Marco Polo (1254-1324) was a Venetian merchant believed to have journeyed across Asia at the height of the Mongol Empire. He first set out at age 17 with his father and uncle, traveling overland along what later became known as the Silk Road. Upon reaching China, Marco Polo entered the court of powerful Mongol ruler Khubilai Khan, who dispatched him on trips to help administer the realm. Marco Polo remained abroad for 24 years. Though not the first European to explore China—his father and uncle, among others, had already been there—he became famous for his travels thanks to a popular book he co-authored while languishing in a Genoese prison.
Marco Polo is probably the most famous Silk Road traveler, but his father, Niccolò Polo, and uncle Maffeo Polo deserve equal credit. The Polo brothers were successful merchants in Venice who relocated to Constantinople in 1253 CE to pursue business. The business went well for several years; however, political troubles encouraged the Polos to move eastward and trade along the shores of the Black Sea. They moved eastward again to the Volga River in present-day Russia and then into present-day Uzbekistan. It may be there that they first heard rumors of Mongol ruler Kublai Khan's court and his welcome of strangers. Continuing eastward, they eventually reached China in 1265.
There, the Polos met Kublai at his summer palace of Shangdu (also known as Xanadu). Kublai, an inquisitive man, welcomed the strangers and learned as much as he could from them about the people, customs, and religions of their western homeland. When the Polos were ready to return to Venice, Kublai asked them to take a letter to the pope requesting that he send 100 learned men back to China.
The Polos arrived back in Venice in 1269, when Marco Polo was about 15 years old. Like most Venetian boys of that time, he had little formal schooling but was relatively well educated in business, religion, and shipbuilding.
Polo's father decided that Polo would accompany the brothers on their second journey to China. The young Polo was a keen observer, and most of what the medieval West came to know about the East derived from his descriptions of the trip. The party traveled through present-day Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, past the Taklimakan Desert and through the Pamir Mountains to the western part of China. The Polos arrived at Kublai's summer palace in about 1275.
Once again, Kublai welcomed the travelers, who remained within the Mongol Empire for the next 17 years. Trusted by the khan, Marco Polo made many information-gathering missions to other parts of Kublai's realm. The Polos departed China sometime around 1292. On their way home, they took a water route and stopped in Vietnam, Sumatra, Ceylon, and locations in the Near East. They arrived in Venice in 1295.
Polo soon dictated his memoirs to a writer. The work, Travels of Marco Polo, described in great detail places he had seen along the Silk Road, the Mongol court, and the lifestyle of the Mongols in China. He also wrote about places he had heard about but never visited. Reactions to Polo's book were mixed. Although the stories were extremely popular, several leading scholars of the time doubted Polo's accounts. Scholars today also disagree about some aspects of Polo's book, but most agree that there is truth behind it.