Rabban Bar Sauma, the "Reverse Marco Polo," Travels from Beijing to Bourdeaux

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Rabban Bar Sauma, the "Reverse Marco Polo," Travels from Beijing to Bourdeaux


One could call Rabban Bar Sauma a "reverse Marco Polo": whereas Polo traveled from West to East, Bar Sauma's trek took him from what is now Beijing to the Bourdeaux region in France; and whereas Polo went on business, the priest Bar Sauma was on a religious mission. Of course, Polo and his journey are much better known, because they exposed technologically backward Europeans to the sophistication of Asia; but Bar Sauma, too, helped open the way for greater contact between continents and cultures.


Bar Sauma (c. 1220-1294) belonged to the Nestorians, a sect named after the Persian priest Nestorius (d. 451). The latter, who became bishop of Constantinople, taught that Christ had two separate identities, one human and one divine. At the Council of Ephesus in 431, the Church declared Nestorianism a heresy, and soon this doctrinal separation led to physical separation, as the Nestorians began making their way eastward.

Initially they settled in Mesopotamia and Persia, or modern Iraq and Iran, but the conquest of those lands by Muslims in the mid-600s forced them eastward. As early as 635, a Nestorian community existed in China, and though that group was later suppressed, the Turkic-speaking Uighur peoples of Sinkiang province maintained the faith. The Nestorians benefited from the Mongol conquest of China under Genghis Khan (1162-1227) in the early thirteenth century, and soon they were allowed to resume their missionary work in China. Among the converts gained in those early years was Genghis's daughter-inlaw, mother of the future Great Khan Kublai (1215-1294).

This was the setting in which Bar Sauma ("Rabban," similar to rabbi, is a title) was born. Though he came from Khanbalik, or modern Beijing, he was a member of the Uighur peoples—in other words, a Turk rather than Chinese. Nonetheless, he grew up speaking the language of the majority population, and though his Nestorian Christianity would certainly have posed a barrier to his absorption in the larger culture, it is likely that in many respects he was Chinese.

At the age of 20, Bar Sauma left his wealthy family to become a Nestorian monk and live in a cave. He spent several decades this way, preaching the Gospel and attracting followers, among them a youth named Markos. Some time between 1275 and 1280, Bar Sauma and Markos together went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, bringing with them a letter of recommendation from the bishop of Khanbalik, as well as a travel permit from Kublai Khan himself.


After passing through an area in Central Asia that was then in the grip of an anti-Mongol rebellion, they finally reached Khorasan, or present-day Afghanistan. From there they made their way to Maragheh, now in Azerbaijan. The latter was the capital of Kublai's brother Hulagu (c. 1217-1265), who had established a separate realm, the Il-khanate, that governed much of southwestern Asia. His widow Dokuz Khatun was also a Nestorian.

Traveling on to Baghdad, they met the catholicos, head of the Nestorian church, who asked them to go back to China as his messengers. The catholicos made Markos a bishop, and designated him metropolitan (a sort of archbishop in eastern churches) of northern China. Continued fighting in areas to the east prevented the two men from departing, however, and while they were waiting to do so, the catholicos died. The upshot of this was that a convocation of Nestorian bishops chose Markos as the new catholicos, with the title Mar Yaballaha III.

Markos and Bar Sauma then traveled to Maragheh to have the selection confirmed by the Il-khan Abaga. In 1282, however, Abaga died and his son Arghun (c. 1258-1291) took the throne. Desirous of gaining a victory over the Syrians and winning control of Palestine, Arghun told Markos that he wanted to make an alliance with the Christians of Europe. In response, Markos sent his old teacher and friend Bar Sauma as an emissary to the pope.

In 1287 Bar Sauma left Baghdad and headed north through Armenia to the Black Sea port of Trebizond, a Byzantine stronghold. From there he sailed to the capital at Constantinople, where he received an audience with Emperor Andronicus II Palaeologus (1260-1332) and visited the Hagia Sophia, Byzantium's magnificent cathedral. From Constantinople he went on to Italy by ship, passing Sicily along the way and witnessing an eruption of Mount Etna.

