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The Voyages of Rabban Sawma

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“The Lives of Mar Yahbh-Allaha and Rabban Sawma” is a first account of a Christian monk in the XIII century who originally came from the area of China near Beijing and ended up visiting Western Europe as an ambassador of the Mongol Ilkhan of Persia.

 

“The Lives of Mar Yahbh-Allaha and Rabban Sawma” document contains the description of the voyage of the Chinese Nestorian ascetic monk named Sawma to the Western Europe. His travel started around 1275, when Sawma along with another monk named Markos set out from China with the intent to visit Jerusalem and the holy places, “so that they might obtain forgiveness of their sins and full and complete absolution.”[1]Their journey to Jerusalem was interrupted by different circumstances – by the on-going wars in the Syrian territories and then by the election of Markos on the post of Patriarch of Baghdad in 1281, where he had to settle. For about couple of years, Rabban Sawma most likely had lived with his younger friend (Markos), helping him through the period of anxiety on the new post. Then, with the succession of King Arghon, the journey of Rabban Sawma continued in the direction toward the Western Europe. The narrative tells us that “Arghon intended to go into the countries of Palestine and Syria and subjugate them and take possession of them”[2], but he realized that without the help of “Western Kings” who were Christians, he wouldn’t be able to fulfill his desire. Thus, he asked the Patriarch – Mar Yahbh-Allaha (former monk Markos) to find him a man who would be worthy ambassador to carry the letters to kings of Byzantium, Italy, France and England. Mar Yahbh-Allaha couldn’t find anyone better than his friend Rabban Sawma whom he appointed to carry the political mission to Europe and who was very excited to visit the “land of Romans”.

Thus, Rabban Sawma with the deacons and other appointed delegates arrived in the great city of Constantinople. After they took rest, Sawma requested to see the local churches, tombs, relics etc. that indicates that the legendary European religious heritage was famous and familiar to someone who came from a very remote place across the whole continent, who also represented completely different type of culture. The most striking thing to me about it is that the Chinese society formed and civilized much earlier than the European and, in my opinion, possessed much richer cultural and religious foundations and where also the traditional trading started flourishing when there was no even the united European nation formed with the distinct religious, political, social and cultural features. And somewhere around the year 1285, we witness not only well-formed nation with the strong religious foundation that is inseparable part of the civil life but also the united society or nation who the Chinese peoples would look upon realizing their strength and influence even on their own nation. Probably, it would even seem to the outsider that Europeans possessed the Christian origins in their relics that could realistically attract others for the pilgrimage to Europe instead of or equally to the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Because things that the Chinese visitors saw, for instance, in Byzantium were very impressive to them – the picture of Mary that Luke the Evangelist had painted, the hand of John the Baptist, portions of the bodies of Lazarus and Mary Magdalene, the stone which was laid on the grave of the Lord, the stone that Mary wept on and that stayed wet, the stone bowl in which Jesus changed the water into wine in Cana and much more. [3] That was pretty much everything, why to go to Jerusalem? They also saw the splendid church of the Divine Sophia that “it is impossible for a man to describe [adequately] to one who has not seen it, and say how high and how spacious it is.”[4] If they couldn’t describe it, it means that they’ve never seen anything like that before; something that, probably, made them feel as they were in heaven.

 

  Next, we move to Great Rome, where Rabban Sawma meets the cardinals and has a conversation with them about his position, the reasons why he came to visit them, about the place where the Catholicus resided. First of all, the cardinals are amazed, surprised and even honored that “the deacon of the Throne of the Patriarch of the East ha[s] come on an embassy from the king of the Mongols.”[5] But before then, they made sure who preached the Gospel in their quarter of the world and, obviously, were satisfied with the answer of Sawma. Then, the Rabban describes how kings and queens in Asia treat Christianity and they continue into the discussion of the faith creed. Having discussed that for a while, Sawma requested to see their local relics and churches as well saying “that [the cardinals would] confer a great favour on [him]”[6]. It looks like he and his delegates were still under impression of what they saw in Constantinople and were curious what they see in Rome. They saw the churches of Peter and Paul, places where the kings were being appointed for the throne, gold reliquary in the church of Paul where the head of St. Stephen the Martyr and the hand of Ananias were kept; their impression about the greatness of those place was that strong that again author repeats that it couldn’t be described.

