Franciscan friar by Rembrandt

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]

In Central Asia William of Rubruck encountered Muslims, Buddhists and Nestorian Christians. He wrote: “ The first are the Iugurs (Uighurs), whose country confines on this said country of Organum (Urgench in present-day Uzbekistan), being situated among the mountains to the east of it; and in all their towns is found to mixture of Nestorians and Saracens (Muslims), and they are also scattered about towards Persia in the towns of the Saracens (Muslims). In the said city of Cailac (Qayaligh, near present-day Kapal in Kazakhstan) they had three idol temples, two of which I entered to see their foolishness. In the first one I found a person who had a little cross in ink on his hand, whence I concluded he was a Christian, and to all that I asked him he replied that he was a Christian. So I asked him: "Why have you not here the Cross and the figure of Jesus Christ?" And he replied: "It is not our custom." So I concluded that they were Christians, but had omitted this through some doctrinal error. I noticed there behind a chest which served in the place of altar and on which they put lamps and offerings, a winged image like Saint Michel, and other images like bishops holding their fingers as if blessing. [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 /~]

“That evening I could find out nothing more, for the Saracens (Muslims) shun these (idolaters) so much that they will not even speak of them, and when I asked Saracens (Muslims) concerning the rites of these people, they were scandalized... Those Iugurs (Uighurs) who live interspersed with the Christians and Saracens (Muslims), through frequent disputations, as I believe, have reached the point of having no belief but that in a single God. These Iugurs used to inhabit the cities which first obeyed Chingis Chan, who therefore gave his daughter to their king. And Caracarum (Karakorum) is as it were in their territory, and all the land of the king of the Prester John and of Unc his brother, was round about this country, though they occupied the pasture lands to the north, while the Iugurs lived amidst the mountains to the south. So it happened that the Mongol adopted their letters, and they are their best scribes, and nearly all the Nestorians know their letters...The Iugurs are of medium size, like us. Among the Iugurs (Uighurs) the Turkie Coman language has its source and root. /~\

“Beyond them to the east among those mountains are the Tanguts (a Tibeto-Burman-speaking people who moved to Northwest China sometime before the 10th century and established the state of Western Xia), most valiant men, who captured Chingis in war; and he, peace being made, and once freed by them, subdued them. These people have very strong cattle, with very hairy tails like horses, and with bellies and backs covered with hair. They are lower on their legs than other oxen, but much stronger. They draw the big dwellings of the Mongol, and have slender, long, curved horns, so sharp that it is always necessary to cut off their points. The cows will not let themselves be milked unless sung to. They have also the temper of the bull, for if they see a man dressed in red they throw themselves on him to kill him...Of the Tanguts I have seen big men, but swarthy.” /~\

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 Books: on the Silk Road The Silk Road (Odyssey Guides); Marco Polo: A Photographer's Journey by Mike Yamashita (White Star, 2002); “Life along the Silk Road” by Whitfield, Susan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999); “The Silk Route: Trade, Travel, War and Faith” by Susan Whitfield, with Ursula Sims-Williams, eds. (London: British Library, 2004); “The Camel and the Wheel” by Richard Bulliet (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975). “Marco Polo's Asia,” by Leonardo Olschki (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960). When China Ruled the Seas by Louise Levathes. Books on 18th and 19th Century European Explorers of Western China: The Question of Hu by Jonathan Spence and Foreign Devils on the Silk Road by Peter Hopkirk. Television show: Silk Road 2005, a 10-episode production by China's CCTV and Japan's NHK, with music by Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. The original series was shown in 1980s.

