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Encounters in the Ruins: Latin Captives, Franciscan Friars and the Dangers of Religious Plurality in the early Mongol Empire
By Amanda Power
Christianity and Religious Plurality, eds. Charlotte Methuen, Andrew Spicer and John Wolff (Boydell Press, 2015)
Introduction: Among the richest, and strangest, sites for religious encounter during the medieval period was the network of Mongol encampments on the Eurasian steppe. In the middle decades of the thirteenth century, a vast empire was administered from these itinerant cities. In consequence, they were crammed with a transient population of people drawn, summoned or seized from diverse societies across the continent. Within these cities, physical space, approved gestures and permitted actions were heavily ritualized according to shamanistic practice, but as long as these customs were respected, the Mongols encouraged an atmosphere of relative egalitarianism among the various faiths represented in the camps.
Indeed, they actively sought the services of the clerical classes of the different groups, requiring each to offer prayers and blessings within public and private ceremonies. This meant the permanent presence in the camps of shamans, priests, monks, imams and others, who embodied the authority of their faith in that place. These individuals seem to have spent their time competing for the favour of powerful Mongols, forming brief alliances, differentiating themselves or exhibiting signs of syncretism, quarrelling and drinking together. How far the rest of the non-Mongol population of the camps participated in these peculiar inter-faith relations, or identified with them, is less clear, given the nature of our sources.
We can, nonetheless, be certain that there were sharp differences in experience of religious encounter that were conditioned by various factors, including the role or status of the person in the camp. The emphasis in the historiography on Mongol religious ‘tolerance’ should not be allowed to obscure the true nature of these curious micro-cosmopolitanisms of the steppes. They were the product of disrupted hegemonies, destroyed societies, brutal enslavement and opportunism in the ruins.