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The Kingdom of God in Yurts: Christianity among Mongols in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries

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The Kingdom of God in Yurts: Christianity among Mongols in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries [1] By Mark Chuanhang Shan

Published on Africanus Journal Vol. 3, No. 2 November 2011.

Today, people often believe that the Mongols in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were nomadic barbarians who conquered great, civilized nations, such as China, Uyghur Empire, West (Xi) Xia, Iran, Iraq, and Russia. Yet, many do not know about the Christian civilization of the Mongols, especially in their royal Khanates families. Further, many Protestants identify the entrance of Christianity in China with Robert Morrison in 1807, [2] but Christians and Christianity were influential much earlier.

Two branches of Christianity, the Nestorian Church and the Roman Catholic Church,
played important religious, social, and political roles in the Mongol Empire of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The Nestorian Christians entered the Mongol Empire as a result of a Mongol military conquest of Nestorian peoples. Roman Catholic Christians were sent into the Mongol empire as ambassadors and missionaries because of the fear of conquest. In this essay, we will examine the background of the Mongols’ own adaptation of Christianity in Yellow Yurts,[3] in light of the Nestorian revivals in the Mongol Empire and the influence of Roman Catholic ambassadors of Western Christendom.

In the times of archers and riders, nomads lived on the vast steppes of Asia and Russia,
as French historian René Grousset has pointed out. They established empires and constantly threatened and invaded the areas of developed historical civilizations such as China, Persia, India and Europe, “reducing the civilized worlds to a heap of ruins within only a few years.”[4] Among those nomadic barbarians, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the Mongols of north Asia proved a major force when led by Chingis Khan and his successors, stretching the tip of their sword westward into Austria as far as Klosterneuburg (spring of 1242),[5] eastward into Korea (1241) and China (1279),[6] and southwards to the Persian Gulf and the Indus River.[7] Facing a dangerous threat in its history, with the difficult experience of converting and mastering barbarians, Christendom
in the West took a courageous step and sent out its bravest missionaries to the heart of the oriental, barbarian world with both religious and political purposes. To their surprise, the Catholic missionaries found Nestorian Christianity (their old heretic enemy back to the fifth century) was already quite influential among those barbarian Mongols.

I. The Background of the Mongols

Mongols, called Tartars by the West, together with Turks in the fifth century, were two major forces on the Asian steppes after the Hun who was also called Hu or Xiongnu by the ancient Chinese.[8] From the middle of the sixth century, after defeating the Mongols, Turks became the master of Asia’s steppes and of its empires.[9] In a. d. 744, one of the three major Turkic nations, Uyghurs (or Uigurs), united Asia’s steppes with the establishment of Orkhon Khanate [10] and reached the climax of becoming the most civilized nation on the Russian and Asian steppes. The Uyghurs were loyal clients and allies of the Tang Dynasty of the Chinese Empire,[11] which was the most powerful nation in Asia at that time. In a. d. 840, the Uyghur Empire fell under the attack of the
barbarian Kirghiz Turks from the north so the Uyghur Turks escaped westward into the northern Tarim oases [12] and Turkicized the area,[13] which became known as East Turkestan in the West and South Xinjiang in China today.

In a. d. 924, the Khitan Mongols defeated the Kirghiz Turks and retook the Mongolian steppes. With the establishment of the Liao Dynasty they assimilated into Chinese culture.[14] In 1125, Jurchid Tungusk, the “sheer barbarians,” as described by Chinese and Korean ambassadors, allied with the Song Dynasty of China, conquering the Khitan Kingdom and establishing “a regular state with a Chinese facade.”[15] Khitans escaped westward and continued as the West Liao Dynasty in today’s Xinjiang and part of central Asia. About 1167, Chingis Khan was born among the Mongols.[16] These were the Mongols proper “in the restricted and historical sense of the word,” living in the
northwest of modern Outer Mongolia, between the Onon River and the Kerulen River.[17] In the spring of 1206, Chingis Khan finished the unification of the Mongolian steppe with the conquest of all the Mongol and Turkic tribes.[18] He was now ready to set his followers and successors on the greatest military conquest in the world.

He initially aimed at conquering northern China with an attack on Xi-xia, the last Caucasian kingdom (in the conjuncture of Xinjiang, Tibet, Qinghai, Gansu, Ningxia, Inner Mongolia in China today), founded by Tangut of the Indo-Europeans.[19] After the kingdom submitted, in 1211, Chingis Khan led his army to attack the Jurchid Tungusks and took over the capital, Beijing city, with a great massacre in 1215.[20] The sack of Beijing proved that in comparison with the Khitan Mongols of the tenth century, or even the Jurchid Tungusk of the twelfth, the Chingis Khanites were far more barbarous.[21] After that, Chingis Khan embarked on his ambitious conquest westward with a quick conquest of the West Liao Dynasty of Kara Khitan by his famous general Noyan Jebe in 1218.[22] In 1220, marching westward, Chingis Khan totally destroyed the Khwarizmian Empire, a Turkic nation without any Turkic culture but with an Iranian and Islamic culture.[23]

The Chingis Khanic destructions continued across the Hindu Kush into North-West India.[24] At the same time, the two best generals of Chingis Khan, Jebe Noyan and Subotai Ba’atur, raided Persia, the Christian nation Georgia, and south Russia, and defeated Russia in May 1222.[25] In 1225, Chingis Khan went back to Mongolia and died in August 1227, while attacking the Tibetan kingdom of Tangnut once again.[26] In the spring of 1229, the third son of Chingis Khan, Ugedey ( or Ogodai), succeeded in continuing his father’s plan of conquests and destructions.[27] He first moved to the south and destroyed the area of the newly recovered Jurchid Tungusk Kingdom (north China today) in March 1234. Then he launched the war southward in 1234 and his successor finally conquered South Song Dynasty of China in 1279 after forty-five years of hard battles.[28]

