The Travels of Marco Polo, by Marco Polo

Chapter xxxiv.

Of the Great City of Samarcan.

Samarcan is a great and noble city towards the north-west, inhabited by both Christians and Saracens, who are subject to the Great Kaan’s nephew, CAIDOU by name; he is, however, at bitter enmity with the Kaan.1 I will tell you of a great marvel that happened at this city.

Illustration: View of Samarcand. (From a sketch by Mr. Ivanoff.) “Samarcan est une grandisme cité et noble.”

It is not a great while ago that SIGATAY, own brother to the Great Kaan, who was Lord of this country and of many an one besides, became a Christian.2 The Christians rejoiced greatly at this, and they built a great church in the city, in honour of John the Baptist; and by his name the church was called. And they took a very fine stone which belonged to the Saracens, and placed it as the pedestal of a column in the middle of the church, supporting the roof. It came to pass, however, that Sigatay died. Now the Saracens were full of rancour about that stone that had been theirs, and which had been set up in the church of the Christians; and when they saw that the Prince was dead, they said one to another that now was the time to get back their stone, by fair means or by foul. And that they might well do, for they were ten times as many as the Christians. So they gat together and went to the church and said that the stone they must and would have. The Christians acknowledged that it was theirs indeed, but offered to pay a large sum of money and so be quit. Howbeit, the others replied that they never would give up the stone for anything in the world. And words ran so high that the Prince heard thereof, and ordered the Christians either to arrange to satisfy the Saracens, if it might be, with money, or to give up the stone. And he allowed them three days to do either the one thing or the other.

What shall I tell you? Well, the Saracens would on no account agree to leave the stone where it was, and this out of pure despite to the Christians, for they knew well enough that if the stone were stirred the church would come down by the run. So the Christians were in great trouble and wist not what to do. But they did do the best thing possible; they besought Jesus Christ that he would consider their case, so that the holy church should not come to destruction, nor the name of its Patron Saint, John the Baptist, be tarnished by its ruin. And so when the day fixed by the Prince came round, they went to the church betimes in the morning, and lo, they found the stone removed from under the column; the foot of the column was without support, and yet it bore the load as stoutly as before! Between the foot of the column and the ground there was a space of three palms. So the Saracens had away their stone, and mighty little joy withal. It was a glorious miracle, nay, it is so, for the column still so standeth, and will stand as long as God pleaseth.3

Now let us quit this and continue our journey.

NOTE 1. — Of Kaidu, Kúblái Kaan’s kinsman and rival, and their long wars, we shall have to speak later. He had at this time a kind of joint occupancy of SAMARKAND and Bokhara with the Khans of Chagatai, his cousins.

[On Samarkand generally see: Samarqand, by W. Radloff, translated into French by L. Leger, Rec. d’Itin. dans l’Asie Centrale, Ecole des Langues Orient., Paris, 1878, p. 284 et seq.; A travers le royaume de Tamerlan (Asie Centrale) . . . par Guillaume Capus . . . Paris, 1892, 8vo. — H. C.]

Marco evidently never was at Samarkand, though doubtless it was visited by his Father and Uncle on their first journey, when we know they were long at Bokhara. Having, therefore, little to say descriptive of a city he had not seen, he tells us a story:—

“So geographers, in Afric maps,

With savage pictures fill their gaps,

And o’er unhabitable downs

Place elephants for want of towns.”

As regards the Christians of Samarkand who figure in the preceding story, we may note that the city had been one of the Metropolitan Sees of the Nestorian Church since the beginning of the 8th century, and had been a bishopric perhaps two centuries earlier. Prince Sempad, High Constable of Armenia, in a letter written from Samarkand in 1246 or 1247, mentions several circumstances illustrative of the state of things indicated in this story: “I tell you that we have found many Christians scattered all over the East, and many fine churches, lofty, ancient, and of good architecture, which have been spoiled by the Turks. Hence, the Christians of this country came to the presence of the reigning Kaan’s grandfather (i.e. Chinghiz); he received them most honourably, and granted them liberty of worship, and issued orders to prevent their having any just cause of complaint by word or deed. And so the Saracens, who used to treat them with contempt, have now the like treatment in double measure.

Shortly after Marco’s time, viz. in 1328, Thomas of Mancasola, a Dominican, who had come from Samarkand with a Mission to the Pope (John XXII.) from Ilchigadai, Khan of Chagatai, was appointed Latin Bishop of that city. (Mosheim, p. 110, etc.; Cathay, p. 192.)

NOTE 2. — CHAGATAI, here called Sigatay, was Uncle, not Brother, to the Great Kaan (Kúblái). Nor was Kaidu either Chagatai’s son or Kúblái’s nephew, as Marco here and elsewhere represents him to be. (See Bk. IV. ch. i.) The term used to describe Chagatai’s relationship is frère charnel, which excludes ambiguity, cousinship, or the like (such as is expressed by the Italian fratello cugíno), and corresponds, I believe, to the brother german of Scotch law documents.

NOTE 3. — One might say, These things be an allegory! We take the fine stone that belongs to the Saracens (or Papists) to build our church on, but the day of reckoning comes at last, and our (Irish Protestant) Christians are afraid that the Church will come about their ears. May it stand, and better than that of Samarkand has done!

There is a story somewhat like this in D’Herbelot, about the Karmathian Heretics carrying off the Black Stone from Mecca, and being obliged years after to bring it back across the breadth of Arabia; on which occasion the stone conducted itself in a miraculous manner.

There is a remarkable Stone at Samarkand, the Kok–Tash or Green Stone, on which Timur’s throne was set. Tradition says that, big as it is, it was brought by him from Brusa; — but tradition may be wrong. (See Vámbéry’s Travels, p. 206.) [Also H. Moser, A travers l’Asie centrale, 114–115. — H. C.]

[The Archimandrite Palladius (Chinese Recorder, VI. p. 108) quotes from the Chi shun Chin-kiang chi (Description of Chin–Kiang), 14th century, the following passage regarding the pillar: “There is a temple (in Samarcand) supported by four enormous wooden pillars, each of them 40 feet high. One of these pillars is in a hanging position, and stands off from the floor more than a foot.”— H. C.]

Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 16:24