Less well-known than his contemporary Marco Polo, Rabban Sauma was a Christian Uygur monk who traveled in the opposite direction as Polo, from China to western Europe. In France he presented to the king a proposal by the Mongol governor of Baghdad to form a Mongol-Christian alliance to recover Jerusalem from the Muslims. The alliance never materialized.

Rabban Sauma, a Christian Uygur monk, and his young colleague Rabban Markos traveled from Beijing to western Europe in the mid-thirteenth century. Christian missionaries from the Nestorian, or Syrian, branch of the Church had reached China in the seventh century and had created a small but learned Christian community during the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE). When the Mongols under Chinggis (sometimes spelled Genghis) Khan conquered China in the thirteenth century, they found the Nestorians to be useful ambassadors, counselors, doctors, and merchants. Mongol leader Khubilai Khan (grandson of Chinggis Khan) embraced all religions equally, but he found it helpful to set Christian and Muslim advisors against the predominant Confucians and Buddhists in China. When Rabban Sauma and Rabban Markos proposed a journey to Europe, Khubilai Khan gave them a travel permit guaranteeing safe passage through his vast empire.

Crossing central Eurasia was a dangerous mission, but Sauma and Markos took shelter in a Nestorian community in Khorasan (in Persia), then passed through Azerbaijan and reached Baghdad, the seat of the patriarch of the Nestorian Church. They toured famous churches and monasteries as they moved on to Jerusalem. Because they knew the Chinese, Mongol, and Persian languages, they had excellent qualifications not only for religious service but also for diplomatic service. In 1280 the patriarch appointed Markos head of the Nestorian Church of China. The Mongol governor, or ilkhan, of Baghdad had grander plans for Sauma. The governor’s greatest enemies were the Muslims who held Jerusalem, Egypt, and Syria, and he knew that the western European crusader kings likewise considered the Muslims enemies and shared his goals of conquering them. In 1287 he sent Rabban Sauma to contact King Louis IX of France (who, however, had died in 1270) and ask the king to consider a Mongol-Christian alliance to recover Jerusalem. The governor gave Rabban Sauma official orders, money, animals, and travel passes and sent him with gifts for the king of the Franks, the king of the Greeks, and the pope. Rabban passed through the Byzantine empire to Constantinople (modern Istanbul), met the king of Byzantium, and toured the great churches of the city. He went on to Rome, where he passed on his letters to the pope and the king of the Franks. He astounded the cardinals of Rome with the news that Christian communities had spread all across eastern Eurasia as far as China and told them that many Mongols had been baptized Christians. After touring Italy’s famous churches, Rabban Sauma moved on to Paris, where he met the French king Philippe IV, and, according to his account, he then met the king of England, Edward I, in Bordeaux.

Ultimately the grand alliance of the Mongols and Christians against Islam never formed because the Christian powers distrusted each other too much, and the Mongols had other wars to fight. Rabban Sauma’s mission presented a surprising opportunity that could have changed the course of history. Christians in western Europe had heard mythical tales of a Christian kingdom of Prester John far off in Asia: Now they had actually met a Christian from China. Everyone has heard of Rabban Sauma’s famous contemporary Marco Polo, who claimed to have crossed Eurasia from west to east. Fewer people know of Rabban Sauma, but his story is more plausible than Marco’s. Sauma traveled with official documents from the Mongol khan on a diplomatic and religious mission; a learned man, he impressed the nobles and religious elites of every country he visited. Compared with Rabban Sauma, Marco Polo seems little more than a jailed, bankrupt merchant and tall-tale teller. Rabban Sauma’s adventures show how the Mongol conquests had united the entire continent of Eurasia and made it possible for learned men to cross great distances and still find themselves in a common religious community.

Further Reading

Rossabi, M. (1992). Voyager from Xanadu: Rabban Sauma and the first journey from China to the West. New York: Kodansha.

Standaert, N. (Ed.). (2001). Handbook of Christianity in China. Vol. 1: 635–1800. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

The lotus root may be severed, but its fibered threads are still connected.


Ǒu duàn sī lián

Source: Perdue, Peter C. (2009). SAUMA Rabban. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1925–1926. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

SAUMA Rabban (Lièbān Sǎomǎ 列班扫马)|Lièbān Sǎomǎ 列班扫马 (SAUMA Rabban)

Download the PDF of this article