Lance Ralston is the founding pastor of Calvary Chapel of Oxnard, an author of one book, Marriage: As It Was Meant To Be, and host of The History of the Christian Church Podcast.
This is the last of a dozen episodes on Rabban Sauma.Having met with all the dignitaries his embassy on Arghun’s behalf required, Sauma was anxious to return home. The delay caused by the Roman Cardinals failure to appoint a new Pope had lengthened his stay beyond what he’d anticipated. Although no record of it is given, Arghun may have urged Sauma to return by a specific date. So he packed up and started the journey back to Persia. It was April 1288.And remember, accompanying him was the French king Philip’s ambassador who bore a personal letter from the King to Arghun. The one Sauma carried was an official correspondence.His route was the same as the one he took West. The only change was his trip to Veroli SW of Rome. The Cathedral of St. Andrew was an attraction he decided to include on his way home. It wasn’t much of a detour. What’s interesting about his stay in Veroli was his inclusion with several Roman church officials in the issuing of indulgences. These indulgences, usually issued in the Name of Christ, were rendered under the auspices of God the Father, indicating a nod on the part of the Catholics to The Rabban’s Nestorian emphasis. The Vatican museum has some of these indulgences granted by Sauma. They bear his seal showing a figure with a halo, left hand on chest and right holding a star. It bears the text, “Bar Sauma—Tartar—From the Orient” Tartar being the common word of Europeans for the Mongols.After Veroli, Sauma took ship and arrived back in Persia in Sept; a journey of five months. He was immediately ushered into the Ilkhan’s presence. He handed off the various gifts and correspondences he’d been given to pass along to Arghun. He then gave his report, a full account of his time in the West.Arghun was pleased that the kings of England and France were on board for an alliance against the Mamluks. Though the Pope hadn’t pledged to the alliance, he’d made clear his desire for closer relations. Stoked at that prospect, Arghun looked with great favor on the Rabban. He expressed his dismay at the hardships Sauma had endured on his journey and promised to take care of him for the rest of his life. He pledged to build the Rabban a church near the palace where he could retire to a life of quiet service of God. Sauma asked that Arghun send for his old friend Mar Yaballaha, head of the Nestorian Church, to come to court to receive the gifts and letters Western leaders had sent him. While there, he could consecrate the land for the new church. The summons was duly sent.Arghun had a special tent-church constructed in anticipation of Mar Yaballaha’s arrival. When the Catholicos did, a three-day banquet was thrown with Arghun himself serving both Sauma and the Nestorian Patriarch. He commanded the people of his realm to offer regular prayers for the health of both the Rabban and Catholicos. The favor he showered on the Nestorians led to a greater boldness on their part across Persia. In 1289, Arghun appointed a Jewish physician as his vizier or prime minister and turned over a good part of the governance of the realm to his capable leadership. With both Christianity and Judaism on the rise, unease among Muslims began to roil.Arghun remained hopeful of the alliance with the West against the Mamluks. He sent a letter by way of a Genoese merchant to Kings Edward & Philip, calling for them to make good on their promise of joining in a campaign to remove the Muslims from the Holy Land. He told them the Mongols would be attacking Damascus in January 1291. They were to attack the Mamluk headquarters in Egypt. They’d then meet in Jerusalem, where Arghun would help them conquer the City, and once secured, turn it over to Europeans control. Both Philip & Edward replied. While Philip’s letter is lost to us, Edward’s remains. He commended the Ilkhan for his zeal in wanting to rid the infidels from the Holy Land, but England wasn’t able to mount a Crusade apart from Papal blessing, which Edward encouraged Arghun to secure. But the Pope had made it clear; no such Crusade was in the offing. Gauging the political winds, Pope Nicholas sensed the monarchs of Europe were pretty much Crusaded out.Arghun’s campaign against Damascus never materialized, and not because of the failure to gain western support. In the Spring of 1290, the Mongol Golden Horde to his north began a series of raids into Persian territory. When a rebellion broke out in the important city of Khurasan at his eastern border, it meant any movement West toward the Mamluks was out of the question. A half year later, he became gravely ill and died in March of 1291. Subsequent Ilkhans gave up attempts at an alliance with the West against the Mamluks. Though Ghazan converted to Islam, he attacked Syria and was able to hand the Mamluks a temporary defeat. Not able to hold the territory, when the Mongols retreated, the Mamluks returned. They were never able to defeat the Mamluks after that.As for the Europeans, while Edward & Philip were up for a Crusade, the Pope wouldn’t sanction one. The monarchs might have pressed the issue had it not been for their issues at home. This was a time when Europe was fractured and disunited. Their inability to take advantage of the alliance Arghun offered meant the Mamluks were eventually able to conquer the last Outremer fortresses in Tripoli, then Acre.When Arghun died, Sauma’s promised church next to the palace hadn’t been built. The new Ilkhan wasn’t interested in the project, but at Sauma’s urging, he provided funds and permission for a new church to be built in the Nestorian headquarters in Maragha, next to Mar Yaballaha’s house. It took three yrs to construct the elaborate structure, which became the home for the many artifacts and relics the Rabban had collected on his travels. Now in his mid and late 60’s, Sauma settled into the life he’d lived years before as a young man; one of quiet study and personal ministry to everyday followers of Christ. He reports that this was the happiest and most fulfilling time of his long and eventful life.His health failing, Sauma was determined to see his good friend Marcos who’d become the Nestorian Patriarch under the name Mar Yaballaha, one last time. Though Marcos’ residence was in Maragha where Sauma’s church was, the headquarters of the Nestorian church