Guillaume Boucher and the Fountain of Karakorum

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea –
Samuel Taylor Coleridge- Kubla Khan (1816)

Hi folks, today’s tale- Like Coleridge’s Kubla Khan- is a fragment. Like Coleridge’s poem it concerns the Mongol Empire, at a time when one of the great Genghis Khan’s grandsons ran the show. Unlike Mr Coleridge I don’t have a ‘Person from Porlock’ banging on my door in the midst of a laudanum dosed daydream to mess with my flow… There is no Abyssinian ‘Damsel with a dulcimer’ having deserted me mid tale – it is just what it is – a vignette from everyday life that caught my attention. Hopefully it is of interest to you guys too…

In September 1253 the Flemish missionary and explorer William of Rubruck rode into Karakorum, the capital of the Mongol empire. The reason for his arrival was a little circuitous. In 1248 he had been part of the French King Louis IX 7th crusade to the holy land. While in Palestine he had struck up a conversation with an Andrew of Longjumeau.

Longjumeau was a traveller who had been part of a papal legation to Armenia, on the border of the Great Khan’s vast empire. The purpose of the legation was to try and win support for the crusade from the Great Khan. In spite of there being a strong Christian contingent among the Mongols (though their traditional beliefs were a mix of shamanism, animism, totemism and ancestor worship which put the Sky Father and Earth Mother front and centre, if I understand them correctly – called Tengri-ism -Genghis’ mentor, the Ong Khan had been a Christian.. His relatives who made up a line in the royal family had also maintained their faith) – they had turned the crusaders down. Louis thought it worthwhile to send someone directly to the Great Khan to plead their case. In May 1253 William had been sent off, with an order to convert the Tatars and Kipchaks of the steppes on the way through. William of Rubruck’s journey, 9,000 kilometers just getting to Karakorum alone, and subsequent travels were every bit as epic as that of Marco Polo, perhaps some way towards those of Ibn Battuta, but William is a bit of a sideshow today. What we need to know is he was kept waiting till January 4th 1254 for his sit down with the World’s most powerful man at that time – Genghis’ grandson Mongke Khan. While waiting he discovered an enclave of everyday French citizens who had been transported to the far side of the world.

Given this is really a fragment I may as well meander, with a mazy motion, to borrow from Coleridge a little. In 1241 the Mongols had shown up in Eastern Europe looking for the retreating Kipchaks, another Altaic people- sometimes called the Cuman. When the Bulgarians and Hungarians didn’t hand them over all hell ensued. As an aside to the aside, among the defeated Kipchaks sold into slavery by the Mongols in Bulgaria, off to Egypt was one Baibars, who I suspect will show up in a future Tale of History and Imagination.

Baibars…. We’ll come back to this guy later…

While running rampant throughout Belgrade the Mongols took a handful of captives, mostly French artisans, and took them back to their capital. One in particular had caught their eye, a highly skilled Parisian goldsmith by the name of Guillaume Boucher. While one of the sources states some of his work still survives at a Buddhist temple at a place called Erdini Tso, none of his work for the Mongols appears to have survived. It is one particular piece however, which has caught my imagination.

Now in Karakorum did Mongke Khan a giant fountain decree- and it was the eminently talented Boucher who built it, with a team of around 50 artisans from across the empire.

Imagine if you will, arriving at the Khan’s courtyard to be greeted with a giant tree, reaching up to the rafters. Expansive, ornate, built from glistening silver – with details of silver fruit, golden serpents, and at it’s apex, a trumpet playing angel. Set below the four golden serpents were large silver bowls. The tree was a giant automaton, and when the Mongke Khan wished to take a drink, someone would operate a subterranean pump. The pump would make the angel raise the trumpet to its lips and sound a note, and drink would flow from the mouths of the four serpents. The drinks were from the four corners of the Mongol empire: wine, mead, rice wine, and Airag – the fermented mare’s milk most favoured by the Mongols themselves. There is so much symbolism in this great tree. First, in offering drink for all, all in their expansive empire were welcome in the court. It also stood as a totem for the expansiveness of their empire – the largest contiguous empire in history, second only to the British empire at its height in size… and actually ruling over a greater percentage of the total world population than the British did. It was also said that Genghis’ mentor Ong Khan – of whom I hope to come back to some time – had an ancestor who had tried to unite all steppe tribes under a tree much like the one Boucher fashioned. Symbolically the Mongols were letting everyone know they were carrying the Ong Khan’s vision forward. Nothing is left of this great automaton, sadly.

Now, I did say this would be a fragment, like Coleridge’s poem mentioning Mongke’s half brother, who would eventually take the reigns – setting his palace in Chengdu, China – Coleridge’s Xanadu. I do think poems work a little better in this aspect, if honest. As a teen I regularly brought a book of poetry to the gym with me, and as I plodded away on a stepper would often pour over Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, P.B Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, occasionally a little bit of Byron – Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, or The Island. I would wonder what it must have been like to find oneself a stranger in a strange land. Knowing of Mr Boucher and his enclave of expat artisans, thousands of miles from home in a place that must have been both wonderous and utterly terrifying,

“A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!”

Now, that for all it’s fragmentary, sparse nature really gets my imagination running.
Ok folks, thank you for reading, as always please drop me a like, a comment, or feel free to share this post round if you dig it… I’ll be back next week with another Tale of History and Imagination. – Simone


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