O’Donovan notes – additional to post #6i

These are the footnotes and comments to post #6i (cont 2), re-arranged by subject-matter.

East-West Contact

  1. It is often forgotten that there were Chinese explorers, too. In the Chinese historical records are a number of accounts of the barbarian lands, some showing overland exploration to as far as Alexandria. For these records see transcriptions and translations maintained on the Silk Road Seattle site.)

2. Marco Polo. Readers should keep in mind that what we have is not written by Marco Polo but by a person who recorded, arranged and issued material gathered by interviewing Polo while he lay in prison.

3. Other cities and merchants attempted to take an active part but are habitually overlooked in secondary accounts. Prazniak writes, for example:

“In 1266 the merchant Arnaldo Marinario, who did business in the vicinity of Trebizond on the Black Sea, adjacent to lands of the Ilkhanate, approached Sicilian king Carlos I on a political mission to establish communications with the Ilkhanate” –

Prazniak, ‘Siena on the Silk Roads: Ambrogio Lorenzetti and the Mongol Global Century, 1250-1350’, Journal of World History, Vol. 21, No. 2 (June 2010), pp. 177-217 (p.183)

The Mongols.

  1. The Mongol tribes’ aggressive expansion westward is usually said to begin from early in the thirteenth century, the hordes reaching Baghdad and the Black Sea by the mid-thirteenth.
  2. The Mongols as ‘sons of the giant’ – a notion reinforced by matter in the widely-popular ‘Romance of Alexander’. for which see e.g. Richard Stoneman, The Greek Alexander Romance (1991).
  3. René Grousset’s book, repeating what was earlier expressed by Bar Hebreus and others,that Prester (priest) John was a Nestorian religious leader of a group of east Asian Mongols: Grousset, René (1970). The Empire of the Steppes.
  4. The Yuan dynasty survived until 1368.
  5. A correspondent, “L.L” commented (recorded below post #6i) that the forms which divide these quadrants resemble the form of a fly-whisk – a sign of religious and/or secular dignity from Africa to the Far East – though unknown to Europe. In this context, I draw attention to the following image, dated to the thirteenth century, and which shows a Mongol rider in the character of Perseus ‘the slayer’, with two similar objects attached to his cap, like feathers.


The coin made for Qaidu II

Modern numismatists refer to these coins by the Arab term ‘dinar’, though for people who had come west from inner or further Asia, they might be described generically by the Chinese word for a coin: yuan.

Amaligh – and Howorth.

I quote Howorth only for his providing the range assigned to Jagathai [Chagathai] and noting it includes along its northern boundary, “the countries of Kayalic, Amalig, and Bishbalig . (page 173).

When I first wrote about Amaligh in connection with the Voynich manuscript, no Voynich writer had considered this region; there was no wiki article on Amaligh and few mentions of the town anywhere to be found – only one other using the fairly unusual spelling that I chose to adopt. Today (June 4th 2022), there are two rather poor wiki entries, and a very poor article ‘Kaidu’ which appears to rely on little but the Marco Polo narrative and H.H. Howorth’s book – published in 1876 – History of the Mongols from the 9th to the 19th Century: Pt 1 The Mongols Proper and the Kalmyks.

**NB** – An unrevised copy of Howorth’s book is presently (June 2022) being offered through Amazon with a publication date likely to mislead the unwary into assuming it a product of recent scholarship. It is not.

The Church of the East in medieval China

Because the next matter is undisputed, I’ll quote from a wiki article for readers’ convenience:

[The X’ian Stele] reveals that the initial Church of the East had met recognition by the Tang Emperor Taizong, due to efforts of the Christian missionary Alopen in 635 AD. According to the Stele, Alopen and his fellow Syriac missionaries came to China from Daqin (the Eastern Roman Empire) in the ninth year of Emperor Taizong (Tai Tsung) (635 AD), bringing sacred books and images.

The Pope of the Church of the East (conventionally, if inaccurately, known as the Nestorian Church) was called its Patriarch. The succession of patriarchs lived, at different times, in different cities within what is now Iraq. Nestorian Christianity was well-established along the length of the overland ‘silk’ roads well before even the time of Benjamin of Tudela, as they were in regions closer to the Mediterranean. The same is true for Christians in India and in South-east Asia before the bellicose Portuguese arrived by sea – after the Voynich date-range.

The Il-Khan Arghun.

Initially, the territory allotted the Il-Khans centred in Baghdad coincided closely with that of the old Hellenistic Seleucid kingdom, though by the time Arghun sent letters and then an embassy westward to ask Latins’ assistance in pursuing a war against the Mamluks of Egypt, the area under his control was much smaller.

Most European sources today credit the Il-Khan Arghun as initiating contact with the west, though some lighter sources (including the wiki article ‘Arghun’) seem to have difficulty imagining Europeans as passive recipients of any other peoples’ knowledge or initiatives. That attitude was common enough last century and was taken up as part of the Voynich traditionalists’ inheritance. Unfortunately, that attitude has not always broadened with time but narrowed and as a result many Voynich theories exhibit assumptions badly out-of-step with current scholarly opinion.

Arghun wrote to Pope Honorius IV in 1285. He wrote again in 1287 and on that occasion sent both civil and religious representatives, the religious being Nestorian Christians who had arrived in Baghdad en route from inner Asia to Jerusalem, but who were given elevated positions within the Nestorian church and required to turn to other duties.

The Embassy of 1278.

The former monk- now ambassador-prelate – who went towards Europe in 1287 on behalf of both Arghun and the Nestorian Christians was named Mar- or Rabban Sawma.

