Early travelers, Part 1: Missions to the Mongols

By Charles Carlson, Asia Times, 28 August 2003

PRAGUE—If you do not observe God’s command, and if you ignore my command, I shall know you as my enemy. Likewise, I shall make you understand. If you do otherwise, God knows what I know.

This was the message sent by the Great Mongol Khan, Guyuk, to Pope Innocent IV through the Franciscan emissary of the pope, John of Plano Carpini.

By 1241, Christian Russia had become a province of the Mongol empire. With the armies of Batu, the Mongol leader in the West, encamped on the Volga, there was nothing to prevent them from a further attack on the West. In a bid to avert that threat, Pope Innocent dispatched a mission to the Mongols in an effort to convert their leaders to Christianity. He chose Carpini, an Italian Franciscan, to carry a letter to Guyuk, the Great Khan or the emperor of the Tartars, as he was known at the time.

Carpini and his company set out on their journey in April 1245. After over 5,000 kilometers that lasted 15 months, on June 22, 1246, they finally reached the Mongol capital of Karakorum, where they met the Great (Ghengis) Khan. They invited Guyuk to become a Christian, but Guyuk indicated that first the pope and princes of Europe would have to come and swear allegiance to him.

Carpini’s account of his travels, included in his manuscript History of the Mongols, was the first European description of the Mongol way of life, including their clothes, their felt-covered dwellings, and their love of fermented mare’s milk, called koumiss. The narrative furnished Europe with the first insights into Tartar customs and beliefs.

Regarding their clothing, Carpini wrote that the Tartars wear tunics of buckram or velvet open from top to bottom and folded over at the breast. Garments of all kinds of fur are made in the same style. Married women have a very full tunic, open to the ground in front. On their heads, they wear a round object made of twigs or bark which ends on top in a square. On top there is a long and slender cane of gold or silver or wood, or even a feather.

Each man has as many wives as he can keep, one a hundred, another 50, another 10—one more, another less, continued Carpini. It is a general custom for them to marry any of their relations, with the exception of their mother, daughter and sister by the same mother.

Dwelling places were round like tents and were made of twigs and slender sticks. At the top in the middle there was a round opening, which let in the light, and also enabled smoke to escape, for they always make their fire in the middle. Some of the dwellings can be easily taken down and put up again and are carried on baggage animals. Wherever they go, be it to war or anywhere else, they always take their dwellings with them, wrote Carpini.

In discussing their beliefs, Carpini wrote that the Tartars believe in one god, and they believe that he is the maker of all things visible, and invisible. Nevertheless, they have idols of felt made in the image of man, and these they place on each side of the door of the dwelling; below them they put a felt model of an udder, and they believe that these are the guardians of the cattle.

When a Tartar dies, if he is less important, he is buried in secret in the open country. He is buried with one of his dwellings, sitting in the middle with a table placed in front of him and a dish filled with meat and a goblet of mare’s milk.

When a chief dies, he is taken in secret into the open country where he is placed in a large pit. In the side of the pit they hollow out a grave under the earth and place his favorite slave under him.

The food consists of everything that can be eaten, for they eat dogs, wolves, foxes and horses, and when driven to necessity, they feed on human flesh. They have neither bread nor herbs nor vegetables—nothing but meat.

Professor Uli Schamiloglu, a historian and specialist on the Golden Horde, believes Carpini’s account of the Mongols was not terribly sympathetic to them, since Carpini’s main purpose was to assess and gather accurate information on the military threat posed by the Mongols.

John Plano Carpini traveled through Central Eurasia during the period 1245-47, basically to assess the threat of the Mongols, Schamiloglu told RFE/RL. And his was not a very sympathetic mission, and I think he was going to see what Europe could do to save itself from the Mongols, which is one of the reasons why he focused so much on Mongol military tactics. And to be honest, he didn’t have a very sympathetic representation of the Mongols, whom I think he was portraying as a very serious threat to Europe.

In contrast to the mission of Carpini, the mission of Friar William of Rubruck was purely religious in character. William of Rubruck, a Franciscan monk on a mission for the French king, traveled by the old highway to Central Asia through Constantinople and the Crimea. After reaching the Tartar outposts, Rubruck’s account corresponds very closely with that of Carpini eight years before. Both of them went to the great camp of Batu on the Volga, the center of Mongol power in the West. Both then went to the court of the Great Khan in Mongolia, and both experienced the same hardships in their travel through the steppes.

However, Rubruck’s account is more lively and written in much more detail, even more direct and convincing than that of Marco Polo in his own time. Rubruck describes the temples he saw in Karakorum, The idols and how they comfort themselves in the worship of their gods. He describes the palace of the Great Khan and the feasts that went on there.

Schamiloglu considers Rubruck his personal favorite source, possibly the most important single source for understanding Central Asia in the mid-13th century. Rubruck has almost an ethnographic description, we might say today, talking about the lifestyle of how people lived, how the elite lived, he said. He gives tremendous information about the commercial history, what he was carrying going through the Crimea, how he had to deal with local officials, what the wives of the khans were like. He described the Europeans who were prisoners or serving in the court of the Great Khan in Karakorum. He talks about the poverty, what they ate. I can’t think of another source that has that level of detail, which is consistent with what we know today about the lives of later peoples, be it the various Kypchak peoples like the Kazakhs, or others.

Rubruck wrote about the Mongol way of life, their domed tents of felt, or yurts, the interiors embroidered with trees, vines, birds and beasts. He wrote how the Mongol yurts could be transported from place to place in search of better pastures, how the women occupied the eastern side of the tent, men the western side.

Through Rubruck’s eyes we see the terrible Batu on his high seat long and wide like a couch with his lady beside him, and we witness the endless drinking parties at Karakorum. And finally we have the account of his last meeting with the Great Khan himself at Pentecost, which has been described by Christopher Dawson in his book The Mission to Asia as one of the most remarkable interviews in history.

When Rubruck received permission to return to Europe, the Great Khan handed him a letter to King Louis which read, Wherever ears can hear, wherever horses can travel, there let it be heard and known: these who do not believe, but resist our commandments, shall not be able to see with their eyes, or hold with their hands, or walk with their feet…if you will obey us, send your ambassadors, that we may know whether you wish for peace or war.