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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. According to the Silk Road Foundation: Marco Polo “ is probably the most famous Westerner traveled on the Silk Road. He excelled all the other travelers in his determination, his writing, and his influence. His journey through Asia lasted 24 years. He reached further than any of his predecessors... He became a confidant of Kublai Khan (1214-1294). He traveled the whole of China and returned to tell the tale, which became the greatest travelogue.” [Source: Silk Road Foundation ]

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). **

Marco Polo's book

Good Websites and Sources on the Silk Road: Silk Road Seattle ; Silk Road Foundation; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Silk Road Atlas ; Old World Trade Routes; Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project ; International Dunhuang Project ; 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 Books: on the Silk Road "The Silk Road" (Odyssey Guides); "Marco Polo: A Photographer's Journey" by Mike Yamashita (White Star, 2002); “Life along the Silk Road” by Whitfield, Susan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999); “The Silk Route: Trade, Travel, War and Faith” by Susan Whitfield, with Ursula Sims-Williams, eds. (London: British Library, 2004); “The Camel and the Wheel” by Richard Bulliet (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975). “Marco Polo's Asia,” by Leonardo Olschki (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960). "When China Ruled the Seas" by Louise Levathes. Books on 18th and 19th Century European Explorers of Western China: "The Question of Hu" by Jonathan Spence and "Foreign Devils on the Silk Road" by Peter Hopkirk. 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.

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. [Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, May 2001, June 2001, July 2001 **]

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. **

Columbus's notes in Marco Polo's book

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. [Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, May 2001, June 2001, July 2001]

Richard Kurin, a cultural anthropologist at the Smithsonian institution, wrote: “Setting out with his uncles in 1271, Polo traveled across Asia by land and sea over a period of 24 years. The tales of his travels, narrated while a prisoner in a Genoa jail cell, spurred broad European interest in the Silk Road region. He told of the Mongols, who under Genghis and then Kublai Khan had taken over China and expanded their dominion across Asia into Central Asia, India, Iran, and Asia Minor. Polo related fantastic tales of the lands he had visited, the great sites he had seen, and the vast treasures of Asia. [Source: Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian institution ]

According to the Silk Road Foundation: “Although the Polo brothers blazed a trail of their own on their first journey to the East, they were not the first Europeans to visit the Mongols on their home ground. Before them Giovanni di Piano Carpini in 1245 and Guillaume de Rubrouck in 1253 had made the dangerously journey to Karakorum and returned safely; however the Polos traveled farther than Carpini and Rubrouck and reached China.” [Source: Silk Road Foundation]

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. How Marco Polo became a children's swimming pool game no one knows for sure.

Marco Polo's Exaggerations, Omissions and Lies

Marco Polo often reported hearsay and had a tendency to stretch the truth. He wrote of men with dog features and enormous “p'eng” birds, or gryphons, from Madagascar, for example, that were large enough to consume elephants. 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. [Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, May 2001, June 2001, July 2001]

Morris Rossabi, a professor at Columbia University, wrote: Marco Polo “claims that he, his father, and his uncle provided the Mongols with the military equipment for their successful siege of Xiangyang — an impossibility since the siege ended two years before Marco reached China. He also asserts that he was governor of the city of Yangzhou, which is not attested by contemporary sources. However, the remarkable detail and accuracy of his account far outweigh exaggerations meant to boost his ego and to portray him as a more important figure in Yuan history than he truly was. The fact that he is not mentioned in Chinese sources is not unusual. Many foreigners who played a role in the Yuan and Mongol eras are not cited in the primary sources. [Source: “Did Marco Polo Really Go To China?", an essay in response to the book “Did Marco Polo Go To China?” by Frances Wood, by Morris Rossabi, Professor at Columbia University]

In Venice Marco Polo was known today as "Il Milone." Some say this is a reference to his wealth. Other say it refers to his “million” lies and exaggerations." Even in his time there were those that wanted him to confess that everything he reported was hoax. Instead, according to legend, on his deathbed in 1323, Marco Polo declared, "I haven't told half of what I saw." [Source: Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, September 19, 2014]

Was Marco Polo's Whole Trip a Big Lie?