 

 Here we see, not just the presence of so-called relics that one might think are just ascribed with some power and might not be real; but whatever they were, for the European Christians and for the outsiders coming from any remote land who didn’t not have anything like that, it was a great legendary heritage, even the foundation that their faith rested upon, those relics validated their faith making it visible and real. They, probably, built those splendid churches and cathedral in order to place a small finger of the holy person; that how important those small things were to them. The possession of these relics by Europeans was, obviously, something that would make a Christian outsider honor the land where the relics were kept and look upon “keepers” as the holy authorities.

Then, Rabban Sawma goes to Paris where he meets the King Philip IV who he discussed the matters about Jerusalem with and where he also sees, probably, for the first time, a type of university where “thirty thousand scholars” were studying Holy Scriptures, philosophy, geometry and other sciences who were sponsored by the king to do that. Most of the scholars agree that the number is an exaggeration but this how great his impression was about the school. Then he saw the local relics – the Crown of Thorns and the piece of cross. Again there were specific stories and/or legends connected with the relics – “when our fathers”, says the Philip IV, “took Constantinople… they brought these blessed objects from it.”[7] These particular relics were the matter of pride that symbolized courage and power inherited from the fathers.

After Sawma visited King Edward I of England who as other kings expressed his support for King Arghon, he retuned to Rome where he had the chance to celebrate the Eucharist with the new Pope who after seeing Rabban Sawma participating in the Eucharist rejoiced saying: “The language is different, but the use is the same.”[8] It looked like the last stage of satisfaction with the Asian visitor. Upon the departure, Rabban Sawma requested the Pope to give him some of their relics, on what the Pope answered that if they had been in habit of giving out the relics to the visitors, they would have come to an end. But for Sawma they made an exception because no one visited them from such a remote place before and, after all, the Rabban Sawma wasn’t just a visitor but an ambassador of the Chinese Empire. All this definitely indicates that the pilgrimage to see European relics from at least neighboring countries was very popular at the time which means that outside Christians treated them at least as the subject of interest and curiosity and for many, these were the holy objects to be treated with honor.

Unfortunately, such an exaltation of the relics inevitably creates a great deal of superstition and so-called idolatry because not so many people are able to look at the relics and what they represent symbolically that in turn, makes people ascribe certain powers to this things and think that these particular objects are what helps and saves instead of the true powers, that is the powers of God that stand behind and beyond visible.  However, the story of Rabban Sawma, undoubtedly, remains an example of unifying power of the religion in spite of any cultural differences, when treated and approached with respect, honesty and diplomacy showing that if it may work properly on the higher societal level, it might work on any levels in the same way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography:

 

-          John W. Coakley, Andrea Sterk, Readings in World Christian History, Vl. 1 Earliest Christianity to 1453 (New York: Orbis Books, 2004)

 

-          Sir E. A. Wallis Budge, KT., The Monks Of Kublai Khan, Emperor of China, The History of the Life and Travels of Rabban Sawma, Envoy and Plenipotentiaty 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); Digital Version of the book at: Assyrian International News Agency –

       http://www.aina.org/books/mokk/mokk.htm

-          Images are taken from Wikipedia – free online encyclopedia and from www.photoseek.com

 



[1] Sir E. A. Wallis Budge, KT., The Monks Of Kublai Khan, Emperor of China, The History of the Life and Travels of Rabban Sawma, Envoy and Plenipotentiaty 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) p. 17; Digital Version of the book at: Assyrian International News Agency –

http://www.aina.org/books/mokk/mokk.htm .

[2] John W. Coakley, Andrea Sterk, Readings in World Christian History, Vl. 1 Earliest Christianity to 1453 (New York: Orbis Books, 2004) p. 373

[3] John W. Coakley, Andrea Sterk, Readings in World Christian History, Vl. 1 Earliest Christianity to 1453 (New York: Orbis Books, 2004) p. 374

[4] John W. Coakley, Andrea Sterk, p. 374

*[5] John W. Coakley, Andrea Sterk, p. 374

[6] John W. Coakley, Andrea Sterk, p. 374

[7] John W. Coakley, Andrea Sterk, p. 37

[8] John W. Coakley, Andrea Sterk, p. 37

 

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Created December, 2007