13th century Franciscan monk

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 and their leader at the time Mongke Khan. 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]

Daniel C. Waugh of the University of Washington: “ William had participated in the crusade of King Louis IX of France to Palestine and there heard about the Mongols from friar Andrew of Longjumeau, a Dominican who had been involved in papal diplomacy aimed at trying to enlist the Mongols in the Christian crusade against the Muslims. Rubruck then decided to undertake his own mission to the Mongols primarily in the hope of promoting their conversion to Christianity. [Source: Daniel C. Waugh, University of Washington ^=^]

“In 1253 he set out through the lands of the western part of their empire (what we know as the Golden Horde) — that is starting out through the southern steppes of what is now Ukraine and Russia. His roundtrip journey lasted the better part of three years. William had the distinction of being the first European to visit the Mongol capital of Karakorum on the Orhon River and return to write about it. He provides a unique description of the Khan's palace there and abundant detail about the individuals of various ethnicities and religions whom he encountered. Understandably, he was particularly interested in the Nestorian Christians. His describes generally with great precision Mongol traditional culture, many features of which have survived amongst the herders one may observe today in inner Asia.” ^=^

Good Websites and Sources on the Silk Road: Silk Road Seattle washington.edu/silkroad ; Silk Road Foundation silk-road.com; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Silk Road Atlas depts.washington.edu ; Old World Trade Routes ciolek.com; Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project silkroadproject.org ; International Dunhuang Project idp.bl.uk ; Marco Polo: Wikipedia Marco Polo Wikipedia ; “The Book of Ser Marco Polo: The Venetian Concerning Kingdoms and Marvels of the East’ by Marco Polo and Rustichello of Pisa, translated and edited by Colonel Sir Henry Yule, Volumes 1 and 2 (London: John Murray, 1903) are part of the public domain and can be read online at Project Gutenberg. Works by Marco Polo gutenberg.org ; Marco Polo and his Travels silk-road.com ; Zheng He and Early Chinese Exploration : Wikipedia Chinese Exploration Wikipedia ; Le Monde Diplomatique mondediplo.com ; Zheng He Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Gavin Menzies’s 1421 1421.tv ; First Europeans in Asia Wikipedia ; Matteo Ricci faculty.fairfield.edu Mongols and Horsemen of the Steppe: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; The Mongol Empire web.archive.org/web ; The Mongols in World History afe.easia.columbia.edu/mongols ; William of Rubruck's Account of the Mongols washington.edu/silkroad/texts ; Mongol invasion of Rus (pictures) web.archive.org/web ; Encyclopædia Britannica article britannica.com ; Mongol Archives historyonthenet.com ; “The Horse, the Wheel and Language, How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes shaped the Modern World", David W Anthony, 2007 archive.org/details/horsewheelandlanguage

William of Rubruck’s Journey

William of Rubruck traveled through the lands that the Mongols had conquered in the Crimea, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Asia Minor between 1253 and 1255. Apart from references in the Opus Maius of his fellow-Franciscan Roger Bacon, his report to the French king Louis IX, entitled simply the “Itinerarium” by scholars for the sake of reference, is our only source for his travels. We do not know his age, although the hardships of the journey he undertook render it unlikely that he was born before 1210. [Source: Peter Jackson, Encyclopedia Iranica, last updated: October 8, 2012 +/]

Peter Jackson wrote in Encyclopedia Iranica, “From Palestine, where he was among Louis’ entourage following the French king’s disastrous invasion of Egypt (647/1249-50) during the Seventh Crusade, Rubruck secured the king’s support to travel into Mongol territory in order to bring spiritual comfort to some German slaves who had been carried off into Asia from Hungary by the Mongol invaders in 1241-42. His aims also included spreading the Gospel and making contact with the Mongol prince Sartaq, who was based in the Pontic-Caspian steppes (the territory later known as the khanate of the Golden Horde) and of whose Christian sympathies the crusading army had heard. +/

“In 1253, accompanied by another Franciscan named Bartholomew of Cremona, one of Louis’ clerks and an interpreter, Rubruck sailed via Constantinople to Soldaia (Sudak) in the Crimea, and thence traveled into the steppe. In the event, he was disappointed in Sartaq, on whose Christianity he casts doubt, and failed to make contact with the German slaves. From the outset, moreover, the mission was bedeviled by the Mongols’ misapprehension that the group represented an official embassy and that the friendly letter from Louis that Rubruck carried to Sartaq was an appeal for military assistance against the Muslims. For this reason Sartaq sent the group to his father Batu Khan (grandson of Genhis Khan and ruler of the Golden Horde, the Mongols' western forces) who in turn dispatched the two friars and the interpreter across Asia to the Great Khan Möngke in Mongolia. Here it was finally recognized that the party was not an embassy. +/

“After a few months the Great Khan sent Rubruck back as his own envoy, with a letter demanding the King’s submission. Returning via the Caucasus and the encampment of the Mongol general Bayju on the Aras river, Rubruck reached Palestine (1255), only to learn that King Louis had embarked for home a year earlier; he therefore sent his report to the king and asked Louis to secure permission for him to come to France in person. We know that he subsequently traveled to France, since Bacon met him there and cites him several times in the Opus Maius. The date of his death is unknown.” +/

William of Rubruck’s Report

Peter Jackson wrote in Encyclopedia Iranica, “Apart from chapters 2-8 and 35, the Itinerarium is not organized thematically; but since King Louis had instructed Rubruck to write of everything he saw and heard, he mentions fauna, including the yak and the horned sheep that would later take its name from Marco Polo. He also incorporates a great deal of geographical and ethnographic material hitherto unknown to Europeans. [Source: Peter Jackson, Emeritus Professor of Medieval History at Keele University, Encyclopedia Iranica, last updated: October 8, 2012 +/]

“Although he did not travel as far as China, Rubruck provides the earliest Western description of the Chinese, whom he correctly identified with the Seres of Classical geography. He mentions several peoples in the Caucasus region, such as the Lesgians (“Lakz”) and the Alans (“Aas,” As), and ascertained that the Caspian Sea, which he calls the “sea of Siroan [Širvan],” was landlocked rather than being a gulf connected to the encircling ocean, as Europeans believed on the venerable authority of Isidore of Seville (d. 636). +/

“Naturally interested in religious matters, he provides an invaluable survey of Mongol shamanism (chap. 35), narrates in some detail his relations with Nestorian Christians in Mongolia, and is the earliest Western writer to furnish a description of Buddhism (chaps. 24-25), of whose existence the Catholic world had been unaware.” +/

Rubruk's route

“Be it known then to your Sacred Majesty that in the year of our Lord one thousand two hundred and fifty-three, on the Nones of May (7th May), I entered the Sea of Pontus (Black Sea), which is commonly called Mare Majus, or the Greater Sea, and it is one thousand four hundred miles in length, as I learnt from merchants, and is divided as it were into two parts. For about the middle of it there are two points of land, the one in the north and the other in the south. That which is in the south is called Sinopolis, and is a fortress and a port of the Soldan of Turkia [=the Seljuk sultan of Rum]; while that which is in the north is a certain province now called by the Latins Gazaria [=Khazaria; the modern Crimea], but by the Greeks who inhabit along its sea coast it is called Cassaria, which is Cesaria. And there are certain promontories projecting out into the sea to the south toward Sinopolis; and there are three hundred miles between Sinopolis and Cassaria, and so there are seven hundred miles from these points to Constantinople in length and breadth, and seven hundred to the east, which is Hyberia [=Iberia], that is to say, the province of Georgia.” /~\

