Rabban Bar Sauma
Rabban Bar Sauma (c. 1220–1294) (ܪܒܢ ܒܪ ܨܘܡܐ; IPA: [Rɑbbɑn bɑrsˤɑuma]), also known as Rabban Ṣawma or Rabban Çauma, (Chinese: 拉賓掃務瑪), was a "Nestorian" monk turned diplomat of the Church of the East faith. He is known for embarking on a pilgrimage from Mongol-controlled China to Jerusalem with one of his students, Rabban Markos. Due to military unrest along the way, they never reached their destination, but instead spent many years in Mongol-controlled Baghdad. Markos was eventually chosen as Patriarch of the Church of the East, and later suggested his teacher Rabban Bar Sauma be sent on another mission, as Mongol ambassador to Europe. The elderly monk met with many of the European monarchs, as well as the Pope, in attempts to arrange a Franco-Mongol alliance. The mission bore no fruit, but in his later years in Baghdad, Rabban Bar Sauma documented his lifetime of travel. His written account of his journeys is of unique interest to modern historians, as it gives a picture of medieval Europe at the close of the Crusading period, painted by a keenly intelligent, broadminded and statesmanlike observer. His travels occurred prior to the return of Marco Polo to Europe, and his writings give a reverse viewpoint of the East looking to the West.
Rabban (Master) Bar Sauma was born c. 1220 in or near modern-day Beijing, known then as Zhongdu or Khanbaligh. According to Gregory Barhebraeus he was of Turkic Uyghur origin. Chinese accounts describe his heritage as Wanggu (Ongud), a tribe of Turkic origin classified as part of the Mongol Caste of the Yuan Dynasty. The name bar Ṣauma is Aramaic for "Son of Fasting" though he was born to a wealthy family. He was a follower of the "Nestorian" faith (see: Church of the East in China), and became an ascetic monk around the age of 20 and then a religious teacher for decades.
Pilgrimage to Jerusalem
In his middle age, Rabban Bar Sauma and one of his younger students Rabban Marcos embarked on a journey from China, to make a pilgrimage to the religious center of Jerusalem. They travelled by way of the former Tangut country, Khotan, Kashgar, Talas in the Syr Darya valley, Khorasan (present day Afghanistan), Maragha (Azerbaijan) and Mosul, arriving at Ani in Armenia. Warnings of danger on the routes to southern Syria turned them from their purpose, and they traveled to Mongol-controlled Persia, the Ilkhanate, where they were welcomed by the Patriarch of the Church of the East, Mar Denha I. The Patriarch requested the two monks to visit the court of the Mongol Ilkhanate ruler Abaqa, in order to obtain confirmation letters for Mar Denha's ordination as Patriarch in 1266. During the journey, Rabban Markos was declared a "Nestorian" bishop. The Patriarch then attempted to send the monks as messengers back to China, but military conflict along the route delayed their departure, and they remained in Baghdad. When the Patriarch died, Rabban Marcos was elected as his replacement, Mar Yaballaha III in 1281. The two monks traveled to Maragha to have the selection confirmed by Abagha, but the Ilkhanate ruler died before their arrival, and was succeeded by his son, Arghun Khan.
It was Arghun's desire to form a strategic Franco-Mongol alliance with the Christian Europeans, against their common enemy the Muslim Mamluks. A few years later, the new patriarch Mar Yaballaha suggested his former teacher Rabban Bar Sauma for the embassy, to meet with the Pope and the European monarchs.
Ambassador to Europe
In 1287, the elderly Bar Sauma embarked on his journey to Europe, bearing gifts and letters from Arghun to the Byzantine emperor, the Pope, and the European kings. He followed the embassy of another "Nestorian", Isa Kelemechi, sent by Arghun to Pope Honorius IV, in 1285.
Rabban Bar Sauma traveled with a large retinue of assistants, and 30 riding animals. Companions included the Church of the East Christian (archaon) Sabadinus; Thomas de Anfusis or Tommaso d'Anfossi), who helped as interpreter and was also a member of a famous Genoese banking company; and an Italian interpreter named Uguetus or Ugeto (Ughetto). Bar Sauma likely did not speak any European languages, though he was known to be fluent in Chinese, Turkish, and Persian. It is of a certain interest to know that his successor as ambassador of Arghun was Buscarello Ghisolfi, Genoese nobleman.
