“Great Princes, descriptions of Asia widened Europeans’ Emperors, and Kings, Dukes and Marquises, Counts, Knights, and Burgesses, and People of all degrees who desire to get knowledge of the various races of mankind and of the diversities of the sundry regions of the World, take this book and cause it to be read to you.”
From the opening line of the prologue, Marco Polo had lofty ambitions for the readership of his great work. Yes, those words reflected a certain pomp and intentionally inflated grandeur, but he did have cause to aim high.
His book charted the journey he made as a merchant from Venice to China and back again – spanning 24 years and tens of thousands of miles – plus his time in the employ of the leader of the Mongols, and described places, cultures, customs and peoples that, to Europeans, were new and so exotic that they seemed beyond belief.
He was not the first European to travel to such far-off lands. He was not even the first in his family. Yet he ensured that his would be the name heard far and wide, and consequently remembered throughout history, by writing his experiences, memories and tales down.
The opportunity of getting it all on paper came about purely by chance. Marco Polo had returned from his travels in his forties, in the last years of the 13th century, to find the city state of Venice at war with Genoa. The Genoese captured him, but he was in luck – sharing his prison cell was noted writer of romances Rustichello da Pisa, who became enthralled by the stories Marco told to pass the time.
Together, with the traveller dictating his adventures and the writer adding the embellished style of prose he used for the legends of King Arthur, the men wrote Le Divisement du Monde, or The Description of the World.
More commonly known as The Travels of Marco Polo, the book caused a sensation when published and was reproduced in numerous languages across the continent. Undoubtedly, it would have been read by some of the princes, kings, dukes and knights addressed in the prologue. His vivid descriptions of Asia widened Europeans’ horizons and challenged their views of distant, so-called uncivilised peoples. In fact, so fantastical were the revelations that many thought the whole thing to be a work of fiction.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the book and the man have been a subject of debate and scrutiny ever since, not helped by a wealth of missing information about his life.
Who was Marco Polo?
It is generally held that he was born in 1254 in Venice, although the facts are disputed. The young Marco likely received an education designed to prepare him for life as a merchant: learning to read and write, mathematics and bookkeeping.
Thirteenth-century Venice was the commercial centre of Europe, a gateway to the Middle East and Asia, and the men holding the keys were the merchants. The Crusades had thrust eastwards, while the colossal Mongol empire had stormed west, bringing two worlds in contact for the first time, but only the bravest explorers, missionaries and traders dared to traverse between them. Among them was the Polo family.
This meant years – decades, even – away from home. Marco’s father Niccolo and uncle Maffeo had left before he had been born, on a voyage that would last until he was a teenager. The brothers’ success as jewel merchants saw them invited to China to meet the Mongol ruler, Kublai Khan, who requested they go back to Europe and return with learned men able to teach him about Christianity.
When they finally reached Venice in 1269, Niccolo discovered that his wife had died and that the son he had never met, perhaps never knew about, had been raised by an aunt and uncle.
The unsung Polos that came before Marco
If not for his father Niccolo and uncle Maffeo, Marco Polo would not have made his epic voyage to China at all, and so would not have written the book that forevermore changed the European view of the world. The two brothers were successful merchants, making their fortune in jewels, silks and spices before Marco had been born.
They began in Constantinople (now Istanbul), but showed astute political awareness by removing their business from the city just a year before the Crusader leaders there were overthrown in 1261. They continued east to the court of Berke Khan – the ruler of the Golden Horde, the Mongol’s western territories – and then to China. They may have been the first Europeans honoured as guests at the court of Kublai Khan.
Although the Mongols were regarded as barbaric and uncivilised in Europe, the empire was relatively peaceful at this time and Kublai Khan showed a high degree of tolerance towards other races and religions. He asked the Polo brothers to deliver a message to the Pope and return with 100 Christian priests (or scholars able to explain Christianity to him) and oil from the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
That was the reason for their second expedition, during which Niccolo’s teenage son Marco accompanied them, although they failed to bring the 100 priests. There are no other clues in The Travels of Marco Polo to explain how Niccolo and Maffeo spent the years in China.
