Tag Archives: World history

The Mongol invasion of Eastern Europe


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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In the 13th century, the Mongols invaded Europe. General Subutai, a Mongolian general, and the primary military strategist of Genghis Khan and Ögedei Khan was the mastermind behind the invasion. Batu Khan and Kadan, both grandsons of Genghis Khan, the first Khagan of the Mongol Empire commanded the Mongolian forces.

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Mongol Empire, 13th century.
Mongol Empire, 13th century.

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The Mongol invasion caused the severe and rampant destruction of East Slavic principalities and major cities, such as Kiev and Vladimir. The invasion also affected Central Europe. The Battle of Legnica on April 9, 1241 that caused the fragmentation of Poland and the Battle of Mohi on April 11, 1241, in the Kingdom of Hungary threatened to cast European Christendom under the rule of Ögedei Khan, the 2nd Khagan of the Mongol Empire.

Realizing they had to cooperate in the face of the Mongol invasion, warring princes of central Europe suspended local wars and conflicts until the Mongols left their lands.

The myth of Prester John

The early missionaries to the East and Far East countries were inspired by the myth of Prester John (Latin: Presbyter Johannes). The popular European chronicles and traditions from the 12th through the 17th century abound with various accounts about this mythical personage.

One such account depicts him as a Christian patriarch, a descendant of the Three Magi, ruling a kingdom full of riches, marvels, and strange creatures.

According to some early chronicles, Prester John, a Patriarch of the Saint Thomas Christians, resided in India. But after the Mongol invasion of eastern Europe, some accounts said he ruled a “Nestorian (Church of the East) Christian nation somewhere amid the Muslims and pagans of the Orient in Central Asia. The authors of these chronicles must have assumed so from works like the Acts of Thomas, one of the apocrypha of The New Testament. This apocryphal work has documented the tales about Thomas the Apostle’s subcontinental travels and the evangelistic success of the Nestorian Christians. The Acts of Thomas inculcated in the minds of the Europeans an image of India as an exotic country. It described the earliest account of Saint Thomas establishing a Christian sect called the “Saint Thomas Christians“. These motifs were instrumental for the later accounts of Prester John.

It was a time when ethnic and inter-religious tension prevailed. The European Christians saw Prester John as a symbol of the Church’s universality, transcending culture and geographical bounds to encompass all humanity.

Thus, the kingdom of Prester John fired the imagination of generations of adventurers and became the object of a quest that remained out of reach.

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"Preste" as the Emperor of Ethiopia, enthroned on a map of East Africa in an atlas prepared by the Portuguese for Queen Mary, 1558. (British Library)
“Preste” as the Emperor of Ethiopia, enthroned on a map of East Africa in an atlas prepared by the Portuguese for Queen Mary, 1558. (British Library)

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Portuguese explorers of the time thought that they had found the king in Ethiopia, which had been a Christian kingdom since the 4th century.

Alberic de Trois-Fontaines, a 13th-century chronicler, recorded that in 1165 several European rulers, such as Manuel I Comnenus (1143 – 1180), the Byzantine emperor, and Frederick I Barbarossa (1122 –  1190), the Holy Roman emperor received a letter sent by Prester John.

The Letter had a tale of wonder about the richness of the Nestorian Kingdom. The contents of the letter suggest that the author was aware of the Romance of Alexander and the apocryphal Acts of Thomas. The many marvels of the richness of the Nestorian kingdom captured the imagination of Europeans.

For centuries, the letter translated into many languages circulated accruing more embellishments with each copy. Today, more than a hundred examples of the letter still exist. The invention of printing perpetuated the letter’s popularity during the Age of Discovery. The essence of the letter was that a lost kingdom of Nestorian Christians still existed somewhere in Central Asia. It is presumed the author of the Letter was a European though the purpose served by the letter remains unclear.

The credence given to the reports about Prester John  was such that on September 27, 1177, Pope Alexander III sent his physician Philip to Prester John with a letter. The physician never returned with a reply from the mythical Prester John, who never existed!

Friar Giovanni da Pian del Carpine

While some scholars argue the Age of Discovery began in 1492, others point toward earlier dates. I would place the Age of Discovery to the mid 13th century, when the  65-year-old Friar Giovanni da Pian del Carpine led the  first formal Papal mission to the Mongols in April 1245 after the Mongol invasion of eastern Europe took place

With the dread of the Mongols still on the mind of the people in eastern Europe, Pope Innocent IV, sent the first formal Papal mission to the Mongols. The Pope chose 65-year-old Friar Giovanni da Pian del Carpine to head this mission. The aim of this mission was in part to protest against the invasion of the Christian lands by the Mongols, and also to gather trustworthy information about Mongol armies and their future intentions.

The mission left Lyon on Easter day April 16, 1245. Friar Giovanni bore a letter “Cum non solum” dated March 13, 1245, from the Pope to Ögedei Khan, the Mongol Emperor. Another friar, Stephen of Bohemia, accompanied Giovanni, broke down at Kaniv near Kiev. Another Minorite, Benedykt Polak, appointed to act as interpreter joined Giovanni at Wrocław.

After their perilous journey the Papal legate wrote that they were, “so ill that we could scarcely sit a horse; and throughout all that Lent our food had been nought but millet with salt and water, and with only snow melted in a kettle for drink.

