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Friday, 12 March 2010

The Joys of Wikipedia

I'm sure that anyone who is in anyway involved in the university system is used to being told how wikipedia is at it's best too simple and at it's worse too apocryphal to be used as a source of academic information. This is probably true, but I feel that it somehow misses the point. Wikipedia is not there to replace academic journals, it is there as a repository of interesting (or sometimes not so interesting) information for the general reader. This function, it fulfills magnificently. And if it is occasionally inaccurate it is worth remembering that for every ill-informed mistake or malignant lie that is posted there are hundreds of informative articles, and a horde of researches wait to swoop down like eagles to correct the inconsistencies.

Wikipedia is also very good for finding interesting things which you weren't even looking for. For example, a few weeks ago I was looking at the Wikipedia entry on Samuel Taylor Coleridge as research for my Life Writing assignment. My tutor, the much-praised Mr Ian Marchant, actually encourages this sort of behaviour, taking the view that for a creative module, it is far more important to be interesting than to be accurate (as long as we are still aiming for some sort of truth). This not only led to my discovery of the man from Porlock which became the focus of my project (Coleridge's excuse for Kublah Khan being 'unfinished' was that he was interrupted halfway through by a visitor from Porlock which, in short, made him lose his mojo), it also led me to a less relevant but arguably more interesting discovery. I got distracted. forgetting for a moment that both Xanadu and 'The sacred river Alph' are both entirely fictional, or at least mythical, I decided to look up the real Kublai Khan and see if he had tried to build 'a stately pleasure dome'. He hadn't. A map on this page caught my attention though, and below that map was a name. That name was Rabban Bar Sauma.

It turns out that there had been a christian tradition in China and Mongolia as far back as the 7th century. This in itself was unexpected and fascinating, but then I discovered that Christianity was also a strong force in ancient Mongolia which it seems was much more cosmopolitan than might be expected. Rabban Bar Sauma was a christian monk, born somewhere near modern Beijing, which was then part of the Mongolian empire. Sometime in what wikipedia vaguely calls his 'middle age', he decided to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem with his student, Raban Marcos. Because of Military unrest in the middle east (some things never change) they never made it to Jerusalem, but ended up in Baghdad, where they met the Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox church. They carried out some diplomatic work for the Patriarch, failed to return home because of more military unrest, and when the Patriarch died, Marcos was elected as his replacement.

The story did not end here (although judging by the length of this post it might have been better for my readership if it had). Marcos then appointed Bar Sauma to make a diplomatic journey westwards. By this point he was in his late sixties. On this journey he met the Byzantine emperor, witnessed an eruption of Mount Etna, failed to meet the pope (who had died not long before he arrived in Rome) but negotiated with his cardinals, met several European kings, including Edward I of England, returned to Rome and met the new pope, (who allowed him to celebrate his own Eastern Eucharist on Palm Sunday in the Vatican). He then returned to Baghdad bearing gifts for his former student from the new Pope as a sign of inter-church good will, and spent the remainder of his life there writing down his adventures.

I know it's unfashionable to stick a moral on a story, but I feel a post this long needs something to justify it. Something along the lines of 'you're never too old to start an adventure' seems appropriate. It also makes me wonder how big the gulf was between far eastern Christianity (which would have been effected by contact with Buddhism and other oriental philosophies) and the western forms of Christianity we are used to. Maybe Wikipedia can tell me.

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