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Kublai Khan
After a three-and-a-half year journey, Marco Polo, his father and uncle arrived in Shangdu (Xanadu), Kublai Khan's summer capital, not so far from Beijing, in 1275, when Marco was 21. Word of the Polos journey had been relayed to Kublai Khan by Pony-Express-style messengers. Envoys of the Great Khan reached the Polos in central China. They escorted the Polos for the last 40 days of their trip to Shangdu. [Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, May 2001, June 2001, July 2001 **]

Julie Makinen wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Marco Polo arrived in the East with his father and uncle at a crucial turning point in history: The 300-year-old Song Dynasty was on the verge of collapse and Kublai was about to become the first non-Chinese emperor of China. But even as the khan was trying to take China, his own people were turning on him in a civil war, upset over what they saw as his increasing softness and excessive Sinification."Source: Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, September 19, 2014 ^|^]

John Fusco, screenwriter of the “Marco Polo” Netflix series told the Los Angeles Times: “Marco Polo was basically adopted as a son by Kublai Khan, the most powerful ruler on Earth, the grandson of Genghis Khan. And that he was trained in the scholar-warrior tradition — in archery, Mongol warfare, Chinese martial arts, languages, letters. He went through this incredible education that was really this cultural awakening." ^|^

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 ; Mongols and Horsemen of the Steppe:
Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; The Mongol Empire ; The Mongols in World History ; William of Rubruck's Account of the Mongols

Marco Polo on Meeting the Great Khan for the First Time

Marco Polo met Kublai Khan soon after arriving in Shangdu. He called the great Khan a "Lord of Lords" and "the most powerful man in people and in lands and in treasure that ever was in the world" – -and this was probably no exaggeration. [Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, May 2001, June 2001, July 2001]

Marco recalled it in detail on the greatest moment when he first met the Great Khan:" They knelt before him and made obeisance with the utmost humility. The Great Khan bade them rise and received them honorably and entertained them with good cheer. He asked many questions about their condition and how they fared after their departure. The brothers assured him that they had indeed fared well, since they found him well and flourishing. [Source: Silk Road Foundation ]

“Then they presented the privileges and letters which the Pope had sent, with which he was greatly pleased, and handed over the holy oil, which he received with joy and prized very highly. When the Great Khan saw Marco, who was then a young stripling, he asked who he was. 'Sir' said Messer Niccolo, 'he is my son and your liege man.' 'He is heartly welcome,' said the Khan. What need to make a long story of it? Great indeed were the mirth and merry-making with which the Great khan and all his Court welcomed the arrival of these emissaries. And they were well served and attended to in all their needs. They stayed at Court and had a place of honor above the other barons."

Marco Polo’s Description of Kublai Khan’s Court

Marco Polo at Kublai Khan's court

Marco Polo described great parties hosted by Kublai Khan with as many as 40,000 guests. He reported that the Khan once received "a gift of more than 100,000 whites horses very beautiful and fine" and employed 10,000 falconers, carrying gyrfalcons, peregrines, sake falcons and goshawks, and 20,000 dog handlers. He also had an unstated number of lions, leopards and lynxes to go after wild boars and other big animals and 5,000 elephants “all covered with beautiful clothes." He wrote that Kublai Khan's palace contained a dining area that could seat 6,000 and was surrounded by a four mile wall. These numbers are thought to be exaggerations. **

According to the Silk Road Foundation: “Marco went on great length to describe Kublia's capital, ceremonies, hunting and public assistance, and they were all to be found on a much smaller scale in Europe. Marco Polo fell in love with the capital, which later became part of Beijing, then called Cambaluc or Khanbalig, meant 'city of the Khan.' This new city, built because astrologers predicted rebellion in the old one, was described as the most magnificent city in the world. He marveled the summer palace in particular. He described "the greatest palace that ever was". The walls were covered with gold and silver and the Hall was so large that it could easily dine 6,000 people. 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). [Source: Silk Road Foundation ]

Marco Polo’s Description of Kublai Khan and His Concubines

Empress Chabi

“Chapter VIII: Concerning the Person of the Great Kaan” is a physical description of Kublai Khan, and includes general descriptions of his family, his court, and his concubines. According to Marco Polo's account: “The personal appearance of the Great Kaan, Lord of Lords, whose name is Cublay, is such as I shall now tell you. He is of a good stature, neither tall nor short, but of a middle height. He has a becoming amount of flesh, and is very shapely in all his limbs. His complexion is white and red, the eyes black and fine, the nose well formed and well set on. [Source: “Book of Ser Marco Polo: The Venetian Concerning Kingdoms and Marvels of the East,” translated and edited by Colonel Sir Henry Yule (London: John Murray, 1903) Asia for Educators, Columbia University ]

“He has four wives, whom he retains permanently as his legitimate consorts; and the eldest of his sons by those four wives ought by rights to be emperor.. I mean when his father dies. Those four ladies are called empresses, but each is distinguished also by her proper name. And each of them has a special court of her own, very grand and ample; no one of them having fewer than 300 fair and charming damsels. They have also many pages and eunuchs, and a number of other attendants of both sexes; so that each of these ladies has not less than 10,000 persons attached to her court.

“When the Emperor desires the society of one of these four consorts, he will sometimes send for the lady to his apartment and sometimes visit her at her own. He has also a great number of concubines, and I will tell you how he obtains them. You must know that there is a tribe of Tartars called Ungrat, who are noted for their beauty. Now every year an hundred of the most beautiful maidens of this tribe are sent to the Great Kaan, who commits them to the charge of certain elderly ladies dwelling in his palace.

“And these old ladies make the girls sleep with them, in order to ascertain if they have sweet breath [and do not snore], and are sound in all their limbs. Then such of them as are of approved beauty, and are good and sound in all respects, are appointed to attend on the Emperor by turns. Thus six of these damsels take their turn for three days and nights, and wait on him when he is in his chamber and when he is in his bed, to serve him in any way, and to be entirely at his orders. At the end of the three days and nights they are relieved by other six. And so throughout the year, there are reliefs of maidens by six and six, changing every three days and nights.”

Marco Polo’s Description of Kublai Khan’s Sons

Tugh Temur

“Chapter IX: Concerning the Great Kaan's Sons” is about of Kublai Khan's twenty-two sons. According to Marco Polo's account: “ The Emperor hath, by those four wives of his, twenty.two male children; the eldest of whom was called Chinkin for the love of the good Chinghis Kaan, the first Lord of the Tartars. And this Chinkin, as the Eldest Son of the Kaan, was to have reigned after his father’s death; but, as it came to pass, he died. He left a son behind him, however, whose name is Temur, and he is to be the Great Kaan and Emperor after the death of his Grandfather, as is but right; he being the child of the Great Kaan’s eldest son. And this Temur is an able and brave man, as he hath already proven on many occasions. [Source: “Book of Ser Marco Polo: The Venetian Concerning Kingdoms and Marvels of the East,” translated and edited by Colonel Sir Henry Yule (London: John Murray, 1903) Asia for Educators, Columbia University ]

“The Great Kaan hath also twenty-five other sons by his concubines; and these are good and valiant soldiers, and each of them is a great chief. I tell you moreover that of his children by his four lawful wives there are seven who are kings of vast realms or provinces, and govern them well; being all able and gallant men, as might be expected. For the Great Kaan their sire is, I tell you, the wisest and most accomplished man, the greatest Captain, the best to govern men and rule an Empire, as well as the most valiant that ever has existed among all the Tribes of Tartars.”

Kublai Khan, Marco Polo and Beijing

Marco Polo first saw Kublai Khan's new winter capital of Daidu (Beijing), established in 1264, while it was under construction. He wrote: "The new city is a form perfectly square...each of its sides being six miles. It is enclosed with walls of earth...the wall of the city has twelve gates. The multitude of inhabitants, and the number of houses in the city... as also in the suburbs outside the city, of which there are twelve, corresponding to the twelve gates, is greater than the mind can comprehend."

"Within these walls...stands the palace of the Great Khan, the most extensive that has ever been known. The sides of the great halls are adorned with dragons in carved wood and gold, figures of warriors, of birds and of beasts. On each of the sides of the palace are grand flights of marble steps." On the Mongol New Year, "great numbers of beautiful white horses are presented to the Great Khan...all his elephants, amounting to five thousand, are exhibited in the procession, covered with housing of cloth, richly worked with gold and silk."

