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Carpini Boldly Carried the Pope's Message to the Marauding Mongols

Kublai Khan, one of the best-known of the great khans.

One of the most extraordinary travel adventures of all time began on this day, 2 February 1245. The hero was a shrewd, fat, sixty-year-old Franciscan friar. Giovanni da Plano Carpini, a zealous preacher was also known as a sharp-eyed observer and good organizer. All three attributes commended him to Pope Innocent IV, who appointed him to carry a message to the great khan of the Mongols.

The fury of these Mongol warriors had erupted out of the far east, and they slaughtered anyone who resisted them. To their south, they defeated the Chinese. To their west, they massacred Muslim and Christian populations. The pope felt it prudent to discover the intentions of this terrifying mounted army. He instructed Carpini to pick up any information he could.

As Carpini proceeded through the Balkans toward Kiev, Christians along the way greeted him hospitably and sped him on his way. The pagan Lithuanians, however, were menacing. Farther east, as the embassy entered Mongol lands, the difficulty of the mission and the evident danger of Mongol ferocity grew.

“We found many skulls and bones of dead men lying upon the earth like a dunghill,” wrote Carpini. He found it difficult to communicate his intentions and suffered from harsh weather, attacks by bandits, days of hunger, threats, forced marches, and long delays at the hands of suspicious officials.

The situation improved when Carpini’s men reached a Mongol camp on the Volga River. Batu, a high official, decided the friar’s errand warranted sending him and his companions forward by the imperial post. This was a swift system of relays in which horses were changed as much as six times a day so that the khan could have timely information about what was taking place in his vast kingdom. Carpini hurried across Asia almost to Karakoram. He found the Mongols in transition, with Güyük Khan preparing to assume leadership of the empire, his predecessor having recently died.

Carpini delivered the pope’s letter, which urged the khan not to attack Europe lest he taste the wrath of God and advised him to repent of his monstrous massacres. It also urged the Mongols “to become Christians, and to embrace the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, because they could not otherwise be saved.”

However, in the eyes of Güyük, Carpini and the pope were insignificant figures. He kept Carpini waiting for weeks. The friar spent the time creating a fairly accurate family tree of the khans and detailing any facts he could gather about the empire and its rulers from the many Christian captives at the court. When Carpini finally received an audience with the khan, he tried to convert him to Christianity. Güyük considered the matter but, in the end, rejected baptism.

Carpini’s team had to make their own way back across the steppes of Central Asia in the dead of winter. Sometimes the men woke to find themselves buried in drifts of snow. They did not reach Kiev until June and still had months of travel ahead of them.

The response Carpini carried as he headed back to Rome was not what the pope wished to hear. The khan ordered that the pontiff present himself at the Mongol court if he wished peace, writing:“We have chastised the Christian nations because they disobeyed the commandments of God and Genghis Khan. The power of God is manifestly with us.” Consequently, Europe still lived in terror of another Mongol invasion. Innocent IV rewarded Carpini by making him an archbishop. Carpini lived to be sixty-seven.

Dan Graves

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Journey into the Unknown is set in Mongolia. Hanneke van Dam, convinced that she has heard God’s voice, leaves everything behind and moves to Mongolia to minister to those in need.

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