Marco Polo and His Travels
“When a man is riding through this desert by night and for some reason -falling asleep or anything else -he gets separated from his companions and wants to rejoin them, he hears spirit voices talking to him as if they were his companions, sometimes even calling him by name. Often these voices lure him away from the path and he never finds it again, and many travelers have got lost and died because of this. Sometimes in the night travelers hear a noise like the clatter of a great company of riders away from the road; if they believe that these are some of their own company and head for the noise, they find themselves in deep trouble when daylight comes and they realize their mistake. There were some who, in crossing the desert, have been a host of men coming towards them and, suspecting that they were robbers, returning, they have gone hopelessly astray….Even by daylight men hear these spirit voices, and often you fancy you are listening to the strains of many instruments, especially drums, and the clash of arms. For this reason bands of travelers make a point of keeping very close together. Before they go to sleep they set up a sign pointing in the direction in which they have to travel, and round the necks of all their beasts they fasten little bells, so that by listening to the sound they may prevent them from straying off the path.”
—- Marco Polo, Travels
Marco Polo (1254-1324), probably the most famous Western traveler on the Silk Road,. excelled in his determination, his writing, and his influence. He journeyed for 24 years, reaching further than any of his predecessors, beyond Mongolia to China. He became a confidant of Kublai Khan (1214-1294), and returned to tell the tale, which became the greatest travelogue.
The Polo Brothers
In 1260 two Venetian merchants, the brothers Maffeo and Niccilo Polo, traveled from Sudak, the Crimean port, to Surai, on the Volga river, where they traded for a year. The break-out of a civil war made it impossible for the Polos to return by the same route as they came, so they made a wide detour to the east, and found themselves stranded for 3 years at Bukhara.
The marooned Polo brothers were rescued in Bukhara by the arrival of a VIP emissary from Hulagu Khan, who persuaded the Polo brothers that the Great Khan would be delighted to meet them. So they journeyed eastward, leaving Bukhara, for Samarkand, Kashgar, the Gobi desert., Turfan and Hami. In 1266, they finally reached the new capital of the Great Khan, Bejing in 1266.
The Great Khan was indeed hospitable. Kublai asked them all about their part of the world, the Pope and the Roman church. Niccolo and Matteo, who spoke Turkic dialects perfectly, answered truthfully and clearly.. One year later, the Great Khan sent them on their way with a letter in Turki addressed to Pope Clement IV, asking him to send 100 learned men to teach his people about Christianity and Western science. He also asked Pope to procure oil from the lamp at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
Kublai Khan presented them with a golden tablet a foot long and three inches wide, and inscribed with the words:”By the strength of the eternal Heaven, holy be the Khan’s name. Let him that pays him not reverence be killed.” The golden tablet was the special VIP passport, authorizing the travelers to receive throughout the Great Khan’s dominions such horses, lodging, food and guides as they required. It took the Polos three full years to return home, in April 1269.
Marco Polo’s Birth and Growing Up
Venice, at the time of Marco Polo, was the center for commerce in the Mediterranean. Marco’s education was typical of young men of his time: he read the classical authors, understood the texts of the Bible, and knew the basic theology of the Latin Church. He had a sound knowledge of commercial French as well as Italian.
Marco Polo was only 6 years old when his father and uncle set out eastward on their first trip to Cathay (China), and 15 years old when they returned to Venice. His father and uncle took Marco with them when they set out two years later, in 1271, and passed through Armenia, Persia, and Afghanistan, over the Pamirs, and all along the Silk Road to China.
From the kingdom of Georgia, they journeyed along the regions parallel to the western shores of the Caspian Sea, reaching Tabriz and then Hormuz on the Persian Gulf. Finding no seaworthy ships in Hormuz, they decided to go overland to Cathay from Homurz to Kerman, passing Herat, Balkh, Badakhshan, eventually arriving at the Taklamakan desert (or Taim Basin). They skirted around the desert on the southern route, passing through Yarkand, Khotan, Cherchen, and Lop-Nor. Marco’s keen eye picked out the most notable peculiarities of each. At Yarkand, he described that the locals were extremely prone to goiter, which Marco blamed on the local drinking water. In the rivers of Pem province were found “stones called jasper and chalcedony in plenty” – a reference to jade. At Pem, “when a woman’s husband leaves her to go on a journey of more than 20 days, as soon as he has left, she takes another husband, and this she is fully entitled to do by local usage. And the men, wherever they go, take wives in the same way.” .
Speaking of the Gobi desert, he writes: “This desert is reported to be so long that it would take a year to go from end to end; and at the narrowest point it takes a month to cross it. It consists entirely of mountains and sands and valleys. There is nothing at all to eat.” Despite the dangers encountered during the Gobi crossing, Marco’s account suggests that the route was safe and well established during Mongol’s reign. After they left Gobi, the first major city they passed was Suchow (Dunhuang), in Tangut province, where Marco stayed for a year. Marco also noted the center of the asbestos industry in Uighuristan, with its capital Karakhoja; a specimen was brought back from Cathay by the Polos and presented to the Pope.
He provided a detailed account of the rise of Mongol and Great Khan’s life and empire. He described the ceremonial of a Great Khan’s funeral – anyone unfortunate enough to encounter the funeral cortege was put to death to serve their lord in the next world, Mangu Khan’s corpse scoring over twenty thousand victims. He told of life on the steppes, of the felt-covered yurt drawn by oxen and camels, and of the household customs. What impressed Marco most was the way in which the women got on with the lion’s share of the work:”the men do not bother themselves about anything but hunting and warfare and falconry.” In term of marriage, Marco described that the Mongols practiced polygamy. A Mongol man could take as many wives as he liked. On the death of the head of the house the eldest son married his father’s wives, but not his own mother. A man could also take on his brother’s wives if they were widowed. Marco rounded off his account of Mongol’s home life by mentioning that alcoholic standby which had impressed Rubrouck before him:”They drink mare’s milk subjected to a process that makes it like white wine and very good to drink. It is called koumiss”
Kublai Khan, though ruling with all the spender of an Emperor of China, never forgot where he had come from: it is said that he had had seeds of steppe grass sown in the courtyard of the Imperial Palace so that he could always be reminded of his Mongol homeland. During his long stay in Cathay and Marco had many conversations with Kublai, Marco must have come to appreciate the Great Khan’s awareness of his Mongol origins.
Years Serviced in Khan’s Court
Marco, a gifted linguist and master of four languages, became a favorite with the khan and was appointed to high posts in his administration. He served at the Khan’s court and was sent on a number of special missions in China, Burma and India. Many places which Marco saw were not seen again by Europeans until last century. Marco Polo fell in love with the capital, which later became part of Beijing. This new city, built because astrologers predicted rebellion in the old one, was described as the most magnificent city in the world. The palace was made of cane supported by 200 silk cords, which could be taken to pieces and transported easily when the Emperor moved. There too, the Khan kept a stud of 10,000 speckless white horses, whose milk was reserved for his family and for a tribe which had won a victory for Genghis Khan.” fine marble Palace, the rooms of which are all gilt and painted with figures of men and beasts….all executed with such exquisite art that you regard them with delight and astonishment.” This description later inspired the English poet Coleridge to write his famous poem about Kublai Khan’s “stately pleasure-dome” in Xanadu (or Shang-du).
However there were some phenomena which were totally new to him. The first we have already met, asbestos, but the other three beggared his imagination, and they were paper currency, coal and the imperial post.
The idea of paper substituting gold and silver was a total surprise even to the merchantile Polos. “With these pieces of paper they can buy anything and pay for anything. And I can tell you that the papers that reckon as ten bezants do not weight one.” Marco’s expressions of wonder at “stones that burn like logs” show us how ignorant even a man of a leading Mediterranean seapower could be in the 13th century. Coal was by no means unknown in Europe but was new to Marco:
“It is true that they have plenty of firewood, too. But the population is so enormous and there are so many bath-houses and baths constantly being heated, that it would be impossible to supply enough firewood, since there is no one who does not visit a bath-house at least 3 times a week and take a bath – in winter every day, if he can manage it. Every man of rank or means has his own bathroom in his house….so these stones, being very plentiful and very cheap, effect a great saving of wood.”
Marco was equally impressed with the efficient communication system in the Mongol world. There were three main grades of dispatch, which may be rendered in modern terms as ‘second class’, ‘first class’, and ‘On His Imperial Majesty’s Service: Top Priority’. ‘Second class’ messages were carried by foot-runners, who had relay-stations three miles apart. Each messenger wore a special belt hung with small bells to announce his approach and ensure that his relief was out on the road and ready for a smooth takeover. This system enabled a message to cover the distance of a normal ten-day journey in 24 hours. At each three miles station a log was kept on the flow of messages and all the routes were patrolled by inspectors. ‘First class’ business was conveyed on horseback, with relay-stages of 25 miles. But the really important business of Kublai empire was carried by non-stop dispatch-riders carrying the special tablet with the sign of the gerfalcon. At the approach to each post-house the messenger would sound his horn; the ostlers would bring out a saddled fresh horse, the messenger would transfer to it and gallop straight off. Marco affirmed that those courier horsemen could travel 250 or 300 miles in a day.
Marco Polo was amazed by China’s enormous power, great wealth, and complex social structure. China under the Yuan (The Mongol Empire) dynasty was a huge empire whose internal economy dwarfed that of Europe. A canal-based transportation system linked China’s huge cities and markets in a vast internal communication network in which paper money and credit facilities were highly developed. The citizens could purchase paperback books with paper money, eat rice from fine porcelain bowls and wear silk garments.
Kublai Khan appointed Marco Polo as an official of the Privy Council in 1277 and for 3 years he was a tax inspector in Yanzhou, a city on the Grand Canal, northeast of Nanking. He also visited Karakorum and part of Siberia. Meanwhile his father and uncle took part in the assault on the town of Siang Yang Fou, for which they designed and constructed siege engines. He frequently visited Hangzhou, another city very near Yangzhou. At one time Hangzhou was the capital of the Song dynasty and had a beautiful lakes and many canals, like Marco’s hometown, Venice. Marco fell in love with it.
