The History of Yahballaha and Rabban Sauma

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An unknown East Syriac/Nestorian writer wrote a work known as the History of Yahballaha and Rabban Sauma shortly after the death of Yahballaha III in 1317. The work is an account of how two monks from China were sent by the Mongol Ilkhan to the west as emissaries. One of them was elected Catholicos, while the other, Rabban Sauma, journeyed on to Europe. The author must have been an eyewitness of much of what he relates, and for Rabban Sauma's journey to Europe, he was able to make use of Sauma's diary and indeed reproduces it verbatim at times.

Mengozzi writes:

The History of Rabban Sawma and Mar Yahballaha aims at presenting a complete biography of the two protagonists, together with an account of the most salient events of the historical period in which they lived and acted (p. 55). A Christian Mongol, called (Bar‑)Sawma, an East-Syrian monk and therefore given the appropriate title Rabban, led a diplomatic mission in Europe in 1287-1288 as an emissary of the khan Arghun, Mongolian ruler over Iran. He visited Constantinople, Naples, Rome, Genoa, Paris. In Naples he met the king Charles II. In Rome Rabban Sawma brilliantly sustained a doctrinal discussion with the cardinals. In the way the discussion and the cardinals' positive reaction are reported, it is not difficult to recognize a kind of apology by a proud member of the Church of the East. In Paris he met the king of France and in Gascony the king of England. The author of the History says he has included a selection of Rabban Sawma's travel report which was originally written in Persian.
The second part of the History describes the work of Mark, who was a Christian Mongol like Rabban Sawma, became monk and was appointed as Patriarch of the Church of the East with the name of Yahballaha III. He served his Church mostly in diplomatic contacts with the court of the Mongols, trying to defend himself and the Christian communities from the frequent acts of harassment, extortion, ravage, torture, massacre perpetrated by local Muslim rulers. The author lingers over the description and comment on the siege and attack on the citadel of Arbil, which ended in a tremendous massacre of the Christians.


Mengozzi writes:

This text is the History of the Life and Travels of Rabban Sawma, Envoy and Plenipotentiary of the Mongol Khans to three Kings of Europe, and Markos who as Mar Yahbhallaha III became Patriarch of the Nestorian Church in Asia, as it was titled in the first complete English translation by E.A.W. Budge (London 1928). Budge's work followed a Neo-Aramaic translation made in Urmia (Persia, North-West Iran) by a certain priest Oshana and published in Zahrire d-Bahra (Urmia 1885-1886), the French translation by J.B. Chabot (Revue de l'Orient Latin 1893-1896) and the partial English translation by J.A. Montgomery (London 1927). A number of translations in other languages are available: Russian by N.V. Pigulevskaja (Moscow 1958), German by F. Altheim (Berlin 1961), Neo-Aramaic (Kirkuk 1961), and the partial Arabic translation by L. Sako (Bayn al-Nahrayn 1974).
The Classical Syriac text was discovered by the American missionary Isaac Hollister Hall (notice published in JAOS 1889) and soon aroused much interest both in the East and in the West. The Lazarist Father Paul Bedjan corrected and published the text of the History preserved in a single Urmi manuscript (1888). A few years later, Bedjan prepared a critical edition based on the collation of four other manuscripts (Paris-Leipzig 1895). All manuscripts apparently derive from one archetype and date from the Eighties of the 19th century.
  • E.A. Budge, The monks of Kûblâi Khân, emperor of China : or, The history of the life and travels of Rabban Sâwmâ, envoy and plenipotentiary of the Mongol Khâns to the kings of Europe, and Markôs who as Mâr Yahbh-Allâhâ III became patriarch of the Nestorian Church in Asia. London:The Religious Tract Society (1928) English translation, 335pp.
  • J.B. Chabot, (1895). French translation.
  • Pier Giorgio Borbone, Storia di Mar Yahballaha e di Rabban Sauma. Un orientale in Occidente ai tempi di Marco Polo. Torino: Silvio Zamorani editore (2000). Italian translation with extensive commentary.