Marco Polo and his travels
One of the most well-known Europeans to travel the silk road in Medieval times was Marco Polo (1245-1324), a merchant, explorer and writer who recorded his travels in the book “Livres des merveilles du monde” (Book of the world’s marvels), published around the year 1300. In English, this book is also known as The Travels of Marco Polo, and it describes – among other things – Polo’s travels along the Silk Road and the various Asian regions and cities that he traverses, including China.
A citizen of the Republic of Venice, Polo grew up in a family where both his father Niccoló and uncle Maffeo were merchants. Even before Marco was born, the brothers had travelled extensively, setting up trading posts in Constantinople, Sudak, Crimea, and the western part of the Mongolian Empire. They even visited China.
Later, the Polo brother’s embarked on a new journey, and this time they brought Marco with them. This trip, which would end up taking 24 years since they stayed for very long in China, is the one chronicled by Marco Polo in his book. It has been assumed that the Polos travelled along the Northern Silk Road, although the possibility of a southern route has also been advanced by some scholars.
When the three Polo’s finally returned to Venice, the city state was at war with neighbooring Genoa. Marco particpated in the war and was eventually imprisoned, spending his time in jail dictating travel stories to a cellmate. After being released from prison in 1299, Marco Polo went back to being a merchant and ammassed considerable wealth. He also married and had three children. He is buried in the San Lorenzo church in Venize.
The Polos weren’t the first Europeans to visit China, but Marco Polo was the first European to publish a detailed account of it, and his book went on to become very important for future generations of explorers – including a 15th century navigator named Christopher Columbus (Cristòffa Cómbo). Marco Polo’s book also influenced European cartographers, including Fra Mauro who created his highly influential circular planisphere map around the year 1450.
Niccilo and Maffeo’s first journey
The brothers Niccilo and Maffeo Polo left Venice and embarked on their first long sejour abroad when Marco was just a child.
After staying in the Venetian qaurter of Constantinople for several years, the brothers realized that the political situation had grown precarious and decided to leave. They arrived in the Crimean port Sudak in 1260, and then continued to Surai, located on the Volga river, where they engaged in trading for a year.
When civil war broke out between two powerful cousins in the region, the violence made it too risky for the Polo brother to return by the same route as they had come, and they decided to instead go east to get away from the war. This is how they ended up spending three years in Bukhara in today’s Uzbekistan, pretty much unable to move anywhere else.
Going to China
Eventually, a Mongol ambassador arrived to Bukhara, asking the brothers to go to the Hulagu Khan who was interested in meeting the exotic foreigners. Consequently, the brothers started travelling even further to the east, via Samarkand and then through the dangerous Gobi desert. Passing through Turfan, Hami and Dunhuang, they finally got to the Hexi Corridor, and arrived to Beijing in 1266 – where Hulagu Khan’s brother Kublai Khan had his court. (At this point, Hulagu Khan was already dead, he died in February 1265.)
Kublai Khan, fifth Khagan of the Mongol Empire and the would-be founder of China’s Yuan dynasty, was happy to see the foreigners and greeted them with great hospitality. He wanted to know a lot about Europe, and especially about the Pope and the Roman church. Niccolo and Matteo could communicate with him since they had learn Turkic dialects.
Delivering a message to the Pope
After a year in China, the Polo brothers were sent back to Europe by Kublai Khan who wanted them to deliver a letter from him to Pope Clement IV. In this letter, the Khan asked the Pope to send him a hundred learned men to teach his people about Christianity and Western science, and he also wanted the Pope to procure oil for him from the lamp at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
To safeguard the Polos during their journey back, Kulbai Khan gave them a foot long and three inches wide inscribed golden tablet that was essentially a very fancy diplomatic passport, giving the brothers wide ranging rights to recieve lodging, provisions, horses, and guides throughout the lands controlled by the Khan. An English translation of the inscription would be roughly: “By the strength of the eternal Heaven, holy be the Khan’s name. Let him that pays him not reverence be killed.”
It took the Polo brothers three years to get back home, arriving in April 1269.
Marco Polo – the early years
Marco Polo was born in 1254. His family were Ventians, but it is unclear if he was actually born in Venice or if the birth took place on the island of Curzola off the Dalmatian coast, where his father and uncle had established a trading post.
We do know that Marco Polo spent at least part of his childhood in Venice, which was at the time a city state heavily engaged in international commerce. He recieved a good education that included, among other things, classes in French and Italian. His native language is believed to have been Venetian. Polo read many classical authors and was also schooled in the Christian teology of the Latin Church. Growing up in a merchantile family, he was taught subjects such as appraising, foreign currency trade, and the handling of cargo ships.
Marco Polo’s mother died when he was just a child, after which he was taken care of by his aunt and uncle.
