Bar Sauma

The first person from Turkik China to visit Europe, Bar Sauma (c. 1225–1294) was a Christian monk also known by the honorific Rabban Sauma. Sauma traveled to Rome and Paris on a diplomatic mission to attempt an alliance between western European monarchs and Mongols in Iran. His writings about his travels serve as a historical counterpart to those of his contemporary, Venetian merchant Marco Polo.

Bar Sauma was born in or around 1225, near the site of present-day Beijing, China. Sauma's parents were wealthy Christians whose ancestry traced back to the Uighurs, a nomadic people hailing from Turkistan. His name, Bar Sauma, meant “the son of the fast.” Rabban, which means “master,” was a title that would be granted to him later in life.

A Monk's Life

At age 23, Sauma reneged on an arranged marriage and became a monk in the Nestorian church. The Nestorians, Christians who believed in a distinction between Jesus the son of God and Jesus the man, had adherents across Asia at the time. A gifted teacher, he soon became well-known in his region, and students of Nestorian Christianity gathered at his home in the Fang Mountains seeking his instruction. One such student, Marcus, arrived in 1260 at age 15, after traveling for two weeks. Although Marcus became a monk under Sauma's tutelage, he changed the course of Sauma's life by convincing his instructor, after years of discussion, to leave the monastic life. Sometime between 1275 and 1278, Sauma and Marcus left the Fang Mountains and set out on what became an epic pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

The Pilgrimage

Sauma and Marcus's caravan was sponsored by the Mongol emperor of China, Kublai Khan and included camels as well as interpreters and guards. The two men and their entourage navigated the challenging of mountainous western China, often stopping for extended visits in towns and villages. Along the way, Sauma kept a travel journal, portions of which still survive. They entered what is now Iraq and traveled through the Ilkhanate of Persia. (An ilkhan was a regional khan, or king—a local ruler who was installed in regions conquered by the Mongols.) In early 1280, after an extended visit at a Nestorian monastery on the outskirts of the town of Tus, the group traveled on to Maragha, in present-day Azerbaijan. There, Sauma and Marcus met the Patriarch Mar Denha, supreme leader of the Nestorian Church, and received permission to visit some of the holiest Nestorian sites, in and near Baghdad.

Mar Denha was impressed that his visitors carried credentials from Kublai Khan, and he asked them to carry a message to the Ilkhan of Persia, Abagha, asking the ruler to confirm his status as the Nestorians’ supreme leader. Sauma and Marcus agreed to do so, as long as they could send back the confirmation with an escort while they continued on to Jerusalem. They traveled to the Ilkhanate in Tabriz (also located in Azerbaijan). Abagha, likely impressed by their association with Kublai Khan, granted the credentials for Mar Denha and ordered his officials to aid Sauma and Marcus in their journey to Jerusalem.

However, Sauma and Marcus never made it to Jerusalem. When they reached Armenia, several local monks warned them not to travel farther due to dangers posed by robbers as well as by several local rulers who, located on the road to Jerusalem, were opposed to Kublai Khan. Instead, the two travelers returned to the Ilkhanate, arriving at Maragha in late 1280.

While visiting Mar Denha, the Nestorian patriarch offered them both positions of significant authority within the Nestorian Church. He appointed Marcus as a metropolitan, the church's representative in East Asia, and Sauma a visitor-general to China, a position similar to that of an archdeacon. He also gave both men the title of Rabban. During the appointment ceremony, the ilkhan, Abagha, gave Marcus a new name, Mar Yaballaha, and this is the name by which he is now best known. Although Agabha wanted the two men to return to China as his representatives, war had broken out there, making a return too dangerous. Instead, Sauma and Marcus spent several months living at a monastery.

Mar Denha's death in February of 1281 again changed the course of the two friends’ lives. Nestorian church leaders chose to name Marcus as the new patriarch, calculating that his knowledge of the Mongol language and society would help him protect the church and allow it to build strong relationships with the Mongol rulers of Asia. In November of 1281, at age 36, Sauma's disciple became Patriarch Mar Yaballaha III. Sauma became the manager of his friend's household.

The Voyage to Europe

In 1286, Abagha's son, Arghun, the new Ilkhan of Persia, asked Sauma to travel to Europe on a diplomatic mission: Arghun wanted the Christian kings of western Europe to ally with him in a military effort to drive Muslims from the Holy Land. The ilkhan gave Sauma letters and oral messages to deliver to the Byzantine emperor, the kings of France and England, and the Roman Catholic pope.

