Mongke Khan

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]

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; Mongols and Horsemen of the Steppe: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; The Mongol Empire web.archive.org/web ; The Mongols in World History afe.easia.columbia.edu/mongols ; William of Rubruck's Account of the Mongols washington.edu/silkroad/texts

William of Rubruck on Mongke Khan’s “Christian” Feast

William of Rubruck wrote: “Now on that same day Mongke Khan had had a feast, and it is his custom on such days as his diviners tell him are holy, or the Nestorian priests say for some reason are sacred, for him to hold court, and on such days first come the Christian priests with their apparel, and they pray for him and bless his cup. When they have left, the Saracen priests come and do likewise. After them come the priests of idols, doing the same thing. The monk told me that (Mongke Khan) believed only in the Christians but he wanted all to pray for him. But he lied for he believes in none, as you shall learn hereafter, and they all follow his court as flies do honey, and he gives to all, and they all believe that they are his favorites, and they all prophesy blessings 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 /~]

Model of Karakorum palace

“Mongke Khan came, and entered the church or oratory, and they brought him a gilded couch, on which he sat beside his lady, facing the altar. Then they summoned us, who did not know of the arrival of Mongke, and the door-keeper searched us, lest we had knives on us. I entered the oratory, with my Bible and breviary in my bosom. First I bowed to the altar, and then to the Chan, and passing to the other side, we stood between the monk and the altar. Then they made us intone a psalm according to our fashion and chant. "We chanted this prose: "Veni, Sancte, Spiritus."/~\

“The Khan had brought him our books, the Bible and the breviary, and made careful inquiry about the pictures, and what they meant. The Nestorians answered as they saw fit, for our interpreter had not come with us. The first time I had been before him, I had also the Bible in my bosom, and he had it handed him, and looked at it a great deal. Then he went away, but the lady remained there and distributed presents to all the Christians who were there. To the monk she gave one iascot, and to the archdeacon of the priests another. Before us she had placed a nasic, which is a piece of stuff as broad as a coverlid and about as long, and a buccaran [=an expensive cotton cloth]; but as I would not accept them, they were sent to the interpreter, who took them for himself. The nasic he carried all the way to Cyprus, where he sold it for eighty bezants of Cyprus, though it had been greatly damaged on the journey. /~\

“Then drink was brought, rice mead and red wine, like wine of La Rochelle, and cosmos (koumiss, mare’s milk). Then the lady, holding a full cup in her hand, knelt and asked a blessing, and the priests all sang with a loud voice, and she drank it all. Likewise, I and my companion had to sing when she wanted to drink another time. When they were all nearly drunk, food was brought consisting of mutton, which was at once devoured, and after that large fish which are called carp, but without salt or bread; of these I partook sparingly. And so they passed the day till evening. And when the lady was already tipsy, she got on her cart; the priests singing and howling, and she went her way. The next Sunday, when we read: "Nuptie facte sunt in Chana," [=There was a marriage in Cana (cf. John 2)] came the daughter of the Chan, whose mother was a Christian, and she did likewise, though with not so much ceremony; for she made no presents, but only gave the priests to drink till they were drunk, and also parched millet to eat.” /~\

William of Rubruck Among the Homes of Mongke Khan’s Family

William of Rubruck wrote: “After this we went out, and my companion who had turned his face toward the Khan bowing to him, and following us in this fashion hit the threshold of the dwelling; and as we were proceeding in all haste to the house of Baltu, his son, those who were guarding the threshold laid hands on my companion, stopped him, and would not allow him to follow us; and calling someone, they told him to take him to Bulgai, who is the grand secretary of the court, and who condemns persons to death. But I was in ignorance of all this. When I looked back and did not see him coming, I thought they had detained him to give him lighter clothing, for he was feeble, and so loaded down with furs that he could scarcely walk. Then they called our interpreter, and made him sit with 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 for out part went to the house of the eldest son of the Chan, who has already two wives, and who lodges on the right side of his father's ordu ; and as soon as he saw us coming, he got up from the couch on which he was seated, and prostrated himself to the ground, striking the ground with his forehead, and worshipping the cross. Then getting up, he had it placed on high in the most honored place beside him. He had as a master a certain Nestorian priest, David by name, a great drunkard, who was teaching him. Then he made us sit down, and had given the priests to drink. And he also drank, after having been blessed by them. /~\

yurts, 1874

“Then we went to the ordu of the second lady...We were in the dwelling of this damsel, and she gave the priests much to drink...We went to a third house in which the Christian lady used to live. On her death she was succeeded by a young girl who, together with the daughter of the lord (Mangu?), received us joyfully, and all they in this house worshipped the cross most devoutly; and she had it placed in a high place on a silk cloth, and had food brought, to wit, mutton, and it was placed before the master (mistress?), who caused her to distribute it to the priest. I and the monk, however, took neither food nor drink. When the meat had been devoured and a great deal of liquor drunk, we had to go to the apartment of that damsel Cherina, which was behind the big ordu which had been her mother's; and when the cross was brought in she prostrated herself to the ground, and worshipped it right devoutly, for she had been well instructed in that, and she placed it in a high place on a piece of silk ; and all these pieces of stuff on which the cross was put belonged to the monk. /~\

