<---previous article

The Journal of William of Rubruck (1210-1270)

"A Flemish Franciscan monk, William of Rubruck (ca. 1210-ca. 1270) wrote the most detailed and valuable of the early Western accounts of the Mongols. William had participated in the crusade of King Louis IX of France to Palestine and there heard about the Mongols from friar Andrew of Longjumeau, a Dominican who had been involved in papal diplomacy aimed at trying to enlist the Mongols in the Christian crusade against the Muslims. Rubruck then decided to undertake his own mission to the Mongols primarily in the hope of promoting their conversion to Christianity. In 1253 he set out through the lands of the western part of their empire (what we know as the Golden Horde)--that is starting out through the southern steppes of what is now Ukraine and Russia.

His roundtrip journey lasted the better part of three years. William had the distinction of being the first European to visit the Mongol capital of Karakorum on the Orhon River and return to write about it. He provides a unique description of the Khan's palace there and abundant detail about the individuals of various ethnicities and religions whom he encountered. Understandably, he was particularly interested in the Nestorian Christians. His describes generally with great precision Mongol traditional culture, many features of which have survived amongst the herders one may observe today in inner Asia." - Prof. Dan Waugh


Yurts and Their Furnishings


"The pasture lands without water they graze over in winter when there is snow there, for the snow serveth them as water. "


Nowhere have they fixed dwelling-places, nor do they know where their next will be. They have divided among themselves Cithia, which extendeth from the Danube to the rising of the sun ; and every captain, according as he hath more or less men under him, knows the limits of his pasture land and where to graze in winter and summer, spring and autumn. For in winter they go down to warmer regions in the south: in summer they go up to cooler towards the north. The pasture lands without water they graze over in winter when there is snow there, for the snow serveth them as water. They set up the dwelling in which they sleep on a circular frame of interlaced sticks converging into a little round hoop on the top, from which projects above a collar as a chimney, and this (framework) they cover over with white felt. Frequently they coat the felt with chalk, or white clay, or powdered bone, to make it appear whiter, and sometimes also (they make the felt) black. The felt around this collar on top they decorate with various pretty designs. Before the entry they also suspend felt ornamented with various embroidered designs in color. For they embroider the felt, colored or otherwise, making vines and trees, birds and beast.




"They set up the dwelling in which they sleep on a circular frame of interlaced sticks converging into a little round hoop on the top, from which projects above a collar as a chimney, and this (framework) they cover over with white felt."

A rolled up felt above the door serves the same purpose as what was described seven hundred years before this early 20th century photograph was taken.



And they make these houses so large that they are sometimes thirty feet in width. I myself once measured the width between the wheel-tracks of a cart 20 feet, and when the house was on the cart it projected beyond the wheels on either side v feet at least. I have myself counted to one cart 22 oxen drawing one house, eleven abreast across the width of the cart, and the other eleven before them. The axle of the cart was as large as the mast of a ship, and one man stood in the entry of the house on the cart driving the oxe. Furthermore they weave light twigs into squares of the size of a large chest, and over it from one end to the other they put a turtle-back also of twigs, and in the front end they make a little doorway; and then they cover this coffer or little house with black felt coated with tallow or ewe's milk, so that the rain cannot penetrate it, and they decorate it likewise with embroidery work. And in such coffers they put all their bedding and valuables, and they tie them tightly on high carts drawn by camels, so that they can cross rivers (without getting wet). Such coffers they never take off the car.



"....The side for the women is always the cast side, that is to say, on the left of the house of the master, he sitting on his couch his face turned to the south" Curiously, the inahbitants of this tent arranged themselves for the photo in exactly the manner which Rubruck describes seven hundred years ago.


