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. Born in Rubrouck, Flanders, he is known also as William of Rubruk, Willem van Ruysbroeck, Guillaume de Rubrouck or Willielmus de Rubruquis. He traveled to various places of the Mongol Empire in Asia before his return to Europe. [Source: Wikipedia]

On the beginning of his journey from Constantinople, William of Rubruck wrote: “They gave us the choice whether we would have carts with oxen to carry our effects, or sumpter horses. And the merchants of Constantinople advised me to take carts, and that I should buy the regular covered carts such as the Ruthenians [=Russians] carry their furs in, and in these I could put such of our things as I would not wish to unload every day; should I take horses it would be necessary to unload them at each stopping-place and to load other horses; and furthermore I should be able to ride more slowly following the gait of the oxen. Then I accepted their advice, unfortunately, however, for I was two months on the way to Sartach, which I might have traveled in one had I gone with horses. /~\

“I had brought with me from Constantinople, on the advice of merchants, fruits, muscadel wine and dainty biscuits to present to the first captains (of the Tartars), so that my way might be made easier, for among them no one is looked upon in a proper way who comes with empty hands. All these things I put in one of the carts, since I had not found the captains of the city, and I was told they would be most acceptable to Sartach if I could carry them to him that far. /~\

“We set out on our journey about the calends of June (1st June [1253]) with our four covered carts and two others which were lent us by them and in which was carried bedding to sleep on at night. And they gave us also five horses to ride, for us five persons, myself, and my companion Friar Bartholomew of Cremona, and Gosset the bearer of the presents: "the bearer of this letter" (Near the end of the narrative we learn that Rubruck was detained in Acre in Palastine and sent the narrative to King Loius via Gosset], and Homo Dei the dragoman [interpreter], and the boy Nicholas whom I had bought at Constantinople by means of your charity. They gave us also two men who drove the carts and looked after the oxen and horses. After having left Soldaia we came on the third day across the Tartars, and when I found myself among them it seemed to me of a truth that I had been transported into another world.. I will describe to you as well as I can their mode of living and manners.” /~\

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;

William of Rubruck Enters the Realm of the Mongols

William of Rubruck wrote: “When therefore we found ourselves among these barbarians, it seemed to me, as I said before, that I had been transported into another world. They surrounded us on their horses, after having made us wait for a long while seated in the shade under our carts. The first question was whether we had ever been among them before. Having answered that we had not, they began to beg most impudently for some of our provisions. We gave them some of the biscuit and wine that we had brought with us from the city, and when they had drunk one flagon they asked for another, saying that a man enters not a house with one foot only; but we gave it not, excusing ourselves on the score of the smallness of our stock. [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 they asked whence we came and where we wanted to go. I told them what I have already said: that we had heard that Sartach (son of Batu, ruler of the Golden Horde) was a Christian, and that I wanted to go to him, for I had your letters to deliver to him. They made most diligent inquiry whether I was going of my own free will, or whether I was sent. I answered that no one forced me to go, nor would I go if I did not want to, so I was going of my own free will, and also of the will of my superior. I was most careful never to say that I was your ambassador. Then they asked me what was in the carts, whether it was gold or silver or costly clothing that I was taking to Sartach. I answered that Sartach would see for himself what we were bringing to him when we reached him, but that it was none of their business to ask: they should have me shown to their captain, and that he, if it so pleased him, should have me taken to Sartach, otherwise I would go back. /~\

“Now there was in that province a relative of Batu, a captain by the name of Scatay [=Scacatai], to whom the lord emperor of Constantinople was sending (by me) letters that I be allowed to pass. So they agreed (to do as I asked), supplying us with horses and oxen, and two men to guide us ; and those who had brought us went back. Before, however, giving us all this, they kept us waiting for along time, begging of our bread for their little ones, admiring everything they saw on our servants, knives, gloves, purses and belts, and wanting everything. I excused myself on the plea that we had a long journey before us, and that we could not at the start deprive ourselves of necessary things. Then they called me an impostor. It is true that they took nothing by force; but they beg in the most importunate and impudent way for whatever they see, and if a person gives to them, it is so much lost, for they are ungrateful. They consider themselves the masters of the world, and it seems to them that there is nothing that anyone has the right to refuse them: if he refuses to give, and after that has need of their service, they serve him badly. They gave us to drink of their cow's milk, from which the butter had been taken ; it was very sour, and is what they call aira. And thus we left them, and it seemed to me that we had escaped from the midst of devils. On the next day we came to their captain. /~\

“For two months, from the time we left Soldaia to when we came to Sartach, we never slept in a house or tent, but always in the open air or under our carts; and we never saw a city, but only Comans' tombs in very great numbers. That evening the man who was guiding us gave us cosmos (mare’s milk) to drink, and at the taste of it I broke out in a sweat with horror and surprise, for I had never drunk of it. It seemed to me, however, very palatable, as it really is. /~\

William of Rubruck Meets Scatay (A Golden Horde Captain)

Rubruk's route in southern Russia and Central Asia

William of Rubruck wrote: “In the morning then we came across the carts of Scatay (a Mongol captain and relative of the Mongol Khan Batu) carrying the dwellings, and it seemed to me that a city was coming towards me. I was also astonished at the size of the herds of oxen and horses and flocks of sheep, though I saw but few men to manage them. So I asked how many men (Scatay) had under him, and I was told that there were not over five hundred, of whom we had passed half at another camp. Then the man who guided us began telling me that I must give something to Scatay, and he made us stop while he went ahead to announce our coming. It was already past the third hour, so they set down their dwellings near some water, and (Scatay's) interpreter came to us, and as soon as he learnt that we had never been among them before he begged of our provisions, and we gave him some. He wanted also a gown, for he was to act as translator of our words in the presence of his master. We excused ourselves. He asked what we were bringing to his master, so we got a flagon of wine and filled a small basket with biscuits and a plate with apples and other fruit, but he was not pleased because we were not taking some costly cloth. However we went with this in fear and trembling. [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 /~]

