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Meeting in the Middle

June 3, 2009

“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?”

The Monks of Kublai Khan, Rabban Bar Sauma. English translation by E. A. Wallis Budge

The Han Empire of China and Roman Empire reached their greatest territorial extents at about the same time, in the first and second century AD. When they did, East and West almost met for the first time; there are ambiguous Chinese records suggesting that Rome sent a few embassies, though there’s no sign of the opposite happening. More remarkably, there’s a distinct chance that Roman legionnaires fought Chinese soldiers in Central Asia. The smaller Parthian Empire butted up against Rome directly and also bordered on Chinese vassal states on its opposite side. After the Battle of Carrhae, something like 10,000 Roman soldiers were captured by the Parthians, and Parthian policy was to use captive soldiers to garrison places away from their homeland. The Roman writer Pliny says that the losers of Carrhae were taken to Margiana, in modern Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, and archaeology backs him up: there’s two cave inscriptions, one above another, near Surkhandarya, Uzbekistan that read “ROD/[illegible]/I M/PAN/G. REX/AP. LG”. The “I M” is taken to be an invocation of the god Mithras Invictus, who was popular with the Roman military, and “AP. LG” is the 15th Apollonian Legion, which fought against the Parthians (though not at Carrhae). That interpretation is controversial, but if it’s correct, the inscriptions are the easternmost Roman writing in the world.

In 1955, Homer H. Dubs (an American holding the Chair of Chinese History at Oxford University) proposed that soldiers captured at Carrhae were captured again during skirmishes between the Parthians and Han Empire, and resettled as a border garrison in Gansu Province. In particular, he put forth the name of a village he found in classical Chinese documents—Liqian, which also happens to be the name the Han Chinese used to refer to Rome (it’s a distorted version of the middle two syllables in “Alexandria”, which was the most important city in the eastern part of the Roman Empire before Constantinople, and which would have been slightly more accessible to the Chinese by sea than anyplace else under Roman rule). The inevitable DNA evidence has recently thrown this theory into doubt, though.

Proper contact between East and West had to wait for the conquests of Genghis Khan, and in particular the 13th-century invasion of Europe by Subutai Khan which gave the western kingdoms an incentive to go. With the roads almost entirely in Mongol hands it was relatively safe to do so, so Giovanni da Pian del Carpine travelled to Karakorum in 1246, followed by the elder Polos reaching Dadu (now Beijing) in 1266. Like in Roman times, though, there was a peculiar asymmetry to the journeys—Europeans going east but few or no Chinese going in the other direction. The first recorded journey of that type, and the only one in medieval times, came only after the Polos.

The first stage of that journey was undertaken by two Nestorian Christian monks, Bar Sauma and his younger companion Markos, both of whom were from northeastern China near Dadu. Bar Sauma was a hermit who lived in the Xishan Hills around Beijing, and he likely would have stayed there for his natural life if it weren’t for Markos. As in the west, pious hermits gained fame and from there gained followers—often to their chagrin as was the case for Bar Sauma in particular. Markos must have had quite the silver tongue, though, as not only did he manage to become Bar Sauma’s disciple he convinced the older man (who would have been about 55 at the time) that they should make a pilgrimage west to Jerusalem to see the cradle of their religion.

Unfortunately for them, the relatively favourable conditions of the early- to mid-13th century had come to an end. They left Dadu in 1278, by which time the Mongol Empire had fractured into four pieces. The largest was the one in the east where they lived, the Great Khanate of Kublai Khan, but the western part had been taken over by the Il-Khanate (roughly modern Iran) and the Golden Horde (roughly former Soviet Central Asia). The center region was controlled by the Chagatai Khanate, and all four fragments were engaged in near-continuous war with each other. It was through this mess that the two pilgrims would have to travel.

As it turned out, the first part of the journey was the easy one. Bar Sauma and Markos safely skirted the northern edge of the desolate Taklamakan Desert (which was the southern edge of the Chagatai Khanate), but then they found usual stopping point—the town of Kashgar—in war-torn ruins. The next leg of the trip was the most dangerous, passing through the mountains of Afghanistan to reach the Il-Khanate, and while they did so Bar Sauma records that they managed to make it to the other side in possession of nothing more than their lives.

Upon arriving in the town of Maragheh they coincidentally met up with Mar Denha I, the patriarch of the Nestorian Church, who invited them to his patriarchal seat in Baghdad for a more formal meeting. This seemed to be a change in their fortunes for the better, and the two spent some time touring the country that was the centre of their Church before attempting to move on to Jerusalem.