He traveled overland through Armenia to the Empire of Trebizond on the Black Sea, then by boat to Constantinople, where he had an audience with Andronicus II Palaeologus. Bar Sauma's writings give a particularly enthusiastic description of the beautiful Hagia Sophia. He next travelled to Italy, again journeying by ship. As their course took them past the island of Sicily, he witnessed and recorded the great eruption of Mount Etna on June 18, 1287. A few days after his arrival, he also witnessed a naval battle in the Bay of Sorrento on St. John's Day, June 24, 1287, during the conflict of the Sicilian Vespers. The battle was between the fleet of Charles II (whom he calls "Irid Shardalo", i.e. "Il re Charles Due"), who had welcomed him in his realm, and James II of Aragon, king of Sicily (whom he calls Irid Arkon, i.e. "Il re de Aragon"). According to Bar Sauma, James II was victorious, and his forces killed 12,000 men.
Bar Sauma next made stops in Tuscany (Thuzkan) and the Republic of Genoa, on his way to Paris. He spent the winter of 1287–1288 in Genoa, a famous banking capital. In France (Frangestan), he spent one month with King Philip the Fair, who seemingly responded positively to the arrival of the Mongol embassy, gave him numerous presents, and sent one of his noblemen, Gobert de Helleville, to accompany Bar Sauma back to Mongol lands. Gobert de Helleville departed on February 2, 1288, with two clercs Robert de Senlis and Guillaume de Bruyères, as well as arbaletier (crossbowman) Audin de Bourges. They joined Bar Sauma when he later returned through Rome, and accompanied him back to Persia.
In Gascony in southern France, which at that time was in English hands, Bar Sauma met King Edward I of England, probably in the capital of Bordeaux. Edward responded enthusiastically to the embassy, but ultimately proved unable to join a military alliance due to conflict at home, especially with the Welsh and the Scots.
Upon returning to Rome, Bar Sauma was cordially received by the newly elected Pope Nicholas IV, who gave him communion on Palm Sunday, 1288, allowed him to celebrate his own Eucharist in the capital of Latin Christianity. Nicholas commissioned Bar Sauma to visit the Christians of the East, and entrusted to him a precious tiara to be presented to Mar Yaballaha (Rabban Bar Sauma's former student, Markos). Bar Sauma then returned to Baghdad in 1288, carrying messages and many other gifts from the various European leaders.
The delivered letters were in turn answered by Arghun in 1289, forwarded by the Genoese merchant Buscarello de Ghizolfi, a diplomatic agent for the Il-khans. In the letter to Philip IV, Arghun mentions Bar Sauma:
"Under the power of the eternal sky, the message of the great king, Arghun, to the king of France..., said: I have accepted the word that you forwarded by the messengers under Saymer Sagura (Rabban Bar Sauma), saying that if the warriors of Il Khaan invade Egypt you would support them. We would also lend our support by going there at the end of the Tiger year’s winter , worshiping the sky, and settle in Damascus in the early spring .
If you send your warriors as promised and conquer Egypt, worshiping the sky, then I shall give you Jerusalem. If any of our warriors arrive later than arranged, all will be futile and no one will benefit. If you care to please give me your impressions, and I would also be very willing to accept any samples of French opulence that you care to burden your messengers with.I send this to you by Myckeril and say: All will be known by the power of the sky and the greatness of kings. This letter was scribed on the sixth of the early summer in the year of the Ox at Ho’ndlon."—France royal archives
The exchanges towards the formation of an alliance with the Europeans ultimately proved fruitless, and Arghun's attempts were eventually abandoned. However, Rabban Bar Sauma did succeed in making some important contacts which encouraged communication and trade between the East and West. Aside from King Philip's embassy to the Mongols, the Papacy also sent missionaries such as Giovanni da Montecorvino to the Mongol court.
After his embassy to Europe, Bar Sauma lived out the rest of his years in Baghdad. It was probably during this time that he wrote the account of his travels, which was published in English in 1928 as 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 Church of the East in Asia, translated and edited by Sir E. A. Wallis Budge. The narrative is unique for its observations of medieval Europe during the end of the Crusading period, through the eyes of an observant outsider from a culture thousands of miles away.
Rabban Bar Sauma died in 1294, in Baghdad.
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- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
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Rabban Bar Sauma's travel narrative has been translated into English twice:
- Montgomery, James A., History of Yaballaha III, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1927)
- Budge, E. A. Wallis, The Monks of Kublai Khan, (London: Religious Tract Society, 1928). Online
- The history and Life of Rabban Bar Sauma. (online)