When they set down their dwelling-houses, they always turn the door to the south' and after that they place the carts with coffers on either side near the house at a half stone's throw, so that the dwelling stands between two rows of carts as between two walls. The matrons make for themselves most beautiful (luggage) carts, which I would not know how to describe to you unless by a drawing, and I would depict them all to you if I knew how to paint. A single rich Moal or Tartar has quite 100 or 200 such carts with coffers. Baatu has 26 wives, each of whom has a large dwelling, exclusive of the other little ones which they set up after the big one, and which are like closets, in which the sewing girls live, and to each of these (large) dwellings are attached quite 200 carts. And when they set up their houses, the first wife places her dwelling on the extreme west side, and after her the others according to their rank, so that the last wife will be in the extreme east ; and there will be the distance of a stone's throw between the iurt of one wife and that of another. The ordu of a rich Moal seems like a large town, though there will be very few men in it. One girl will lead 200 or 300 carts, for the country is flat, and they tie the ox or camel carts the one after the other, and a girl will sit on the front one driving the ox, and all the others follow after with the same gait. Should it happen that they come to some bad piece of road, they untie them, and take them across one by one. So they go along slowly, as a sheep or an ox might walk When they have fixed their dwelling, the door turned to the south, they set up the couch of the master on the north side. The side for the women is always the cast side, that is to say, on the left of the house of the master, he sitting on his couch his face turned to the south. The side for the men is the west side, that is, on the right. Men coming into the house would never hang up their bows on the side of the woman..




"Before the entry they also suspend felt ornamented with various embroidered designs in color. For they embroider the felt, colored or otherwise, making vines and trees, birds and beast.." The women of Central Asia still bedeck themselves, their children and their tents in colourful decor.


Funeral Practices

When anyone dies, they lament with loud wailing, then they are free, for they pay no taxes for the year. And if anyone is present at the death of an adult, he may not enter the dwelling even of Mangu Chan for the year. If it be a child who dies, he may not enter it for a month. Beside the tomb of the dead they always leave a tent if he be one of the nobles, that is of the family of Chingis, who was their first father and lord. Of him who is dead the burying place is not known. And always around these places where they bury their nobles there is a camp with men watching the tombs. I did not understand that they bury treasure with their dead. The Comans raise a great tumulus over the dead, and set up a statue to him, its face to the east, and holding a cup in its hand at the height of the navel. They make also pyramids to the rich, that is to say, little pointed structures, and in some places I saw great tiled covered towers, and in others stone houses, though there were no stones thereabout. Over a person recently dead I saw hung on long poles the skins of xvi horses, four facing each quarter of the world ; and they had placed also cosmos for him to drink, and meat for him to eat, and for all that they said of him that he had been baptized.



A 19th century etching of a Turkmen funeral procession in Central Asia, where burial rather than cremation is commonly practiced, or excarnation, as seen in Tibet.


Farther east I saw other tombs in shape like great yards covered with big flat stones, some round, some square, and four high vertical stones at the corners facing the four quarters of the world. When anyone sickens he lies on his couch, and places a sign over his dwelling that there is a sick person therein, and that no one shall enter. So no one visits a sick person, save him who serves him. And when anyone from the great ordu is ill, they place guards all round the ordu, who permit no one to pass those bounds. For they fear lest an evil spirit or some wind should come with those who enter. They call, however, their priests, who are these same soothsayer.



A scene from a funeral rite in Tibet, where excarnation is practiced and the body of the deceased is cut up and fed to the vultures and the bones are ground to dust.


Buddhism and Buddhists

All the priests (of the idolaters) shave their heads, and are dressed in saffron color, and they observe chastity from the time they shave their heads, and they live in congregations of one or two hundred. On the days when they go into the temple, they place two benches, and they sit in the region of the choir but opposite the choir, with books in their hands, which they sometimes put down on these benches; and they keep their heads uncovered as long as they are in the temple, reading in silence and keeping silence. And when I went into one of their temples at Caracarum, and found them thus seated, I tried every means of inducing them to talk, but was unable to do so. Wherever they go they have in their hands a string of one or two hundred beads, like our rosaries, and they always repeat these words, on mani baccam, which is, "God, thou knowest," as one of them interpreted it to me, and they expect as many rewards from God as they remember God in saying this.
Around their temple they make a fine courtyard ,well surrounded by a wall, and in the side of this facing the south, they make the main gate where they sit and talk. And over this gate they set up a long pole, which, if it be possible, rises above the whole city, and by this pole it may be known that this building is an idol temple. This practice is common to all idolaters. When I went into the idol temple I was speaking of, I found the priests seated in the outer gate, and when I saw them with their shaved faces they seemed to me to be Franks, but they had barbarian miters on their heads. These Iugur priests have the following dress: wherever they go they are always dressed in rather tight saffron-colored tunics, over which is a girdle like the Franks, and they have a stole (pallium) over their left shoulder, passed round the chest and the back to the right side, like the chasuble (casula) worn by a deacon in Len.



