Rabban Bar Sauma

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Rabban Bar Sauma


Chinese Nestorian Monk and Explorer

In the late 1280s, a Nestorian Christian monk named Rabban Bar Sauma took the opposite route of many of his contemporary explorers by venturing from his homeland in China to western Europe. He and a student also made a trip to Persia and Iraq.

Bar Sauma was born around 1220, but accounts differ about his place of birth, noting it as either Chung-tu, modern-day Beijing, or Khanbaligh, which lay to the northeast. He followed his Christian upbringing and when he was in his twenties, became a monk in the Church of the East, or the Nestorian Christian Church. The church traces its origins to around the time of Christ's crucifixion, when the disciple Thaddeus (Addai) went to Edessa, an ancient city in Mesopotamia (now in Turkey), to spread the Christian faith. The religion radiated east from there. Although it had a Christian foundation, Nestorianism was not revered in the West, where the religion and its creed were historically viewed as heresy by the Western Christian church. Nonetheless, the Nestorian Church was influential in the East and had many followers.

After taking his vows as a monk, Rabban Bar Sauma gained a reputation as a religious teacher and as an ascetic. Eventually, he set out with a student, a young monk named Markos (Rabban Markos), to make a pilgrimage to the religious center of Jerusalem. Although they never arrived at their destination, due to violent local skirmishes, they did venture to eastern Persia (now Iran) to meet the Catholicus, leader of the Nestorian Church. After a short visit to Iraq, Bar Sauma and Markos followed the instruction of the Catholicus and embarked on a trip to see the Persian Mongol ruler Il-Khan. During these travels, the Catholicus made Markos a Nestorian bishop. As Markos and Bar Sauma were preparing for a return trip to China as emissaries of the Nestorian Church, the Catholicus died, and the Nestorian bishops elected Markos as his successor.

Several years later, a Mongol leader named Arghun met with Markos to seek ways to expand Christian support while suppressing any Muslim stronghold, particularly in Jerusalem. Markos recommended that Bar Sauma represent the church on a diplomatic expedition to Europe. Now in his sixties, Bar Sauma began the trip from Iraq in 1287. He traveled by land through Armenia, then by water to Constantinople and later to Naples. Once he finally set foot in Rome, he wasted no time in reaching the Holy See where he engaged in many religious debates with church leaders. During this expedition, he also made stops in Tuscany, Genoa, Paris, and Gascony, and met world leaders, including King Philip IV of France, King Edward I of England, and the new Pope Nicholas IV. As reported in "By Foot to China" by John M.L. Young, "The pope sent back a reply with Rabban Sauma to Markos, who ruled under the patriarchal name of Mar Yaballaha III, in which he confirmed the latter's 'patriarchal authority over all the Orientals.' For one brief period of history, sovereigns either espousing Christianity or friendly to it reigned from the Atlantic to the Pacific across Europe and Asia."

While on this mission, Bar Sauma confidently reported to Markos of firm Christian support from the West. While various leaders, including King Edward I, rallied behind the cause proposed by Markos, they were unable to generate a united front among the European nations and took no formal action against the Muslims.

Bar Sauma's diplomatic, political, or religious maneuvers, however, are not as important to history as his writings. During his 1287-88 trek, he wrote a detailed account of his adventure. This account is one of the only known, nonnative descriptions of Europe during the period, and provides a unique look at the medieval West.


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