In the 13th century, two monks from China, Rabban Bar Sawma and Rabban Mark, embarked on a pilgrimage. Their journey is sometimes describe as "reverse Marco Polo", but this isn't a useful comparison. The text is a chronicle or a biography, not a detailed travelogue. It's darkly comic. They seem to arrive at locations just in time for a funeral. All joy is temporary. Power is a curse. The story does not have a happy ending. It's an insightful political document.
There's a significantly more reliable 2021 translation from Pier Giorgio Borbone, but it's not in the public domain.
One day they meditated, saying, "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 offences, and absolution for our sins of foolishness. Now although RABBAN SAWMA opposed RABBAN MARK, and [tried to] frighten him with the toil of the journey, and the fatigue of travelling, and the terror of the ways, and the tribulations that would beset him in a foreign country, RABBAN MARK burned to set out on the road. His mind seemed to reveal to him that there were treasures laid up for him in the West, and he pressed RABBAN SAWMA with his words, and importuned him to depart. And the two of them having agreed together that neither of them should be separated from his companion, even if one of them might have to submit to what was evil for his sake, they rose up and distributed their furniture, and the objects which they used in everyday life, among the poor, and they went to that city (i.e. Pekin) so that they might take companions for the journey [i.e. join a caravan] and provide themselves with food for the way.
Now when the Christians who were living there became acquainted with them, and knew their intention, they gathered together about them so that they might make them abandon their plan. And they said [unto them}, "Peradventure ye do not know how very far off that region is to which ye would go? Or, perhaps ye have not the least idea in your minds, or have forgotten, how difficult it will be for you to travel over the roads, and that ye will never reach there? Nay, sit ye down here, and strive to perform the works whereunto ye have been called. For it is said, 'The kingdom of heaven is within you'" (Luke xvii. 21). And RABBAN SAWMA and RABBAN MARK replied, "It is a long time since we put on the garb of the monastic life, and we have renounced the world; we consider ourselves to be dead men in respect of it. Toil doth not terrify us, neither doth fear disturb us. There is, however, one thing which we ask of you: for the love of Christ pray for us."
And the report of the arrival of the two monks reached the lords of that city, KONBOGHA (i.e. Sun-worshipper) and IFOGHA (or IBOGHA) (i.e. Moon-worshipper), the sons-in-law of the King of Kings, KUBLAI KHAN, and as soon as they heard the report they sent messengers and had the two monks brought to the Camp. And they received them with gladness, and the fire of love for them burned in their breasts. And when the Lords knew that they were "going to flee from us," they began to say unto them, "Why are ye leaving this country of ours and going to the West? For we have taken very great trouble to draw hither monks and fathers from the West. How can we allow you to go away?"
And when the Lords of the city saw that their words had no effect upon them, and that they would not yield to their persuasion, they selected for them gifts, namely, beasts on which to ride, and gold, and silver, and wearing apparel [and rugs]. Then the two monks said, "We have no need of any [of these things]. For what can we do with these possessions? And how can we possibly carry such a weight [as] this?"
And the kings mentioned above replied, "Ye have no knowledge of the length of this journey, and the expenses which it demands. We, however, do know, and we advise you not to set out empty [handed]; if ye do ye will be unable to arrive at the place which ye have decided to be your destination.
|The Battle of Mohi|
Hexcrawling and Random Encounters
And from there they went to the country of LOTON [? KHOTAN, or HO-THIAN, or YUTHIAN, a city between TANGOTH and KASHGAR], a toilsome and fatiguing journey of two months; the region was a bare and barren desert and it was without inhabitants, because its waters were bitter, and no crops are sown there. And on the whole journey there were only eight days when, with the greatest difficulty, was sweet water found which the travellers could carry with them. And in the days when they arrived at LOTON it happened that a war was raging between the King of Kings KUBLAI KHAN and King OKO ['O-'ho, Commander-in-chief of the army of Mien?].
And OKO had fled from him and had entered [this] country, and destroyed thousands of men therein. The caravan roads and ways had been cut, and grain (?) was scarce and could not be found; and many died of hunger and perished through want.
