by: Zeter Georges - Marco Polo (1254 - 1324) -
Marco Polo (15 September1254 - 8 January 1324) was a Venetian trader and explorer who, together with his father and uncle, was one of the first Westerners to travel the Silk Road to China (which he called Cathay) and visited the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, Kubilai Khan (grandson of Genghis Khan). His travels are written down in Il Milione ("The Milione", from Polo's family nickname Emilione, or The Travels of Marco Polo). Marco Polo is known as one of the world's greatest explorers — some skeptics see him as the world's greatest storyteller. He told many stories to Kublai Khan. The Polos lived in China for seventeen years before returning to Venice. After his return, in a sea battle between Venice and Genoa, Marco was captured and taken to prison, where he dictated to Rustichello da Pisa the book Il Milione about his travels.
Polo's father and uncle, Niccolò and Maffeo Polo, were jewel merchants. In 1260 they left Venice to travel to the Black Sea, moving onwards to central Asia and joining a diplomatic mission to the court of Kublai Khan, the Mongol ruler of China. Khan asked the Polo brothers to return to Europe and persuade the Pope to send scholars to explain Christianity to him. They arrived back in Venice in 1269.
In 1271, they set off again, accompanied by two missionaries and Marco and in 1275 reached Khan's summer court. For the next 17 years the Polos lived in the Emperor's lands. Little is known of these years but Marco Polo was obviously popular with the Mongol ruler and was sent on various diplomatic missions which gave him the opportunity to see many parts of China.
Around 1292, the Polos offered to accompany a Mongol princess who was to become the consort of Arghun Khan in Persia. The party sailed from a southern Chinese port via Sumatra, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), southern India, and the Persian Gulf. After leaving the princess in Iran, the Polos travelled overland to Constantinople and then to Venice, arriving home in 1295.
The Polos eventually departed for Europe and reached Venice in 1295. Marco became involved in a naval conflict between Venice and Genoa and in 1298 was captured by the Genoese. In prison, his stories attracted the attention of a writer from Pisa, Rustichello, who began to write them down, frequently embellishing them as he went. The resulting book was extremely popular and was translated into many languages under a number of titles, including 'The Million' and the 'Travels of Marco Polo'.
After Polo was released he returned to Venice, where he remained for the rest of his life. He died on 8 January 1324.
A preliminary journey: 1261-1268
Two brothers, Niccolo and Matteo Polo, are Venetian merchants with interests in Constantinople and in Sudak, a Venetian colony on the coast of the Crimea. In 1261 they travel through the Black Sea to Sudak and then continue on to the Volga, where they visit Sarai Berke, the capital city of the Golden Horde. They stay among the Mongols for a year, but then find their route home blocked. Berke, the Muslim leader of the Golden Horde, is at war with his cousin Hulagu, the pagan ruler of Persia.
The Polo brothers are advised that their wisest course is to continue eastwards to other Mongol centres along the old Silk Road. They travel on to Bukhara, where they stay for two or three years.
In Bukhara they are eventually persuaded to move yet further east, to the greatest centre of Mongol power - the court of Kublai, the great khan, in China. Here the brothers are once again welcomed, and once again are enticed or coerced into spending a few years (it is impossible to leave a Mongol court without the khan's permission).
At last Kublai Khan sends them home, with letters to deliver to the pope. They reach Venice in 1269. Niccolo's son Marco, only seven when he had last seen him, is now 15. Two years later the brothers set off again (they have promised Kublai Khan that they will return, with precious commodities from the west). They take young Marco with them
The road to Xanadu: 1271-1275
This time the journey east takes four years. The little party travels by sea from Venice to Syria, then rides or walks the rest of the journey - to Tabriz and by a southerly route, through Yazd and Kerman, before joining the Silk Road to the north of the Hindu Kush. Eventually, after skirting the Gobi desert, they reach Kublai Khan's summer palace - the stately pleasure dome which he has built north of the Great Wall at Shang Tu, transliterated by Marco Polo into Italian as Ciandu and now widely known as Xanadu.
The Polo brothers receive a warm welcome from Kublai. They present to him young Marco - an encounter which, according to Marco, inspires immediate mutual admiration. Certainly Marco is offered employment.
Marco Polo in China: 1275-1292
Marco spends seventeen years in China, fulfilling a wide variety of tasks
In Kublai Khan's administration. He is in effect a member of an occupying force, speaking Mongolian but not Chinese, so his understanding of the people is limited. But he travels a great deal, often trading on his own account as well as serving the emperor, and he describes many cities.