The Polo brothers returned to Venice in April 1269 and the now teenaged Marco could finally be reunited with his father.
Presenting the pope with the letter from Kublai Khan proved impossible for the brothers, since Pope Clement IV had died in 1268 and no new pope had been elected yet.
The life of Marco Polo has of course also inspired the Netflix show Marco Polo. The show focuses on his early years in the court of Kublai khan.
Marco Polo’s travels in Asia
In 1271, the Polo brothers embarked on a new journey, and this time the took Marco with them. They had finally been able to deliver the letter from Kublai Khan to the pope, since Teobaldo Visconti had been elected at the conclusion of the papal election that had been running from 1268 to 1271 – the longest papal election in the history of the Latin Church.
With them on their new journey east, the Polo family brought letters and gifts from the pope that they were to give to Kublai Khan, and they were also accompanied by two friars. The friars left them fairly soon, however, because they reached a war zone and the friars got too scared to continue.
The Polo family pushed on without them, traveling through Armenia, Persia, and Afghanistan, and following a route that went over the Pamir Mountains of Central Asia to get to China.
Part one: Getting to Tabriz
The Polos weren’t trailing in their own footsteps from the past, because instead of going the same way as last time, they made a wide swing to the north, into the southern Caucasus and Georgia, before heading for Tabriz, the Ilkhanid Mongol capital of Azerbaijan. Marco Polo later describes Tabriz as “a great city surrounded by beautiful and pleasant gardens. It is excellently situated so the goods brought to here come from many regions. Latin merchants specially Genevis go there to buy the goods that come from foreign lands.” At this point in history, Tabriz was an important commercial, cultural and political centre, filled with mangiciant buildings and powerful institutions.
Part two: From Tabriz to Badakhshan
After Tabriz, the Polos traveled south to Hormuz, a port on the Persian Gulf from where they intended to travel by ship to the Chinese coast. In Hormuz, they had a change of heart, because the ships available were in very poor condition. Marco Polo describes them as “wretched affairs….only stitched together with twine made from the husk of the Indian nut”.
So, instead of going by sea, the Polos continued to travel over land, from Homurz to Kerman, passing places such as Herat and Balk. Marco Polo got ill, which meant staying in Badakhshan for a year to allow him to recover. Badakshan had emerged as an important trading center in antiquity, especially for lapis lazuli which was traded here as early as the 4th millennium BC. Located along the Silk Road, Badakshan eventually started playing an important role in the trading of silk and other commodities as well. Marco Polo himself describes it as a place where Balas rubies could be found under the mountain Syghinan (Shighnan). Balas ruby is a rose-tinted variety of spinel, and for centuries the mines of the Gorno Badakhshan region were the main source for these gems. The name Balas ruby is a reference to Balascia, which was the ancient name for Badakhshan.
Part three: Over the Pamir Mountains and past the Taklamakan Desert
When Marco Polo was well enough to travel, the party got going again and traversed the Pamir Mountains. When they reached the outskirts of the Taklamakan Desert, they took the southern route, passing through Yarkand, Khotan, Cherchen, and Lop-Nor.
Marco Polo describes Yarkand as a place where the locals are extremely prone to goiter, which he thought was caused by the drinking water there. (Goitre is an enlarged thyroid gland, often caused by iodine deficiency.)
Polo aslo writes about a province called Pem which is rich in jasper and chalcedony; a translucid kind of jasper. At Pem, “when a woman’s husband leaves her to go on a journey of more than 20 days, as soon as he has left, she takes another husband, and this she is fully entitled to do by local usage. And the men, wherever they go, take wives in the same way.”
Part four: The Gobi Desert
The Gobi Desert is a large desert in Asia, bounded by the Taklamakan Desert to the west and by the North China Plain to the southeast. It is also the location of several important cities along the Silk Road.
Marco Polo writes about how this desert…“is reported to be so long that it would take a year to go from end to end; and at the narrowest point it takes a month to cross it. It consists entirely of mountains and sands and valleys. There is nothing at all to eat.”
Still, his writing also suggests that the route through the desert was well-established at this point in history.
Part five: Suchow
The first major city that the Polos reached after the Gobi Desert was Suchow / Shazhou (Dunhuang) in what is today the Gansu Province of China. In Suchow, Marco Polo took a break from traveling and stayed for a year. Situated in an oasis that included the Crescent Lake, Suchow was one of the major stops on the southern Silk Road, and also a stop on the main road going from India via Lhasa to Mongolia and southern Siberia. Suchow controlled the entrance to the narrow Hexi Corridor, which was the most important route between North China and the Tarim Basin and Central Asia.
Part six: Reaching Kublai Khan’s court
The Polos reached Kublai Khan’s summer residence Shant-tu in May 1275. Kublai Khan new that they were on their way, and had sent a royal escort to greet them. Shant-tu was the original capital of Kublai Khan’s reign, but was as this point only used in the summers, since Kublai Khan had started spending the winters in Beijing (Cambaluc).
