This is the 6th Episode in the amazing story of a Chinese monk named Rabban Sauma.
We ended the last episode with Sauma’s protégé and friend Markos, firmly ensconced in the seat of the Catholicus of the Church of The East.
Because we’ve already had 5 episodes in this series spread over 5 weeks, it’s easy for subscribers who listen to each episode when it goes up, to forget the arc of Markos’ story.
He showed up at the door of the monk Sauma’s cell in the Fang Mountains of China when he was only 15. He let Sauma know he wanted to become his disciple. Sauma knew the rigors of his solitary existence were beyond the pale of most people’s endurance. But Markos proved good to his word and sworn devotion. He was a quick learner and as willing to brave the ardor of the ascetic’s life as humbly and silently as his mentor. The two men became close friends. Years passed. Sauma’s lessons spoke of lands of wonder in the West. They fired Markos’ imagination. He wanted to go see the places he was learning of. He shared the travel and discovery itch with his elder friend. And over time Sauma’s curiosity was sparked as well. So the two decided to make the journey to the headquarters of their Faith, as well as the Holy Land, birthplace of that Faith. This was at a time in history when “the Silk Roads” were more an idea than a reality.
Securing resources from the local Nestorian community and permission from the Great Khan Khubilai, they set out. Months later with dozens of harrowing and death-defying moments behind them, they finally arrived in Maragha, Persia, headquarters of the Nestorian Church. The Nestorian Patriarch, bearing the title of Catholicus was a conniving schemer who sought to use the fame and favor of the two Chinese envoys to his own advantage. Their babes-in-the-woods demeanor was but a convenient mask over their more than savvy awareness of the Catholicus’ shenanigans. When the way to Jerusalem, their ultimate destination, proved closed due to the hostility of the Muslim Mamluks, they decided to wait things out in Persia to see if the path would eventually open. They reluctantly agreed to take the promotions the Catholics insisted. Which proved a wise move, since he then soon died. The church leaders responsible for selecting his replacement considered Markos the perfect candidate and against his protests, installed him as the new Catholicus. He was just 36 years old. His elevation was quickly and enthusiastically endorsed by the Mongol Ilkhan, Abakha.
Markos’ transformation from a 15-year-old wannabe Chinese monk into Mar Yaballaha, the Nestorian Catholicus, would be similar to a teenage Siberian farmhand becoming a deacon at his local church, then 20 years later walking to Rome and becoming Pope. It’s that strange a story.
And what of Sauma? What of the man who’d been Markos’ mentor, his tutor, his teacher and guide. There arguably would not have been a Markos without a Sauma. Most men would be envious of the advancement and promotion of their student. Not Sauma. He encouraged Markos and gave him wise counsel at the outset of his ascension into office as head of the Church of the East.
And that’s where Sauma’s story would have ended; a footnote to the story of his protégé and friend who rose from obscurity to fill the seat of one of the most important offices in church history. But all that’s occurred so far is the preface or maybe better, Chapter 1, to Sauma’s tale.
Because the turmoil in Central Asia between the forces of Khaidu and Khubilai kept the route East closed, Mar Yaballaha asked his friend to stay and manage his household, which he moved from Mar Denha’s capital at Maragha, to the older capital of Baghdad.
The Mongol Ilkhan Abakha was eager to shore up relations with his non-Muslim subjects after a severe trouncing by the Mamluks at the Battle of Homs in 1281. He worried the Muslim victory might raise insurrectionist leanings and hoped his Christian, Buddhist and Jewish subjects would prove a counterweight to any violence. So, making a visit to Baghdad, he granted Mar Yaballaha the power to levy taxes to support church works. But before the law could go into effect, Abakha died, most likely from complications due to alcoholism, a frequent problem with Mongol rulers. It was the Spring of 1282.
Abakha’s death set off the powder keg that was the reality of Mongol succession. To the victor go the spoils. The intrigues that followed are the stuff of legend, but wide of our scope here. Let me summarize by saying that the short reign of a pro-Muslim Ilkhan set the Nestorians adrift. Mar Yaballaha was accused by Muslim advisors of the Ilkhan of conspiring with his enemies and supporting his rival in the contest for succession. Their accusations were furthered when a couple envious and ambitious Nestorian bishops joined the whisper-conspiracy against the Catholicus.
The Ilkhan was duped and had Mar Yaballaha, Rabban Sauma and the governor of Mosul they were accused of being in cahoots with, arrested and hauled to trial in the Spring of 1283. As the trial commenced, a long laid conspiracy unfolded. Witness after witness was brought in who accused the three of conspiring to stage a coup. They’d supposedly sent letters to Khubilai defaming the Ilkhan as an apostate and turn-coat intending to side with the Great Khan’s enemies. So, Yaballaha, Sauma and the governor were brought in one by one and questioned. Because they were innocent of the charges, their answers all lined up, though they had no idea of what they were being charged with ahead of time. Then Yaballaha made an astute suggestion, evidencing the quickness that had commended him as Patriarch in the first place. An easy way to prove their innocence was to send a rider after the dispatches they’d sent East to Khubilai. Go get them and read them for yourself, Yaballaha told the Ilkhan. A rider was sent, the letters were read, and the conspiracy against the three was exposed. There was nothing in the letters to the Great Khan that were derogatory toward the Ilkhan.
