Mongol Group A3

Was Marco Polo's account on Prester John reliable?

    In order to shed light on A3 group research question “whether Marco Polo’s description of his travels is reliable”, I shall focus on Prester John in Chapter II of Description of the World by first explaining the meaning of Prester John. After that, Chinggiz’s marriage with Prester John’s daughter and the warfare between Chinggiz and Prester John will be successively discussed. I will show that important primary sources confirm that the two events took place, but the details conveyed by Marco differed significantly from secondary sources, and sometimes primary sources. It is imperative to investigate the credibility of Marco’s account on Prester John not only because this topic defensibly proves certain events and geographical locations accurate, but it is personally important for a European coming from the Islamic world.

   To begin with, why Ong Khan was addressed as Prester John should be understood. In 1141, the newly crowned Khitan emperor defeated the last great Sljuq sultan of Persia, Sanjar in Qatwan steppe. This Khitan emperor led to the birth of the “greatest of the Christian kings of the Orient” [1] Prester John, who was thought to aid the hard-pressed Christians by defeating Muslims in the Holy Land. “Ong Khan in their language…means ‘Prester John’ in French,” [2] Marco described as he first addressed Prester John. As other hopeful Christian travelers, Marco seemed similarly occupied with the search of Prester John in the East. John of Plano of Carpino also mingled Prester John with historical events during Delhi Sultanate in India, so Marco’s address of Ong Khan as Prester John may be a continuation of the European endeavor to establish absolute Christian influence world-wide.

Chinggiz Khan’s marriage with Prester John’s daughter

   In DW, Chinggiz launched military campaign against Prester John because the latter regarded the young leader’s proposal as shameful: “Doesn’t he know that he is my vassal and my slave? I will put him to death for being disloyal to his lord.” [3] Scholars argue for various perspectives regarding to whether Chinggiz married Prester John’s daughter or not. Paul Pelliot insists that the marriage never took place, but Ong Khan’s daughter was “taken over” [4] by ChinggizHowever, both the friar Vincent de Beauvais and the diplomat André de Longiumeau who had travelled to the Mongols’ territories between year 1247 and 1264 mentioned the existence of such a Mongol lady as daughter of Prester John and wife of Chinggiz Khan. In chapter 69 and 70 of Speculum Historialede Beauvais wrote about a surviving daughter of King David (=Ong Khan) who became the wife of Chinggiz and bore him two sons. André de Longjumeau’s description differs a little: Chinggiz married the daughter of Prester John and bore him one son, the then reigning emperor Guyuk Khan. [5] However, it is obvious that Guyuk Khan was grandson of Chinggiz, and credibility of de Longjumeau’s text remains in questionAlso, as Pelliot points out, Chinggiz did not marry the daughter, but the niece of Ong Khan: Ibaka-baki.

   FurthermoreRashid al-Din would disagree with de Beauvais and de LongjumeauIn Compendium of Chronicles (CC)he states that “That winter Genghis Khan requested Sangun’s sister, Cha’ur Beki for Jochi Khan. Ong Khan request Genghis Khan’s daughter Fujin Beki for Sangun’s son Tusbawa, but [neither match] took place.” [6] This was the winter of 1202 in the Year of Dog. The above account matches with Secret History’s (SH) description that Chinggiz requested the younger sister of SenggumCa’ur Beki, and in exchange planned to give his daughter Qojin Beki to Seggum’s son TusaqaDespite the slightly varied names in two text, readers could see that they convey the exact same information. Moreover, both sources highlighted that the failure of such marriage plan became the blasting fuse of discord between Prester John and Chinggiz, with Secret History further explaining that Senggum’s dissension led to Chinggiz’s loss of affection for Prester John. Since Marco states that “in the year 1200 after the birth of Christ” [7]Chinggiz sent his invitation to Prester John, which is close to 1202, Marco may want to refer to this unsuccessful proposal, which he also indicated that triggered the war between Chinggiz and Ong Khan. Hence, if Marco was indicating the event of winter 1202, his account can be considered credible.

The war between Chinggiz and Prester John

   According to Marco, Chinggiz’s failed attempt to marry Prester John’s daughter triggered a large-scale warfare between Chinggiz and Prester John, with Chinggiz Khan “making the greaest preparations ever seen or heard of”. Such an important warfare should be included in primary sources to prove the credibility of Marco’s descriptions. Fortunately, Secret History records that the Kereyit soldiers encountered Chinggiz’s forces and “fought for three nights and three days, who on the third day were exhausted and surrendered [8] to Chinggiz.

   With the event’s macroscopic credibility confirmed, Marco’s detailed description of the war will be explored. I will successively explain the geographical location—Tenduc Plain, and the varied scholarly analysis on the same event.

