During the Middle Ages the Italian merchant Marco Polo spent many years in China. He wrote a famous book about his experiences. The book helped Europeans to learn about Asian peoples and goods.
Marco Polo was born in about 1254, probably in Venice (now in Italy). His father and uncle were merchants who traveled to many lands. In 1271 they took young Marco to Asia. The Polos sailed over the Mediterranean Sea to what is now Israel. Then they traveled overland through Turkey, Persia (now Iran), and Afghanistan. In central Asia they followed a trail called the Silk Road. The Silk Road was a trade route for fine silk cloth from China.
In 1275 the Polos reached Shangdu, in Mongolia. This was the summer home of Kublai Khan, the Mongol emperor of China. For about 17 years Marco Polo worked for the emperor. His errands took him all the way to southwestern China and probably Burma (now Myanmar).
For their return trip to Venice, the Polos took 14 of Kublai Khan’s ships. They sailed from eastern China to the coast of Persia. Then they went overland through Persia and Turkey. They finally reached Venice in 1295. Everyone was amazed to see them alive after so many years.
Marco Polo soon went back to sea. Forces from the trading city of Genoa, a rival of Venice, captured his ship. They put Polo in prison. There he met a writer who helped him to describe his travels in a book. Polo was released from prison in 1299. He returned to Venice, where he died on January 8, 1324.
(1254?–1324). The Venetian merchant and adventurer Marco Polo wrote a fascinating book about his travels in China and other parts of Asia in the late 13th century. The book was an instant success and was translated into many languages. Fellow Europeans read his accounts of the riches of Asia and became eager to find sea routes to China, Japan, and the East Indies. Even Christopher Columbus, nearly 200 years later, often consulted his copy of Marco’s book, Il milione (The Million). In English, the book is known as the Travels of Marco Polo.
In Marco’s time, very little was known about Asia in Europe. When his book was published, many people thought that it was a fable or a gross exaggeration. Over the years, some people have argued that Marco never even reached China. Others have taken his book to be a true and accurate account. Today, scholars generally believe that Marco faithfully recorded what he saw and heard on his travels but that much of what he heard secondhand was distorted or fictitious.
Marco Polo was born in the city-republic of Venice in about 1254. His father and uncles were merchants who traveled to distant lands to trade. On a long trading expedition Marco’s father, Niccolò, and his uncle Maffeo traveled overland as far as Cathay (now northern China). There they met Kublai Khan, the great Mongol emperorof China. Kublai wanted to learn more about the Western world, and he asked Niccolò and Maffeo to act as his ambassadors and carry letters to the pope. The Polos returned to Venice in 1269. They set out for China again in 1271, and this time they took Marco.
From Venice the Polos sailed to Acre (now ʿAkko, Israel), where they received letters for Kublai from a representative of the pope. The Polos crossed the deserts of Persia (Iran) and Afghanistan. They mounted the heights of the Pamir Mountains, descending to the trading city of Kashgar (Kashi), which is now in Xinjiang, China. By then, they were traveling on the main part of the trade route known as the Silk Road. They continued eastward, crossing the dry stretches of the Gobi. Sometime in 1274 or 1275 they arrived at Kublai Khan’s court at his summer capital, Shangdu (now Duolun, Inner Mongolia). At that time Marco was about 20 years old.
The Marco quickly became a favorite of Kublai Khan. He may have moved with the court to the emperor’s winter residence at Dadu (now Beijing). Kublai sent Marco on many fact-finding missions to far places in the empire, including Hangzhou in the southeast, Yunnan in the southwest, and perhaps also what is now Myanmar (Burma). From these lands Marco brought back stories of the people and their lives. He may also have had other official responsibilities, such as inspecting taxes collected from the trade in salt and other commodities.
The Polos became wealthy in China, where they lived for many years. But they began to fear that jealous men in the court would destroy them when the elderly emperor died. In about 1290 or 1292, Kublai was preparing to send a Mongol princess to Persia to become a consort of the ruler there. The Polos asked to accompany her on the voyage and, from Persia, to return to Venice. Kublai at first refused but then reluctantly agreed.
Since there was danger from robbers and enemies of the emperor along the overland trade routes, they went by sea. They sailed in a fleet of 14 ships, which carried the Polos, the princess, and 600 courtiers and sailors. The fleet traveled southward along the coast of what is now Vietnam and the Malay Peninsula to Sumatra, where the voyage was delayed for several months. The ships then turned westward and visited Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and India before reaching their destination in Persia. The Polos set off by land for Venice, but along the way they were robbed of most of their earnings from China. When they arrived in Venice in 1295, they had been gone 24 years.
Soon after his return, Marco was sailing aboard a ship that was captured by forces of the trading city of Genoa, a rival of Venice, during a skirmish in the Mediterranean. Marco was thrown into a Genoese prison. There he wrote his book with help from another prisoner, Rustichello, who was a writer of romances. Marco was soon released from prison. He returned to Venice and engaged in trade. His name appears in the court records of his time in many lawsuits over property and money. He died in Venice on Jan. 8, 1324.
Marco Polo, (born c. 1254, Venice [Italy]—died January 8, 1324, Venice), Venetian merchant and adventurer, who traveled from Europe to Asia in 1271–95, remaining in China for 17 of those years, and whose Il milione (“The Million”), known in English as the Travels of Marco Polo, is a classic of travel literature.
Travels of the Polo family
Polo’s way was paved by the pioneering efforts of his ancestors, especially his father, Niccolò, and his uncle, Maffeo. The family had traded with the Middle East for a long time, acquiring considerable wealth and prestige. Although it is uncertain if the Polos were of the nobility, the matter was of little importance in Venice, a city of republican and mercantile traditions.
The family appears to have been shrewd, alert, and courageous; about 1260 they foresaw a political change in Constantinople(e.g., the overthrow of the Crusaders who had ruled since 1204 by Michael VIII Palaeologus in 1261), liquidated their property there, invested their capital in jewels, and set off for the Volga River, where Berke Khan, sovereign of the western territories in the Mongol Empire, held court at Sarai or Bulgar. The Polos apparently managed their affairs well at Berke’s court, where they doubled their assets. When political events prevented their return to Venice, they traveled eastward toBukhara (Bokhara) and ended their journey in 1265, probably at the grand khan’s summer residence, Shangdu (immortalized as Xanadu by English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge). Establishing friendly relations with the great Kublai Khan, they eventually returned to Europe as his ambassadors, carrying letters asking the pope to send Kublai 100 intelligent men “acquainted with the Seven Arts”; they also bore gifts and were asked to bring back oil from the lamp burning at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
Polo’s journey to Asia
Little is known about Marco’s early years except that he probably grew up in Venice. He was age 15 or 16 when his father and uncle returned to meet him and learned that the pope, Clement IV, had recently died. Niccolò and Maffeo remained in Venice anticipating the election of a new pope, but in 1271, after two years of waiting, they departed with Marco for the Mongol court. In Acre (now ʿAkko, Israel) the papal legate, Teobaldo of Piacenza, gave them letters for the Mongol emperor. The Polos had been on the road for only a few days when they heard that their friend Teobaldo had been elected pope as Gregory X. Returning to Acre, they were given proper credentials, and two friars were assigned to accompany them, though they abandoned the Polos shortly after the expedition resumed.
From Acre the travelers proceeded to Ayas (“Laiazzo” in Marco’s writings, now Yumurtalik, on the Gulf of İskenderun, also called the Gulf of Alexandretta, in southeastern Turkey). During the early part of 1272, they probably passed throughErzurum, in what is now eastern Turkey, and Tabriz, in what is now northern Iran, later crossing inhospitable deserts infested with brigands before reaching Hormuz on the Persian Gulf. There the Polos decided not to risk a sea passage to India and beyond but to proceed overland to the Mongol capital.
They next traveled through deserts of “surpassing aridity” toward the Khorasan region in what is now eastern Iran. Turning gradually to the northeast, they reached more hospitable lands; Badakhshān (“Balascian”), in Afghanistan, in particular, pleased the travelers. Marco suggests that they remained there for a year; detained, perhaps, by illness (possibly malaria) that was cured by the benign climate of the district. It is also believed that Marco visited territories to the south (other parts of Afghanistan, Kafiristan in the Hindu Kush, Chitral in what is now Pakistan, and perhaps Kashmir) during this period. It is, however, difficult to establish which districts he traversed and which he may have described from information gathered en route.
Leaving Badakhshān, the Polos proceeded toward the Pamirs, but the route they followed to cross these Central Asian highlands remains uncertain. Descending on the northeastern side of the chain, they reached Kashi (“Cascar”) in what is now the Uygur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang, China. By this point the Polos were on the main Silk Road, and they probably followed along the oases to the south and east of the Takla Makan Desert—Yarkant (“Yarcan”), Hotan (“Cotan”), Che’erchen (“Ciarcian”), and Lop Nur (Lop Lake). These stepping-stones led to Shazhou (“Saciu”) on the borders of China, a place now called Dunhuang.
Before reaching Shazhou, the Polos had traveled primarily among Muslim peoples, though they also encountered Nestorian Christians, Buddhists, Manichaeans, and Zoroastrians. In the vast province of Gansu (called “Tangut” by Marco), an entirely different civilization—mainly Buddhist in religion but partly Chinese in culture—prevailed. The travelers probably stopped in Suzhou (“Sukchu”; now Jiuquan) andGanzhou (“Campiciu”; now Zhangye) before entering the Ningxia area. It is not clear whether they reached the Mongol summer capital of Shangdu (“Ciandu”) directly or after a detour; in any event, sometime in 1275 (1274, according to the research of Japanese scholar Matsuo Otagi) the Polos were again at the Mongol court, presenting the sacred oil from Jerusalem and the papal letters to their patron, Kublai Khan.
Sojourn in China
For the next 16 or 17 years the Polos lived in the emperor’s dominions, which included, among other places, Cathay (now North China) and Mangi, or “Manzi” (now South China). They may have moved with the court from Shangdu, to the winter residence, Dadu, or “Taidu” (modern Beijing).
Unfortunately, because Marco’s book Il milione is only incidentally a biography and autobiography, it is exceedingly difficult to ascertain where the Polos went and what they did during these years. Nevertheless, it is well known that many foreigners were in the employ of the state, since the Mongol rulers did not trust their Chinese subjects; so it would have been natural for the Polos to fit in most honourably and successfully with this motley society.
The extent of their success and the specific roles they filled, however, remains an open question. The elder Polos were probably employed in some technical capacity. Once and very abruptly, a glimpse in Il milione is obtained of them acting as military advisers during the siege of “Saianfu” (formerly Xiangyang, now Xiangfan), a city that was finally taken, according to Marco, thanks to some “great mangonels” (missile-throwing engines) built according to the Polos’ specifications. The whole episode is dubious, however.
Marco was about age 20 when he reached Cathay. Although he knew little or no Chinese, he did speak some of the many languages then used in East Asia—most probably Turkish (in its Coman dialect) as spoken among the Mongols, Arabized Persian, Uighur (Uygur), and perhaps Mongol. He was noticed very favourably by Kublai, who took great delight in hearing of strange countries and repeatedly sent him on fact-finding missions to distant parts of the empire. One such journey took Polo to Yunnan in southwestern China and perhaps as far as Tagaung in Myanmar (Burma); on another occasion he visited southeastern China, later enthusiastically describing the city of “Quinsay” (now Hangzhou) and the populous regions recently conquered by the Mongols. Apart from the missions he undertook for the emperor, Polo may have held other administrative responsibilities, including inspection of the customs duties and revenues collected from the trade in salt and other commodities. According to some versions of Il milione, he governed the city of Yangzhou for three years sometime between 1282 and 1287; but this assertion seems hardly credible and hinges entirely on the interpretation of one word. There is, however, ample evidence to show that Polo considered himself an adoptive son of his new country.
Sometime around 1292 (1290 according to Otagi), a Mongol princess was to be sent to Persia to become the consort ofArghun Khan, and the Polos offered to accompany her. Marco wrote that Kublai had been unwilling to let them go but finally granted permission. They were eager to leave, in part, because Kublai was nearly 80, and his death (and the consequent change in regime) might have been dangerous for a small group of isolated foreigners. Naturally, they also longed to see their native Venice and their families again.
The princess, with some 600 courtiers and sailors, and the Polos boarded 14 ships, which left the port of Quanzhou (“Zaiton”) and sailed southward. The fleet stopped briefly at Champa (“Ciamba,” modern Vietnam) as well as a number of islands and the Malay Peninsula before settling for five months on the island of Sumatra (“Lesser Giaua”) to avoid monsoon storms. There Polo was much impressed by the fact that the North Star appeared to have dipped below the horizon. The fleet then passed near the Nicobar Islands (“Necuveran”), touched land again in Sri Lanka, or Ceylon (“Seilan”), followed the west coast of India and the southern reaches of Persia, and finally anchored at Hormuz. The expedition then proceeded to Khorasan, handing over the princess not to Arghun, who had died, but to his son Maḥmūd Ghāzān.
The Polos eventually departed for Europe, but their movements at this point are unclear; possibly they stayed for a few months in Tabriz. Unfortunately, as soon as they left the Mongol dominions and set foot in a Christian country, at Trebizond in what is now Turkey, they were robbed of most of their hard-won earnings. After further delays, they reached Constantinople and finally Venice (1295). The story of their dramatic recognition by relatives and neighbours who had thought them long since dead is a part of Polo lore that is well known.
Compilation of Il milione
Soon after his return to Venice, Polo was taken prisoner by the Genoese—great rivals of the Venetians at sea—during a skirmish or battle in the Mediterranean. He was then imprisoned in Genoa, where he had a felicitous encounter with a prisoner from Pisa, Rustichello (or Rusticiano), a fairly well-known writer of romances and a specialist in chivalry and its lore, then a fashionable subject. Polo may have intended to write about his 25 years in Asia but possibly did not feel sufficiently comfortable in either Venetian or Franco-Italian; however, with Rustichello at hand, the traveler began dictating his tale. The language employed was Franco-Italian—a strange composite tongue fashionable during the 13th and 14th centuries.
Polo was soon freed and returned to Venice. The remainder of his life can be reconstructed, in part, through the testimony of legal documents. He seems to have led a quiet existence, managing a not too conspicuous fortune and dying at age 70. His will set free a “Tatar slave” who may possibly have followed him from East Asia. A famous story relates how Polo was asked on his deathbed to retract the “fables” he had invented in his book; his answer was that he told barely half of what he actually saw.
Polo’s account opened new vistas to the European mind, and as Western horizons expanded, Polo’s influence grew as well. His description of Japan set a definite goal for Christopher Columbus in his journey in 1492, while his detailed localizations of spices encouraged Western merchants to seek out these areas and break the age-old Arab trading monopoly. The wealth of new geographic information recorded by Polo was widely used in the late 15th and the 16th centuries, during the age of the great European voyages of discovery and conquest.