William of Rubruck on His Mission

At the start of “The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World, 1253-55", William of Rubruck wrote: “O the most excellent lord and most Christian Louis, by the grace of God illustrious King of the French, from Friar William of Rubruck, the meanest in the order of Minor Friars, greetings, and may he always triumph in Christ. It is written in Ecclesiasticus of the wise man: "He shall go through the land of foreign peoples, and shall try the good and evil in all things." This, my lord King, have I done, and may it have been as a wise man and not as a fool; for many do what the wise man doth, though not wisely, but most foolishly; of this number I fear I may be. Nevertheless in whatever way I may have done, since you commanded me when I took my leave of you that I should write you whatever I should see among the Tartars, and you did also admonish me not to fear writing a long letter, so I do what you enjoined on me, with fear, however, and diffidence, for the proper words that I should write to so great a monarch do not suggest themselves to me. [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; depts.washington.edu/silkroad /~]

ment was martyred. And as we were sailing past it we saw an island on which is a temple said to have been built by angelic hands. In the middle, at the summit of the triangle as it were, on the south side, is a city called Soldaia on the Crimea, which looketh across towards Sinopolis: and thither come all the merchants arriving from northern countries, and likewise those coming from Roscia [=Russia] and the northern countries who wish to pass into Turkia. The latter carry vair and minever, and other costly furs: the others (the former) carry cloths of cotton or bombax, silk stuffs and sweet-smelling spices. To the east of this province is a city called Matrica, where the river Tainais (Don River) falls into the Sea of Pontus (Black Sea), through an opening twelve miles wide. For this river, before it enters the sea of Pontus, forms a kind of sea to the north which has a width and breadth of seven hundred miles, with nowhere a depth of over six paces, so large vessels do not enter it, but the merchants of Constantinople who visit the said city of Matrica send their barks as far as the River Tainais (Don River) to buy dried fish, such as sturgeon, barbell and tench (shad and eel-pout), and other fishes in infinite varieties.

The said province of Cassaria is therefore encompassed by the sea on three sides: to wit, on the west, where is Kersona, the city of Clement, and to the south where is the city of Soldaia, to which we were steering, and which makes the apex of the province, and to the east by the sea of Tanais (Sea of Azov, off the Black Sea). Beyond this opening is Zikuia, which does not obey the Tartars, and to the east (of that) are the Suevi and Hiberi, who do not obey the Tartars. After that, to the south, is Trapesund [Trabazon. Turkey], which hath its own lord, Guido by name, who is of the family of the emperors of Constantinople, and he obeyeth the Tartars. After that is the country of Vastacius, whose son is called Ascar after his maternal grandfather, and who is not subject (to them). From the opening (of the sea) of Tanais to the west as far as the Danube all is theirs (i.e., the Tartars'), even beyond the Danube towards Constantinople, Blakia [=Wallachia], which is the land of Assan [= Asên, the ruling dynasty of Bulgaria], and minor Bulgaria as far as Sclavonia, all pay them tribute; and besides the regular tribute, they have taken in the past few years from each house one axe and all the iron which they found unwrought. /~\

William of Rubruck in the Crimea

William of Rubruck wrote: “We arrived then in Soldaia on the 12th of the calends of June (May 21st), and there had preceded us certain merchants of Constantinople, who had said that envoys from the Holy Land were coming who wished to go to Sartach (son of Batu, ruler of the Golden Horde). I had, however, publicly preached on Palm Sunday (April 12th) in Saint Sophia that I was not an envoy, neither yours nor anyone's, but that I was going among these unbelievers according to the rule of our order. So when I arrived these said merchants cautioned me to speak guardedly, for they had said that I was an envoy, and if I said I was not an envoy I would not be allowed to pass. So I spoke in the following way to the captains of the city, or rather to the substitutes of the captains, for the captains had gone to Batu during the winter bearing the tribute, and had not yet returned : " We have heard say in the Holy Land that your Lord Sartach is a Christian, and greatly were the Christians rejoiced thereat, and chiefly so the most Christian lord the King of the French, who has come thither on a pilgrimage and is fighting against the Saracens (Muslims) to wrench the holy places from out their hands: it is for this I wish to go to Sartach, and carry to him the letters of the lord king, in which he admonisheth him of the weal of all Christendom." And they received us right favorably, and gave us lodgings in the episcopal church. And the bishop of this church had been to Sartach, and he told me much good of Sartach, which I later on did not discover myself. /~\


