Rabban Bar Sauma
(c. 1220–1294) (pronounced "ruh-BAHN BAR sah-OO-muh"), also known as Rabban Ṣawma
or Rabban Çauma
, (Chinese:拉賓掃務瑪), was a Turkic
monk turned diplomat of the Nestorian Christian
faith. He is known for embarking on a pilgrimage from 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
. Markos was eventually chosen as Nestorian Patriarch, 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.
Bar Sauma was born c. 1220 in or near modern-day Beijing
, known then as Zhongdu
. According to Gregory Barhebraeus
he was of Turkish Uyghur
origin. Chinese accounts describe his heritage as Wanggu
), 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: Nestorianism 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
in the Syr Darya
(present day Afghanistan), Maragha
(Azerbaijan) and Mosul
, arriving at Ani
. 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, with gifts for the Western kings, 30 riding animals, and a large retinue of assistants. His companions included the Nestorian Christian (archaon
) Sabadinus; Thomas de Anfusis (Tomasso de Anfussis, or Thomas of 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. He carried letters from Arghun to the Byzantine
emperor, the Pope, and the European Kings. He traveled overland through Armenia to the Byzantine port 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
Rabban 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.
He next travelled to Rome, but too late to meet Pope Honorius IV, who had recently died. So Bar Sauma instead engaged in negotiations with the cardinals, and visited St. Peter's Basilica.
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:
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 Nestorian Church 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.
- Beazley, C. R., Dawn of Modern Geography, ii.15, 352; iii.12, 189-190, 539-541.
- Chabot, J. B.'s translation and edition of the Histoire du Patriarche Mar Jabalaha III. et du moine Rabban Cauma (from the Syriac) in Revue de l'Orient Latin, 1893, pp. 566-610; 1894, pp. 73-143, 235-300
- Mantran, Robert The Cambridge Illustrated History of the Middle Ages: 1250-1520. Cambridge University Press.
- Odericus Raynaldus, Annales Ecclesiastici (continuation of Baronius), AD 1288, f xxxv-xxxvi; 1289, lxi
- Phillips, J. R. S. The Medieval Expansion of Europe. second edition, Oxford University Press.
- Records of the Wardrobe and Household, 1286-89, ed. Byerly and Byerly (HMSO, 1986), nos. 543, 1082 (for the meeting with Edward I at St Sever).
- Rossabi, Morris Voyager from Xanadu: Rabban Sauma and the first journey from China to the West. Kodansha International Ltd..
- Wadding, Luke, Annales Minorum, v.169, 196, 170-173
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)