When Chingis Khan was still alive, the Mongolian Empire stretched from the Pacific to the Black Sea and was divided into five administrative areas under the dominance of Chingis Khan’s three sons and brothers. The western part from the Irtysh River, the Russian Steppe which later became Kipchak-Khanite, was governed by the first son Jochi. The southwestern part, including central Asia (which later became Jagatai-Khanite), was controlled by the second son, Jagatai. The northern part was administrated by the third son, Ugedey (or Ogodai), who was the Great Khan of the later Mongolian Empire. The northeastern part, the heart of the Empire, was controlled and guarded by the youngest son Tolui, and, finally, the two brothers of Chingis Khan shared the most
eastern area of Mongolia (Jilin, China today) by the Pacific.[29]

Mongols did not forget the West. In 1236-1237, their main forces attacked and methodically destroyed the Russian cities and systematically massacred their residents.[30] In the winter of 1240-1241, on December 6th, Kiev, the mother of Russian cities, was destroyed, and then the Mongols crossed the frozen Vistula in February 1241 and advanced into Poland, finally defeating its western allies, entering Hungary and even reaching Austria, arriving at Neustadt (near Vienna) in July 1241. Finally, they rode north into Austria as far as Klosterneuburg in March 1242.[31] At this point, the death of Ugedey Khan, on December 11, 1241, “caused the withdrawal of the Mongol armies, at least as far as Russia in 1242.”[32] However, Batu inherited control of the realm of his father, Jochi,[33] and still remained encamped on the lower Volga.[34]

By this time, through these conquests and empire constructions, in their constant encounters with other cultures, Mongols were in a steady process of civilizing away from sheer barbarianism. Among the conquered civilizations, Khitan Mongols and Uyghur Turks, the two most civilized peoples of the Asian steppes, significantly influenced the Mongol Empire, especially during Chingis Khan’s time. The Khitans initiated the Chingis-Khanite Empire into Chinese administration especially of the tax collection system, and the Uyghurs shared their whole heritage of Nestorian, Manichean, and Syriac traditions with the Mongols. With the help of the Uyghurs, the Mongol Empire derived the framework of their civil administration and writing language using the Uyghur alphabets.[35]

Other Turkic tribes, such as Keraits and Naimans, also influenced the Mongols, especially their royal families, significantly by introducing them to Nestorian Christianity. With a policy of religious tolerance, the Mongol Empire was remarkably open to almost all the world religions, including Nestorian and Catholic Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, alongside the Mongol traditional Shamanism.

II. Christianity in Yellow Yurts: the Nestorian Revivals

Before the first Catholic missionaries were sent to the Mongols, Nestorian Christianity [36] was popular in the Mongol Empire court among the royal families at the early part of the thirteenth century. A few Nestorian Turkic tribes were conquered and subjected by the Mongols of Chingis Khan, so a number of the Christian Turkic princesses married into the Mongol royal family. Because of the influence of these women and some prominent male Christians serving in the Mongol court as high level ministers, Nestorian Christianity had a great influence even in politics. A number of Mongol Khan mothers, wives, and children were Christian.

A Nestorian Tablet dug up near Xin-an city, Shaanxi of China, officially records the early history of the Nestorian mission to the Far East in the Chinese Tang Dynasty. The mission started in a. d. 635 and was welcomed by the Emperor Tai-zong, but Emperor Wu-zong forbade it in 845. All of the foreign missionaries were expelled.[37] After that, Nestorians seemed to disappear in East Asia. Then, after one and a half centuries, according to the thirteenth century historian, the Jacobite Gregory Bar Hebraeus, some unknown Nestorian lay missionaries, who were Christian merchants engaged in trade with the tribes on the Mongolian steppe, began to convert a Turk-Mongol tribe called
the Keraits who lived in the eastern part of the Mongol steppe (or Kereyid, or Kerayit, or Kerait) through its Khan.[38] As the result of the mission, according to a letter to the Nestorian patriarch John VI in Baghdad, dated 1009, the Kerait Khan and 200,000 of his tribesmen were baptized.[39] This event led to the Nestorian Christianity revivals in the Mongol Empire about two centuries later.

Temujin, the later Jenghiz Khan, was a vassal of the Christian Kerait tribe at the beginning.[40] In 1203, as Jenghiz Khan’s power and ambition grew, a conflict between him and Kerait Wang-Khan broke out, which Jenghiz Khan won.[41] As a result, the Kerait tribe submitted, but a more important series of historical events occurred. Jenghiz Khan married the eldest daughter of Jagambu (Wang-Khan’s brother). His eldest son, Jochi, married the second daughter and his youngest son, Tolui, married the third daughter —the youngest Nestorian princess Sorghaqtani (or Sorkaktani-beki).[42] Sorghaqtani later became the Christian mother of four imperial sons, the Grand Khan (Mongka) [43] of the Mongols, the emperor of China (Kublai),[44] the Ilkhan (Hulagu) [45] of Persia, and the youngest son Aria-boga, who became the governor of the native Mongol land and resided in the capital Karakorum.[46]

Beside the Keraits, two other Nestorian tribes, the Turkic-Mongol Naiman (a majority of
whom were Christians), were living in and controlling the western part of the Mongol Steppe,[47] and the Ongut Turks were living in the south-east border (north of the Modern Chinese province of Shan-xi).[48] In 1203, as the last surviving kingdom controlled the western Mongol steppe after the conquest of the Kerait, the Naiman united all the scattered tribes to make war on Jenghiz Khan, but Onguts, a vassal of the Jin (Jurchid Tungusk) Empire, joined the side of Jenghiz Khan.[49] In 1204, the Naiman allies were defeated.[50] Jenghiz Khan married his daughter, Alaghai-baki, to the second Ongut Christian prince, Pa-yao-ho, to show his gratitude.[51] The later Ongut princes continued to pursue marriages with the princesses of the Jenghiz-Khanite family. [52]

According to Syriac etymology, the Mongols called Nestorian Christianity tarsa and arkagun or arka’un; the Nestorian priests and monk were called rabban-arkagun and the bishops marhasia.[53] The name tarsa was also mentioned in the Chinese name (达娑) with a similar pronunciation (dasuo) in the Nestorian Tablet and the name arkagun in Chinese history books as 也里可温.[54] Because of the Christians in the Mongol royal families, Nestorian Christianity enjoyed a revival in the Mongol Empire in the thirteenth century. Nestorian Christianity used Syriac as its official language.

