Excerpt from The Book of Ser Marco Polo the Venetian Concerning the Kingdoms and Marvels of the East
Published in 1903
"I repeat that everything appertaining to this city is on so vast a scale, and the Great Kaan's yearly revenues therefrom are so immense, that it is not easy even to put it in writing, and it seems past belief to one who merely hears it told."
T he Mongols were a nomadic, or wandering, people who lived in Central Asia between China and what is now Russia—the area of modern-day Mongolia. For a brief period during the 1200s, this small nation of warriors controlled much of the known world, thanks to a series of conquests begun by Genghis Khan (JING-us KAHN; c. 1162–1227). Under his leadership and that of those who followed, the Mongols took control of an area that stretched from the Korean Peninsula to the outskirts of Vienna, Austria, a distance of about 4,500 miles.
After Genghis, the greatest Mongol khan, or ruler, was Kublai Khan (KOO-bluh; 1215–1294; ruled 1260–1294), who led the Mongols in the conquest of China. For centuries, the Chinese had regarded the Mongols and other nomadic tribes with distrust, and they regarded Kublai's victory over them in 1279 as a disaster. Yet the short-lived Mongol empire also had the effect of opening up trade routes, and as a result there was more contact between East and West than ever before.
This situation made possible one of the most celebrated journeys in history, by Marco Polo (1254–1324) and his father and uncle. Marco won such great favor with Kublai Khan
In 1271, when he was seventeen years old, Marco Polo set out from his hometown of Venice, Italy, with his father and uncle. Today one can fly from Venice to China in just a few hours; but the Polos' journey—which took them through Persia, Afghanistan, northern India, and into China—lasted three years. Along the way, Marco learned several languages, skills that would help them when they got to their destination.
China at that time was under the control of the Mongols, a nomadic tribe from Central Asia, and the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan was perhaps the most powerful man on Earth. Marco became a minister in the Khan's government, which gave him the opportunity to travel throughout southeastern Asia in the coming years.
By 1287, however, when Marco was thirty-three years old, his aging father and uncle were ready to return home. It took some time to obtain the Khan's approval for them to leave, and the return journey by ship was every bit as difficult as the trip out had been; but finally, in 1295, they returned to Venice.
In 1298, during a war with the rival Italian city of Genoa (JIN-oh-uh), Marco was captured and thrown into a Genoese prison. There he met a writer named Rustichello, to whom he told the story of his travels, and Rustichello began writing a book that would become known in English as The Book of Ser Marco Polo. The book would later be recognized as the basis for scientific geography, and greatly expanded Europeans' understanding of the world.
that the ruler made him a trusted official in his government, and as a result he had an opportunity to travel to lands that no European had ever seen. Marco marveled at the wonders of the Mongols' government, and at the highly advanced civilization of the Chinese they had conquered. Later, when he returned to his hometown of Venice, Italy, he recorded these and other observations in a work the English title of which became The Book of Ser Marco Polo the Venetian Concerning the Kingdoms and Marvels of the East. (Ser is an abbreviation of the Italian term for "mister.")
Things to remember while reading the excerpt from The Book of Ser Marco Polo the Venetian
- The passage that follows contains Marco Polo's description of a city in eastern China that he called Kinsay (kin-SY), but which is known today as Hangzhou (hahng-ZHOH). That city had been the capital of China prior to the Mongol conquest. He also used the term Manzi (mahn-ZEE) to describe southern China, and Cathay (kah-THY) for China as a whole. As for the port he described at Ganfu (gahn-FOO), that city has since been covered by ocean. Marco's use of the term "Ocean Sea" reflects a pre-modern European belief that all the world's land was surrounded by a single body of water.
- When Marco referred to "miles," he was probably using a Chinese unit called a li (LEE), equal to about two-fifths of a mile. He also used an alternative spelling of khan, kaan. Other spellings in this document, such as armour or honour, however, are not necessarily Marco's but those of the translator, who was British. This also explains the use of the British term burgess for "citizen."