Marco must have been eager to join his father and uncle on their travels, but that had to wait. Niccolo and Maffeo wished to see the conclusion of the ongoing papal election so they could deliver a letter from Kublai Khan to the new pope.
Two years passed without a result, so, in 1271, they decided to embark on their second journey, taking Marco with them. By strange coincidence, they still managed to deliver their letter. In Acre they met Teobaldo Visconti, the Archdeacon of Lèige, who was on Crusade with the future Edward I of England. A few days later, Visconti was named as the new Pope, becoming Gregory X.
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The journey was certainly treacherous, so the Polos kept their valuable jewels safe by sewing them inside their coats. They had to stop at Jerusalem to fulfil another request from Kublai Khan –a sample of the oil burning in the lamp at the Holy Sepulchre – which meant trekking across parched deserts. Then when their hopes of finding a seaworthy vessel to sail to India were dashed, they had to travel in caravans across the unforgiving and time-consuming land route.
“This desert is reported to be so long that it would take a year to go from end to end,” said Marco of the Gobi Desert. “It consists entirely of mountains and sands and valleys. There is nothing at all to eat.” They slowly made their way to and through Mongol land using the route of the Silk Road, and were forced to stop in Afghanistan when Marco fell ill, possibly from malaria.
At the court of Kublai Khan
It took them more than three years to reach the court of Kublai Khan at his summer palace of Shangdu (or Xanadu). Its luxuriousness and size made an indelible impression on Marco: “Kublai Khan had a vast palace built of marble and other ornamental stones. Its halls and rooms are covered with gilded images of birds and animals, trees and flowers and many other things, so skilfully and ingeniously worked that it is a delight and wonder to see.”
As for Kublai Khan himself, Marco would describe him as “well proportioned, neither small, nor large but of medium height”.
The grandson of Genghis Khan, he had succeeded in 1260 and conquered the whole of China, after which he formed the Yuan dynasty. Marco, now in his twenties, was entranced by the ruler. “His frame is beautifully fleshed out, and all his limbs are admirably formed. His face is white and red like a rose, the eyes are black and beautiful, the nose shapely and well set.”
The young Marco impressed Kublai Khan too, and he was soon in the employ of the state. It was common practice for Mongol rulers to appoint foreigners, preferring to rely on their outsider insight and knowledge rather than on the shaky loyalty of their Chinese subjects. For his skills at picking up languages quickly – supposedly, he mastered four – and as a raconteur, Marco was soon given work as an emissary and possibly a tax collector.
For years, he travelled across Kublai Khan’s domain, from all over China to Myanmar and India, gathering information that he would relate back to the court, while also observing peoples and societies that no European had seen before.
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At all times Marco carried a ‘paiza’, a tablet used by officials as a form of passport in the Mongol Empire to ensure they would not be harmed and would always be given food and services.
The information Marco brought to Kublai Khan kept him a respected and honoured member of the court. From that place in society, he witnessed the remarkable deeds of Khutulun, daughter of Kublai Khan’s cousin. A strong warrior who fought alongside her father, she laid down a challenge that any man who could defeat her in a wrestling match would win her hand in marriage. The losers, however, had to award her with their horses. No one ever beat Khutulun and her stables reportedly grew to be 10,000-strong.
Telling the story of his travels
Marco’s fascination with different cultures and practices – without the moral judgement often seen in early explorers from Christian Europe – was matched only by his awe at the level of advancement of the civilisations.
In The Travels, he gives extraordinary detail on the architecture, infrastructure such as sanitation and heating, and the sheer size of the places he saw. He visited cities with populations ten times that of Venice.
Yet after around 16 years, the three Polos were looking to return home, perhaps fearing what would happen to them under a less welcoming successor to the elderly Kublai Khan. While the emperor initially refused their request to leave his service, he changed his mind in 1292 as long as they escorted the Mongol princess Kokechin to Persia to be married.
The Polos left China for good with a fleet of 14 ships. Storms and disease decimated the crews – enough for Marco to claim that only 18 of 600 on board survived – and by the time they reached Khorasan (modern- day Iran), Kokechin’s betrothed had died, so she married his son instead.
