The Khan-era Mongols were animists and shamanists who believed that shamans had the power to communicate with the gods, heal the sick and predict the future. The supreme Mongol deity was Tengri (Koko Mongke Tengri). the ruler of heaven and the god of the “Eternal Blue Sky”.The Mongols believed that mountains were bridges between heaven and earth. Even today some Mongolia discourage the digging of wells and mines because they don't want to disturb, the spirits in the earth. The Mongol shaman religion is sometimes called Tengrism and still practiced by some groups in Mongolia, Siberia, northern China and eastern Russia.

Horses were sacrificed and divininization with bones was practiced. Horses are still sacrificed today. Their dried corpses are hung from long sticks in the Altai Mountain region of Mongolia. This ritual is performed because it is believed that only a sacrificed horse can carry the shaman to heaven.

The Mongols were superstitious. They revered fire and consulted shamans to divine the future. Genghis Khan consulted the shaman Kokochu who told him, “God had set aside the whole world as Temujin and his sons’ domain." [Sources: “Warriors of the Steppe: A Military History of Central Asia 500BC to 1700AD” by Erik Hildinger (Da Capo Press, 1997); Christopher Berg, Sam Houston State University /^]

Websites and Resources: Mongols and Horsemen of the Steppe: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; The Mongols in World History ; William of Rubruck's Account of the Mongols ; Encyclopædia Britannica article ; Mongol Archives ; “The Horse, the Wheel and Language, How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes shaped the Modern World", David W Anthony, 2007

Books: Bausani, Alessandro "Religion under the Mongols." In The Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 5, pp. 538–49.. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968–; Blair, Sheila "The Epigraphic Program of the Tomb of Uljaytu at Sultaniyya: Meaning in Mongol Architecture." Islamic Art 2 (1987), pp. 43–96.. Carboni, Stefano, and Komaroff, Linda, eds. The Legacy of Genghis Khan: Courtly Art and Culture in Western Asia, 1256–1353. Exhibition catalogue.. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2002; James, David Qur'ans and Bindings from the Chester Beatty Library: A Facsimile Exhibition. London: World of Islam Festival Trust, 1980.

Multiple Religions under the Mongols

The Mongols were much more open minded about religion than people in Europe and the Middle East. They generally didn't plunder churches or mosques (although they did burn down a quite few and massacred people who taken refuge inside) and as a rule they did not persecute people because of their beliefs. Mongke Khan described various faiths to William of Rubruck as “various fingers on a single hand." Mongke Khan told him, “God has given you the Scriptures... He has given us [Shamans], and we do what they tell us and live in peace."

The courts of the Great Khans contained Catholics, Nestorian Christians, Armenians, Manichaens, Buddhists, Muslims and animists like Genghis Khan. In the Mongol capital of Karakorum churches, mosques and temples stood side by side. As the Mongol empire expanded, many Mongols adopted the religion of their subjects, particularly Islam. The Western Mongols had largely accepted Islam by 1295.

Hulagu, Mongol leader of a Muslim kingdom, and his Christian wife Dokuz Kathan

Stefano Carboni and Qamar Adamjee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “The Mongol period was as eclectic in religious matters as it was in cultural and artistic ones. While the Mongols believed in shamanism, they embraced other religions for several reasons, ranging from a personal desire for the spiritual to issues of control and political and social cohesion. The century of Ilkhanid domination in Greater Iran witnessed the practice of Buddhism, Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. [Source: Stefano Carboni and Qamar Adamjee, Department of Islamic Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

“The Mongols of the steppes believed in shamans—spiritual guides who could intercede between humans and the powerful spirits of good and evil. Both Genghis Khan (d. 1227) and his son Ögödei (r. 1229–41) were shamanists. One of Genghis's grandsons, Kublai Khan (r. 1260–95), embraced Buddhism, which was also officially adopted in Iran and Iraq under his brother Hülegü (r. 1256–65), founder of the Ilkhanid dynasty. Buddhism grew strong in Iran under Arghun (r. 1284–91). Christianity was popular with Ilkhanid women: Hülegü's wife was a Nestorian and Arghun's son (later Il-Khan Öljeitü) was baptized Nicholas in honor of Pope Nicholas IV (papacy 1288–92), who had sent several envoys inviting Arghun to convert to Christianity. Jews were prominent and formed significant communities at Isfahan and Hamadan. The powerful vizier Rashid al-Din (d. 1318) was a Jewish convert and his interest in Judaism is reflected in his Jamic al-tavarikh (Compendium of Chronicles). After the conversion of Arghun's son Ghazan (r. 1295–1304) to Islam in 1295, Buddhism lost its hold in western Asia. Ghazan encouraged theological debates primarily between the Sunni and the Shici approaches to Islam. These debates grew more active under Ghazan's successor Öljeitü (r. 1304–16), who officially converted to Shici Islam in 1310. Sunni authority was reinstated under the reign of his son Abu Sacid (1316–35). \^/