Friar Giovanni and his companions rode an estimated 3000 miles in 106 days. Only when they reached their destination, they came to know that Emperor Ögedei Khan had died nearly four years before they undertook their journey.

On August 24, 1246, Friar Giovanni and his companions witnessed the formal enthronement of Güyük Khan as the Third Khagan of the Mongol Empire. The new emperor refused the invitation to become a Christian, but demanded that the Pope and rulers of Europe should come to him and swear  their allegiance to him.

When Güyük Khan dismissed the expedition in November 1246, he gave them a letter to the Pope, written in Mongol, Arabic, and Latin. It was a brief imperious assertion of the Mongol emperor’s office as the “scourge of God.”

Later on, other Catholic emissaries followed. In the 1250s, William of Rubruck, traveled east on a quest to convert the Mongols to Christianity.

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The Iberian Peninsula: Part 2 – The Reconquista


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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Many ousted Gothic princes and nobles took refuge in the unconquered north Asturian highlands. From there, they aimed to reconquer their lands from the Moors. This war is known as the Reconquista, the Spanish and Portuguese word for Reconquest.

Many ousted Gothic princes and nobles took refuge in the unconquered north Asturian highlands. From there, they aimed to reconquer their lands from the Moors. This war is known as the Reconquista, the Spanish and Portuguese word for Reconquest.

Co-existence and alliances between Muslims and Christians were prevalent, so also were the frontier skirmishes and raids.

At the end of the 9th century, the ideology of a Christian reconquest of the Iberian peninsula started to take shape. The Christian Chronica Prophetica (883-884), a document stressing the Christian and Muslim cultural and religious divide in Iberia set a landmark by stressing the necessity to drive the Muslims out of the Iberian Peninsula. Even then, it was common for the Christian and Muslim rulers to become divided and to fight amongst themselves. Also, the mercenaries from both sides fought for whoever paid the most.

As time wore on, the idea of the Reconquista seems to have faded in the minds of the Christians. The 10th and 11th-century documents are silent on any idea of a reconquest.

By 1172, all Islamic Iberia was part of the Moroccan Berber Muslim Almohad Caliphate. Between 1146 and 1173, the Almohads wrested control of the Moorish principalities from the Almoravids and transferred the capital from Cordoba to Seville.

In the late 11th century, when staunch Muslim Jihad ideology in Al-Andalus confronted the Christians, the religious ideology of a Christian reconquest sprouted once again in the minds of the Christians and they started the Crusades. Later, military orders like the Order of Santiago, Montesa, Order of Calatrava and the Knights Templar fought in Iberia.

The Almohad Caliphate dominated Iberia until 1212. At that time, the Christian princes of Castile, Aragon, Navarre, and Portugal formed an alliance and defeated Muhammad III, “al-Nasir” (1199–1214) at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in the Sierra Morena. Soon after, the Almohad Caliphate lost all their Moorish dominions in Iberia.  In 1236, the great Moorish city of Cordova fell to the Christians. In 1248, the Christians  conquered the city of Seville.

Gradually, the Christian kingdoms to the north retook control of the Iberian peninsula, and by 1300, the Moors controlled only Granada, a small region in the south of present-day Spain.

The Catholic Monarchs

“The Catholic Monarchs” (Spanish: Reyes Católicos) is the joint title used in history for Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon. They were second cousins from the House of Trastámara. Since both descended from John I of Castile, Pope Sixtus IV gave a papal dispensation for their marriage to deal with consanguinity.

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Queen Isabella I of Castile and León with her husband King Ferdinand II of Aragon.
Queen Isabella I of Castile and León with her husband King Ferdinand II of Aragon.

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The marriage of 18-year-old Isabella and 17-year-old Ferdinand took place on October 19, 1469, in the city of Valladolid. This marriage helped to unite the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon under the same crown. Isabella became the Queen of Castile in 1474 and Ferdinand became the King of Aragon in 1479. Though their marriage united the two kingdoms, what later became Spain, it was still a union of two crowns rather than a unitary state. They ruled independently and their kingdoms retained part of their own regional laws and governments for the next few decades.

The Spanish Inquisition

In the twelfth century, Pope Lucius III  created the Inquisition to fight heresy in the south of what is now France and constituted it in some European kingdoms. In 1478, the Catholic Monarchs requested the assent of Pope Sixtus IV to  introduce the Inquisition to Castile. On November 1, 1478, the Pope published the Papal bull Exigit Sinceras Devotionis Affectus, to establish the Inquisition  in the Kingdom of Castile. It was later extended to all Spain.

The Spanish Inquisition targeted forced converts from Islam (Moriscos, Conversos and secret Moors) and from Judaism (Marranos, Conversos, and Crypto-Jews) who came under suspicion of either continuing to adhere to their old religion or of having fallen back into it. Thus, Spain modeled its national aspirations as the guardian of Christianity and Catholicism.

The Granada War

The Catholic Monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand set a goal to complete the Christian reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula by conquering the Moorish Sultanate and Kingdom of Granada. They launched a series of campaigns known as the Granada War. Pope Sixtus IV helped the Granada War by granting a tithe and implementing a crusade tax to invest in the war.

Two Andalusian nobles, Rodrigo Ponce de León and Diego de Merlo led the Castilian forces. The Granada War began in 1482 with the seizure on the strategic town of Alhama de Granada, in the province of Granada, about 50 km from the city of Granada.