And after six months the two monks went forth from that place and came to the country of KASHKAR [or KASHGAR, a city on the frontiers of CHINA and TURKESTAN]. And they saw that the city was empty of its inhabitants, because it had been already plundered by the enemy. And because the aim of the monks was right, and they pleased God with all their hearts, He delivered them from every affliction, and no suffering attacked them, and He saved them from obstructions by highway robbers and thieves.
And with the greatest difficulty (20) and in a state of exhaustion whereto fear was added, they arrived at KHORASAN, [a province of north-eastern Persia, which lay between Persian 'Irak and Afghanistan]. Having lost the greater part of what they had on the road, they went to the monastery of Saint MAR SEHYON, which was in the neighbourhood of the city of TUS [the capital of KHORASAN], and they were blessed by the bishop who lived therein and by the monks.
And again, on another night, MAR YAHBH ALLAHA saw another vision. It seemed him as if he were sitting upon a high throne and that many people were gathered together round about him, and he was teaching [them] And as he was speaking his tongue became long and longer until the greater part of it went forth from his mouth; and then it became divided into three portions, and there appeared on the tip of each portion something which was like unto fire. And the people who were there marvelled and glorified God.
One night, before he had heard of what had happened to AHMAD the king, MAR YAHBH-ALLAHA had a dream. And it seemed to him that a young man of handsome appearance came to him carrying a dish, which was covered over with a napkin, in his hands, and he said unto the Catholicus, "Stand up, and eat what is laid on the dish." And when he drew back the cloth he found a boiled head [of a man] in the dish, and he ate the whole head leaving nothing except he bones of the jaw. And the young man said unto him, "Dost thou know what thou hast eaten?" And the Catholicus said unto him, "No." And the young man said unto him, "This was the head of King AHMAD"; and the Catholicus awoke straightway and was frightened. And a few days later the report of the murder of the king, which hath already been mentioned, arrived, and the news that King ARGHON was reigning. And the joy of the Catholicus was great, not because of the death of Ahmad, but because ARGHON had become king.
And the king passed the night in the monastery. And that night, whilst he was sleeping, he saw in his dream three angels standing above him, the apparel of one of them was red, and the two others were clad in shining green garments. And they spake words of consolation to him, and gave him reason to hope that the disease in his toes would be healed. And on the following morning, the king brought out a splendid cross made of fine gold, wherein (145) rare stones of very great price were set, and in it was a fragment of the adorable wood of the Cross of our Vivifier which had been sent to the king as a mark of honour by MAR PAPA of the Romans, and he gave it as a gift to Mar Catholicus. And the king related his dream before all those who were seated there, and confessed (or declared), saying "Through the blessings of this holy hothouse I have got healing."
The reason for his election was this: The kings who held the steering poles of the government of the whole world were MUGLAYE (Mongols), and there was no man except MAR YAHBH-ALLAHA who was acquainted with their manners and customs, and their policy of government, and their language.The election of the Pope is portrayed as divinely inspired and deeply mysterious. This election, on the other hand, is practical.
And when [the nobles of Baghdad] said these things to him he made excuses and demurred to their statements, saying, "I am deficient in education and in ecclesiastical doctrine, and the member of my tongue halteth. How can I possibly become your Patriarch? And moreover, I am wholly ignorant of your language, Syriac, which it is absolutely necessary for the Patriarch to know." And having pressed upon him their quest, he agreed to their opinion and accepted [the office]. And all the aged men, and priests, and nobles, and scribes, and also the physicians, gave their support to him.
Mark had recently received the name "Mar Yahb-Allah" from the late Catholicus, via a divine lottery (i.e. choosing a Syriac name from a hat). Imagine the scene:
Sawma: Congratulations to the new Catholicus, Mar Yahb-Allah!
Mark: Yes, congratulations to Mar Yahb-Allah.
Sawma: Mark.. you're Mar Yahb-Allah.
Mark: גירא בעיני (Lit. "An arrow in my eye!" or "Aww FUCK!")