Marco Polo writes in great detail about his first meeting with Kublai 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. 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 hightly. 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.”
Part seven: Years in the service of the Kublai Khan
Kublai Khan took a liking to the young Marco Polo and appointed him to high posts in his administration. Already well-traveled and capable of speaking several different languages, Polo was sent by the Khan on a number of special missions to various places in China, Burma, and India. Many of the places that Marco Polo visited during these missions were remote ones that no European would visit and write about again until the 19th century.
Return to Europe
When the Kublai Khan was in his late 70s, the Polo family began to worry about what would happen to them when he died. The Polos had amassed great amounts of gold and jewelry, but would they be able to take it out of China without the protection of the Khan? At the same time, the Khan really enjoyed their company and was reluctant to let them go.
Eventually, when the Polo’s had been with the Khan for 17 years, they got his permission to leave and head back to Europe. They were assigned one last task: escorting the Mongol princess Kokachin to her betrothed Persian prince Arghun.
By sea from China to Persia
The journey to Hormuz by sea took two years and must have been horrible, because according to Marco Polo’s accounts, roughly 600 passengers and crew died during these years, as they passed sailed on the South China Sea to Sumatra, and then over the Indian Ocean to the Persian Gulf.
Polo’s writings about this sea journey are very limited and he doesn’t explain the high death toll. Various theories have been proposed, including scurvy, cholera, drowin, pirate attacks, and hostile natives. When they finally reached Persian land, they found out that Prince Arghun had died two years ago. This problem was solved by the princess marrying Arghun’s son Prince Ghazan instead.
By land to Trebizond
While in Persia, the Polos also learned that Kublai Khan had died. Still, the people the Polo’s encountered as they traveled through the bandit-ridden interior honored the golden tablet of protection that the great Khan had given them. Even from beyond the grave, the khan was a powerful man, and the Polos were amply supplied with horses, provisions, and escorts that could take them through dangerous passages and show them the right routes.
Eventually, the Polos reached Trebizon, a city on the Black Sea from which they could continue their journey by ship again. Trebizon, today known as Trabzon, was one of the notable stops along the Silk Road and functioned as a gateway to Persia in the southeast and the Caucasus to the northeast. The city was an important destination for Venetian and Genose merchants who sold linen and woolen cloth here. From the early 13th century to 1461, Trebizon was the capital city of the Empire of Trebizond, and Eastern Orthodox Christian monarchy spread over southern Crimea and the
far northeastern corner of Anatolia.
From Trebizond to Venice
From Trebizond, the Polos went by ship over the Black Sea to Constantinople, and then crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Venice. They arrived to Venice in the winter of 1295, after being away for 24 years, and loaded with many treasures from the Far East. One of the amazing things that they brought back to Europe was asbestos, which they presented to the Pope. Marco Polo would later write about asbestos in his book, explaining that asbestos cloth was cleaned by throwing it into a fire.
War and imprisonment
When the Polos returned to Venice, the city state was embroiled in a violent conflict with neighboring Genoa. Three years after coming back, Marco Polo was captured by Genoese forces as he was commanding a Venetian galley in the war against Genoa.
Marco Polo was imprisoned in Genoa, where one of his prison mates were a man named Rustichello. Hailing from Pisa, Rustichello was a writer of romance novels, and he soon took note of the fabulous stories that Polo had to tell about far away lands and customs. Rustichello prompted Polo to dictate the story of his adventures to him, and this eventually became the book for which Marco Polo is famous. The book became a best-seller and had a huge impact on Medieval and Early Modern explorers, missionaries and merchants.
The war between Venice and Genoa came to an end in the summer of 1299 and prisoners of war were released – including Marco Polo. He returned to Venice, where he married a woman named Donata Badoer and had three daughters with her.
Marco Polo did not travel far ever again; he mostly remained in Venice until his death in 1324.
Allegedly, one of the last things he said on his deathbed was “I have only told the half of what I saw!”.
Marco Polo’s last will and testament show us that he was rich enough to bequet substantial amounts of money to his wife and daughters. We can also see that he had a servant called Peter, who came from the Mongols and must have been some sort of slave since Polo’s will includes an order about setting Peter free. The will also show us that even though almost three decades had passed since he returned to Venice, Polo upon his death still owed many splendid things from far away countries, including brocades of silk and gold, and the golden tablet given to the Polos by Kublai Khan.
Some historians have questioned if Marco Polo actually visited the court in Beijing, because his name was never recorded in the Annals of the Empire (Yuan Shih). Him not appearing in these records is a bit strange, if he was actually such as prominent visitor and personal friend to the Khan as his book makes him out to be.