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 were after the Mongols were ousted from China). Plus there is the issue of what Chinese historiographers chose to cover. Even Giovanni de Marignolli (1290-1357), an important papal envoy at the Yuan court, is not mentioned in any Chinese sources — nor is his 32-man retinue or the name of the pope. Only the “heavenly horse” sent as tribute from the “Kingdom of Franks” in 1342 is mentioned.

In a critique of the book “Did Marco Polo Go To China?” by Frances Wood, Morris Rossabi, a professor at Columbia University, wrote: “Omission in a travel account cannot disprove the veracity of a journey. Polo's omissions have scant bearing on whether he traveled to the Middle Kingdom (as China has always called itself). If we hold all travel accounts to the same standard of having to describe all of the major characteristics and institutions of the societies the voyagers have visited, we would need to question the veracity of the travels of the seventh century Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang (who fails to mention important facet of Indian society) or the fourteenth century Arab jurist Ibn Battuta (who fails to mention important features of Persian and Indian civilizations). Concerning Polo's omissions of tea-drinking, chopsticks, and the Chinese characters, Dr. Wood knows that tea was not the beverage of choice, chopsticks not the implement of choice, and Chinese not the language of choice among the Mongols with whom he personally dealt. He had scant contact with the Chinese; he was employed by the Mongol rulers of the Yuan dynasty. His omission of the Great Wall is also understandable. Most of the current Great Wall was constructed in the sixteenth century, two hundred years after Polo's death. [Source: “Did Marco Polo Really Go To China?", an essay in response to the book “Did Marco Polo Go To China?” by Frances Wood, by Morris Rossabi, Professor at Columbia University /*]

Dr. Wood “writes that she "cannot understand why the Great Khan, Kublai, conqueror of China, would employ and adolescent [actually Marco was not an adolescent, he was at least 21 years old before he met Kublai] Italian (who he couldn't understand) to inform him about his vast new domains." In fact, throughout his career Kublai sought competent young men (whose native languages he could not understand) to help him rule or to perform specific missions for him. The Tibetan monk 'Phags-pa (whom Kublai entrusted to rule Tibet and to develop a new written language) was 19 (and spoke Tibetan) when he met Kublai and was 25 when Kublai honored him with the title of "State Preceptor." Chao Pi, one of the Great Khan's most influential advisers, was in his early 20s (and spoke Chinese) when Kublai recruited him in the early 1240s. Liu Ping-chung, another of his most important advisers, was 26 (and spoke Chinese) when Kublai recruited him in 1242. The infamous Central Asian minister Ahmad was probably in his 20s (and probably spoke Persian) when Kublai appointed him to the Central Secretariat. The great Chinese painter Chao Meng-fu was only 32 and relatively unknown when he entered into Kublai's employ. /*\

“Dr. Wood also asserts that Marco's descriptions have a "guide-book nature" and "suggests" that they are "copied, not personal records." In fact, his descriptions of the postal system, Beijing, Hangzhou, Ahmad's career and death, Kublai's personality, Shangdu, feasts, and banquets reveal tremendous first-hand knowledge of the Mongol court and its policies and tally with Chinese and Persian primary sources. /*\

In his critique of Woods book, the Marco Polo scholar and expert Igor de Rachewiltz wrote: “I regret to say that F.W's [Frances Wood] book falls short of the standard of scholarship that one would expect in a work of this kind. Her book can only be described as deceptive, both in relation to the author and to the public at large. Questions are posted that, in the majority of cases, have already been answered satisfactorily...her attempt is unprofessional; she is poorly equipped in the basic tools of the trade, i.e., adequate linguistic competence and research methodology...and her major arguments cannot withstand close scrutiny. Her conclusion fails to consider all the evidence supporting Marco Polo's credibility.” [Source: Igor de Rachewiltz, "Marco Polo Went to China," [Zentralasiatische Studien 27 (1997), pp. 34-92].