(Scatay) was seated on his couch, with a little guitar in his hand, and his wife was beside him; and in truth it seemed to me that her whole nose had been cut off, for she was so snub-nosed that she seemed to have no nose at all; and she had greased this part of her face with some black unguent, and also her eyebrows, so that she appeared most hideous to us. Then I spoke to him in the terms previously used, for it was essential that we should everywhere say the same thing; out this we had been well cautioned by those who had been among them, never to change what we said. Then I begged him to be pleased to accept these trifles of us, excusing myself, being a monk and not allowed by my Order [i.e. the Franciscans] to own gold or silver or costly robes: so I had nothing of the sort to give him, only of our food to offer him for a blessing. Then he had the things accepted, and once distributed among his men who had gathered there to drink. I also gave him the letter from the emperor of Constantinople. This was on the octave of Ascension (5th June [1253]). He at once sent them to Soldaia, to be translated there, for they were in Greek, and had no one with him who knew the Greek language. He asked us if we would drink cosmos, or mare's milk; for the Christians, Ruthenians (Russians), Greeks and Alans who live among them, and who wish to follow strictly their religion, drink it not ; for of a truth they consider themselves to be no longer Christians if they drink it, and the priests have to bring them back into the fold as if they had denied the faith of Christ. Then I made answer that we had had enough of our own to drink so far, but that if that liquor should give out, we should have to drink what he gave us. He asked about the contents of the letter we were sending to Sartach. I told him that your letter was sealed but that there was naught in them but good and friendly words. He then asked what we would say to Sartach. I answered: "Words of the Christian faith." 'What are they?' he inquired, since he was eager to hear them. Then I expounded to him as well as I could through my interpreter, who was neither over intelligent nor fluent, the creed of the faith. When he had heard it, he remained silent, but wagged his head. Then, having made choice of two men to watch over us, and over the horses and oxen, he made us drive about with him until the return of the messenger whom he had sent to have the letter of the emperor translated, and we went about with him until the day after Pentecost (June 9t). /~\

Alans, Christians and Muslims in the Mongol Realm

William of Rubruck wrote: “On Pentecost eve (June 7th) there came to us certain Alans, who are there called Aas, and they are Christians according to the Greek rite, and use the Greek writing and have Greek priests. They are not however schismatics like the Greeks, for without any respect to persons they honor all Christians. And they brought us cooked meats, begging us to eat of their food, and to pray for one of theirs who had died. Then I told them that it was the eve of a great festival, and that on that day we did not eat meat, and I told them of the festival, at which they were much pleased, for they were in ignorance of what concerned the Christian rite, the name of Christ alone excepted. [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 they and many other Christians, Ruthenians (Russians) and Hungarians asked whether they could be saved, for they had to drink cosmos (koumiss, mare’s milk) and eat carrion and beasts slaughtered by Saracens (Muslims) and infidels, which those Greek and Ruthenian priests consider about the same as carrion, or sacrifices to idols; and because they did not know the facts, neither could they keep them if they did know. Then I explained to them as well as I could, teaching them and strengthening them in the faith. The meat which they had brought we kept for the feast day, for we could find nothing to buy with gold and silver, but only with linen or other tissues, and of those we had none. When our servants showed the yperpera [=a Byzantine gold coin], they rubbed them with their fingers, and put them to their noses to smell if they were copper. Neither did they (i.e., the Mongols) give us food, but only cow's milk, very sour and bad-smelling. Our wine was about exhausted, and the water was so muddy from the horses that it was not drinkable; had it not been for the biscuits we had, and God's mercy, we should probably have perished. /~\

“On the day of Pentecost (June 8th) a certain Saracen came to us, and while in conversation with us, we began expounding the faith, and when he heard of the blessings of God to man in the incarnation, the resurrection of the dead and the last judgment, the washing away of sins in baptism, he said he wished to be baptized; but while we were making ready to baptize him he suddenly jumped on his horse saying he had to go home to consult with his wife. And the next day talking with us he said he could not possibly venture to receive baptism, for then he could not drink cosmos. For the Christians of these parts say that no true Christian should drink, but that without this drink it were impossible to live in these deserts. From this opinion I could not possibly turn him. So you will see how far they are astray from the true faith through this opinion, which has been implanted among them by the Ruthenians (Russians), of whom there are great numbers there. /~\

“On this same day this captain (Scatay) gave us a man to guide us to Sartach (son of Batu, ruler of the Golden Horde), and two to take us to a camp which was five days off, as oxen travel. And they gave us also a goat for food, and several skins of cows, milk, but only a little cosmos (koumiss, mare’s milk), for it is held very precious among them. And so we set out due north, and it seemed to me that we had passed through one of the gates of hell. The men who conducted us began robbing us in the most audacious manner, for they saw that we took but little care. Finally, after losing a number of things, vexation made us wise. /~\

Entering the Land of the Mongols and Tartars

Genghis Khan

William of Rubruck wrote: “We came finally to the end of this province (of Gazariam Crimea), which is closed by a ditch (running) from one sea to the other, and outside of it was the camp of these (Mongols); and when we came among them they were such horrible looking creatures that they seemed like lepers. They were stationed there to collect the tax from those who get sail from the salt springs of which I have already spoken. From this point we should have to travel fifteen days, they said without seeing anyone. We drank cosmos (koumiss, mare’s milk) with them, and gave them a basket full of biscuits; and they gave the eight of us a goat for the whole long journey, and I know not how many skins of cow's milk. So having changed horses and oxen we set out, and in ten days covered the distance to the next camp; and along whole route we only found water in holes made in hollows with the exception of two small streams. And we were traveling due east from the time we left this province of Gazaria (Crimea), having the sea to the south and a vast wilderness to the north, which extends in places over thirty days in breadth; and in it is neither forest, nor hill, nor stone, but only the finest pasturage. [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 /~]

“Here the Comans, who are called Capchat, used to pasture their flocks; the Teutons, however, call them Valans, and the province Valania. It is stated however by Isidorus [=Isidore (d. ca. CE 636): bishop of Seville who's varied works included histories of the Goths, Vandals and Sueves] that Alania extends from the Don River to the Palus Maeotis and the Danube; and this country which extends from the Danube to the Tanais (which is the boundary between Asia and Europe), and which it takes two months hard riding, as ride the Tartars, to cross, was all inhabited by the Capchat Comans, as was also that beyond the Tanais (Don River) to the Etilia [=Volga River], between which two rivers are ten good days. To the north of province lies Ruscia, which is everywhere covered with forests, and extends from Poland and Hungary to the Tanais, and it was all ravaged by the Tartars, and is still being ravaged every day. /~\