The war proved to be a long, drawn-out campaign. The 10-year Granada War was not a continuous effort, but a series of seasonal campaigns launched in spring and broken off in winter.

In 1491, the Catholic Monarchs summoned Abu Abdallah Muhammad XII, the twenty-second and last Nasrid ruler of Granada to surrender the city of Granada, besieged by the Castilians.

After 10 years of fighting, the Granada War ended on January 2, 1492. Muhammad XII surrendered the Emirate of Granada, the city of Granada, and the Alhambra palace to the Castilian forces.

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The Capitulation of Granada by F. Pradille y Ortiz, 1882.
The Capitulation of Granada by F. Pradille y Ortiz, 1882.

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Six days after the event, an eyewitness wrote a private letter to the bishop of León:

The Moorish sultan with about eighty or a hundred on horseback very well dressed went forth to kiss the hand of their Highnesses. According to the final capitulation agreement both Isabel and Ferdinand will decline the offer and the key to Granada will pass into Spanish hands without Muhammad XII having to kiss the hands of Los Reyes, as the Spanish royal couple became known. The indomitable mother of Muhammad XII insisted on sparing her son this final humiliation.

Though the Granada war was a joint project between Isabella’s Crown of Castile and Ferdinand’s Crown of Aragon, the bulk of the troops and funds came from Castile. So,  Castile annexed Granada. Apart from the presence of King Ferdinand himself, the Crown of Aragon provided naval collaboration, guns, and some financial loans.

The  traditional Spanish historiography  considers the Granada War  as the final war of the “Reconquista“.

The aftermath of the Granada War saw the end of “convivencia” (“live and let live”) between religions.

Between 1480 and 1492, the Christian Monarchs forced all Muslims and Jews to convert to Christianity or face expulsion. Many Jews and Muslims fled to North Africa and the Ottoman Empire.

The Alhambra Decree issued in January 1492 forced the Jews in the Iberian peninsula to convert to Christianity or be exiled. In 1501, all of Granada’s Muslims were obliged to either convert to Christianity, become slaves or be exiled. By 1526, this prohibition spread to the rest of Spain and the Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula was complete.

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← Previous: Part 1 – Conquest by the Muslims

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The Iberian Peninsula: Part 1 – Conquest by the Muslims


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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Greek geographers used the ancient Greek word Ιβηρία (Ibēría) to refer to the land mass known today as the Iberian Peninsula (modern day Spain and Portugal). Hecataeus of Miletus (c. 550 BC – c. 476 BC), an early Greek historian  was the first to use this term during the time of the first Persian invasion of Greece which began in 492 BC.

In Europe, after the Scandinavian and Balkan peninsulas, Iberia is the third-largest peninsula, located in the southwest corner of Europe.

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Hispania in 418 AD
Hispania in 418 AD

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Hispania was the Roman name for the Iberian Peninsula. The modern name España derives from Hispania.

Roderic, the last king of the Goths

In 711, an army of Muslim Moors composed of North African Berber soldiers with some Arabs, under Tariq ibn-Ziyad and other Muslim generals, crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and landed at Gibraltar. The Islamic army began its conquest of the Visigothic Kingdom of Hispania ruled by King Roderic, known in the legends as “the last king of the Goths“.

According to the Chronicle of 754, a Latin-language history in 95 sections composed in 754 in a part of Spain under Arab occupation, Roderic immediately upon securing his throne gathered a force to oppose the Moors raiding in the south of the Iberian peninsula.

Since there were just a few freemen among the Goths, Roderic gathered together an army of unwilling slave conscripts. He made several expeditions against the invaders led by the Berber general Tariq ibn-Ziyad.

The early modern historian al-Maqqari, in his “The Breath of Perfume,” places the following long sermon to the troops in Tariq ibn-Ziyad’s mouth before  the Battle of Guadalete:

Oh my warriors, whither would you flee? Behind you is the sea, before you, the enemy. You have left now only the hope of your courage and your constancy. Remember that in this country you are more unfortunate than the orphan seated at the table of the avaricious master. Your enemy is before you, protected by an innumerable army; he has men in abundance, but you, as your only aid, have your own swords, and, as your only chance for life, such chance as you can snatch from the hands of your enemy.

If the absolute want to which you are reduced is prolonged ever so little, if you delay to seize immediate success, your good fortune will vanish, and your enemies, whom your very presence has filled with fear, will take courage. Put far from you the disgrace from which you flee in dreams and attack this monarch who has left his strongly fortified city to meet you. Here is a splendid opportunity to defeat him, if you will consent to expose yourselves freely to death.

Do not believe that I desire to incite you to face dangers which I shall refuse to share with you. During the attack, I myself will be in the fore, where the chance of life is always least. Remember that if you suffer a few moments in patience, you will afterward enjoy supreme delight. Do not imagine that your fate can be separated from mine, and rest assured that if you fall, I shall perish with you, or avenge you.

You have heard that in this country, there are a large number of ravishingly beautiful Greek maidens, their graceful forms are draped in sumptuous gowns on which gleam pearls, coral, and purest gold, and they live in the palaces of royal kings.

The Commander of True Believers, Alwalid, son of Abdalmelik, has chosen you for this attack from among all his Arab warriors; and he promises that you shall become his comrades and shall hold the rank of kings in this country. Such is his confidence in your intrepidity. The one fruit which he desires to obtain from your bravery is that the word of God shall be exalted in this country and that the true religion shall be established here. The spoils will belong to yourselves.

Remember that I place myself in the front of this glorious charge which I exhort you to make. At the moment when the two armies meet hand to hand, you will see me, never doubt it, seeking out this Roderick, tyrant of his people, challenging him to combat, if God is willing. If I perish after this, I will have had at least the satisfaction of delivering you, and you will easily find among you an experienced hero, to whom you can confidently give the task of directing you. But should I fall before I reach to Roderick, redouble your ardor, force yourselves to the attack and achieve the conquest of this country, in depriving him of life. With him dead, his soldiers will no longer defy you.

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The weakness of the Visigothic kingdom was displayed in Roderick's stunning defeat at Guadalete / Río Barbate, (July 19, 711). It is believed that Roderick and much of the Visigothic nobility was killed in the battle and aftermath. (Source: histclo.com)
The weakness of the Visigothic kingdom was displayed in Roderick’s stunning defeat at Guadalete / Río Barbate, (July 19, 711). (Source: histclo.com)

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On July 19, 711, Tariq ibn-Ziyad defeated Roderic at the Battle of Guadalete / Río Barbate. Roderic and much of the Visigothic nobility were killed in the battle and aftermath.

Facing no further strong resistance, Tariq swept north toward Toledo, the Visigothic capital.

Al-ʾAndalūs, the Islamic Iberia

In an eight-year campaign, the Moors brought most of the Iberian Peninsula under Islamic control. In 719, they crossed the Pyrenees and took control of Septimania, the last province of the Visigothic kingdom. In 721, the Moors tried to conquer Aquitaine from their stronghold of Narbonne, but suffered a major defeat at the Battle of Toulouse.

At no point did the invading Islamic armies exceed 60,000 men.

The invading Moors gave the Arabic name Al-ʾAndalūs (الإندلس) to the region under their control, maybe to mean “Land of the Vandals“. The Islamic rule lasted 300 years in much of the Iberian Peninsula and 781 years in Granada.

From their stronghold of Narbonne, the Moors launched raids into the Duchy of Aquitaine, a fiefdom in western, central and southern areas of present-day France to the south of the Loire River.

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Al_Andalus & Christian Kingdoms (Source: en.wikipedia.org)
Al_Andalus & Christian Kingdoms (Source: en.wikipedia.org)

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After establishing a local Emirate, Caliph Al-Walid I, ruler of the Umayyad caliphate, recalled many of the successful Muslim commanders to Damascus including Tariq ibn Ziyad, the first governor of the newly conquered province of Al-Andalus. Musa bin Nusair, his former superior replaced him.

Governor Musa’s son, Abd al-Aziz ibn Musa, married Egilona, Roderic’s widow. He established his regional government in Seville. Under the influence of his wife, Egilona, he wanted to convert to Christianity. He was then accused of planning a secessionist rebellion, and Caliph Al-Walid I ordered his assassination.

By the year 1100, local Iberian converts to Islam, the so-called Muladi formed the majority of the Iberian population. The term ‘Moor’ was the generic term used to refer to the Islamists that composed the initial Arabs and Berbers and the converted Muladi. The Iberian Peninsula transformed from a Romance-speaking Christian land into an Arabic-speaking Muslim land. However, pockets of Arabic and Romance-speaking Christians called Mozarabs and a large minority of Arabic-speaking Jews survived throughout Al-ʾAndalūs.

In the chronicles and documents of the High Middle Ages the Christians used the terms Spania, España or Espanha derived from Hispania in reference to Muslim controlled areas. King Alfonso I of Aragon (1104–1134) says in his documents when in 1126 he made an expedition to Málaga he “went to the lands of España.

During the Middle Ages, the Iberian peninsula housed many small states, including Castile, Aragon, Navarre, León and Portugal.

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The five kingdoms of Iberia in 1360.
The five kingdoms of Iberia in 1360.

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Towards the end of the 12th century, the whole Muslim and Christian Iberian Peninsula became known as “Spain” (España, Espanya or Espanha). The term “the Five Kingdoms of Spain” referred to the Mussulman Kingdom of Granada and the Christian kingdoms of Aragon, Castile, Portugal and Navarre.

The Muslim caliphs competed with each other in the patronage of the arts. From the 8th to the 15th century, the Iberian Peninsula incorporated into the Islamic world became a center of culture and learning, especially during the Caliphate of Cordoba. It reached its height under the rule of Caliph Abd ar-Rahman III.

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Next → Part 2 – The Reconquista

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A European in the Orient: Part 3 – Did Marco Polo Really Travel to the Far East?


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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Marco Polo (Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Marco Polo (Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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Marco Polo died at his home in Venice on January 8, 1324. Before his death, friends and readers of his book visited him and urged him to admit that his book was a fiction. Marco would not relent. He told them:

I have not told half of what I saw!

​Marco Polo has been long regarded as the earliest and most distinguished of European travelers of all times for traversing Asia from one extremity to the other. He surpassed every other traveler of his time in the extent of the unknown regions he visited, as well as in the amount of new and important information he had collected. His description of the Chinese imperial court and the Chinese empire under the most powerful of the Asiatic dynasties, and tales of the adjacent countries in the Far East, forms a grand historical picture not painted by any other traveler of his period.

Authenticity is important in any travel narrative, otherwise it altogether becomes a worthless romance. A profound ignorance veiled  Europe when the Polos returned from the East. Doubts of the authenticity of Marco’s tales arose since most of the regions he had traversed were wholly unknown at that time. And his discoveries far transcended the knowledge of his age. Also, many editions of Marco Polo’s travelogue proliferated in an age when printing was unknown. The narratives varied from one another, often corrupted to a great extent.

Even now, some argue that Marco Polo never reached China, but cobbled together secondhand accounts of what he had heard. They say there are inaccuracies in the tales. They point out that he never mentioned the basic elements of Chinese culture, such as drinking tea, the use of chopsticks, the Chinese characters, or the tradition of foot-binding.

Responders to such skeptics have stated that if the purpose of Marco Polo’s stories of travels was to impress others with tales of his high esteem for an advanced civilization, then it is possible that Polo shrewdly would omit those details that would cause his readers to scoff at the Chinese with a sense of European superiority. Marco lived among the elite Mongols. Foot-binding was almost unknown among the Mongols and was rare even among Chinese during Polo’s time.

Some observers, who have only a cursory view of the history of China, say he never mentioned the Great Wall in his book. These people are ignorant of the fact that the Great Wall, familiar to us today, is a Ming structure constructed, about two centuries after Marco Polo’s travels in China, to keep out northern invaders.

New Evidence

It is odd that Marco Polo never produced a single map to accompany his narrative accounts in the ghostwritten book. Hence, scholars have long debated its the veracity. Now, there is new evidence in favor for this historical puzzle of whether Marco Polo did indeed visit China and the Far East. The proof is in the form of a curious collection of fourteen little-known maps and related documents purported to have belonged to the family of Marco Polo.

In the 1880s, Marcian Rossi, an Italian, immigrated to the United States. He brought along with him a collection of sheepskin vellum he said were of the 13th and 14th century. There were 14 little-known maps and related documents detailing Marco Polo’s journey to the Far East. These  documents bear the signatures of the three daughters of Marco Polo — Fantina, Bellela and Moreta.

The existence of these parchments came to light only in the 1930s, when Marcian Rossi contacted the Library of Congress. He explained that Marco Polo had bestowed the documents upon a Venetian Admiral, Ruggero Sanseverino, and that they had been passed down through generations of the Rossi family. But the collection did not undergo exhaustive analysis.

Are the maps forgeries or facsimiles?  They created a problem for the historians of cartography. Did Marco Polo’s daughters, whose names appear on some of these artifacts, preserve in them geographic information about Asia as told by their father? Did they inherit the maps created by him? Did Marco Polo entrust the maps to a Venetian admiral who had links to Rossi’s family line? Or, if the maps have no connection to Marco Polo, who made them, when, and for what purpose?

While some historians discounted the 14 parchments as mere fantasy, forgeries, or facsimiles, others wanted a balanced, detailed study of the documents.

Benjamin B. Olshin, a historian of cartography and a professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, spent more than a decade studying the artifacts. He translated the Italian, Latin, Arabic and Chinese inscriptions found therein. All but one of the original documents, a map Marcian Rossi donated to the Library of Congress, remain in the possession of Rossi’s great-grandson Jeffrey Pendergraft in Texas. Olshin is the first scholar in decades to see those originals.

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Marco Polo's 'Map with Ship' (Credit: Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division)
Marco Polo’s ‘Map with Ship‘ (Credit: Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division)

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The map donated by Marcian Rossi to the Library of Congress, dubbed “Map with Ship,” is a curious one. It has an illustration of a Venetian sailing vessel and a sketch of what appears to be outlines of Japan, Siberia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, the Bering Strait, the Aleutian Islands and the coastlines of present-day Alaska and British Columbia. The map was not a navigational aid because it lacks longitude and latitude reference lines.

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The Mysteries of the Marco Polo Maps by Benjamin B. Olshin
The Mysteries of the Marco Polo Maps by Benjamin B. Olshin

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Olshin has detailed the results of his intensive research in his book, “The Mysteries of the Marco Polo Maps.” The book is the first credible book-length analysis of these parchments. It is a balanced, detailed, and a non speculative work of cartographic scholarship, not another ‘who discovered?’ sensation. Olshin charts the course of the documents from obscure origins in the private collection of the Italian-American immigrant Marcian Rossi in the 1930s. He describes the investigations by the Library of Congress, J. Edgar Hoover, and the FBI for their authenticity. Olshin describes his own efforts to track down and study the Rossi maps.

After a  thorough tracing of Marcian Rossi’s ancestry, Olshin asserts that Rossi’s explanation that Marco Polo had bestowed the documents upon a Venetian admiral, Ruggero Sanseverino, and that they had been passed down through generations of the Rossi family was credible.

Olshin describes himself as an “evidence guy” and makes no claims that the document “Map with Ship,” depicts Alaska for certain although there are similarities. Olshin also admits, the authenticity of the ten maps and four texts is not settled. The ink on the parchments remains untested. A radiocarbon study of the sheepskin vellum of one key map, the only one subjected to such analysis, dates it to the 15th or 16th century, making it at best a copy.

Regardless of the origin of the documents, Olshin offers insights into Italian history, the age of exploration, and the wonders of cartography. He then takes his readers on a fascinating journey to the early legendary lands of the Chinese.

Alessandro Scafi said in Times Literary Supplement (UK):

“Olshin plays with the idea that Marco Polo’s relatives may have preserved geographical information about distant lands first recorded by him, or even that they may have inherited maps that he made. If genuine, Olshin argues, these maps and texts would confirm that Marco Polo knew about the New World two centuries before Columbus, either from his own experience or through hearing about it from the Chinese … Fascinating material … Olshin himself admits that there is no hard evidence to support his thrilling speculations. Including translations of every annotation and inscription, Olshin’s study and description of the fourteen parchments are exhaustive. His analysis, however, leaves many questions open … A fascinating tale about maps, history and exploration.”

The parchments in the Rossi collection may not only back up Marco Polo’s claim that he journeyed to the Orient, but also could reveal he might have set foot on the North American continent, 200 years before Christopher Columbus. It is purported that Columbus carried a well-worn copy of “The Travels of Marco Polo” with him on his historic 1492 voyage. It is conjectured that the travels of Marco Polo inspired Columbus to seek a westward sea route to the riches of East Asia, but instead landed in the New World.

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A European in the Orient: Part 2 – The Book “The Travels of Marco Polo”


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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When Niccolò, Maffeo, and Marco Polo,  arrived in Italy they found the Republic of Venice at war with the Most Serene Republic of Genoa, that had one of the most powerful navies in the Mediterranean.

Marco Polo joined the Venetians in the war. He commanded a galley equipped with a trebuchet, a type of catapult that used as a siege engine in the Middle Ages. The Genoans captured Marco in a skirmish in 1296, off the Anatolian coast between Adana and the Gulf of Alexandretta, and imprisoned him.

While spending several months in prison between 1298–1299, Marco became a friend of a fellow prisoner Rustichello da Pisa, an Italian writer of romance. Marco told Rustichello about his time in Asia. Rustichello soon committed his stories to paper in Old French. The romance writer also incorporated into it tales of his own as well as other collected anecdotes and current affairs from China.

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Le livre des merveilles du monde. Marco Polo
Le livre des merveilles du monde. Marco Polo

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After his release in 1299, Marco Polo and Rustichello da Pisa together turned the written notes into a travelogue titled “Livre des Merveilles du Monde” (Book of the Marvels of the World) or “Devisement du Monde” (Description of the World). In Italian the account appeared as “Il Milione” (The Million) or Oriente Poliano and was published later in English as “The Travels of Marco Polo.

Marco Polo was not the first European to reach China.

Marco Polo was the first to leave a detailed popular chronicle of his experience in medieval China to the world, but he definitely was not the first European to travel to the Far East.

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John of Plano Carpini's great journey to the East. His route is indicated, railroad track style, in dark blue. From the "Historical Atlas" by William R. Shepherd, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1923 (2nd edition)
Giovanni da Pian del Carpine’s great journey to the East. His route is indicated, railroad track style, in dark blue. From the “Historical Atlas” by William R. Shepherd, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1923 (2nd edition)

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During the time of the great Mongol invasion of eastern Europe, the Battle of Legnica on April 9, 1241, proved disastrous. The loss threatened to cast European Christendom under the rule of Ögedei Khan, the 2nd Khagan of the Mongol Empire.

Four years later, with the dread of the Mongols still on the mind of the people in eastern Europe, Pope Innocent IV, dispatched the first formal Catholic mission to the Mongols. It was partly to protest against the latter’s invasion of Christian lands, partly to gain trustworthy information about Mongol armies and their intention for the future. The Pope chose 65-year-old Friar Giovanni da Pian del Carpine to head this mission.

The mission started on Easter day April 16, 1245, from Lyon, where the Pope then resided. Giovanni bore a letter “Cum non solum” dated March 13, 1245, from the Pope to Ögedei Khan, the Mongol Emperor. Another friar, Stephen of Bohemia, accompanied Giovanni, broke down at Kaniv near Kiev. Another Minorite, Benedykt Polak, appointed to act as interpreter joined Giovanni at Wrocław.

Their journey was perilous. The Papal legate wrote that they were, “so ill that we could scarcely sit a horse; and throughout all that Lent our food had been nought but millet with salt and water, and with only snow melted in a kettle for drink.

Friar Giovanni and his companions rode an estimated 3000 miles in 106 days. By the time they reached their destination Ögedei Khan was dead.

On August 24, 1246, Giovanni and his companions witnessed the formal enthronement of Güyük Khan as the Third Khagan of the Mongol Empire. The new emperor refused the invitation to become a Christian, but demanded that the Pope and rulers of Europe should come to him and swear  their allegiance to him.

When Güyük Khan dismissed the expedition in November, 1246, he gave them a letter to the Pope, written in Mongol, Arabic, and Latin. It was a brief imperious assertion of the Mongol emperor’s office as the “scourge of God.”

Later on, other Catholic emissaries followed. In the 1250s, William of Rubruck, traveled east on a quest to convert the Mongols to Christianity. These early missionaries were largely inspired by the myth of Prester John (Latin: Presbyter Johannes), Christian patriarch and king popular in European chronicles and in the tradition of the 12th through the 17th century.

The accounts about this mythical king vary. They are just a collection of medieval popular fantasy. One such account depicts him as a descendant of the Three Magi, ruling a kingdom full of riches, marvels, and strange creatures. Polo mentions the fictional monarch in his book, and even asserts that Prester John fought a great battle against the Mongol ruler Genghis Kahn.

A Lombardian surgeon also had reached the city of Khanbaliq in 1303. A merchant named Petro de Lucalongo, had accompanied the monk John of Montecorvino to Khanbaliq in 1305.

In his work “Histoire de l’Empire Mongol,” Jean-Paul Roux,  a French Turkologue and a specialist in Islamic culture says that a person named André de Pérouse had mentioned that there was a small Genoese colony, in the harbor of Zaytun in 1326. Andolo de Savignone was the most famous Italian resident of the city. In 1336, Toghon Temür, the 15th Khagan of the Mongol Empire and the 11th Emperor of the Yuan dynasty sent him to the West to buy “100 horses and other treasures.

In 1339, a Venetian named Giovanni Loredanoto returned to Venice from China during the reign of  Emperor Toghon Temür.

A tombstone with the name of Catherine de Villioni, daughter of a Dominici, who died in 1342 during the reign of Toghon Temür was discovered in Yangzhou.

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An illuminated manuscript on Marco Polo's fascinating and adventurous travels (Source: facsimilefinder.com)
An illuminated manuscript on Marco Polo’s fascinating and adventurous travels (Source: facsimilefinder.com)

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Well-known master artists of the medieval times steeped the manuscripts like the one shown above in enchanting colors.

The Travelogue, “The Travels of Marco Polo” soon spread throughout Europe in manuscript form.  It gave the curious Europeans in the Middle Ages craving to know more about the marvels of the Orient,  the first comprehensive look into the inner workings of the Far East, including China, India, and Japan. Rarely have secular topics had such an intense echo.

The Travelogue is divided into four books:

Book One describes the lands of the Middle East and Central Asia that Marco Polo traveled through on his way to China.

Book Two describes China and the court of Kublai Khan.

Book Three describes some of the coastal regions of the East: Japan, Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka, India, and the East Coast of Africa.

Book Four describes some of the then-recent wars among the Mongols, and some of the regions of the Far North, like Russia.

No authoritative version of Marco Polo’s book exists. The early manuscripts differ much from one another. Also, inadvertent errors and discrepancies crept in during the process of copying and translating.

The published editions of the travelogue either rely on single manuscripts, or a blend of many versions. For example, the popular translation published by Penguin Books in 1958 is the handiwork of R.E. Latham, who blended several manuscripts together to make a readable whole.

A.C. Moule and Paul Pelliot based their  1938 English translation on a Latin manuscript found in the library of the Cathedral of Toledo in 1932, and is 50 percent longer than other versions.

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Probable view of Marco Polo's own geography drawn by H. Yule, 1871. (Source: The Book of Ser Marco Polo. London, 1871, vol. I, p. cxxxv)
Probable view of Marco Polo’s own geography drawn by H. Yule, 1871. (Source: The Book of Ser Marco Polo. London, 1871, vol. I, p. cxxxv)

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Some published editions carry notes to clarify, as exemplified in the English translation by Henry Yule.

To date, approximately 150 manuscript copies exist in various languages.

After his release from prison, Marco Polo returned to Venice. He married and raised three daughters. During the next 25 years, he carried on the family business.

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Next → Part 3 – Did Marco Polo Really Travel to the Far East?

← Previous: Part 1 – The Adventures of Marco Polo.

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A European in the Orient: Part 1 – The Adventures of Marco Polo


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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A 13th-century travelogue titled Livre des Merveilles du Monde (Book of the Marvels of the World) or Devisement du Monde (Description of the World) introduced Europeans to the geography of the Orient and the ethnic customs of its indigenous peoples.

The book described the travels of the Italian merchant traveler Marco Polo between 1276 and 1291, through Asia: Persia, China, Indonesia, Burma, Tibet, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and India, and his experiences at the court of Kublai Khan, the fifth Khagan (Great Khan) of the Mongol Empire. The book described Cathay (present-day China) in great detail and its abundance of riches. Though Marco Polo was not the first European to have visited the Far East, he still became famous after the publication of the book.

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Marco Polo (Credit: Leemage/UIG via Getty Images)
Marco Polo (Credit: Leemage/UIG via Getty Images)

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Marco Polo was born in Venice on September 15, 1254 to a wealthy Venetian merchant named Niccolò Polo. Marco’s father and his uncle Maffeo Polo being merchants had established trading posts in Constantinople, Sudak in Crimea, and in a western part of the Mongol Empire in Asia.

In 1264, the Polo brothers joined up with a diplomatic mission sent by  Hulagu, the ruler of Il-khanate to his brother Kublai Khan, both grandsons of Gengis Khan. They reached the seat of Kublai Khan, the leader of the Mongol Yuan dynasty, in Dadu (present day Beijing, China) in 1266.

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Kublai Khan, Emperor of China. The 5th Khagan of the Mongol Empire. The First Emperor of the Yuan dynasty.
Kublai Khan, Emperor of China. The 5th Khagan of the Mongol Empire. The First Emperor of the Yuan dynasty.

