First Europeans Traveled to Khan's Court

Carpini (1180?-1252)
The first of great European travelers to set out the east was an Italian, Giovanni da Pian del Carpini, Provincial of the Franciscan Order at Cologne. He was excellent choice as Europe's first envoy to the East. He had been one of the early associates of Francis of Assisi. Since 1222, he had played a leading role in the establishment of the Franciscan order. Its vow of strict poverty, coupled with its evangelistic aspirations, made Franciscans (like Buddhist monks) well-suited to the challenges of travel in the Silk Road.

Carpini left Lyon with another Franciscan (Benedict of Poland) as his companion and interpreter in April 1245, carrying a letter from the Pope. He traveled by the northern route through Bohemia, Poland and the snow-bound Ukraine, where he became very ill that he had to be transported in a cart. Reaching Kiev they were advised to travel with Tartar horses on his eastward journey in the Tartar land. Early in February 1246, Carpini came upon a Mongol encampment on the right bank of the frozen Dnieper, where 60,000 men were guarding the western frontiers of the empire. Nobody was able to translate the Papal letters, but the party was provided with guides and relays of the horses. The next stop, on April 4, was made at the camp on the Lower Volga, where they were made to submit to the Mongol purification ceremony, which involved passing between fires. There while the Papal letters were being translated into Russian, Arabic and Mongol, they nearly starved to death, having fasted during the 40 days of Lent, apart from a thin porridge made with millet mixed with water melted down from snow. Four days later, they set off on the last stage of their journey toward the arid plateau of Mongolia. On July 22, 1246 after a 15-month journey of over 3000 miles, they finally reached the Mongol capital, Karakorum, as a new great Khan, Guyuk, son of Ogadei, was about to be enthroned. Invited to become a Christian, Guyuk indicated that first the Pope and princes of Europe would have to come and swear allegiance to him.

On November 13, Carpini took his leave of the Mongol rulers, carrying with him Guyuk's reply to the Pope (Fig. left). With the whole of Central Asia snowbound, the return journey was even worse than the outward one, and it took them until the following June to reach Kiev. In November 1247, Carpini delivered the Great Khan's reply to the Pope. It was to say the least, discouraging: must come yourself at the head of all your kings and prove to Us your fealty and allegiance, And if you disregard the command of God and disobey Our instructions. We shall look up on you as Our enemy. Whoever recognizes and submits to the Son of Gods and Lord of the World, refuses submission will be wiped out."

Even though at page of 60 Carpini failed in his mission to convert the khan, however he did have the first European description of Mongol way of life, including their clothes made of skins, their felt-covered dwellings, and their passion for fermented mare's milk (koumiss). Carpini was an astute observer, and the account of his travels, Historia Mongolorum (Fig. right: The illuminated first initial of a copy of Carpini's account of his journey) furnished Europe with the first glimmer of insight into Tartar customs and beliefs. Much of the information was later incorporated into the widely read medieval encyclopedia, the Speculum Historiale of Vincent of Beauvais. Carpini was the first European since 900 AD on record as having traveled east of Baghdad and returned to tell the tale.

Soon after Carpini's return, Louis IX of France was in Cyprus organizing the disastrous Sixth Crusade against the Saracens (Mamelukes) in Egypt, when he received an envoy from the Mongol commanding general at Tabriz in Persia. This messenger brought news that the Great Khan and his nobles had been converted to Christianity 3 years previously and there was a possibility of the Mongols helping Louis to fight the Saracens. This welcome overture prompted the immediate dispatch of a second mission to the court of Guyak in 1249, this time headed by a Dominican, Andrew of Longjumeau. Traveling at ten leagues a day, he and his companions reached Mongolia only to find that Guyuk had died 2 years previously without becoming a Christian. In the absence of a Great Khan, Longjumeau was sent home with an arrogant message to the effect that unless Louis sent a yearly tribute to her court he and his subjects would be destroyed.

In 1249, during Longjumeau's absence, Louis was defeated by the Saracens. He sent a further delegation to karakorum. This was headed by the second of the great friar travelers of the Middle Ages, a 30-year-old Flemish Franciscan named William of Rubruck. He was to travel as a missionary rather than an ambassador, although he also carried letters from King Louis IX of France to the great khan. After a year at Constantinople preparing for the journey, Rubruck went by sea to the Crimea, landing in May 1253. From there he set off with four carts, a decision he later regretted because it doubled the time it would have taken had they traveled with horses only. With him went another Franciscan, Bartholomew of Cremona, a dragoman interpreter, a slave boy bought in Constantinople and some drivers for the carts. (Fig above: Rubruck's route. Zoom in for enlarged map)

Carpini account was purely factual but a more lively account was written by Rubruck. In A Journey to the Eastern Parts of the World, everything he wrote about his personal experiences has the ring of truth. He provided a detailed account of Mongol life and customs. He sampled what he called 'cosmos' (Koumiss) for the first time and talked about the Mongol domed tents of felts, or yurts in either black or whitened with chalk, and the interiors embroidered with trees, vines, birds and beasts. Up to 30 feet in diameter, the tents of the Mongols could only be transported on immense wagons drawn by as many as 22 oxens. Bedding and valuables were carried on tall carts drawn by camels. The women lived on the eastern side of the tent, men on the western side. Felts images in the shape of human beings were suspended above the heads of the husband and his chief wife. At either side of the entrance, which was closed with a carpet, hung the teat of a mare and a cow's udder (mares were milked exclusively by men, cows by women).

