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The Italian Marco Polo is probably the world’s most famous traveler and one of the world’s first travel writers. The famous Venetian is believed to have left Venice at the age of 17 to begin a 24-year journey across the Persian Gulf and Asia, spending much of that time in China at the court of the great Mongol emperor Kublai Khan.
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, provided one of the first detailed descriptions of the then mysterious Eastern cultures to Europeans and would even inspire Christopher Columbus. The world that Polo described seemed quite strange and unbelievable to most readers, and even today many historians question the veracity of many of his stories. Some historians even doubt whether Marco Polo ever existed.
Intrigued? I was very interested in learning more about this famous man and will share what I found during my research on the man, his incredible travels and Marco Polo’s legacy.
First we will delve into what we know (or what is commonly believed) about Marco Polo’s early life in Italy, his incredible journey along the Silk Road, his stay in China, his return and the famous travel diary.
Marco Polo is believed to have been born in 1254 in Venice, Italy (some believe he was born on the island of Korčula in present-day Croatia). Very little is known of his childhood, apart from details gleaned from his own book. He grew up in a Catholic family and lived his early years alone with his mother.
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His father Niccolò and uncle Maffeo were wealthy merchants and began a long nine-year business journey together when Marco was a small boy. During that time, young Polo would receive an informal education, learning the business trade and how to read and write Italian. Unfortunately, his mother would die when he was young and Marco would be raised by other relatives until his father’s return.
Meanwhile, Marco Polo tells us in his book that his father and uncle, after several years of trading in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul, Turkey), would travel further south-east, spending time in present-day Greece, Ukraine, Russia, Uzbekistan and China. During the time of the Polo brothers in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, an ambassador of Kublai Khan approaches them and gives them the message that the emperor would like to meet them.
Kublai Khan was the grandson of Genghis Khan and ruler of the great Mongol Empire, which at its height was one of the largest land empires in history and controlled about a quarter of the world’s population at the time. It is said that Kublai Khan was very intrigued by these two European men (Europeans were very rare in China at the time), and officially invited them to spend some time with him in China so that he could learn more about Europe.
To learn more about Christianity and Western culture, Khan sends the Polo brothers back to Italy with the task of asking the Pope for 100 Western scholars and oil from the Holy Sepulcher lamp. Marco Polo’s father and uncle finally return to Venice in 1269 and join Marco, who is now fifteen or sixteen years old.
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On their return journey to see the Khan, the Polos were delayed in their journey when the Pope (Clement IV) died in 1268 and they had to wait until the new Pope was elected in 1271.
After a long wait, the Polo brothers finally receive permission from the newly elected Pope Gregory X to take the holy oil and the Pope gives gifts to the Poles to take to Kublai Khan on his behalf. Instead of sending 100 scholars, the pope sends only two Dominican friars because he believed the trip was dangerous to send so many men.
Niccolò and Maffeo left for Asia to fulfill their promise to Kublai Khan, but this time, with 17-year-old Marco Polo in tow. This would be Marco Polo’s first real travel experience, and what an incredible trip!
It would take the Poles three years to reach Asia, following the Silk Road, a network of trade routes that connected Europe with Asia. They would travel from Venice to the city of Acre (present-day Israel) and continue in a caravan through present-day Armenia, Anatolia, Georgia and Baghdad.
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Crossing what is now Iran, the caravan would encounter sandstorms and bandits, leaving some members of their caravan captured or killed. At the beginning of the journey, the two Dominican monks leave the group and return to Italy, frightened by Muslim raiders and bandits.
Marco Polo provides a rich description of Mongolian culture, including its government, food (eg extensive use of dairy products), round tent houses called yurts, and, of course, its expert skills in horsemanship. He also notes practices that the Mongols borrowed from the Chinese, including their extensive message delivery system and the use of coal and paper money. All of them were new and strangers to Polo.
Marco Polo would report that he fell ill as they moved eastward through Afghanistan and across the Pamir Mountains. At that time, travelers believed that these mountains were the highest mountains in the world and the long, strenuous journey through these mountains took 52 days! However, Marco Polo notes that the cold, clean mountain air helped to cure him of his illness.
The polos finally arrive in China and young Marco meets many Chinese trading posts. Traveling through China, Marco is very surprised by the large number of people in China (much more populated than Europe at the time), the riches (jade, silk, furs, spices, weapons) and the complexity of your society.
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The last terrifying leg of the journey occurs when the trio must now cross the vast and barren Gobi Desert. Setting off on camels, they ride through the desert and Marco talks about how weary travelers can see mirages and hear voices that can lead them off their paths and lead them astray deep into the desert.
After a month, they leave the hot sands of the Gobi Desert to be finally greeted by a messenger of Kublai Khan who takes them to Khan’s summer palace in Shangdu (north of present-day Beijing, China) for a festive celebration. In Shangdu, Marco is very impressed by the Khan’s sprawling marble palace (Shangdu is where we get the term Xanadu). The grounds around the palace are full of streams, fountains, gardens, birds and wild animals.
Polo tells us that Kublai Khan rides his horse across the land to hunt with falcons and a leopard riding behind him on his horse. Kublai Khan is very fond of young Marco and commissions him to send messages and report on other areas of the country. Marco even reports that he was governor of the city of Yanghou from 1282 to 1285 (this is much disputed).
Meanwhile, Marco reports that his father and uncle serve as military advisors to the Mongol emperor and even help win a battle. For the next 17 years, Marco travels through China, witnessing the use of silkworms to make silk, the dangers of tigers, the great ceremonies of monks in Tibet, the great tombs and pagodas of silver and gold in Mien, the use of Burmese gold. . . to their teeth and tattoos, the use of elephants for battle, magicians in Bangladesh and all kinds of strange animals and wild fauna that were completely foreign to Europeans.
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Marco’s favorite city in China was Kinsai (present-day Hangzhou), an important city for trade with Iran, and a city that was reported to have 3,000 public baths and 12,000 bridges.
In 1291, the Poles finally return to Venice. Marco writes that Kublai Khan did not want the Poles to leave enjoying their company, but he allows them to leave to escort a Mongol princess bride to the Khan of Persia and then visit their families in Venice with the expectation that they would then. back to earthenware
The three Poles leave in a fleet of ships with golden tablets of Kublai Khan guaranteeing them safe passage and special treatment throughout the Empire. As you can imagine, a boat trip in the 13th century was long and difficult with many dangers and difficulties; many of the fleet’s crew die along the way. The polos end up having to stop for a while on the island of Sumatra and then land in India, where they continue the rest of their journey overland.
After escorting the princess to safety, they learn that Kublai Khan is dead and the Polos return to Venice in 1295. Some versions of the book report that the relatives of the Polos did not recognize the three dirty, scantily clad men strange with her incredible story . until they undressed, revealing a wealth of precious stones hidden in their clothes that helped validate her story.
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While the Polos amassed great wealth and riches