“For the Tartars prefer the Saracens (Muslims) to the Ruthenians (Russians), who are Christians, and when the latter can give no more gold or silver they drive them off to the wilds, them and their little ones, like flocks of sheep, there to herd their cattle. Beyond Ruscia to the north is Pruscia, which has all been recently conquered by the Teutonic knights; and of a truth they might readily acquire Ruscia, if they would put their hand to it, for should the Tartars hear that the great priest, that is the Pope, was about to make a crusade against them, they would all flee to their deserts.” /~\

Rubruck Travels Eastward from the Black Sea

William of Rubruck wrote: “We traveled eastward, seeing nothing but the sky and the earth, only now and then to our right the sea which is called Sea of Tanais (Sea of Azov, north of the Black Sea), and tombs of Comans visible two leagues off, on account of the custom of burying the whole of a family in one spot. As long as we were in the desert; it fared well with us, but such misery as I had to suffer when we came to inhabited places, words fail me to express. For our guide wanted me to meet every captain with a present, but our supplies sufficed not for that, for daily we were eight persons eating our bread, without counting those who came by hazard, who all wanted to eat with us. [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 /~]

“There were five of us, and the three who were conducting us, two driving the carts and one going with us to Sartach. The meat they had given us was insufficient, and we could find nothing to buy with money. To add to this, when we were seated in the shade under our carts, for the heat was intense at that season, they pushed in most importunately among us, to the point of crushing us, in their eagerness to see all our things. If they were seized with a desire to void their stomachs, they did not go away from us farther than one can throw a bean: they did their filthiness right beside us while talking together, and much more they did which was vexatious beyond measure. Above all this, however, I was distressed because I could do no preaching to them; the interpreter would say to me: "You cannot make me preach, I do not know the proper words to use." And he spoke the truth; for after awhile, when I had learned something of the language, I saw that when I said one thing, he said a totally different one, according to what came uppermost in his mind. So, seeing the danger of speaking through him, I made up my mind to keep silence. /~\

“We traveled along then in great distress from camp to camp till a few days before the feast of blessed Mary Magdalen (22nd June) we came to the great Don River, which separates Asia from Europe, just as the river of Egypt divides Asia from Africa. At the place where we came to it Batu (ruler of the Golden Horde) and Sartach (son of Batu) had established a village of Ruthenians (Russians) on the east bank, who ferried envoys and merchants across on small boats. They first passed us across, then the carts; putting one wheel in one boat and the other in another and tying the boats together they rowed them across. At this place our guide did a most foolish thing; thinking that the people had to supply us with horses, he sent back to their owners from the near bank the animals which had brought us; but when we asked for animals they replied that they were exempted by Batu from any other service than ferrying across those who came and went. From merchants even they collect much money. So we remained there on the river bank for three days. The first day they gave us a big eel-pout just out of the water, the second day some rye bread and a little meat which the headman of the village collected from the different houses; the third day we got dried fish, of which they have great quantities here. That river at this point was as broad as the Seine at Paris. And before we came there, we passed many fine sheets of water full of fish, but the Tartars do not know how to catch them, nor do they care for fish unless they can eat it as they would mutton. This river is the eastern boundary of Ruscia, and takes its rise in the Moeotide fens, which extend to the ocean in the north. The river, however, flows southward, forming a big sea of seven hundred miles before it reaches the Sea of Pontus (Black Sea), and all the streams we passed flow also in that direction. This same river has a forest on its west bank. Beyond this point the Tartars go no farther north, for at that season, about the beginning of August, they commence going back southward ; so there is another village lower down (the river), where envoys pass over in winter. We found ourselves here in great straits, for we could procure neither horses nor oxen for money. Finally when I had proved to them that we were working for the common good of all Christendom, they obliged us with oxen and horses; but we ourselves had to go on foot. /~\

“It was the season when they were cutting the rye. Wheat thrives not there; but they have great abundance of millet.. The Ruthenian women arrange their heads as among us, but their outside gowns they trim from the feet to the knee with vaire or minever. The men wear capes like the Germans; on their heads they wear felt caps, pointed and very high. /~\

“We trudged along for three days without seeing anyone, and just as we and the oxen were well worn out, and we had no idea in what direction we might meet up with the Tartars, two horses came running towards us; we took them with great delight, and our guide and the interpreter got on them, in the hope of being able to find some people. Finally on the fourth day we found some people, and we were as happy as shipwrecked mariners on reaching port. Then we got horses and oxen and went along from stage to stage till we reached the camp of Sartach on the second day of the Calends of August (July 31st). /~\

“The country beyond the Tainais (Don River) is most beautiful, with rivers and forests. To the north are great forests, inhabited by two races of men: to wit, the Moxel, who are without any religion, a race of pure pagans. They have no towns, but only little hamlets in the forest. Their chief and the greater part of them were killed in Germany; for the Tartars took them with them to the borders of Germany, and so they have formed a high opinion of the Germans, and they hope that through them they may finally be freed of the Tartar yoke. If a trader comes among this people, he with whom he first puts up must provide for him as long as he sees fit to stay among them. If one sleeps with another's wife the husband cares not, unless he sees it with his own eyes; so they are not jealous. They have swine, honey and wax, precious furs and hawks. /~\

Mongol Empire 1207

“After them are the others called Merdas, whom the Latins call Merdinis, and they are Saracens (Muslims). Beyond them is the Etilia (Volga River), the largest river I have ever seen, and it comes from the north, from Greater Bulgaria (a region in the middle Volga, not to be confused with Bulgaria in eastern Europe) and flows south, and it falls into a certain lake which has a circumference of four months journey, and of it I shall tell you later. So these two rivers, the Tainais (Don River) and the Etilia (Volga River), in, the north where we crossed them, are only distant the one from the other ten days; but to the south they are far remote from one another. For the Tainais (Don River) flows down into the Sea of Pontus, while the Etilia (Volga River) forms with many other rivers which flow into it from Persia, this sea or lake [=Caspian Sea]. To the south we had very high mountains, inhabited, on the side facing this desert, by the Kerkis (Circassians) and the Alans or Aas, who are Christians and still fight the Tartars. Beyond them, along the sea or lake of Etilia (Volga River), live certain Saracens (Muslims) called Lesgi, who likewise owe them no allegiance. Beyond them are the Iron Gates, which Alexander made to keep the barbarous nations out of Persia; of these I shall tell you later, for I passed through this place on my way back, and between these two rivers in this country through which we were traveling used to live Comans Capchac before the Tartars occupied it. /~\