Marco Polo's Credibility

Mike Edwards, the author the three-part National Geographic series about Marco Polo, wrote in 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. [Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, May 2001, June 2001, July 2001 **]

Marco Polo's birthplace

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. **

According to the Silk Road Foundation: “According to one authority, the Polo family were great nobles originating on the coast of Dalmatia. Niccolo and Maffeo had established a trading outpost on the island of Curzola, off the coast of Dalmatia; it is not certain whether Marco Polo was born there or in Venice in 1254. The place Marco Polo grew up, Venice, was the center for commerce in the Mediterranean. Marco had the usual education of a young gentleman of his time. He had learned much of the classical authors, understood the texts of the Bible, and knew the basic theology of the Latin Church. He had a sound knowledge of commercial French as well as Italian. From his later history we can be sure of his interest in natural resources, in the ways of people, as well as strange and interesting plants and animals. [Source: Silk Road Foundation ]

“Marco Polo was only 6 years old when his father and uncle set out eastward on their first trip to Cathay (China). He was by then 15 years old when his father and his uncle returned to Venice and his mother had already passed away. He remained in Venice with his father and uncle for two more years and then three of them embarked the most couragous journey to Cathay the second time.”

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. 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.[Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, May 2001, June 2001, July 2001]

According to the Silk Road Foundation: “ In 1260 two Venetian merchants arrived at Sudak, the Crimean port. The brothers Maffeo and Niccilo Polo went on to Surai, on the Volga river, where they traded for a year. Shortly after a civil war broke out between Barka and his cousin Hulagu, which made it impossible for the Polos to return with the same route as they came. They therefore decide to make a wide detour to the east to avoid the war and found themselves stranded for 3 years at Bukhara. [Source: Silk Road Foundation ]

“The marooned Polo brothers were abruptly rescued in Bukhara by the arrival of a VIP emissary from Hulagu Khan in the West. The Mongol ambassador persuaded the brothers that Great Khan would be delighted to meet them for he had never seen any Latin and very much wanted to meet one. So they journeyed eastward. They left Bukhara, Samarkand, Kashgar, then came the murderous obstacle of the Gobi desert. Through the northern route they reached Turfan and Hami, then headed south-east to Dunhuang. Along the Hexi Corridor, they finally reached the new capital of the Great Khan, Bejing in 1266.”

Polo brothers and Kublai Khan

Marco Polo's Father and Uncle and 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. [Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, May 2001, June 2001, July 2001 **]

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. According to the Silk Road Foundation: “The Great Khan, Mangu's brother, Kublai, was indeed hospitable. He had set up his court at Beijing, which was not a Mongol encampment but an impressive city built by Kublai as his new capital after the Mongols took over China in 1264 and established Yuan dynasty (1264-1368). Kublai asked them all about their part of the world, the Pope and the Roman church. Niccolo and Matteo, who spoke Turkic dialects perfectly, answered truthfully and clearly. The Polo brothers were well received in the Great Khan's capital. One year later, the Great Khan sent them on their way with a letter in Turki addressed to Pope Clement IV asking the Pope to send him 100 learned men to teach his people about Christianity and Western science. He also asked Pope to procure oil from the lamp at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. [Source: Silk Road Foundation ]

“To make sure the brothers would be given every assistance on their travels, Kublai Khan presented them with a golden tablet (or paiza in Chinese, gerege in Mongolian) a foot long and three inches wide and inscribed with the words: "By the strength of the eternal Heaven, holy be the Khan's name. Let him that pays him not reverence be killed." The golden tablet was the special VIP passport, authorizing the travelers to receive throughout the Great Khan's dominions such horses, lodging, food and guides as they required. It took the Polos three full years to return home, in April 1269.” When the Polo brothers returned home no one believed their stories. Pope Gregory denied the Great Khan's request and sent only two Dominican friars.

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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