was in Baghdad, so the Patriarch spent a good amount of his time there. Sauma made the journey there, the last of his many travels. After an emotional meeting between the two friends who’d shared such amazing adventures and accomplished so much, Sauma’s body, wracked by intense pain, finally gave out. In was January of 1294.Mar Yaballaha was inconsolable. He wept profusely for three straight days. That was followed by a melancholy that took months to dissipate. Then the Nestorian Catholicos engaged in a series of correspondences with the Roman Popes, following up on the lines of communication forged by Sauma.But the goodwill toward the Church launched from Arghun’s appreciation for Sauma’s embassy to the West, began to wither with the Ilkhan Ghasan’s conversion to Islam. When Mar Yaballaha died in 1317, Christianity was on the decline across Persia and Central Asia. It would never recover. The glory days of The Church of the East were now in the past, being covered by a thick dust of obscurity.Sauma’s records were discovered among his papers following his death but were lost after being translated by a Syrian scribe some 20 yrs later. THAT account, as we’ve already suggested, was most likely highly abbreviate, focusing almost entirely on the religious aspects of Sauma’s adventures, specifically the many relics he viewed. The additional information in the Syrian translation comes off as little more than a setting of context for the religious narrative. Sauma’s diplomatic activities are presented as an afterthought. But, in light of Sauma’s ground-breaking and boundary-smashing embassy to the West, surely he took pains to document more than the finger and shin bones of dead saints.The Syrian translator does include Sauma’s journals of the years he spent in Persia after his return from Europe. He even goes on to recount the persecution of Christians that took place after Sauma’s death when Ghazan became Ilkhan. The translator admitted, “it was not our intention to relate and set out in order all the unimportant things which Rabban Sauma did and saw, we have abridged very much of what he wrote, . . . and even the things which are mentioned here have been abridged, or amplified, according to necessity.” That necessity being the translator’s interest in the religious, rather than political, aspects of Sauma’s quest.And that may account for why Rabban Sauma has been largely overlooked by popular history. His political impact wasn’t recognized, subsumed as it was under the editorial bias of his early chronicler. Excised as well from his report were his observations of life in Western Europe, what would have been a tremendous boon to historians researching this period.In conclusion, while Rabban Sauma never returned to China and the court of Khubilai Khan to complete his adventure, he did accomplish most of what he’d set out to do. His original ambition, encouraged by his friendship with the young Marcos, was a religious pilgrimage to the headquarters of the Nestorian Church in Baghdad and the centers of Western Christianity. His dream of visiting Jerusalem birthplace of The Faith went unrealized because of the Mamluk domination of Palestine.Sauma as a genuine scholar who did more than read books. He went to the places they wrote about. He was a gifted linguist, a skilled theologian, an effective diplomat. He must have been an imminently likable fellow who got along with everyone. All who met him embraced him quickly and sought to include him as an ally. His immense wisdom was repeatedly demonstrated in his skill at avoiding subjects sure to arouse the ire of his hosts.Finally, let’s briefly recap his accomplishments.He began as a scholar-monk in the storied Church of the East. His life of quiet study in a tiny house in the mountains of China was interrupted by a teenager named Marcos who’d made Bar Sauma his hero. They became inseparable friends. Marcos’ itch to visit the places he and Sauma read about eventually infected Sauma with the same hunger. They appeared before the Great Khan Khubilai, asking permission to head West on a heretofore unheard pilgrimage to the birthplaces of their Nestorian Church and the Christian Faith. Khubilai not only permitted them, he endorsed them as envoys of his court to his Mongol allies in Persia, the Ilkhans.The journey West crossed some of the most inhospitable territories on the Planet. They encountered a mind-numbing plethora of different cultures, languages, customs & foods. When they arrived in Persia, the corrupt Patriarch of their church tried to turn them into political pawns. They adroitly side-stepped his shenanigans. Then, when he died, Sauma helped to have his friend Marcos elected as the new Patriarch, the Nestorian Catholicos known to history as Mar Yaballaha.After several years in Persia, the Mongol Ilkhan consented to allow Sauma to continue his trek West to visit the centers of European Christianity. He charged him with an additional task; being his official envoy asking for Christian Europe to mount another of the Crusades they’d staged over the previous couple centuries, to clear the Middle East of the Muslim Mamluks. Sauma then embarked on his second great journey, from Persia to Constantinople where he met the Emperor and Eastern Patriarch, then on to Rome where he met the dozen Cardinals meeting to select a new Pope. When they were unable to, he headed to Paris where he met with King Philip, then to Bordeaux to meet the English King Edward. Securing promises of an alliance with the Persian Mongols against the Mamluks, Sauma headed back to Rome where he met with the newly installed Pope Nicholas IV and helped serve the Easter celebrations.When the Pope proved evasive in pledging support for a new crusade, Sauma headed back to Persia where he was welcomed by a grateful Ilkhan.Every student in Western schools learns of the famous Marco Polo. Almost any account of the Age of Discovery that helped lift the Medieval world out of its moribundosity lists the adventures and of Marco Polo as one of its premier causes. His chronicle, written down by a fellow prisoner, became a best-seller in Europe and helped whet the appetite of Europeans for the exotic riches of the Far East. Rabban Sauma, who lived at about the same time, has been overlooked in the popular telling of history. Yet his travels and accomplishments far surpass those of Polo.If only that Syrian translator had translated ALL Sauma’s journals! If only . . .
This is the 11th episode in the story of Rabban Sauma, and we’re closing in on the conclusion.After a month-long tour of the holy sites in and around Paris, Sauma had a final audience with King Philip. He meant it to be the crowning achievement in the royal treatment he’d lavished on the Chinese ambassador.It was held in the upper chapel of Saint-Chapelle where the just completed stained glass windows filled the room with light, giving the room its nick-name – The Jewel Box. Being newly installed, the colors were vibrant. The windows tell a Biblical history of the world. The room also holds statues of the 12 Apostles and vivid paintings that all combine to literally dazzle the eye. But it was the relics the room held that would have most impressed the Rabban. Philip carefully opened an ornate box holding, what was reputed to be, Jesus’ crown of thorns. Another reliquary held a piece of wood from the cross.While several of Paris’ relics were indeed brought back from the Holy Land after the first Crusade, these two had been secured by Philip’s grandfather St. Louis in Constantinople 40 yrs before. Saint-Chapelle was built as simply a large reliquary to hold their reliquaries.Sauma’s account of viewing these precious relics reports the King told him they’d been secured during the First Crusade IN Jerusalem. Either Sauma misunderstood, or Philip intentionally misled him. Philip wanted to encourage the Rabban in his appeal for a new Crusade. It’s likely Philip fudged the facts so as to give Sauma the impression the French greatly honored the idea of a campaign to retake the Holy Land, even though he had no intention of making an imminent call for one. His behavior throughout the Rabban’s visit suggests he wanted to curry the favor of the Mongol Ilkhans. Furthering that impression was the envoy and letter he sent with Sauma when he eventually returned to Persia. Before leaving Paris. Philip loaded him with lavish gifts, which the pious and humble monk lumps under the heading, “lavish gifts” in his account.So, armed by the assumption he’d secured the French King’s commitment to a Crusade in alliance with the Mongols in Persia against the Muslim Mamluks, Sauma headed west to see if he could recruit the English King Edward I. It was fortunate that Edward just so happened to be near at hand, visiting his lands in Gascony, a region on the west coast of France just north of Spain. After a 3 week journey, Sauma arrived in Bordeaux in the Fall of 1287.Whereas the Parisians had plenty warning of the arrival of the Far Eastern Ambassador from the exotic Mongols and went all out in their celebration of greeting, the people of Bordeaux were surprised. “Who are you and why are you here,” they asked? When word was brought to King Edward, he sought to make amends for the poor way such an august figure had been greeted. Sauma smoothed over the rough start to his embassy among the English by giving Edward the gifts Ilkhan Arghun sent and letters of greeting from he and the Nestorian Catholicus Mar Yaballaha. Edward received them with marked appreciation, but it was when Rabban Sauma proposed an alliance with the Mongols against the Mamluks that he became most animated. “A new Crusade to liberate Jerusalem and bring aid to the beleaguered Outremer? Why that sounds stellar!” was his enthusiastic reaction. Only 6 months earlier, he’d vowed to take the cross. This seemed a glow of divine favor on his pledge, an affirmation of God’s delight in him.While Edward intended to immediately embark on the adventure, events back home conspired to stall that plan. Wales rebelled, again; and entanglements on the Continent in the fractious politics and schemes of Europe hijacked his resources and attention.But all of that was yet future; near future to be sure, but not yet. As far as Sauma was concerned, he had the support of both the Kings of England and France in the proposed alliance with the Mongol Ilkhans in Persia in their long desire to rout the Mamluks from the Middle East.Furthering Sauma’s sense of favor by the English King was the invitation to officiate Communion for the royal court. Though Sauma consecrated and served the elements according to the ancient Syriac formula, it was enough akin to the Mass that the participants were easily able to follow along, understanding not the words, but the meaning behind each movement of the ritual.And THAT – is simply remarkable!! Think of it. Though it’s the close of the 13th C, and these two branches of The Church have been sundered from each other for 800 yrs, when adherents from the two groups engage in the focal point of their religious service, though they can’t understand one another’s speech, they DO understand what’s happening, because the rite itself hasn’t fundamentally changed. That’s stunning, by anyone’s reckoning.Once the service was finished, Edward threw a feast. It was his way to finalize and seal the agreement between England and Persia. Sauma didn’t record what this royal feast served, but we have accounts of some of Edwards’ other such feast. Let me just pass along the idea that you can go right ahead and picture the most raucous dining hall scene from any medieval movie with the ox spinning on a spit over a huge fire, chicken bones being thrown across the room in mass quantities, platers laden high with all kinds of bread and vegetables. And keg after keg of drink. Edward was known for these kinds of food & beverage extravaganzas.And once again, having achieved his official duties as Arghun’s ambassador, Sauma turned to his personal mission; visiting the holy sites of Edwards’ domains on the Continent. Edward not only provided guides, he paid all Sauma’s expenses for this pilgrimage.When he returned, Edward did something curious. He took pains to make sure Sauma understood that European Christians believed in Christ alone. It seems someone may have gotten to the King and informed him of the ancient rift between the Nestorian and Western Church. For his part, Sauma wasn’t going to throw over the much-needed alliance between East and West over nuances of theological wording that people who 800 years earlier had divided over – and THEY spoke the same language. A lengthy dissertation on the nature of the Trinity through translators just wasn’t practical. So Sauma let it go.Late in 1287, with two-thirds of his mission accomplished, The Rabban decided it was time to head back to Rome and see if a new Pope had been selected. Two of Europe’s most powerful armies were now committed to the cause. All they needed was permission from Rome’s Bishop. By the end of the year, the obstinate cardinals still had not made a selection.Fleeing the cold of the French winter, he traveled