Marco Polo described glazed roof tiles of "red and green and blue and yellow” in Daidu that “are bright like crystal, so that they shine very far." He said that he could estimate the city's population, based on the number of prostitutes — 20,000 — and said coal was so plentiful that people could take three hot baths a week.

Marco Polo’s Description of Kublai Khan’s Palace in Beijing

Chapter X: Concerning the Palace of the Great Kaan is a description of Kublai's palace at Cambaluc (Daidu/Beijing). According to Marco Polo's account: “You must know that for three months of the year, to wit December, January, and February, the Great Kaan resides in the capital city of Cathay, which is called Cambaluc, [and which is at the north-eastern extremity of the country]. In that city stands his great Palace, andnow I will tell you what it is like. [Source: “Book of Ser Marco Polo: The Venetian Concerning Kingdoms and Marvels of the East,” translated and edited by Colonel Sir Henry Yule (London: John Murray, 1903)Asia for Educators, Columbia University ]

“It is enclosed all round by a great wall forming a square, each side of which is a mile in length; that is to say, the whole compass thereof is four miles. This you may depend on; it is also very thick, and a good ten paces in height, whitewashed and loop-holed all round. At each angle of the wall there is a very fine and rich palace in which the war-harness of the Emperor is kept, such as bows and quivers, two saddles and bridles, and bowstrings, and everything needful for an army. Also midway between every two of these Corner Palaces there is another of the like; so that taking the whole compass of the enclosure you find eight vast Palaces stored with the Great Lord’s harness of war. And you must understand that each Palace is assigned to only one kind of article; thus one is stored with bows, a second with saddles, a third with bridles, and so on in succession right round.

“The great wall has five gates on its southern face, the middle one being the great gate which is never opened on any occasion except when the Great Kaan himself goes forth or enters. Close on either side of this great gate is a smaller one by which all other people pass; and then towards each angle is another great gate, also open to people in general; so that on that side there are five gates in all.

“Inside of this wall there is a second, enclosing a space that is somewhat greater in length than in breadth. This enclosure also has eight palaces corresponding to those of the outer wall, and stored like them with the Lord’s harness of war. This wall also hath five gates on the southern face, corresponding to those in the outer wall, and hath one gate on each of the other faces, as the outer wall hath also. In the middle of the second enclosure is the Lord’s Great Palace, and I will tell you what it is like.

“You must know that it is the greatest palace that ever was. [Towards the north it is in contact with the outer wall, whilst towards the south there is a vacant space which the Barons and the soldiers are constantly traversing. The Palace itself] hath no upper story, but is all on the ground floor, only the basement is raised some ten palms above the surrounding soil [and this elevation is retained by a wall of marble raised to the level of the pavement, two paces in width and projecting beyond the base of the Palace so as to form a kind of terrace-walk, by which people can pass round the building, and which is exposed to view, whilst on the outer edge of the wall there is a very fine pillared balustrade; and up to this the people are allowed to come]. The roof is very lofty, and the walls of the Palace are all covered with gold and silver.

Marco Polo paying hommage to Kublai Khan

“They are also adorned with representations of dragons [sculptured and gilt], beasts and birds, knights and idols, and sundry other subjects. And on the ceiling too you see nothing but gold and silver and painting. [On each of the four sides there is a great marble staircase leading to the top of the marble wall, and forming the approach to the Palace.] The Hall of the Palace is so large that it could easily dine 6000 people; and it is quite a marvel to see how many rooms there are besides. The building is altogether so vast, so rich, and so beautiful, that no man on earth could design anything superior to it. The outside of the roof also is all coloured with vermilion and yellow and green and blue and other hues, which are fixed with a varnish so fine and exquisite that they shine like crystal, and lend a resplendent lustre to the Palace as seen for a great way round. This roof is made too with such strength and solidity that it is fit to last forever.

“[On the interior side of the Palace are large buildings with halls and chambers, where the Emperor’s private property is placed, such as his treasures of gold, silver, gems, pearls, and gold plate, and in which reside the ladies and concubines. There he occupies himself at his own convenience, and no one else has access.]

Marco Polo’s Description of Kublai Khan’s Palace Grounds

In Chapter X also includes a description of Kublai's palace grounds at Cambaluc (Daidu/Beijing). According to Marco Polo's account: “Between the two walls of the enclosure which I have described, there are fine parks and beautiful trees bearing a variety of fruits. There are beasts also of sundry kinds, such as white stags and fallow deer, gazelles and roebucks, and fine squirrels of various sorts, with numbers also of the animal that gives the musk, and all manner of other beautiful creatures, insomuch that the whole place is full of them, and no spot remains void except where there is traffic of people going and coming. [The parks are covered with abundant grass; and the roads through them being all paved and raised two cubits above the surface, they never become muddy, nor does the rain lodge on them, but flows off into the meadows, quickening the soil and producing that abundance of herbage.] [Source: “Book of Ser Marco Polo: The Venetian Concerning Kingdoms and Marvels of the East,” translated and edited by Colonel Sir Henry Yule (London: John Murray, 1903)Asia for Educators, Columbia University ]

“From that corner of the enclosure which is towards the north-west there extends a fine Lake, containing foison of fish of different kinds which the Emperor hath caused to be put in there, so that whenever he desires any he can have them at his pleasure. A river enters this lake and issues from it, but there is a grating of iron or brass put up so that the fish cannot escape in that way.

Kublai Khan hunting

“Moreover on the north side of the Palace, about a bow-shot off, there is a hill which has been made by art [from the earth dug out of the lake]; it is a good hundred paces in height and a mile in compass. This hill is entirely covered with trees that never lose their leaves, but remain ever green. And I assure you that wherever a beautiful tree may exist, and the Emperor gets news of it, he sends for it and has it transported bodily with all its roots and the earth attached to them, and planted on that hill of his. No matter how big the tree may be, he gets it carried by his elephants; and in this way he has got together the most beautiful collection of trees in all the world. And he has also caused the whole hill to be covered with the ore of azure, which is very green. And thus not only are the trees all green, but the hill itself is all green likewise; and there is nothing to be seen on it that is not green; and hence it is called the Green Mount; and in good sooth ‘tis named well.

“On the top of the hill again there is a fine big palace which is all green inside and out; and thus the hill, and the trees, and the palace form together a charming spectacle; and it is marvellous to see their uniformity of colour! Everybody who sees them is delighted. And the Great Kaan had caused this beautiful prospect to be formed for the comfort and solace and delectation of his heart.

“You must know that beside the Palace (that we have been describing), i.e. the Great Palace, the Emperor has caused another to be built just like his own in every respect, and this he hath done for his son when he shall reign and be Emperor after him. Hence it is made just in the same fashion and of the same size, so that everything can be carried on in the same manner after his own death. [It stands on the other side of the lake from the Great Kaan’s Palace, and there is a bridge crossing the water from one to the other] The Prince in question holds now a Seal of Empire, but not with such complete authority as the Great Kaan, who remains Supreme as long as he lives. Now I am going to tell you of the chief city of Cathay, in which these Palaces stand; and why it was built, and how.

Marco Polo and Xanadu

Marco Polo in Mongol costume

Xanadu (Shangdu) was established in present-day Inner Mongolia about 200 miles northeast of Beijing. Kublai Khan set up a capital with a pleasure palace there before he established Daidu. Xanadu was destroyed in 1368 and would likely have been forgotten were in not for Marco Polo's accounts of the palace and Samuel Tayler Coleridge's poem Kublai Khan. [Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, May 2001, June 2001, July 2001 **]

Marco Polo estimated the length of Shangdu's pleasure palace walls to be 16 miles around (Chinese archaeologists have estimated that the true figure is 5.5 miles) and described monasteries of Buddhist "idolaters" who supplied Kublai Khan's court with sorcerers and astrologers. **

On Kublai Khan's pleasure palace at Xanadu, Marco Polo wrote: "There is at this place a very fine marble palace, the rooms of which are all gilt and painted with figures of men and beasts and birds, and with a variety of trees and flowers, all executed with such exquisite art that you regard them with delight and astonishment...Round this palace is a wall...and inside the Park there are fountains and rivers and brooks, and beautiful meadows, with all kinds of wild animals (excluding such as are of a ferocious nature), which the Emperor has procured and placed there to supply food for his gyrfalcons and hawks...The gyrfalcons alone amount to more than 200. **

