Genghis Khan

The Mongol empire linked Europe and Asia and ushered in an era of frequent and extended contacts between East and West. The Mongols neither discouraged nor impeded relations with foreigners. Though they never abandoned their claims of universal rule, they were hospitable to foreign travelers, even those whose monarchs had not submitted to them. The relative stability achieved under the Mongols expedited and encouraged travel in the sizable section of Asia that was under their rule, permitting European merchants, craftsmen, and envoys to journey as far as China for the first time. Asian goods reached Europe along the caravan trails of the Silk Roads, and the ensuing European demand for these products eventually inspired the search for a sea route to Asia. Thus, it could be said that the Mongol invasions indirectly led to Europe's "Age of Exploration" in the 15th century. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University ]

Richard Kurin, a cultural anthropologist at the Smithsonian institution, wrote: “With the Mongol descendants of Genghis (Chinghis) Khan in control of Asia from the Black Sea to the Pacific, a third Silk Road flourished in the 13th and 14th centuries. The emissary of King Louis IX of France, Willem van Rubruck, visited the court of the Mongol ruler in 1253, and, seeing the wealth of silks, realized that Cathay, or China, was the legendary Seres of Roman times. The Venetian Marco Polo followed.” [Source: “The Silk Road: Connecting People and Cultures” by Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian institution ]

“The Mongols, with their vast Asian empire skirting the edge of Russia and Eastern Europe, were, through a mixture of hegemony and brutality, able to assure a measure of peace within their domains, a Pax Mongolica. They were also pragmatic and quite tolerant in several spheres, among them arts and religion. Their Mongolian capital of Karakorum hosted, for example, 12 Buddhist temples, two mosques, and a church. The Mongols developed continental postal and travelers' rest house systems. Kublai Khan welcomed European, Chinese, Persian, and Arab astronomers and established an Institute of Muslim Astronomy. He also founded an Imperial Academy of Medicine, including Indian, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and Chinese physicians. European, Persian, Chinese, Arab, Armenian, and Russian traders and missionaries traveled the Silk Road, and in 1335 a Mongol mission to the pope at Avignon suggested increased trade and cultural contacts.

During this "third" Silk Road under the Mongols, silk, while still a highly valued Chinese export, was no longer the primary commodity. Europeans wanted pearls and gems, spices, precious metals, medicines, ceramics, carpets, other fabrics, and lacquerware. All kingdoms needed horses, weapons, and armaments. Besides, silk production already was known in the Arab world and had spread to southern Europe. Silk weavers and traders — Arabs, "Saracens," Jews, and Greeks from Sicily and the eastern Mediterranean — relocated to new commercial centers in northern Italy. Italian silk-making eventually became a stellar Renaissance art in Venice, Florence, Genoa, and Lucca in the 14th and 15th centuries. New stylistic techniques were added, like alto-e-basso for velvets and brocades, while old motifs, like the stylized Central Asian pomegranate, took on new life.

Good Websites and Sources on the Silk Road: Silk Road Seattle ; Silk Road Foundation ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Silk Road Atlas ; Old World Trade Routes; Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project ; International Dunhuang Project ; Marco Polo: Wikipedia Marco Polo Wikipedia ; Works by Marco Polo ; Marco Polo and his Travels ; Zheng He and Early Chinese Exploration : Wikipedia Chinese Exploration Wikipedia ; Le Monde Diplomatique ; Zheng He Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Gavin Menzies’s 1421 ; First Europeans in Asia Wikipedia ; Matteo Ricci 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). You can help this site a little by ordering your Amazon books through this link:; 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.