- Europeans during the Middle Ages did not bathe on a regular basis, thinking it was unhealthy to do so; but Marco could not help being impressed—understandably so—by the cleanliness of the Chinese. In the latter part of this passage, he reveals the ill-will of the Chinese toward their Mongol conquerors, who they regarded both as outsiders and as barbarians, or uncivilized people; yet to judge from this account at least, they did not seem to treat Marco with similar scorn.
- One fact that makes Marco's history of his journeys so entertaining is that he was more open-minded than most Europeans of his time; one would have to be to travel so far from home. Yet it was sometimes hard to keep his prejudices from showing through, as for instance when he referred to the Chinese as idol-worshipers. In fact the people of China subscribed to a number of religions, few of which could be considered any more idolatrous than the worship of saints practiced by European Christians at the time.
Excerpt from The Book of Ser Marco Polo the Venetian Concerning the Kingdoms and Marvels of the East
You must know also that the city of Kinsay has some 3,000 baths, the water of which is supplied by springs. They are hot baths, and the people take great delight in them, frequenting them several times a month, for they are very cleanly in their persons. They are the finest and largest baths in the world; large enough for 100 persons to bathe together.
And the Ocean Sea comes within 25 miles of the city at a place called Ganfu, where there is a town and an excellenthaven, with a vast amount of shipping which is engaged in the traffic to and from India and other foreign parts, exporting and importing many kinds of wares, by which the city benefits. And a great river flows from the city of Kinsay to that sea-haven, by which vessels can come up to the city itself. This river extends also to other places further inland….
I repeat that everythingappertaining to this city is on so vast a scale, and the Great Kaan's yearly revenues therefrom are so immense, that it is not easy even to put it in writing, and it seems past belief to one who merely hears it told. But I will write it down for you.
Appertaining: Pertaining, or with regard to.
Astrologers: People who study the stars and planets with the belief that their movement has an effect on personal events.
First, however, I must mention another thing. The people of this country have a custom, that as soon as a child is born they write down the day and hour and the planet and sign under which its birth has taken place; so that every one among them knows the day of his birth. And when any one intends a journey he goes to theastrologers and gives the particulars of his nativity in order to learn whether he shall have good luck or no. Sometimes they will say no, and in that case the journey is put off till such day as the astrologer may recommend. These astrologers are very skillful at their business, and often their words come to pass, so the people have great faith in them.
They burn the bodies of the dead. And when any one dies the friends and relations make a great mourning for the deceased, and clothe themselves in hempen garments, and follow the corpse playing on a variety of instruments and singing hymns to their idols. And when they come to the burning place, they take representations of things cut out of parchment, such ascaparisoned horses, male and female slaves, camels, armour, suits of cloth or gold (and money), in great quantities, and these things they put on the fire along with the corpse, so that they are all burnt with it. And they tell you that the dead man shall have all these slaves and animals of which the effigies are burnt, alive in flesh and blood, and the money in gold, at his disposal in the next world; and that the instruments which they have caused to be played at his funeral, and the idol hymns that have been chanted, shall also be produced again to welcome him in the next world; and that the idols themselves will come to do him honour….
Caparisoned: Equipped with a decorative covering.
There is another thing I must tell you. It is the custom for everyburgess of this city, and in fact for every description of person in it,to write over his door his own name, the name of his wife, and those of his children, his slaves, and all theinmates of his house, and also the number of animals that he keeps. And if any one dies in the house then the name of that person is erased, and if any child is born its name is added. So in this way thesovereign is able to know exactly the population of the city. And this is the practice also throughout all Manzi and Cathay.
Was Marco Polo Telling the Truth?
The journeys of Marco Polo were as remarkable in the Middle Ages as travel to another planet would be in modern times, and the information he brought back to Europe greatly expanded human knowledge. But his stories about faraway lands sounded so outrageous, and involved so many big numbers, that his neighbors nicknamed him "Marco Millions."
Some modern scholars have been similarly inclined to disbelieve Marco's tales. For instance, they point out that many of the words he used were in Farsi, the language of Persia, which would imply that he never actually went any farther east than modern-day Iran. But Farsi was the language of international trade at that time, much as English is today, so it is understandable that educated local people would have conversed with Marco in that language.
