Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics
TRAVELLERS TO THE EAST
 BUT if the Sindbad saga is based on the stories of Mohammedan travellers and sum up Arab adventure by sea in the
tenth century, we must turn to another Arab—Massoudy by name—for land travel of the same period.
Massoudy left his home at Bagdad very young and seems to have penetrated into every Mohammedan country from
Spain to farther India. In his famous Meadows of Gold, with its one hundred and thirty-two chapters,
dedicated to "the most illustrious Kings," he describes the various lands through which he has travelled,
giving us at the same time a good deal of incorrect information about lands he has never seen.
"I have gone so far towards the setting sun
That I have lost all remembrance of the east,
And my course has taken me so far towards the rising sun
That I have forgotten the very name of west."
One cannot but look with admiration on the energetic Arab traveller, when one remembers the labour of travel
even in the tenth century. There were the long, hot rides through central Asia, under a burning sun, the
ascent of unknown mountains, the crossing of unbridged rivers. From his lengthy work we will only extract a
few details. Though he had "gone so far toward the setting sun," his knowledge of the West was very limited,
and while Vikings tossed on the Atlantic westwards, Massoudy
 tells us that it is "impossible to navigate beyond the Pillars of Hercules, for no vessel sails on that sea;
it is without cultivation or inhabitant, and its end, like its depth, is unknown." Such was the "Green Sea of
Darkness" as it was called by the Arabs. Massoudy is more at home when he journeys towards the rising sun to
the East, but his descriptions of China, the "Flowery Land," the "Celestial Country," were to be excelled by
We must pass over Edrisi, who in 1153 wrote on "The going abroad of a curious Man to explore all the Wonders
of the World," which wonders he explored very imperfectly, though he has left us a map of the world, which may
be seen to-day at the Bodleian Library at Oxford.
But we cannot pass over Benjamin of Tudela in so few words. "Our Benjamin" he is called by Pinkerton, who in
the eighteenth century made a wonderful collection of voyages and travels of all ages. "Our Benjamin" was a
Jew hailing from Tudela in Spain, and he started forth on his travels with a view to ascertaining the
condition and numbers of Jews living in the midst of the great Mohammedan Empire. Benjamin made his way in the
year 1160 to the "exceeding great city" of Constantinople, which "hath none to compare with it except
Bagdad—the mighty city of the Arabs." With the great temple of St. Sophia and its pillars of gold and
silver, he was immensely struck. In wrapt admiration he gazed at the Emperor's palace with its walls of beaten
gold, its hanging crown suspended over the Imperial throne, blazing with precious stones, so splendid that the
hall needed no other light. No less striking were the crimson embroidered garments worn by the Greeks, who
rode to and from the city like princes on horseback. Benjamin turns sadly to the Jewish quarter. No Jew might
ride on horseback here. All were treated as objects of contempt; they were herded together, often beaten in
JERUSALEM AND THE PILGRIM'S WAYS TO IT IN THE TWELFTH CENTURY.
 From the wealth and luxury of Constantinople Benjamin makes his way to Syria. At Jerusalem he finds some two
hundred Jews commanding the dyeing trade. And here we must remind ourselves that the second crusade was over
and the third had not yet taken place, that Jerusalem, the City of Peace, had been in the hands of the
Mohammedans or Saracens till 1099, when it fell into the hands of the Crusaders. From Jerusalem, by way of
Damascus, Benjamin entered Persia, and he gives us an interesting account of Bagdad and its Khalifs. The
Khalif was the head of the Mohammedans in the same way that the Pope was the head of the Christians. "He was,"
says "Our Benjamin," "a very dignified personage, friendly towards the Jews, a kind-hearted man, but never to
be seen." Pilgrims from distant lands, passing through Bagdad on their way to Mecca, prayed to be allowed to
see "the brightness of his face," but they were only allowed to kiss one end of his garment. Now, although
Benjamin describes the journey from Bagdad to China, it is very doubtful if he ever got to China himself, so
we will leave him delighting in the glories of Bagdad, with its palm trees, its gardens and orchards,
 the statistics of Jews, and turn to the adventures of one, Carpini, who really did reach Tartary.
TWO EMPERORS OF TARTARY.
This Carpini, or Friar John, was a Franciscan who was chosen by the Pope to go to the Great Khan of the Mongol
Empire, which was threatening to overrun Christendom. On 16th April 1245, Friar John left the cloister for the
unknown tract of country by which he had to pass into China. By way of Bohemia he passed into Russia, and,
having annexed Brother Benedict in Poland and Brother Stephen in Bohemia, together with a guide, Carpini made
his way eastwards. It was mid-winter; the travellers had to ride on Tartar horses, "for they alone could find
grass under the snow, or live, as animals must in Tartary, without hay or straw. Sometimes Friar John fell so
ill that he had to be placed in a cart and carried through the deep snow.