“Now from Kersona all the way to the mouth of the Tanais there are high promontories along the sea, and there are forty hamlets between Kersona and Soldaia, nearly every one of which has its own language; among them were many Goths, whose language is Teutonic. Beyond these mountains to the north is a most beautiful forest, in a plain full of springs and rivulets, and beyond this forest is a mighty plain which stretches out for five days to the border of this province to the north, where it contracts, having the sea to the east and the west, so that there is a great ditch from one sea to the other. In this plain used to live Comans before the Tartars came, and they forced the cities referred to and the forts to pay them tribute; but when the Tartars came such a multitude of Comans entered this province, all of whom fled to the shore of the sea, that they ate one another, the living the dying, as was told me by a certain merchant who saw it, the living devouring and tearing with their teeth the raw flesh of the dead, as dogs do corpses. Toward the end of this province are many and large lakes, on whose shores are brine springs, the water of which as soon as it enters the lake is turned into salt as hard as ice. And from these brine springs Batu and Sartach derive great revenues, for from all Ruscia they come thither for salt, and for each cartload they give two pieces of cotton worth half an yperpera. There come there also by sea many ships for salt, and all contribute according to the quantity (they take). /~\

William of Rubruck on Tartar and Mongol Yurts

William of Rubruck wrote: “Nowhere have they fixed dwelling-places, nor do they know where their next will be. They have divided among themselves Cithia [=Scythia], which extendeth from the Danube to the rising of the sun ; and every captain, according as he hath more or less men under him, knows the limits of his pasture land and where to graze in winter and summer, spring and autumn. For in winter they go down to warmer regions in the south: in summer they go up to cooler towards the north. The pasture lands without water they graze over in winter when there is snow there, for the snow serveth them as water. [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; depts.washington.edu/silkroad /~]

“They set up the dwelling in which they sleep on a circular frame of interlaced sticks converging into a little round hoop on the top, from which projects above a collar as a chimney, and this (framework) they cover over with white felt. Frequently they coat the felt with chalk, or white clay, or powdered bone, to make it appear whiter, and sometimes also (they make the felt) black. The felt around this collar on top they decorate with various pretty designs. Before the entry they also suspend felt ornamented with various embroidered designs in color. For they embroider the felt, colored or otherwise, making vines and trees, birds and beasts. /~\

Rubruck on Mongol Social Customs

Ming Dynasty, dozing Mongols

William of Rubruck wrote: “And over the head of the master is always an image of felt, like a doll or statuette, which they call the brother of the master: another similar one is above the head of the mistress, which they call the brother of the mistress, and they are attached to the wall: and higher up between the two of them is a little lank one (macilenta), who is, as it were, the guardian of the whole dwelling. The mistress places in her house on her right side, in a conspicuous place at the foot of her couch, a goat-skin full of wool or other stuff, and beside it a very little statuette looking in the direction of attendants and women. Beside the entry on the woman's side is yet another image, with a cow's tit for the women, who milk the cows: for it is part of the duty of the women to milk the cows. On the other side of the entry, toward the men, is another statue with a mare's tit for the men who milk the mares. [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; depts.washington.edu/silkroad /~]

“And when they have come together to drink, they first sprinkle with liquor this image which is over the master's head, then the other images in order. Then an attendant goes out of the dwelling with a cup and liquor, and sprinkles three times to the south, each time bending the knee, and that to do reverence to the fire; then to the east, and that to do reverence to the air; then to the west to do reverence to the water; to the north they sprinkle for the dead. When the master takes the cup in hand and is about to drink, he first pours a portion on the ground. If he were to drink seated on a horse, he first before he drinks pours a little on the neck or the mane of the horse. Then when the attendant has sprinkled toward the four quarters of the world he goes back into the house, where two attendants are ready, with two cups and platters to carry drink to the master and the wife seated near him upon the couch. And when he hath several wives, she with whom he hath slept that night sits beside him in the day, and it becometh all the others to come to her dwelling that day to drink, and court is held there that day, and the gifts which are brought that day are placed in the treasury of that lady. A bench with a skin of milk, or some other drink, and with cups, stands in the entry. /~\