Escorted by Genoese, the embassy wintered over in Genoa and Mar Sawma succeeded in meeting the newly-elected Pope, the king of Sicily (who was also emperor of the west) and two other western kings, namely Edward I of England and Philip IV of France. Mar Sawma survived a cross-examination of his religious beliefs in Rome, as we know that other Nestorians did not.

In order to cross beyond Chinese-held territory at all, Rabban Sawma and his fellow monk, named Mark, had had first to travel to the Chinese capital and gain the Emperor’s personal consent for their proposed pilgrimage. The permission, even then, had not been readily given.

We are fortunate that a record of Mar Sawma’s journeys survived in the Nestorians’ literary and liturgical language of Syriac, and that Wallis Budge discovered and translated it. Without that, our understanding of this critical period would be even more Eurocentric than it has tended to be.

For reasons which the few longer-term Voynich researchers will understand, though I won’t elaborate further here, I’ll quote this paragraph from the translation:

And in the days when they arrived at Loton it happened that a war was raging between the King of Kings, Kublai Khan and King Oko [translator’s note – ‘O-‘ho, Commander-in-chief of the army of Mien?]. And Oko had fled [from Kublai] and had entered [this] country, and destroyed thousands of men therein. The caravan roads and ways had been cut, and grain (?) was scarce and could not be found; and many died of hunger and perished through want.

from E.A. Wallis Budge (ed. and trans.), The History of the Life and Travels of Rabban Sawma, translated from the Syriac.pp43-44. Copies of the English version exist online, including at archive.org.

A note adds – Loton [? Khotan, or Ho-Thian, or Yuthian, a city between Tangoth and Kashgar]. Kashgar, near the western end of the Tarim basin, has now been annexed by China but was not Chinese territory then.

When I introduced the figure of Rabban Sawma to Voynich studies, there was no interest in any matter not focused on European elites.

Westerners in the east (Baghdad to China)

The energy and narrow focus with which certain Voynich theories are pursued, create a misleading impression of the events leading up to the period 1400-1440. Adherents of the Prinke-Zandbergen theory today hold an undisputed position as the arch-traditionalists, maintaining ideas and attitudes somewhat inconsistent with medieval scholarship today.

As balance, I’ll quote a couple of paragraphs from Ciocîltan’s magisterial study. Here he speaking of relations between Arghun and the west. This, of course, occurred two centuries before the Portuguese entered the eastern seas.

In summing the data on Italian merchants on the south Asian sea route, we reach an apparently paradoxical conclusion: although the route was known to some extent in Europe, along with other invaluable information (largely thanks to the “revelations” of Marco Polo) for the first half of the fourteenth century it was overwhelmingly a Genoese creation. The Genoese kept it a closely-guarded secret, thereby defending it for their own exclusive use.

The unique position which the Ligurians enjoyed in the Indian Ocean was merely an extension of their practical monopoly on trade in the Ilkhanate, dating to their co-operation with Arghun. We may see how strong a position they occupied from the fact that it endured even after the initial conditions had vanished…. The Genoese star [began] to wane in Mongol Persia once the Republic signed a truce with the Mamluks in May 1290…

Virgil Ciocîltan, The Mongols and the Black Sea Trade in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries (Brill:2012) p.128 and see its n.300.

I found no previous mention of Rabban Mar Sawma in Voynich-related writings before mentioning him in a comment to one of Nick Pelling’s blogposts. The first mention at voynichimagery was in a post dated September 2012: ‘Trade Routes and Scripts’ -and which proved so popular I had to make it a separate, permanent, Page.

Of Genoese efforts to control the trade along the overland route which shifted to pass north, towards Europe via the Black Sea and the maritime routes of the Mediterranean, I’ll speak another time.

In China.

Various civilians and traders from western Europe made the journey eastwards, overland and/or by sea. Some settled in the re-established but much older multi-national port of Guangzho (which Latins called Cayton), this having been assigned centuries earlier as the port to which all foreign traders who traded by sea were confined. It fell into disuse for some decades, or centuries, after a massacre of its foreign residents in the 9thC.

Exactly when it was re-occupied is unclear, but certainly well before the arrival of John of Montecorvino, because in India he met up with an already-established Italian trader named Peter of Lucolongo who served thereafter as his guide and helper in China.

Evidence for Europeans resident in Yuan China include records of Latin ambassador-missionaries sent to the east. John of Montecorvino had become a Franciscan monk in order to accept the role of ambassador,. In earlier times the Dominican order had been charged with the dual role of providing foreign diplomats and missionaries, but by this time the Franciscans were increasingly preferred for their less militant attitude towards persons of other faiths. For sources, again, see ‘Texts’ at the Silk Road Seattle site.

We know that Italian civilian traders were resident in Guangzhou before the Voynich manuscript was made, though records are few. A tombstone discovered there records the death, in 1342, of a Katerina Villioni, though this article on Katerina’s tombstone makes some curious inferences, and choices. It mentions Odoric of Pordenone but omits mention of John of Montecorvino who had remained in China for the rest of his life. It does mention the Keraites.

With regard to early reactions and correspondence with the west –

  • Jacques Paviot, ‘England and the Mongols (c. 1260-1330)’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Third Series, Vol. 10, No. 3 (Nov., 2000), pp. 305-318.

Additional note

A commonly-repeated error in secondary and tertiary accounts takes some such form as this:

The first official communications between Western Europe and the Mongol Empire occurred between Pope Innocent IV (fl. 1243–1254) and the Great Khans, via letters and envoys that were sent overland and could take years to arrive at their destination. The communications initiated what was to become a regular pattern in European–Mongol communications: the Europeans would ask the Mongols to convert to Christianity, and the Mongols would respond with demands for submission.

I hope I’ve included enough information in the post, and here, to show such statements inaccurate.

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