Then it became clear the Ilkhan himself may have been in on the conspiracy from the outset. Though it had been exposed, he refused to release or exonerate them. He kept them in custody as his Muslim officials dug dirt, rooting round for some other way to condemn them. When nothing could be found, the Ilkhan toyed with the idea of just asserting his right as ruler to execute them. He was only barely persuaded not to by more fair-minded officials and his own mother, who was a Nestorian. She convinced him he had nothing to fear from the three; that they only desired to be good citizens and to encourage their congregation in the same vein. So he reluctantly released them and returned the gold letter-patent to Mar Yaballaha.
The Catholicus realized staying near the seat of power was unwise as it provoked the Muslims who now felt empowered and used their favor to advance their position at the expense of the Christians, Jews and Buddhists. He moved to a small Nestorian community near Lake Urmiya. While there, he had a vision in which he learned he’d never see Ilkhan Ahmad, again. He never did.
His rival Arghun, who Yaballaha and Sauma had been accused of being in league with, continued to stage raids in the hinterlands. Just after the turn of the year 1284, things fell apart for Ahmad. His departure from the celebrated Mongol religious tolerance to a certain favoritism toward Islam only served to alienate the majority of his officials and counselors who were NOT Muslims. They remained loyal, but that loyalty began to erode as they watched him being progressively moved into a posture hostile toward his non-Muslim subjects. Ahmad arrested and executed one of his brothers accused of being in league with Arghun. Then in July, Arghun’s forces were defeated and he was captured. But instead of executing him, Ahmad turned him over to his officers and went home to his new bride. This proved a fatal mistake. Arghun became the rallying point for all the turmoil Ahmad’s mismanagement provoked. One official after another began voicing discontent with his rule. The discord grew as they realized others felt the same way they did. It quickly became clear the unrest was widespread. Ahmad’s willingness to treat with their enemies the Mamluks, his arrogance, his ill-advised dismissal of widely regarded officials because some of his close favorites were envious, and his very public mistreatment of the popular Mar Yaballaha and Rabban Sauma for no reason but prejudice, combined to throw him into a disfavor provoking a coup. Sensing one was about to ensue, Ahmad attempted to flee to the Ilkhanate’s northern enemies, The Golden Horde. That was all the proof Arghun needed that Ahmad was indeed a traitor. His contest for succession to the Ilkhanate after Abakha was now proved valid. They ought to have selected him rather than the disastrous Ahmad. When it was clear to Ahmad’s supporters he was doomed, even they switched sides and laid hold of him so he couldn’t flee North.
Arghun reluctantly executed his uncle Ahmad on August 10, 1284.
Once Arghun took his seat in the Mongol capital at Tabriz, Mar Yaballaha gathered a group of church officials and headed there to congratulate the new Ilkhan. Arghun was informed of the trials Yaballaha and Sauma had endured at the hands of the previous regime and promised a new day of favor with the Mongol throne and court. He offered to have the Nestorian conspirators against Yaballaha arrested and executed. The Catholicus said the Church had its own way of handling them and asked that he be allowed to deal with them. Arghun agreed. The two Metropolitans were defrocked and excommunicated.
What would the new administration mean for Rabban Sauma, who, while officially designated as the Nestorian Visitor-General to China, couldn’t go there because of the on-going hostilities in Central Asia?
The new Ilkhan Arghun, was beset on all sides by enemies. The Muslim Mamluks to the West and South. Their allies The Golden Horde to the North. And Khaidu, the enemy of Arghun’s ally Khubilai to the East. The Ilkhanate had little to fear from the East because Khaidu was preoccupied on his Eastern front with the Great Khan. They also didn’t worry much about a massed attack from the Golden Horde in the North. As fellow Mongols, they held an uneasy peace neither wanted to break. The real threat came from the Mamluks, who the Golden Horde was more than willing to let act as surrogates for them in the contest with Ilkhanate Persia. The Ilkhans had tried to extend their conquests into the Holy Land but were rebuffed by the Mamluks. When the Mamluks pushed Eastward beyond their bases in Syria, the Mongols were able to pull off a draw that stung the pride of the heretofore victorious Mamluks. But the Mamluks hadn’t really staged a concerted effort. The clashes were more limited forays than major campaigns to take the East.
Arghun worried now that the pro-Muslim Ahmad had been removed & executed, the Mamluks would take offense and stage a major campaign to conquer Persia. But as he looked around for allies, the offerings were slim. Khubilai was too far away and already locked in a struggle with his cousin Khaidu. No help would come from that corner. Only one option remained – Christian Europe. The very realms the Mongol Machine had just a few decades before almost overwhelmed. Would Christian Europe set aside that terrifying and recent horror to ally with the Ilkhanate in a new Crusade to purge the Middle East of the Muslim threat? >> That’s the plan Arghun settled on. It was an ambitious, an audacious proposal. Far-fetched, to say the least. Certainly to the Europeans, the Mongols were as great a threat as the Mamluks. Maybe even more so. But Arghun’s back was to the proverbial wall. If the enemy of my enemy is my friend, maybe an alliance could be forged between Persia and the crusading states of Europe.
But, who to send with the proposal? What embassy would the West receive and treated the offer of an alliance with the seriousness it needed? How about a Chinese monk who’d been promoted to Ambassador and helped install a Patriarch?