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Extract: Great Cities Through Travellers' Eyes

Posted on 04 Jul 2019

In this entry from Peter Furtado's new book, a Chinese abbot is shown around the Sainte-Chapelle by the King of France himself.

Rue Lepic, Paris (detail), 1890s. Photo H. Roger-Viollet

Paris began as the Roman town of Lutetia. By the late 13th century it was the largest city in western Europe, a centre of learning based on the Sorbonne. Its architecture included the Gothic Basilica of St Denis, the mausoleum for the kings of France; Notre-Dame Cathedral; and the Sainte-Chapelle, built by Louis IX (r. 1226–70 — known as St Louis) as the home for expensive relics brought back from Crusade. The monarchs made the Louvre (originally a castle) and the Tuileries Palace their home.

In the early 16th century, Francis I introduced Renaissance art and architecture to Paris, but the city suffered in the religious wars later in the same century. In the 17th century the reign of Louis XIV saw a monumental building programme of churches, palaces and grand avenues (despite his moving the capital to Versailles); it became a high point on any Grand Tour. Louis XV (r. 1715–74) created the large Place Louis XV (now the Place de la Concorde) on the west side of the city, where his grandson Louis XVI would be guillotined in 1793.

The Revolution brought chaos to the city, but Napoleon I did much to reglorify Paris, building the Arc de Triomphe at the end of the Champs-Elysées; after further urban uprisings in 1830 and 1848, Paris was radically transformed in the 1850s and 1860s by Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann, who together built 40,000 houses in a unified style along wide, straight boulevards.

Early 20th-century Paris was acknowledged as the cultural heart of Europe, but was materially run down following the First World War. Artists, writers and thinkers were attracted from across the world to shiver in Rive Gauche garrets, drink in bars, make love and produce masterworks. Paris was occupied by Nazi Germany in June 1940 following the Blitzkrieg conquest of France. After liberation in 1944, it was gradually rebuilt and stylishly modernized.



Rabban Bar Sauma (c. 1220–1294) was a Nestorian Christian monk, born near Beijing of a Mongol background. While on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, he was appointed ambassador of the Mongol Il-Khan Abaqa and his son Arghun, who sought an alliance with the Christian West to drive the Egyptian Mamluks from the Holy Land. Although he met the Cardinals in Rome, Philip IV (the Fair) of France in Paris and Edward I of England (in Gascony), nothing concrete came of his embassy. He died in Baghdad.

Afterwards they went to the country of Paris. And King Philip sent out a large company of men to meet them, who brought them into the city with great ceremony. The King assigned to Rabban Sauma a place to dwell, and three days later summoned him to his presence. And the King asked him, ‘Why have you come? Who sent you?’ Rabban Sauma replied, ‘King Arghun and the Catholicus of the East have sent me concerning Jerusalem.’ And he gave the King the letters and gifts he had brought. And the King answered, ‘If it is true that the Mongols, though they are not Christians, will fight against the Arabs for the capture of Jerusalem, we should fight with them.’

Rabban Sauma said to him, ‘Now we have seen the glory of your kingdom, we ask you to show us the churches and the shrines, and the relics of the saints, and everything else which is found here and not in any other country, so that when we return we may make known what we have seen.’ Then the King commanded his Amirs, ‘Show them all the wonderful things which we have here, and afterwards I myself will show them what I have.’

And Rabban Sauma and his companions remained for a month of days in this great city of Paris, and they saw everything. There were 30,000 scholars engaged in the study of ecclesiastical books of instruction, commentaries and exegesis of the Holy Scriptures, and also of profane learning; and they studied wisdom, philosophy and rhetoric, and the arts of healing, geometry, arithmetic, and the science of the planets and the stars; they engaged constantly in writing theses, and all of them received money for subsistence from the King.

They also saw a great church in which were the tombs of dead kings, with statues in gold and silver upon their tombs. 500 monks performed commemoration services here, and they too ate and drank at the expense of the king. And the crowns of those kings, as well as their armour and apparel, were laid upon their tombs. In short they saw everything that was splendid and renowned.

After this the King summoned them, and they went to him in the church. And he asked Rabban Sauma, ‘Have you seen what we have?’ Then they went into an upper chamber of gold, which the King opened, and he brought out a coffer of beryl in which was laid the Crown of Thorns that the Jews placed upon the head of our Lord when they crucified Him. The Crown was visible through the transparent beryl. And there was with it a piece of the wood of the Cross. The King said, ‘When our fathers took Constantinople, and sacked Jerusalem, they brought these blessed objects from it.’ And we blessed the King and besought him to permit us to return.

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