William of Rubruck on Buddhists

Rubruck's route in Central Asia, China and Mongolia

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

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

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

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

William of Rubruck on Buddhist Temples and Customs

Disciples of Buddha from a western China cave

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

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

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

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

William of Rubruck on Tibetans and Other People the East

Uighur princesses

William of Rubruck wrote: “Beyond these are the Tebet (Tibetans), a people in the habit of eating their dead parents, so that for piety's sake they should not give their parents any other sepulcher than their bowels. They have given this practice up, however, as they were held an abomination among all nations. They still, however, make handsome cups out of the heads of their parents, so that when drinking out of them they may have them in mind in the midst of their merry-making. This was told me by one who had seen it. These people have much gold in their country, so that when one lacks gold he digs till he finds it, and he only takes so much as he requires and puts the rest back in the ground; for if he put it in a treasury or a coffer, he believes that God would take away from him that which is in the ground. I saw many misshapen individuals of this people. [Source: “The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World, 1253-55" by William of Rubruck, translation by W. W. Rockhill, 1900; depts.washington.edu/silkroad /~]

After Tebet are Longa and Solanga [=possibly NE Manchuria and Korea], whose envoys I saw at court, and they had brought with them more than ten big carts, each of which was drawn by six oxen. They are little men and swarthy like Spaniards, and they wear tunics like the chasuble (supertunicale) of a deacon, except with narrower sleeves. On their heads they wear a miter like a bishop's, except that in front it is slightly lower than behind, and it does not terminate in a point, but is square on top, and is of stiff black buckram, and so polished that it shines in the sun's rays like a mirror or a well-burnished helmet. And at the temples are long strips of the same stuff, which are fastened to the miter, and which stand out in the wind like two horns projecting from the temples. When the wind strikes it too violently, they fold them up across the miter over the temples, where they remain like a hoop across the head; and a right handsome ornament it is. And whenever the principal envoy came to court he carried a highly-polished tablet of ivory about a cubit long and half a palm wide. Every time he spoke to the Khan or some great personage, he always looked at that tablet as if he found there that he had to say, nor did he look to the right or the left, nor in the face of him with whom he was talking. Likewise, when coming into the presence of the lord, and when leaving it, he never looked at anything but his tablet. /~\

“Besides these people there is another, as I was assured, called Muc, who have towns, but who take no animals for themselves. There are, however, many herds and flocks in their country, but no one herds them; when anyone wants some, he goes to a hill and calls, and all the animals hearing the call come around him, and let him treat them as if they were tame. If an ambassador or any foreigner come to that country, they put him in a house, and give him all he requires, until his business has been settled; for should a foreigner go about the country, his odor would cause the animals to run away and they would become wild.” /~\

“All these nations are in the mountains of the Caucasus [likely the Tian Shan or some other mountains in Central Asia], but on the north side of these mountains, and (they extend) as far as the eastern Ocean, and (this is) also to the south of that Sithia which the pastoral Mongols inhabit, and whose tributaries they all are. And all of them are given to idolatry, and tell fables of a host of gods, and of deified human beings, and of the genealogy of the gods, as do our poets.” /~\

Later Rubruck wrote: “One day a priest from Cathay was seated with me, and he was dressed in a red stuff of the finest hue, and I asked whence came such a color; and he told me that in the countries east of Cathay there are high rocks, among which dwell creatures who have in all respects human forms, except that their knees do not bend, so that they get along by some kind of jumping motion; and they are not over a cubit in length, and all their little body is covered with hair, and they live in inaccessible caverns. And the hunters (of Cathay) go carrying with them mead, with which they can bring on great drunkenness, and they make cup-like holes in the rocks, and fill them with this mead. (For Cathay has no grape wine, though they have begun planting vines, but they make a drink of rice.) So the hunters hide themselves, and these animals come out of their caverns and taste this liquor, and cry "Chin, chin," so they have been given a name from this cry, and are called Chinchin. Then they come in great numbers, and drink this mead, and get drunk, and fall asleep. Then come the hunters, who bind the sleeper's feet and hands. After that they open a vein in their necks, and take out three or four drops of blood, and let them go free; and this blood, he told me was most precious for coloring purples. They also told me as a fact (which I do not, however, believe), that there is a province beyond Cathay, and at whatever age a man enters it, that age he keeps which he had on entering. /~\

William of Rubruck on China and the Chinese

Tang-era dancer

William of Rubruck wrote: “There is also great Cathay, whose people were anciently I believe, called Seres. From among them come the best silk stuffs (which are called seric by that people), and the people get the name of Seres from one of their cities. I was given to understand that in that region there is a city with walls of silver and towers of gold. In that land are many provinces, the greater number of which do not yet obey the Mongol, and between them and India there is a sea. [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 /~]

