Howdy fellow history buff. Here is another portion of Europe’s history before it was written down in tourist brochures. In this episode we are taking a look into the trials and tribulations of one Rabban Sawma, a diplomat who was sent by the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan to check out Medieval Europe. Often referenced as the “reverse Marco Polo” he, nevertheless, wore way cooler garb. Ah, and if you like that sort of candy, please treat yourself to five more (I, II, III, IV and V).

Chapter VI: 1221

Birth of the Righteous

Rabban Sawma, or, uncle Sawi, was not a righteous man. He was fat, bald and his breath smelled. He was always involved in some petty scheme, whether it’d be selling strange herbs to laymen or organizing baboon fights. His father, himself a crook, had been away on conquest for the majority of his life and had, for the most part, missed the young lad’s beautiful transition into a carbon copy of himself.

One night when Sawma was only a year old, in 1221, his old man and him shared a revelatory moment that would change both of them profoundly. On that night Krak Haed, Sawma’s father, freshly returned from inflicting suffering on some peaceful buffoons, got home exceptionally inebriated after a night out at a nearby brothel. The goats had been particularly appealing and Mr. Haed had downed copious amounts of some unknown fermented juice that made his head inflate like a bladder balloon. With his head still smuttier than a Xanadu toilet, Mr. Haed found his way to the kennel occupied by his family, his horse and the talking yak Augustus. He removed the dirty drape hanging at the entrance and witnessed a scene that would remain etched in his brain for his entire short life. Little Sawma was sleeping tight in his straw pile. Hovering above him in thin air was a purple light which said “He is the one, douche”.

Mongolion | Photo: toybot studios, CC BY-NC 2.0 (Flickr)

On the very next day, Mr. Haed discontinued his lewd ways and devoted himself to the pursuit of spiritual excellence. He asked around which were the popular religious cults of the day and was told that the coolest among the Mongols, the rulers of the imperial city of Khanbaliq, where he resided, believed in a god named Isa or Yesu, or some such. He could not remember the name quite well as he was still hungover. To complicate things, other people suggested further religions, including one requiring followers to wear turbans (not an option in the heat) and another, where the main man was some sort of squatting monk who thought enlightenment through sitting still for hours. Mr. Haed believed the hype and chose the Yesu guy, to whom he pledged eternal allegiance. In just a few hours he felt sins leaving his body together with the vomit. In a few days, he was already good to go to church on Sundays and decry abortion. In just a few years, Mr. Head was so clean of life’s debaucheries that he was almost transparent.

Little Sawma

Mr. Haed’s son, however, the little prick Sawma, would take over his father’s former noisome lifestyle, giving shit to his parents and proving that karma inevitably comes round to bite you on the backside. At five he was already stealing stuff and at ten he was selling whatever was unlicensed and in demand. For Sawma the concept of formal schooling was mildly offensive, he would prefer to be reborn as a rat than to visit this awful barrack and listen to some old dork’s morality tales. Real life was happening on the street. As he was growing up, he also figured out that war, the second best to religion, his father’s way, was also out of the question. True, he could benefit from some pillaging, but he would not stand the hassle of killing the former owners. For some reason, as profligate as he was, he shunned violence and politics. Plus, he could earn as good by plucking out people’s cash more diplomatically.

Such was Sawma’s life, both happily depraved and morally stable, until the day he appeared on the radar of the powers that be. In those days criminology still had not reached its golden age and crimes would often go unsolved. That did not mean people would not get locked up, tortured or killed as usual, but prosecutors, whose modi operandi were limited to word on the street, would often suck at matching pending cases and perpetrators. Law enforcement thus largely resembled divine intervention, naturally skewed towards the rich and healthy than the pious and dumb. Many fools would end up as witches or liars. This had a certain entertainment value as well, since the culprits, many of whom clueless of their imputed sins, were usually punished publicly, by impalement or hilarious clown performances.

Uncle Sawi’s luck ran out around the age of fifty. He was arrested early in the morning and thrown in the bin straightaway. Sawma did not know exactly what he was put there for, guessing that it should have been some of his recent start-ups that had attracted the authorities’ attention. Either the herbs or the gambling.

The Assignment

Drum tower | Photo: Blink O’fanaye, CC BY-NC 2.0 (Flickr)

What Sawma did not know was that his destiny was being sealed in a most unexpected manner. Sawma did not know that Kublai Khan, the emperor of the surrounding lands, despite being a profoundly virtuous man, also had several vices, among which partying and betting on weird odds (and sodomy, but that was normal). The same day Sawma was incarcerated, the khan, who had recently mistakenly moved the seat of the Mongol empire to the city of Khanbaliq due to a navigation mishap (he wanted to conquer Kiev but turned up in China), was in particularly good spirits. He had succeeded in convincing several bozo rulers from nearby kingdoms to pay to be “protected” by his kind and respectful army.

The khan had downed several chalices of devil juice and had ended up calling concubines and jesters. At some point of the night, he found himself discussing politics with a strange pale-skinned man, probably a mystic, who insisted that the Mongols should strike a union with Europe, to fend off even more fierce dolts, such as the mamluks, from conquering strategic spots like Jerusalem. The stranger believed that Kublai Khan should send a most refined diplomat on a mission, as Europeans were known to be quirky and savage. Jerusalem. The name rang a bell, but Kublai Khan was not particularly convinced. Naturally cocky, the khan, however, decided to pull a prank on the obvious buffoon. He said he liked the idea, but he believed that a random crook would do an equally good job.