In 1229, according to the wishes of Jenghiz Khan, his third son Ogodai became the Great Khan of the Empire.[55] He put Nestorian Kerait Chinqai, “whom Jenghiz Khan already honored,” into the position of the Empire chancellor.[56] In August 1246, the son of Ogodai and Toragana (probably a Naiman Christian), Guyuk, became the third Great Khan with the help of his mother, who was the regent of the empire after the death of her husband.[57] According to the witness of the Franciscan John of Plano Carpini, the Nestorians celebrated mass before Guyuk’s yurt (or tent-like dwelling), and the Khan’s chief ministers, tutor, and the Kerait Chancellor were all Nestorian Christians.[58]

In 1251, Mongka, the eldest son of the Kerait Christian princess Sorghaqtani, with the crucial help of his mother and his cousin Batu (the second son of the eldest son of Jenghiz Khan),[59] became the fourth Great Khan of the Mongol Empire.[60] Because of his mother’s Nestorian faith, Mongka favored the Nestorian faith and he appointed a Nestorian, again a Kerait, Bolghai, as his chancellor.[61] According to William of Rubruck’s account, at the great court festivals, the Nestorian priests were admitted first to bless the Khan’s cup, then followed by Muslim clergy, Buddhist and Daoist monks. Sometimes Mongka himself went to church services with his Nestorian wife. [62] Christianity was also rooted in the royal house of Kipchak-Khanite; Sartaq, the son of the Khan Batu, and Coyat, one of the principal men in the court, were Nestorians.[63]

In 1253, as a fulfillment of his grandfather Chingis Khan’s ambition of conquest of the world, Mongka sent his younger brother Hulegu to conquer Persia and another younger brother Kublai with himself to conquer China.[64] Hulegu started out the conquest at once, with his best general, Ked-Buka (the Bull), a Nestorian Christian, as the commander of the Mongol army’s vanguard.[65] Hulegu’s wife Dokuz was a zealous Christian, who traveled with a portable Nestorian chapel on a wagon.[66] As the armies moved west, “increasing numbers of troops from the Christian tribes of central Asia and southern Russia joined them.” [67] In 1258, the Mongol army stormed Muslim dominated Baghdad, which was also the headquarters of the Nestorian Church with Makika II as its patriarch.[68] In the great massacre of all the inhabitants, only those who took refuge in
the church of the Nestorian patriarch Makika II, and those protected by the queen Dokuz, were spared.[69] After the conquest of Persia, during the fi rst thirty-seven years reign of Hulegu’s family, the Nestorian church enjoyed royal protection from Islamic hostility and favor during the short time of prosperity.[70] All the eastern Christian communities (Armenian, Nestorian and Jacobite) respected Hulegu and Queen Doquz as “the two great stars of the Christian faith” and “another Constantine, another Helen.”[71] Their son Abaka (1265-1282), beside his East Syrian Christian wife Kotai, also married another Chalcedonian Christian woman, Mary, the daughter of the Byzantine emperor of Constantinople, Michael Palaeologus.[72] But the golden time for the Nestorian church ended when Hulegu’s great-grandson Ghazan converted to Islam in 1295.[73]

In 1259, at the same time, Mongka and Kublai were in the process of conquering China. One year after their brother Hulegu conquered Baghdad in Persia, Mongka died of dysentery during the siege of a city in the Sichuan province.[74] In 1260, Kublai proclaimed himself the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire.[75] In 1275, the Nestorian patriarch of Baghdad established an archbishopric in Beijing.[76] In 1279, Kublai Khan conquered all of China and positioned himself as the emperor of the twenty-third Chinese dynasty, where he took the name Yuan and took up residence in the capital of Khanbalik (Beijing).[77] The personal guard of Kublai and his successors in Beijing included 30,000 Christian Alans of the Greek site, originally from Caucasus.[78] Similar to his brother Hulegu in Persia, Kublai also was brought up by their Christian mother Sorghaqtani and favored Nestorian as well as Catholic Christianity during his reign, in spite of his public preference for Buddhism.[79] In addition, a Nestorian named “Er-sa” (in Chinese characters-the name of Jesus in the Uyghur Turkic language), probably from Syria, occupied an important position in the Yuan dynasty and later became the commissioner for Christianity in 1291 and the minister of China in 1297.[80]

The Travels of Marco Polo from 1271-1299 described the city of Samarcan (in Uzbekistan) of the Jagatai-Khanites as having many Nestorian Christians and a church dedicated to St. John the Baptist, built by Prince Jagatai (the second son of Jenghiz Khan, who converted to Christianity and became ruler of central Asia, including today’s Xinjiang, China).[81] When the three Polos (Marco, his father, and uncle) traveled into the territory of Tenduk (the Shanxi province of China today), which was controlled by the Ongut tribes, they witnessed that the Khan George was “a Christian and a priest” with “the greater part of the inhabitants being Christians.”[82] The Polos also witnessed the religious piety of Kublai Khan, as he kissed the book of the four Gospels on Easter
and Christmas and directed all the nobles who were present to do so as well.[83] Though Kublai Khan was quite liberal with respect to the other religions of the Muslims, Jews, and Shamanists, he evidently “regarded the faith of the Christians as the truest and the best, yet he refused to convert to Christianity.”[84] When Marco Polo’s father and uncle questioned him about that before their return to Europe, Kublai Khan answered that Christian ministers did not perform miracles to prove extraordinary powers, as those idolaters (Buddhists, etc.) did, so, if he professed to be a Christian, the nobles would suspect his judgment.[85] Kublai Khan entrusted to them letters to the Pope and to the other western rulers, asking them to send one hundred missionaries who were the best
Christians in doctrine, theology, knowledge, law, wisdom, reason, and arts, to prove, and, thereby, convince his people that the Christian faith and religion is better than all the other religions.[86] Kublai told the Polos that he expected such missionaries could confront those idolaters and show greater spiritual power, and then he would accept Christian baptism.[87]