“Thence we went to a fourth house, which was the last as to its position and its importance. For he (i.e., Mongke) did not frequent that lady, and her dwelling was old, and she herself little pleasing; but after Easter the Khan made her a new house and new carts. She, like the second, knew little or nothing of Christianity, but followed the diviners and idolaters. However, when we went in she worshipped the Cross, just as the monk and priests had taught her. There again the priests drank; and thence we went back to our oratory, which was near by, the priests singing with great howling in their drunkenness, which in those parts is not reprehensible in man or in woman. /~\

“Then my companion was brought in and the monk chided him most harshly, because he had touched the threshold. The next day came Bulgai, who was the judge, and he closely inquired whether anyone had warned us to be careful about touching the threshold, and I answered "My lord, we had no interpreter with us; how could we have understood?" Then he pardoned him, but never thereafter was he allowed to enter any dwelling of the Chan.” /~\

Mongke Khan Scolds a Christian Monk

Later, William of Rubruck wrote: “The gate-keepers of the court seeing such a crowd pressing toward the church, which was just beyond the bounds of the court, the warders of the court sent one of their number to the monk, to tell him they would not have such a great multitude congregating there just beyond the court limits. Then the monk replied roughly that he wanted to know if they gave this as the order of Mongke, adding also some threats, as if he would make complaint of them to Mongke. So they forestalled him and accused him to Mongke, saying that he talked too much, and that too great a multitude met together at his talks. [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 that, on Quadragesima Sunday (1st March) we were called to court, and when the monk had been so shamefully searched to see whether he had a knife that he of his own accord took off his shoes, we entered into the Chan's presence, and he had a charred sheep's shoulder-blade in his hand, and was inspecting it; and then, as if reading on it, he began to reprimand the monk, asking why, since he was a man who ought to pray to God, he talked so much to men. I was standing behind with uncovered head, and the Khan said to him: "Why do you not uncover your head, when you come into my presence, as this Frank does?" Then the monk in great confusion took off his hat, against the custom of the Greeks and Hermenians (Armenians); and when the Khan had said many harsh things to him, we went out. And then the monk handed me the Cross to carry to the oratory, for such was his confusion that he did not want to carry it. /~\

“After a few days he made his peace with the Chan, promising that he would go to the Pope, and that he would bring all the nations of the west to owe him obedience. When he came back to the oratory after this conversation with the Chan, he began inquiring about the Pope, whether I believed he would see him, if he came to him on the part of Mongke, and if he would furnish him with horses as far as Saint James [=Santiago in N. Spain, a major pilgrimage site]. He inquired also concerning you, if I believed that you would send your son to Mongke. Then I warned him to be careful not to make lying promises to Mongke, for he would be making a new mistake more serious than the first, and that God did not want lies from us, or that we should speak deceitfully. /~\

Mongke Khan's Family in Karakorum

William of Rubruck wrote: “On the eve of the Lord's Ascension (20th May) we went into all the houses of Mongke Khan ; and I noticed that when he was about to drink, they sprinkled cosmos (koumiss, mare’s milk) on his felt idols. Then I said to the monk: "What is there in common between Christ and Belial? What share has our Cross with these idols?" [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 /~]

“Furthermore, Mongke Khan has eight brothers; three uterine, and five by the father. One of the uterine ones he sent to the country of the Hacsasins, whom they call Mulidet, and he ordered him to put them all to death. Another came toward Persia and has already entered, it is believed, the land of Turkie, and will thence send an army against Baldach and against Vastacius. One of the others he sent into Cathay, against those who do not yet obey him. His youngest uterine brother, Arabuccha [=Arigh Böke (d.1264)] by name, he keeps near him, and he holds the ordu of their mother, who was a Christian, and William is his slave. For one of his own brothers by the father had captured him in Hungary, in a city called Belgrade, where was also a Norman Bishop from Belevile near Rouen, with the nephew of a bishop, whom I saw in Caracarum (Karakorum). And he gave master William to Mongke's mother, for she insisted greatly on having him; and when she died, master William became the property of this Arabuccha, together with all the other things belonging to the ordu of his mother, and through him he became known to Mongke Khan, who after the completion of the work of which I have spoken, gave this master one hundred iascot, that is a thousand marks. /~\

Karakorum model

“The day before Ascension (20th May), Mongke Khan said he wanted to visit his mother's ordu, for it was quite near; and the monk said he wanted to go with him and bestow his blessing on the soul of his mother. The Khan gave his approval. In the evening of Ascension day (21st May) the before-mentioned lady (i.e., Cota) grew a great deal worse, so that the chief of the diviners sent to the monk ordering him not to beat his board. The next day, when we left with all the court, the ordu of this lady remained behind. When we came to the place for pitching camp, the monk received orders to go farther away from the court than he was wont, which he did. Then Arabuccha came out to meet his brother the Chan, and the monk and we perceiving that he would have to pass beside us, advanced toward him with the cross. He recognized us, for he had been previously to our oratory, and held out his hand and made the sign of the cross at us like a bishop. Then the monk got on a horse and followed him, carrying some fruit with him. He (Arabuccha) alighted before the ordu of his brother, to wait for him until he should return from the chase. Then the monk got down too, and offered him his fruit, which he accepted. And there were seated beside him two men of high rank at the court of the Chan, and they were Saracens (Muslims). Arabuccha, who knew of the enmity which exists between the Christians and Saracens (Muslims), asked the monk if he knew these Saracens (Muslims). He replied: "I know that they are dogs; why have you got them beside you?" "Why," the latter asked, "do you insult us, when we have said nothing to you?" The monk said to them: " It is true what I say, you and your Machomet are low hounds." Then they began to blaspheme against Christ, but Arabuccha stopped them saying: "You must not speak so, for we know that the Messiah is God." In that very same hour there suddenly arose such a violent wind throughout the whole country, that it seemed as if devils were running through it; and after a little while there came reports that that lady (Cota) was dead. /~\

“The next day (22nd May) the Khan went back to his court (at Karakorum) by another way than that by which he had come; for it is one of their superstitions never to come back by the same road by which they go. And furthermore, wherever he sets his camp, after his departure no one may pass through the place where he has been, neither on horseback nor on foot, so long as there are any traces of the fire which has been made there. That day some Saracens (Muslims) joined the monk on the road, provoking and disputing with him; and they, having the better of him, and he not knowing how else to defend his arguments, wanted to strike them with the whip he had in his hand. He behaved so that his words and actions were reported to the court, and orders were given us to get down (to camp) with the other ambassadors, and not in front of the court as we were in the habit of doing. /~\

Final Audience with Mongke Khan

William of Rubruck wrote: “On Pentecost day (31st May) Mongke Khan called me before him, and also the Tuin with whom I had discussed; but before I went in, the interpreter, master William's son, said to me that we should have to go back to our country, and that I must not raise any objection, for he understood that it was a settled matter. When I came before the Khan I had to bend the knees, and so did the Tuin beside me, with his interpreter. [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 /~]

Audience with Mongke

“He asked: "How far do you wish to be taken?" I said: "Our power extends to the country of the King of Hermenia; if we were (escorted) that far, it would suffice me." He answered: "I will have you taken that far; after that look out for yourself." And he added: "There are two eyes in the head; but though there be two, they have but one sight, and when one turns its glance there goes the other. You came from Batu, and so you must go back by way of him." When he had said this, I asked permission of him to speak. "Speak," he said. Then I said: "My lord, we are not men of war. We wish that those should have dominion over the world who rule it most justly, in accordance with the will of God. Our office is to teach men to live after the will of God. For that we have come here, and willingly would we remain here if it pleased you. Since it pleases you that we go back, that must then be. I will go back, and I will carry your letter as well as I can, as you have ordered. I would ask of your majesty that since I shall carry your letters, I may also come back to you with your consent; principally because you have poor slaves at Bolat, who are of our tongue, and who have no priest to teach them and their sons their religion, and willingly would I remain with them." Then he replied: "If your masters should send you back to me (you will be welcome)." I said: "My lord, I know not the will of my masters; but I have their permission to go wherever I wish, where it is needful to preach the word of God; and it seems to me that it is very needful in these parts; so whether he sends back envoys by us or not, if it pleases you I will come back."/~\

“Then he asked me if I wanted gold or silver or costly clothing. I said: "We take no such things; but we have no traveling money, and without your assistance we cannot get out of your country." He said: "I will have you given all you require while in my possessions; do you want anything more?" I replied; "That suffices us." /~\

“Then he remained silent and sat for a long time as if thinking, and the interpreter told me to speak no more. So I waited anxiously for what he would reply. Finally he said: "You have along way to go, comfort yourself with food, so that you may reach your country in good health." And he had me given to drink, and then I went out from before him, and after that I went not back again. If I had had the power to work by signs and wonders like Moses, perhaps he would have humbled himself.” /~\

Mongke Khan on His Religious Beliefs

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

Mongke and his horde

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

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

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: 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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