"All the priests (of the idolaters) shave their heads, and are dressed in saffron color, and they observe chastity from the time they shave their heads, and they live in congregations of one or two hundred."
Hundreds of monks and lamas watch these two 'debate' in traditional Tibetan style, the debate consisting of teachings of the Buddha invoked and chanted.


The Tartars have adopted (i.e., the Uigurs') letters. They begin writing at the top, and run the line downward; and in like manner they read it, and they make the lines to follow each other from left to right. They make great use of drawings and letters for their sorcery, so their temples are full of short sentences (brevibus) hung up there.The letters with Mangu Chan sends us are in the Moal language, but in their script.

They burn their dead according to the custom of the ancients, and put the ashes in the top of pyramid. Beyond these are the Tebet, a people in the habit of eating their dead parents, so that for piety's sake they should not give their parents any other sepulcher than their bowels. They. have given this practice up, however, as they were held an abomination among all nations.
They still, however, make handsome cups out of the heads of their parents, so that when drinking out of them they may have them in mind in the midst of their merry-making. This was told me by one who had seen it. These people have much gold in their country, so that when one lacks gold he digs till he finds it, and he only takes so much as he requires and puts the rest back in the ground; for if he put it in a treasury or a coffer, he believes that God would take away from him that which is in the ground. I saw many misshapen individuals of this people. Of the Tanguts I have seen big men, but swarthy. The Iugurs are of medium size, like us. Among the Iugurs the Turkie Coman language has its source and root. After Tebet are Longa and Solanga, whose envoys I saw at court, and they had brought with them more than ten big carts, each of which was drawn by six oxen.



"They still, however, make handsome cups out of the heads of their parents, so that when drinking out of them they may have them in mind in the midst of their merry-making." Actually Rubruck exaggerates as such cups are used as ritual objects in religious ceremonies as the one above, which is actually composed of metal fashioned into the shape of a skull.



They are little men and swarthy like Spaniards, and they wear tunics like the chasuble (supertunicale) of a deacon, except with narrower sleeves. On their heads they wear a miter like a bishop's, except that in front it is slightly lower than behind, and it does not terminate in a point, but is square on top, and is of stiff black buckram, and so polished that it shines in the sun's rays like a mirror or a well-burnished helmet. And at the temples are long strips of the same stuff, which are fastened to the miter, and which stand out in the wind like two horns projecting from the temples. When the wind strikes it too violently, they fold them up across the miter over the temples, where they remain like a hoop across the head ; and a right handsome ornament it is. And whenever the principal envoy came to court he carried a highly-polished tablet of ivory about a cubit long and half a palm wide. Every time he spoke to the Chan or some great personage, he always looked at that tablet as if he found there that he had to say, nor did he look to the right or the left, nor in the face of him with whom he was talking. Likewise, when coming into the presence of the Lord, and when leaving it, he never looked at anything but his table.

Besides these people there is another, as I was assured, called Muc, who have towns, but who take no animals for themselves. There are, however, many herds and flocks in their country, but no one herds them ; when anyone wants some, he goes to a hill and calls, and all the animals hearing the call come around him, and let him treat them as if they were tame. If an ambassador or any foreigner come to that country, they put him in a house, and give him all he requires, until his business has been settled ; for should a foreigner go about the country, his odor would cause the animals to run away and they would become wild.