to Genoa to await the election of the New Pope. Sauma’s report of Genoa makes it clear it was maybe his favorite place in all his travels. The city was a beauty, the people warm and friendly.As much as he loved Genoa, Sauma’s sense of responsibility began needling him. He wasn’t, as they say, getting any younger. The trip back to Persia with his report to Arghun was going to be another major epic in a life FILLED with them. If the last months’ long journey from Persia to the West had aged him years, the return trip would age the now sexagenarian a decade. He couldn’t return to Persia by hopping aboard a 747. It meant another rickety ship across some of the most dangerous waters of the Med, to Constantinople, then across the Black Sea with its plethora of pirates, to the western end of the Silk Roads, then across Mesopotamia to Persia. [And we complain when we need to hop in the car and drive to the market down the street!]It’s not difficult sympathizing with Sauma’s rising guilt at enjoying Genoa when he knew how eager both his friend Mar Yaballaha and his ruler, Ilkhan Arghun was for his return and report. Sauma was a man with a profound sense of duty. What else could account for the multitude of manifest difficulties he’d endured over the previous decade? But Genoa had everything he’d been looking for in his pilgrimage. Duty won out over ease and Sauma began to chaff as he waited for the Cardinals in Rome to get it together.They finally did. In February 1288 they elected Jerome of Ascoli as Pope Nicholas IV. It was an auspicious choice for Sauma’s mission. Some years before, Jerome had been Rome’s ambassador to Constantinople to see about effecting a reconciliation between East & West. The effort proved unfruitful, but it made Jerome more aware of the needs and sensitives of the Eastern Church. If any Europeans can be said to be aware of the threat the Mamluks presented the Faith, Pope Nicholas IV was among them.It helped Sauma’s cause that Nicholas was one of the people he’d spent considerable time conversing with when he’d before been in Rome. The two had hit it off, despite the language barrier.Nicholas sent an envoy to Genoa requesting Sauma’s return to the Eternal City. Two weeks later, as Sauma’s party reached Rome’s outskirts, they were met by a delegation of church officials welcoming him to the City.Ushered into Nicholas’ presence, Sauma showed him the highest form of obeisance he could by bowing on hands and knees, kissing the Pope’s hands and feet, then rising to walk backward with arms crossed at the wrists before his chest; a Nestorian sign of the utmost honor. Sauma then delivered the last of his official letters and gifts from Arghun and Mar Yaballaha.Nicholas showed his ready acceptance of Sauma’s embassy and person by requesting he stay and celebrate Easter with his Western brethren. Nicholas knew that Sauma, as a Nestorian Rabban, would feel the need to officiate at the events of Holy Week in some church setting. So rather than travel, we suggested he stay and plan on doing so there in Rome. Plush lodgings were secured for him and his attendants.Sauma then began preparations for Easter celebrations. He requested permission to conduct Mass so as to show Western Christians how it was done in the Nestorian tradition. The pope not only granted him permission, he showed great curiosity to witness the ritual. When the time came, a huge crowd was on hand. When all was said and done, the consensus was the same as in Bordeaux. While the language was different, the ritual was so similar as to make the differences inconsequential. So interesting was Sauma’s conduct at the Mass, the Pope invited him to officiate at more services over the next few weeks. The Rabban asked in return of the Pope would favor him by serving him the Eucharist, which Nicholas heartily assented to. The day was Palm Sunday of 1288.Sauma reports that the crowds attending service that day were beyond anything his imagination could have conjured. People literally filled the streets, carrying branches of palms and olives.On Maunday Thursday of the next week, so many people packed the church where the Pope held Mass that when they said a united “Amen” the walls shook. The service over, the Pope then made the rounds of several locations in Rome where he bestowed blessing and favor on various people and artifacts. He ended by bringing his entire household staff together and washing their feet. Sauma was hugely impressed with this act of papal humility, describing it in depth. The day ended with a huge feast for some 2000.Good Friday began with a procession from the Church of the Holy Cross, where the Pope held aloft a piece of the Cross as massive crowds once again attended the scene. The rest of the day was spent in quiet meditation on the sacrifice of Christ.Saturday saw the Pope making the rounds to bestow more blessing on individual shrines and folk. Then Easter Sunday services were conducted in the ancient Church of Saint Maria Maggiore.Sauma knew his fellow Nestorians were curious about the practices of their Western Cousins, so he paid close attention to all that was happening around him., recording the events in as intimate detail as he could.Easter being complete and his mission now finished, Sauma asked permission to return home. Nicholas asked him to stay. Sauma struck for compromise He was more than pleased to stay, especially since it came from a sincere request on the part of the Pope with whom he was getting along well. BUT, a higher purpose was to be served in his return to Persia where he could share with the Mongol ruler the favorable reception he’d been shown across Europe. Certainly, that had to be a good harbinger of a future alliance. When word got out about the success of Sauma’s mission, lingering tensions between East & West would subside. Such was the nature of medieval diplomacy.Then Sauma made a request that threatened to blow everything up.Picture that scene in a movie where two parties who are potential enemies, are in fact getting along and everyone’s on pins and needles hoping for a new day of peace. Then there’s a pause, and one of them says something that threatens to ruin it all. But the representative of the other aide at first just stares at them with a look of, well. That’s the problem; no one knows what to think. And everyone starts moving their hand slowly toward their gun because they think, “Oh no. This is it. Get ready to start shooting.” But then the guy breaks out in a huge smile and starts laughing. The tension is immediately released.That’s the scene when Sauma asked the Pope, for …  Ready? è Some sacred relics. At first, Nicholas was stunned at the boldness of Sauma’s