Harder to explain is the fact that Marco failed to mention either the Great Wall of China or the practice of foot-binding, or wrapping a young girl's feet in strips of cloth to prevent them from growing. This caused a grown woman to have tiny feet, something the Chinese at the time considered the height of beauty, but something a European would have found shocking. As for the Great Wall, his route should have taken him near it, and with its enormous size, it is hard to miss.
On the other hand, Marco certainly would have known about the Great Wall, which had been built in the 200s b.c. Therefore if he had been falsifying his account, he would have had every reason to mention it as a way of making his record seem more accurate. As for foot-binding, because this was a Chinese and not a Mongol practice—and because Marco was associated with the Mongols, who were foreigners in the view of the Chinese—perhaps he did not become intimately acquainted enough with the Chinese to learn about this practice.
Inmates: Inhabitants or residents.
Hosteler: Innkeeper or hotel manager.
Surnames: Family names—in European-influenced cultures, the last name, but in China the first name.
And I must tell you that everyhosteler who keeps an hostel for travellers is bound to register their names andsurnames, as well as the day and month of their arrival and departure. And thus the sovereignhath the means of knowing, whenever it pleases him, who come and go throughout his dominions….
Other streets are occupied by the Physicians, and by the Astrologers, who are also teachers of reading and writing; and an infinity of other professions have their places round about those squares. In each of the squares there are two great palaces facing one another, in which are established the officers appointed by the King to decide differences arising between merchants, or other inhabitants of the quarter. It is the daily duty of these officers to see that the guards are at their posts on the neighbouring bridges, and to punish them at theirdiscretion if they are absent….
The natives of the city are men of peaceful character, both from education and from the example of their kings, whose disposition was the same. They know nothing of handling arms, and keep none in their houses. You hear of no feuds or noisy quarrels or dissensions of any kind among them. Both in their commercial dealings and in their manufactures they are thoroughly honest and truthful, and there is such a degree of good will and neighbourly attachment among both men and women that you would take the people who live in the same street to be all one family.
And this familiar intimacy is free from all jealousy or suspicion of the conduct of their women. These they treat with the greatest respect, and a man who should presume to make loose proposals to a married woman would be regarded as an infamous rascal. They also treat the foreigners who visit them for the sake of trade with greatcordiality, and entertain them in the most winning manner, affording them every help and advice on their business. But on the other hand they hate to see soldiers, and not least those of the Great Kaan's garrisons, regarding them as the cause of their having lost their native kings and lords….
What happened next …
As it turned out, Marco Polo had seen China during the height of the Mongols' power. Already in 1274 and 1281, Kublai Khan had shown that his forces could be defeated when he launched two failed invasions of Japan; and in 1293
he suffered another defeat in trying to take the island of Java in what is now Indonesia. Kublai died in the following year, and the Mongol dynasty rapidly declined thereafter. In 1368, the Chinese overthrew it and established the Ming dynasty, which would rule until 1644.
Marco's account of his travels, which he began while in prison in 1298, became one of the most important works of geography ever written. It provided Europeans with their first exposure to many lands and peoples of the East, and increased their interest in learning more. As this interest grew, it led to expeditions and voyages of exploration that in turn advanced Europeans' knowledge even more. The Chinese, by contrast, had little interest in learning about people outside their realms. Though they sent ships to far-flung regions in the early 1400s, the purpose of these voyages was not exploration or even conquest; rather, it was to display Chinese achievements. While China turned inward, Europeans' thirst for knowledge ultimately gave them an advantage over the civilization that had created printing, firearms, and many other inventions that would change the world.
One reader later inspired by Marco's account was a fellow Italian named Christopher Columbus (1451–1506). Coincidentally, Columbus came from Genoa, a rival city of Venice that had imprisoned Marco and thus indirectly influenced him to write about his travels. In 1492, as every student knows, Columbus set out to reach China by a sea route, but found the New World instead.
