"... On the feast of St. John the Evangelist, we arrived at the ordu of the great lord" - Prester John, the Mongols and William of Rubruck's Journey to Karakorum

27 December 1253, the Franciscan monk, diplomat in the service of Louis IX of France and explorer William of Rubruck reaches the court of Great Khan Möngke in Karakorum.

“Then first in her distant journey did Répanse de Schoie find joy,
And in India's realm hereafter did she bear to the king a boy;
And Prester John they called him, and he won to himself such fame
That henceforward all kings of his country were known by no other name.
And Feirefis sent a writing thro' the kingdoms whose crown he bore,
And the Christian Faith was honoured as it never had been of yore.
(And Tribalibot was that country which as India here we know.)”

 (Wolfram von Eschenbach, “Parzival”, around 1210)

Jacopo Bassano "Portrait of a Franciscan Friar" (around 1542)

Alexander III was a resourceful man. Basically, a useful trait if one has something of a talent to antagonise almost all of the crowned heads of Christendom. A third crusade might have been a political way out of the quandary, but after the disaster of the second one in 1149, none of the said crowned heads was keen on risking life, limb and especially money abroad and especially not to do Alexander a favour. However, with Nur ad-Din unifying the Faithful and threatening the Crusader States and, naturally, Jerusalem, the situation in the Outremer was tense. And the last thing Alexander needed politically was a collapse of Christian rule in the Holy Land. Thus, it was quite fortunate that a letter from a wondrous new ally appeared, the Lord of the Three Indias, descendant of one of the Three Magi, a faithful Christian King, ready to lead a huge army against the Mussulmen from the East if only the western Princes would support him. The legend of Prester John had begun in earnest, and even though a few lettered contemporaries might have noticed that Prester John’s epsitle quoted the Alexander Romances verbatim, the ones about the ancient Conqueror, not the pope, of course, and borrowed heavily from Herodotus and other sources, a dream had begun that would be dreamed well into the 19th century. However, Prester John and a third crusade remained a dream during Alexander’s papacy while he finally managed to checkmate the Holy Roman Emperor and King Henry II of England and relieve himself of most of the political pressure. The Third Crusade set forth in 1189, almost ten years after his death, without any expectations of a relief from Prester John. Another dreamer, however, St Louis IX of France, undoubtedly a pious man and an inspiring leader, but a walking and talking military fiasco, dug out the idea of an alliance with Prester John in the East while he ruined the last hopes of the Crusader Kingdoms during his stay in the Outremer before and after the catastrophic Seventh Crusade around 1250. By then, there actually was a vast empire beyond the Euphrates threatening Muslim rule, that of Genghis Khan and his successors. But they were not exactly Christian princes. 

Mongol warriors pursuing their enemies, from an early 14th century Persian manuscript 

is an old settlement centre in the valley of the River Orkhon, some two hundred miles west of Ulan Bator. The first Mongols that became sedentary might have farmed there, over the centuries, Old Turkic khans had their capitals by its banks and so did other peoples from the steppe. In 1220 then, Genghis Khan decided to found a residence on site, maybe he had more in mind than establishing yet another rallying point for his armies, but for the next decades, Karakorum, meaning either “black hills” or “black prison”, was little more than a huge yurt town until Genghis’ son Ögedei Khan made the place the capital of the largest empire the world had ever seen, a vast territory that stretched in 1241 from Poland to the coast of the China Sea and began to change from a rag rug overridden by plundering steppe nomads towards a political entity. When Genghis’ grandson Möngke became the fourth Great Khan in 1251, Karakorum already was made into a boomtown in a place that marked the Middle of the World for the Mongols and even if it lacked the pedigree of Babylon or Constantinople in the perspective of subjugated nations, it was indeed the centre of politics in Eurasia. There had been several missions from the Pope sent towards the courts of Mongol Khans before, ironically enough, while the Catholic Poles, Hungarians and Teutonic Knights fought them in Eastern Europe with tooth and claw and the admittedly Orthodox principalities of the Kievan Rus already were conquered and brought under Mongol rule. And, of course, various traders and merchants knew where to find the capital of the Great Khan and it was on their tracks that a Flemish Franciscan set forth from Constantinople to Karakorum on 7 May 1253, by order of St Louis, together with his confrére Bartolomeo da Cremona, a servant and a native guide, to negotiate an alliance, convert the Heathen and it wouldn’t do any harm if he would discover more about Prester John while he was out there. The two Franciscans didn’t travel exactly with the speed of dispatch riders through Southern Russia, past the northern shore of the Caspian and the Aral Sea into Transbaikal and, finally, into Mongolia, over 5,000 miles on foot and on the back of mules. It took them almost eight months to reach Karakorum and they were in for a surprise.

Audience with Möngke Khan, from a 15th century Persian manuscript

and Bartolomeo were prepared for all kinds of magnificence, they had read Prester John’s alleged letter from 1165 and the wondrous description of the palace there and indeed, Möngke Khan’s capital shone with splendour build overnight by artisans from all corners of the empire and beyond. One contraption especially caught William’s fancy: “… Master William the Parisian had made for him a great silver tree, and at its roots are four lions of silver, each with a conduit through it, and all belching forth white milk of mares. And four conduits are led inside the tree to its tops, which are bent downward, and on each of these is also a gilded serpent, whose tail twines round the tree. And from one of these pipes flows wine, from another cara cosmos, or clarified mare's milk, from another bal, a drink made with honey, and from another rice mead, which is called terracina; and for each liquor there is a special silver bowl at the foot of the tree to receive it. Between these four conduits in the top, he made an angel holding a trumpet, and underneath the tree he made a vault in which a man can be hid. And pipes go up through the heart of the tree to the angel. In the first place he made bellows, but they did not give enough wind. Outside the palace is a cellar in which the liquors are stored, and there are servants all ready to pour them out when they hear the angel trumpeting. And there are branches of silver on the tree, and leaves and fruit. When then drink is wanted, the head butler cries to the angel to blow his trumpet. Then he who is concealed in the vault, hearing this blows with all his might in the pipe leading to the angel, and the angel places the trumpet to his mouth, and blows the trumpet right loudly. Then the servants who are in the cellar, hearing this, pour the different liquors into the proper conduits, and the conduits lead them down into the bowls prepared for that, and then the butlers draw it and carry it to the palace to the men and women.” And there already was a church in Karakorum, built by Nestorian Christians, along with mosques, Buddhist Stupas and what not. Möngke Khan practised religious tolerance in his capital, unheard of in Western and most of the residencies of the Near and Middle East. William was made welcome with all courtesy, Möngke attended various religious debates, was not very impressed and William was rather economical with proselytising anyway. Instead, he produced a first rate travelogue rather than the adventure novel Marco Polo wrote half a century later and returned with valuable information about the court of the mightiest man in Eurasia and his court and richer for the experience, but without any news from Prester John and sans an alliance to Acre in 1255. Records of William cease in Paris in 1257 and he was never heard of again. His travelogue, though, was one of the final nails in the coffin of the belief of Prester John and a Christian Empire in the East. Marco Polo still thought it to be somewhere northeast of the Chinese borders but pretty soon, the Age of Exploration began in earnest and European merchant adventurers set forth on their quest for the Prester in Africa and elsewhere.

A modern translation of William of Rubruck’s travelogue, his “Itinerarium fratris Willielmi de Rubruquis de ordine fratrum Minorum, Galli, Anno gratia 1253 ad partes Orientales” can be found here:


and more about William of Rubruck on: