Great Figures of the Missionary Work: Bento de Góis, in search of the Cathay Kingdom (9)

Joaquim Magalhães de Castro

Bento de Góis faced some surprises during his sojourn in those important outposts of the legendary Silk Road. The major one was the arrival of the sister of the king of Yarkand, the queen Abchanam or Hdje-Hane, received with great celebration, joy and offerings as was the tradition in those places. Góis had met her previously in Kabul, where he spent eight months because “some comrades were lost, including the two fellow Greeks provided by the Jesuits, Demetrio and Leo Griman.” The lady had been robbed and was reduced to poverty. Without any hesitation, Bento de Góis gave her his purse, “and the queen accepted with many thanks.” That gesture amazed everyone and showed how “unfastened from the earthly goods was that merchant known as Abedula,” the name Gois used as disguise all along the way.

In Yarkand, the queen immediately recognized Bento de Góis and still very grateful recommended him to her brother. Such providential action was one of the most powerful safeguards that defended Góis during his sojourn in the city and a safe-conduct in his onward painful journey. On those lands, everyone was aware of the presence of “an Armenian who did not follow the law of Mohammed” and complained to the king that sent his vasil (captain) to inquire about the case. It is important to remember that for the Eastern peoples, it was very difficult to differentiate a Portuguese from an Armenian due to their physiological similarities.

What most caught vasil’s attention was the journal and a cross that hung from Góis’ neck. The vasil asked him what was it for and the Jesuit took the opportunity to speak about the Christian religion. And he did it in such a way that “the vasil showed admiration and made a positive report to his king.” Later, when the Jesuit met the king he was required “to show him the relics of his religion.” Bento de Góis, with the outmost devotion, unrolled the journal and, after kissing it, handed it to the king, who received the journal repeating the ceremonial and marveling at “those letters so petite and well made.” Then, he asked Góis if he could read it. The Jesuit opened it and read: Viri Galilei quid statis aspicientes in caelum. After that he lectured a long time “about this antiphon of the Ascension of the Lord.”
These data are contained in a letter that Bento de Góis wrote from Yarkand to his Superior Father Jerónimo Xavier. During his sojourn Góis realized the contradictions and uncertainties of finding the mysterious Christian kingdom that the West had dreamed about for so many centuries. At the same time he was very hopeful about the real existence of Cathay as some positive clues appeared to him.

The Yarkand of our days still keeps most of its magic. The ancestral market, for example, is a dusty maze of blacksmiths, retailers, pharmacists, goldsmiths, skin, hats and knives sellers; teahouses and countless bakeries (presenting an appetizing variety of bread) and tiny restaurants where old men sat drinking tea and smoking cigarettes wrapped in newspaper.

The square facing the market was an excellent observation post. On one side there was an open space that during the day served as a parking lot to police jeeps and thousands of bicycles, and, at the other end, in a corner, sitting lazily in the sun, instrument builders exposed their work: rebabs, temburs, dabs and dotars, all different cordiforms musical instruments of local manufacture.

A small garden with a concrete tower with four clocks facing the cardinal points, but always out of time, dominated the center of the square. Positioned around them, several photographers appealed to those who wanted to immortalize its image, with the backdrop of the old city; while street sellers of nuts and sweet gluttony (prepared with rose petals used for medicinal purposes), nestled next to the merchandise, preaching incessantly, as if singing to the challenge.

In this memory exercise, it would be a grave mistake to forget the good-natured Osman, the best manufacturer of ice cream from all over Asia. For those who do not know, it was in this region that the first ice cream in living memory was made. Then, Marco Polo passed through here, taking with him the secret and the patent. At least that’s what the legends tell. The ice cream was made manually in this region for centuries, as follows: the milk and sugar were poured into a small barrel surrounded by ice, immediately mixed using a mixer driven at the crank. The true secret of that business were the huge blocks of ice brought from the mountains and stored underground, thus being protected from the intense heat of summer.

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