Itinerary late 13thC - China Turkey Persia France and Italy


In another thread, a member said that finding references was time-consuming on the web, and so I offer extracts here from an account of the Nestorian Christians' journey from China, through Persia and Turkey to the west (and back). I believe the Nestorians' influence critical to an understanding of how and why the use of cards came, and was so easily accepted, into late medieval Christendom.

My gratitude to Huck. I have been referring the matter of Nestorian influence in public since 1998, but this is the first time anyone has asked me to elaborate.

I take this extract from Wallis Budge's Introduction to his translation of the narrative of the nestorians' journey. Square brackets are mine.

It should also be said that Mar Sawma [Rabban Sawma] was born of a long-established Christian Uigur community of Khan Balik (Pekin/Beijing) and that Nestorians had for centuries maintained trading posts along the silk/glass/linen road, by their account from well before the Arab conquest.

The Nestorians of Edessa and Persia also played an important role in maintaining and transmitting classical learning, and thus occupied key positions in the Baghdad of Harun ar Raschid. It seems likely that they composed the larger part of that embassy which went to the court of Charlemagne in Aachen. The astronomical moralia later appearing in our Atouts is also to be seen there, but not in exactly the same presentation.

Three generations of the same family were physicians to the first five Caliphs of Baghdad, and later we find Ficino accurately citing from their works, which he correctly credits. These are the "ancient Chaldean" priests who united pastoral with medical healing and to whom Ficino refers to support his contention that he is not guilty of heresy for doing the same.

" [THe Mongol king] ...realized that he would never be able to capture Jerusalem unless he could obtain the help of the Western kings, and he therefore asked the Patriarch (that is, the Pope of the East) to find him a suitable ambassador to carry letters to the kings of Byzantium, Italy, France, and England. Yahbh-AllAha [the Patriarch] knew well that there was only one man who was fit to undertake this difficult task, namely, Rabban Sawma, and without more ado he ordered him to prepare for the journey to the West.

Sawma rejoiced at the opportunity of going to the country of the Romans, and told the Patriarch that he longed to go. Thereupon Arghan wrote dispatches to the kings of the Greeks and Romans, and prepared gifts for each of them, and as marks of royal favour and honour he gave Sawma a Paiza (a token that is formed in the way of some early cards) and also a Yarlikh (letter of commendation/Passport), 2,000 mathkale of gold and 30 good riding horses. [This is our only indication of the size of Sawma's retinue]

Sawma also obtained a letter of authority from the Patriarch, who sent by his hands letters and gifts for the Pope. Having chosen a number of priests and deacons to accompany him Sawma set out for Beth-Rhamaye, i.e. Byzantium.

The text does not tell us by what route he travelled, but as he embarked in a ship at some port on the Sea of Meka, i.e. the Great Sea, or Black Sea, we may assume that he followed the old caravan road from Baghdad northwards, and passing through Mawsil (Mosul), Jazirat ibn-'Umar, and Diyar Bakr, arrived at Samsun, on the Black Sea. Here he and his party embarked in a ship which carried 3oo passengers, and in a few days he reached Constantinople. He sent messengers on to announce his arrival to the king, and he was honourably entreated and suitably housed by the Basileus, i.e. Andronicus II (1282-1328)

Having seen the principal churches and relics he returned to the king and asked his permission to continue his journey to the country of the Franks. The king gave him gifts of gold and silver and dismissed him in peace.

Sawma left Constantinople, and on his road to the quay visited (?) a monastery on the sea-shore ... and then he embarked on a ship and sailed into the Mediterranean. During his voyage westwards, he saw either Mount Vesuvius, or Mount Etna, or, perhaps,... Stromboli, which was then in eruption, and, after two months of weariness and exhaustion, he and his party landed at Naples.

Here he waited upon the king who, according to Chabot ...was Charles Martel, the son of Charles II, and explained to him the object of his mission, and the king treated him honourably. Whilst there he witnessed from the roof of a house a naval fight between the ships of Charles II and those of the king of Aragon, James II.

About the time of Sawma's visit there was war between the two kings because Charles II had seized the town of Agosta in Sicily. In the naval action which followed, Charles II was defeated and a large number of his ships were sunk... The identification of "Yrid Arkon "with the "king of Aragon "is due to Bedjan. The result of Sawma's audience of the king is not stated.

From Naples Sawma set out by land for Rome, and on the road he heard that the Pope, Honorius IV (1285-87), was dead.