According to Peter Jackson and David Morgan, “It was possible, in their view, that any religion might be true: the best course was to secure the goodwill of the ‘religious class’ within each group or sect and thereby seek to guarantee Heaven's favor towards the dynasty by every means possible. Christian monks and priests, Buddhist lamas and Islamic lawyers, judges, and religious foundations were exempted from forced labor and from payment of taxes. But it was nevertheless important that the Mongol ruling establishment should not become more closely identified with any one religious group...Whatever the religious sympathies of any individual Mongol prince or general, his prime commitment was the maintenance and extension of the Mongolian empire." [Source: Stephen Andrew Missick, Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, July 2012]

William of Rubruck on Mongol Shaman

Siberian shaman

William of Rubruck (c. 1220 – c. 1293, or ca. 1210-ca. 1270) was a Flemish Franciscan missionary, monk and explorer. His account is one of the masterpieces of medieval geographical literature comparable to that of Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta and is the most detailed and valuable of the early Western accounts of the Mongols. Born in Rubrouck, Flanders, he is known also as William of Rubruk, Willem van Ruysbroeck, Guillaume de Rubrouck or Willielmus de Rubruquis. He travelled to various places of the Mongol Empire in Asia before his return to Europe. [Source: Wikipedia]

William of Rubruck wrote: “Their diviners are, as (Mongke Khan ) confessed to me, their priests; and whatever they say must be done is executed without delay. I will tell you of their office, as well as I could learn about it from master William and others who used to speak truthfully to me. They are very numerous and always have a captain, like a pontiff, who always places his dwelling before the principal house of Mongke Khan, at about a stone's throw from it. Under his custody are, as I have previously said, the carts in which the idols are carried. The others come after the ordu in positions assigned to them; and there come to them from various parts of the world people who believe in their art. [Source: “The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World, 1253-55" by William of Rubruck, translation by W. W. Rockhill, 1900; /~]

“Some among them know something of astronomy, particularly the chief, and they predict to them the eclipses of the sun and moon; and when one is about to take place all the people [stockpile] their food, for they must not go out of the door of their dwelling. And while the eclipse is taking place, they sound drums and instruments, and make a great noise and clamor. After the eclipse is over, they give themselves to drinking and feasting, and make great jollity. They predict lucky and unlucky days for the undertaking of all affairs; and so it is that they never assemble an army nor begin a war without their assent, and long since (the Mongol) would have gone back to Hungary, but the diviners will not allow it. /~\

“They (i.e., the Kam) are also called in when a child is born, to tell its fortune; and when anyone sickens they are called, and they repeat their incantations, and tell whether it is a natural malady or one resulting from witchcraft...Some among them evoke devils, and assemble at night in their dwelling those who want to have answers from the devil, and they place cooked meat in the center of the dwelling; and the cham who does the invocation begins repeating his incantations, and strikes violently the ground with a tambourine he holds. Finally he enters into a fury, and causes himself to be bound. Then comes the devil in the dark, and gives him the meat to eat, and he gives answers. Once, as I was told by master William, a certain Hungarian hid himself among them; and the demon made his appearance on top of the dwelling and cried that he could not come in, for there was a Christian among them. Hearing this, he fled in all haste, for they set about looking for him. This and many other things they do, which it would take too long to tell of.” /~\

Monke Khan’s Divinations and Religious Practices

Audience with Mongke

Mongke Khan (1251-1258) was Genghis Khan’s third successor and ruler of a large chunk of the Mongol Empire. William of Rubruck wrote: “The monk directed Mongke to fast during the week, and this he did, as I heard say. So on the Sunday of Septuagesima (8th February), which is as it were the Easter of the Hermenians (Armenians), which for the Armenians is on a level with Easter], we went in procession to the dwelling of Mongke, and the monk and we two, after having been searched for knives, entered into his presence with the priests. And as we were entering a servant came out carrying some sheep's shoulder-blades, burnt to coals, and I wondered greatly what he could do with them. When later on I enquired about it, I learnt that he [the Chan] does nothing in the world without first consulting these bones; he does not even allow a person to enter his dwelling without first consulting them. [Source: “The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World, 1253-55" by William of Rubruck, translation by W. W. Rockhill, 1900; /~]

“This kind of divination is done as follows. When he wishes to do anything, he has brought him three of these bones not previously charred, and holding one, he thinks of the thing about which he wishes to consult it, whether he shall do it or not; and then he hands it to a servant to burn. And there are two little buildings beside the dwelling in which he lives, in which they burn these bones, and these bones are looked for diligently every day through-out the whole camp. When they have been charred black, they are brought back to him, and then he examines whether the bones have been split by the heat throughout their length. In that case the way is open for him to act. If, however, the bones have been cracked crosswise, or round bits have been started out of them, then he may not act. For this bone always splits in the fire, or there appear some cracks spreading over it. And should one out of the three be split cleanly he acts. /~\