Did you know …
- Marco Polo's book provided Europeans with their first knowledge of the Pamir (puh-MEER) range between Afghanistan and China. The Pamirs are among the world's highest mountains, and while there, Marco saw an animal that was later named the "Marco Polo sheep" in his honor.
- During Marco's lifetime, Kublai Khan sent a journeyer westward: Rabban Bar Sauma (ruh-BAHN BAR sah-OO-muh; c. 1220–1294). Born in China, Bar Sauma was a Turkish monk of the Nestorian faith, a breakaway group of Christians. In Europe, he met with the pope, and the two joined in an unsuccessful attempt to raise a crusade or "holy war" against the Muslims in the Middle East.
For More Information
MacDonald, Fiona. Marco Polo: A Journey through China. Illustrated by Mark Bergin, created and designed by David Salariya. New York: Franklin Watts, 1998.
Polo, Marco. The Book of Ser Marco Polo the Venetian Concerning the Kingdoms and Marvels of the East. Translated and edited by Henry Yule, third edition revised by Henri Cordier. London: John Murray, 1903.
Roth, Susan L. Marco Polo: His Notebook. New York: Doubleday, 1990.
"Marco Polo and His Travels." Silkroad Foundation. [Online] Available http://www.silk-road.com/artl/marcopolo.shtml (last accessed July 28, 2000).
Marco Polo: His Travels and Their Effects on the World. [Online] Available http://www.geocities.com/TimesSquare/Maze/5099/sld001.html (last accessed July 28, 2000).
"Medieval Sourcebook: Marco Polo: The Glories of Kinsay [Hangchow] (c. 1300)." Medieval Sourcebook. [Online] Available http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/polo-kinsay.html (last accessed July 28,2000).
T he journeys of Marco Polo were as remarkable in the Middle Ages as travel to another planet would be in modern times, and the information he brought back to Europe greatly expanded human knowledge. But his stories about faraway lands sounded so outrageous, and involved so many big numbers, that his neighbors nicknamed him "Marco Millions."
Setting out from his hometown of Venice, Italy, with his father and uncle in 1271, Marco was only seventeen years old when he began his travels. It would be twenty-four years before he returned to Europe, and during that time he would see half the known world. He would also have a series of amazing adventures, and would become personally acquainted with one of the medieval world's most remarkable rulers, Kublai Khan (see entry).
Venice and Cathay
In Marco Polo's time Venice was a powerful city-state, home to merchants and voyagers such as his father, Nicolo, and uncle, Maffeo. When Marco was six, Nicolo and Maffeo left Venice for Cathay (kah-THY), the name by which many Europeans knew China. At that time, China was under the control of the Mongols, nomadic warriors from Central Asia who conquered much of the world in the early 1200s.
Nicolo and Maffeo did not return for nine years, and during that time, Marco's mother died. When the two brothers came back to Venice in 1269, they came with a request from Kublai Khan (KOOB-luh; 1215–1294; ruled 1260–1294), the Mongol ruler of China, to the pope, head of the Catholic Church. The Great Khan, who respected all religions, wanted the pope to send a vial of holy oil, as well as a hundred religious teachers for his people. The Polos could not immediately obtain either, however, since the old pope had died and a new one had not yet been elected. An election could take months, and Nicolo and Maffeo were eager to begin their trip; therefore they set out for Cathay in 1271, taking seventeen-year-old Marco with them.
The adventure begins
They reached the city of Acre (AHK-ruh), an important church center in what is now Israel. There they met Tebaldo Visconti, a priest and representative of the Vatican—the pope's headquarters in Rome—who gave them letters for the Khan. From Acre they headed north to Cilicia (suh-LISH-uh), a region in southeastern Asia Minor, where they received word that a new pope had been elected: Tebaldo himself, who became Gregory X (ruled 1271–76). Therefore they returned to Acre, where Gregory blessed a vial of oil for the Khan.
As for teachers, however, Gregory could only spare two monks—and in the end, those two turned back when they realized how dangerous the trip to Cathay would be. But the Polos themselves were finally on their way, and they headed to Ormuz (ohr-MOOZ), a major seaport in Persia. The boats they saw there did not look particularly sturdy, however; therefore they decided to strike out for China over land.