request. Nay; it was more than bold; it was brazen. He told the Rabban that if he were in the habit of giving relics to every foreign emissary who came to see him, there’d soon be nothing left in Rome to give.Still, in light of Sauma’s perilous and long journey, he was pleased to give Sauma some treasures to take home. He gave him some scraps of cloth from clothes that were said to have belonged to Jesus and Mary, as well as various relics of different saints and special vestments for Mar Yaballaha. Maybe the most significant gift Nicholas bestowed was a letter patent authorizing Mar Yaballaha and his Nestorian Catholicus successors as the authority over the Church of the East. He gave Rabban Sauma a letter patent naming him Visitor General for all churches of the East, not just China, as the previous Nestorian Patriarch had done.Implied in Nicholas’ issuing of these letter-patents was that HE, as the Roman Pope, had jurisdiction over the East. Sauma might like to have contested that. But what point? It’s not like he was going to get Nicholas to back down. For goodness sake, the question of prime ecclesiastical authority had been going on for hundreds of years. Sauma was under no illusion he was going to set things right now. Rather, all he could do was blow up the alliance that seemed to be a done deal.After giving Sauma a large gift of gold to help pay his expenses, Sauma began preparations to return home.Nicholas gave Sauma a letter for Arghun, thanking the Mongol ruler for his beneficent rule of the Christians of his realm and thanking him for his offer of an alliance against the Mamluks. A copy resides in the Vatican museum. Then Nicholas launched into an appeal for both Mongols and Nestorians to submit to papal authority. He urged Arghun to convert to Christianity post haste and be baptized under the authority of Rome.Then he indicated while Sauma had indeed faithfully transmitted the Ilkhan’s desire for an alliance, he and he alone could call a Crusade. The secular rulers of Europe might be gung-ho but they had no authority to approve a Crusade. Only he, as the head of the Church, possessed that right. AND, knowing the mindset of the rest of Europe, besides the monarchs of England and France, a Crusade wasn’t in the cards at that time. So he adroitly side-stepped making a commitment, while at the same time, encouraging the Mongols to do their best against the common enemy.Arghun had indicated a willingness in his letter to the Pope to convert and be baptized IF that baptism could be done in a reclaimed Jerusalem, one free of the Mamluk scourge. Nicholas said Arghun had it backward. He ought to convert and be baptized NOW. That would assure him of heaven’s favor in any campaign he undertook. His example would surely lead to mass conversions, furthering the promise of divine favor.So the Pope didn’t out-right turn down an alliance not forbid a Crusade. He just shifted the emphasis of his letter onto the need for Arghun to trust God and surrender to him, which of course would be done by accepting the Roman Church’s hegemony over his realm.Nicholas wasn’t done with his letter writing. He penned one to Mar Yaballaha as well. This one began by praising the Nestorian Catholicus for his wise leadership of a challenged Church. But then it went into a long lecture on “proper” Christian doctrine, something the Nestorian Patriarch wasn’t at all likely to look kindly on. The last paragraph was a blatant and tactless statement of the supremacy of the Roman church.Since these letters were open, Sauma read them both. He was deeply disappointed at the tone they took with the two men he reported to. Their condescending tone was sure to dishearten and alienate their recipients. The Pope refusal to sanction a Crusade or give any support to the proposed alliance seemed to make his entire trip West pointless.No doubt disappointed, Sauma managed to tamp down any expression of it in his concluding meeting with the Pope. He was probably just glad to be quitting the West & the prospect of going home.We’ll wrap up Bar Sauma’s magnificent tale in our next episode.
This is episode 10 in the on-going epic saga of the Chinese Marco Polo – Rabban Sauma.Realizing he couldn’t get anything done in Rome since there was no Pope, and that the dozen cardinals charged with the task of selecting him were competing for the post, Sauma decided to take his request for a military alliance between Christian Europe and Mongol Persia against the Muslims Mamluks in the Middle East, directly to the Kings of France and England.Leaving Rome, he stopped in Genoa on his way to North. Since Genoa had for some years maintained a thriving trade with the Ilkhanate, that is the Mongols in Persia, Sauma had every reason to expect a warm welcome. He wasn’t disappointed. It didn’t hurt that one of the interpreters who’d accompanied him from Persia was a native-born Genoese merchant.Genoa was at the height of its prosperity when Sauma visited, boasting a population of 70,000, one of the largest in Europe. Its merchants were savvy negotiators who’d been able to arrange deals not only around the Mediterranean but reaching into the Far East. While other Italian City-States like Naples and Venice set up lucrative trade routes with select partners, Genoa was able to walk a tight-rope of diplomacy across dozens of partners who were otherwise in conflict with each other. Because of their wide-ranging connections, many realms of thought and practice combined to influence the intellectual life of Genoa. It was a truly cosmopolitan city whose routine wasn’t knocked off kilter by the arrival of an Embassy form the Far East.While the commerce of Genoa was well established, its government was another matter. Genoa seemed unable to find a political system that satisfied the city’s need for longer than a decade. At the time of Sauma’s visit, the city’s ruler was called a Captain of the People, or Citizens. He rallied the population of Genoa to officially welcome Sauma’s party. Sauma was confused; not able to understand how such a large city wasn’t ruled by a king. Knowing how far-reaching Genoa’s trade was, Sauma wondered if it might even have been better ruled by an Emperor.Once settled into the accommodations made available to him, Sauma plotted his next moves. If it occurred to him to ask the Genoese to join an alliance against the Mamluks, he quickly put it aside. The Genoese would not be drawn into a war with a force that dominated the entire Eastern Med. In fact, forging treaties was what they were known for. When they went to war, it was with their rival Italian City-States, all for the golden prize of increasing trade with everyone else. And Genoa was at that time gearing up for a campaign against their major rival Venice, which it would soon best.So, after visiting the religious sites in an near Genoa, Sauma once again packed up and headed north toward France.Sauma’s hope of help from the French was keen. After all King Louis IX, known to history as St. Louis, had played a major role in 2 Crusades to liberate the Middle East from the Muslim presence. But his son, Philip III, known as Philip the Bold, had been more concerned with securing his control of France and her neighbors. His son, Philip IV, known as Philip the Fair and later as The Iron King, had only been on the throne for 2 yrs when Sauma arrived in Paris. Barely 20 yrs of age, everyone wondered if he’d reprise the career of his famous grandfather or his more mundane father. It seemed a most propitious time for the Rabban’s embassy, as setting out on a new Crusade to liberate the Holy Land from the Mamluks would appeal to the energy and ambitions of a young ruler seeking to make his mark.Arriving at the French border in August of 1287, Sauma’s party was greeted by a large force sent by the King to escort him to Paris. They entered the City at the end of September to much pomp & circumstance. Sauma was then ushered to palatial digs provided by King Philip. And  it was time for a break for the Chinese Monk-ambassador.The trip from Genoa to Paris took a month. While the journey was nowhere near as arduous as that which he’d undertaken a decade before from China to Persia, he was now in his 60’s and the entire adventure was taken a toll on his aging body. He’s been traveling for the past 6 months from Persia, to the Black Sea, Constantinople, Naples, Rome, Genoa, and now Paris. Keep in mind there were no Holiday, Ramada or Quality Inns along the way. The caravanserais they’d enjoyed earlier were far away in Asia. They overnighted either along the roadside or in small public houses where the bedding was rarely changed. The quality of the food was most often abysmal because it was the only thing to be had by travelers.So by the time Sauma arrived in Paris, he was exhausted and needed to rest. Philip recognized that and set aside three days for him to recoup. Then he sent a formal invitation for the Nestorian monk to attend an official audience with his majesty. When Sauma arrived at court, Philip rose to greet him; an unusual gesture for a European monarch at that time. Guests at court were usually required to process a long path to the dais holding the throne, stopping at the foot of the stairs, they then bowed and remained thus in a posture of supplication until told to stand. The entire time the king remained seated. Rising to greet Sauma was a surprising move on Philip’s part because it signaled the court the French King viewed Sauma as an equal.Then, it was down to business. Why, Philip asked, as Sauma there? What did he want? Why had he come and who’d sent him?If Sauma was surprised by the bluntness of the king’s query, he recovered quickly and responded in kind. He told Philip that while originally set on a religious pilgrimage endorsed and sponsored by the Great Khubilai Khan in China, he’d been made the Mongol Ilkhanate in Persia’s official envoy back to Khubilai’s court. But before returning to China to fulfill that task, he’d been given a special assignment: Travel West to the Christian rulers of Western Europe, asking them for an alliance with the Ilkhanate against the Mamluks and recovery Jerusalem from Muslim control. Sauma then handed Philip the letter and gifts from Ilkhan Arghun. These gifts were most likely the kinds of things that would convey the seriousness of the embassy, but could be easily transported by individuals traveling light; jewels, small packages of luxurious silk cloth, so highly prized by the elite of Western Europe.Sauma reports the French King was favorable toward the proposed alliance. Philip was moved by the Mongols desire to free Jerusalem from Muslim hegemony, even though those Mongols weren’t officially Christian. Philip remarked that Christian Europe ought to rise to the challenge presented by the Ilkhans. Rabban Sauma was equally impressed by the King’s devotion to the Faith and his interest in embarking on a new Crusade. For the first time, Sauma’s mission to the West seemed to be bearing fruit.BUT: Sauma wasn’t hip to European politics which had shaped Philip’s exuberant response. Philip was less interested in a Crusade to recapture the Holy Land as he was in securing his control over the contested domains of his north. Ever since ascending the throne, he’d been in contention with England’s King Edward I who owed him fealty in Gascony. In the Spring of 1286, Edward went to Paris to pay Philip honor as his suzerain. But Philip never bought this show of fealty. He had reason to distrust Edward since England backed France’s enemies in the contentious affairs in Aragon. Tensions between the two rulers grew until war broke out in 1294.Another trouble Philip dealt with was a degenerating relationship with the Roman Church. Needing funds in his campaigns to secure the North, the French monarch confiscated the tithes destined for Rome. His nobles already struggled with the burdensome taxes the crown had levied. The only place to secure the much-needed funds was the Church. So in an appeal to nationalism, Philip said French gold and silver ought to stay in France, not shipped off to Rome and the interests of the Pope, whose schemes were cast as contrary to French well-being. All of this would later lead to the major rift that occurred between the French crown and Papacy that we covered in Season One of CS.While Philip’s enthusiastic response to Sauma’s appeal was no doubt sincere, on further reflection, Philip realized mounting a new Crusade wasn’t practical. At least not in the short term. Maybe after movement on his domestic fronts, a Crusade could be staged.On Sauma’s part, having achieved seeming success on the official phase of his embassy, he turned to his personal adventure; visiting the religious sites of Paris and its environs. Philip assigned him an escort and off they went visiting churches and shrines; Sauma once again focusing on relics rather than the marvelous architecture and art.The Rabban was stunned by the large number of students in Paris, which was one of the sites of the new centers of learning called universities. He reports there were 30,000 students in the City.And that brings up a point of historical tension it might be wise for us to skim the surface of.As many subscribers know, the value of numbers in reporting of history has been a contentious issue for a long time. The tension comes over the almost universal tendency of ancient