William of Rubruck on Mongol Food and Drink

William of Rubruck wrote: “Of their food and victuals you must know that they eat all their dead animals without distinction, and with such flocks and herds it cannot be but that many animals die. Nevertheless, in summer, so long as lasts their cosmos (koumiss, mare’s milk), that is to say mare's milk, they care not for any other food. So then if it happens that an ox or a horse dies, they dry its flesh by cutting it into narrow strips and hanging it in the sun and the wind, where at once and without salt it becomes dry without any evidence of smell. With the intestines of horses they make sausages better than pork ones, and they eat them fresh. The rest of the flesh they keep for winter. [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; depts.washington.edu/silkroad /~]

“With the hides of oxen they make big bags, which they dry in admirable fashion in the smoke. With the hind part of the hide of horses they make most beautiful shoes. With the flesh of a single sheep they give to eat to fifty men or a hundred; for they cut it up very fine in a platter with salt and water, for they make no other sauce; and then with the point of a knife or a fork which they make for the purpose, like that which we used to eat coddled pears or apples, they give to each of the bystanders a mouthful or two according to the number of the guests. Prior to this, before the flesh of the sheep is served, the master takes what pleases him; and furthermore if he gives to anyone a special piece, it is the custom, that he who receives it shall eat it himself, and he may not give it to another; but if he cannot eat it all he carries it off with him, or gives it to his servant if he be present, who keeps it; otherwise he puts it away in his captargac, which is a square bag which they carry to put such things in, in which they store away bones when they have not time to gnaw them well, so that they can gnaw them later and that nothing of the food be lost. /~\

Boodog made from a marmot

Koumiss is fermented mare's milk, which Rubruck calls cosmos. William of Rubruck wrote: “This cosmos, which is mare's milk, is made in this wise. They stretch a long rope on the ground fixed to two stakes stuck in the ground, and to this rope they tie toward the third hour the colts of the mares they want to milk. Then the mothers stand near their foal, and allow themselves to be quietly milked; and if one be too wild, then a man takes the colt and brings it to her, allowing it to suck a little; then he takes it away and the milker takes its place. When they have got together a great quantity of milk, which is as sweet as cow's as long as it is fresh, they pour it into a big skin or bottle, and they set to churning it with a stick prepared for that purpose, and which is as big as a man's head at its lower extremity and hollowed out; and when they have beaten it sharply it begins to boil up like new wine and to sour or ferment, and they continue to churn it until they have extracted the butter. Then they taste it, and when it is mildly pungent, they drink it. It is pungent on the tongue like râpé wine [i.e., a wine of inferior quality] when drunk, and when a man has finished drinking, it leaves a taste of milk of almonds on the tongue, and it makes the inner man most joyful and also intoxicates weak heads, and greatly provokes urine. [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; depts.washington.edu/silkroad /~]

William of Rubruck on Mongol Religion

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; depts.washington.edu/silkroad /~]

“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. /~\

“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; depts.washington.edu/silkroad /~]

“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. /~\

William of Rubruck on the Nestorians, the Mongols and and Prester John

Prester John

Many of the early European explorers to Asia and Africa were hoping to meet up with Prester John, a mythological priest-king who resided somewhere in the East and was supposed to help the Crusaders reclaim Jerusalem. Portuguese explorers went looking for him up the Senegal and Congo Rivers in Africa. Maps from the late 16th century had the kingdom of Prester John located in present-day Ethiopia. Some of the first Europeans to venture on the Silk Road traveled east towards Central Asia and China looking for him. The legend of Prester John is believed to have originated with Saint Thomas, an Apostle of Christ said to have traveled to India in the A.D. first century. More miracles have been attributed to Saint Thomas than any other saint. Additionally, stories of Ung Khan (Unc Chan) — a Mongol ruler who preceded Genghis Khan and who may have been a Nestorian Christian — may have made their way to Europe, placing Prester John in Central Asia.