William of Rubruck Meets Sartach, Son of the Golden Horde Ruler

William of Rubruck wrote: “So we found Sartach (son of Batu, ruler of the Golden Horde) three days from the Etilia (Volga River), and his ordu seemed to us very big, for he has six wives, and his eldest son who was beside him had two or three, and every one of them had a big dwelling and perhaps two hundred carts. Our guide went to a certain Nestorian, Coiac by name, who is one of the most important men of his ordu. This latter made us go a long way to an officer who is called the Jamiam [Mongol postal service worker. In the evening this Coiac had us told to come to him. Then our guide asked us what we were going to take to him, and he was greatly scandalized when he saw that we were getting nothing ready to take 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; depts.washington.edu/silkroad /~]

“We stood in front of him seated in all his glory, striking a guitar and making people dance before him. Then I repeated what I had previously said elsewhere as to the reason for which we had come to his master, begging him to assist us that his lord might see your letter. I also excused myself, being a monk, for neither having, receiving nor carrying with me gold or silver or any precious thing, but only books and the liturgical items, with which we served God, so we were not offering presents to either him or his lord, for having put away all worldly goods I could not be the bearer of those of others. Then he replied right pleasantly that I did well, being a monk, to keep my vows; that he did not want of our things, but would rather give us of his own if we were in want; and he caused us to sit down and drink of his milk, and after awhile he besought us to say a blessing for him, which we did. He also asked us who was the greatest lord among the Franks. I said, "The Emperor, if his land were in peace". [Emperor Fredrick had been deposed and excommunicated by the pope and was vying for power with his competitors]. "No," he said, "it is the King of France." For he had heard of you from Messire Baldwin of Hainaut. I also found there one of the companions of David, who had been in Cyprus (with him), and who had told him of all he had seen. Then we went back to our lodgings. /~\

“The next day (1st August) I sent him (Coiac) a flagon of muscadel wine, which had kept perfectly good during the whole long journey, and a hamper of biscuits which pleased him very much; and that evening he kept our servants with him. The next day he sent me word to come to the court, bringing with me the king's letter, the vestments and the church ornaments and the books, for his master wished to see them. We did accordingly, putting in one cart the books and the chapel, and in another bread, wine and fruit. Then he caused us to explain all about the books and vestments, and many Tartars and Christians and Saracens (Muslims) looked on seated on their horses. When he had finished examining them, he asked if I would give all these things to his master. When I heard this I was shocked, and his words displeased me. Dissimulating, however, I replied: "My lord, we beg that your lord will deign receive this bread, wine and fruit, not as a present, for it is too trifling, but for a blessing, and so that we appear not before him with empty hands. He shall see the letter of the lord King, and by them he shall know why we come to him, and then we will await his pleasure, we and all our belongings. As to these vestments they are holy, and may not be touched except by Friar priests." /~\

“Then he told us to put them on to go in unto his lord, and this we did. I put on the most costly of the vestments, with a most beautiful cushion (pulvinar) against my breast, and took the Bible which you had given me, and the beautiful Psalter which my lady the Queen had presented me with, and in which were right beautiful pictures. My companion took the missal and the cross, while the clerk (Gosset) put on a surplice and took the censer. And so we came before his (i.e., Sartach's) dwelling, and they raised the felt which hung before the entry, so that he could see us. Then they made the clerk and the interpreter to bow the knee (three times): of us they did not demand it. Then they enjoined us earnestly to be most careful in going in and coming out not to touch the threshold of the dwelling, and also to chant some blessing for him. So we went in chanting, "Salve, regina!" In the entry of the dwelling there was a bench with cosmos and cups, and all Sartach's wives had come thither and the Mongol came crowding in around us.” /~\

Sartach’s Curiosity About Christianity

William of Rubruck wrote: “Then this Coiac handed him the censer with the incense, and he examined it, holding it in his hand most carefully. After that he handed him the Psalter, at which he took a good look, as did the wife who was seated beside him. Then he handed him the Bible, and he asked if the Gospels were in it. I said that it contained all the Sacred writings. He also took in his hand the cross, and asked if the image on it were that of Christ. I replied that it was. Those Nestorians and Hermenians [=Armenians] never make the figure of Christ on their crosses; they would thus appear to entertain some doubt of the Passion, or to be ashamed of it. Then he caused the bystanders to draw back so that he could better see our ornaments. Then I presented to him your letter, with translations in Arabic and Syriac, for I had had them both translated and written in these languages at Acon [=Acre in Palestine]. And there were there (at Sartach's camp) Hermenian priests who knew Turkish and Arabic, and that companion of David who knew Syriac, Turkish, and Arabic. Then we went out and took off our vestments, and some scribes and this Coiac came, and they translated the letters (into Mongol). When he (Sartach) had heard them, he caused our bread and wine and fruit to be accepted, and our vestments and books to be carried back to our lodgings. All this took place on the Feast of Saint Peter in Chains (1st August). [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 /~]

Russian steppe

“The next morning (2nd August) came to us a priest, the brother of that Coiac, who begged for a little vase with holy oil, for Sartach wanted to see it, he said, and we gave it to him. Toward vespers Coiac called us, and said to us: "The lord King hath written good words to my lord; but they contain certain difficulties, concerning which he would not venture to do anything without the advice of his father: so you must go to his father. And the two carts which you brought here, with the vestments and books, leave them to me, for my lord wishes to examine them carefully." I at once suspected evil of his greed, and said to him: "My lord, not only these, but the two other carts which we have, will we leave under your care." "No," he said; "leave these, but do what you wish with the others." I told him this was quite impossible, but that we would give everything over to him. Then he asked us if we wished to remain in the country. I said: "If you have well understood the letter of the lord King, you can see that that is the case." Then he said that we must be very patient and humble; and with this we left him that evening. /~\

“The next morning he (Coiac) sent a Nestorian priest for the carts, and we brought all four of them. Then the brother of this Coiac came up, and separated all our belongings from the things which we had taken the day before to the court, and these, to wit the books and the vestments, he took for himself; notwithstanding that Coiac had ordered us to take with us the vestments we had worn before Sartach, so that, should occasion arise, we might put them on before Batu; but the priest took them from us by force, saying: "What, you have brought these to Sartach, and now you want to take them to Batu!" And when I sought to reason with him, he answered me: "Say no more, and be off with you." So I had to bear it in patience, for we were not allowed to go in unto Sartach, nor was there anyone to do us justice. I was afraid also of the interpreter, lest he say something differently from what I should speak, for he used to be eager for us to make presents to everyone. I had one comfort; as soon as I discerned their greed, I abstracted the Bible from among the books, also the sentences and the other books of which I was specially fond. I did not dare abstract the Psalter of my lady the Queen, for it had been too much noticed on account of the gilded pictures in it. And so we were sent back with the two remaining carts to our lodgings. Then came he who was to guide us to Batu, and he wanted to start at once. I told him that on no account would I take the carts, and this he reported to Coiac, who ordered that we should leave them and our servant with him (the postal messenger), and this we did. /~\

“Before we left Sartach, the above mentioned Coiac and a number of scribes of the court said to us: "You must not say that our lord is a Christian. He is not a Christian, but a Mongol." For they regard the name Christendom as the name of a people. They have risen so much in their pride, that though they may believe somewhat in the Christ, yet will they not be called Christians, wishing to exalt their own name of Mongol above all others, nor will they be called Tartars. The Tartars were another people of whom I have heard as follows. /~\

“Of Sartach I know not whether he believes in the Christ or not. This I do know, that he will not be called a Christian, and it even seemed to me that he mocked the Christians. For he is on the road of the Christians, to wit, of the Ruthenians (Russians), Blacs [=Vlachs], Bulgarians of Minor Bulgaria, Soldaians, Kerkis [=Circassians] and Alans, all of whom pass by him hen going to his father's ordu carrying presents to him, so he shows himself most attentive to them. Should, however, Saracens (Muslims) come along carrying more presents than they, they are sent along more expeditiously. He has Nestorian priests around him who strike a board and chant their offices.” /~\

William of Rubruck on Berke Khan, Another Golden Horde Leader

William of Rubruck wrote: “And there is another one called Berka [=Berke Khan (d.1267)], a brother of Batu, who has his pasture lands toward the Iron Gate, where passes the road followed by all the Saracens (Muslims) coming from Persia and Turkia, and going to Batu, and who when passing through bring him presents; and he has made himself a Saracen, and he does not allow pork to be eaten in his ordu. When we came back Batu had ordered him to move from that place to beyond the Etilia (Volga River) to the east, not wanting Saracens (Muslims) to pass by where he was, it appearing to him harmful since Batu viewed it as detrimental to his own interests. During the four days we were at Sartach's ordu, we were not once furnished with food, and only once with a little cosmos. [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 /~]

“On the road between him and his father we were in great fear, for the Ruthenians (Russians), Hungarians and Alans, their [the Mongols'] slaves, of whom there are very great numbers among them, are in the habit of banding together twenty or thirty in number, and run off at night (armed) with arrows and bows, and whomsoever they find at night they kill. During the day they hide, and when their horses are tired, they come by night to the herds of horses in the pastures and change their horses, and take one or two with them to eat when necessary. Our guide greatly feared some adventure with them. On this part of the road we should have died of hunger, had we not carried with us a small supply of biscuit.” /~\

Crossing the Volga

Volga riverbank

William of Rubruck wrote: ““Traveling then due east toward Batu, we came on the third day (5th August) to the Etilia (Volga River), and when I saw its waters, I wondered from where away up in the north so much water could come down...The Etilia is the greatest of rivers, for it is four times greater than the Seine, very deep, coming from Greater Bulgaria (a region in the middle Volga, not to be confused with Bulgaria in eastern Europe), which is in the north, flowing southward, and emptying into a certain lake, or sea, which is now called Sea of Sirsan [=Shirwan: a city in NW Persia], from a certain city on its coast in Persia. Isidorus, however, calls it the Caspian sea, for it has the Caspian mountains and Persia to the south, the Mulihec mountains, that is the mountains of the Axasins [=Assassins: a Muslim sect based in Northern Iran] to the east, which touch the Caspian mountains; to the north is this wilderness in which are now the Tartars, though at first there were here certain Comans called Cangle [=Qangli]. [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 on that side (i.e., the north) it receives the Etilia, which floods in summer as does the Nile of Egypt. To the west of it are the mountains of the Alans, the Lesgians, the Iron Gate and the mountains of the Georgians. So this sea has mountains on three sides, but on the north it has this plain. Friar Andrew went himself along two sides of it, the southern and the eastern, and I along the other two, the northern in going from Batu to Mangu Khan (Mönke Khan), and again in coming back; and along the western side in coming back from Batu to Syria. One can go around it in four months, and it is not true, as stated by Isidorus, that it is a gulf of the Ocean. It nowhere reaches the Ocean, but is everywhere surrounded by land. /~\

“All this country on the west side of this sea, from where are the Iron Gates of Alexander and the mountains of the Alrans, to the northern Maeotide marshes where rises the Tainais (Don River), used to be called Albania. Isidorus says of it that it has dogs in it so big and fierce that "they seize bulls and kill lions" : the truth is, as I have heard tell, that toward the Northern ocean they make dogs to drag carts like oxen, so great is their size and strength. /~\

“At this place where we reached Etilia, the Tartars have made a new village with a mixed population of Ruthenians (Russians) and Saracens (Muslims), and they ferry across the envoys going to and coming from the ordu of Batu; for Batu is on the farther bank to the east, neither does he go beyond this point we had reached when he comes north in summer, and he had begun moving southward (when we arrived). From January to August he goes up to the cool country, as do all of them, and in August they begin moving back. /~\

“So we went down the river in a boat from this village to his (Batu's) ordu, and from that place to the cities of Greater Bulgaria, to the north there are five days. I wonder what devil carried this religion of Machomet [=Mohammed] thither. From the Iron Gate, which is the door out of Persia, there are more than thirty days through the desert, going up along the Etilia to this Bulgaria, along which route there is no city, only some villages near where the Etilia falls into the sea; and these Bulgarians are the worst kind of Saracens (Muslims), keeping the law of Machomet as no others.” /~\

William of Rubruck in the Court of the Batu Khan

William of Rubruck wrote: “When I saw the ordu of Batu, I was astonished, for it seemed like a great city stretched out about his dwelling, with people scattered all about for three or four leagues. And as among the people of Israel, where each one knew in which quarter from the tabernacle he had to pitch his tents, so these know on which side of the ordu they must place themselves when they set down their dwellings. A court (curia) is orda in their language, and it means "middle," for it is always in the middle of the people, with the exception, however, that no one places himself right to the south, for in that direction the doors of the court open. But to the right and left they may spread out as they wish, according to the lay of the land, so long as they do not bring the line of tents down right before or behind the court. [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 /~]