In the wake of the Mongols, the Nestorian faith even became prominent in South China.
Travelling down to South China, the Polos also witnessed many Nestorians and their churches.[88] In fact, six Nestorian Church buildings in Zhenjiang, and one in Hangzhou, two cities of Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces today, that were built by the Nestorian vice governor, Mar Sargis, were appointed by Kublai Khan, with three more being constructed in Yangzhou.[89] According to the record of Zhi Shun Zhenjiang History, in Yuan China seventy-two Nestorian districts were established.[90] Quan-zhou harbor of the Fujian province at the southern point of China and the eastern end of the Ocean Silk Road might have been a great center of Nestorians according to the many Nestorian cemetery tablets and six Christian churches discovered there in the 1940s—1980s.[91] After Kublai Khan’s death, Daoists and Buddhists from Zhenjiang accused the Nestorians in a civil court of converting Daoists and complained about the obvious popularity of the Nestorian church buildings, winning their cases.[92]

In about 1278,[93] the Nestorian Uyghur Turks- Rabban Bar Sawma from Beijing and Rabban Markos from Kawshang (in Shanxi province today)-were sent by Kublai Khan to worship in Jerusalem, leaving from Beijing for a pilgrimage.[94] This event became an historical landmark in Nestorian Church history. Because of the war between Mongol Persia and Muslim Egypt, the two pilgrims were blocked on the way to Jerusalem, so they went instead toward Baghdad, where the Nestorian Patriarch Mar Denha, who had been appointed by the Nestorian queen Dokuz Khatun, welcomed them.[95] In 1281, after the death of the Patriarch, the thirty-five year old Markos was elected to be the new Patriarch as Mar Yahbh-Allaha III (the new name Yahbh-Allaha was given by Denha, meaning “God gave him”) [96] until his death in November, 1317.[97]

Then the new Ilkhan, Hulegu’s son Abaka (1265-1282), wanted to launch a crusade to Muslim Syria and Egypt, so he sent envoys to the Pope in Rome, James of Aragon, and to Edward I of England suggesting an alliance, but with no practical result.[98] The fourth Ilkhan, Hulegu’s grandson, Arghun (1284-1291), seriously considered seeking an alliance again with Christian Europe against the Muslim East to capture Jerusalem.[99] So, in 1285, he sent a letter to Pope Honorius IV with a detailed plan (the Latin translation has been preserved at the Vatican).[100] In 1287 (the 24th year of Yuan China),[101] with the consent of Kublai Khan, he sent Raban Bar Sawma (who by then was a bishop in the Nestorian court) as an official ambassador to the Pope and the Christian kings of Europe journeying into Byzantium, Italy, France, and England.[102] He was well received by Andronicus II in Constantinople, then stayed one year in Europe and visited Philip IV in Paris, British King Edward I (who even received communion from Rabban Sawma) in Gascony, and the newly elected Pope Nicholas IV from whom he received communion in Rome.[103] While in Rome, Rabban Bar Sawma showed his great knowledge, theology, belief, and eloquence through answering the questions of the Cardinals and winning a debate over them.[104] The biography of these two Uyghurs, Rabban Markos and Rabban Bar Sawma, in a Syriac version “provides a Mongol counterpart to William of Rubruck’s narrative of his embassy from St. Louis to Mongol Khan.”[105] Yet, the diplomatic efforts made by Arghun to Christian Europe, together with two more in 1289 and 1290, ended up with only assurances from the west, but no results.[106]

Nestorian Christianity enjoyed these revivals because of favor from the Mongol royal families. It reached its zenith in the thirteenth century under the Patriarch Mar Yahbh-Allaha (Rabban Markos), who ruled the Church from Baghdad to Beijing in the Mongol Empire. At their root, these revivals basically were a woman’s movement with credit to the strong faith of the Christian mothers and the wives of the Mongol khans and princes. In 1246, when the first two ambassadors of the west, the Franciscan friars Lawrence of Portugal and John of Plano Carpini, sent by Pope Innocent IV in 1245, arrived at the Mongol imperial court, the great yellow yurts city (Golden Residence for the Golden Family of Jenghiz-Khan), they reported that the Nestorians celebrated mass before the Khan’s tent (yurt).[107]

III. The Ambassadors of Western Christendom: Catholic Missions

As mentioned earlier, when the Mongols retreated from Hungary in 1242 because of the death of Ugedey Khan, the danger Western Christendom faced had not appeared completely, because Christian Russia was still occupied as a province of the Mongol Empire. The Mongols would come back once the succession of a new Khan was set up.[108] The new Pope, Innocent IV, however, recognized the whole picture and thus sent the first mission to the Mongols in 1245 “to avert the threatened danger.”[109] The Mongols remained basically unknown to the West before the first missionaries came back. After that, more mission trips were made to the Mongols by Franciscans and Dominicans.

