Many are familiar with Marco Polo’s journey into Asia during the 1200s, but few people consider the fact that it was just as possible to travel from the other direction. Rabban Bar Sauma was born in Beijing around 1220, a Nestorian Christian, but possibly of Uyghur ethnic origin.
He did not decide to travel until his middle age, when he and a student decided to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. That student, Rabban Markos, is sometimes touted along with his master as “the first” diplomat to travel to Europe from Asia. Which is ridiculous, considering it’s a journey you can make just by walking, the fact that the Silk Road has been in use since prehistory, and the fact that there are Chinese texts from the 3rd century describing the Roman Empire and its rulers, culture, and peoples.
During their journey, they received reports of unrest in Syria, and rather than going through a war-torn area, they decided to detour through Mongol-controlled Persia. And there they remained for quite a while, being sent on diplomatic journeys only to learn that the person they were supposed to contact had died, or being detoured or detained due to military movements and unrest along their travel routes.
Around 1287, the Mongol Khan Arghun decided to attempt the formation of a Franco-Mongol alliance, and sent Rabban Bar Sauma and his student to Europe for negotiation.
It’s interesting to note that his replacement at the court of the Khan was a Genoese (Italian) nobleman, Buscarello de Ghizolfi, Mongol ambassador to Europe from 1289 to 1305.
When Rabban Bar Sauma arrived at his destination, he would have dicovered many other notables from the East already present, especially Nestorian Christians. The legend of Prester John had already created a mindset for the Europeans to expect aid from Christians from Africa and Asia, and Arghun had already sent a Nestorian embassy several years before, including Isa Tarsah Kelemechi.
In keeping with Sauma’s terrible luck, by the time he arrived in Rome, the current Pope had just died. He met instead with the cardinals there and visited Saint Peter’s Basilica. He then traveled through Tuscany and Genoa, before being warmly received by King Phillip the Fair (Phillip IV) in France. He delivered a letter to the King from the Khan, which remains in France’s historical collections to this day:
Mongol and Persian writing greatly influenced many European artists, and this script can be seen in many paintings and other artworks from this era. In Giotto’s Crucifixion, many details including these soldiers’ headbands are decorated with marking meant to mimic this script, usually referred to as “Pseudo-Mongol” markings or script:
Sauma also met with King Edward I of England, probably during his time in a contested area of France. Edward was unable to negotiate an alliance effectively due to internal conflicts happening between the Scottish and Welsh at home.
After years of negotiations that never materialized into a solid alliance, an elderly Sauma finally returned to live out the remainder of his days in Baghdad, where he wrote an account of his travels. These were translated into English sometime around 1928, and you can read them here.
Khan Arghun died in 1291, and by then Mongol names and fashions were so in vogue in the West that many French children were names after famous Khans, including Arghun himself. You can read more about that in The Mongols and the West: 1221-1410 by Peter Jackson. Sauma’s journey is also explored in J.R.S. Phillips’s The Medieval Expansion of Europe.
Whether or not a true alliance between European Christians and the Mongolian Empire ever materialized is still being debated among various historians, but the sheer amount of back-and-forth traffic, written correspondence, and gifts sent and received have left a trove of evidence we can examine.
The cultural legacy of this interaction remains in Mongol elements in Western Medieval Art and the history of interculturally influenced fashions (including the Mongolian Boqta’s influence on the European Henin headdress). There are many more accounts of the interactions between East and West in what can be considered the Medieval period besides that of Marco Polo, which relies heavily on exotification and othering Asian and Middle Eastern cultures and peoples. Travelers like Ibn Battuta, Hasekura Tsunenaga, and Yu Huan (the author of the Weilue) should be as known to us as travelers who originated in Europe.