"At a spot in the park where there is a charming wood he has another Palace built of cane. It is gilt all over, most elaborately finished inside and decorated with beasts and birds of very skillful workmanship. It is reared on gilt and varnished pillars, on each of which stands a dragon entwining the pillar with tail and supporting the roof on outstretched limbs. The roof is also made of canes, so varnished that it is quite waterproof." **

Marco Polo on the Pleasure Park at Xanadu

On Kublai Khan's pleasure palace at Xanadu, Marco Polo wrote: "It is enclosed all round by a great wall with five gates on its southern face, the middle one never opened on any occasion except when the Khan himself goes forth or enters. This is the greatest palace that ever was. The roof is very lofty, and the walls of the palace are all covered with gold and silver. The hall is so large that it could easily dine 6,000 people. The roof is vermilion, yellow, green and blue, the tiles fixed with a varnish so fine that they shine like crystal and can be seen from a great distance." [Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, May 2001, June 2001, July 2001]

On Kublai Khan and his pleasure palace, Marco Polo wrote: “Once a week he comes in person to inspect [falcons and animals] in the mew. Often, too, he enters the park with a leopard on the crupper of his horse; when he feels inclined, he lets it go and thus catches a hare or stag or roebuck to give to the gyrfalcons that he keeps in the mew. And this he does for recreation and sport."

“The lord abides at this Park of his, dwelling sometimes in the Marble Palace and sometimes in the Cane Palace for three months, to wit, June, July and August, preferring this residence because it is by no means hot; in fact it is a very hot place. When the 28th day of August arrives, he takes his departure, and the Cane Palace is taken to pieces...the Great Khan had it so designed that it can be moved whenever he fancies... It is held in place by more than 200 chains of silk."

The British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) wrote a weird, largely nonsensical poem about Kublai Khan and Xanadu called is Kubla Khan; or a Vision in a Dream, which he conceived after falling asleep while reading and taking opium. Coleridge later wrote, "During three hours of profound sleep, he composes 300 lines of poetry. After he woke up he wrote down the 54 lines of Kubla Khan when he was interrupted by a visitor. When he returned to his desk he could no longer remember his dream poem."

Pleasure Dome

Kubla Khan; or a Vision in a Dream begins:
In Xanadu die Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure'dome decree
Where Alph, the sacred river ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea

And ends with:
And all should cry Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise

Marco Polo as Kublai Khan's Envoy

Kublai Khan welcomed the Polos like long lost friends. He used Marco Polo as an emissary and ambassador in China and in other Asian kingdoms. This was not that unusual. Kublai Khan employed thousands of foreigners, mostly Persians and Arabs. Scholars deduce that Marco Polo could speak Persian and Mongol but not much Chinese (he often used Persian names rather than Chinese ones for the places he described) and spent much of his time with foreigners. Marco Polo didn't mention what his father and uncle did. It seems probable that they worked as merchants. [Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, May 2001, June 2001, July 2001 **]

According to the Silk Road Foundation: “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. 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. [Source: Silk Road Foundation]

In a third person account from his book, Marco Polo wrote: "Messer Marco was in the Khan's employment some seventeen years, continually going and coming, hither and thither, on the missions that were entrusted to him...And, as he knew all the sovereign's ways, like a sensible man he always took much pains to gather knowledge of anything that would be likely to interest him, and then on his return to Court he would relate everything in regular order, and thus the Emperor came to hold him in great love and favor." **

As Kublai Khan's special envoy, Marco Polo boasted he explored "more of those strange regions than any man who was ever born." Marco Polo claimed that he was the governor of Yangzhou for three years. Some scholars think he was exaggerating. Others say he could have been telling the truth because Kublai Khan was in need of administrators. **