The two Franciscan missionaries sent to the Mongols, Lawrence of Portugal and John of Plano Carpini during their mission from 1245-1247, brought a letter (two bulls [i.e., formal documents bearing the papal seal] enclosed) to the Mongol Khan.[110] In the first bull, the Pope wrote about the theological doctrine of Catholic Christianity, and admonished the Mongol Khan to “acknowledge Jesus Christ the very Son of God” and worship Him “by practicing the Christian religion.”[111] In the second bull, the Pope addressed more political concerns, asking the Khan “what moved you to destroy other nations and what your intentions are for the future.”[112] Therefore, the mission was as much political as religious.[113]

The journey was incredibly long and trying with many life risks. Starting from Lyons, France, on April 16, 1245, they arrived at the Mongol Kipchak Khanate and were well received by the Khan Batu on the lower Volga on April 4, 1246.[114] On July 22, they arrived at the newly elected Great Khan Guyuk’s court and met him.[115] The Nestorian Christians in the Khan’s house told the Friars that they believed Guyuk was about to become a Christian, because “he maintains Christian clerics” and “always has a chapel before his chief tent.”[116] On November 13, the friars set out on the return journey with a letter from Guyuk, as well as the translation, made by the help of a few people, such as the chancellor of the Khan, who was the Nestorian Kerait Chinqai, Guyuk’s tutor,
Nestorian Qdaq, and his counselor the Syrian rabban-ata “who was in charge of affairs relating to his religion,” and a Christian Russian Knight Sangor.[117] In the letter of 1246 to Pope Innocent IV, Guyuk argued that he was supported by God and threatened the Pope and the kings of the West to submit, with a seal in the name of the eternal Tengri (the Mongol’s traditional god) and Great Khan.[118] After going back to the Pope, Friar John wrote his famous narrative so the west would gain first hand knowledge. An interpreter, another brother, Benedict the Pole, who joined their journey to the Mongols in Poland, also wrote a very short narrative about the journey.[119]

Because of the menacing tone in Guyuk’s letter, in 1247, Pope Innocent IV sent the second mission, obviously more political, carried out by the Dominicans this time, Friar Ascelin, Simon of Tournai, and three others.[120] On May 24, they reached the camp of the Kipchakhan Batu, west of the Caspian Sea.[121] They went back to the Pope with a similar message as the first mission’s; yet the mission proved more meaningful, because in this mission the friars met an important officer of Guyuk, Aljigiday, who was interested in establishing relations with the Christians of the West.[122] Aljigiday sent back two Mongol envoys (one of them, Sargis, was a Christian) with the friars in 1248 and the Pope received them.[123] At the same time, Aljigiday took more steps to establish a friendly relationship with the French King St. Louis (Louis IX), through sending the two envoys, David and Mark, with a letter saying the Great Khan intended to protect all the Christians and help West Christendom to take back Jerusalem.[124]

Based on this last encouraging letter, the French King St. Louis sent a team of five envoys with two sergeants led by a Dominican who was in the former mission, Andrew of Longjumeau, with the Mongol envoys, back to the Mongol court, with many presents, including a yurt-chapel of scarlet cloth.[125] The envoys set out from Antioch in 1249, [126] and, after arriving, they were received by the Regent Ogul Gamish, the widow of Guyuk Khan (who had died in March or April 1248), [127] by the River Imil, south-east of Lake Balkash.[128] The Regent demanded submission and tributes from the French King with a warning of destroying them otherwise.[129] The message reached St. Louis in April 1251 in Caesarea.[130] But, beside this discouragement, St. Louis was comforted with the confirmation in the accounts of the existence of a large Christian (Nestorian) population among the Mongols,[131] and he learned later that even the son of Batu Khan, Sartak (or Sartaq), was a Christian.[132] Based on the encouraging part of the reports, St. Louis sent out another mission to see Sartak,[133] and the mission had a defi nitely more religious character than the former ones.[134]

The mission team (four members) included one ambassador of the Pope, Friar John of
Policarpo,[135] and was led by the Franciscan William of Rubruck. It started out on May 7, 1253, entering the Black Sea from Constantinople.[136] When it reached the Mongols, William instructed some Mongols, including khans and other ethnic people they encountered, with the Christian faith and the Catholic doctrine.[137] He found that the Nestorian Christians in the Empire did not drink comos, the horse milk, which could make people drunk easily, or any wine.[138] They saw Sartak, the Nestorian prince of Batu Khan, and presented the letter from the King St. Louis, on August 1, 1253 [139] (or July 31).[140] Then Sartak sent the mission team on to see his father, Batu Khan. When
they saw Batu in his court, William explained to him the Christian doctrine of salvation.[141] Then Batu ordered them to go eastward to the Great Khan, Mongka, the son of the Nestorian Kerait princess.[142]

Before seeing Mongka, a Nestorian Christian who was the chancellor, Bolghai (Bulgai),
examined them carefully with many questions.[143] On January 4 of 1254, they were taken into the court to see Mongka [144] and stayed for months. They went to the Nestorian chapel and church with Mongka, his wife, and their children to join the services there.[145] On the eve of Pentecost (May 30, 1254), by the command of the Khan, in Karakorum, in the presence of three arbiters sent by the Khan, a religious debate was held among the representatives of the three religions: Christianity, Islam and Buddhism.[146] In the meeting, suggested and instructed by William, the Catholic missionaries and Nestorian priest united together, allied with the Muslims (Saracens), to win over the Buddhist (tuins).[147] Then the Nestorians wanted to debate the Muslim, but the latter avoided the debate through answering that they “concede the Gospel was true” and even wish to die a Christian death.[148]

On the day of Pentecost, William saw Mongka again and discussed with him, as a historical interview and sermon, about the Christian faith and doctrine. In his fi nal words to the friar, Mongka showed himself most likely to be a liberal deist with a universalistic view and seemed to criticize Christianity for lacking religious tolerance.[149] After baptizing six people there [150] (on August 18, 1254), William of Rubruck left with a letter from Mongka to Louis IX and returned via Batu’s territory again.[151] The friar arrived at Tripoli on August 15, 1255,[152] and later he wrote the fullest narrative with the most authentic information on the Mongol Empire in its pre-Chinese phase.[153]

Based on the political mission of the Nestorian Uyghur Rabban Bar Sawma to the West and the religious mission of William of Rubruck to the east, in 1289, Pope Nicholas IV sent the Franciscan John of Monte Corvino on a new mission to the Mongols, with letters to the Persian Ilkhan Argun in Baghdad, the Kaidu (Ugedey’s grandson) in Central Asia, and the Great Khan Kublai (who succeeded after Mongka’s death in 1259) in Beijing. [154]

