Via della Seta. That, Google Translate tells me, is the Italian expression for “Silk Road.”
The city-states, for Italy was nowhere near being Italy back in 1100, were duking it out for supremacy. Although Rome was sucking wind, trying to recover and build St. Peter’s, and Florence was still finding itself, the big tunas in medieval Italy were the coastal cities. So the Via della Seta was not about carts rumbling down the road to markets but ships sailing across the big Mediterranean Sea to the little seas… the Red Sea, the Tyrrhenian Sea, the Aegean, Adriatic, Ligurian, Ionian–the Black Sea.
The sea dogs were traders and carriers of cargo and ships and horses. Knights in armor especially in 1099. The Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor were trumpeting up a holy war to push back the Saracens and Ottomans who were all over the place, suggesting there might be a competitor to the one true religion. The Republics answered the call by carrying men in heavy armor from France, England, and Germany in their ships down the coast. Some of them even joined the fight.
If you thought Giovanni da Pian’s 5000 miles across Asia was long, how about 73,000 miles?
Muslim scholar Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Battutah — in Arabic بُو عَبْد الله مُحَمَّد اِبْن عَبْد الله اللَّوَاتِيّ الطَّنْجِيّ اِبْن بَطُّوطَة — traveled all across the deserts of Asia Minor AND across northern Africa, southern Europe, eastern Europe, India, the southern oceans, and parts of China. It was enough to circumnavigate the globe three times. Battuta went so far, that there are multiple views of his trip, all of which could fit under the heading of “map porn,” a few of which I will include because I do just love me some maps.
It’s 5343 miles from Lyons, France to Karakorum in Mongolia. That’s how far Giovanni da Pian del Carpine (aka John di Plano Carpini) was sent in 1245, along the Silk Road. Pope Innocent IV had noticed that the Mongols had destroyed Russia and Budapest, and had parked near Vienna. Western Europe was getting nervous, for good reason. Innocent sent Giovanni out to tell the Mongols to stop attacking, submit to the Pope, and join them in their campaign against the Muslims.
Guyuk Khan, grandson and one of Genghis’s successor,* declined. (One suspects the translator may have softened the language in the pope’s letter.) The Khan offered a counterproposal, something like “there’s only one god, Tenggeri the sky god, and only one master on earth–me! So I recommend everyone in Europe should submit to the Mongols instead, otherwise chaos will ensue…”
By sending Giovanni out across Asia, the Catholic Church was also chasing down a rumor. They thought there might be a Christian king, maybe another descendant of David, out in the East. His name was supposed to be Prester John.