The Polos’ fortune did not improve. Without Kublai Khan’s protection, officials relieved them of much of their wealth, though they managed to get away with the jewels in their coats. They finally made it home in c1295, barely able to speak their native language and looking markedly un-Venetian – so much, wrote Marco in The Travels, that their own relatives did not recognise them.
That book remained nothing more than a hope until Marco’s chance encounter with the writer Rustichello several years later. With Venice at war, the seasoned traveller had armed and commanded a galley, before being captured by the Genoese in 1298 and spending a year behind bars. During his captivity, he worked with Rustichello on what became a bestselling success – quite a feat before printing – transcribed by hand into most European languages. And though the demand meant the original text has been lost amidst the amendments and abridgments of each new transcription, the name Marco Polo has become internationally recognised.
Many readers simply could not believe The Travels to be true, assuming it to be more fable than fact. Both man and book earned the nickname Il Milione (The Million) in mocking reference to the use of huge, seemingly far-fetched numbers in the text. What Europeans found most shocking were not the more fantastical elements based in miracles or legends, but the descriptions of so-called barbarian societies more advanced than their own.
Marco described, in detail, high-speed messaging services, paper money, and the building of colossal cities and canals. To believe him was to challenge the superiority of European civilisation.
There are reasons to question the veracity of Marco’s account. He does not appear in any Chinese document of the time, although he may have been given another name; several claims have been debunked, including that he was a key figure at a battle and that he stood as governor of the city of Yangzhou. Marco also admitted that he did not see everything in The Travels himself, and had recounted tales from “dependable and trustworthy men”.
The world according to Marco Polo
Marco Polo has been praised for the level of detail in his writing and criticised for getting things wrong – or leaving stuff out entirely
The Great Wall of China | It seems suspicious that the Venetian merchant could go to China and not mention this colossal engineering accomplishment. But perhaps the Great Wall was not worth mentioning. In the 13th century, it was in disrepair and would not become the structure known today until the Ming dynasty.
The rhinoceros | Many animals and plants were correctly identified by Polo, but he did think the rhinoceros was a unicorn. He called it “a passing ugly beast to look upon… not in the least like that which our stories tell of as being caught in the lap of a virgin”.
The postal system | Polo showed his knowledge of other things in China, including paper money, eyeglasses and the postal system, called Yam, used by Mongol messengers. Relay stations on the roads allowed messengers to stop for a rest while another takes over on a fresh horse.
Chinese customs and traditions | Polo left out chopsticks, tea drinking and foot binding, as well as Chinese writing and woodblock printing – all major parts of life in China. It could be argued that as he was in the Mongol-ruled Yuan dynasty, such things represented the subjugated peoples.
Women of Tibet | While in Tibet, Polo enjoyed a social practice that definitely existed. Sexual experience, rather than chaste innocence, was preferable in a potential wife, so women would be offered to worldly travellers. He called it a “wonderful place for a man of 16 to 24 to visit”.
That said, it has long been generally accepted that Marco undoubtedly travelled to China and lived at the court of Kublai Khan. No previous traveller covered as much ground as him, let alone make a comprehensive record of what they witnessed. For the rest of his life, spent quietly after marrying and having three daughters, he never wavered that his magnum opus was based on truth.
As he lay on his deathbed in January 1324, at the approximate age of 70, those gathered implored him to confess that his work was fiction. His reply: “I did not write half of what I saw, for I knew I would not be believed.”
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True or not, The Travels went from literary sensation to inspirational tome for future travellers, explorers and adventurers. With the decline of the Mongol Empire having served to cut off east from west again, his journey to China became even more special. It represented something lost as well as something gained.
The book – part cosmography, part anthropological study, part travel guide and part odyssey – influenced the Fra Mauro map, a major of the world development in medieval cartography. Christopher Columbus owned a copy; he scribbled in the margins and used it as a guide for his voyage to Asia, which turned out to be the New World.
Marco’s account is unquestionably filled with embellishments, exaggerations and the romantic asides of its co-author, but the most important thing was that Marco Polo wrote it down, ensuring his name would be remembered.
This article was first published in the October 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed