Marco Polo Marco Polo (1254-1324) is regarded as one of the world’s greatest and most influential travelers. He set off on a journey to the East at the age of seventeen with his uncle and father as part of a diplomatic mission for Pope Gregory X. After a three-and-a-half-year overland journey through present day Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and China he met the great Kublai Khan who took a liking to the young man and used him as an emissary for 20 years. [Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, May 2001, June 2001, July 2001]
Marco Polo was not the first European to venture to China. The friars mentioned earlier arrived in Asia before him. But to Marco Polo's credit his journey was longer (24 years), more extensive (through China and much of Asia) and far richer in experiences (on many missions he was the personnel emissary of Kublai Khan) than the journeys of other European travelers.
Marco Polo took advantage of the brief window of opportunity to travel to the East provided by the Mongol conquests. He was able to travel throughout Asia at a time when the Mongols controlled much of the region. After the Mongol empire collapsed not long after Marco Polo’s journey travel between the East and West was all but impossible.
Marco Polo’s descriptions of his travels opened up Asia as a new world to Europeans and generated a fascination with the East. As for Marco Polo himself he probably would have ended up as a footnote in history where it not for his cellmate in a Genoan prison, who wrote about Marco Polo's adventures after Marco Polo was captured during a naval battle between Venice and Genoa (Genoa fought with Venice for control of the trade routes to the East).
Websites and Resources
Marco Polo: Wikipedia Marco Polo Wikipedia ; Marco Polo Odyssesy nationalgeographic.com ; Footsteps of Marco Polo metmuseum.org ; Open Directory Project dmoz.org ; Works by Marco Polo gutenberg.org ; Internet Movie Database imdb.com ; Marco Polo and his Travels silk-road.com ; Marco Polo in China easia.columbia.edu ;
Links in this Website: SILK ROAD factsanddetails.com ; MARITIME SILK ROAD factsanddetails.com ; SILK ROAD CARAVANS factsanddetails.com ; SILK ROAD CAMELS factsanddetails.com ; SILK ROAD HISTORY AND EXPLORERS factsanddetails.com ; MARCO POLO factsanddetails.com ; MARCO POLO IN CHINA factsanddetails.com ; CHINESE EXPLORATION AND ZHENG HE factsanddetails.com ; EARLY EUROPEANS IN CHINA factsanddetails.com ; SILK IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; YUAN (MONGOL) DYNASTY (1215-1368) MING DYNASTY (1368-1644) Factsanddetails.com/China ;
Good Websites and Sources on the Silk Road: Silk Road Seattle washington.edu/silkroad ; Silk Road Foundation silk-road.com ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Silk Road History ess.uci.edu ; Silk Road Atlas depts.washington.edu ; History of Silk Road ess.uci.edu ; Old World Trade Routes ciolek.com ; Travel Photos studyrussian.com ; Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project silkroadproject.org ; Silk Road Society travelthesilkroad.org ; Silk Road Travelerssilk-road.com ; International Dunhuang Project idp.bl.uk ; Camel Trains in the Desert chinavista.com ; China Page chinapage.org ; Ancient China Life Ancient China Life Books: The Travels of Marco by Marco Polo; The Silk Road (Odyssey Guides); Marco Polo: A Photographer's Journey by Mike Yamashita (White Star, 2002). Television show: Silk Road 2005, a 10-episode production by China's CCTV and Japan's NHK, with music by Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. The original series was shown in 1980s.
Zheng He and Early Chinese Exploration : Wikipedia Chinese ExplorationWikipedia ; Le Monde Diplomatique mondediplo.com ; Zheng He’s Voyages international.ucla.edu ; Zheng He muslimheritage.com ; Zheng He Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Gavin Menzies’s 1421 1421.tv ; Asia Recipe asiarecipe.com ; China Page chinapage.com ; First Europeans in Asia Wikipedia ; Matteo Ricci faculty.fairfield.edu ; Matteo Ricci international.ucla.edu
Versions of Marco Polo's Account
Marco Polo’s account his travels was originally called Description of the World, but is now known as The Travels of Marco Polo. The book was widely translated and circulated and became a medieval version of a bestseller. The account covers Marco Polo's 24 years of travels (17 of them in China). In Italy his book is known by the name Il Millione, a reference to its million tall tales.
Marco Polo's cell mate and the man who wrote the book was a romance writer named Rustichello known for his stories about chivalrous knights. The book was probably written in 1298. Rustichello made some additions and changes. Early editions were copied and translated by hand by monks. They no doubt made some additions and changes too. About 150 versions of the text remain today, The version thought to be closest to the original is one translated from a 14th century copy in the Biblioteque Nationale in Paris.