A perilous journey
Today one can fly from Venice to Beijing, the Chinese capital—which under the reign of the Khans was called Khanbalik
(kahn-bah-LEEK)—in a few hours; Marco's journey, by contrast, took more than three years. He spent more than a year of that time in the mountains of Afghanistan, stricken with an unknown illness. Perhaps it was during this time that his father and uncle taught him the language of the Mongols, which they had mastered on their earlier trip. Marco also learned Farsi, or Persian, a common tongue for travelers and tradesmen in the East.
Finally, however, the Polos were able to resume their journey eastward, which took them across the Pamir (puh-MEER) range between Afghanistan and China. The Pamirs are among the world's highest mountains, and the journey—during which Marco saw an animal that came to be called the "Marco Polo sheep"—was a difficult one.
Coming down off the mountains, the travelers entered China itself, and for a long way, the going was relatively easy. Then they came to the Gobi Desert, which is nearly the size of Alaska. It took the Polos thirty days of hard traveling to cross this extremely inhospitable region, even though they did so at its narrowest part. At night, the desert winds became so fierce they played tricks on the journeyers' minds, and Marco later reported hearing voices calling to him in the chilly darkness.
In the court of the Great Khan
Having crossed the Gobi, the Polos found themselves in the heart of China. They followed the Yellow River, one of that country's great waterways, until they met representatives of the Great Khan who led them to Shang-tu (shahng-DOO). The latter, known to Europeans by the name Xanadu (ZAN-uh-doo), was the Khan's summer residence, some three hundred miles north of Beijing.
Though he must have seen China's Great Wall, Marco never recorded the event. Yet there was much to impress him when he and his father and uncle arrived at the court of the Great Khan in May 1275. Kublai Khan, Marco later wrote, "is the greatest Lord that is now in the world or ever has been."
Marco found the court at Shang-tu splendid, but not as luxurious as the Khan's palace in Beijing. There, he reported, the Khan's four wives were attended by some forty thousand servants, and Marco himself dined at a banquet where some six thousand guests were served all manner of delicacies.
As it turned out, Kublai was as impressed with Marco as Marco was with him. While his father and uncle became involved in several successful business ventures, Marco spent most of his time at court. During the corruption trial of an official, he testified regarding the man's dishonest actions, thus showing his loyalty to the Khan. The latter therefore appointed him to a series of offices which, over the next years, would vastly extend the scope of Marco's already extraordinary travels.
Visions of the East
The Khan first sent Marco to the province of Yunnan (yoo-NAHN), wedged between Tibet and Southeast Asia at China's southwestern fringe. Marco thus became the first European to see Tibet, one of the world's most remote and exotic lands. For three years beginning in 1282, he served as governor of Yangchow (yahng-ZHOH), a city along the Grand Canal of the Yangtze River (YAHNG-say) in east central China.
In the latter part of his governorship, Marco received orders to travel even farther: to India. On his way there, he visited a number of lands in southeast Asia: Champa, a kingdom in what is now central Vietnam; Thailand; Melaka, now part of Malaysia; and the island of Sumatra in modern Indonesia.
Crossing the enormous Bay of Bengal, Marco's boat touched land in the Andaman Islands, a part of India so remote that its people had never been exposed either to Hinduism or Buddhism, the country's two principal religions. The ship then sailed southward, to the island of Ceylon (seh-LAHN), the modern nation of Sri Lanka.
The way back
Marco probably arrived back in Beijing in 1287, when he was thirty-three years old. His aging father and uncle were ready to return home, but the Khan wanted them to stay; two years later, however, in 1289, Kublai allowed the three Europeans to accompany a Mongol princess to Persia, where she would marry the Mongol khan of that land. Various difficulties delayed their departure for some time, but finally in January 1292 the princess and the Polos, along with some six hundred passengers and crew on fourteen ships, set sail.