historians to give big numbers while many modern historians are committed to reducing those numbers to a tenth of the original. We see that here. Sauma says Paris had 30,000 students. Modern historians say the City of that time had maybe 3,000. This assumed inflation of numbers by the ancients and chroniclers of yore is just about universal among modern historians. Some wonder if that skepticism is valid. The fact that nearly ALL pre-modern accounts give much larger figures than modern historians allow is provocative. Recent archaeology has caused historians to revise their estimates of population upwards in some cases, significantly.It’ll be interesting for those of us who are historically interested, to watch what happens in the realm of statistics over the next few years as researchers review past assumptions in light of new evidence. Since I tend to give the ancients more credit for veracity, I suspect we’ll see a revising of the numbers upward, dramatically.The University of Paris’s primary course of study was theology. But the school quickly branched out into other areas, including law, medicine, philosophy, rhetoric, and math. The pursuit of these subjects was boosted by a renewal of interest in the recently-published works of Aristotle.As a self-taught scholar who’d studied everything he could get his hands on back in China, Sauma quite impressed with Paris’ schools.Sauma’s chronicle relates his impression of the gorgeous Church of Saint-Denis where French monarchs were interred. He mentions the Chapel of Sainte-Chapelle, but he gives no mention of the nearby Notre Dame; the pride and joy of Paris whose spire could be seen from anywhere in the city. Indeed, Notre Dame and Paris become synonymous. So why does the Rabban omit it from his account? Several opinions are given, probably the best of which is the most obvious. Sauma was a Nestorian monk. He belonged to the Church of the East, a branch of the Faith severed from the West over the identity of Mary. Was she Theotokos, the Mother of God as the West said, or Christotokos, Mother of Christ, as the East said? The Cathedral of Notre Dame was all about the Virgin Mary. Sauma most likely left off mentioning his visit to Notre Dame because of his desire to not end up saying a bunch of critical things about his stay.We’ll finish up his time in Paris and get into his trip north to meet the King of England in our next episode as we move to conclude the amazing tale of Rabban Sauma.
This is Episode 9 in the on-going epic tale of Rabban Sauma.Finally, Sauma has arrived in Europe. After two months aboard ship, his party arrives in Naples. Which is unusual because the trip from Constantinople ought to have taken less than a month. Here again, it’s Sauma’s account that seems to be lacking detail. Being a commercial vessel, most likely they’d used the route to further their business, so had put into port along the way for days at a time.Sauma took some time in Naples to recover from the long voyage before setting out for Rome. While there, staying at a mansion provided by the ruling family of Anjou, Sauma witnessed from the roof, the Battle of the Counts on June 23rd in the Bay of Naples. This was part of the larger War of the Sicilian Vespers between the Houses of Aragon and Anjou. Sauma says the Anjou lost 12,000 men. What surprised him was the care given by both sides to avoid harming non-combatants. Familiar with the Mongol method of war, Sauma assumed no distinction between civilians and soldiers in battle. He was deeply impressed by the caution exercised in the fighting to avoid civilian casualties.Naples had proven to be unsafe due to the conflict, so Sauma decided it was best to leave, even before having a chance to visit the city’s religious sites. An unusual move for him since that was his personal primary motivation. His unease may have been due to the sketchy political situation he sensed taking place around him. Better to ‘git’ while the ‘gitting’ was good.So they packed up and headed for Rome.The trip across Italy was yet another surprise for the Chinese monk. There was simply little landscape without some kind of settlement. Whether that was a solitary farm, hamlet, village, town, or city, the road led across a land that was, to Sauma’s thinking, filled with people. This was in sharp contrast with the territory he’d spent the previous decade in. It was possible to travel for days in Central Asia and not see another soul nor evidence of settlement. The path he now took went up and down hills, but after the towering peaks he’d traversed earlier in his pilgrimage, they were but bumps in the road.As he approached Rome, he rehearsed his speech to the Pope, asking for him to call a Crusade of Europe’s’ monarch against the Muslim Mamluks that would coincide with a Mongol attack from the East. But word was carried to Sauma that Pope Honorius IV had died in early April. Instead of being disheartened, Sauma increased his pace, hoping to be among the first to speak to the new Pope.But it was not to be. The twelve cardinals charged with the task of selecting the pope couldn’t reach a decision, largely because several of them wanted to wear Peter’s ring.Arriving in the City, he sent word to the Cardinals of his presence, requesting an audience. Surprisingly, they invited him into that sacred place where the pope is chosen, the papal palace next to the Church of Santa Sabina. No one else was allowed into their deliberations but their closest assistant. So this was an uncommon honor. Even so, Sauma was briefed on proper etiquette when meeting the Cardinals. He made a good impression and proved a welcome distraction from the grinding machinations of the would-be popes. Their task proved so stressful, half of the Cardinals died before the end of that Summer.After initial introductions and realizing how far the Rabban had traveled, the Cardinals expressed their dismay and concern for his health. They assumed it would take weeks for him to recover his strength and urged him to rest. He assured them his stay in Naples had been sufficient and that he had pressing, indeed, supremely urgent matters to share with the Pope. In this way, he hoped to impress on them the need to be quick to find Honorius’s replacement.But they would not be hurried. They insisted he get more rest and pondered what his arrival and embassy might mean for the future of Europe and the Church. How might Sauma’s mission effect WHO they selected as the next Pope? Should they pick someone who’d be amenable to his request for an alliance with the Ilkhans, or someone who’d refuse?They decided it was best to avoid political discussions with the Rabban altogether. A safer subject, and one