The Polos stayed in Khan’s court for 17 years, acquiring great wealth in jewels and gold. They were anxious to be on the move since they feared that if Kublai – now in his late seventies – were to die, they might not be able to get their considerable fortune out of the country. The Kublai Khan reluctantly agreed to let them return after they escorted a Mongol princess Kokachin to marry to a Persian prince, Arghun.
Marco did not provide full account of his long journey home. The sea journey took 2 years during which 600 passengers and crewed died. Marco did not give much clue as to what went wrong on the trip, but there are some theories. Some think they may have died from scurvy, cholera or by drowning; others suggest the losses were caused by the hostile natives and pirate attacks. This dreadful sea voyage passed through the South China Sea to Sumatra and the Indian Ocean, and finally docked at Hormuz. There they learned that Arghun had died two years previously so the princess married his son, prince Ghazan, instead. In Persia they also learned of the death of Kublai Khan. However his protection outlived him, for it was only by showing his golden tablet of authority that they were able to travel safely through the bandit-ridden interior. Marco admitted that the passports of golden tablets were powerful:
“Throughout his dominions the Polos were supplied with horses and provisions and everything needful……I assure you for a fact that on many occasions they were given two hundred horsemen, sometimes more and sometimes less, according to the number needed to escort them and ensure their safe passage from one district to another.”
From Trebizond on the Black Sea coast they went by sea, by way of Constantinople, to Venice, arriving home in the winter of 1295.
The Book, Life in Venice and Controversies
Three years after Marco returned to Venice, he commanded a galley in a war against the rival city of Genoa. He was captured during the fighting and spent a year in a Genoese prison – where one of his fellow-prisoners was a writer of romances named Rustichello of Pisa. It was only when prompted by Rustichello that Marco Polo dictated the story of his travels, known in his time as The Description of the World or The Travels of Marco Polo. His account of the wealth of Cathay (China), the might of the Mongol empire, and the exotic customs of India and Africa made his book the bestseller soon after. The book became one of the most popular books in medieval Europe. It was known as Il Milione, The Million Lies and Marco earned the nickname of Marco Milione because few believed that his stories were true, instead dismissing them as fable.
In the summer of 1299 a peace was concluded between Venice and Genoa, and, Marco Polo was released from prison. Returning to Venice, he married Donata Badoer, and had three daughters. On his death bed in 1324, at the age of 70, he declared: “I have only told the half of what I saw!”
Many people took his accounts with a grain of salt, and some skeptics question the authenticity of his account. His Travels made no mention about the Great Wall. Marco Polo never learned the Chinese language, nor mentioned a number of articles which are part of everyday life, such as women’s foot-binding, calligraphy, or tea. In additional, Marco Polo’s name was never mentioned in the Annals of the Empire (Yuan Shih), which recorded the names of foreign visitors far less important and illustrious than the three Venetians. So did Marco Polo ever go to China?
Fiction or not, his Travels has captured readers through the centuries. The book was recognized as the most important account of the world outside Europe that was available at the time. Today there are more than 80 manuscript copies in various versions and several languages around the world.
Marco Polo was in every way a man of his time, capable of comprehending cultures completely alien to his own. Traversing thousands of miles, on horseback mostly, through uncharted deserts, over steep mountain passes, exposed to extreme weathers, to wild animals and very uncivilized tribesmen, Marco’s book has become the most influential travelogue on the Silk Road ever written in a European language.
Today there are a school of experts conducting research and authentication of Marco Polo and his Travels. Much of what he wrote, which regarded with suspicion at medieval time was, confirmed by travelers of the 18th and 19th centuries. What’s more interesting is that his book becomes great value to Chinese historians, as it helps them understand better some of the most important events of the 13th century, such as the siege of Hsiangyang, the massacre of Ch’angchou, and the attempted conquests of Japan. The extant Chinese sources on these events are not as comprehensive as Marco’s book.
Although Marco Polo received little recognition from the geographers of his time, some of the information in his book was incorporated in some important maps of the later Middle Ages, such as the Catalan World Map of 1375, and in the next century it was read with great interest by Henry the Navigator and by Columbus. His system of measuring distances by days’ journey has turned out for later generations of explorers to be remarkably accurate. According to Henry Yule, the great geographer: “He was the first traveler to trace a route across the whole longitude of Asia, naming and describing kingdom after kingdom…..”. Today topographers have called his work the precursor of scientific geography.
However Marco Polo’s best achievement is best said with his own words in his own book:
“I believe it was God’s will that we should come back, so that men might know the things that are in the world, since, as we have said in the first chapter of this book, no other man, Christian or Saracen, Mongol or pagan, has explored so much of the world as Messer Marco, son of Messer Niccolo Polo, great and noble citizen of the city of Venice.”
Excerpted from The Silk Road Foundation