Websites and Resources: Mongols and Horsemen of the Steppe:
Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; The Mongol Empire ; The Mongols in World History ; William of Rubruck's Account of the Mongols ; Mongol invasion of Rus (pictures) ; Encyclopædia Britannica article ; Mongol Archives ; “The Horse, the Wheel and Language, How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes shaped the Modern World", David W Anthony, 2007 ; The Scythians - Silk Road Foundation ; Scythians ; Encyclopaedia Britannica article on the Huns ; Wikipedia article on Eurasian nomads Wikipedia

Mongol Trade and the Silk Road

Yuan (Chinese-Mongol) lacquer

For a relatively brief period between 1250 and 1350 the Silk Road trade routes were opened up to European when the land occupied by the Turks was taken over by the Mongols who allowed free trade. Instead of waiting for goods at the Mediterranean ports, European travelers were able to travel on their own to India and China for the first time. This is when Marco Polo made his historic journey from Venice to China and back.

Mongol military power reached its apex in the thirteenth century. Under the leadership of Genghis Khan (Genghis Khan) and two generations of his descendants, the Mongol tribes and various Inner Asian steppe people were united in an efficient and formidable military state that briefly held sway from the Pacific Ocean to Central Europe. The Mongol Empire was the largest empire the world has ever known: at its largest extent it was twice the size of the Roman Empire and the territory conquered by Alexander the great. The only other nations or empire that rivaled it in size were the Soviet Union, the Spanish empire in the New World, and the British empire of the 19th century.

The Mongols were strong supporters of free trade. They lowered tolls and taxes; protected caravans by guarding roads against bandits; promoted trade with Europe; improved the road system between China and Russia and throughout Central Asia; and expanded the canal system in China, which facilitated the transportation of grain from southern to northern China

Silk Road trade flourished and trade between east and west increased under Mongol rule. The Mongol conquest of Russia opened the road to China for Europeans. The roads through Egypt were controlled by Muslim and prohibited to Christians. Goods passing from India to Egypt along the Silk Road were so heavily taxed, they tripled in price. After the Mongols were gone. the Silk Road was shut down.

Merchants from Venice, Genoa and Pisa got rich by selling oriental spices and products picked up in the Levant ports in the eastern Mediterranean. But it was Arabs, Turks and other Muslims who profited most from the Silk Road trade. They controlled the land and the trade routes between Europe and China so completely that historian Daniel Boorstin described it as the "Iron Curtain of the Middle Ages."

Mongols and the Maritime Silk Road

Yuan ships

It wasn’t just overland trade that prospered. According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “China under the Mongols witnessed an expansion in land and sea commerce. Numerous caravans traveled along extensive land routes and ships traveled the seas. Many of the commercial products that they carried have long since disappeared, but ceramic shards have been recovered to serve as testimony to art and trade in the Mongol era. Shards from the Pescadores generously lent by the P'eng-hu Bureau of Culture testify to the commercial routes that once passed by Taiwan in the Yuan dynasty under the Mongols. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/]

“After the Mongols established a system of land and sea routes for their empire, Chinese objects of the Yuan dynasty were able to be more easily exported to meet foreign demand. Such precious and exotic objects as silks, ceramics, and lacquer wares were the most commonly sought Chinese objects in commerce. Wang Ta-yuan of the late Yuan dynasty, for example, accompanied two merchant trips and visited a total of 98 locations. At the time, Chinese ships were even able to travel directly to the east coast of Africa. Though silks that these ships transported have long since perished, ceramic shards recovered from sea routes serve as testimony to the flourishing trade under the Mongols in Yuan China. \=/

Merchants from Venice, Genoa and Pisa got rich by selling oriental spices and products picked up in the Levant ports in the eastern Mediterranean. But it was Arabs, Turks and other Muslims who profited most from the Silk Road trade. They controlled the land and the trade routes between Europe and China so completely that historian Daniel Boorstin described it as the "Iron Curtain of the Middle Ages."

Mongol Paper Money and Silk Road Trade

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Early paper money
The Mongols were the first people to use paper money as their sole form of currency. A piece of paper money used under Kublai Khan was about the size of a sheet of typing paper and had a furry felt-like feel. It was made from the inner bar of mulberry trees and according to Marco Polo was "sealed with the seal of the Great Lord."

Paper money was first produced in China in 11th century when there was a metal shortage and the government didn't have enough gold, silver and copper to meet the demand for money. It wasn't long before the Chinese government was producing paper currency at a rate of four million sheets a year. By the 12th century paper money was used to finance a defense against the Mongols. Notes produced in 1209 that promised a pay holders with gold and silver were printed on perfumed paper made of silk. [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]

A piece of paper money used under Kublai Khan in the 13th century was about the size of a sheet of typing paper and had a furry felt-like feel. It were made from the inner bark of mulberry trees and according to Marco Polo was "sealed with the seal of the Great Lord." The world's largest paper money was a 1 guan note issued by the Ming dynasty of 1368-99 that was 9 by 13-inches

"Of this money," Marco Polo wrote, “the Khan has such a quantity made that with it he could buy all the treasure in the world. With this currency he orders all payments to be made throughout every province and kingdom and region of his empire. And no one dares refuse it on pain of losing his life...I assure you, that all the peoples and populations who are subject to his rule are perfectly willing to accept these papers in payment, since wherever they go they pay in the same currency, whether for goods or for pearls or precious stones or gold or silver. With these pieces of paper they can buy anything and pay for anything...When these papers have been so long in circulation that they are growing torn and frayed, they are brought to the mint and changed from new and fresh ones at a discount of 3 per cent."

Mongols and Trade

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “ Along with Western missionaries, traders from the West (particularly from Genoa) began to arrive in the Mongol domains, mostly in Persia and eventually farther east. The Mongols were quite receptive to this. This attitude, which facilitated contacts with West Asia and Europe, contributed to the beginning of what we could call a "global history," or at least a Eurasian history. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University ]

“The Mongols always favored trade. Their nomadic way of life caused them to recognize the importance of trade from the very earliest times and, unlike the Chinese, they had a positive attitude toward merchants and commerce. The Confucian Chinese professed to be disdainful of trade and merchants, whom they perceived to be a parasitical group that did not produce anything and were involved only in the exchange of goods. Mongols altered that attitude and in fact sought to facilitate international trade.

“In China, for example, the Mongols increased the amount of paper money in circulation and guaranteed the value of that paper money in precious metals. They also built many roads — though this was only partly to promote trade — these roads were mainly used to facilitate the Mongols' rule over China.”

Song-era market

Merchants in the Mongol-Era China

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Traditionally, merchants were accorded a relatively low social status in China. The Mongols, however, had a more favorable attitude toward merchants and commerce — their nomadic way of life, which is much reliant on trade with sedentary peoples, had caused them to recognize the importance of trade from the very earliest times. Thus, the Mongols worked to improve the social status of merchants and traders throughout their domains. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University ]

“In particular, the Mongols initiated the Ortogh, or merchant associations, that helped merchants who were in the business of long-distance trade. They also increased the availability of paper money and reduced some of the tariffs imposed on merchants. The result was an extraordinary increase of trade across and throughout Eurasia.”

“Under the Mongols, merchants also had the benefit of not being faced with confiscatory taxation, as was the case during the rule of the traditional Chinese dynasties. Support for trade characterized not only Mongol policy in China but their policy throughout their domains. In Persia the Mongols granted higher tax breaks and benefits to traders in an effort to promote commerce. The Mongols even tried to introduce paper money into Persia — though this would become merely a failed experiment. Nonetheless, the attempt indicates the desire of the Mongols to provide additional assistance to traders.

Mongol Support for Merchants

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Under Mongol rule, merchants had a higher status than they had in traditional China. During their travels they could rest and secure supplies through a postal-station system that the Mongols had established. The postal-station system was, of course, originally devised to facilitate the transmission of official mail from one part of the empire to another. Set up approximately every 20 miles along the major trade routes and stocked with supplies of food, horses, and lodging, the stations were an incredible boon to all travelers, whether they were traveling for business or otherwise. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University ]

“To further support trade and commerce, the Mongols established Ortogh specifically to promote caravan trade over long distances. The Mongols recognized that the caravan trade across Eurasia was extraordinarily expensive for any single merchant. Often there would be as many as 70 to 100 men on each mission, and all had to be fed and paid and provided with supplies (including camels, horses, and so on) over a lengthy period of time. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University ]

“Quite a number of the caravans simply did not make it, either because of natural disasters of one sort or another or plundering by bandit groups. Travelers, for example, mentioned coming across numerous skeletons, animal and human, on these routes. Because of the expense involved in such a disaster, just one such failed caravan could devastate an individual merchant's holdings.

Through the Ortogh system merchants could pool their resources to support a single caravan. If a caravan did not make it, no single merchant would be put out of business. The losses would be shared, as would any risks, and of course, profits when the caravans succeeded. The Mongols also provided loans to merchants at relatively low rates of interest, as long as they belonged to an Ortogh.

Silk Trade Under the Mongols

Daniel C. Waugh of the University of Washington wrote: “The Mongol Empire created what historically were the best conditions ever for the overland trade, as accounts such as that of Marco Polo document. Italian merchants were involved in the China trade, and the development of a flourishing silk industry in Italy in part was thanks to the availability of inexpensive Chinese raw silk. Under the Mongols, silk production in the Caspian provinces of northern Iran also expanded. Imports from that region to the Mediterranean world increasingly were preferred to those from China which often were damaged in the long transit by camel caravan. [Source: Daniel C. Waugh, University of Washington, *]

“The Mongol courts developed a particular taste for a gold-embroidered silk known as nasij, the techniques of whose production originated in the Middle East. The fame of this "Tartar" cloth spread both east and west. Chingis Khan's invasion of Central Asia in 1219 seems to have been occasioned by a dispute involving trade. One important product the Muslim merchants brought to the Mongol court was the cloth produced presumably in Central Asia and Persia. *\

“Among the significant activities of the Mongol rulers was to conscript craftsmen from areas they conquered and otherwise to encourage or require technical experts to serve them in regions far from their homes. As sources such as Marco Polo relate, colonies of weavers from the Middle East were established in northern China. There presumably their techniques of embroidery combined with Chinese traditions of silk manufacture to produce the most sought-after textiles. A similar pattern of conscription has been documented for the reign of Tamerlane,the Mongols' successor in Central Asia in the late fourteenth century, who populated his capital Samarkand with merchants and craftsmen, including weavers from Damascus.” *\

Silk Road Guidebook from the Mongol Era

At one point there were so many Europeans going to Asia that there were guidebooks for the Silk Road written in European languages. In 1340, Florentine banker Francesco Balducci Pegolotti advised travelers in Central Asia: "In the first place you must let your beard grow and not shave. And at Tana you should furnish yourself with a dragoman. And you must not try to save money by taking a bad one instead of a good one. For the additional wages of a good one will not cost you as much as you will save by having him."

Pegolotti also wrote: "And if the merchant likes to take a woman with him from Tana, he can do so; if he does not like to take one there is no obligation, only if he does take one he will be kept much more comfortable than if he does not take one."

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In regard to changing money the Florentine banker wrote: "Whatever silver the merchants may carry with them as far as Cathay the lord of Cathay will take from them and put into his treasury. And to merchants who thus bring silver they give their paper money in exchange...With this money you can readily buy silk and other merchandised that you desire to buy. And all the people in the country are bound to receive it."

By 1342 there was an archbishop in Beijing and the Christian clergy "had their subsistence from Emperor's table in their most honorable manner."

Foreign Exchange and the Mongols

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “The Mongol empire at its height extended directly or indirectly over much of Asia and into the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and even Europe. This was a period of great cultural exchange in China that led to visits by envoys from Persia, France, Syria, and Korea as well as by missionaries, merchants, and scholars. Combined with the forced migration of artisans from various lands, these peoples brought with them the techniques, objects, and crafts of their homelands to China.[Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “ The Mongols' receptiveness to foreigners was a critical factor in promoting cultural exchange and a truly "global" history. Their attitude of relative openness toward foreigners and foreign influence led to an extraordinary interchange of products, peoples, technology, and science throughout the Mongol domains. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University ]

“So it is no accident that Marco Polo reached China during this era [see Marco Polo]. And also no accident that Ibn Battuta, the great Islamic traveler from Morocco, also reached China during this time, and that Rabban Sauma, a Nestorian Christian from the area around Beijing, reached Europe and had audiences with the kings of England and France and the Pope.

“From the Mongol period on, then, we can speak about a Eurasian — if not a global — history, in which developments in one part of Europe would have an impact not only in Europe but also in Asia, with the same being true for Asia. And if we remember that Christopher Columbus was actually looking for a new route to Asia when he landed in America — and that one of the few books he had with him was Marco Polo's account of his travels in Asia — we could even say that global history begins with the Mongols and the bridge they built between the East and the West.

Pax Mongolia and Cultural Exchanges

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The Mongols promoted inter-state relations through the so-called "Pax Mongolica" — the Mongolian Peace. Having conquered an enormous territory in Asia, the Mongols were able to guarantee the security and safety of travelers. There were some conflicts among the various Mongol Khanates, but recognition that trade and travel were important for all the Mongol domains meant that traders were generally not in danger during the 100 years or so of Mongol domination and rule over Eurasia. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University ]

“The Mongols' favorable attitude toward artisans benefited the Mongols themselves, and also ultimately facilitated international contact and cultural exchange. The Mongols recruited artisans from all over the known world to travel to their domains in China and Persia. Three separate weaving communities, for example, were moved from Central Asia and Persia to China because they produced a specific kind of textile — a cloth of gold — which the Mongols cherished.

“Apparently some Chinese painters — or perhaps their pattern books — were sent to Persia, where they had a tremendous impact on the development of Persian miniature paintings. The dragon and phoenix motifs from China first appear in Persian art during the Mongol era. The representation of clouds, trees, and landscapes in Persian painting also owes a great deal to Chinese art — all due to the cultural transmission supported by the Mongols.”

Rome Missionaires to the Mongols

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The Mongol Era brought about the first instances of direct contact between Europe and Mongol-ruled China. The Mongol attacks on Hungary and Poland in 1241 had alerted the Europeans to the power of the Mongols and so frightened them that, in 1245, the Pope in Rome called an Ecumenical Council to deliberate on a response to the Mongols. Two Franciscan missionaries were eventually dispatched to the East. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University ]

“The first, who left Europe in 1245, was John of Plano Carpini, and the second was William of Rubruck, who traveled through the Mongol domains during 1253-1255. Both sought to achieve a kind of rapprochement with the Mongols, attempting to deter them from further attacks and invasions on Europe, as well as seeking to convert them to Christianity.

“The Europeans had received information that the Mongols had a leader, named "Prester John," who had converted to Christianity. They also assumed that many of the Mongols already were Christians. In fact, some Mongol women, including Genghis Khan's own mother, had converted to a heretical form of Christianity known as Nestorian Christianity. The Nestorian sect had been banned from Europe from around the 5th Century C.E., but had first spread to West Asia and then reached all the way to East Asia. But the idea that the Mongols could be converted to Christianity was an illusion at best.

“Nonetheless, John of Plano Carpini and William of Rubruck were greeted cordially at the Mongol courts. Though they succeeded in neither their religious nor diplomatic missions, they were able to bring back the first accurate accounts of the Mongols.”

Friar John of Pian de Carpine

The first known European to travel from Europe to China on the Silk Road was John of Pian de Carpine (1180?-1252), a Franciscan friar and former companion of Saint Francis of Assisi, who was dispatched by Pope Innocent IV in 1245 to go to Mongolia with the mission of setting up diplomatic ties with the Mongols and converting the Great Guyuk Khan to Christianity. Carpine traveled to Asia 28 years before Marco Polo. Their mission at the time was comparable to sending a man to the moon and bringing him back alive. [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]

Friar John attended Guyuk's enthronement and was granted an audience with the Great Khan. He delivered a message from the Pope in which the pope expressed his wish for Christians and Mongols to be friends but insisted that the Mongols must embrace Christianity and repent for murdering Christians in Hungary and Poland. The Great Khan was not moved. His reply delivered in a note carried back to Europe by Friar John read: "Come, Great Pope...and pay homage to us."

Friar John and his Polish companion, Friar Benedict, went first to the ruins of Kiev and then the Mongol summer camp at Sira Ordu, covering the final 3,000 miles to Karakorum in 106 days. The most difficult part of their journey was in the Altai mountains where, Friar John wrote: "I was ill to the point of death; but I had myself carried along in a cart in the intense cold through the deep snow, so as not to interfere with the affairs of Christendom."

They also had a hard time in the Gobi Desert. The Mongols, he wrote, "told us that if we took into Mongolia the horses which we had, they would all die, for the snows were deep, and they did not know how to dig out the grass from under the snow like Mongol horses, nor could anything else be found (on the way) for them to eat, for the Tartars had neither straw nor hay nor fodder. So, on their advise, we decided to leave our horses there."

When the two Friars arrived in Karakoram, two thousand Mongol chiefs were there Guyuk Khan's enthronement. Friar John wrote: "They asked us if we wished to make any presents; but we had already used up nearly everything we had, so we had nothing to give them at all."Given up for dead, Friar John made it back to Europe two and half years after beginning his journey. Other friars followed in their footsteps in the following years but they too had little success in converting the Great Khan to Christianity.

See Separate Article on William of Rubruck.

Christianity and the Mongols


Many Mongol warriors and tribes in the era of Genghis Khan and Kublia Khan were Christians. Several tribes had been Christian for centuries. Stephen Andrew Missick wrote in the Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies: “ The Mongol Christians belonged to the Assyrian Church of the East, which is also known as the Nestorian Church and the East Syrian Church. The Church of the East was concentrated in the Middle East, especially in the region of modern Iraq and Iran. Early in the Christian era, Assyrian missionaries spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ throughout India, China, and Mongolia. [Source: Stephen Andrew Missick, Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, July 2012 ]

An important milestone the conversion of the Keriat tribe. The Keriats protected Temujin before he became Genghis Khan. Missick wrote: “Around the year 1,000 AD the Mongol tribe of the Keriats became Christian. The tribe numbered over 200,000 men. The story of their conversion was recorded by the Jacobite Bar-Hebraeus and by the ecclesiastical chronicler of the Assyrian Church and can be found in The Eclipse of Christianity in Asia by Laurence E. Brown. The chieftain of the Keriats became lost in the wilderness during a hunt and despaired for his life. Suddenly an apparition appeared before him. The supernatural being identified himself as Saint Sergius and promised to show him the way home if he would place his faith in Jesus. Miraculously the chieftain found himself back in his camp. Immediately he sent for some Assyrian merchants he knew of and when they arrived he submitted to Christ and requested religious instruction. This incident shows that Assyrian merchants and traders participated in spreading Christianity as they bought and sold along the Silk Road.

“Marco Polo mentions visiting hundreds of churches during his travels and seeing thousands of Christians during his travels throughout the Mongol Empire from 1271 to 1295. The Assyrian Church reached its height during the Mongol Empire and was on the verge of becoming the dominant religion of the Empire but unfortunately declined in power due to opposition from Muslims and Roman Catholics and internal weaknesses, notably nominalism. The decline began as certain warlords, including the infamous Timerlane, began converting to Islam. Timerlane declared a Jihad, Islamic holy War, against the Christians of the Far East and virtually destroyed Christianity in Central Asia."

Prester John and the Mongols

Many of the early European explorers to Asia and Africa were hoping to meet up with Prester John, a mythological priest-king who resided somewhere in the East and was supposed to help the Crusaders reclaim Jerusalem. Portuguese explorers went looking for him up the Senegal and Congo Rivers in Africa. Maps from the late 16th century had the kingdom of Prester John located in present-day Ethiopia. Some of the first Europeans to venture on the Silk Road traveled east towards Central Asia and China looking for him.

The legend of Prester John is believed to have originated with Saint Thomas, an Apostle of Christ said to have traveled to India in the A.D. first century. More miracles have been attributed to Saint Thomas than any other saint. Additionally, stories of Ung Khan — a Mongol ruler who preceded Genghis Khan and who may have been a Nestorian Christian — may have made their way to Europe, placing Prester John in Central Asia.

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

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

Nestorian Christians in the Mongol Court

Nestorian Temple

Nestorian Christians were important among the Mongols in numbers and influence. According to Gibbon, “the Nestorian church was diffused from China to Jerusalem and Cyprus; and their numbers, with those of the Jacobites, were computed to surpass the Greek and Latin communions." [Source: Stephen Andrew Missick, Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, July 2012 ]

Stephen Andrew Missick wrote in the Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies: “ Many Nestorian priests served as ambassadors for the Mongolians. Rabban Simeon, Rabban Ata met with Andrew of Longjumeau, a European envoy. This monk sent Pope Innocent IV a letter requesting him to be tolerant towards Nestorian Christians and urging him to make peace with Fredrick II. This letter is preserved in the Vatican archives. The Nestorian general Elijigidei sent two Nestorian priests to King Louis IX on 14 December 1248. The priests were Dawoud and Markos. Elijiadei wished Louis success in his war against the Muslims and requested he "avoid discriminating between Latin and non-Latin Christians, since under Mongol rule all sects were held to be equal."

Nestorian Christianity today is largely extinct today but at one time it was quite a powerful Christian sect and was at the center of important doctrinal controversies. The Nestorians emphasized the duality of being between man and divine. They were regarded as heretics by other sects for their belief that there were two separate persons in the incarnate Christ and their denial that Christ was in one person both God and man. They went on to argue that Mary was either the mother of God (a blasphemous concept to many Christians) or the mother of the man Jesus; but she couldn't have it both ways.

Nestorian Christianity is named after Nestorius, the bishop of Constantinople from A.D. 428 to 431. Of Persian origin, he became a monk and lived in a monastery in Euprepius near Antioch. The person who really defined Nestorian Christianity was Theodore (died 431), bishop of Mopsuestia in Colicia and a pupil of Diodorus, bishop of Tarsus. Theodore emphasized the humanity of Jesus and argued that he acquired his state of sinlessness by uniting with the Person of the Divine Word. which he received as an award for attaining a state of sinlessness. The Word, he insisted, dwelt in the man Christ. Nestorians thus rejected the union of God and man and Mary was considered the mother of a man not a god.

Islam and the Mongols

Mosque in Balkh, Afghanistan

The earliest evidence of Islam in Mongolia is dated to 1254, when the Franciscan William of Rubruck visited the court of the great khan Mongka at Karakorum. He said he saw two mosques along with a Nestorian Christian church and seven temples of the "idolators" (possibly Buddhist, Hindu and Taoist temples). Therefore, historians date the arrival of Islam to Mongolia to between 1222 and 1254. Islam also gained the notice of the Mongols after Genghis Khan invaded Afghanistan. In 1222, on his way back to Mongolia, he visited Bukhara in Transoxiana. It was believed he inquired about Islam, and subsequently approved of Muslim tenets except the Hajj, considering it unnecessary. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Genghis Khan's grandson Berke converted to Islam due to the efforts of Saif ud-Din Dervish, a dervish from Khorazm, thus Berke became one of the first Mongol rulers to convert. Other Mongol leaders owed their conversion to Islam due to the influence of a Muslim wife.[6] Later, it was the Mamluk ruler Baibars who played an important role in bringing many Golden Horde Mongols to Islam. Baibars developed strong ties with the Mongols of the Golden Horde and took steps for the Golden Horde Mongols to travel to Egypt. The arrival of the Golden Horde Mongols to Egypt resulted in a significant number of Mongols accepting Islam. By the 1330s, three of the four major khanates of the Mongol Empire had become Muslim. These were the Golden Horde, Hulagu's Ulus and Chagatai's Ulus. The Yuan Empire also embraced Muslim peoples such as the Persians. +

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The Mongol dynasty's relation to Islam, in particular, had tremendous impact on China's relations with the outside world. The Mongols recruited a number of Muslims to help in the rule of China, especially in the field of financial administration — Muslims often served as tax collectors and administrators. They were accorded extraordinary opportunities during the Mongol period because Kublai Khan and the other Mongol rulers of China could not rely exclusively upon the subjugated Chinese to help in ruling China. They needed outsiders, and the Muslims were among those who assisted Kublai. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University ]

“The Mongols in China also recognized that Islamic scholars had made great leaps in the studies of astronomy and medicine, and they invited many specialists in those fields to come to China. Among those to make the trip was the Persian astronomer Jamal Al-din, who helped the Chinese set up an observatory. Bringing with him many diagrams and advanced astronomical instruments from Persia, Jamal Al-din assisted the Chinese in developing a new, more accurate calendar. The Mongols were also impressed by the Persians' advances in medicine. They recruited a number of Persian doctors to China to establish an Office for Muslim Medicine, and the result was even greater contact between West Asia and East Asia.

Muslim Mongols used tent mosques. Tents were an integral part of Mongol life and customs even after the Mongols adopted a more sedentary lifestyle and converted to Islam in 1295. An image from Rashid al-Din’s “Jami al-tavarikh shows a large tent with the panels knotted back to reveal the interior. [Source: “The Legacy of Genghis Khan: Courtly Art and Culture in Western Asia, 1256-1353", Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2003 exhibition ^\^

Mongol Restrictions on Muslims

Genghis Khan and the following Yuan emperors forbade Islamic practices like Halal butchering, forcing Mongol methods of butchering animals on Muslims, and other restrictive degrees continued. Muslims had to slaughter sheep in secret. Genghis Khan directly called Muslims and Jews "slaves" and demanded that they follow the Mongol method of eating rather than the halal method. Circumcision was also forbidden. Jews were also affected, and forbidden by the Mongols to eat Kosher. [Source: Wikipedia]

One chronicle on Mongols reported: “Among all the [subject] alien peoples only the Hui-hui say “we do not eat Mongol food”. [Cinggis Qa’an replied:] “By the aid of heaven we have pacified you; you are our slaves. Yet you do not eat our food or drink. How can this be right?” He thereupon made them eat. “If you slaughter sheep, you will be considered guilty of a crime.” He issued a regulation to that effect... [In 1279/1280 under Qubilai] all the Muslims say: “if someone else slaughters [the animal] we do not eat”. Because the poor people are upset by this, from now on, Musuluman [Muslim] Huihui and Zhuhu [Jewish] Huihui, no matter who kills [the animal] will eat [it] and must cease slaughtering sheep themselves, and cease the rite of circumcision. [Source: Donald Daniel Leslie "The Integration of Religious Minorities in China: The Case of Chinese Muslims", 1998, The Fifty-ninth George Ernest Morrison Lecture in Ethnology]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons; Map: Hofstra University

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

Last updated November 2016

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