And this just in from the 13th century: What did the popes (secretly) say to the Mongols?


I’ve been in Mongolia the past two weeks helping a friend write a book and seeing as much of this Central Asian nation as I possibly can. I say “central” because the ethos of this place is high steppe, not the coastlines of the Far East.

English-language media are almost non-existent here, but I have found one: Montsame, a government-run national news agency, that ran a tiny piece last week about letters between Mongol emperors and medieval popes during the 1200s.

Is that breaking news? Maybe not. But today we will focus on new information.

St. Francis had been dead about 20 years when all this started. Marco Polo was being born (in 1254). A photo I’ve included with this entry shows how folks (minus the 21st century interlopers) dressed during this time.

Ulaanbaatar /MONTSAME — On July 9, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs received official copies of letters of khans of the Ilkhanate to the Popes.

Copies of letters from Pope Innocent IV to Guyuk Khan (March 13, 1245), Pope Urban IV to Khulegu Khan May 23, 1263, Abaqa Khan to Pope Clement IV (summer of 1268), Pope Nicholas III to Abaqa Khan (April 1, 1278), a travel permit given to the envoys of Roman Catholic Church by Abaqa Khan, two letters from Pope Nicholas IV to Argun Khan (April 2, 1288) and the letter from Argun Khan to Pope Nicholas IV were received.

Never knew the 13th century had so much ecumenical activity, did you?

The letters were copied according to the official agreement with the Vatican Secret Archives established with the support of the officials of Mongolian Embassy in Italy headed by Ambassador of Mongolia to Italy Ts. Jambaldorj.

This is pretty stilted, but there’s a fascinating story behind it all. As this piece points out, these eight letters have been in the Vatican’s secret archives for nearly 800 years. Scholars have been able to access them since 1881, but not the general public.

What I found out is that the Montsame piece only told a portion of the story.

What’s not told is how Catholic Christianity had a real chance to convert the sons and grandsons of Genghis Khan, but muffed it. Why? This 2010 piece in the Guardian tells how the exchanges between various popes and the Mongols weren’t friendly at all.

In a letter dated 1246 from Grand Khan Guyuk to Pope Innocent IV, Genghis Khan’s grandson demands that the pontiff travel to central Asia in person – with all of his “kings” in tow – to “pay service and homage to us” as an act of “submission”, threatening that otherwise “you shall be our enemy”.

Here is some background from a blog as to how nasty things were at the beginning of the 13th century.

By the late 1230s, Mongol armies had begun raiding parts of Russia and eastern Europe. Between 1236 and 1242, these military campaigns–commanded by Subutai (d. 1248), Batu Khan (d. 1255), and Berke (d. 1266), among others–had wrought major devastation across Russia, Poland, Hungary and the Balkans. The cities of Kiev, Pereyaslavl, Chernihiv, Lublin, and other major population centers in eastern and central Europe were sacked and their populations massacred.

The defeats of the Polish forces at the Battle of Liegnitz/Legnica (April 9, 1241) and the Hungarian military at the Battle of Mohi (April 11, 1241) opened up most of the Balkans and Central Europe to Mongol raids, leading to even more destruction, displacement and massacres. These alarming developments shook the foundations of Latin Christendom. Although the Mongols withdrew from most of the Balkans and east-central Europe soon after (as a result of internal dynamics in their empire), the shock of their invasions and conquests remained.

Seeking to gauge the intentions of the conquerors and convince them to cease their invasions of Latin Christendom, Pope Innocent IV (r. 1243-1254) sent an embassy with two letters (in Latin) to the Mongol Khan Güyük.

Basically, the pope told Guyuk to lay off massacring eastern Europe and to consider converting to Christianity. The khan sent an outraged reply (in Persian, Mongolian and Uighur) telling the pope that the pontiff needed to submit to him, not the other way around.

The khans were actually quite religiously tolerant, so there were several faiths jockeying for control in that part of the world.

Still, the Mongol conquest of southern Russia and all of Central Asia was more genocide than anything else and if Rome hadn’t been so far away from present-day Mongolia, western civilization might look very different today. You can thank Genghis Khan (I’ve included a photo of an enormous statue of his likeness) for making the first part of the 13th century a living hell for the 40 million people that he and his followers slaughtered..

Still, the pope had hopes of converting these folks. However, Khan Guyuk had something the pope did not know about: A Christian wife named Oghul Qaimish. The courts of these khans had Christian wives and mothers of kings, thanks to missionizing hundreds of years before by the Nestorians, a variant of Christianity considered heretical by the western branch of the church. In response, the Nestorians headed east, eventually ending up in Mongolia and China. In the 11th century, a major central Mongolian tribe, the Kereit, converted to Nestorian Christianity. When Genghis Khan consolidated all the tribes under his rule by 1206, the Nestorians were included in the mix.

Back to the original article atop this piece: It’s a shame that we’re not told what was in those missives from the pope to various khans.

A haunting story is connected to one of Genghis Khan’s grandsons who, after encountering Marco Polo in 1266, wrote Pope Gregory X asking for 100 Christian missionaries. In a mistake now known “the greatest missed opportunity in Christian history,” the pope only sent two and the pair chickened out midway through. By the time other missionaries arrived in eastern Asia in 1294, Kublai Khan’s interests had switched to Buddhism. The next time Christianity got a major foothold into Mongolia wasn’t until the early 1990s.

I did find a fascinating piece by Timothy May in the academic journal World History Connected, that tells us what was in some of that papal-Mongol correspondence. Later letters were with the Mongol rulers of Persia. While several popes held out hopes of converting the masses to the Catholic expression of the faith and actually sent instructions to them toward that end, the Mongols were looking for a military alliance with the papacy in hopes of fending off Muslim invaders. This scholarly French paper gives even more details about those letters.

Several of the links I’ve provided here explain why the opportunity to Catholicize eastern Asia got squandered at that point. Clearly, the 12th century was a time when three major religions: Islam, Buddhism and Christianity, were vying for control of the Mongol empire. Christianity, then later Islam, lost out.

Sadly, Montsame doesn’t explain why the Mongolians have been itching to get their hands on copies of the papal-Mongol letters for decades. For a brief few decades, their ancestors had a chance at joining up with western civilization or at least adopting its religion. But the popes didn’t seize this opportunity quickly enough and so history went in another direction.

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