Italian traveller Marco Polo is often said to be one of the world’s first travel writers. A merchant and an explorer, he was born in 1254 and raised in Venice. Polo eventually left with his father and uncle, Niccolò and Maffeo, on a trading voyage in 1271, aged just 17.
He returned 24 years later, laden with riches, to find his home, Venice, at war with Genoa. Polo soon found himself imprisoned by the Genoans and spent the time dictating stories of his travels to a fellow inmate, Rustichello de Pisa. Upon his release in 1299, he became a wealthy merchant, while Rustichello de Pisa published accounts of Polo’s travels in “Livre des Merveilles du Monde (Book of the Marvels of the World, also known as The Travels of Marco Polo, or simply, Il Milione.).
The Travels Of Marco Polo
So, you may be asking yourself, where exactly did Marco Polo travel? Well, to explore this, we need to go back in time, to the exploits of his father and uncle.
After several years of trading in Constantinople and Bukhara (in present-day Uzbekistan), Niccolò and Maffeo Polo had been approached by an ambassador of Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, and the ruler of the Mongol Empire, who had never met Europeans. The two were warmly received at his court in Chin, and Kublai (who wanted to learn more about the west) soon tasked them with delivering a letter to the Pope asking for Christain scholars and oil from the lamp of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.
Marco Polo’s father and uncle returned to Venice in 1269 but were delayed on their return by the death of the Pope. They waited for the nomination of the new Pope and finally set out in 1271 with their newly expanded part, now consisting of two Dominican friars, and Marco Polo himself.
The travellers followed the established Silk Road, sailing from Venice to the city of Acre (in present-day Israel). From here, they rode in a camel caravan to the Persian port of Hormuz (now in Iran), passing through Baghdad (in Iraq) along the way.
Unfortunately, they were unable to find any ships at Hormuz and decided to continue along the Silk Road. They passed through the Kavir Desert, the Pamir Mountains (in Afghanistan), Kashgar (in China), and the Gobi desert, eventually reaching Kublai Khan’s summer palace in Shangdu (now Zhangjiakou) three years after they had first left home. By then, the party was much reduced, Dominican friars had long since abandoned them, frightened by sandstorms and bandits.
At The Court of Kublai Khan
Upon reaching, the Polos presented their gifts to the Great Khan, and Polo goes on to describe his wonder at the country’s vast population, as well as its riches in jade, silks, and spices. He is also impressed with Kublai’s imposing marble palace, with its vast gardens, and with the man himself, who he says enjoyed riding around the grounds hunting with his hawks, and followed by his tame leopard.
The Polos travel around the Chinese provinces for the next 17 years, in the north (which he calls Cathay) as well as in the south (Manji) as fas as Burma (present-day Myanmar). It is speculated that young Polo became a government official – indeed he himself says that he was a governor – though this has been greatly disputed.
Marco Polo talks about the wonderful things he sees on his travels such as the use of silkworms to make silk, great tombs and pagodas made of silver and gold in Mien, the monks in Tibet, the use of elephants for battle, and much more.
There And Back Again
In 1291, after almost two decades in service to Kublai Khan and the Yuan court, the Polos were finally permitted to leave China in order to escort a Mongolian princess to her wedding with the Khan of Persia (Kublai’s great-nephew), and to visit their families in Venice with the expectation they would then return to China.
They set off with the wedding party on a fleet of fourteen Chinese junks from Zaitun (now Quanzhou), stopping first at the port of Singapore. The Polos and their companions ended up needing to stop at many places along the way, including the island of Sumatra, the Kingdom of Jaffna (northern Sri Lanka), and the Pandya Kindom of southern India (in present-day Tamil Nadu), before eventually making their way across the Arabian Sea to Hormuz.
Travelling by ship in the thirteenth century was a long and difficult process, fraught with hardships and dangers. Of the 600 people who had first set out, only 18 had survived to reach Hormuz (including all three Polos). Here, they learned that Kublai Khan has died and decided to return home to Venice overland via Trebizond (now Trabzon) and Constantinople.
The Polos finally reached home in 1295, 24 years since they had first left. Some versions of the book claim that the Venetians didn’t recognise the three bedraggled travellers, and didn’t believe their fantastic tales until they saw the gemstones and riches they had brought home. Marco Polo, who had been 17 when they set out, was now 41 and had travelled over 24,000 kilometres.
Upon returning, Marco Polo joined the Venetian army and was captured by the Genoans, with whom they were at war over control of trade routes in the Mediterranean Sea. While in prison, he met the writer Rustichello da Pisa, who was intrigued by his tales and published them in a book that was known – in English – as the Book of the Marvels of the World, Description of the World, or The Travels of Marco Polo.
Is His Story True?
Though the Polos were hardly the first Europeans to visit China and the Mongol court (being preceded by people like Giovanni da Pian del Carpine and William of Rubruck), his book was immensely popular, informing Europeans about Chinese culture, and its complexity and development which they knew little about (indeed many believed that mythological beasts like unicorns and dragons roamed there and that the people had the heads of dogs).
Though some sceptics argue that Polo’s accounts cannot be true, as he doesn’t show up in any of the detailed accounts kept by the Vatican or the Chinese (especially with his claim of being a government official), others hold that while some parts are likely exaggerations, his detailed descriptions are very accurate, matching contemporary descriptions of Chinese use of paper currency and silkworms, their mail systems, and more.
Polo also avoids the more fantastical errors made by many of his contemporaries, such as descriptions of ‘wild men who do not speak at all and have no joints in their legs … and monsters who looked like women, but whose menfolk were dogs”. He even avoids the mistakes of a later famous traveller, the Moroccan Ibn Battuta, who visited in the 14th century, and believed many erroneous things, such as porcelain being made from coal.
Many of these issues can be put down to embellishments by the author or to memories distorted over time. However, as no original version of the text remains (and the dozens that exist vary widely), this debate is unlikely to be settled.
However, to many, it hardly matters at all. Marco Polo is more an inspirational figure, one whose adventures are still read today. His stories have inspired many others to explore the wide world around them, including (perhaps controversially), Christopher Columbus.
In recent times, people have even retraced his journey from Venice, to Anatolia, Persia, India, and China, most famously in the documentary film by Denis Belliveau and Francis O’Donnell.
Polo’s book was also one of the first in a long line of travel writings that captured people’s imaginations and of famous travellers and great explorers who chronicled the world around them.