As a young man Giovanni de’ Marignolli (ca. 1290-ca. 1358) took vows in the Franciscan Order of Santa Croce in Florence, later teaching theology at the University of Bologna. In 1338 he took part in a pontifical diplomatic mission in response to the Great Khan’s request that a spiritual guide be sent to Khān Bālīq to lead the Christian community of his kingdom. The mission departed from Avignon to Naples and sailed from there to Pera, near Constantinople, where the Byzantine emperor Andronicus III Palaiologolos (ca. 1297-1341) expressed the desire to reconcile his Church with that of Rome. The missionary voyage continued across the Black Sea and Crimea as far as Sarai on the Volga River, seat of the court of Özbeg Khan (?-1341), warlord of the Golden Horde.
Escorted by a bodyguard assigned by the Khan, the pontifical delegates crossed the steppes of Armalec and the Gobi Desert, passing through Kumul—today’s Hami—and reached Khān Bālīq in May, 1342, where they were received with pomp by the last emperor of the Yuan Dynasty, Toghon Temür (1320-1370). Giovanni de’ Marignolli remained in Khān Bālīq for almost four years, then went to Quanzhou in southeastern China—today’s Xiamen—where he remained until 1347. The return voyage took place by sea as far as Columbum (or Kaulam), in Malabar, where he arrived at Easter in 1348.
Continuing his travels, he visited the tomb of Saint Thomas in Madras, then went to Ceylon, where tradition held that the tomb of Adam was located. From Ceylon he proceeded to Hormuz and Baghdad, then crossed Mesopotamia, passing through Damascus on the way to Jerusalem. From there he sailed to Naples, from which he went on to Florence and finally Avignon in 1353, bearing a letter from the Great Khan to Pope Innocent VI (1282-1362).