Batu Khan

“We were first taken to a certain Saracen, who gave us no food. The next day we were taken to the court, and they had a great awning spread, for the dwelling could not hold all the men and women who had come thither. Our guide cautioned us to say nothing until Batu should have bid us speak, and then to speak briefly. He asked also whether you had already sent ambassadors to the Tartars. I said that you had sent to Gukuk Khan, but that you would not even have sent envoys to him and [a] letter to Sartach if you had not believed that they were Christians. Then they led us before the pavilion, and we were warned not to touch the ropes of the tent, for they are held to represent the threshold of the door. So we stood there in our robes and barefooted, with uncovered heads, and we presented quite a spectacle for them. Friar John of Policarp had been there; but he had changed his gown, fearing lest he should be slighted, being the envoy of the lord Pope. Then we were led into the middle of the tent, and they did not require us to make any reverence by bending the knee, as they are used to do of envoys.” /~\

“We stood before him the time to say: "Miserere mei, Deus," and all kept profound silence. He was seated on a long seat as broad as a couch, all gilded, and with three steps leading up to it, and a lady was beside him. Men were seated about on his right, and ladies on his left: and where the room on the women's side was not taken up by them, for there were only present the wives of Batu, men occupied it. A bench with cosmos (koumiss, mare’s milk) and big cups of gold and silver, ornamented with precious stones, was in the entry of the tent. He looked at us intently, and we at him, and he seemed to me to be about the height of my lord John de Beaumont, may his soul rest in peace. And his face was all covered at that time with reddish spots. Finally he bid me speak, and our guide told us to bend the knee and speak. I bent one knee as to a man, but he made sign to me to bend both, which I did, not wishing to dispute over it. Then he bid me speak, and I, thinking I was praying God, having both knees bent, began my speech by saying: "Oh lord, we pray God from whom proceedeth all good things, and who gave you these worldly goods, to give you hereafter celestial ones, for the former without the latter are vain." And as he listened attentively, I added : "You must know for certain that you shall not have the celestial goods unless you have been a Christian ; for God saith: 'He who shall have believed and have been baptized, shall be saved, but he who shall not have believed shall be condemned'." /~\

“At this he quietly smiled, and the other Mongols began clapping their hands, laughing at us, and my interpreter stood dumbfounded, and I had to reassure him that he be not afraid. Then silence being reestablished, I said: "I came to your son, because we had heard that he was a Christian, and I brought him [a] letter from the lord King of the French. He (i.e., Sartach) it is who has sent me here to you. You must know the reason why." Then he caused me to rise, and he asked your name and mine, and that of my companion and of the interpreter, and he had it all written down, and he also asked against whom you were waging war, for he had heard that you had left your country with an army. I replied: "Against the Saracens (Muslims) who are profaning Jerusalem, the house of God." He also asked whether you had ever sent envoys to him. "To you," I said, "never." Then he made us sit down, and had us given of his milk to drink, and they hold it to be a great honor when anyone drinks cosmos with him in his dwelling. While sitting there I was looking down, but he bid me turn my face up, either wishing to see me better, or on account of their sorcery, for they hold it to be a bad omen or sign, or as portending evil, if one sits before them with face turned down as if in sorrow, and especially so if he rest his chin or his cheek in his hand. /~\

“Then we went out, and after a little while our guide came to us, and while conducting us to our lodging said to me: "The lord King requests that you remain in this country, but Batu may not do this without the permission of Mangu Khan (Mönke Khan). So you and your interpreter must go to Mangu Chan. As to your companion and the other man, they will go back to Sartach, where they will await your return." Then the interpreter Homo Dei began to lament, deeming himself lost, and my companion to declare that they might sooner cut off his head than separate him from me; and I said that without a companion I could not go, and moreover that we really required two servants, for should one happen to fall ill, I could not be left alone. So he went back to the court and told Batu what I had said. Then he commanded; "Let the two priests and the interpreter go, and the clerk return to Sartach." He came back and told us the decision; but when I wanted to speak about the clerk, that he might come with us, he said: "Say no more about it, for Batu has settled it, and I dare not go again to the court." The clerk Gosset had twenty-six yperpera of your alms and no more; of these he kept ten for himself and the boy, and he gave the sixteen others to Homo Dei for us; and so we parted from each other with tears, he going back to Sartach, and we remaining there. /~\

William of Rubruck Travels with Batu Khan

Batu and the sacking of Suzdal

William of Rubruck wrote: “On the eve of the Assumption (14th August [1253]) he (Gosset) reached the ordu of Sartach, and the next day the Nestorian priests were dressed in our vestments in the presence of Sartach. As for us, we were taken to another host who was to provide us with lodgings, food and horses, but as we had nothing to give him he did it all meanly. We drove about with Batu for five weeks, following the Etilia (Volga River) down its course. Sometimes my companion was so hungry that he would say to me, almost with tears in his eyes: "I feel as if I have never eaten." The market always follows the ordu of Batu, but it was so far away from us that we could not get there, for from lack of horses we had to travel afoot. [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 /~]

“Finally some Hungarians who had been clerks found us out, and one of them still knew how to chant many things by heart, and was looked upon by the other Hungarians almost as a priest, and was called to the burial of their dead; and another of them had received a competent training in grammar, for he understood accurately all we said to him, though he could not reply. These men were a great consolation to us, bringing us cosmos to drink and sometimes meat to eat. I was greatly distressed when they asked me for some books, as I had none to give them, having only a Bible and a breviary. So I said to them: "Bring us tablets (cartas), and I will write for you as long as we are here." And this they did, and I wrote on both sides of them the hours of the Blessed Virgin and the office for the dead. /~\

“One day a Coman joined us, who saluted us in Latin, saying: "Salvite, domine!" Much astonished, I returned his salutation, and asked him who had taught it him. He said that he had been baptized in Hungary by the brethren of our order, who had taught it to him. He said, furthermore, that Batu had asked him a great deal about us, and that he had told him of the rules of our Order. I saw Batu riding with all his horde (turba); and all the heads of families were riding with him, but according to my estimate there were not over five hundred men.” /~\