Marco Polo’s Account of Kublai Khan’s Cruel, Corrupt Aide

“Chapter XXIII: Concerning the Oppressions of Achmath the Bailo, and the Plot That Was Formed against Him,” is an account of a corrupt aide that Kublai Khan trusted. According to Marco Polo's account: “You will hear further on how that there are twelve persons appointed who have authority to dispose of lands, offices, and everything else at their discretion. Now one of these was a certain Saracen named Achmath, a shrewd and able man, who had more power and influence with the Grand Kaan than any of the others; and the Kaan held him in such regard that he could do what he pleased. The fact was, as came out after his death, that Achmath had so wrought upon the Kaan with his sorcery, that the latter had the greatest faith and reliance on everything he said, and in this way did everything that Achmath wished him to do. [Source: “Book of Ser Marco Polo: The Venetian Concerning Kingdoms and Marvels of the East,” translated and edited by Colonel Sir Henry Yule (London: John Murray, 1903) Asia for Educators, Columbia University]

“This person disposed of all governments and offices, and passed sentence on all malefactors; and whenever he desired to have anyone whom he hated put to death, whether with justice or without it, he would go to the Emperor and say: “Such a one deserves death, for he hath done this or that against your imperial dignity.” Then the Lord would say: “Do as you think right,” and so he would have the man forthwith executed. Thus when people saw how unbounded were his powers, and how unbounded the reliance placed by the Emperor on everything that he said, they did not venture to oppose him in anything. No one was so high in rank or power as to be free from the dread of him. If anyone was accused by him to the Emperor of a capital offence, and desired to defend himself, he was unable to bring proofs in his own exculpation, for no one would stand by him, as no one dared to oppose Achmath. And thus the latter caused many to perish unjustly.

“Moreover, there was no beautiful woman whom he might desire, but he got hold of her; if she were unmarried, forcing her to be his wife, if otherwise, compelling her to consent to his desires. Whenever he knew of anyone who had a pretty daughter, certain ruffians of his would go to the father, and say: “What say you? Here is this pretty daughter of yours; give her in marriage to the Bailo Achmath (for they called him ‘the Bailo,’ or, as we should say, ‘the Vicegerent’), and we will arrange for his giving you such a government or such an office for three years.” And so the man would surrender his daughter. And Achmath would go to the Emperor, and say: “Such a government is vacant, or will be vacant on such a day. So-and-so is a proper man for the post.” And the Emperor would reply: “Do as you think best,” and the father of the girl was immediately appointed to the government. Thus either through the ambition of the parents, or through fear of the Minister, all the beautiful women were at his beck, either as wives or mistresses. Also he had some five-and-twenty sons who held offices of importance, and some of these, under the protection of their father’s name, committed scandals like his own, and many other abominable iniquities. This Achmath also had amassed great treasure, for everybody who wanted office sent him a heavy bribe.

Kublai Khan and his Empress enthroned

Marco Polo’s Account of a Rebellion Against Kublai Khan’s Corrupt Aides

“Chapter XXIII” then goes to describe a plot and rebellion against Achmath. According to Marco Polo's account: “In such authority did this man continue for two-and-twenty years. At last the people of the country, to wit the Cathayans, utterly wearied with the endless outrages and abominable iniquities which he perpetrated against them, whether as regarded their wives or their own persons, conspired to slay him and revolt against the government. Amongst the rest there was a certain Cathayan named Chenchu, a commander of a thousand, whose mother, daughter, and wife had all been dishonoured by Achmath. Now this man, full of bitter resentment, entered into parley regarding the destruction of the Minister with another Cathayan whose name was Vanchu, who was a commander of 10,000. They came to the conclusion that the time to do the business would be during the Great Kaan’s absence from Cambaluc. For after stopping there three months he used to go to Chandu and stop there three months; and at the same time his son Chinkin used to go away to his usual haunts, and this Achmath remained in charge of the city; sending to obtain the Kaan’s orders from Chandu when any emergency arose. [Source: “Book of Ser Marco Polo: The Venetian Concerning Kingdoms and Marvels of the East,” translated and edited by Colonel Sir Henry Yule (London: John Murray, 1903) Asia for Educators, Columbia University ]