Finally arriving in Rome, Bar Sauma learned that Pope Honorius IV had recently died, and the College of Cardinals had yet to choose a successor. The cardinals began to quiz him regarding Nestorian tenets, but Bar Sauma did not dare become embroiled in a theological discussion with representatives of the church had declared his own faith heretical. Therefore he departed Rome for a trip through Italy and France while he waited for the cardinals to elect a new pope.

From Rome Bar Sauma traveled north to what he called Thuzkan—more familiar to Westerners as Tuscany—and thence to Genoa. He then made his way through Frangestan, or France, to the capital at Paris, where he spent a month at the court of Philip IV (1268-1314). After that he traveled to Gascony in southern France, which was then in English hands, and on to Bourdeaux, where he met England's king Edward I (1239-1307). Edward received Bar Sauma apparently with enthusiasm, and listened to his pleas for help—yet like his counterparts in Constantinople and Paris, he offered no concrete assistance.

Had Bar Sauma come to Europe 150 years before, or even a century before, he might have gotten exactly what he needed. But now the Crusades (1095-1291), an effort to wrest the Holy Land from the Muslims, were drawing to a close, with Europe having lost all it had gained in the victories of the First Crusade (1095-99). Thus Europe was exhausted from crusading, and though the monarchs sympathized with the idea of a joint effort against Islam, they could and would give it little more than lip service. This was particularly the case in Byzantium, which had suffered the worst from the Crusades, during which its lands had been ravaged and even captured by the Greeks' alleged allies from Western Europe.

Of course Bar Sauma did not realize that his efforts were doomed, and he was thrilled when in 1288 the new pope, Nicholas IV (r. 1288-92), expressed an interest in joining the Il-khan in a war against the Muslims. He received communion from Nicholas on Palm Sunday, and this at least was something concrete: a clear sign that the eight centuries of hostility between Rome and the Nestorians had come to an end.

Confident that help was on its way, Bar Sauma headed eastward again and reported back to Arghun. He spent the remainder of his days in Baghdad, where he died in 1294. It was probably during those last years of his life that he wrote down the record of his travels, which in the twentieth century appeared in English as The Monks of Kublai Khan, translated by Sir E. A. Wallis Budge.

Though neither the pope nor the European rulers sent military assistance, Rome did dispatch a number of missionaries, most notably Giovanni da Montecorvino (1246-1328). Unfortunately for China's Christians, however, the era of toleration was about to come to a close with the ouster of the Mongols by the founders of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), China's last native-born ruling house.

The Nestorians of southwestern Asia suffered even worse hardships under Timur the Lame or Tamerlane (1336-1405), who though he claimed to be related to Genghis Khan was a Muslim and a harsh opponent of Christianity. Nonetheless, in the brief window of time that missionaries from Europe found it relatively easy to travel to China, they forged important links between East and West.


Further Reading


Bar Sauma, Rabban. The Monks of Kublai Khan, Emperor of China; or, The History of the Life and Travels of Rabban Sawma, Envoy and Plenipotentiary of the Mongol Khans to the Kings of Europe, and Markos Who as Mar Yahbh-Allaha III Became Patriarch of the Nestorian Church in Asia, translated and edited by E. A. Wallis Budge. London: Religious Tract Society, 1928.

Mirsky, Jeanette. The Great Chinese Travelers: An Anthology. New York City: Pantheon Books, 1964.

Montgomery, J. A., translator and editor. The History of Yaballaha III and His Vicar, Bar-Sauma, Mongol Ambassador to the Frankish Courts at the End of the Thirteenth Century. New York City: Columbia University Press, 1927.

Newton, Arthur Percival. Travel and Travellers of the Middle Ages. Freeport, New York: Books for Libraries, 1962.

Internet Sites

Traveling to Jerusalem. "Bar Sauma." http://www.uscolo.edu/history/seminar/sauma.htm

Young, John L. By Foot to China: Mission of The Church of the East, to 1400.http://www.aina.org/byfoot.htm

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