Travels Eastward from the Volga River, North of the Caspian Sea

William of Rubruck wrote: “At last, about the feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross (14th September), there came a rich Mongol to us, whose father was a chief of a thousand, which is a high rank among them, and he said: "I am to take you to Mongke Khan. The journey is a four months one, and it is so cold on it that stones and trees are split by the cold. Think it over whether you can bear it." I answered him: "I trust that, by the grace of God, we may be able to bear what other men can bear." Then he said: "If you cannot bear it, I shall abandon you on the road." I replied: "That is not right; we are not going of ourselves, but are sent by your lord, so, being entrusted to your care, you should not abandon us." Then he said: "All will be well." After that he made us show him all our clothing, and what seemed to him of little use he made us leave with our host. The next day they brought each of us a sheepskin gown, breeches of the same material, boots according to their fashion, felt stockings, and hoods such as they use. The day after the Elevation of the Holy Cross (15th September) we started on our ride, with two pack horses for the three of us, and we rode constantly eastward until the feast of All Saints [=November 1st]. And through all that country and beyond, the Cangle used to live, and they were a branch (parentela) of the Comans. To the north of us was Greater Bulgaria (a region in the middle Volga), and to the south the Caspian Sea. /~\

“After traveling twelve days from the Etilia (Volga River), we found a great river which they call Jagac [=Iagac, the modern Ural R.], and it comes from the country of Pascatir in the north, and falls into this previously-mentioned sea (i.e., the Caspian). The language of Pascatir is the same as that of the Hungarians, and they are shepherds without any towns whatever, and on the west this country confines on Greater Bulgaria. From this country eastward, and on that side to the north, there are no more towns; so Greater Bulgaria is the last country with towns. /~\

“'Twas from this country of Pascatir that went forth the Huns, who were afterward the Hungarians; hence it is the same as Greater Bulgaria. Isidorus says that with their fleet horses they crossed the barriers which Alexander had built among the rocks of the Caucasus to confine the savage tribes, and that as far as Egypt all the country paid them tribute. They ravaged all the world as far as France, so that they were a greater power than are now the Tartars. With them also came the Blacs, the Bulgars and the Vandals. For from that Greater Bulgaria come the Bulgars, who are beyond the Danube near Constantinople.

Kazakh steppe

William of Rubruck in Central Asia

William of Rubruck wrote: “So we rode through the country of the Cangle from the feast of the Holy Cross (September 14th) to the feast of All Saints (1st November), and nearly every day we went, as well as I could estimate, about the distance from Paris to Orleans, and sometimes more, according to the supply of horses. For sometimes we changed horses two three times in a day, while at others we went for two or three days without finding anyone, so we had to go slower. Out of twenty or thirty horses we, as foreigners, always got the worst, for they invariably took their pick of horses before us. They always gave me a strong horse, on account of my great weight; but I dared not inquire whether he rode easily or not, nor did I venture to complain if he proved hard, but I had to bear it all with equal good grace. Consequently we used to have to endure extreme hardships. Oft times the horses were tired out before we had reached the stage, and we had to beat and whip them, put our clothing on other pack horses, change our saddle horses for pack horses, and sometimes even the two of us ride one horse. [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 /~]

“There is no counting the times] we were hungered and athirst, cold and wearied. They only gave us food in the evening; in the morning we had something to drink or millet gruel while in the evening they gave us meat, a shoulder and ribs of mutton, and some pot liquor. When we had our fill of such meat broth, we felt greatly invigorated; it seemed to me a most delicious drink and most nourishing. On Fridays I fasted without drinking anything till evening, when I was obliged, though it distressed me sorely, to eat meat. Sometimes we had to eat half-cooked or nearly raw meat, not having fuel to cook it; this happened when we reached camp after dark, and we could not see to pick up ox or horse dung. We rarely found any other fuel, save occasionally a few briars. In a few spots along the banks of some of the streams were woods, but such spots were rare. At first our guide showed profound contempt for us, and was disgusted at having to guide such poor folk; but after awhile, when he began to know us better, he would take us to the yurts (curia) of rich Mongol, where we had to pray for them, and if I had had a good interpreter, I [would of] had opportunities for bringing about much good. This Chingis, the first Chan, had four sons, whose descendants are very numerous; and these all have big ordus, and they- multiply daily and are scattered all over this vast sea-like desert. Our guide took us to many of these, and they would wonder greatly at our not receiving gold, silver, or costly clothing. They inquired also of the great pope, if he were as old as they had heard, for they had heard that he was five hundred years old. They asked about our countries, if there were many sheep, cattle and horses there. As to the Ocean sea, they were quite unable to understand that it was endless, without bounds. /~\

“The eve of All Saints (31st October) we left the road to the east, for the people had already moved a good deal to the south, and we made our way by some alps due south continually for eight days. In that desert I saw many asses called culam, and they greatly resemble mules; our guide and his companion chased them a great deal, but without getting one, on account of their great fleetness. The seventh day we began to see to the south some very high mountains, and we entered a plain irrigated like a garden, and here we found cultivated land. On the octave of All Saints (8th November) we entered a certain town of Saracens (Muslims) called Kinchat [=Kenjek], and its captain [i.e., governor] came out of the town to meet our guide, bearing mead ale) and cups. For it is their custom that in all towns subject to them, they come out to meet the messengers of Batu and Mangu chap with food and drink. At that season of the year there was ice on the roads in those parts, and even earlier, from the date of the feast of Saint Michel (29th September) we had had frost in the desert. I inquired the name of this province; but as we had already passed into another territory, they were unable to tell me anything beyond the name of the town, which was a very small one. And there came a big river down from the mountains, which irrigated the whole country wherever they wanted to lead the water, and it flowed not into any sea, but was absorbed in the ground, forming many marshes. There (at Kinchat) I saw vines, and twice did I drink wine. /~\

“The next day we came to another village nearer the mountains, and I inquired concerning these mountains, which I understood to be those of the Caucasus [*actually the Kirgizskii range], which confine at either extremity on the sea, from the west to the east, and which we had already crossed at the sea previously mentioned into which the Etilia (Volga River) flows. I asked also concerning the town of Talas in which were Teuton [=German] slaves of Buri, of whom Friar Andrew had spoken (to me), and concerning whom I had made much inquiry at the ordus of Sartach and Batu. I was unable to learn anything concerning them, only the following circumstances of the death of their master Buri. Not finding his pasture lands good, one day while drunk he spoke to his men, saying: "Am I not of the race of Chingis Khan as well as Batu? (for he was the nephew or brother of Batu) Why should I not go to the banks of the Etilia (Volga River) like Batu, to graze there?" Now these words were reported to Batu, and he wrote to Buri's men, telling them to bring him their lord in chains, and this they did. Then Batu asked if he had spoken such words, and he confessed that he had, though he sought to excuse himself as being drunk, for they usually condone the offences of drunken men. But Batu replied: "How dare you mention my name in your drunkenness!" and he had his head cut off. /~\