In fact their progress nearly ended at this point. After travelling north to Georgia, the two came to the conclusion that it would unsafe to make the final leg of their journey. Despite their aura of invincibility, the Mongols were hemmed in on two sides—in the east by Japan and in the west by Mameluke Egypt. Japan’s successes were heavily salted with luck (the divine wind that saved them, kamikaze, becoming a better-known metaphor in another desperate military situation) but the Mamelukes thoroughly defeated the Mongols in open battle, the only country in the world to completely stymie Genghis’ descendants when they were at the height of their power. As it happened, the Christian Holy Land, including Jerusalem, had been embroiled in the Seventh Crusade and the whole region had passed from western to Mameluke hands in its aftermath. There was little chance that Mongol subjects like Bar Sauma and Markos would be allowed to visit peacefully.

Now before their attempt to travel from Baghdad to Jerusalem, Mar Denha (who was under pressure from the Islamic community in Baghdad) tried to convince them to act as emissaries from him to Kublai Khan; among other enticements he granted both pilgrims the title Rabban, cognate to the Hebrew word “rabbi”. Rabban Bar Sauma would be known best by that name down to the present day, though Rabban Markos had a stranger fate. Unable to finish their pilgrimage they accepted Mar Denha’s offer, but before the two could leave for China the patriarch died, and the Nestorian community of Baghdad selected Markos to take his place; he assumed the regnal name Mar Yaballaha III. Markos was now a man of some consequence in Baghdad, and became an informal advisor to the new ruler of the Il-Khanate, Arghun Khan. Bar Sauma settled down as a monk once again, but a few years later he would continue his journey to the west.

Arghun had decided to try for an alliance with the crusading nations of Europe against the Mamelukes, and Mar Yaballaha recommended his old master as an ideal ambassador. Now in his sixties, Bar Sauma boarded a ship in eastern Anatolia and travelled first to Byzantium (where he met the Emperor Andronicus II) and then Rome. En route he witnessed an eruption of Mount Etna, and almost got caught up in the Sicilian Vespers.

Unfortunately for him, Honorius IV had just died and this was the time period when the politics surrounding the papacy sometimes produced interminable elections for the new pope. It would be ten months before anyone would be in a position to respond to the Chinese ambassador. For that matter, Arghun had apparently misinterpreted the fact that the Pope crowned the Holy Roman Emperor and believed that he had the power to order around the kings of Europe. Frustrated by the electoral delays and coming to understand how Europe actually worked, Bar Sauma left for France.

This was a much better choice, as the Seventh Crusade had been spearheaded by Louis IX and now his grandson Philip IV was on the French throne; France was also the most militarily powerful country in Europe at the time. Philip IV was quite willing to accept Bar Sauma’s letter from Arghun and even promised to ally with the Il-Khanate as requested. Unfortunately these proved to be empty promises as the very first foundations of what would eventually erupt into the Hundred Years War were being laid down even as Bar Sauma and Philip were meeting. Bar Sauma seems to have understood this, for he took advantage of the fact that the English king, Edward I, was visiting his lands in Gascony to meet with his second western king in a single summer. Edward was likewise willing to say he’d contribute to another Crusade but was even worse at following through than Philip. The French would at least maintain diplomatic contact with the Il-Khanate until it fell apart in the 1330s.

After wintering in Genoa, Bar Sauma was informed that a pope had finally been selected. He returned to Rome and, at the request of the newly mitred Nicholas IV, celebrated Easter there. Nicholas also promised to help fight the Mamelukes (with results similar to the promises of Philip and Edward), and so with his mission finished Bar Sauma returned to Baghdad having become the first person to cross Eurasia from east to west.

Bar Sauma settled in Maragheh, but fell ill in 1294 and travelled one more time to Baghdad where he died. Markos carried on as Patriarch of his church until 1317. Neither did ever see Jerusalem; it would remain in Mameluke hands until it was conquered by the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. Nestorianism itself would be suppressed in China immediately following the end of Mongol rule in China and the accession of the Ming Dynasty in 1368.

The story of the two pilgrims’ journey was also almost lost to history, being mostly known from records in the Vatican, but in 1887 a version of Bar Sauma’s autobiography came to light in Kurdistan. Unfortunately quite a bit of the non-religious material had been cut by its unnamed medieval Syriac translator, but it was still a useful source on life in the Mongol empires of the late 13th century. An English version of the manuscript was eventually produced by E. A. Wallis Budge (a man momentarily name-checked in the movie Stargate, of all things) and it was published in 1928; it can be read here.

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