Stephen Andrew Missick wrote in the Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies: “ The European legend held that a powerful priest-king reigned in ‘India’, meaning the Far East. Somewhere in the Far East, they believed was the magnificent King John of India, known as Prester John of the Indies. He was immortal, fabulously wealthy and also eager to join with Europe to fight a crusade against the Muslims. The legend of Prester John had three historical sources; The Saint Thomas Christians of India, the Christian Empire of the Ethiopian Coptic Christians, and the Nestorians of Mongolia and Central Asia. When accounts of Christians in southern India, east Africa or Central Asia reached Europe they became garbled and confused and eventually became the legend of Prester John. This was due to the fact that Europe at that time had no accurate knowledge of world geography. For centuries Europeans thought that Africa, India and China were all the Indies. The original source of the legend was various Nestorian princes and kings who ruled in Central Asia. Marco Polo, Bar-Hebraeus and William of Rubruck all attempted to identify Ung Khan as Prester John. John of Montecorvino believed that his convert from the Assyrian Church, King George, was a descendant of Prester John. [Source: Stephen Andrew Missick, Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, July 2012]

The legend of Prester John began with a forged 13th century letter that was immensely popular and appeared as a 10-page manuscript booklet, written in numerous languages including Italian, German, English, Serbian, Russian and Hebrew. The Kingdom of Prester John included 42 "mighty and good Christian kings;" the Great Feminie, ruled by three queens and defended by 100,000 women warriors; pygmies who fought wars with birds; bowmen "who from the waist up are men , but whose lower part is that of a horse;" worms that survived only in fires, maintained by 40,000 men, that produced silk that could only be cleaned in fires; and magic mirrors, enchanted fountains and underground rivers with waters that turned into precious stones. [Source: Daniel Boorstin, "The Discoverers"]

William of Rubruck wrote: “At the time when the Franks took Antioch the sovereignty of these northern regions belonged to a certain Con cham. Con was his proper name, cham his title, which means the same as soothsayer. All soothsayers are called cham and so all their princes are called cham, because their government of the people depends on divination. Now we read in the history of Antioch, that the Turks sent for succor against the Franks to King Con cham; for from these parts came all the Turks. That Con was of Caracatay. Now Cara means black, and Catay is the name of a people, so Caracatay is the same as "Black Catay." And they are so called to distinguish them from the Cathayans [=Chinese] who dwell by the ocean in the east, and of whom I shall tell you hereafter. Those Caracatayans lived in highlands (alpibus) through which I passed, and at a certain place amidst these alps dwelt a certain Nestorian, a mighty shepherd and lord over a people called Nayman, who were Nestorian Christians. [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; depts.washington.edu/silkroad /~]

“When Con cham died, that Nestorian raised himself to be king (in his stead) and the Nestorians used to call him King John [presumably Prester John], and to say things of him ten times more than was true. For this is the way of the Nestorians who come from these parts: out of nothing they will make a great story, just as they have spread abroad that Sartach is a Christian, and so of Mongke Khan and Güyük Khan [Genghis Khan’s grandson Güyük Khan (d.1248)], because they show more respect to Christians than to other people; though of a truth they are not Christians. So great reports went out concerning this King John; though when I passed through his pasture lands, no one knew anything of him save a few Nestorians. On those pasture lands lived Güyük Khan, to whose court went Friar Andrew, and I also passed through them on my way back. This John had a brother, also a mighty shepherd, whose name was Unc [=Ong Khan]; and he lived beyond the alps of the Caracatayans, some three weeks journey from his brother, and he was lord of a little town called Caracarum [=Qaraqorum. Karakorum], and the people he had under his rule were called Crit and Merkit, and they were Nestorian Christians. But that lord of theirs had abandoned the worship of Christ, and had taken to idolatry, having about him priests of the idols, who are all invokers of demons and sorcerers. Beyond those pasture lands, some ten or fifteen days, were the pasture lands of the Mongol, who were very poor people, without a chief and without religion except sorcery and soothsaying, such as all follow in those parts.” /=\