John finally arrived at Beijing via St. Thomas Church, India, where his fellow traveler Friar
Nicholas died and was buried in 1291. John was received warmly by Kublai’s successor and grandson, Temur (1294-1307).[155] He tried to convince Temur to convert from idolatry, but without success.[156] John of Monte Corvino had to carry out the mission alone for twelve years with only help from his friend, the Italian merchant Pietro De Lucalongo. De Lucalongo donated money for one of the two church buildings Monte Corvino built, right in front of the Khan’s court, with a red cross on the top, where the Khan could hear the singing from the church.[157] In this period, according to John’s accounts, the Nestorian religious leader persecuted him through false witnesses.[158] Nevertheless, within six years (1299-1305), he baptized “about six thousand people.” He also converted the Ongut Nestorian Prince George (King Korguz), the son in-law of Temur Khan, to Catholicism. The Prince built a fi ne church with the name of “the Roman church,” and in one day he “converted several thousands of his people.”[159] By January 9 of 1305, John had translated “the whole of the New Testament and the Psalter” into the Mongol language.[160]

John of Monte Corvino worked alone in Beijing for 16 years and achieved the most successful Catholic mission in Asia (1291-1328 or 1329). The Chinese Mongol mission continued to flourish for another forty years under him and his successors. Finally, in 1307, Rome remembered the existence of John and appointed him as Archbishop of Khanbalik (Beijing), as well as sent him the long expected helpers.[161]

In 1313, three Franciscans (Andrew of Perugia, Gerard, and Peregrine) sent by Pope Clement V arrived in Beijing to be John’s assistants; at the same time, the Pope also sent the brothers Thomas, Jerome, and Peter of Florence for missions. Jerome became archbishop in Crimea with jurisdiction over the Kipchak khanate. Gerard became bishop in Quan-zhou (Cayton or Zaytun) of south China and was succeeded by Peregrine and later by Andrew.[162]

According to Peregrine’s letter, they even could preach freely in the mosque to convert Muslims and likewise in the Buddhist temple.[163] But, according to Andrew’s letter, none of the Muslims and Jews converted, and many idolators (Buddhists) were baptized yet they did not adhere to Christian ways.[164] According to Dawson, “as early as 1321, Thomas of Tolentino and his companion were martyred at Tana near Bombay on their way to join John of Monte Corvino in Beijing.”[165]

After John of Monte Corvino, another prominent Catholic missionary in Mongol China was
the Franciscan Odoric of Pordenone (1265-1331), who arrived in Canton of south China via India in 1323, visited the Franciscan monastery in Quan-zhou, and then went northward to Beijing.[166] He witnessed the great success of the mission among Mongols in Beijing.[167] He left Beijing in 1328 and returned to Europe by way of Central Asia.[168] In 1333, after Rome learned of the death of John of Monte Corvino, it sent Friar Nicholas to replace the position of Archbishop, but he seemed to have died before reaching China, though the news of his arrival in Alimalik in Jagatay Khanate (Ili, Xinjiang today) reached Europe in 1338.[169]

In 1339 (or 1338), Pope Benedict XII sent Franciscan Missionary John of Marignolli to China. In the spring of 1340, John passed by Alimalik and stayed there for a while.[170] During his stay, he regrouped the Christian community, which had been persecuted by a Muslim revolt, rebuilt (or built) a church, and baptized a great number of people there. [171] He arrived in Beijing in 1342, bringing some gifts, including a big western horse from the Pope to the Mongol Emperor. He left China from Quan-zhou, sailing to India in 1347 and returned to Avignon in 1353.[172]

In 1339 (or 1340), Franciscan Richard of Burgundy, sent by Pope Benedict XII to be a bishop of Alimalik, was martyred with a number of other Franciscan companions by the hands of Ili Muslims.[173] In 1362, the last Catholic Bishop of Zaytun, James of Florence, was martyred when the Chinese took over Beijing City. In 1369, the Christians were expelled from Beijing by Ming Chinese forces.[174] In 1370, Pope Urban V appointed a professor of the University of Paris, Guillaume of Prato, as archbishop of Beijing, and the next year he named Francesco of Prato as his legate to China, but the Mongol dynasty had just been overthrown by the Chinese Ming dynasty (1368-1644). [175]

Therefore, because of the Muslim revivals, which were combined with intolerance in central Asia, and the Han Chinese revolt in China, having lost the protection from the declined Mongol Empire, the Catholic churches, together with the Nestorian churches, disappeared quickly in the tide of military violence. This also marked the end of the second presence of Christianity in the history of China. However, two hundred years later, at the end of the sixteenth century, Catholic missionaries, the Jesuits, came back to Beijing again.


The Mongol Empire came powerfully onto the world history stage, but did not last long (a
century). The Nestorian churches in the East enjoyed revivals and reached their climax in church history because of the royal Nestorian women’s movement in the Mongol court, especially through the great infl uence of the Kerait princess, Sorghaqtani. However, it is still mysterious how those Turkic tribes became Nestorianized so deeply that they even conquered the Mongol conqueror with their Nestorian faith and culture. The account about the lay Nestorian merchant converting the Keraits seems to lack convincing proof. Did those Nestorian missionaries expelled from the Tang Dynasty of China in a. d. 845 go northward into the Mongol Steppe and fi nally bring those Turkic tribes to Christianity?

Similarly, when the Catholic churches went to the Mongols and East Asia for the fi rst time in history, they also enjoyed a great success through their unique Western political and religious identity. For this they were indebted to the Nestorian women in their yellow yurts. If the Polos had brought back the one hundred best missionaries to Beijing as Khan Kublai had requested, one wonders what would have been the history of the Mongols and of China?

