Mosaic of Marco Polo

Marco Polo traveled 7,500 miles on his famous journey from Italy to China. He accompanied Nicoló and Maffeo Polo, his father and uncle, on their second journey back to the East. Marco Polo was 17 when their journey began in 1271.[Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, May 2001, June 2001, July 2001 **]

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. **

According to Marco Polo:"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. [Source: Silk Road Foundation ]

“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."

After Afghanistan the Polos crossed the Pamirs in present-day Tajikistan. From the Pamirs the Polos followed to the Silk Road caravan route through northern Kashmir and 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. **

Good Websites and Sources on the Silk Road: Silk Road Seattle ; Silk Road Foundation; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Silk Road Atlas ; Old World Trade Routes; Marco Polo: Wikipedia Marco Polo Wikipedia ; “The Book of Ser Marco Polo: The Venetian Concerning Kingdoms and Marvels of the East’ by Marco Polo and Rustichello of Pisa, translated and edited by Colonel Sir Henry Yule, Volumes 1 and 2 (London: John Murray, 1903) are part of the public domain and can be read online at Project Gutenberg. Works by Marco Polo ; Marco Polo and his Travels ; Zheng He and Early Chinese Exploration : Wikipedia Chinese Exploration Wikipedia ; Le Monde Diplomatique ; Zheng He Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Gavin Menzies’s 1421 ; First Europeans in Asia Wikipedia ; Matteo Ricci .

Silk Road in Marco Polo's Day

For a relatively brief period between 1250 and 1350 the Silk Road trade routes were opened up to European when the land occupied by the Turks was taken over by the Mongols who allowed free trade. Instead of waiting for goods at the Mediterranean ports, European travelers were able to travel on their own to India and China for the first time. This is when Marco Polo made his historic journey from Venice to China and back. [Source: “The Discoverers” by Daniel Boorstin]

Mongol military power reached its apex in the thirteenth century. Under the leadership of Genghis Khan (Chinggis Khan) and two generations of his descendants, the Mongol tribes and various Inner Asian steppe people were united in an efficient and formidable military state that briefly held sway from the Pacific Ocean to Central Europe. The Mongol Empire was the largest empire the world has ever known: at its largest extent it was twice the size of the Roman Empire and the territory conquered by Alexander the great. The only other nations or empire that rivaled it in size were the Soviet Union, the Spanish empire in the New World, and the British empire of the 19th century.

The Mongols were strong supporters of free trade. They lowered tolls and taxes; protected caravans by guarding roads against bandits; promoted trade with Europe; improved the road system between China and Russia and throughout Central Asia; and expanded the canal system in China, which facilitated the transportation of grain from southern to northern China

Marco Polo caravan

Silk Road trade flourished and trade between east and west increased under Mongol rule. The Mongol conquest of Russia opened the road to China for Europeans. The roads through Egypt were controlled by Muslim and prohibited to Christians. Goods passing from India to Egypt along the Silk Road were so heavily taxed, they tripled in price. After the Mongols were gone. the Silk Road was shut down.

Merchants from Venice, Genoa and Pisa got rich by selling oriental spices and products picked up in the Levant ports in the eastern Mediterranean. But it was Arabs, Turks and other Muslims who profited most from the Silk Road trade. They controlled the land and the trade routes between Europe and China so completely that historian Daniel Boorstin described it as the "Iron Curtain of the Middle Ages."

Marco Polo Begins His Journey

In the first leg of their journey the Polos traveled from Venice to Acre in the Holy Land to fulfil Kublai Khan's request. They picked up some holy oil from the lamp at the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, and headed towards Turkey. The two friars sent with them by the Vatican soon turned back. Marco Polo wrote extensively about Baghdad but it is believed that he never traveled there but rather based his description on what he heard from other travelers. Instead of traveling overland across the Middle East to the Persian Gulf and taking the well-traveled sea route to of India, the Polos headed north to Turkey. [Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, May 2001, June 2001, July 2001]

According to the Silk Road Foundation: “At the end of year 1271, receiving letters and valuable gifts for the Great Khan from the new Pope Tedaldo (Gregory x), the Polos once more set out from Venice on their journey to the east. They took with them 17-year-old Marco Polo and two friars. The two friars hastily turned back after reaching a war zone, but the Polos carried on. They passed through Armenia, Persia, and Afghanistan, over the Pamirs, and all along the Silk Road to China. Avoiding to travel the same route the Polos did 10 years ago, they made a wide swing to the north, first arriving to the southern Caucasus and the kingdom of Georgia. Then they journeyed along the regions parallel to the western shores of the Caspian Sea, reaching Tabriz and made their way south to Hormuz on the Persian Gulf. [Source: Silk Road Foundation]

travels of Marco Polo

Marco Polo Polo on Turkey and Armenia

Marco Polo didn't write much about Turkey other than that nomads in Turkey were an "ignorant people and have a barbarous language" and the bazaars were filled with fine carpets and "cloth of crimson silk and other colors very beautiful and rich." It is believed Polos traveled north from the eastern Mediterranean Sea to northern Turkey and then headed east. [Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, May 2001, June 2001, July 2001]

On Armenia, Marco Polo wrote in “Description of the Greater Hermenia”: This is a great country. It begins at a city called ARZINGA, at which they weave the best buckrams in the world. It possesses also the best baths from natural springs that are anywhere to be found. The people of the country are Armenians. There are many towns and villages in the country, but the noblest of their cities is Arzinga, which is the See of an Archbishop, and then Arziron and Arzizi. The country is indeed a passing great one… At a castle called Paipurth, that you pass in going from Trebizond to Tauris, there is a very good silver mine. [Source: ]

“And you must know that it is in this country of Armenia that the Ark of Noah exists on the top of a certain great mountain [on the summit of which snow is so constant that no one can ascend; for the snow never melts, and is constantly added to by new falls. Below, however, the snow does melt, and runs down, producing such rich and abundant herbage that in summer cattle are sent to pasture from a long way round about, and it never fails them. The melting snow also causes a great amount of mud on the mountain].”

Selim Caravanserai in Armenia

Marco Polo in Western Iran

From Turkey the Polos entered northwest Iran and traveled through Tabriz to Saveh near the Caspian Sea and then headed southeast toward Minab (Hormuz) on the Persian Gulf, passing through the towns of Yazd, Kerman, Bam and Qamadi. The Polos traveled much of the way by horseback, using horses, Marco Polo wrote, were "directly descended from Alexander's horse Bucephalus out of mares that had conceived from him with a horn on the forehead." [Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, May 2001, June 2001, July 2001 **]

Marco Polo wrote with admiration for the Persians and their spirited "chase of animals." He also wrote, "The towns...have great abundance of all things good and fine. People all worship Mahomet...women there are beautiful."The Kurds he said were a people "who rob the merchants gladly." **

Marco Polo was the first person to describe oil in large quantities. Near the Caspian Sea he said there was "a fountain which sends up oil in great abundance. It is good to burn, and to anoint the camels for the itch." In Tabriz in the northwestern Iran he wrote of merchants coveted the "gods that came there from strange lands," including "precious stones..found there in great abundance." In Saveh Marco Polo wrote he saw the mummified bodies of the Three Wise Men "still all whole and have hair and three great sepulchers very great and beautiful." There are some doubts about this claim because it wasn't a custom of the Persians to mummify their dead. **

After leaving Saveh, Marco Polo is believed to have joined a caravan for protection against bandits. He wrote that in this part of Persia there were "many cruel people and murderers." The Polos probably traveled about 25 miles a day to cover the 310 mile distance between Saveh and Yazd. There isn't much between the two towns, except high desert with very little water. Yazd is an oasis fed by qanats. Marco Polo wrote about "many clothes of silk which are called lasdi are made, which the merchants carry them to many parts to make their profit." **

eastern Iran

Marco Polo at Persian Gulf and Eastern Iran

The Polos arrived at the port of Hormuz and described the goods he saw on sale there: “precious stones and pearls and cloth of silk and gold and elephant tusks ad many other wares." The plan was to take a boat to India, then to Zaiton or Quinsai in China. In the end the Polos changed their mind and traveled on the overland route, perhaps because of the condition of the ships. Marco Polo wrote, "Their ships are very bad, and many of them are lost because they are not nailed with iron pins" but instead used "thread which is made of the husks of nuts of Indie." “It is a great danger to sail in those ships." Ships fitting Marco Polo's description were used in the area until a few decades ago. [Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, May 2001, June 2001, July 2001 **]

From Minab (Hormuz) on the Persian Gulf, the Polos backtracked and passed through Qamadin, Bam and Kerman again and entered Afghanistan from northeast Iran. In Kerman they probably joined a camel caravan for the journey across the Dash-e-Lut, the Desert of Emptiness. They had to carry great quantities of water in goat skin for the springs are either too salty or contain toxic chemicals. In the Dash-e-Lot, Marco Polo wrote of bandits that "make the whole day become dark by their enchantments" and "they kill all the old, and the young they take and sell them for serf or for slaves." **

Marco Polo in Afghanistan

The Polos entered northwest Afghanistan in 1271, two years after starting their journey, and followed the northern borders of present-day Afghanistan and traveled along the Amu Darya River, passing the towns if Balkh, Taloqan and Feyzabad. In northern Afghanistan they traveled through the Hindu Kush and the Pamirs in Tajikistan to reach China. [Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, May 2001, June 2001, July 2001 **]

Marco Polo wrote, “This country...produces numbers of excellent horses, remarkable for their speed. They are not shod...although [used] in mountainous country [and] go at great pace even deep descents, where other horses neither would nor could do the like.” He also wrote, “The peasants keep cattle alivin the mountains, in caves...Beasts and birds for the chase are in great abundance. Good wheat is grown, and also barely without husk. They have no olive oil, but make oil from sesame, and also from walnuts.” **

Marco Polo may have spent a year in the Badakshan region recovering from an illness, possibly malaria. He wrote about horses, women in trousers and gem mines and "wild beasts"—lions and wolves. The mountains he said were "all salt," an exaggeration but there are large salt deposits in the area. The lapis lazuli in the bazaars was "the finest the world." The ruby-like spinels were "of great value.” **

He described Balkh as a place with "palaces and many beautiful houses of marble...destroyed and ruined. It had been one of the great cities of Central Asia until Genghis Khan laid waste to it in the 1220s. Taloquan, he wrote lay "in a very beautiful country."

Marco Polo in Pamirs

Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan

The Polos passed through Pamirs, a rugged mountain range with huge glaciers and many peaks over 20,000 feet, to reach Kashgar in China. Marco Polo was the first Westerner to mention the Pamirs. He Polo wrote his group passed through "they the highest place in the world." Today the mountains are often called "The Roof of the World." [Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, May 2001, June 2001, July 2001]

It is believed the Polos went through Wakhan, the long finger of Afghanistan that reaches across to China, and may have entered Tajikistan. The journey through the Pamirs was the most difficult leg of their journey. It took them nearly two months to traverse 250 miles. On the 15,000 foot passes they traversed, Marco Polo wrote, "Fire is not so bright" and "things are not well cooked." He also "flying birds there are none." They may have been delayed by blizzards, avalanches and landslides. **

"Wild game of every sort abounds" in the Pamirs, Polo wrote. "There are great quantities of wild sheep of huge size...Their horns grow to as much as six palms in length and are never less than four. From these horns the shepherds make big bowls from which they feed, and also fences to keep in their flocks." **

The Marco Polo sheep is named after Marco Polo because he first described it. It has wide spreading horns. It and the "argali" of Mongolia are the largest members of the sheep family. The argali has long massive horns.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Asia for Educators, Columbia University ; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei ; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated November 2016

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