It was Easter 1246, just a year after their start, that Friar John and his companions began the last section
of their journey beyond the Volga, and "most tearfully we set out," not knowing whether it was for life or for
So thin had they all become that not one of them could ride. Still they toiled on, till one July day
they entered Mongolia and found the headquarters of the Great Khan about half a day's journey from Karakorum.
They arrived in time to witness the enthronement of the new Khan in August. Here were crowds of ambassadors
from Russia and Persia as well as from outlying parts of the growing Mongol Empire. These were laden with
gifts—indeed, there were no less than five hundred crates full of silks, satins,
bro-  cades, fur, gold embroidery. Friar John and his companions had no gifts to offer save the letter from the
A TARTAR CAMP.
Impressive, indeed, in the eyes of the once cloistered friar must have been this first sight of Eastern
splendour. High on a neighbouring hill stood the Khan's tent, resting on pillars. plated with gold, top and
sides covered with silk brocades, while the great ceremony took place. But the men of the West were not
welcomed by the new Emperor of the East. It was supposed that he intended shortly to unfurl his Standard
against the whole of the Western world, and in November Friar John and his companions found themselves
formally dismissed with a missive from the Great Khan to the Pope, signed and sealed by the Khan himself.
The return journey was even more trying; winter was coming on, and for nearly seven months the Pope's faithful
envoys struggled on across the endless open plains of Asia towards Russia, resting their eyes on vast
expanses of snow. At last they reached home, and Friar John wrote his Book of the Tartars, in which he
informs us that Mongolia is in the east part of the world and that Cathay is a country in the east of Asia."
To the south-west of Mongolia he heard of a vast desert, where lived certain wild men unable to speak and with
no joints in their legs. These occupy themselves in making felt out of camel's hair for garments to protect
them from the weather.
Again Carpini tells us about that mythical character figuring in the travel books of this time—Prester
John. "The Mongol army," he says, "marched against the
 Christians dwelling in the greater India, and the king of that country, known by the name of Prester John,
came forth with his army to meet them. This Prester John caused a number of hollow copper figures to be made,
resembling men, which were stuffed with combustibles and set upon horses, each having a man behind on the
horse, with a pair of bellows to stir up the fire. At the first onset of the battle these mounted figures were
sent forward to the charge; the men who rode behind them set fire to the combustibles and then strongly blew
with the bellows; immediately the Mongol horses and men were burnt with wild-fire and the air was darkened
We shall hear of Prester John again. For within a few years of the return of Friar John, another Franciscan
friar, William de Rubruquis, was sent forth, this time by the French king, Louis, to carry letters to the
Great Khan begging him to embrace Christianity and acknowledge the supremacy of the Pope. William and his
chosen companions had a painful and difficult journey of some months before they reached the camps on the
Volga of one of the great Mongol lords. Indeed, "if it had not been for the grace of God and the biscuit which
we brought with us, we had surely perished," remarks the pious friar in the history of his adventures. Never
once did they enjoy the shelter of a house or tent, but passed the nights in the open air in a cart. At last
they were ordered to appear at the Court of the great ruler with all their books and vestments.
"We were commanded to array ourselves in our sacred vestments to appear before the prince. Putting on,
therefore, our most precious ornaments, I took a cushion in my arms, together with the Bible I had from the
King of France and the beautiful Psalter which the Queen bestowed upon me: my companion at the
 same time carried the missal and a crucifix; and the clerk, clothed in his surplice, bore a censer in his
hand. In this order we presented ourselves . . . singing the Salve Regina." It is a strange picture
this—the European friars, in all the vestments of their religion, standing before the Eastern prince of
this far-off country. They would fain have carried home news of his conversion, but they were told in angry
tones that the prince was "not a Christian, but a Mongol."
INITIAL LETTER FROM THE MS. OF RUBRUQUIS AT CAMBRIDGE.
They were dismissed with orders to visit the Great Khan at Karakorum. Resuming their journey early in August,
the messengers did not arrive at the Court of the Great Khan till the day after Christmas. They were miserably
housed in a tiny hut with scarcely room for their beds and baggage. The cold was intense. The bare feet of
the friars caused great astonishment to the crowds of onlookers, who stared at the strange figures as though
they had been monsters. However, they could not keep their feet bare long, for very soon Rubruquis found that
his toes were frozen.
Chanting in Latin the hymn of the Nativity, the visitors were at last admitted to the Imperial tent, hung
about with cloth of gold, where they found the Khan. He was seated on a couch—a "little man of moderate
height, aged about forty-five, and dressed in a skin spotted and glossy like a seal." The Mongol Emperor asked
numerous questions about the kingdom of France and the possibility of conquering it, to the righteous
indigna  tion of the friars. They stayed in the country till the end of May, when they were dismissed, having failed in
their mission, but having gained a good deal of information about the great Mongol Empire and its somewhat
But while the kingdoms in Europe trembled before the growing expansion of the Mongol Empire and the dangers of
Tartar hordes, the merchants of Venice rejoiced in the new markets which were opening for them in the East.