“When then we were going into his presence, we were cautioned not to touch the threshold. The Nestorian priests carried incense to him, and he put it in the censer and they incensed him. They then chanted, blessing his drink ; and after them the monk said his benison, and finally we had to say ours. And seeing us carrying Bibles before our breasts, he had them handed him to look at, and he examined them very carefully. When he had drunk, and the highest of the priests had served him his cup, they gave the priests to drink.” /~\

William of Rubruck on Mongol Rituals

tradition Mongol-Turkic practice of Kurşun dökme (Dropping lead onto one's head)

William of Rubruck wrote: “All things which are sent to the court they take between fires, and for this they keep the due share of it. They also cleanse all the bedding of deceased persons by taking them between fires. For when anyone dies, they put aside all that belongs to him, and they are not allowed to the other people of the ordu until they have been purified by fires. This I saw in connection with the ordu of that lady who died while we were there. On account of this (custom) there was a double reason why Friar Andrew and his companion should have gone between fires; they bore presents, and they were destined for one who was already dead, Gukuk Khan. Nothing of the sort was required of me, because I brought nothing. If any animal or any other thing falls to the ground while passing between the fires, it is the property of the soothsayers." [Source: “The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World, 1253-55" by William of Rubruck, translation by W. W. Rockhill, 1900; /~]

“On the ninth day of the month of May, they get together all the white horses of the herds, and consecrate them. And the Christian priests are obliged to come to this with their censer. Then they sprinkle new cosmos (koumiss, mare’s milk) on the ground and hold a great feast on that day, for they consider that they then first drink new cosmos, just as in some places among us is done with wine at the feast of Bartholomew or Syxtus, and with fruit at the feast of James and Christopher.” /~\

“These same diviners disturb the atmosphere with their incantations; and when it is so cold from natural causes that they can bring no relief, they pick out some persons in the camps whom they accuse of having brought about the cold, and they are put to death at once. A short time before I left there, there was one of the concubines who was ill, and she had languished for a long time; so they said incantations over a certain German female slave of hers, who went to sleep for three days. And when she came back to herself they asked her what she had seen; (and she said) she had seen a great many persons, all of whom they declared would soon die; but she had not seen her mistress among them, so they declared that she would not die of her complaint. I saw the girl, who had still a good deal of pain in her head from her sleep. /~\

William of Rubruck on Mongol Funeral Practices

William of Rubruck wrote: “When anyone dies, they lament with loud wailing, then they are free, for they pay no taxes for the year. And if anyone is present at the death of an adult, he may not enter the dwelling even of Mongke Khanfor the year. If it be a child who dies, he may not enter it for a month. Beside the tomb of the dead they always leave a tent if he be one of the nobles, that is of the family of Chingis, who was their first father and lord. Of him who is dead the burying place is not known. And always around these places where they bury their nobles there is a camp with men watching the tombs. I did not understand that they bury treasure with their dead. [Source: “The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World, 1253-55" by William of Rubruck, translation by W. W. Rockhill, 1900; /~]

funeral of Chaghatai Khan

“The Comans raise a great tumulus over the dead, and set up a statue to him, its face to the east, and holding a cup in its hand at the height of the navel. They make also pyramids to the rich, that is to say, little pointed structures, and in some places I saw great tiled covered towers, and in others stone houses, though there were no stones thereabout. Over a person recently dead I saw hung on long poles the skins of sixteen horses, four facing each quarter of the world; and they had placed also cosmos for him to drink, and meat for him to eat, and for all that they said of him that he had been baptized. /~\

Farther east I saw other tombs in shape like great yards covered with big flat stones, some round, some square, and four high vertical stones at the corners facing the four quarters of the world. When anyone sickens he lies on his couch, and places a sign over his dwelling that there is a sick person therein, and that no one shall enter. So no one visits a sick person, save him who serves him. And when someone from one of the great house holds is ill, they place guards all round the ordu, who permit no one to pass those bounds. For they fear lest an evil spirit or some wind should come with those who enter. They call, however, their priests, who are these same soothsayers.” /~\

Woman Executed for Stolen Furs and Witchcraft

William of Rubruck wrote: “A woman from Metz, France, who lived among the Mongols, “told me a most remarkable thing. Once some valuable furs were presented, which were to be deposited in the ordu of her mistress, who was a Christian, as I have previously said; and the diviners carried them between fires, and took of them more than they should have done. A certain servant-woman who had charge of the treasure of this lady, accused them of this to her mistress; so the lady reproved them. Now it happened after this that this lady fell ill, and had shooting pains through her limbs. [Source: “The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World, 1253-55" by William of Rubruck, translation by W. W. Rockhill, 1900; /~]

The diviners were called, and they, while seated at a distance, ordered one of the maids to put her hand on the painful spot, and to pull out whatever she should find. So she arose and did this, and she found they told her to put it on the ground; when it was put there it began to wriggle like some live animal. Then it was put into water, and it became like a leech, and they said: "Lady, some sorceress has done you this harm with her sorceries." And they accused her who had accused them about the furs. And she was taken outside the camp into the fields, and for seven days she was beaten and tried with other torments, so that she should confess. And in the meanwhile the lady died. When she heard of this she said to them: " I know that my mistress if dead; my kill me, that I may go after her, for I never did her wrong." And as she would confess nothing, Mongke commanded that she be allowed to live; and then those diviners accused the nurse of the daughter of the lady of whom I have spoken; and she was a Christian, and her husband was the most respected among all the Nestorian priests. /~\

Mongol-Turkic god Daychin Tengri

“And she was taken to the place of execution with one of her maids, to make her confess; and the maid confessed that her mistress had sent her to speak to a horse, to get an answer from it. The woman (i.e., the nurse) also confessed that she had done something to make herself liked by her master (i.e., Mongke ?), so that he should show her favor, but she had never done anything which could have injured him. She was asked whether her husband knew what she had done. She made excuse for him, having burnt characters and letters she had made herself. So she was put to death; and Mongke sent her husband, this priest, to the bishop who was in Cathay, to try him, though he had not been found guilty. /~\

“In the meanwhile it happened that the first wife of Mongke Khan bore a son; and the diviners were called in to tell the child's fortune, and they all foretold it good luck, saying that it would live long and become a great lord. But after a few days it happened that the child died. Then the mother in a rage called the diviners, saying: "You told me that my son would live, and here he is dead." Then they replied: "Lady, we can see the witch, Chirina's nurse, who was put to death the other day: it is she who has killed your son, and look!--there she is, making off with him!." There still lived a grown-up son and daughter of this woman in the camp, and the lady in a fury sent for them, and caused a man to kill the youth, and a woman the daughter, in revenge for her son, who the diviners had said had been killed by their mother. After this the Khan dreamed of these children, and on the morrow he asked what had been done with them. His servants were afraid to tell him; but he inquired the more solicitously where they were, for they had appeared to him in a vision of the night. Then they told him; and he forthwith sent to his wife, and asked her where she had found out that a wife could pass a death sentence, leaving her husband in ignorance (of what she had done); and he had her shut up for seven days, with orders that no food be given her. As to the man who had killed the youth, he had him decapitated, and had his head hung around the neck of the woman who had killed the young girl, and he caused her to be beaten with burning brands through the camp, and then put to death. And he would have put his own wife to death had it not been for the children he had had of her; but he left his residence (presumably to avoid any lingering evil from his dream of the dead), and did not go back there for a month. /~\

William of Rubruck on Buddhists in the Mongol Realm

William of Rubruck talked about encountering idolaters in Central Asia. Most likely he was referring to Buddhists and thus his account of them was the first description by a Western source of Buddhism. He wrote: “The day following was the first of the month and the Easter of the Saracens (Muslims), and I changed my host and was lodged near another idol temple, for the people entertain envoys each as he may and according to his ability. Going into this idol temple I found the priests of the idols there, for on the first of the month they throw open the temples and put on their sacerdotal vestments, offer (incense, hang up lamps and offer) the oblations of bread and fruit of the people. [Source: “The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World, 1253-55" by William of Rubruck, translation by W. W. Rockhill, 1900; /~]

Mongolian thangka with a prince

“When then I had sat down beside these priests, after having been in the temple and seen their many idols, great and small, I asked them what they believed concerning God. They answered: "We only believe that there is one God." Then I asked: "Do you believe he is a spirit, or something corporeal?" "We believe that he is a spirit," they said. "Do you believe that he has never taken upon him human nature?" They said: "Never." "Then," said I, "if you believe that he is one and a spirit, why do you make him bodily images, and so many? Furthermore, if you do not believe that he became man, why do you make him in human shape rather than in that of some animal?" Then they replied: "We do not make these images to (of) God, but when some rich person among us dies, his son, or wife, or someone dear to him, has made an image of the deceased, and puts it here, and we revere it in memory of him." Then I said: "Then you only make these out of flattery for man." "Only," they said, "in remembrance." Then they asked me, as if in derision: "Where is God"To which I said: "Where is your soul?" "In our body," they said. I replied: "Is it not everywhere in your body, and does it not direct the whole of it, and, nevertheless, is invisible? So God is everywhere, and governs all things, though invisible, for He is intelligence and wisdom." Then, just as I wanted to continue reasoning with them, my interpreter, who was tired and incapable of finding the right words, made me stop talking. /~\

“Their alphabet has been adopted by the Tartars. They begin writing at the top, and run the line downward; and in like manner they read it, and they make the lines to follow each other from left to right. They make frequent use of characters written on paper in their witchcraft, so their temples are full of short sentences (brevibus) hung up there.The letter with [which] Mongke Khan sends us is in the Mongol language, but in their script. /~\

“The Mongols or Tartars who are of this sect, though they believe in one God, make nevertheless images of their dead in felt, and dress them in the richest stuffs, and put them in one or two carts, and no one dare touch these carts, which are under the care of their soothsayers, who are their priests, and of whom I shall tell you further on. These soothsayers are always before the ordu of Mongke and of other rich people, for the poor have none, but only those of the family of Chingis. And when they are on the march, these (soothsayers) precede them as the pillar of a cloud did the children of Israel, and they decide where to pitch the camp, and when they have set down their dwellings, all the ordu follows them. And when a feast day comes about, or the first of the month, they take their images and arrange them in a circle in their house. Then the Mongol come, enter the house, and bow before the images and do them reverence. And no stranger may enter that house. I tried to force my way into one hut, but was was given a very sharp reprimand.” /~\