of genuine interest to them, was Sauma’s faith. How was the Church of the East now different from the Roman church? The rift that had separated East and West occurred all the way back in the 5th C. It was over 800 yrs later. How had the two expressions of the Christian Faith diverged, they wondered. And how had Christianity reached all the way to the Far East so that a monk would embark on such a seemingly impossible pilgrimage as Sauma had?In his account Sauma admits some frustration with the Cardinals’ refusal to let him pursue his political assignment. But when it was clear they would not entertain his embassy along those lines, he warmed to the task of explaining his beliefs and the history of the Nestorian Church.Sauma explained that the headquarters of his church was in Baghdad and that he was the Patriarch of the Church of the East’s official representative to the court of the famous Khubilai Khan. The Cardinals were eager to hear how Christianity had reached China. Of chief concern to them was who’d brought them the Gospel. Sauma spoke of the Apostle Thomas who carried the message of Christ to Mesopotamia, Persia, and all the way to India. Thaddaeus and Mari also played a role in planting churches in the East. These were all names the Cardinals were familiar with and settled any concerns they had that the Nestorian Church rested on an apostolic foundation.Sauma told them of the extensive missionary activity of the Nestorian Church. They’d planted churches among the Mongols, Turks, and Chinese. Their outreach to the children of the Mongol elite had proven especially effective. Then he brought the conversation back round to his embassy. Christianity was favored in the Mongol realm of Persia. In fact, the Ilkhan leader Arghun was a good friend and supporter of the Nestorian Catholicus Mar Yaballaha. Like the Europeans, Arghun wanted to dislodge the Mamluks from the Middle East. “Hey, how about an alliance?”The Cardinals retreated to safe ground. They couldn’t agree to anything without a pope, they said. Besides, the previous Pope, Honorius IV, had already tried to rally support for a campaign against the Mamluks, but Europeans leaders weren’t interested.So the Cardinals once more shifted the conversation back to theological issues. They wanted to know how closely the Nestorian Church aligned with Catholic doctrine. Sauma said no envoy from the Pope nor representative from the Vatican had come East with those doctrines. What the Nestorians believed was drawn from the apostles and fathers he’d mentioned earlier. The Cardinals asked him for a run-down of Nestorian theology.This was a critical moment for Sauma. He needed to keep the door open with them. But he was aware of some differences between Nestorian & Catholic doctrine, especially in regard to the nature of Christ.Consider for a moment how monumental the task was for Sauma. He has to explain the complexities of theology, specifically the intricacies of the Trinity, in Persian, which is then translated into Latin. The Cardinals listen, formulate questions for clarification, speak them in Latin which is translated into Persian and passed along to Sauma. For goodness sake! It’s difficult enough explaining the Trinity to someone in your own tongue.Sauma’s managed to describe the Nestorian belief in the nature of Christ in such a way that the Cardinals took no offense. Next, they queried his beliefs about the Holy Spirit. He engaged them in a back and forth Socratic dialog that not only satisfied their concerns about his doctrine but greatly impressed them with his erudition.In fact, Rabban Sauma’s replies, included in his account of the meeting, did convey ideas the Cardinals would have found heretical. But it seems they wanted to avoid controversy as much as he did. Realizing further discussion with its parsing of details would only increase the chance of running afoul of their favor, Sauma indicated he thought his explanation of Nestorian theology was sufficient. He now realized the lack of a head for the Catholic church was a hindrance to his mission.  He asked the Cardinals to appoint him someone who could take him round the religious sites to be seen in Rome. They assigned him several monks to escort him on a tour of the Eternal City’s churches and monasteries.The first and most impressive site he was shown was the old Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican. Of course, what he saw is not the St. Peter’s of today. That wasn’t built till the 16th & 17th Cs. Still, the church of his time was massively larger than anything he’d seen besides the Hagia Sophia. He wrote of it, “The extent of that temple and its splendors cannot be described.” He was shown the 180 columns erected by Constantine, the altar from which only the Pope served Mass, Peter’s Chair, and Peter’s tomb, in which a gold sarcophagus was placed inside a bronze coffin, topped by a solid gold cross weighing 150 pounds.Sauma was especially impressed by a relic purported to bear the image of Christ. Another feature in the church he enthused over was a throne on which popes crowned emperors. He reports his guides told him the pope picked up the royal crown from the floor with their feet, transferred it to their hands then placed it on the ruler’s head. This showed the supremacy of the Church over State; that secular power was under religious authority.Either Sauma’s misunderstood or was misinformed. That wasn’t the procedure. After being crowned, the Emperor knelt and kissed the Pope’s feet. But it was a ritual going out of practice by Sauma’s time. Hostility between popes and monarchs was already growing.After seeing St. Peter’s Basilica, Sauma was shown several other sites, all of major significance to the faith in Rome. While the architecture and furnishings of these churches and shrines were remarkable, Sauma’s account gives little attention to that aspect of them. He was far more interested in the hundreds of relics he was shown. Body parts, clothing, instruments, items tied to the Biblical stories of the saints were his special fascination. It’s clear Sauma attached deep spiritual significance to these relics, giving them a special place as means of communicating grace to his soul.Having had his fill of the religious dimensions of Rome, and realizing the absence of a pope was stalling his mission, he decided to carry out the next phase of his task, visiting the rulers of Western Europe.  The subject of our next episode.
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Creator Details

Oct 17th, 1955
Ventura County, California, USA
Episode Count
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30 minutes, 2 seconds
Podchaser Creator ID logo 525504