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A Book of Discovery by  M. B. Synge


 

 

TRAVELLERS TO THE EAST

[107] 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 [108] 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 others.

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 the streets.


[Illustration]

JERUSALEM AND THE PILGRIM'S WAYS TO IT IN THE TWELFTH CENTURY.

[109] 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, rejoicing in [110] the statistics of Jews, and turn to the adventures of one, Carpini, who really did reach Tartary.


[Illustration]

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 death. 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- [111] cades, fur, gold embroidery. Friar John and his companions had no gifts to offer save the letter from the Pope.


[Illustration]

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 [112] 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 with smoke."

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 [113] 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."


[Illustration]

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 [114] 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 mysterious ruler.

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.


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