Hangzhou is his favourite. He pretends not to be certain which are more impressive - the number of its bridges or the number of its prostitutes. His interests seem more with the latter. Those who sample these women, he says (as if speaking of someone else), 'are so much taken with their sweetness and charms that they can never forget them'.
Marco has often been criticised for failing to mention one peculiarity of China - the drinking of tea, which is already by this time a Chinese addiction. The two oddities which strike him most forcibly are a marvellous black stone, useless for building with, which the Chinese dig up and burn (one of the earliest references to coal); and their use of bank notes.
Paper money is not a Mongol innovation, being in use already in the Song dynasty, but Marco gives a fascinating description of government officials stamping the notes with a cinnabar seal.
The journey home: 1292-1295
Marco and his family prosper in the service of Kublai Khan, but eventually they become eager to leave. The khan is old. Chaos may follow his death, and they will be without a protector. Often they ask permission to go home. Always they are praised for their great contribution and told to stay - until luckily, in 1292, it suits Kublai to send them west. A young Mongol bride is to be sent to Kublai's great-nephew, the Il-khan ruling Persia.
The land route is at this particular moment blocked, by warfare between Mongol factions. A sea journey is considered safer. The Polo family, experienced travellers, may help to bring the bride to her destination
The great khan orders junks to be fitted out for the expedition. He gives the Italians messages of goodwill to be delivered to the pope and the kings of Spain, France and England. The party makes its way down through the China Sea, through the Straits of Malacca and up the west coast of India to the Persian Gulf. When they reach Tabriz, they find that Kublai's great-nephew has died. So the bride marries his great-great-nephew, the new Il-Khan, instead.
After spending nine months with the court at Tabriz, the three Italians finally set off home. They reach Venice in 1295. Marco, now in his forties, has been away twenty-five years.
The Book of Marco Polo: 1298-1299
Marco has no intention of writing a book. Luckily for us he finds himself a prisoner in Genoa in 1298 (he has been in command of a Venetian galley in a war against the Genoese). A fellow captive is an author of romances, by the name of Rustichello. During a winter of enforced idleness, Marco tells him the story of his adventures. Rustichello writes it down.
The Book of Marco Polo, wherein is recounted the Wonders of the World becomes so popular that numerous manuscript copies of it are made in several languages.
Marco's contemporaries see his book primarily as what its title says - a book of wonders, rather than a factual account - and Rustichello's trade as a writer of romances has caused some more recently to question how much of the book is true, or whether Marco even made the journey to China.
But Chinese sources confirm many details which were unknown in the west in Marco's time. The most he can probably be accused of, in providing one of the world's greatest travel books, are two familiar failings - a selective memory and a story-teller's tendency to exaggerate. There is, however, no truth in the tradition that he brought back the secrets of gunpowder, the compass, printing or noodles.
Did the trip really take place?
While most historians believe that Marco Polo did indeed reach China, in recent times some have proposed that he did not get that far, and only retold information he had heard from others. Those skeptics point out that, among other omissions, his account fails to mention Chinese writing, chopsticks, tea, foot binding, or the Great Wall. Also, Chinese records of the time do not mention him, despite the fact that he claimed to have served as a special emissary for Kublai Khan—which is puzzling, given the careful record-keeping in China at that time.
On the other hand, Marco describes other aspects of Far Eastern life in much detail: paper money, the Grand Canal, the structure of a Mongol army, tigers, and the Imperial postal system. He also refers to Japan by its Chinese name "Zipang" or Cipangu. This is usually considered the first mention of Japan in Western literature. However, it is possible that Marco heard of these things from Arab Silk Road traders; trade between the Middle East and Far East was flourishing and travelers are often happy to retell stories of their ventures in great detail.
"I did not tell half of what I saw"
On the other hand Marco Polo was credited to have discovered eye glasses, ice-cream and spaghetti… Who knows?
When Marco was near death, a priest came in his room to ask him if he'd like to admit that his stories were false. Instead, Marco said, "I did not tell half of what I saw". Those were his last words.
Sir Henry Yule (Ed.): The Travels of Marco Polo Dover Publications, New York, 1983 [new edition of: London 1870]
Henry H. Hart: Marco Polo, Venetian Adventurer Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1967
John Larner: Marco Polo and the Discovery of the World Yale Univ. Press, 1999