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 **]

On their journey home The Polos left China from Zaiton (Quangzhou) in 1291, maybe 1292, to escort the Mongol princess with a fleet of 14 ocean-going ships that contained 600 people, plus sailors (Marco Polo's estimate), and was loaded with two years of supplies. The ships were 100 feet long. Each had four masts, oars that required four men to pull and a dozen or so sails, probably made of bamboo slats that rattled in the wind. [Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, May 2001, June 2001, July 2001]

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

Kublai Khan gave the Polos a palm-size gold “paitzu”, which required officials in the Mongol to provide them with anything they needed on the journey. Chinese documents found in 1940 offer evidence of the trip. Although they don't mention Marco Polo they mention the same people that Marco Polo mentioned in his account. **

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

Marco Polo Journey Home

The Polos sailed south past Vietnam and Malaysia to Sumatra and then across the Bay of Bengal to India, they hugged the Indian coast, stopping several times and then crossed to the Arabian Sea to the Persian Gulf. From Hormuz they traveled overland across Iran to the Black Sea and sailed from there to Venice. The entire journey took about four years. The journey from China to Persia was the most dangerous of their journey. Only 18 people of the original 600 survived. After arriving in Persia they took off overland for Europe. During their trip across Iran they were robbed of some of their gold and jewels. [Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, May 2001, June 2001, July 2001]

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

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.”

Marco Polo in Southeast Asia

From eastern China the 14 ships sailed south towards the equator, pushed by the northeast monsoon. During the trip Marco Polo became quite friendly with the Mongol princess. Her name was Kokejin, meaning "Blue Sky." Her husband to be was Argun, the Mongol ruler of Persia and great-nephew of Kublai Khan. [Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, May 2001, June 2001, July 2001]

Marco Polo may have also spent a lot of time with sailors, who may have told him about Cipangu (Japan), and other places wrote about but did not visit. Not every place Marco Polo described outside of China in eastern Asia was relayed to him second hand. While serving as Kublai Khan’s envoy, Marco Polo visited Pagan in Burma. See Myanmar. **

Marco Polo wrote it took "quite three months" to reach Sumatra. Once there "the weather...did not let us go our way." The Polos remained there for five months, building a "castle of beams and of logs" on “the beach," and enjoying the local food. He wrote Sumatra has "the best fish in the world...They have a very great quantity of Indie nuts very large and good." He also said there was "very good wine." Indie nuts were probably coconuts. **

The places where Marco Polo stayed received about eight feet of rain a year and is full of malaria mosquitos. Many members of his entourage were gone after the Sumatra stop. Marco Polo didn't explain what happened to them. Perhaps they perished from some sort f epidemic or possible in a large storm. Living beyond where they stayed in Sumatra, Marco Polo wrote were people who were "such as beasts...For I tell you quite truly that they eat flesh of men." He may have been referring to the Bataks. **

Marco Polo reported seeing many merchants from southern China plying a thriving trade: “Now when you quit Fuju and cross the River, you travel for five days south-east through a fine country, meeting with a constant succession of flourishing cities, towns, and villages, rich in every product.... When you have accomplished those five days' journey you arrive at the very great and noble city of Zayton [or Zaitun, now Quanzhou], which is also subject to Fuju. At this city you must know is the Haven of Zayton, frequented by all the ships of India, which bring thither spicery and all other kinds of costly wares. It is the port also that is frequented by all the merchants of Manzi [southern China], for hither is imported the most astonishing quantity of goods and of precious stones and pearls, and from this they are distributed all over Manzi. And I assure you that for one shipload of pepper that goes to Alexandria or elsewhere, destined for Christendom, there come a hundred such, aye and more too, to this haven of Zayton; for it is one of the two greatest havens in the world for commerce.”

Travels of Marco Polo

Marco Polo in Indonesia

On his journey home from China to Italy in 1291, Marco Polo was forced to spend five months on “Java the Less”—Sumatra—waiting for the monsoon winds to change direction so he could sail to Ceylon and India. Marco Polo reported described accurately that cannibals lived in Sumatra but then went on to describe strange beasts, including enormous unicorns, in size “not all by any means less than an elephant.” On Sumatra, Polo said: “I tell you quite truly that there are men who have tails more than a palm in size. [Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, May 2001, June 2001, July 2001]

Paul Lunde wrote in Saudi Aramco World, “His account of the major ports, products and trade routes is remarkably accurate, despite some understandable geographical confusion and unreliable estimates of distances. Above all, he conveys a sense of wonder and enthusiasm for this world in which “everything is different”—a phrase he repeats frequently. He is alive to human, linguistic and zoological diversity, and this explains the great charm of his book. [Source: Paul Lunde, Saudi Aramco World, July-August 2005 ]

“The number of islands in the Indian Ocean, Marco Polo wrote, is 12,700, “as shown by the maps and writings of the practiced seamen who ply in these waters.” He added the disclaimer: “There is no man in all the world who could tell the truth about all the islands of the Indies.” He is also perhaps the first European writer since classical times to mention the monsoon: “I must tell you that it takes a full year to complete the voyage, setting out in winter and returning in summer. For only two winds blow in these seas, one that wafts them out and one that brings them back; and the former blows in winter, the latter in summer.”

Marco Polo’s Journey to Indonesia

Paul Lunde wrote in Saudi Aramco World, “His voyage began with a sailing from Zaitun (Quanzhou) to the kingdom of Champa in South Vietnam, a distance he estimates at 2400 kilometers (1500 mi). Champa was a main source of aloeswood, ‘ud in Arabic, much sought after throughout Islamic lands to this day as an aromatic, and ebony, used for making chessmen and pencases. [Source: Paul Lunde, Saudi Aramco World, July-August 2005 ]

“Marco Polo sailed from South Vietnam to the Malay Peninsula, where “gold is so plentiful that no one who did not see it could believe it. There are elephants and wild game in profusion.” There was also brazilwood, which produced a red dye for the textile industry and which Marco tried, unsuccessfully, to transplant to Venice. He then sailed through the Strait of Malacca, which he is the first to describe, to Sumatra, which he calls “Java the Lesser.” This was, he wrote, divided into eight kingdoms, each with its own language. One of the kingdoms was “Ferlec”—probably Periak in northern Sumatra. There, he says, the people used to be Hindus, but have converted to Islam through contact with Muslim merchants. He adds that this was true only of the inhabitants of the city, the mountain people being cannibals. The process of Islamization—at the hands of traders from India and mainland Southeast Asia, rather than from Arabia—was just beginning: This is the earliest reference to a Muslim sultanate in the Indonesian archipelago. He spent five months in Samudra waiting for the northeast monsoon so he could continue his voyage west to Sri Lanka.”

According to Marco Polo: “ When you sail from Chamba [Champa, Vietnam], 1500 miles in a course between south and south-east, you come to a great Island called Java. And the experienced mariners of those Islands who know the matter well, say that it is the greatest Island in the world, and has a compass of more than 3000 miles.... The Island is of surpassing wealth, producing black pepper, nutmegs, spikenard, galingale, cubebs, cloves, and all other kinds of spices. This Island is also frequented by a vast amount of shipping, and by merchants who buy and sell costly goods from which they reap great profit. Indeed the treasure of this Island is so great as to be past telling.... The merchants of Zayton and Manzi draw annually great returns from this country. [Source: Marco Polo and Rustichello of Pisa, “Book Second, Part III, Chapter LXXXII: Of the City and Great Haven of Zayton” and “Book Third, Part I, Chapter VI: Concerning the Great Island of Java,” in The Book of Ser Marco Polo: The Venetian Concerning Kingdoms and Marvels of the East, translated and edited by Colonel Sir Henry Yule, Volume 2 (London: John Murray, 1903). This book is in the public domain and can be read online at Project Gutenberg. The excerpted text is from pages 220-221 and 252 of this online text]

Song-era junk

Marco Polo’s Observations on Indonesia

Although Marco Polo did not visit Java, he mentions it is “the biggest island in the world,…a very rich island, producing pepper, nutmegs, spikenard, galingale, cubebs and cloves and all the precious spices…. It is visited by great numbers of ships and merchants who buy a great range of merchandise, reaping handsome profits and rich returns…. It is from this island that the merchants of Zaitun and Manzi [southern China] in general have derived and continue to derive a great part of their wealth, and this is the source of most of the spice that comes into the world’s markets.”[Source: Paul Lunde, Saudi Aramco World, July-August 2005]

“Sumatran city-dwellers, Marco Polo wrote, used to be Hindus, but had converted to Islam through contact with Muslim merchants from India and mainland Southeast Asia.Java did not, of course, produce all the spices he lists: the cloves and nutmegs came from the Moluccas; the pepper may have been imported from Malabar. But all were available in its markets.

“Marco Polo says Kublai Khan had never been able to conquer Java. In fact, he attacked the year after Marco’s visit, following attempts against Burma, Champa and Annam. The Yuan sought to impose their power at sea as well as on land, but they were dogged by failure, beginning with the destruction of the great fleet sent against Japan in 1274. Their persistent and costly attempts at naval domination nevertheless show their determination to control not only the overland routes to China, but the maritime ones as well—an ambition encouraged by Muslim traders in the Yuan empire, who would have welcomed the elimination of non-Muslim competition in Japan and South and Southeast Asia.”

Marco Polo in Sir Lanka and Southern India


It took Marco Polo 18 month to go from Sumatra to India. It is believed that he initially missed the monsoon's going his direction. He also may have been slowed by worries about pirates which he said inflict "great loses to the merchant." Sumatra to India. He referred to Sir Lanka as the "Isle of Seilan" and reported that pilgrims there visited the grave of Adam (probably a reference to Adams Peak). [Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, May 2001, June 2001, July 2001 **]

In India, Marco Polo stopped in Thanjavur (formally Tanjore) and Kollam in Kerala. It is believed that Marco Polo spent some time wandering around and checking out India by land. Of India, Marco Polo wrote the people have "all things different from ours, and they are more beautiful and better." He said their peacocks were "much more beautiful and larger" and rice and "all things which are needed by the body of man for life they have in great abundance." **

Marco Polo also described pearls, holymen, exotic spices, the abundance of indigo, bride burning, refusal to eat meat and the custom of smearing homes with cow dung. He also wrote how "Most worship the ox" and described "physicians who now well how to keep men’s bodies in health" and used spices as cures. **

Marco Polo Return to Iran and Turkey

It is not known how many vessels embarked from India for the Persian Gulf. Many may have turned back out of fear of pirate ships, which Marco Polo said numbered more than 100 in some places and spaced themselves a few miles apart waiting for victims. Most maritime travelers in the area traveled across the Arabian Sea as part of a convoy for safety. [Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, May 2001, June 2001, July 2001 **]

In 1293 or early 1294, the Polos reached Hormuz. The Mongol princess survived the journey although most of here attendants had died. In Hormuz they learned that the Mongol leader to whom she was to marry had also died. The princess was given to the leader’s son and died within three years at the age of 22. She reportedly became so enamored with the Venetians that she wept long and hard when they parted. **

Rather than returning to China the Polos began making their way back home. From Hormuz, they traveled northwest across Iran to the Black Sea, escorted by a Mongol cavalry, and traveled without incident until they reached the Trabzon, a Black Sea kingdom not under Mongol control. There they were robbed by the Trabzon leader of a considerable sum of money, enough to buy a thousand pounds of raw silk. Marco Polo didn’t mention the loss. It was mentioned in Uncle maffeo's will. From Trabzon, the Polos traveled by sea to Venice. **

Marco Polo Returns to Venice

The Polos returned to Venice in 1295 after 24 years of travel and living in China. 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. [Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, May 2001, June 2001, July 2001 **]

When the Polos arrived, Venice was engaged in a naval conflict the rival city of Genoa. Three years after Marco returned to Venice, he commanded a galley in the war against Genoa. He was captured during the flighting and spent a year in a Genoese prison. The details of his war record, his capture and prison life are not known. He was released in 1299. **

In the summer of 1299 a peace was concluded between Venice and Genoa, and after a year of captivity, Marco Polo was released from the prison and returned to Venice. After his release he moved into a mansion in the Rialto business district of Venice. He was about 45 at this time. He married Donata Badoer and had three daughters. He remained in Venice until his death in 1324, aged 70. His house in Venice was destroyed by fire in 1596.

According to the Silk Road Foundation: “In Marco's will, he left his wife and three daughters substantial amount of money, though not an enormous fortune as Marco boasted. He also mentioned his servant, Peter, who came from the Mongols, was to set free. We also learned that 30 years after his return home, Marco still owned a quantity of cloths, valuable pieces, coverings, brocades of silk and gold, exactly like those mentioned several times in his book, together with other precious objects. Among them there was "golden tablet of command" that had been given him by the Great Khan on his departure from the Mongol capital.” [Source: Silk Road Foundation ]

In Venice Marco Polo is known today as “Il Milione” (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." **

Marco Polo’s Book

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. **

According to the Silk Road Foundation: In the Genoese prison “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 and the impact of his book on the contemporary Europe was tremendous. [Source: Silk Road Foundation ]

“Many people took his accounts with a grain of salt and some skeptics question the authenticity of his account. Many of his stories have been considered as fairytales: the strange oil in Baku and the monstrous birds which dropped elephants from a height and devoured their broken carcasses. His Travels made no mention about the Great Wall. While traveled extensively in China, 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 occurred in the Annals of the Empire (Yuan Shih), which recorded the names of foreign visitors far less important and illustrious than the three Venetians.”