Sauma sailed from Constantinople to Italy, witnessing the June 18, 1287, eruption of Sicily's Mount Etna, “from which smoke ascended all the day long, and in the night time fire showed itself on it,” according to his travel journal (as quoted by Morris Rossabi in Voyager from Xanadu). He landed in Naples, where he was put up in a mansion by the ruling House of Anjou. Standing on the building's roof on June 24, 1287, he witnessed a battle between the naval forces of Naples and Aragon, then engaged in the Bay of Naples. In his journal, Sauma noted that he and his companions were impressed that the warriors from Aragon only attacked combatants, sparing civilians.

From Naples, Sauma traveled by horse to Rome and, after so much travel in barren lands, marveled at how the entire route was lined with buildings. He intended to speak to Pope Honorius IV, but that pope died just prior to his arrival in the city. Instead, Sauma got an audience with the Catholic Church's College of Cardinals. Presented with Arghun's proposal, the cardinals had little interest in forming a military alliance, perhaps because Honorius IV had tried and failed to convince Europe's kings to mount another crusade to take Jerusalem. Instead, they grilled Sauma on his theology. The traveling diplomat described Nestorianism with some vagueness, aware that European Christians considered his beliefs to be heretical. Graciously, the cardinals accepted Sauma's answers and granted his request to visit Rome's churches and monasteries. After a tour, Sauma left Rome and headed to France.

Arriving in Paris in August of 1287, Sauma met King Philip IV and was a guest at the French court for a month, honored by several banquets. He visited several churches in the city and was struck by the number of university students there. Philip gave Sauma the impression that he would be willing to ally with Arghun and launch another crusade. He showed him religious relics that he claimed had been brought from the Holy Land to Europe during previous crusades. When Sauma left, Philip sent an envoy along with him, carrying a letter for Arghun.

When Sauma learned that England's king, Edward I, was visiting Gascony, his domain in France, he set out to meet him in Bordeaux. Edward, too, showed great initial interest in Arghun's idea of launching another crusade. He invited Sauma to celebrate a Syriac version of the Christian Eucharist, or communion, in his royal court, and he held a large banquet to honor him. Edward also helped fund Sauma's return trip to Persia.

In November of 1287, Sauma returned to Italy, believing that he had secured commitments from England and France to join the ilkhan in a war to conquer Jerusalem. Also requiring the approval of Rome, he arrived in Genoa in December, and waited there until the cardinals elected a new pope. His journal notes his amazement at the city's mild Mediterranean climate. “When we arrived there we saw a garden like Paradise, where the winter is not cold, nor the summer hot,” Sauma wrote in his travel journal, as translated by James M. Montgomery in The History of Yaballaha III, “and where green vegetation is found all the year long, and trees which do not shed their leaves nor are without fruits. There is there one kind of vine that bears seven crops in the year, but wine is not pressed from the grapes.”

In February of 1288, Nicholas IV, one of the cardinals Sauma had met a year earlier, was now elected pope. Sauma traveled to Rome to see him and was invited to stay for Easter and lead celebrations of the Eucharist. Sauma's journal recounts the church's Easter Week ceremonies in great detail, including the Palm Sunday service. There, Pope Nicholas offered communion to Sauma before anyone else, an honor that brought his visitor to tears.

In April of 1288, Pope Nicholas gave Sauma letters to carry home to Arghun and Yaballaha III. Unfortunately, his letter to Arghun did not accept the offer of an alliance, but instead advised Arghun to convert to Catholicism. The pope's letter to Yaballaha asserted that the Nestorians should accept the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity. Despite the pope's ambivalent response, Sauma exchanged a cordial goodbye with the pope and headed back to Persia, arriving in September of 1288.

A Celebrated Return

Arghun celebrated Sauma's return with a three-day banquet, promised to provide for him in his old age, and made him the chaplain of the Nestorian church next to his palace. Despite Sauma's efforts, an alliance between the Persian Mongols and the Western kings never materialized: Arghun proposed to invade the Holy Land in 1291, but King Edward demured by noting that the pope's approval would be needed before such an action. Arghun soon became preoccupied by threats from another Mongol khanate, the Golden Horde, which was growing in strength in the area to Persia's north. His death in March of 1291 ended the prospect of an alliance.

Meanwhile, Sauma built a church in Maragha with assistance from Mar Yaballaha III and Arghun's brother, Geikhatu, who became the new ilkhan on Arghun's death. The church was completed in October of 1293. Sauma, who had fallen ill, then traveled to Baghdad to see his friend, Mar Yaballaha.


Montgomery, James A., The History of Yaballaha III, Columbia University Press, 1927.

Budge, E.A. Wallis, The Monks of Kublai Khan, The Religious Tract Society, 1928.

Rossabi, Morris, Voyager from Xanadu: Rabban Sauma and the First Journey from China to the West, Kodansha International, 1992.❑

(MLA 8th Edition)