It was another long trip, taking nearly two years, during which time most of the passengers and crew died. Arriving in Ormuz, the Polos learned that Kublai was dead. It must have been with some sadness that they headed northward across land to the city of Trabzon (trab-ZAHN) on the Black Sea. From Trabzon they sailed to Constantinople, and on to Venice, and by the time they reached home in 1295, they had been gone nearly a quarter-century.
A teller of tall tales
But Marco's adventures were not over. Venice had gone to war with Genoa, another leading Italian city, and he became captain of a warship. In 1298, he was captured and thrown in a Genoese prison, where he met a writer named Rustichello (rus-ti-CHEL-oh).
His full name was Abu 'Abd Allah Muhammad ibn 'Abd Allah al-Lawati at-Tanji ibn Battuta; fortunately for non-Arabic speakers, however, he is known to history simply as Ibn Battuta (IB'n bah-TOO-tah; 1304–c. 1368). In spite of the fact that Marco Polo is much more well known outside the Arab world, in fact Ibn Battuta traveled much more widely. Over the space of twenty-nine years from 1325 to 1354, he covered some seventy-five thousand miles, three times the distance around Earth at the Equator—a particularly impressive feat at a time when the average person had seldom traveled more than a few miles from home.
Ibn Battuta was born into a wealthy family in the Moroccan city of Tangier (tan-JEER). He originally planned to study law, and when he went away on his first long journey at the age of twenty-one, he did so with the intention of later settling down. Like most people in Tangier, Ibn Battuta was a devout Muslim, or follower of the Islamic religion established by Muhammad (see entry), and he planned to serve as an Islamic religious judge. His first trip, in fact, was a pilgrimage to the Muslim holy city of Mecca in what is now Saudi Arabia. This type of pilgrimage, called a hajj (HAHZH), is sacred to Islam, and all Muslims are encouraged to do it at least once. By the time of his death, Ibn Battuta had made the hajj a total of four times.
After his first hajj (1325–27), Ibn Battuta made a side trip into Persia. He returned to Mecca, thus completing a second hajj, then sailed along the east African coast to the trading city of Kilwa in the far south before returning to Mecca yet again in 1330. But he was just getting started: over the next three years, he journeyed through Turkey, the Byzantine Empire, and southern Russia, at that time part of the Mongol lands. He then passed through Afghanistan and other parts of Central Asia before entering India from the north.
Eventually Ibn Battuta wound up in the court of the ruthless sultan Muhammad
ibn Tughluq (tug-LUK; ruled 1325–51; see box in Ala-ud-din Muhammad Khalji entry) in the great Indian city of Delhi (DEL-ee). Despite Tughluq's blood-thirsty reputation, Ibn Battuta managed to remain in his service as a judge for eight years. Tughluq sent him on an official visit to the Mongol emperor of China, a later successor to Kublai Khan, but Ibn Battuta was shipwrecked, and never returned to Tughluq's court.
During the next few years, Ibn Battuta visited Ceylon, Southeast Asia, and China—possibly even as far north as the capital at Beijing. He then made the long journey home, stopping in Mecca a fourth time; but he quickly headed out again, this time to Muslim Spain and then south, across the Sahara into the splendid African empire of Mali.
Ibn Battuta stopped traveling in 1354, after which he sat down to write the record of his journeys in a volume translated as The Travels of Ibn Battuta. Along with all the other activity that filled his life, Ibn Battuta had many wives and children, and died when he was more than sixty years old.
Marco told Rustichello about his travels, and Rustichello began writing a book that would become known in English as The Book of Ser Marco Polo the Venetian Concerning the Kingdoms and Marvels of the East, or The Description of the World. The book would later be recognized as the basis for scientific geography, and greatly expanded Europeans' understanding of the world. Prior to Marco's mention of the Pamirs, for instance, no one in Europe had ever heard of those mountains. He was also the first European to describe places such as Tibet and Burma, lands that would not be visited again by people from the West until the 1800s.
Marco introduced Europeans to a wealth of new ideas, from paper money to playing cards. In addition, his book excited the interest of future explorers, among them Portugal's Prince Henry the Navigator (1394–1460; see entry), who virtually launched the Age of Exploration when he ordered a number of Portuguese voyages around the coast of Africa. The record of the Polos' difficult journey also affected a young sailor from Genoa named Christopher Columbus, who in 1492 set out to reach Cathay by sailing west—and instead discovered the New World.
Modern scholars believe Marco's reports to be amazingly accurate, though many of his neighbors had a hard time believing his tall tales. Later he married, had three daughters, and became a modestly successful merchant, but his reputation followed him to his death at age seventy. Relatives tried to get him to renounce what they thought were lies about deserts full of whispering voices and banquets with six thousand guests, but he refused; on his deathbed he announced, "I have not told half of what I saw."
For More Information
Hull, Mary. The Travels of Marco Polo. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 1995.
MacDonald, Fiona. Marco Polo: A Journey through China. Illustrated by Mark Bergin, created and designed by David Salariya. New York: Franklin Watts, 1998.
MacDonald, Fiona. The World in the Time of Marco Polo. Parsippany, NJ: Dillon Press, 1997.
Roth, Susan L. Marco Polo: His Notebook. New York: Doubleday, 1990.
Twist, Clint. Marco Polo: Overland to Medieval China. Austin, TX: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1994.
Ibn Battuta's Trip. [Online] Available http://www.sfusd.k12.ca.us/schwww/sch618/islam/nbLinks/Ibn_Battuta_map_sites.html (last accessed July 26, 2000).
"Marco Polo and His Travels." Silkroad Foundation. [Online] Available http://www.silk-road.com/artl/marcopolo.shtml (last accessed July 26, 2000).
Marco Polo: His Travels and Their Effects on the World. [Online] Available http://www.geocities.com/TimesSquare/Maze/5099/sld001.html (last accessed July 26, 2000).
Abercrombie, Thomas. "Ibn Battuta, Prince of Travelers." Photographs by James L. Stanfield. National Geographic, December 1991, pp. 2–49.
Travels to the East. Marco Polo, a young Venetian traveling with his merchant father and uncle, is credited as being the first European to have spent a lengthy time in southeastern China. In reality his voyage was not the first one to reach the winter court of the Mongolian khan in present-day Beijing. The variety of land and sea routes that he successfully traveled and the experiences he had in the Middle East and Asia are, however, striking. While on the 7,500-mile route to China starting in 1271 or 1272, Polo had at least two brushes with death from disease and caravan robbers, but after about three and one-half years, uncle, father, and son did reach Khanbalic (Beijing), the khan’s winter residence, and Shang-tu, the khan’s summer palace. Later Marco went on to Hangchow, his favorite city, on the east coast of China. Nicolo and Maffeo Polo, Marco’s father and uncle, had already completed a similar journey by 1269 and thus became the first Europeans actually to make their way across Asia. Marco’s mother had died in Nicolo’s absence, having given birth to his son, who was already fifteen years old when his father returned to Venice. The subsequent twenty-four-year journey of the three Polos is recounted in the work which bears Marco’s name as author: Divisament dou monde (Description of the World). It became the key account for future travelers and explorers who would subsequently direct themselves by Marco’s story of routes to the wondrous East.
Personal Experience. Marco Polo’s name is well known today, but to his Italian contemporaries he was relatively unknown. Like those of many other Venetian merchants, his foreign contacts cannot, however, be overlooked. In fact, the account of his journey, written in a Gallo-Italian dialect by a Pisan, was recorded in a Genoese prison where Marco was being held. Marco traveled to China with his father and uncle, known traders, but his own personal skills as linguist and royal administrator were developed acting for the Mongol khan. He had been introduced to Kublai Khan as his servant and ultimately served him as a regional ambassador. Prior to becoming a favored bureaucrat, Marco distinguished himself as a messenger to the khan. During most of the period the khan ruled all of China, between 1279 and 1294, Marco served as his trusted set of eyes and ears. He went on an expedition from the Yellow River to the Indian border in northwestern China. He wrote that around 1269 Nicolo and Maffeo had helped in the Mongol conquest of a city in southern China by designing catapults for its siege and recounted the Mongolian general’s accepting the surrender of the last representatives of imperial China in the Sung capital city of Hangchow. He continued to travel and serve the khan until 1292, when, a little more than a year before the khan’s death in 1294, he and his father and uncle were given permission to escort a Mongol princess, Kokachin, to Persia (to be given in marriage to Arghun, the widower of a Persian queen, a fate she avoided by his death before her arrival) and to return to Europe.