As a result, merely 24 hours after he had been locked up Sawma was extracted from the bin and dragged through a network of dimly lit corridors to a small stately room. He was sat on a chair against a bearded man with a funny haircut, who presented himself as Bar Madjun, an envoy of the khan. The envoy informed Sawma that he was in deep trouble as he had been accused of sodomising the emperor’s favourite bovine, Snuggles. There was, however, one thing Sawma could do to avoid getting his entrails slowly taken out with a rake – travel to Europe and convince the Romans to sign a number of pre-filled papers pledging their allegiance to the khan.


St. Peter’s Basilica | Photo by Xavier Coiffic on Unsplash

Sawma travelled a lot. So much so that he could no longer distinguish night from day, erect from perpendicular, sane from ugly. On top of it all, right before he left, he was provided with an аide, a young dunce named Mario, who was supposed to help with navigation, etiquette and establishing first contact with the lords of the kingdoms Sawma passed through. The imbecile was so spectacularly inept that he messed up every opportunity to reach any sort of understanding with any of them. Their pleas for a blessing from a local satrap would usually be met with an angry “I will give you a blessing!” prior to receiving exceptionally good beating that made their bones rattle. Usually, because Mario had prepared the ground by sleeping with the king’s daughter, or, worse even, his goats.

And that was before navigation came into the picture. Under Mario’s direction the two men were constantly surprised to find stuff that was not supposed to be there: seas would replace deserts and mountains – steppes. One time they were at sea for what seemed like an eternity. Unwittingly, they had crossed the Atlantic to reach what would later become known as Trump’s America. Distances also seemed to stretch far beyond the estimations provided by the khan’s cartographers, and locals differed sharply from what was describe in the old books – instead of getting more cultured they devolved to grunting cannibals who drank their own urine. Sawma was convinced Mario’s last moment inclusion was the khan’s way to pull yet another of his famous jokes.

Also, Sawma was aware that he was basically screwed due to other reasons as well. There was no way he could convince European leaders (if he ever got to meet any) to do Kublai Khan’s bidding. He could not even convince his father to avoid asparagus, which eventually drove the old man to throw himself into a ravine. Plus, the Romans were surely not dumb, they would sense that something was wrong, at the very least by the urgency of the tone with which the papers demanded them to succumb to the khan’s reign. He had further inadvertently opened some of the letters and instead of refined speech they seemed to depict what appeared to be bouquets of middle fingers.

After traversing half the globe twice, Sawma finally reached the city of Constantinople, the capital of what had remained from the Roman Empire. Not a bad city, but not too much to see. The king that welcomed him, a small man-child named Andronicus XXVIII, who presented himself as an emperor (he admitted to adding a few numbers for prestige), personally showed Sawma the city’s riches, including several churches, graves and bones of multiple people. Upon taking a look at the khan’s letters he laughed so hard that they needed to call a doctor. He told Sawma to be so kind to fuck off before he changed his mind and spit roasted him in own lard.

So far so good. Sawma’s next stop was the port city of Naples, a place famous for its reeking streets. And indeed, the smell was so rancid that Sawma had to be placed in a camp outside the city. From there on Sawma travelled to the Vatican, currently suffering from the absence of an overlord, Tuscany, another port city, Genoa, and Paris and Bordeaux, where he met the French and English kings, respectively.

What was striking was that the rulers of each of those countries were eager to show him churches, graves, bones and further sepulchral paraphernalia, as if he ran a funeral agency. Admittedly, the cathedral of St. Peter was impressive. When Sawma asked how it was built the Cardinals, who welcomed him in the city of Rome, bragged how they were able to swindle washed up laymen by selling them certificates absolving their sins. Sawma was genuinely intrigued and thought how he could apply the same or a similar business model back at home.

Sawma spent the winter in the European wilderness, plagued by ubiquitous stupidity and bad smells from the continent’s open toilets. Everywhere he went he saw backwardness, dirt and decay, at scales he had not considered possible. Eventually, after a new Pope was elected uncle Sawma was summoned back to the Vatican and granted an audience. He explained that he had a few letters from the khan of the Mongols but suggested that the Pope should not take the content too seriously and underlined that he personally disagreed with it. The Pope read the letters and ordered all present busybodies to leave the room. When they were alone, he said to Sawma “Listen to me very carefully, douche. Tell your king that if he ever shows his ugly face around those parts again, I will peel him so slowly and masterfully that he would need several gods like the one above to keep his soul pinned to his chassis. But I like you. What are you doing on Friday? Fancy a Eucharistic mystery?”

And that is how little Sawma, a crook and a thief, became a saint. He was awarded a permanent license to operate as an envoy in Europe or wherever, a bunch of shiny trinkets and a new sidekick (Mario had perished from blue balls in Paris). He even got the high priests to sign several fake letters suggesting a potential treaty with the Mongols, on the condition that they learned how to dance the carole.

Cover photo: Kublai Khan, Wikimedia Commons

  • retro

    Alex is Bulgarian and is currently stationed in Poland. He did Politics & Security at University College London and specialised at Charles University in Prague for a year. He is an analyst with interests in the region of Central and Eastern Europe.

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