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Kublai Khan, the Mongol Emperor, received the Polos well and expressed his interest in Christianity. He then sent them back to Italy with a Mongol named Koeketei as an ambassador to Pope Clement IV. They carried a letter from the emperor requesting the Pope to send 100 educated people to teach Christianity and western customs to his people. He also requested oil from the lamp of the Holy Sepulcher. The emperor also gave them  the paiza, a golden tablet a foot long and 3 inches (7.6 cm) wide, to signify certain privileges and authority, allowing them to acquire lodging, horses and food throughout  his dominion.

Koeketei left in the middle of the journey, leaving the Polos to travel alone to Ayas in the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia. From that port city, the Polos sailed to Saint Jean d’Acre, capital of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Pope Clement IV died on November 29, 1268. The long sede vacante between the death of Pope Clement IV, and the election of a new pope delayed the Polos from fulfilling Kublai Khan’s request.

In 1269 or 1270, Teobaldo Visconti, then papal legate for the realm of Egypt suggested that the brothers return to Venice and wait for the nomination of the new Pope.

Niccolò Polo once again saw his son Marco, now a teenager, who had been living with his aunt and another uncle in Venice since the death of his mother at a young age.

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Niccolò Polo and Matteo Polo remitting a letter from Kublai Khan to Pope Gregory X in 1271.
Niccolò Polo and Matteo Polo remitting a letter from Kublai Khan to Pope Gregory X in 1271.

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In 1271, Theobald Visconti was elected as Pope Gregory X. He received the letter from Kublai Khan brought by the Polo brothers.

The Polo brothers left Venice on their second voyage to the Orient along with a 17-year-old Marco. Unable to recruit the 100 people that Kublai Khan had requested to teach his people, the Polos left with only two Dominican friars:  Niccolò de Vicence and Guillaume de Tripoli. They set sail to Acre.

At Acre they joined a caravan of merchants travelling to the Persian port of Hormuz. Soon, bandits attacked their caravan using the cover of a sandstorm to ambush them. The marauding bandits killed many members of the caravan and enslaved the rest, but the Polos managed to escape to a nearby town.

Marco reveled in the adventure, but the two monks after getting a taste of the hard journey ahead of them, soon turned back for home.

When they reached Hormuz they wanted to sail straight to China, but the ships in Hormuz were not seaworthy, so they continued overland through the Silk Road.

The journey was challenging and at times they had to traverse harsh terrain. In what is now Afghanistan, Marco fell ill. He had to retreat to the mountains to recuperate from the illness.

Crossing the Gobi desert, proved long and, at times, arduous. Marco told later: “This desert is reported to be so long that it would take a year to go from end to end. And at the narrowest point it takes a month to cross it. It consists entirely of mountains and sands and valleys. There is nothing at all to eat.

In 1274, three and a half years after leaving Venice, when Marco was about 21 years old, the Polos reached Kanbaliq or Dadu, the capital of the Yuan dynasty (present day Beijing). Kublai Khan who welcomed them into his summer palace known as Xanadu, a grand marble architectural wonder. The Polos presented the sacred oil from Jerusalem and the papal letters to the Mongol Emperor.

The Polos spent the next 17 years in China under the patronage of Kublai Khan. Niccolo and Maffeo were granted important positions in Kublai Khan’s Court. The Mongol Emperor took a liking to Marco, an engaging storyteller. Marco’s immersed himself into the Chinese culture and mastered four languages. He served as an official in the salt administration and made trips through the provinces of Yunnan and Fukien. At one stage, he was the tax inspector in the city of Yanzhou.

Marco Polo marveled at the use of paper money in the Mongol empire, an idea that had not reached Europe at that time.

Kublai Khan employed Marco Polo as a special envoy.  He sent Marco to Burma, India, Tibet and other far-flung areas hitherto never explored by Europeans. Marco was promoted again and again for his work. He served as governor of a Chinese city. Later, Kublai Khan appointed him as an official of the Privy Council.

The Polos asked permission on many occasions to return to Europe, but Kublai Khan liked them so much that he would not agree to their departure.

In 1291, Kublai Khan entrusted the Polos with their last duty. It was to escort the Mongol princess Koekecin to her betrothed, the Il-khan Arghun of the breakaway state of the Mongol Empire in Persia, ruled by the Mongol House of Hulagu.

The Polos departed from the southern port city of Quanzhou with a caravan of several hundred passengers and sailors. They sailed to Sumatra, Ceylon and India. They visited Mylapore, Madurai and Alleppey in India. Marco Polo nicknamed Alleppey as the “Venice of the East.”

The journey was harrowing due to storms and disease. Many perished. By the time they reached Il-khanate in Persia in 1293 or 1294, only 18 people, including the princess and the Polos, were still alive.  They came to know that Il-khan Arghun to whom the princess was betrothed had died. They left the Mongol princess Koekecin with the new Il-khan Gaykhatu. The Polos then moved to Trebizond . From there they sailed to Constantinople and then reached Venice in 1295. They had travelled almost 15,000 miles (24,000 km).  The Polos returned to Venice with thier fortune converted in gemstones. In Venice, the Polos struggled to converse in their native tongue. Above all, they were unfamiliar to their family.

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Marco Polo's Route (Source: httpdepts.washington.edu)
Marco Polo’s Route (Source: httpdepts.washington.edu)

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Next → Part 2 – The Book “The Travels of Marco Polo”

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