William of Rubruck on Buddhist Temples and Customs

stupa in Mongolia

William of Rubruck wrote: “Now, in the first place, I will tell you of the rites common to all idolaters, and after that of those of the Iugurs (Uighurs), who form as it were a sect distinct from the others. They all worship to the north, with joined hands, prostrate themselves to the ground with bended knees, placing their foreheads on their hands. As a result of this, the Nestorians in those parts never join their hands in praying, but pray with their hands held extended before the breast...They burn their dead according to the custom of the ancients, and put the ashes in the top of pyramids. [Source: “The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World, 1253-55" by William of Rubruck, translation by W. W. Rockhill, 1900; /~]

“They (the idolaters) place their temples east and west; on the north side they make an alcove projecting out like a choir, or sometimes, if the building is square, they partition off an alcove inside, in the middle of the north side, corresponding to the choir, and there they put a coffer as long and as broad as a table, and after [i.e., behind] that coffer to the south they place the chief idol, and that which I saw at Caracarum (Karakorum) was as large as we paint Saint Christopher. And a Nestorian who had come from Cathay told me that in that country there is an idol so big that it can he seen from two days off. And they place other idols around about (the principal one), all most beautifully gilt. And on that coffer, which is like a table, they put lamps and offerings. Contrary to the custom of the Saracens (Muslims), all the doors of the temples open to the south. They also have big bells like ours: 'tis for this reason, I think, that the eastern Christians do not have any. The Ruthenians (Russians), however, have them, and so do the Greeks in Gazaria (Crimea). /~\

“All the priests (of the idolaters) shave the head and beard completely, and are dressed in saffron color, and they observe chastity from the time they shave their heads, and they live in congregations of one or two hundred. On the days when they go into the temple, they put down two benches and sit on the ground opposite one another in facing rows like choirs, with books in their hands, which they sometimes put down on these benches; and they keep their heads uncovered as long as they are in the temple, reading in silence and keeping silence. And when I went into one of their temples at Caracarum (Karakorum), and found them thus seated, I tried every means of inducing them to talk, but was unable to do so. Wherever they go they have in their hands a string of one or two hundred beads, like our rosaries, and they always repeat these words, on mani baccam, which is, "God, thou knowest," as one of them interpreted it to me, and they expect as many rewards from God as they remember God in saying this. /~\

“Around their temple they make a fine courtyard well surrounded by a wall, and in the side of this facing the south, they make the main gate where they sit and talk. And over this gate they set up a long pole, which, if it be possible, rises above the whole city, and by this pole it may be known that this building is an idol temple. This practice is common to all idolaters. When I went into the idol temple I was speaking of, I found the priests seated in the outer gate, and when I saw them with their shaved faces they seemed to me to be Franks, but the mitres they were wearing on their heads were of paper. These Iugur priests have the following dress: wherever they go they are always dressed in rather tight saffron-colored tunics, over which is a girdle like the Franks, and they have a stole (pallium) over their left shoulder, passed round the chest and the back to the right side, like the chasuble (casula) worn by a deacon in Lent.” /~\

Nestorian Christians in Asia

Nestorian carving from China

Stephen Andrew Missick wrote in the Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies: “The Nestorian Ancient Assyrian Church of the East originated among and was dominated by Syriac speaking people of the region of modern Iraq and Iran.The Church of the East traces it origins to the evangelistic ministry of the apostle Saint Thomas and Mar Mari and Mar Addai [Thaddeus], who were among Christ’s seventy disciples. [Source: Stephen Andrew Missick, Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, July 2012]

Nestorians lived in large numbers in Persia and Iraq after they were persecuted in the Christian west. Around the time of the Muslim conquest in the early 7th century they began traveling eastward on the Silk Road to Turkestan, India, Mongolia and Sri Lanka. They had penetrated deep into China, where a Nestorian church was founded in 638, in Changsan (Xian, See China). Wherever the went Nestorians continued to use the Syriac language. It was estimated that around the end of the A.D. first millennium there were more Nestorians than Catholics and Orthodox Christians combined. Among the Asians who were converted to Nestorian Christianity were Kublai Khan’s sister in law. The Nestorians prospered in the Mongol Empire but were nearly wiped out by Tamerlane.