The Catholicus gave his permission to depart, but when the time for his departure arrived, it did not please the Catholicus to permit him to go. For he said [unto Rabban Sawma], "How can this possibly take place? Thou hast been the governor of my cell, and thou knowest that through thy departure my affairs will fall into a state of utter confusion." And having said such words as these they said farewell to each other, weeping as they did so. And the Catholicus sent with him letters, and gifts which were suitable for presentation to Mar Papa (the Pope), and gifts [i.e. offerings] according to his ability.
Despite abridgement, multiple translations, and centuries of distance, there are touches of real friendship in this text. Little human moments, like King Phillip II's showmanship in relics, King Kazan's sore toes, and, of course, the friendship between Rabban Sawma and Mark.
|The Crown of Thorns. Note that this is not the medieval reliquary mentioned below. This crystal ring dates to 1896. The medieval reqliquary may have vanished during the Revolution.|
Now MARY wept on that stone, and the place hereon her tears fell is wet even at the present time; and however often this moisture is wiped away the place becometh wet again. [...] And also the BETH KAWMA (resting place) of the Three Hundred and Eighteen [orthodox] Bishops who were all laid in one great church; and their bodies have not suffered corruption because they had confirmed the [True] Faith. And he saw also many shrines of the holy Fathers, and many amulets of a magical character (talismata) and image[s] in bodily form made of bronze and stone (Eikons?).
And from that place they went to the spot where PAUL the Apostle, was crowned [with martyrdom]. They say that when his head was cut off it leaped up thrice into the air, and at each time cried out CHRIST! CHRIST! And that from each of the three places on which his head fell there came forth waters which were useful for healing purposes, and for giving help to all those who were afflicted.
And MAR PAPA said, "If we had been in the habit of giving away these relics to the people [who come] in myriads, even though the relics were as large as the mountains, they would have come to an end long ago. But since thou hast come from a far country, we will give thee a few." And he gave to RABBAN SAWMA a small piece of the apparel of our Lord Christ, and a piece of the cape (. . .) that is to say, kerchief of my LADY MARY, and some small fragments of the bodies of the saints that were there. And he sent to MARR YAHBH-ALLAHA a crown for his head which was of fine gold and was inlaid with precious stones; and sacred vestments made of red cloth through which ran threads of gold; and socks and sandals on which real pearls were sewn; and the ring from his finger; and a "Pethikha" or Bull which authorized him to exercise Patriarchal dominion over all the Children of the East. And he gave to RABBAN SAWMA a "Pethikha" which authorized him to act as Visitor-General over all Christians. And Mar Papa blessed him and he caused to be assigned to him for expenses on the road one thousand, five hundred mathkale of red gold. And to King Arghon he sent certain gifts. And he embraced RABBAN SAWMA and kissed him and dismissed him. And RABBAN SAWMA thanked our Lord who had held him to be worthy of such blessings as these.
|1669 eruption of Mt. Etna|
And he went down to the sea [i.e. embarked on a ship] and came to the middle thereof, where he saw a mountain from which smoke ascended all the day long and in the night time fire showed itself on it. And no man is able to approach the neighbourhood of it because of the stench of sulphur [proceeding therefrom]. Some people say that there is a great serpent there. This sea is called the "Sea of Italy." Now it is a terrible sea, and very many thousands of people have perished therein.
Damn You, Anonymous Transcriber!
Now because it was not our intention to relate and set out in order all the unimportant things which RABBAN SAWMA did and saw, we have abridged very much of what he himself wrote in his narrative in Persian. And even the things which are mentioned here have been abridged or amplified, according to necessity.Of course, the original Persian text is lost.
Unlike some contemporary accounts, it seems reasonably certain that Babban Bar Sauma went where he says he went and saw what he says he saw. The political background of some events might be lightly edited to present the truth in the best possible light, and omit inconvenient factional intrigues, but it's a clear-eyed record.
The Circle of Loot
I don't think it's intentional, but there's a theme of looting and counterlooting in this text. Rich gifts are given and stolen. Rabban Sawma glorifies items looted from Jerusalem but, in later chapters, laments when his monastery is looted, and then rejoices when he receives fresh loot from Palestine and Syria.