William of Rubruck on Prester John, Mongke Khan and Guyuk Khan

On reaching western Mongolia, William of Rubruck wrote: “We entered the plain in which was the ordu of Gukuk Khan, and which used to be the country of the Naiman, who were the real subjects of that Prester John. I did not at that time see this ordu, but on my way back. I will tell you, however, what befell his family, his son, and his wives. When Gukuk Khan died, Batu wanted Mongke to be Chan. As to the death of this Guyuk I could learn nothing definite. Friar Andrew says that he died from some medicine which was given him, and that it was supposed that Batu had had this done. I, however, heard another story. He had called upon Batu to come and do him homage, and Batu had started in great state. He was in great fear, however, he and his men, so he sent ahead one of his brothers, Stican [=Shiban, son of Jochi Khan] by name, and when he came to Keu, and had to present him the cup, a quarrel arose, and they killed each other. The widow of this Stican detained us a whole day, to go to her dwelling and bless it; that is, that we might pray for her. So this Guyuk being dead, Mongke was elected by the will of Batu, and had already been elected when Friar Andrew was there. [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; depts.washington.edu/silkroad /~]

Guyuke with his interrogeant al-Din Mahmoud Hudjandî

“Keu had a brother called Siremon [=Shiremün, Güyük's nephew], who on the advice of the wife of Guyuk and her vassals, went in great state toward Mongke as if to do him homage. In truth, however, he intended to kill him, and to exterminate all his ordu. And when he had already got to within a day or two of Mongke, he had to leave on the road one of his carts which broke down; and while the carter was fixing it, there came along one of Mongke's men who helped him; and he asked so much about their journey that the carter revealed to him what Siremon proposed doing. Then the other, leaving him as if he did not care about it, went to a herd of horses, and taking the strongest horse he could pick in it, rode day and night in great haste till he came to Mongke's ordu, and told him what he had heard. Then Mongke promptly called all his men, and caused to be made three circles of men-at-arms around his ordu, so that no one could come in. The rest he sent against this Siremon, and they captured him, for he did not suspect that his designs had become known, and led him with all his men to the ordu. When Mongke charged him with the crime, he at once confessed. Then he was put to death, he and the elder son of Gukuk Khan, and with them three hundred of the greatest men among the Tartars. And they sent also for their ladies, that they all might be whipped with burning brands to make them confess. And when they had confessed, they were put to death. A young son of Keu, too small to take part in or to know of the plot, was alone left alive, and to him reverted his father's ordu with all that belonged thereto in men and animals. And on our way back we passed by it, but my guides did not dare, either when going or when coming back, to turn off to it, for "the mistress of nations sat in sorrow, and there was no one to console her."/~\

Rubruck on the Tartars and Unc Chan, the Brother of Prester John

William of Rubruck tells a story about the Mongols, Tartars, Chingis and Unc Khan (Ung Khan) with Unc Khan appearing to be the brother of Prester John and Chingis being Genghis Khan. Rubruck wrote: “And next to the Mongol were other poor people, who were called Tartars. Now King John being dead without an heir, his brother Unc was brought in (ditatus est), and caused himself to be proclaimed Chan, and his flocks and herds were driven about as far as the borders of the Mongol. At that tune there was a certain Chingis, a blacksmith, among the people of Mongol, and he took to lifting the cattle of Unc Khan whenever he could, so that the herdsmen complained to their lord Unc Chan. So he got together an army, and made a raid into the land of the Mongol, seeking for this Chingis, but he fled among the Tartars and hid himself there. Then this Unc Khan having got great booty from the Mongol and the Tartars went back. [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; depts.washington.edu/silkroad /~]

“Then that Chingis spoke to those Tartars and to those Mongol, saying, " 'Tis because we are without a chief, that our neighbors oppress us." And they made him chief and captain of the Tartars and the Mongol. Then he secretly got together an army and fell upon Unc Khan and defeated him, so that he fled to Cathay. And it was there that his daughter was captured, and Chingis gave her to wife to one of his sons, who by her had Mangu [=Mönke Khan (d.1259)] who now reigneth. /~\

“Now this Chingis used to dispatch the Tartars in every direction, and so their name spread abroad, for everywhere was heard the cry: "The Tartars are coming!" But through the many wars they have been nearly all killed off, and now these Mongol would like to extinguish even the name and raise their own in its stead. The country in which they first lived, and where is still the ordu of Chingis Chan, is called Onankerule. But because Caracarum (Karakorum) is the district where their power first began to spread, they hold it their royal city, and near there they elect their Chan. /~\

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu ; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; 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 November 2016

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