William of Rubruck and his Adventurous Journey to Karakorum

Voyage of William of Rubruck in 1253 – 1255

On January 4, 1254, Flemish Franciscan missionary and explorer William of Rubruck was granted the priviledge of an audience at the great Mongol Möngke Khan in his court in Karakorum.

In 1248, King Louis IX of France set out for the Seventh Crusade. William of Rubruck accompanied the king and was given the task to set out from Constantinople on a missionary journey to convert the Tatars to Christianity. Along with Bartolomeo da Cremona an attendant called Gosset, and an interpreter named in William’s report Homo Dei, he followed the route of the first journey of Friar Julian.

The “Silver Tree” at the court or Karakorum

William reached Sudak, a city located in the Ukraine and continued his travel with oxen. He crossed the Don and met the ruler of the Kipchak Khanate, Sartaq Khan shortly after. From there, the traveler was sent to Batu Khan near the Volga, whom he reached about five weeks later. Batu turned out not to be very communicative but agreed to send him to the great Mongol Möngke Khan. The men faced a 9000km journey to meet him at Karakorum and he was given an audience on January 4, 1254. At first, they were received courteously, but William managed to record the extensive description of the city’s walls, markets and temples, and the separate quarters for Muslim and Chinese craftsmen among a surprisingly cosmopolitan population. William also described the town as a very religiously tolerant place, and the silver tree he described as part of Möngke Khan’s palace has become the symbol of Karakorum. After about a week of a stay, the group began their trip home.

William of Rubruck presented the king a very detailed report, which he named “Itinerarium fratris Willielmi de Rubruquis de ordine fratrum Minorum, Galli, Anno gratia 1253 ad partes Orientales“. His descriptions of the Mongolian geography, religion, and culture were the most precise, any European brought back home. This work counts as one of the greatest masterpieces of medieval geographical literature and is often compared to that of Marco Polo.

At yovisto, you may be interested in a video lecture on the Mongol Impact on the World history.

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