There are in that church four pillars of copper [or brass], each of which is six cubits in thickness; these, they say, the kings brought from Jerusalem.You'd think the gospels would mention a six-sided paten made of emerald, but no...
And RABBAN SAWMA and his companions saw also a six-sided paten, made of emerald, and the people there told them that it was off this paten from which our Lord ate the Passover with His disciples, and that it was brought there when Jerusalem was captured.
Forthwith he went up with the king into an upper chamber of gold, which the king opened, and he brought forth from it a coffer of beryl wherein was laid the Crown of Thorns which the Jews placed upon the head of our Lord when they crucified Him. Now the Crown was visible in the coffer, which, thanks to the transparency of the beryl, remained unopened. And there was also in the coffer a piece of the wood of the Cross. And the king said to RABBAN SAWMA and his companions, "When our fathers took Constantinople, and sacked Jerusalem, they brought these blessed objects from it."
And when the story went forth that this impudent fellow had done this without any royal command, and had acted solely because of the evil of his disposition, and the intensity of is wickedness, the Amirs and the governors who were in MARAGHAH gathered together, and took counsel, and decided to perform judgement on a following Sunday and to restore to the Cell the various valuable objects which those impudent men had carried off from it. Now these objects were of very great price, among them being the gold seal which the King of Kings MANGU KHAN [the eldest son of TULUI KHAN and grandson of GENGHIS KHAN]--May our Lord give rest to his soul, and make his portion to be with the saints!--had given to the Patriarchal Cell, and that crown which Mar Papa (the Pope) had given to the Cell, and another seal, made of silver, which the deceased King Arghon had given to Catholicus.
And the treasury of the holy church of MAR GEORGE, which RABBAN SAWMA had built, was broken open and everything that was in the Cell, the vessels of copper and iron, the carpets, and the chests of stores, which had escaped a previous looting, were all taken and carried off at the same time. But by the looting of those things the church itself was saved and delivered from pulling down and destruction. Those impudent men had fully intended to destroy the church, but God in His mercy on that church prevented them from doing this by means of the objects which they looted.
Now the object of the victorious king was to conquer the countries of PALESTINE and SYRIA. And the Catholicus wintered in the Fortress of ARBIL, and during the whole of that winter, he devoted himself to getting ready the money for [the building of the monastery of which he was laying the foundations. And when the victorious king returned from PALESTINE [and SYRIA], having conquered and broken their armies, and plundered them, and scattered, and slain and carried of the inhabitants into captivity--for he hd actually carried out what he had determined to do--the Catholicus went up again with him to ADHORBIJAN. And he began to build the monastery, and he devoted his whole care and energy to the work until he completed it.
And in the month of 'Ilul (September) of the year [A.D. 1300], KAZAN, the victorious king came to Mar Catholicus at Maraghah, and he remained with him for three days. And the joy of the Christians waxed great, and the kin (134) showed great love towards them, for he knew well that they were simple and guileless, and innocent of wickedness. And he departed with a joyful heart from the Catholicus, who had ministered unto him exceedingly well.
Later in this year, in the month of Abh, the victorious king sent to Mar Catholicus vases of crystal, and vases of glazed porcelain (kashani, in Persian djini) with (146) designs on them in gold. [The king] had brought handicraftsmen from the city of DARMASUK (DAMASCUS) and from KASHAN [on the Tehran road]. By the dispatch of these vessels [the king] showed great love for [MAR CATHOLICUS.].
Additional Themes and Notes
- The importance of letters and seals of authority.
- A slightly baffled authority trying to keep the lid on a multifaith empire. "Why are you fighting again? I said stop!" And then finally throwing up its hands and saying "Oh fine, have a massacre. At least it'll solve the dispute."
- Bargaining from a position of weakness. Trying to emphasize the similarities of doctrine with practical acts (holding mass in front of witnesses so they can see the similarity in rites) to form a political alliance.
- Dealing with volatile rulers. You think the Plantagenets were feisty? Try working with the Mongols.