William of Rubruck in the Territory of Mongke Khan

Mongke Khan

Möngke Khan (1209 – 1259), was the fourth Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, ruling from 1251 to 1259 in present-day Iraq and Iran, with his territory stretching northward into Central Asia. William of Rubruck wrote: “As to those Teutons I was unable to learn anything concerning them until I reached Mongke Khan 's ordu, but in the village just referred to I gathered that Talas was beyond us in the direction of the mountains, vi days' travel. When I reached the ordu of Mongke Khan I gathered that Mongke had transported these Teutons, with Batu's permission, the distance of a month's travel to the east of Talas, to a certain town called Bolat, where they are digging for gold and manufacturing arms, so I could neither go nor come back their way. However, in going I passed quite near that town (of Bolat), perhaps three days from it, but I was unaware of it, nor could I have turned from my route if I had known it. /~\

“From the village I have mentioned we went eastward, close to the mountains above referred to, and from that point we entered among the subjects of Mongke Khan, who everywhere sang and clapped their hands before our guide, because he was an envoy of Batu. For they show each other this mark of honor; the subjects of Mongke receive in this fashion the envoys of Batu, and those of Batu the envoys of Mongke. Batu's people, however, give themselves rather more airs and are not as careful to observe the practice. A few days later we entered the alps in which the Caracatai used to live, and there we found a great river which we had to pass in a boat. After that we entered a valley, where we saw a ruined fort, whose walls were nothing but mud, and the soil was cultivated there. And after that we found a goodly town, called Equius, in which were Saracens (Muslims) speaking Persian, though they were a very long way off from Persia. /~\

“The next day, having crossed these alps which project from the high mountains in the south, we entered a beautiful plain with high mountains to the right, and a sea or lake which is twenty-five days in circumference to the left. And all this plain is well watered by the streams which come down from the mountains, and all of which flow into this sea. In the summer time we came back along the north shore of this sea, and there likewise were great mountains. In this plain there used to be many towns, but most of them were destroyed, so that the Tartars might graze there, for there were most excellent pasturages in that country. We found there a big town called Cailac [=Qayaligh, near present-day Kapal in Kazakhstan], where there was a market, and many traders frequented it. Here we rested twelve days, waiting for a certain secretary of Batu, who was to be associated with our guide in the matters to be settled at Mongke's ordu. This country used to be called Organum [=Urgench, the region's capitol city, in present-day Uzbekistan], and the people used to have a language and letters of their own [=Sogdian]; but now it is all occupied by Turcomans. Moreover, the Nestorians of those parts used to perform their services in that language, and write books in those letters, and perhaps it was by them that those people were called Organa on account, as was told me, of their having been excellent guitar players (or organiste). 'Twas here I first saw idolaters [=Buddhists], of whom you must know there are many sects in the east. /~\

William of Rubruck in Present-Day Kazakhstan

Kazakh steppe

William of Rubruck wrote: On the feast of Saint Andrew (30th November) we left this city (of Cailac), and at about three leagues from it we found a village entirely of Nestorians. We entered their church, singing joyfully and at the tops of our voices: "Salve, regina!" for it had been a long time since we had seen a church. Proceeding thence three days we came to the head of that province, at the head of the said sea [=probably L. Ala Köl, east of L. Balkhash], which seemed to us as tempestuous as the ocean. And we saw a big island in it. My companion approached its shore and moistened a cloth in it, and tasted the water, which was brackish, though drinkable. There opened a valley which came from out high mountains in the south-east, and there amidst the mountains was visible another big sea, and a river came through that valley from that sea into the first one, and there blows nearly continuously such a wind through that valley, that persons cross it with great danger, lest the wind should carry them into the sea. So we crossed this valley, following a northerly direction towards great mountains covered with deep snow, which then covered the ground. [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 /~]

On the feast of Saint Nicholas (6th December) we began greatly accelerating our speed, for we already found no one, only those iams, that is to say those men who are stationed a day apart to look after ambassadors, for in many places in the mountains the road is narrow and the grazing bad, so that from dawn to night we would cover the distance of two iams, thus making of two days one, and we traveled more by night than by day. It was extremely cold, so they lent us goatskins with the wool turned outside. /~\

“On the second Saturday in Advent (13th December) in the evening, while we were passing through a certain place amidst most terrible rocks, our guide sent me word begging me to say some prayers (bona verba),by which the devils could be put to flight, for in this gorge devils were wont suddenly to bear men off, and no one could tell what they might do. Sometimes they seized the horse, and left the rider; sometimes they tore out the man's bowels and left the body on the horse, and many such things happened there frequently. So we chanted in a loud voice "Credo in unum Deum," when by the mercy of God the whole of our company passed thorough. From that time they began asking me to write cards (cartas) for them, to carry on their heads, and I would say to them: "I will teach you a phrase to carry in your hearts, which will save your souls and your bodies for all eternity."....After that 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. /~\

William of Rubruck Reaches the Homeland of the Mongols

On reaching western Mongolia, William of Rubruck wrote: “After that 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.“Again we ascended mountains, going always in a northerly direction. Finally, on the day of the Blessed Stephen (December 26th) we entered a plain vast as a sea, in which there was seen no hillock, and the following day, on the feast of St. John the Evangelist (December 27th), we arrived at the ordu of the great lord. [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 we were five days from it, an iam (messenger) at whose (station) we were sleeping, wanted to send us by a round about road, over which we should have had to plod for more than fifteen days. And this, as I learnt, so that we might pass by Onankerule, which is at it were their original home, and in which is the ordu of Chingis Chan. Others, however, said that they had wanted to make the journey longer, so as to magnify their importance; and they are in the habit of doing this to persons who come from countries not subject to them. And it was with great difficulty that our guide obtained that we should travel the direct road, after they had detained us over this matter from dawn to the third hour. /~\

“It was on this part of the journey that that secretary, the one we had waited for at Cailac, told me that in the letter that Batu was sending to Mongke, it was stated that you asked for troops and aid from Sartach against the Saracens (Muslims). At this I was much astonished and also annoyed, for I knew the tenor of your letter, and that there was no such request in them, only that you advised him to be the friend of all Christians, to exalt the Cross, and to be the enemy of al1 the enemies of the Cross.” /~\

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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