Christians, Muslims and Buddhists in Mongke Khan's Court

Mongke Khan (1251-1258) was Genghis Khan’s third successor and ruler of a large chunk of the Mongol Empire. William of Rubruck wrote: “I had inquiry made of Mongke Khan what he wanted to do with us, for we would willingly remain there permanently, if it pleased him; if, however, we must go back, it would be less trying for us to do so in summer than in winter. He at once sent me word not to absent myself, for he wanted to speak to me; he would send for the son of master William, for my dragoman was not competent. He who was speaking with me was a Saracen, and had been an envoy to Vastacius. And he, having been dazzled with presents, had advised Vastacius to send ambassadors to Mongke Khan, and that in the meanwhile time would pass; for Vastacius believed that they (i.e., the Mongols) were about to invade his country at once. He sent, and when he had come to know them, he heeded them little, nor did he make a peace with them, nor have they yet entered his country; nor could they do so, so long as he dares defend himself. For they have never conquered any country by force of arms, but only by deceit; and it is because men make peace with them, that they work their ruin under cover of this peace. Then (this Saracen) inquired a great deal about the Pope and the king of the French, and concerning the roads leading to them. The monk, hearing this, cautioned me, unobserved, not to answer him, for he wanted to get himself sent as ambassador; so I was silent, and would answer him nothing. And he spoke to me I know not what injurious terms, for which the Nestorian priests wished to bring a charge against him, and he would have been put to death or soundly beaten; but I would not have it.[Source: “The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World, 1253-55" by William of Rubruck, translation by W. W. Rockhill, 1900; /~]

“The next day, which was Sunday before Pentecost (24th May [1254]), they took me to court; and the grand secretaries of the court came to me, and one was the Mongol who handed the Khan his cup, and the others were Saracens (Muslims), and they inquired on the part of the Khan why I had come. Then I repeated what has previously been said; how I had come to Sartach, and from Sartach to Batu, and how Batu had sent me thither; then I said to him: "I have nothing to say from the part of any man. (This he must have known from what Batu had written to him.) I have only to speak the words of God, if he wishes to hear them." They interrupted me, asking what words of God I wished to speak, thinking that I wanted to foretell some piece of good fortune to him, as many others do. I replied to them: "If you want me to speak the words of God to him, procure for me the interpreter." They said: "We have sent for him; but speak (now) through this one as well as you can; we understand you very well." And they urged me greatly that I should speak. So I said: "Of him unto whom much has been given more shall be required. And furthermore, of him to whom much has been given much love is required. By these words of God I teach Mongke, for God hath given him great power, and the riches which he has were not given him by the idols of the Tuins (Buddhists), but by Almighty God, who made heaven and earth, in whose hand are all kingdoms, and who removes it (i.e., power) from one nation to another on account of the sins of men. So if he shall love Him, it shall be well with him; if otherwise, he must know that God will require all things of him to the last farthing." /~\

the Ilkhanid Khan Ghazan studying the Qu'ran

“Then one of the Saracens (Muslims) said: "Is there anyone who does not love God?" I replied: "God says: 'If one love me, he keepeth my commandments; and he who loveth me not keepeth not my commandments.' So he who keepeth not the commandments of God loveth not God." Then he said: "Have you been to heaven, that you know the commandments of God?" "No," I replied, "but He has given them from heaven to holy men, and finally He descended from heaven to teach us, and we have them in the Scriptures, and we see by men's works when they keep them or not." Then he said: "Do you wish, then, to say that Mongke Khan does not keep the commandments of God?" I said to him: "Let the dragoman come, as you have said, and I will, in the presence of Mongke, if it pleases him, recite the commandments of God, and he shall judge for himself whether he keeps them or not." Then they went away, and told him that I had said that he was an idolater, or Tuin, and that he did not keep God's commandments. /~\

“The next day (25th May) (the Chan) sent his secretaries to me, who said: "Our lord sends us to you to say that you are here Christians, Saracens (Muslims) and Tuins (Buddhists). And each of you says that his doctrine is the best, and his writings--that is, books--the truest. So he wishes that you shall all meet together, and make a comparison, each one writing down his precepts, so that he himself may be able to know the truth." Then I said: "Blessed be God, who put this in the Chan's heart. But our Scriptures tell us, the servant of God should not dispute, but should show mildness to all; so I am ready, without disputation or contention, to give reason for the faith and hope of the Christians, to the best of my ability." They wrote down my words, and carried them back to him. Then it was told the Nestorians that they should look to themselves, and write down what they wished to say, and likewise to the Saracens (Muslims), and in the same way to the Tuins (Buddhists). /~\

“The next day (26th May) he again sent secretaries, who said: "Mongke Khan wishes to know why you have come to these parts." I replied to them: "He must know it by Batu's letters." Then they said: "The letters of Batu have been lost, and he has forgotten what Batu wrote to him; so he would know from you." Then feeling safer I said: "It is the duty of our faith to preach the Gospel to all men. So when I heard of the fame of the Mongol people, I was desirous of coming to them; and while this desire was on me, we heard that Sartach was a Christian. So I turned my footsteps toward him. And the lord king of the French sent him a letter containing kindly words, and among other things he bore witness to what kind of men we were, and requested that he would allow us to remain among the men of Mongol. Then he (i.e., Sartach) sent us to Batu, and Batu sent us to Mongke Khan ; so we have begged him, and do again beg him, to permit us to remain." They wrote all these things down, and carried it back to him on the morrow. /~\

