mostly ignored him, but in a letter of November 1246 that still survives, Güyük asked Innocent IV the obvious question: how do you know whom god absolves an to whom he shows mercy? How do you know that god sanctions the words you speak? Güyük pointed out that god had given the Mongols, not the pope, control of the world from the rising to the setting sun. god intended for the Mongols to spread his commandments and his laws through Genghis Khan’s Great Law. He then advised the pope to come to Karakorum with all of his princes in order to pay homage to the Mongol Khan.

Rabban made his way to the court of Edward, king of England, the most distant point on his journey. He delivered letters and gifts to each monarch along the route, and he stayed in each court for a few weeks or months before moving on to the next. He used his time sightseeing and meeting with scholars, politicains, and church officials to tell them about the great khan and the Mongols, his subordinate the ilkhan, and their burning desire for peaceful relations with the world. On his way back through Rome, pope Nicholas IV invited rabban to celebrate mass in his lnguage; and then, on palm Sunday 1288, the pope celebrated mass and personally gave communion to the Mongol envoy.