Venice 400 years after Marco Polo

Marco Polo’s Legacy

According to the Silk Road Foundation: “Fiction or not, his Travels has captured readers through the centuries. Manuscript editions of his work ran into the hundreds within a century after his death. 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. [Source: Silk Road Foundation ]

“We see that Marco Polo was in every way a man of his time. He was quite capable of comprehending cultures completely alien in spirit 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, and it paved the way for t he arrivals of thousands of Westerners in the centuries to come.

“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. Marco Polo is receiving deeper respect than before because these marvelous characters and countries he described did actually exist. 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."

Did Marco Polo "Discover" America?

In 2014, maps found on 14 medieval parchments, were purported to be copies of maps made by Marco Polo himself and appeared to indicate that he knew of America. Ariel Sabar wrote in Smithsonian Magazine, “If genuine, the maps would show that Polo recorded the shape of the Alaskan coast—and the strait separating it from Asia—four centuries before Vitus Bering, the Danish explorer long considered the first European to do so. Perhaps more important, they suggest Polo was aware of the New World two centuries before Columbus." “It would mean that an Italian got knowledge of the west coast of North America or he heard about it from Arabs or Chinese," Benjamin B. Olshin, a historian of cartography whose book, “The Mysteries of the Marco Polo Maps," was published in November 2014 by the University of Chicago Press, rold Smithsonian magazine. “There's nothing else that matches that, if that's true." [Source: Ariel Sabar, Smithsonian Magazine, October 2014 /*/]

“But as Olshin is first to admit, the authenticity of the ten maps and four texts is hardly settled. The ink remains untested, and a radiocarbon study of the parchment of one key map—the only one subjected to such analysis—dates the sheepskin vellum to the 15th or 16th century, a sign the map is at best a copy. Another quandary is that Polo himself wrote nothing of personal maps or of lands beyond Asia, though he did once boast: “I did not tell half of what I saw." /*/

“The parchments came to America in the steamer trunks of an enigmatic Italian immigrant named Marcian Rossi. Rossi landed in the United States as a teenager in 1887 and later told a historian that the documents were passed down through patrician ancestors from an admiral to whom Polo had entrusted them. The mustachioed, bow-tie-fancying Rossi was a father of six who worked as a tailor in San Jose, California. He was also a charming, cigar-puffing raconteur, who despite little schooling wrote a sci-fi thriller, A Trip to Mars. /*/

“Might Rossi have conjured a Polo fantasy, too? “He certainly was enough of a character," says his great-grandson, Jeffrey Pendergraft, a Houston energy executive who is custodian of the family papers. But neither Pendergraft nor cartographic experts suspect Rossi of forging the maps. “The incredible amount of knowledge in them about a whole variety of subjects—I would be very skeptical that my great-grandfather possessed," Pendergraft says. When Rossi donated the palimpsest “Map with Ship” to the Library of Congress in the 1930s, even the FBI was stumped. The agency's analysis, requested by the library and signed by J. Edgar Hoover, was mum on the question of authenticity. /*/

“One reason the parchments have languished since then is their idiosyncrasy. They tell of people and places absent not just from Polo's narrative but from known history. And they're an awkward fit for the era's known map styles—Portolan sailing charts, the grids and projections of Ptolemy, and the medieval schematics known as mappae mundi. The parchments bear inscriptions, some cryptic, in Italian, Latin, Arabic and Chinese. Olshin, a professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, who spent more than 13 years researching and writing his new book, is the first scholar to fully decode and translate the maps and to trace Rossi's ancestry, with some success, back to Polo's Venice. One of Olshin's most tantalizing finds are allusions to “Fusang," an obscure fifth-century Chinese name for a “land across the ocean” that some scholars now contend was America." /*/

“History says little about Polo's three daughters. (He had no sons.) But Fantina, Bellela and Moreta have star turns here, signing their names to some of the parchments and claiming to have drawn them from their father's “letters," apparently after his death. Bellela writes of hitherto untold encounters with a Syrian navigator, a band of lance-toting women in ermine pelts and people on a peninsula “twice as far from China” who wear sealskin, live on fish and make their houses “under the earth."His daughters may have plunged back into their father's notes in hopes of securing his reputation, surmises Stanley Chojnacki, a University of North Carolina expert on gender relations in 14th-century Venice, and “to claim by reason of defending him a certain measure of respectability and status and importance themselves." /*/

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 August 2021

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