Sir John Mandeville describes the city of Babylon in a section entitled “The Way from Gaza to Babylon”. He first informs his readers that in order to travel to Babylon, they must first gain permission from the Sultan, who lives there. Mandeville seems to hold the Sultan in high regard. However, the first description Sir John Mandeville gives of Babylon is not a description of the Sultan, but a description of a church of Our Lady (Mary). He claims that Mary “lived [there] for seven years when she fled from the land of Judea in fear of King Herod.” Mandeville then goes on to list several events of religious importance that also took place in the church; he claims it to be where Jospeh stayed when he was sold by his brothers, where Nebuchadnezzar put three entirely holy children into the furnace, and the resting place of St. Barbara the virgin. However, the list is only that; a list. Mandeville does not go into great depth describing either the church or the details of its stories. Despite Sir John Mandeville’s apparent devotion to Christianity and attempting to educate others about the faith, he spends very little time on religion in what is usually primarily portrayed as a holy city, or a place of religious importance. This is in stark contrast to his other Christian location descriptions, in which he spends the majority of the time talking about Christianity. He spends only one paragraph on the religious importance of tBabylon, strongly centered around the city’s church. He spends the following twelve paragraphs describing the Sultan. It seems as though Sir John Mandeville’s reverence for the Sultan, who he claims to have lived with as a mercenary, overruled his zeal for talking about Christianity.
Sir John Mandeville’s intense admiration for the Sultan is obvious. He begins by describing the great power of the Sultan and the extent of his reach in regards to the lands he controls. He spends the next two pages describing the history of the Sultans of Egypt, much more space than he allots for Christian history. He speaks some more about the size of the Sultan’s army, and then he goes into detail about the Sultan’s life and the traditions and customs associated with it. He starts with the Sultan’s love life, pointing out that one of his wives is always Christian, but that he takes as many lovers as he wishes. Mandeville even validates the Sultan’s practice of taking all the beautiful virgins in the towns and cities that he visits, saying that he “has them detained there respectfully and with dignity”. It seems unlikely that any way the Sultan could detain all the virgins in a town would be a dignified method, but Sir John Mandeville seems convinced of the Sultan’s righteousness and nobility, despite the fact that they clearly do not share the same faith or morals. Mandeville finishes with a short description of the proper etiquette and protocol required of foreigners who wish to meet with or visit the Sultan.
It seems exceedingly strange that Sir John Mandeville, a European and an incredibly strong Christian, would prioritize information about the Sultan of Babylon rather than the Christian parts of the city, which seem to be plentiful. In addition, Mandeville does not seems as concerned or judgmental about non Christian behaviors exhibited by the Sultan; for example, he presents polygamy and the worship of the Sultan as not only acceptable but reasonable practices. This total change is strange, but the descriptions of the Sultan and his life must have seemed impressive to the author, and including them was likely an attempt to impress his audience as well.