Both Nestorian and Catholic churches fell in Asia when the Mongol Empire fell. Scholars debate about the reason from different perspectives, convincingly, or not, citing Nestorian Christianity being a state-religion, the spiritual and ethical corruption of the Nestorians, the Muslim and Chinese revolts, and so forth, as the reason for these churches ultimate failure to endure. However, I think the root problem of their failure could be that the rituals and doctrine-oriented Nestorian and Catholic faith was too rigid and abstract and without enough empirical application of the faith to appeal to grassroots people. They especially lacked the witness of God’s mighty power in the name of Jesus Christ. Eastern people are used to their cultures and religions, which are function-oriented with applicable and practical methods for daily living, and witnessing the power of the divine being they worship.

Kublai Khan pointed that out to the Polos. When Niccolo and Maffeo of Marco Polo’s family were about to leave China during the Yuan Dynasty of the Mongol Empire after having stayed in Khan’s court for 17 years, they earnestly requested Kublai Khan to talk about what he thought about Christianity. It seemed to them that Kublai would think that belief in Christianity was the best, but Kublai had not openly expressed that he believed in Christianity. Before they left, Kublai made the following explanation: “You must have seen, Christians in this country are ignorant, incapable, they don’t have the ability to perform divine miracles, but those who believe in idol-worshiping religions can do exceptional things. I sit in front of the table, they can make the cup in the lobby fl y over and pour the liquor or drink into my mouth, I don’t have to move my hands at all. . . . So, if I accepted baptism and Christianity, people would think I have committed a serious mistake.” [176]

Similarly, being disappointed with the Great Khan Mongka’s stubbornness and his reluctance to convert to be Christian (though he favored Christianity mostly), after the last conversation with Mongka on the day of Pentecost, the Franciscan missionary William of Rubruck concluded sadly: “If I had possessed the power to work miracles, as Moses did, he might perhaps have humbled himself.” [177]



1 This article develops an essay submitted (12/17/2007) for Boston University School of Theology’s History of Christian Mission class taught by Dr. Dana Robert.

2 For example, Williston Walker, Richard A. Norris, David W. Lotz, Robert T. Handy, A History of the Christian Church, 4th ed. (New York: Scribner’s, 1985), 647. They also note the outreach of Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), 514.

3 All the Janghiz-Khanite princes in the Mongol Empire were residents in the Yellow (Golden) Residence, so in this article it refers to royal families. René Grousset, The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia, trans. Naomi Walford (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1970), 269.

4 Grousset, Empire, vii.

5 John of Plano Carpini, in Christopher Dawson, ed., The Mongol Mission: Narratives and Letters of the Franciscan Missionaries in Mongolia and China in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, trans. a nun of Stanbrook Abbey (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1955), xiii.

6 Grousset, Empire, 259, 288.
7 Dawson, Mongol, xii.
8 Grousset, Empire, 19, 80.
9 Ibid., 82.
10 Ibid., 113.
11 Ibid., 114.
12 Ibid., 124-25.
13 Ibid.
14 Ibid., 128.
15 Ibid., 136.
16 Ibid., 199.
17 Ibid., 193.
18 Ibid., 216.

19 Ibid., 226. Grousset thought Tangut were of Tibetan stock. I argue they were of Caucasian Indo-European stock in my book History of Christianity in Xinjiang, China, with a general history background (Boston: Chinese Christian Theological Association, 2009), 40.

20 Ibid., 230.
21 Ibid., 231.
22 Ibid., 236.
23 Ibid., 236-37.
24 Dawson, Mongol, xi.
25 Ibid.; Grousset, Empire, 245-46.
26 Grousset, Empire, 247-48.
27 Ibid., 256.
28 Ibid., 258-59.
29 Grousset, Empire, 253-55 for the whole paragraph.
30 Dawson, Mongol, xiii.
31 Ibid.; Grousset, Empire, 266-67.
32 Dawson, Mongol, xiv; Grousset, Empire, 267.
33 Grousset, Empire, 254.
34 Dawson, Mongol, xv; Grousset, Empire, 268.
35 The whole paragraph refers to Grousset, Empire, 250-52.

36 J. N. D. Kelly explains that Nestorius, enthroned as bishop of Constantinople on a. d. April 10, 428, claimed that in Jesus “divinity and humanity…must have existed side by side, each retaining its peculiar properties and operation unimpaired.” So, to him, it was inappropriate to talk about Mary as bearing God in her womb—only the man Jesus could
be said to be born—and “he objected to…speaking of God” as “dying” on the cross. To the orthodox, this sounded too adoptionist—as if the Christ spirit fl ew onto Jesus at the baptism and off at the crucifi xion—which was reminiscent of the heretical views that Theodotus, a Byzantine leather-merchant, taught in Rome around a. d. 190. But Nestorius did not go that far. Infl uenced by Platonism, he considered the divine nature to be “impassible” (without emotions or suffering), but always “existing in ‘the man.’” As the human nature of Jesus struggled to be born, was tempted, and struggled through life
and death, the divine nature stood by within him untouched: “the two natures of the incarnate Christ remained unaltered and distinct in the union.” Nestorius is quoted to have preached, “I hold the natures apart,” Early Christian Doctrines, 2nd ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), 310-13, 116. Since, to him, if Mary were seen to be “God’s mother,” that would imply she was divine and since he still insisted that the Lord Jesus Christ be worshiped as one person, some feel Nestorius was more a victim of politics than of theological disagreement and point out that Martin Luther was sympathetic to him yet insisting Mary should be called Mother of God.

37 Qian-zhi Zhu, Nestorian Christianity in China (Beijing: People’s Publishing House, 1998), 73, 75.

38 Samuel Hugh Moffett, A History of Christianity in Asia, Volume I: Beginnings to 1500 (Marynoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2004), 400.

39 Ibid.
40 Grousset, Empire, 200.
41 Ibid., 209.
42 Ibid., 212; Moffett, History, 402.
43 Grousset, Empire, 274.
44 Ibid., 282.
45 Ibid.

