Marco Polo and His Travels

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Marco Polo and His Travels

  1. What impact did Marco Polo’s account of his travels have on European interest in China?

Marco Polo (1254-1324), is probably the most famous Westerner ever to travel on the Silk Road. He excelled all the other travelers in his determination, his writing, and his influence. His journey through Asia lasted 24 years. He reached further than any of his predecessors, beyond Mongolia to China. He became a confidant of Kublai Khan (1214-1294), grandson of Genghis Khan and Emperor of China. Marco Polo traveled the whole of China and returned to tell the tale, which became the greatest travelogue in history surpassed only by the travels of Ibn Battuta.

In 1260 Marco Polo’s father and uncle, while travelling and trading in the city of Kiev, found themselves involved in a war. Leaving the city, they went eastward and met up with a Mongol ambassador who convinced them to visit Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan and the Emperor of China. Mongols took over China in 1264 and established Yuan dynasty (1264-1368). When the Polo brother finally arrived in the court of Kublai, they were well received and were sent back home with gifts and with a promise to come back. Kublai Khan wanted to learn more about the world outside of China. Marco Polo was only 6 years old when his father and uncle set out eastward on their first trip to Cathay (China). When Marco was 15 years old his father and his uncle returned to Venice from China. His mother had already passed away. He remained in Venice with his father and uncle for two more years and then three of them embarked the most courageous journey back to Kublai Khan’s court for a second time.

It is the Gobi desert where Marco Polo left us the feeling of awe for the vastness of desert and its effects on those hardy enough to penetrate it with the excerpt at the top of the page. The fact that Marco Polo was not a historian did not stop him offering a long history about the Mongols. During his long stay, Marco had many conversations with Kublai Khan. Marco must have come to appreciate the Great Khan's awareness of his Mongol origins, and the detail in which the Mongols are described in his book suggests that he was moved to make a close study of their ways. He provided a detailed account of the rise of the Mongol and Great Kublai Khan's life and empire. He told of life on the steppes, of the felt-covered yurt drawn by oxen and camels, and of the household customs. Marco's account of the Mongol's life is particularly interesting when compared to the tale of many wonders of Chinese civilization which he was soon to see for himself. Kublai Khan, though ruling with all the spender of an Emperor of China, never forgot where he had come from: it is said that he had had seeds of steppe grass sown in the courtyard of the Imperial Palace so that he could always be reminded of his Mongol homeland.

Three years after Marco returned to Venice, he commanded a galley in a war against the rival city of Genoa. He was captured during the flighting and spent a year in a Genoese prison - where one of his fellow-prisoners was a writer of romances named Rustichello of Pisa. It was only when prompted by Rustichello that Marco Polo dictated the story of his travels, known in his time as The Description of the World or The Travels of Marco Polo. His account of the wealth of China, the might of the Mongol empire, and the exotic customs of India and Africa made his book a bestseller soon after. The book became one of the most popular books in medieval Europe and the impact of his book on the contemporary Europe was tremendous. It was known as Il Milione, The Million Lies and Marco earned the nickname of Marco Milione because few believed that his stories were true and most Europeans dismissed the book as mere fable.

Fiction or not, his Travels has captured readers through the centuries. Europeans became insistent on finding ways to travel, trade, and interact with China because of Marco’s writings. Manuscript editions of his work ran into the hundreds within a century after his death. The book was recognized as the most important account of the world outside Europe that was available at the time. Today there are more than 80 manuscript copies in various versions and several languages around the world.Today there are a school of experts conducting research and authentication of Marco Polo and his Travels. Much of what he wrote, which regarded with suspicion at medieval time was, confirmed by travelers of the 18th and 19th centuries. Marco Polo is receiving deeper respect than before because these marvelous characters and countries he described did actually exist. What's more interesting is that his book becomes great value to Chinese historians, as it helps them understand better some of the most important events of the 13th century, such as the siege of Hsiangyang, the massacre of Ch'angchou, and the attempted conquests of Japan. The extant Chinese sources on these events are not as comprehensive as Marco's book.

Although Marco Polo received little recognition from the geographers of his time, some of the information in his book was incorporated in some important maps of the later Middle Ages, such as the Catalan World Map of 1375, and in the next century it was read with great interest by Henry the Navigator and by Columbus. His system of measuring distances by days' journey has turned out for later generations of explorers to be remarkably accurate. According to Henry Yule, the great geographer: "He was the first traveler to trace a route across the whole longitude of Asia, naming and describing kingdom after kingdom.....”

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