    First, according to Marco, the war took place in the plain of TenducWhile Professor Thomas Allsenone of the authors who composed the Cambridge History of China, states that Tenduc stands for T’ien-te, which was located northeast of the loop of Yellow River near the Ordos Desert [9]Pelliot argues that instead of T’ien-te, the location was somewhere more southwest—Gobi Desert [10]Pelliot further explains that if Marco had been to this Tenduc plain and heard of the warfare between Chinggiz and Prester John from the locals (In section 111, Marco started with according to what the people of this country say”)he could travel by water or by land. “As a matter of fact,” writes Pelliot, “water-post positions (shui-yi)’ had been established between Chung-hsing (-Ning-hsia) and Tung-sheng in 1267” [11]A land postal road direct from Ning Hsia to Tun Sheng via Yu-lin had long been in existence, proved by the ancient names of postal stations howing on an original map back to Khitan times. Indeed, during Marco’s visit to China, the Yuan Emperors further fostered trade by building new roads and “prolonging the network of postal stations[12]. Therefore, the travelling situation back then provided opportunities for Marco Polo to travel from Taiyuanfu to Jingzhaofu, as he later described in section 109 to 111. If one takes a look at the contemporary location of Taiyuanfu (within Shan’xi Province) and Jingzhaofu (Shan’xi, Xi’an Province), one could observe from map that the two places scatter around the bank of Yellow River, and Marco’s description of a “Caramoran River” connecting the two cities, which referred to exactly the Yellow River, may validify his actual presence to Yuan China. Admittedly, considering the Yellow River shifting its location within last hundreds of years, some people may argue against the reliability of my stance. However, the Yellow River was stable for more than 500 years since 1324, until the 1850s, when it again shifted to the north of the Shandong Peninsula, finally settling in to its present course.” [13] This means that from 1289 to 1324, the Yellow River was south of the Shandong Peninsula compared to contemporary position. Since the Taiyuanfu and Jingzhaofu back sit at the south-side of Yellow River todayif the Yellow River located further southward when Marco said he traveled to China, the two places still sit around the Yellow RiverbankIMarco had been to Yuan China, the credibility of his account on the war taking place in Tenduc Plain would be high.    

   Second, Marco’s detailed description of the warfare between Chinggiz and Prester John varied slightly from how historians write about the same event. “There were great harm on both sides,” write Rustichello, “but in the end Chinggiz Khan won the battle. In this battle Prester John was killed, and…lost his land. [14Secret History proudly states, and matches with Polo’s description that Chinggiz’s force “stood firm, surrounding the Kereyit [15], who eventually surrendered. While secondary sources such as the Cambridge History of China and the Western History both admit the victory of Chinggiz in this battle, Ratchnevsky argues that Temujin first fled to Khalakhaliit sands, where “he was defeated by the Kereyid; then he took refuge at Baljuna [16]In addition to the scattered perspectives regarding to the result of this war, whether Prester John died or escaped triggers debate among scholars. While Marco insists that “Prester John was killed”, the Secret History states that “Ong Qan and Senggum escaped during the night.” This important primary source then writes about Chinggiz accepting a former subordinate of Ong Khan because of his remarkable loyalty and bravery. While it is plausible that the writer of Secret History could end Ong Khan’s description in this way so that Chinggiz’s open-mindedness is highlighted, the source does state that Ong Khan escaped, instead of being killed. Cambridge History and the Western History both admit the escape of Ong Khan after the battle, with the Western History providing more details that “he escaped to Pa-erh-chu-na (Balguna), where there were several small streams…” [17] Hence, primarily because Secret History’s description of how Prester John died differs from Marco’s, I shall conclude that although the war did take place, the detailed account of Marco seems unreliable.

     In conclusion, Marco’s account on Prester John in Chapter II follows a mostly credible pattern. While de Beauvais and de Longiumeau wrote about the marriage between Chinggiz and Prester John’s daughter, the credibility of these two sources remains questionable. Compendium of Chronicles and Secret History stays consistent with each other in the year 1202, the involved potential couples and the failed result of the proposal from Chinggiz side, which resembles what Marco described about this event, though some details mismatch. Therefore, I concluded that if Marco was indicating the event which took place in winter 1202 as the two above-mentioned primary sources, then his account on Chinggiz’s marriage can be considered credible. The following subsection I investigated was the war between Chinggiz and Prester John. Secret History first confirmed that this event happened, and the subsequent details were divided into two aspects: geographical location of the war and the result of the war. Since the convenient local traffic provided practical water or land routes as Marco described himself, it is very likely that Marco described the history of Prester John according to locals’ account. However, the side of victory and what happened to Prester John after the war differ from multiple sources, and therefore the details of the war are unreliable.


[1] David Morgan, the Mongols, L615

[2] DW, pp51

[3] DW, pp52

[4] Paul PelliotNotes on Marco Polo, Vol I. pp303-304

[5] Cambridge History of Chinapp323

[6] Paul PelliotNotes on Marco Polo, Vol I. 348

[7] DW pp52

[8] Secret History, Location 185

[9] Cambridge History of China 321

[10Paul PelliotNotes on Marco Polo, Vol I. pp254

[11] Paul PelliotNotes on Marco Polo, Vol IIpp255

[12] Pax Mongoliapp216

[13] see on History of Yellow river

[14] DWpp53

[15] Secret History, L185

[16] see Ratchnevsky in “Cinggis-Khan, his life and legacy” pp64-8

[17] See Mark Cruse, “a Quantitative Analysis of Toponyms in a Manuscript of Marco Polo’s Devisement du monde”


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Igor de Rachewiltz, trans., The Secret History of the Mongols.

Sharon Kinoshita, trans., Marco Polo: The Description of the World.

Jackson, Peter. “Pax Mongolica and a Transcontinental Traffic.” In The Mongols and the

Islamic World: From Conquest to Conversion, 210-41. New Haven: Yale University

Press, 2017.

Rashid al-Din, Compendium of History.

Francis Woodman Cleaves, The Historicity of the Baljuna Covenant (pp328)

Cambridge History of ChinaAlien Regimes and Border States. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Paul Pelliot, Notes on Marco Polo. Vol I& II

Jackson, P. (2018). The Islamic World and Inner Asian Peoples Down to the Mongol Invasion. In The Mongols and the Islamic World: From Conquest to Conversion (pp. 60-62). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.