“These Cathayans (Chinese) are small men, who in speaking aspirate strongly through the nose, and in common with all Orientals, have small openings for the eyes. They are most excellent artisans in all manners of crafts, and their doctors know full well the virtues of herbs, and diagnose very skillfully the pulse; but they do not use urine samples, not knowing anything about urine: this I have seen myself. There are a great many of them at Caracarum (Karakorum), and it is their custom for all sons to follow the same trade as their fathers. 'Tis for this reason that they pay such a great tribute; for they give the Mongol daily a thousand five hundred iascots or cosmos [an iascot is a piece of silver weighing ten marks] so this is fifteen thousand marks, exclusive of the silk tissues and the provisions which they receive from them, and the other servitudes which are put on them.” /~\

Later Rubruck wrote: “Cathay is on the ocean. And master William told me that he had himself seen the envoys of certain people called Caule [=Kao-li: Korea] and Manse [=Man-tze: southern China, still ruled by the Song], who live on islands the sea around which freezes in winter, so that at that time the Tartars can make raids thither; and they had offered (them) thirty-two thousand tumen of iascot a year, if they would only leave them in peace. A tumen is a number containing ten thousand. /~\

“The common money of Cathay is a paper of cotton, in length and breadth a palm, and on it they stamp lines like those on the seal of Mongke. They (i.e., the Cathayans (Chinese)) write with a brush such as painters paint with, and they make in one figure the several letters containing a whole word. The Tebet write as we do, and have figures quite like ours. The Tanguts write from right to left like the Arabs, but they repeat the lines running upwards; the Iugur, as previously said (write) up and down. The ordinary money of the Ruthenians (Russians) are skins of vaire and minever.” /~\

William of Rubruck on Nestorian Christians in Asia

Nestorian in western China

William of Rubruck wrote: On the feast of Saint Andrew (30th November) we left this city ( Cailac, Qayaligh, near present-day Kapal in Kazakhstan), 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...Living mixed among” the Mongols and Tartars “though of alien status (tanquam advene), are Nestorians and Saracens (Muslims) all the way to Cathay. In fifteen cities of Cathay there are Nestorians, and they have an episcopal see in a city called Segin [=Hsi-king], but for the rest they are purely idolaters. The priests of idols of the nations spoken of all wear wide saffron-colored cowls. [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 are also among them, as I gathered, some hermits who live in forests and mountains and leading lives that are extraordinarily ascetic. The Nestorians there know nothing. They say their offices, and have sacred books in Syrian, but they do not know the language, so they chant like those monks among us who do not know grammar, and they are absolutely depraved. In the first place they are usurers and drunkards; some even among them who live with the Tartars have several wives like them. /~\

“When they enter church, they wash their lower parts like Saracens (Muslims); they eat meat on Friday, and have their feasts on that day in Saracen fashion. The bishop rarely visits these parts, hardly once in fifty years. When he does, they have all the male children, even those in the cradle, ordained priests, so nearly all the males among them are priests. Then they marry, which is clearly against the statutes of the Fathers, and they are bigamists, for when the first wife dies these priests take another. They are all simoniacs, for they administer no sacrament gratis. They are solicitous for their wives and children, and are consequently more intent on the increase of their wealth than of the faith. And so those of them who educate some of the sons of the noble Mongol, though they teach them the Gospel and the articles of the faith, through their evil lives and their cupidity estrange them from the Christian faith, for the lives that the Mongol themselves and the Tuins [=Buddhists, from Chinese T'ao-yen: "man of the path." The term properly refers only to priests but Rubruck applies it here to all Buddhists] or idolaters lead are more innocent than theirs. /~\

William of Rubruck on Nestorian Religious Observances

William of Rubruck wrote: “Before Septuagesima Sunday, the Nestorians fast three days, which they call the fast of Jonah, that he preached to the Ninivites; and then also the Hermenians (Armenians) fast for five days, which they call the fast of Saint Serkis, who is one of the greater saints among them, and who the Greeks say was model for saints. The Nestorians begin the fast on the third day of the week, and end it on the fifth, so that on the sixth day they eat meat. And at that time I saw that the chancellor, that is the grand secretary of the court, Bulgai by name, gave them a present of meat on the sixth day; and they blessed it with great pomp, as the Pascal lamb is blessed. He himself, however, did not eat (meat on Friday), and this is also the principle of master William the Parisian, who is a great friend of his. [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 octave of the Epiphany [January 13th], all the Nestorian priests assembled before dawn in the chapel, beat the board, and solemnly sang Matins; then they put on their church vestments, and prepared a censer and incense. And as they thus waited in the court of the church, the first wife, called Cotota Cater (cater is the same as "lady," Cotota is a proper name), entered the chapel with several other ladies, and her first-born son called Baltu, and some others of her children; and they prostrated themselves, the forehead to the ground, according to the fashion of the Nestorians, and after that they touched all the images with their right hand, always kissing their hand after touching them; and after this they gave their right hands to all the bystanders in the church. /~\

“This is the custom of the Nestorians on entering church. Then the priests sang a great deal, putting incense in the lady's hand; and she put it on the fire, and then they incensed her. After that when it was already bright day, she began taking off her headdress, called bocca, and I saw her bare head, and then she told us to leave, and as I was leaving, I saw a silver bowl brought in. Whether they baptized here or not, I know not: but I do know that they do not celebrate mass in a tent, but in a permanent church. And at Easter (12th April), I saw them baptize and consecrate fonts with great ceremony, which they did not do then.” /~\

Christian Fasting with the Mongols

Nestorian 8th century Palm Sunday observation

William of Rubruck wrote: “When we came (to live) with the monk, he advised us, in all kindliness, to abstain from meat; that our servant would get meat with his servants; and that he would provide us with flour and oil or butter. This we did, though it greatly incommoded my companion on account of his weakness. Consequently, our diet consisted of millet with butter, or dough cooked in water with butter, or sour milk and unleavened bread, cooked in a fire of cattle- or horse-dung. [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 came Quinquagesima (February 22nd), which is when all Eastern Christians abstain from meat, the great lady Cotata and her company fasted that week and she came every day to our oratory, and gave food to the priests and to the other Christians, of whom a great multitude gathered there that first week to hear the services; and she gave me and my companion each of us a tunic and trousers of grey samite, lined with silk wadding, for my companion had complained greatly of the weight of his fur gown. These I received for the sake of my companion, though I excused myself for not wearing such clothes. I gave what belonged to me to my interpreter. /~\

“After the first week of the fast, the lady ceased to come to the oratory and to give the food and mead we were accustomed to get. The monk did not allow (any food) to be brought, saying that mutton tallow was used in preparing it. He only very rarely gave us oil. Consequently, we had nothing save bread cooked on the ashes, and dough boiled in water, so that we could have soup to drink, as the only water we had was melted snow or ice, and was very bad. Then my companion began to complain greatly; so I told our necessity to that David, who was the teacher of the eldest son of the Chan, and he reported my words to the Chan, who had us given wine and flour and oil. The Nestorians will not eat fish during Lent, neither will the Hermenians (Armenians); so they gave us a skin of wine. The monk said he only ate on Sunday, when this lady sent him a meal of cooked dough with vinegar to drink. But he had beside him, under the altar, a box with almonds and raisins and prunes, and many other fruits, which he ate all through the day whenever he was alone. /~\

“We ate once a day, and then in great misery; for it was known that Mongke Khan had given us wine, so they pushed their way in on us like dogs in the most impudent manner, both the Nestorian priests, who were getting drunk all day at court, and the Mongol, and the servants of the monk. Even the monk himself, when someone came to him to whom he wished to give drink, would send to us for wine. So it was that that wine brought us more vexation than comfort, for we could not refuse to give of it without causing scandal; if we should give it, we would want it; nor would we dare ask for more from the court, when that was done.” /~\

Christians, Muslims and Buddhists in Mongke Khan's Court

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

Ilkhanid Koran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buddha from western China

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 August 2021

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