Marco Polo reveals little about himself but provides information on places he visited such as China and places he didn’t visit like Japan. He listed things he saw on sale in markets; wrote about the customs he observed and events he witnessed. He wrote frequently about alcohol and mentioned local moonshine and wines made from rice, dates, gram, palm sap and mare’s milk. It is not known whether Marco Polo kept a journal and but some of the description are so rich in details it seems likely they came from a journal.
See Marco Polo's Discoveries in China.
Impact of Marco Polo's Journey
Marco Polo's travel accounts made a large impression on European readers for centuries after his journey was over. Christopher Columbus and many other explorers were inspired by Marco Polo's descriptions of Asian riches and set out to explore the region themselves. His accounts along with reports from the Crusaders encouraged trade between East and West.
Marco Polo introduced places such Japan, the Pamirs and Java to Europe. Mapmakers added Japan or Java to their maps even though Marco Polo and no known European had ever been there.
The notion that Marco Polo introduced pasta (derived from noodles) and ravioli (derived from dumplings) to Italy and Europe is largely a myth. Noodles at least already existed in Italy. Ice milk and fruit appeared in Italy in the 14th century and may have been introduced from China by Marco Polo, who reportedly brought recipes for ice-cream-like chilled milk deserts from China.
Marco Polo's Exaggerations, Omissions and Lies
Marco Polo often reported hearsay and had a tendency to stretch the truth. He wrote of enormous p'eng birds, or gryphons, from Madagascar, for example, that were large enough to consume elephants as well as men with dog features. Some of his accounts were outright lies. In one section, he relates how the Polos helped the Mongols capture the southern city of Xiangyang from the Southern Song dynasty by introducing the Mongols to catapults. It turns out the Mongols already had catapults and the city fell two years before the Polos arrived in China.
Some historians have suggested that Marco Polo never went to China and that his adventures were based on accounts that he heard while working at his family's trading outposts on the Black Sea and in Constantinople. These historians base their argument on: 1) the fact that Rustichello was a fiction writer who probably embellished the account; 2) that Marco Polo failed to describe the Great Wall of China, chopsticks, tea, calligraphy or the binding of women’s feet; 3) that the things he described—paper money, porcelain—were well known to travelers who came to Constantinople and other trading areas; and 4) that Marco Polo wasn't mentioned at all in the extensive Chinese archives between 1271 and 1295 even though he described himself as a personal emissary of Kublai Khan.
Historians that contend that Marco Polo’s journey probably did take place argue: 1) that tea and chopsticks were so commonplace perhaps Marco Polo failed to mention them because he was so used to them; 2) that foot binding was something practiced mainly by upper class women who rarely left their homes so Marco Polo didn't see them; 3) that the Great Wall as we know it today for the most part was built after Marco Polo's death (in his time it was decaying mud bricks) and walls around towns and cities were as common in Europe as they were in China; and 4) that documents that may have mentioned Marco Polo probably were destroyed (many Mongol documents after the Mongols were ousted from China).
Marco Polo’s Credibility
Mike Edwards, the author the three-part National Geographic series about Marco Polo, wrote n Smithsonian magazine, “”Like others who examined his writings closely, I am dismayed by his omissions and floored by his whoppers, But I am ultimately convinced of his essential truthfulness, Why? For one thing his itineraries, as laid out by the sequence of the book chapters, are fundamentally accurate, whether he’s crossing Central Asia or central China. Where did he acquire that geographical knowledge if he didn’t make the these journeys himself?”
“I believe Polo kept a journal during his travels...Having followed his tracks, I know firsthand that he got many things right, such as both lapis lazuli and rubies are found in the Badakshan region of Afghanistan: in China’s southwest a minority people eat raw flesh; people in Sumatra and Sri Lanka make a joy juice from fermented palm tree sap...Polo also produced an report on Hindu customs.” One version of his narrarive said he brought back “writings and memoranda.”
Some exaggerations were not necessarily Marco Polo’s fault. Some versions of his travel log say that the walls surrounding Kubali Khan’s palace are four miles long while other versions say walls were 32 miles long—discrepancies that appeared long after Marco Polo died. Other famous “historical” works are also filled with exaggerations an lies. Herodotus described gold-digging ants in India and winged snakes in Egypt. Sir Walter Raleigh told tales of gold-strewn El Dorado in Latin American.
Some think that Rustichelo of Pisa, the man credited with writing Marco Polo’s adventures, was the the source of the tall tales such a the battle between Kublai Khan and Prester John, a mythical Christian figure better known in Europe than the East. He had written some romantic stories about King Arthur and early Christian figures.
Marco Polo's Early Life
Little is known about Marco Polo's early life. It is known that he was born in Venice; that his father was traveling during his youth; that his mother died before his father returned and that Marco was raised by a relative. What education he received is unknown. He probably received some training in navigation and trading. It seem plausable, also, that he developed some street sense growing up in the alleys of Venice among sailors, traders, moneylenders and prostitutes.
When Marco Polo was coming of age Venice was the dominant trading and military power in the Mediterranean. In Marco's time merchants in Venice were looking more and more towards the East for new markets and were establishing networks to these markets.
Marco Polo's father, Nicoló, and uncle, Maffeo, were Venetian traders with trading houses in Constantinople in Asia Minor and Soldaia on the Crimea peninsula in the Black Sea. They specialized in the sale of gems stones and jewelry.
Travel’s by Marco Polo's Father and Uncle
In 1260, when Marco Polo was just six, his father and uncle set out from their merchant colony in the Crimea to sell jewels in the lower Volga and stayed a year there at the camp of a Mongol Khan. Some Mongol traders escorted them eastward and introduced them to Kublai Khan.
The Polos traveled deep into the Mongol empire. They journeyed across the steppes of what is now southern Russia and Kazakhstan and stayed for three years in Bukhara (Uzbekistan) and arrived at Kublai Khan court, perhaps in Shangdu (Xanadu), not so far from Beijing., six years after they set off.
Kublai Khan had never met people from southern Europe before. He welcomed the two Venetians with open arms. The Polos remained in his court for four years. They reported that Kublai Khan was a man of "great intelligence and wide-ranging interests” and said he asked them many questions about life in Europe.
Kublai Khan asked the Polo brothers to be his emissary to the Pope; to retrieve some oil from the lamp at the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, considered a potion for the soul; and to recruit one hundred missionaries "educated in all Seven Arts," who would argue the merits of their religion in the khan's court. Kublai Khan reportedly said if there case was convincing he was willing to covert his subjects to Christianity.
In 1269, when Marco Polo was just 15, his father and uncle returned from their nine-year journey. They told fantastic stories about their experiences. No one believed them. Pope Gregory denied the Great Khan's request and sent only two Dominican friars.
Marco Polo's Journey to the East
Marco Polo traveled 7,500 miles on his famous journey from Italy to China. He accompanied Nicoló and Maffeo on their second journey back to the East. Marco Polo was 17 when their journey began in 1271.
Marco Polo and his father and uncle traveled from Venice to the Middle East by boat and then traveled overland to Baghdad and then Ormuz on the Persian Gulf. Instead of taking the more well-traveled sea route through the Arabian Sea to India, they headed north across present-day Iran to Afghanistan.
After Afghanistan the Polos crossed the Pamirs in present-day Tajikistan. From the Pamirs the Polos followed to the Silk Road caravan route through western China. After a three-and-a-half year journey the Polos arrived at the court of he Great Khan when Marco Polo was 21. Delays were caused by rain, snow, swollen rivers, and illnesses. Time was taken off to rest, trade and restock.
For more detials of the trip, See the expanded Silk Road section which will be developed later.
Marco Polo Returns to Venice
The Polos returned to Venice in 1295 after 24 years. According to a story that first appeared in the 1500s, the Polo family had long given them up for dead. When they appeared no one recognized them and they gave off "a certain indescribable smack of the Tartar both in air and scent." The memories of the relatives were quickly revived when the shabby wanderers ripped open their grubby clothes, and watched "vast quantities of rubies, diamonds, and emeralds spill out.” The Polos were then affectionately embraced, and treated to a lavish banquet, filled with music and stories.
When the Polos arrived, Venice was engaged in a naval conflict with Genoa. Marco Polo somehow became involved in the conflict and was captured by the Genoese about a year after his return and imprisoned. The details of his war record, his capture and prison life are not known. He was released un 1299.
Marco Polo’s book was published while he was alive and became a bestseller in a world that was largely illiterate. Marco Polo became a celebrity. The book was translated into many languages. The first known printed edition appeared in Nuremburg in 1477.
After being released from prison Marco Polo moved into a mansion in the Rialto business district of Venice. He was about 45 at this time. He married and had three daughters and died in 1224 at the age of about 70. His house in Venice was destroyed by fire in 1596. In Venice he is known today as "Million." Some say this is a reference to his wealth. Other say it refers to his exaggerations.” Even in his time there were those that wanted him to confess that everything he reported was hoax. Marco Polo reportedly replied, "I did not write half of what I saw."
Image Sources: 1) Brooklyn University; 2) Silk Road Foundation
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated March 2010