By Devon Field
Throughout the city of Samarkand there are open squares where butchers’ meat ready-cooked, roasted or in stews, is sold, with fowls and game suitably prepared for eating, also bread and excellent fruit both are on sale. All these viands and victuals are there set out in a decent cleanly manner, namely in all those squares and open spaces of the town, and their traffic goes on all day and even all through the night time. Butchers’ shops are numerous also those booths where fowls, pheasants and partridges are on sale: and these shops are kept open by night as by day. ~ Ruy González de Clavijo. Embassy to Tamerlane 1403-1406
On Tuesday, the 22nd of May, 1403, a carrack left El Puerto de Santa María carrying the Castilian king’s embassy to the court of Timur in Samarkand. Two of King Henry III’s ambassadors had been present at the 1402 Battle of Ankara, witnessed Timur’s defeat of Bayezid’s Ottomans, and returned with an envoy from Timur, and rich presents. Now, Henry was responding in kind, and assigned to this embassy were Gomez de Salazar, a theologian named Alfonso Páez de Santa María, and the nobleman Ruy González de Clavijo, whose record of the trip would later be published.
Clavijo’s narrative is a fascinating one. It documents the dangers of travel, from a mid-July tempest that had all aboard praying to God and filling the night air with haunting voices, to the actual shipwreck that necessitated an unplanned winter’s stay in Constantinople. There was a terrible sickness that overtook the entire party and ended Salazar’s life in Nishapur, and then there were the thieves on the road.
Beyond danger though, his story is a great look at what he found interesting. Clavijo had an eye for the magnificent tents and pavilions of Timur’s people. He noted the vast distances that were travelled, and the dead horses which littered the roadside as a result. He saw a giraffe among the gifts sent to Timur from Egypt, and its wonderful appearance merited a full description. And he ate. Here, it’s the food that interests me most, food and its importance to Clavijo’s story.
The earliest stages of Clavijo’s story are concerned with navigating the Mediterranean, and food admittedly plays little part in the telling. He may delight in the citrus trees and vineyards, or note the grazing pastures to be seen, but it’s food as scenery. At this point, chasing down rumours as to Timur’s current location is much more pressing than any details of daily sustenance on the ship beyond bringing aboard fresh water. Where this changes, roughly, is with the March 1404 departure from Constantinople. With the city behind him, as well as the emperor’s kind gift of a freshly hunted stag, food is much more frequently mentioned and has much to tell us.
The first we see of this is in Trebizond, where a great deal of what Clavijo has to say of Armenian and Greek Christianity revolves around food. There’s talk of what the Armenians would forgo eating over Lent, how this differed among the common people, and when they would eat meat. It’s one of the primary ways he explores differences, so when he talks about Greek practices, it’s in large part about their own meat-eating habits, their fasting, and their consecration of leavened bread. It’s not the only point of differentiation for him, but it clearly matters.
In the Land of Timur
As the embassy started to travel in lands where the lords were Timur’s vassals, it started to matter rather more, and more details emerged. They went in the company of Timur’s envoy, who demanded hospitality under threat of the whip and stick, and when they stopped, small carpets were produced for them to sit on, and pieces of printed leather to eat off. There was meat, milk, cream, eggs, and honey. There were thin cakes of bread which Clavijo did not like at all. He described the mixing of a little flour which was then pressed flat and cooked in a pan over a fire. Of course, this is how people in many parts of the world still make something very similar now, whether they know them as tortillas, chapatis, or by some other name, but Clavijo was set in his disapproval, simply pronouncing them “very bad.”
At times, they would eat with the local lord. In Erzincan, they received little pots with meatballs, pickled mutton, rice, and “other victuals,” all lidded with a flatbread, and the lord kept Clavijo company, for he didn’t drink, with a crystal vase of sugared water, while jesters performed before them. On less luxurious occasions, they partook of the local staple when meat was absent: a cauldron of hot water into which soured milk was poured to produce a cheese as sour as vinegar, and then small cuts of flour cakes, all cooked over a dung fire. This could have all gone one of a few different ways, but I’m picturing (very sour) cottage cheese and pasta here.
Moving east, Clavijo marveled at the marketplaces. In Tabriz, they were stocked with good meat of all kinds as well as plenty of fruit, and, rather more impressively, there were fountains which in the summer were filled with ice. In Soltaniyeh, it was the spices that amazed him, “cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, manna, mace,” and more, all brought by caravan. In Nishapur and elsewhere, it was the melons. Clavijo loved the melons. They were large and delicious, and the very best in the world, he thought.
Outside Samarkand, they waited on the timetable of Timur, and they ate well. They dined in a lovely garden on sheep, roast horse, a variety of rice dishes, and fruit. Then, after just over a week, on September the 8th, they were sent for.
Dining around Samarkand
The real heart of Clavijo’s eating experiences came in and around Timur’s capital city of Samarkand. At a meal with Timur himself, he watched as the meat was brought out “boiled, roasted, and cooked in other ways.” It was all piled on great circles of stamped leather, in large and heavy enough amounts that when Timur called for it, the meat was dragged across to him before being cut up. Haunches of horse were sliced into cups of gold and silver, and fist-sized chunks of horse tripe were also cut and served that way, and sheep’s heads too. It was a festival of meat, sauced with salted broth and served with Clavijo’s favourite flatbreads, and after the meat came the balls of meat, and then the melons, the grapes, and nectarines.
During the time that Clavijo and the other ambassadors were in Samarkand, Timur flitted about from one garden-ensconced palace or pavilion after another. And he invited them to feasts. Sometimes he sent round jugs of wine so that they might arrive in an already jovial mood. At others, he provided them the means for a more private affair, recognizing that they could not be entirely at ease when seated before him, and he sent along wine, sheep, and horse for them to do so.
October 9th saw Clavijo and the others invited to a feast hosted by Khanzádeh, a lady of the court who was married to Timur’s son. They arrived to find long rows of vessels containing sugared cream and wine – so much wine.
The ladies were in the midst of drinking when the guests came in, and Clavijo assures us that “this drinking is of no short duration, for it lasts a long time, without eating.” After a while, the ambassadors were themselves called forward to drink before the company, and wine was pressed upon them until some men fell down drunk, but not Clavijo. Much to his hosts’ disbelief, and despite their urgings, he didn’t drink wine.
Solids were also served at this event. There was meat, of course, which Clavijo notes was torn at noisily, diners yanking it from another in a boisterous and playful fashion. There were rice dishes and tarts made of flour, sugar, and herbs. At times, it was all a bit much. Cartload after cartload of meat came in, Clavijo says of one feast, and to supplement the cartloads, camels with bags slung across them. On one occasion, the ambassadors elected to return to their lodgings rather than stay and eat, and one can hardly blame them.
From early September through late November 1404, the Castilian ambassadors stayed in and around Samarkand. They admired the performances of elephants, and of jugglers and wrestlers. They sat with members of Timurid royalty and with embassies from Egypt and China. But they were never to be officially dismissed by Timur, nor receive letters from him for their lord. When they’d arrived, he’d referred to their king, Henry III, as his son, an affectionate mode of address even if one which left little doubt as to which he considered the mightier lord. Now, as they made ready to leave, he was too sick to see them off. They would have to be content with his gifts, the memories of his hospitality, and all that food.
Devon Field is the writer and host of Human Circus: Journeys in the Medieval World, a narrative history podcast about medieval travellers. He received his M.A. in Humanities from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, B.C., the city where he now lives and teaches writing to small children. You can follow him on Twitter @circus_human
This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.