“So Vanchu and Chenchu, having come to this conclusion, proceeded to communicate it to the chief people among the Cathayans, and then by common consent sent word to their friends in many other cities that they had determined on such a day, at the signal given by a beacon, to massacre all the men with beards, and that the other cities should stand ready to do the like on seeing the signal fires. The reason why they spoke of massacring the bearded men was that the Cathayans naturally have no beard, whilst beards are worn by the Tartars, Saracens, and Christians. And you should know that all the Cathayans detested the Grand Kaan’s rule because he set over them governors who were Tartars, or still more frequently Saracens, and these they could not endure, for they were treated by them just like slaves. You see the Great Kaan had not succeeded to the dominion of Cathay by hereditary right, but held it by conquest; and thus having no confidence in the natives, he put all authority into the hands of Tartars, Saracens, or Christians who were attached to his household and devoted to his service, and were foreigners in Cathay.

“Wherefore, on the day appointed, the aforesaid Vanchu and Chenchu having entered the palace at night, Vanchu sat down and caused a number of lights to be kindled before him. He then sent a messenger to Achmath the Bailo, who lived in the Old City, as if to summon him to the presence of Chinkin, the Great Kaan’s son, who (it was pretended) had arrived unexpectedly. When Achmath heard this he was much surprised, but made haste to go, for he feared the Prince greatly. When he arrived at the gate he met a Tartar called Cogatai, who was Captain of the 12,000 that formed the standing garrison of the City; and the latter asked him whither he was bound so late? “To Chinkin, who is just arrived.” Quoth Cogatai, “How can that be? How could he come so privily that I know nought of it?” So he followed the Minister with a certain number of his soldiers. Now the notion of the Cathayans was that, if they could make an end of Achmath, they would have nought else to be afraid of. So as soon as Achmath got inside the palace, and saw all that illumination, he bowed down before Vanchu, supposing him to be Chinkin, and Chenchu who was standing ready with a sword straightway cut his head off. As soon as Cogatai, who had halted at the entrance, beheld this, he shouted “Treason!” and instantly discharged an arrow at Vanchu and shot him dead as he sat. At the same time he called his people to seize Chenchu, and sent a proclamation through the city that anyone found in the streets would be instantly put to death. The Cathayans saw that the Tartars had discovered the plot, and that they had no longer any leader, since Vanchu was killed and Chenchu was taken. So they kept still in their houses, and were unable to pass the signal for the rising of the other cities as had been settled.

Kublai Khan’s Reaction to the Rebellion Against His Corrupt Aides

Chapter XXIII finally describes Kublai Khan reaction to the rebellion and the corrupt ways of his aide. According to Marco Polo's account: “ Cogatai immediately dispatched messengers to the Great Kaan giving an orderly report of the whole affair, and the Kaan sent back orders for him to make a careful investigation, and to punish the guilty as their misdeeds deserved. In the morning Cogatai examined all the Cathayans, and put to death a number whom he found to be ringleaders in the plot. The same thing was done in the other cities, when it was found that the plot extended to them also. [Source: “Book of Ser Marco Polo: The Venetian Concerning Kingdoms and Marvels of the East,” translated and edited by Colonel Sir Henry Yule (London: John Murray, 1903) Asia for Educators, Columbia University ]

“After the Great Kaan had returned to Cambaluc he was very anxious to discover what had led to this affair, and he then learned all about the endless iniquities of that accursed Achmath and his sons. It was proved that he and seven of his sons (for they were not all bad) had forced no end of women to be their wives, besides those whom they had ravished. The Great Kaan then ordered all the treasure that Achmath had accumulated in the Old City to be transferred to his own treasury in the New City, and it was found to be of enormous amount.

“He also ordered the body of Achmath to be dug up and cast into the streets for the dogs to tear; and commanded those of his sons that had followed the father’s evil example to be flayed These circumstances called the Kaan’s attention to the accursed doctrines of the Sect of the Saracens, which excuse every crime, yea even murder itself, when committed on such as are not of their religion. And seeing that this doctrine had led the accursed Achmath and his sons to act as they did without any sense of guilt, the Kaan was led to entertain the greatest disgust and abomination for it. So he summoned the Saracens and prohibited their doing many things which their religion enjoined. Thus, he ordered them to regulate their marriages by the Tartar Law, and prohibited their cutting the throats of animals killed for food, ordering them to rip the stomach in the Tartar way. Now when all this happened Messer Marco was upon the spot.”

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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