After a few days he and his party arrived in Rome, and he at once sent a message to the Cardinals who were administering the papal throne, to tell them that he had brought letters to the Pope from Arghan, King of Kings. The Cardinals received him courteously and begged him to defer the discussion of his mission for a season; they provided him with suitable quarters and installed him therein. Three days later they sent for him and discussed his mission, and Sawma, explained to them the close relationship which existed between the Nestorian Church and the kings of the Mongols, and told them of King Arghan's desire to rescue Jerusalem from the infidels.

....They ... summoned an official and certain monks and directed them to show him everything [...that he asked to see in Rome]. He was greatly interested in St. Peter's, but he seems to have misunderstood what he was told about the crowning of Emperors by the Pope, and the way in which the crown was placed on their heads ... When he had seen all the sights he returned to the Cardinals and asked their permission to go and see the other kings for whom he had dispatches, and as he was leaving them they told him that they could not give him an answer to King Arghan's letter until a new Pope was elected.

From Rome, Sawma and his party went into Tuscany, where they were well received, and thence to Genoa, where the people were living under a democratic regime. He visited the cathedral church of Saint Lawrence (founded in 985), and saw and greatly admired the famous vessel which is now known as the "Sacro Catino."

This object was captured by the Genoese at Caesarea in 1101, and brought to Genoa, but was carried off to Paris by Napoleon I in 1809. One tradition says that it was given to Solomon by the Queen of Sheba, and another says that our Lord and His disciples ate the Paschal lamb from it, and that Joseph of Arimathea caught in it some of the drops of Christ's Blood on the day of His Crucifixion. It is a beautiful green colour, and it was believed by everyone to have been made out of a single emerald. But it was broken in Paris, either by accident or design, in 1815, and it was then found to be made of green opaque glass. [Glass was associated in older times with Phoenician-Canaanites, and later with Nabatea]

From Genoa Sawma went to Onbar, a town or city which has not been identified; Bedjan in a footnote suggests Lombardy or Ambron.

Leaving Italy, Sawma entered France, and after a journey which seems to have lasted a month, arrived in Paris, and sent a messenger to announce his arrival to the king, Philippe IV le Bel. The king received him with great honour, and when he had read King Arghon's letter, and accepted his presents, he told Sawma that he was prepared to send a force to help the Mongols to wrest Jerusalem from the hands of the infidels. Sawma remained in Paris for a month and during this time he was shown the educational institutions of Paris, ....
[There is a very pronounced influence of the eastern astronomical lore, medical-religious style and iconographic style found within the French court, Avignon papal court, southern French scriptoria and at least one of the student houses of Paris from this time]

One day he was taken into the church of St. Denis, containing the mausoleum of the Kings of France, and on another day into the famous Sainte Chapelle. In the latter the king led him up to a gilded chamber, and brought out a beryl or crystal coffer and showed him the Crown of Thorns which, he said, his ancestors had brought from Constantinople. The king promised to send one of his nobles to carry his answer to Arghon, and Sawma, having received from him gifts and valuable apparel, set out for Gascony (?) to see the king of England, Edward I.

After riding for twenty days Sawma arrived at the chief city (which Chabot thinks was Bordeaux), and had an audience of the king there at which he presented Arghon's letter and gifts. Having stated that his views were the same as those of Arghon, the king commanded Sawma to celebrate the Eucharist, and he and his nobles partook of the Mysteries. After further talk the king gave Sawma many gifts and money to defray his travelling expenses. Having delivered his dispatches to the various kings Sawma returned to Italy and passed the winter in Genoa. ..

[More recent archaeological evidence suggests that Mar Sawma may actually have reached England itself, or that he had the opportunity of adding teaching in medical and related matters to people among the English king's retinue.]

... These are the parts of the narrative which I think require fewest explanatory notes for their relevance to be seen... - Diane O'Donovan

Earlier in the narrative we read:
When they arrived [in Persia, from China] the Patriarch Denha told them that it was unnecessary for them to go to Jerusalem, and that he had other and better work for them to do, namely, to go back to China and help to rule the Nestorian Church there. To enable them to do this he had determined to ordain Mark [as a ] Bishop, and Sawma [as] Visitor-General. The two monks said they were unworthy of such honours and responsibilities...but Mar Denha insisted, and at length they bowed to his will. Now Mar Denha wished to give Mark another name, and having written several names [or: having several Names graven with ink already] on pieces of paper, and laid them on the altar, by means of a kind of divination (or lottery?) one of the papers was selected, and on it was written[or graven] "Yahbh-Allaha," i.e."God gave (him)." Mar Denha thereupon gave Mark this name, and ordained him "Metropolitan of Kathay and Wang," i.e. two districts of Northern China, in 1280. Sawma, or Rabban Sawma, or Rabban Bar Sawma was named "Visitor-General," and allowed to keep his own name.