|Central Asia: Early
Part 1: Missions to the
By Charles Carlson
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
Copyright (c) 2002, RFE/RL Inc. Reprinted
with the permission of Radio Free
Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave
NW, Washington DC 20036