Both men and women of the ruling class wore rich clothing, and, in winter, furs next to the skin. The men shaved a square patch on top of their heads, leaving a tuft to fall over their eyebrows, with longer hair at the back and sides. The women smeared their faces in a manner quite grotesque:

"....the governor seated on his couch, with a little guitar in his hand, and his wife beside him. And in truth it seemed to me that her whole nose had been cut off, so snob-nosed was she; and she had greased this part of her face with some black unguent, and also her eyebrows, so that she appeared most hideous to us."

Rubruck found that the men had wives "as many as they would", and that any of their female slaves could be their concubines. Marriageable girls were often taken by force, with the connivance of their fathers.

In August, they arrived the court of Sartakh, a powerful Mongol chief who was reportedly a Christian. The report proved to be false, but Sartakh later helped Rubruck to the Great khan at Karakorum in Mongolia. There at the west of the Volga, King Louis' letters were read. In September, a messenger arrived with orders to take them to Mangu, (another of Ogadei's sons), who had succeeded Guyuk as Great Khan. The guide warned it would be a 4-month journey "and the cold so intense that it splits stones and trees". On September 16, with two pack-horses between the three of them, they set out with their escort towards the east. From there, they passed the Ural River and the steppes of Kazakhstan. It was a terrible journey. They were constantly hungry and thirsty, cold and weary. They were given food only in the evening; in the morning they had something to drink or millet gruel, while in the evening they were given meat to eat. Often the meat was nearly raw. For many weeks, there was no sight of towns, and at night came the first frosts heralding the onset of winter.

On November 8, they reached Kenchat, a Muslim town in the valley of the River Talas. There Rubruck learned about the yak, whose cows "will not allow themselves to be milked unless sung to", and which, like bulls in Europe, always attacked anyone dressed in red. The travelers continued their journey and by December 26, they entered a plain vast as a sea. Rubruck finally arrived at the destination. He seemed to have come through the ordeal well, but poor Bartholomew was almost at the end of his tether.

The friars remained for about 7 months with Mange Khan, the first three of which were passed in the camp, suffering terribly from the cold. Then they moved to Karakorum with the Great Khan and stayed there for four months. (Fig. right: Mange Khan with his wives and sons, from a manuscript of Rashid al-Din) During his stay, he was much visited and cross-examined about the purpose of his journey; he was only to baptize 6 people. He eventually realized that the great khan was interested in religion but would not become a convert. At a revealing interview Mangu told the friar that just as God had created the different fingers on a single hand, he had given people different beliefs and customs. While in the camp, Rubruck made the acquaintance of a Tibetan lama from whom he gathered further facts about China even though he never crossed the Great Wall and did not reach China himself. He was told about the paper money in use there, and how the people wrote with a brush, "making in one figure the several letters containing a whole word"; this is the earliest reference to Chinese writing and paper money in a western world.

Rubruck found Karakorum small not as big as the village of St. Denis (now a suburb of Paris). "It has two quarters. In that of the Saracens are the markets, and here a great many Tartars gather on account of the court....The other is the quarter of the Cathayans, all of whom are artisans.....There are 12 idols temples of different nations; two mosques.... and one Christian church at the very end of the city". Karakorum was the diplomatic center of the world and received embassies from the Greek Emperor, the Caliph, the King of Delhi and the Seljuq Sultan, as well as emirs from the Jezireh and Kurdistan and princes from Russia. King Heythum I of Little Armenia was expected daily.

At the end of May, Rubruck received permission to return to Europe. Mangu handed over his letter in reply to King Louis. It reads "Wherever ears can hear, wherever horses can travel, there let it be heard and known: these who do not believe, but resist Our Commandments, shall not be able to see with their eyes, or hold with their hands, or walk with their feet....If you will obey Us, send your ambassadors, that We may know whether you wish for peace or war...." Rubruck had to leave Bartholomew who was not fit enough to make the journey and Mangu khan agreed to keep him at court and looked after him. In August 18, 1254, Ruburck "parted with tears" from Bartholomew and set out with his interpreter, his guide and one servant by a more northerly summer route. It was another difficult journey and was not until a year later that Rubruck finally reached Tripoli. There he learned to his regret that King Louis had already returned to France, and Rubruck, sent to Acre by the Provincial of the Franciscans, was never able to deliver the Great Khan's letter in person.

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