“Then he again sent them to me, saying: "The Khan knows well that you have no mission to him, but that you have come to pray for him, like other righteous priests; but he would know if ever any ambassadors from you have come to us, or any of ours gone to you." Then I told them all about David and Friar Andrew, and they, putting it all down in writing, reported it back to him. /~\

Ghazan's conversion to Islam

“Then he again sent them to me, saying: "You have stayed here a long while; (the Chan) wishes you to go back to your own country, and he has inquired whether you will take an ambassador of his with you." I replied to them: "I would not dare take his envoys outside his own dominions, for there is a hostile country between us and you, and seas and mountains; and I am but a poor monk; so I would not venture to take them under my leadership." And they, having written it all down, went back. /~\

“Pentecost eve came (30th May). The Nestorians had written a whole chronicle from the creation of the world to the Passion of Christ; and they went beyond the passion, they had touched on the Ascension and the resurrection of the dead and on the coming to judgment, and in it there were some censurable statements, which I pointed out to them. As for us, we simply wrote out the symbol of the mass, "Credo in unum Demn." Then I asked them how they wished to proceed. They said they would discuss in the first place with the Saracens (Muslims). I showed them that that was not a good plan, for the Saracens (Muslims) agreed with us in saying that there is one God: "So you have (in them) a help against the Tuins (Buddhists)." They agreed with this. Then I asked them if they knew how idolatry had arisen in the world, and they were in ignorance of it. Then I told them, and they said: "Tell them these things, then let us speak, for it is a difficult matter to talk through an interpreter." I said to them: "Try how you will manage against them; I will take the part of the Tuins (Buddhists), and you will maintain that of the Christians. We will suppose I belong to that sect, because they say that God is not; now prove that God is." For there is a sect there which says that whatever spirit (anima) and whatever soul or any power is in anything, is the God of that thing, and that God exists not otherwise. Then the Nestorians were unable to prove anything, but only to tell what the Scriptures tell. I said: "They do not believe in the Scriptures; you tell me one thing, and they tell another". Then I advised them to let me in the first place meet them, so that, if I should be confounded, they would still have a chance to speak; if they should be confounded, I should not be able to get a hearing after that. They agreed to this.” /~\

Debate Between Christians, Muslims and Buddhists in Mongke Khan's Court

William of Rubruck wrote: “We were assembled then on Pentecost eve at our oratory, and Mongke Khan sent three secretaries who were to be umpires, one a Christian, one a Saracen, and one a Tuin; and it was published aloud: "This is the order of Mongke, and let no one dare say that the commandment of God differs from it. And he orders that no one shall dare wrangle or insult any other, or make any noise by which this business shall be interfered with, on penalty of his head." Then all were silent. And there was a great concourse of people there; for each side had called thither the most learned of its people, and many others had also assembled. [Source: “The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World, 1253-55" by William of Rubruck, translation by W. W. Rockhill, 1900; /~]

“Then the Christians put me in the middle, telling the Tuins (Buddhists) to speak with me. Then they--and there was a great congregation of them--began to murmur against Mongke Khan, for no other Khan had ever attempted to pry into their secrets. Then they opposed to me one who had come from Cathay, and who had his interpreter; and I had the son of master William. He began by saying to me: "Friend, if you think you are going to be hushed up (conclusus), look for a more learned one than yourself." I remained silent. Then (the Tuin) inquired by what I wished to begin the discussion, by the subject how the world was made, or what becomes of the soul after death. I replied to him: "Friend, this should not be the beginning of our talk. All things proceed from God. He is the fountain-head of all things; so we must first speak of God, of whom you think differently from us, and Mongke Khan wishes to know who holds the better belief." The umpires decided that this was right. /~\

Tibetan Buddhist monks debating

“He wished to begin with these questions, as they consider them to be the weightiest; for they all belong to the Manichaean heresy, that one half of things is evil, and the other half good, and that there are two (elemental) principles; and, as to souls, they believe that all pass from one body into another. Thus a most learned priest among the Nestorians questioned me (once) concerning the souls of animals, whether they could escape to any place where, after death, they would not be forced to labor. In confirmation furthermore of this error, as I was told by master William, there had been brought from Cathay a boy who, from the size of his body, was not more than three years old, but who was capable of all forms of reasoning, and who said of himself that he had been incarnated three times; he knew how to read and write. /~\

“So I said to the Tuin: "We believe firmly in our hearts and we confess with our mouths that God is, and that there is only one God, one in perfect unity. What do you believe?" He said : "Fools say that there is only one God, but the wise say that there are many. Are there not great lords in your country, and is not this Mongke Khan a greater lord? So it is of them, for they are different in different regions."/~\

“I said to him: "You choose a poor example, in which there is no comparison between man and God; according to that, every mighty man can call himself god in his own country." And as I was about to destroy the comparison, he interrupted me, asking: "Of what nature is your God, of whom you say that there is none other?" I replied: "Our God, besides whom there is none other, is omnipotent, and therefore requires the aid of none other, while all of us require His aid. It is not thus with man. No man can do everything, and so there must be several lords in the world, for no one can do all things. So likewise He knows all things, and therefore requires no councilor, for all wisdom comes of Him. Likewise, He is the supreme good, and wants not of our goods. But we live, move, and are in Him. Such is our God, and one must not consider Him otherwise."/~\

“"It is not so," he replied. "Though there is one (God) in the sky who is above all others, and of whose origin we are still ignorant, there are ten others under him, and under these latter is another lower one. On the earth they are in infinite number." And as he wanted to spin (texere) some other yarns, I asked him of this highest god, whether he believed he was omnipotent, or whether (he believed this) of some other god. Fearing to answer, he asked: "If your God is as you say, why does he make the half of things evil?" "That is not true," I said. " He who makes evil is not God. All things that are, are good."/~\

“At this all the Tuins (Buddhists) were astonished, and they wrote it down as false or impossible. Then he asked: "Whence then comes evil?" "You put your question badly," I said. "You should in the first place inquire what is evil, before you ask whence it comes. But let us go back to the first question, whether you believe that any god is omnipotent; after that I will answer all you may wish to ask me."/~\

Christians argueing among themselves at the 2nd Christain Council in Constantinople

“He sat for a long time without replying, so that it became necessary for the secretaries who were listening on the part of the Khan to tell him to reply. Finally he answered that no god was omnipotent. With that the Saracens (Muslims) burst out into a loud laugh. When silence was restored, I said: "Then no one of your gods can save you from every peril, for occasions may arise in which he has no power. Furthermore, no one can serve two masters: how can you serve so many gods in heaven and earth?" The audience told him to answer, but he remained speechless. And as I wanted to explain the unity of the divine essence and the Trinity to the whole audience, the Nestorians of the country said to me that it sufficed, for they wanted to talk. I gave in to them, but when they wanted to argue with the Saracens (Muslims), they [the Saracens (Muslims)] answered them: "We concede your religion is true, and that everything is true that is in the Gospel: so we do not want to argue any point with you." And they confessed that in all their prayers they besought God to grant them to die as Christians die. /~\

“There was present there an old priest of the Iugurs (Uighurs), who say there is one god, though they make idols; they (i.e., the Nestorians) spoke at great length with him, telling him of all things down to the coming of Christ in judgement, and by comparisons demonstrating the Trinity to him and the Saracens (Muslims). They all listened without making any contradiction, but no one said: "I believe; I want to become a Christian." When this was over, the Nestorians as well as the Saracens (Muslims) sang with a loud voice; while the Tuins (Buddhists) kept silence, and after that they all drank deeply.” /~\

Mongke Khan on His Religious Beliefs

William of Rubruck wrote: Mongke Khan said to me: "Tell me the truth, whether you said the other day, when I sent my secretaries to you, that I was a Tuin." I replied: "My lord, I did not say that; I will tell you what I said, if it pleases you." Then I repeated to him what I had said, and he replied: "I thought full well that you did not say it, for you should not have said it; but your interpreter translated badly." And he held out toward me the staff on which he leaned, saying: "Fear not." And I, smiling, said in an undertone: "If I had been afraid, I should not have come here." He asked the interpreter what I had said, and he repeated it to him. [Source: “The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World, 1253-55" by William of Rubruck, translation by W. W. Rockhill, 1900; /~]

Mongke Khan

“After that he began confiding to me his creed: "We Mongol," he said, "believe that there is only one God, by whom we live and by whom we die, and for whom we have an upright heart." Then I said: "May it be so, for without His grace this cannot be." He asked what I had said; the interpreter told him. Then he added: "But as God gives us the different fingers of the hand, so he gives to men several paths. God gives you the Scriptures, and you Christians keep them not. You do not find (in them, for example) that one should find fault with another, do you?" "No, my lord," I said; "but I told you from the first that I did not want to wrangle with anyone." "I do not intend to say it," he said, "I am not referring to you”. Likewise you do not find that a man should depart from justice for money." "No, my lord," I said. "And truly I came not to these parts to obtain money; on the contrary I have refused what has been offered me." And there was a secretary present, who bore witness that I refused an iascot and silken cloths. "I dare not say it," he said, "for you. God gave you therefore the Scriptures, and you do not keep them; He gave us diviners, we do what they tell us, and we live in peace."/~\

“He drank four times, I believe, before he finished saying all this. And I was listening attentively for him to say something else of his creed, when he began talking of my return journey, saying: "You have stayed here a long while; I wish you to go back. You have said that you would not dare take my ambassadors with you; will you take my words, or my letter?" And from that time I never found the opportunity nor the time when I could show him the Catholic Faith. For no one can speak in his presence but so much as he wishes, unless he be an ambassador; for an ambassador can say whatever he chooses, and they always ask if he wishes to say something more. As for me, it was not allowed me to speak more; I had only to listen to him, and reply to his questions. So I answered him that he should make me understand his words, and have them put down in writing, for I would willingly take them as best I could.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated February 2022

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