Sunday, 25 February 2018

"I shall give you Jerusalem"

"If you send your warriors as promised and conquer Egypt, worshipping 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."
From a letter sent in 1289, by Arghun Khan, ruler of the Mongol Ilkhanate, (the remnant of Genghis Khan's empire based around Persia), to Philip IV of France, making him an offer which, it turned out, he could refuse.

Unfortunately for Arghun, his letter arrived when rulers in Western Europe had curbed their enthusiasm for Crusading, in favour of securing and expanding their lands closer to home. So Philip is remembered for fighting the English, suppressing the Knights Templar and expelling Jews from France, not for recovering the Holy Land thorough a Franco-Mongol alliance (in any case, given the catastrophic failures of the Fifth and Eighth Crusades in North Africa, the ability of the Europeans to deliver on their side of the bargain was pretty questionable).

Argun also approached Edward I of England, who had been on Crusade in his youth (assisted, at one point, by Mongol warriors) but, like Philip, Edward's priorities lay closer to home: securing and expanding his territories by fighting the French, the Welsh and the Scots ... and expelling Jews from England. I don't know why we see all this anti-Semitism at this specific point in history, but it's tempting to see the end of Crusading as ending the offshoring of religious bigotry - why go abroad to oppress non-Christians, when you can do it from the comfort of home?

The most interesting figure in the story of Argun's failed attempt to form an anti-Mameluke coalition was his ambassador, Rabban Bar Sauma. Born around 1220 at, or near to, the site of modern-day Beijing, Rabban Bar Sauma became a monk of the Nestorian Church of the East in China at the age of 20.  As a middle aged monk and religious scholar, he set off to make a pilgrimage from China to Jerusalem, accompanied by one of his students, Rabban Markos.

The roads to Jerusalem through southern Syria being too dangerous, the two travellers visited the Patriarch of the Church of the East, whose Baghdad base was in Ilkahnate territory, ending up at the court of the Ilkhan after delivering messages on behalf of the Patriarch.

Rabban Markos must have been an able student, because he was promoted to the rank of Nestorian bishop on his travels and, when the Partiarch died during their stay, he was elected the next Patriarch of the Church of the East, under the name of Yaballaha III.

As Wikipedia notes, it was the elevation of Rabban Bar Sauma's former student to high office that propelled his teacher to medieval Europe:
It was Arghun's desire to form a strategic Franco-Mongol alliance with the Christian Europeans against their common enemy, the Muslim Mamluk Sultanate at Cairo. A few years later, the new patriarch Yaballaha III suggested his former teacher Rabban Bar Ṣawma for the embassy, to meet with the Pope and the European monarchs.
It was a pretty eye-opening journey for the one-time boy from Beijing:
He traveled overland through Armenia to the Empire of Trebizond or through the Sultanate of Rum to the Simisso 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, who had welcomed him in his realm, and James II of Aragon, king of Sicily. 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.
He then travelled to France, where he met both Philip IV and Edward I, before returning to Baghdad in 1288, laden with gifts and replies from the new Pope and European monarchs to the letters Bar Sauma had delivered from Arghun. It was in response to these letters that Arghun wrote to Philip, with his scheme for a joint attack on the Mamelukes.

The well-travelled Rabban Bar Sauma died in 1294, in Baghdad. I don't know if he's as well known in China as Marco Polo is in the West, but he deserves to be - he gives us a unique glimpse into how the different parts of the medieval world were occasionally more interconnected than we think.