46 Moffett, History, 402, saying only three sons instead of four is not accurate, refer to Grousset, Empire, 285.

47 Grousset, Empire, 190.
48 Ibid., 213.
49 Ibid.
50 Ibid., 216.
51 Ibid., 301.
52 Ibid.
53 Ibid., 300.
54 Qian-zhi Zhu, Nestorian, 175.
55 Grousset, Empire, 256.
56 Ibid., 257.
57 Ibid., 268-69.
58 Ibid., 270.
59 Ibid., 273-74.
60 Moffett, History, 422.
61 Grousset, Empire, 275.
62 Ibid., 280.
63 Ibid., 396, 277.
64 Ibid., 282.
65 Moffett, History, 422.
66 Ibid.
67 Ibid.
68 Ibid., 423.
69 Ibid.
70 Moffett, History, 426; Grousset, Empire, 355-56, 378.
71 Ibid. 367.

72 Moffett, History, 427; Grousset, Empire, 368, describes Mary as a despoina (“virgin”); Dale T. Irvin and Scott Sunquist, History of the World Christian Movement, Volume 1 (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2001), 460.

73 Moffett, History, 426.
74 Grousset, Empire, 284.
75 Ibid., 285.
76 Ibid., 302.
77 Ibid., 288.
78 Ibid., 304.
79 Ibid., 300.
80 Ibid., 304.

81 Marco Polo, The Travels of Marco Polo (Old Chelsea Station, New York: Cosimo, 2006), xi, xv, 62.

82 Ibid., 97.
83 Ibid., 115.
84 Ibid., 116.
85 Ibid., 116-17.
86 Moffett, History, 445-46.
87 Polo, Travels, 117.
88 Ibid., 226.

89 Christoph Baumer, The Church of the East: An Illustrated History of Assyrian Christianity (London: I. B. Tauris & Co Ltd., 2006), 219.

90 Qian-zhi Zhu, Nestorian, 183.

91 Ibid., 183 and the photos of illustration in the fi rst part of the book; Baumer, Church, 219.

92 Baumer, Church, 219-20.
93 Dawson, Mongols, xxviii.

94 Sir E. A. Wallis Budge, KT., trans., The Monks of Kublai Khan Emperor of China, or the History of the Life and Travels of Rabban Sawma, Envoy and Plenipotentiary of the Mongol Khans to the Kings of Europe, and Markos who as Mar Yahbh-Allaha III Became Patriarch of the Nestorian Church in Asia (London: The Religious Tract Society, 1928), 6
(introduction). (This is a translation into English of an abridgement in Syriac by an unknown author of an account of the journeys of Rabban Sawma, written by him in Persian.)

95 Ibid.
96 Ibid., 6, 34-35.
97 Ibid., 49.
98 Moffett, History, 427.
99 Ibid., 433.
100 Grousset, Empire, 373.
101 Qian-zhi Zhu, Nestorian, 188.
102 Moffett, History, 432-34; Budge, Monks, 37-38.
103 Dawson, Mongol, xxix; Qian-zhi Zhu, Nestorian, 188.
104 Budge, Monks, 91-95.
105 Dawson, Mongol, xxviii.
106 Moffett, History, 434.
107 Dawson, Mongol, xv; Grousset, Empire, 270.
108 Dawson, Mongol,. xiv-xv.
109 Ibid., xv.
110 Ibid.
111 Ibid., 75.
112 Ibid., 76.
113 Moffett, History, 406.
114 Grousset, Empire, 270; Dawson, Mongol, 55-56.
115 Dawson, Mongol, 60, 68.
116 Ibid., 68.
117 Ibid., 67, 69-70; Grousset, Empire, 270.
118 Dawson, Mongol, 85-86.
119 Ibid., 79.
120 Ibid., xviii.
121 Ibid., xix.
122 Ibid.
123 Ibid.
124 Ibid.
125 Ibid., xviii-xix.

126 Moffett, History, 407; Dawson, Mongol, xx, saying the journey started out in 1248, which is not accurate, cf., Moffet and Grousset, Empire, 272-73.

127 Grousset, Empire, 272.
128 Dawson, Mongol, xx.
129 Ibid.
130 Grousset, Empire, 273.
131 Dawson, Mongol, xx.
132 Ibid., Mongol, xxi.

133 Peter Jackson, trans., ed., with David Morgan, The Mission of Friar William of Rubruck (London: The Hakluyt Society, 1990), 97; Dawson, Mongol, xxi; Grousset, Empire, 97.

134 Dawson, Mongol, xxi.
135 Ibid.; Jackson, Mission, 132.
136 Grousset, Empire, 276.
137 Jackson, Mission, 101, 103.
138 Ibid., 102, 104.
139 Ibid., 118.
140 Grousset, Empire, 277.
141 Jackson, Mission, 133.
142 Ibid., 134.
143 Ibid., 173.
144 Ibid., 176.
145 Ibid., 189-191.
146 Ibid., 229-30.
147 Ibid., 231.
148 Ibid., 234.
149 Ibid., 236-237.
150 Ibid., 253.
151 Grousset, Empire, 281.
152 Jackson, Mission, 269, 275.
153 Dawson, Mongol, xxi.
154 Ibid., xxxi.
155 Ibid., xxxii, 224; Grousset, Empire, 313.
156 Dawson, Mongol, 224.
157 Grousset, Empire, 314; Dawson, Mongol, 229.
158 Dawson, Mongol, 224.
159 Ibid., 225-226, 232; Grousset, Empire, 314.
160 Dawson, Mongol, 227.
161 Ibid., xxxiii for this whole paragraph.
162 Grousset, Empire, 314, for this whole paragraph.
163 Dawson, Mongol, 233.
164 Ibid., 237.
165 Dawson, Mongol, xxxiv.
166 Grousset, Empire, 314-16.
167 Ibid., 316-17.
168 Ibid., 318.
169 Dawson, Mongol, xxxiii-iv; Grousset, Empire, 319.
170 Grousset, Empire, 319.
171 Ibid., 342.
172 Ibid., 319.
173 Grousset, Empire, 342.
174 Dawson, Mongol, xxxiv.
175 Grousset, Empire, 319.
176 Polo, Travels, 116-117.
177 Jackson, Mission, 239.

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