This Chinese monk's epic, east-to-west travels rival Marco Polo's

In the 13th century, a Mongolian khan sent Rabban Bar Sauma west to forge diplomatic ties with powerful leaders from Persia to Paris.

Sermon of a Nestorian priest on Palm Sunday. Wall painting in Gaochang (Xinjiang). 7th-8th centuries
AKG/ALBUM

Two travelers from the 13th century made remarkable journeys. The man who headed east, from Europe to Asia, became a household name, thanks to his travelogue, The Travels of Marco Polo. The name of the other man is less well known, but his accomplishments are just as remarkable. Rabban Bar Sauma left China in 1275, followed the Silk Road, and made his way to Baghdad, Constantinople, and France, meeting khans, kings, and a pope.

The remarkable Bar Sauma was born in Zhongdu, China, in 1220. His ancestors were descendants of the Uighurs, a Turkic ethnic group from Central Asia. Bar Sauma was brought up in the Nestorian faith, a Christian denomination that originated in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) when it broke away from the church in the fifth century. Nestorianism took root in Persia and then spread east to China.

“Rabban” is an honorific: In the Semitic Syriac language in which the Nestorian liturgy is written, it means “master.” At age 23 Bar Sauma became a monk, and he spent most of his adult life as a teacher.

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