Rabban Sauma was a Nestorian Christian from Beijing who traveled to western Europe in the 1280s as a pilgrim and ambassador, seeking to forge an alliance between the Il-Khanate and the western European powers, to work together to defend the Crusader states against the Mamluks. Sauma was highly educated, and experienced in navigating numerous cultures; he spoke Syriac, Onggud, Persian, and Chinese, and on his journey to Europe had interpreters for French and Latin.
Having previously survived a lengthy journey from Beijing (known as Khanbaliq or Dadu at that time) to Persia, he set out in 1280 alongside a fellow pilgrim named Mark. They made their way all the way across Asia, to the shores of the Black Sea, but after failing repeatedly to secure passage across the sea to the Holy Land, they turned back, arriving back in Khanbaliq in 1286.
Sadly, Sauma's diplomatic documents do not survive today, but his journeys are known from European and other records.
Rabban Sauma and his entourage set out again in 1287, and made their way to the Il-Khanate capital of Tabriz, and then to Constantinople, where he visited the Hagia Sophia and the grave of Constantine. From there, they sailed to Naples, where he witnessed the battle of Sorrento, and the eruption of Mt. Etna. Sauma arrived in Rome to learn of the death of Pope Honorius IV. He spoke to a group of cardinals, who were pleased to hear that the Mongols were loyal to Rome, and eager to help them regain Palestine. However, the cardinals told Sauma they could not engage in fuller strategic or military discussions until a new Pope was selected.
The mission then made their way to Genoa and Paris, meeting with the rulers of Genoa and the king of France, and viewing relics. Sauma did not journey to England, but met with the English king in Bordeaux, where he officiated in a religious service and gave the Eucharist to the king of England, among others. Despite Catholic views of Nestorianism as heretical, Sauma emphasized his identity as a fellow Christian. He insisted he was not there to proselytize or missionize, but rather simply to visit saints' shrines and to receive blessings. As a result, Sauma was generally accepted by Latin Christians; one record of Sauma's Eucharist service related that "the process is different, but the meaning is the same."
Sauma and his men then returned to Rome, where a new Pope had by that time been installed. Sauma presented the new king with gifts, and received the Eucharist directly from the Pope, an insurmountable honor. Negotiations with the Papacy broke down, however, over the Pope's insistence that the Il-Khan had to be baptized before political or military alliances could be formed - the incorporation of a Mongol empire under the Papal monarchy was fundamentally incompatible, however, with the Mongol view of a religiously and culturally diverse empire under the Great Khan.
- Colleen Ho, "Rabban Sauma: A Medieval Eurasian Traveler & Diplomat of Many Identities," Shape Shifters: Journeys Across Terrains of Race and Identity conference, University of California, Santa Barbara, 18 March 2016.
- Rabban is a Jewish and Nestorian title for highly esteemed religious teachers. The term is closely related, linguistically, to "rabbi."