Kublai Khan’s Request. Kublai Khan solicited the support of Nicolo and Maffeo in contacting the Catholic Church. The logic behind the brothers’ first return to Italy from China in 1269 was based on their seeking “as many as a hundred wise men” to teach about Christianity to the Mongol khan. Like the Polos, who had successfully judged the interests of the Mongols, earlier missionaries such as John of Plano Carpini and William of Ruysbroeck had actually whetted their curiosity about Christianity. When the brothers returned to China, they were also requested to bring back oil from the lamp at Jesus’ tomb in Jerusalem. The taking of Jerusalem by Saladin’s Muslim forces (1187) had caused the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem to move to Acre on the Mediterranean coast, a port whence the three Venetians started their land travel east. The Polos obtained the oil, but found almost no interest among Churchmen in continuing the journey with them. The dangers of long routes and Mongol tribesmen were known, so it was impossible to persuade even two friars to travel north as far as Turkey. Nicolo and Maffeo considered that the request of Kublai Khan for Holy Oil was a sign of the sincerity of his profession to hold Christ in veneration and to consider him as the true God, and thus made every effort to please him accordingly.
Eyewitness Account. Rusticello of Pisa, a writer of vernacular romances, wrote the descriptive chronicle of Marco’s journey that included a perspective appreciative of the Eastern wonders that were so hard to reach. After leaving Acre on the Mediterranean, the Polos traveled for more than three years without secure escorts. Marco describes some of the more difficult moments of their journey. While the Polos liked the idea of taking the known sea route from the Persian Gulf to China, the primitive construction of the ships at Hormuz (Minab) dissuaded them because they feared that the vessels, whose planks were lashed rather than nailed together, could actually be “a great danger to sail in.” This change of course added more than eight hundred miles and thirty-five days of riding to their trip. En route through Iran, most members of a caravan the Polos had joined “were taken and sold, and some were killed.” Like his father and uncle, Marco learned how to diminish his foreignness in part by learning four Eastern languages and acquiring great respect for what must initially have been a strange environment for him. Once within the khan’s domain, over the course of twenty years, Marco saw all of the land in northern and southern China conquered by the Mongols. He detailed towns and cities, religious and cultural practices, local professions, Mongol military prowess, appetites, and aesthetics, because other messengers had bored the khan with dry factual accounts. “After having held for seventeen years various offices in the imperial administration in lands subject to the conqueror, attaining one after another the ascending grades of the courtly and bureaucratic hierarchy, Marco, like many other foreigners residing in China, considered himself an adoptive son of this new country and a faithful servant of its sovereign, in spite of some feelings of nostalgia for his homeland.”
Significance. Marco Polo opened the world of readers to the Khanate of the Mongols and the culture of China in the late thirteenth century. The phrase “It’s a Marco Polo” still bears, however, the connotation of an overly embellished account. No actual journal has survived for his journey and from Rusticello’s literary account of the adventures Marco acquired the nickname “II Milione,” or “one who exaggerates a thousands of times over.” His contemporaries were unable to suspend the disbelief that intruded upon their ability to appreciate this remarkable “description of the world.” Nonetheless, less than a century after Marco’s journey, Abraham Cresques incorporated some of the work’s information into the Catalan world map of 1375, and thereafter his account intrigued Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal and Christopher Columbus, who sought routes East. The actual veracity of the Polos’ itineraries remained a great mystery until the nineteenth century, when many of Marco’s details of the routes and stops from Acre to Hangshow were corroborated. Marco Polo’s travels to the East have played a crucial step in medieval understanding of Eastern buildings, races, languages, governments, manufactured products, plants, animals, minerals, and the terrain itself. “I believe,” Marco concluded, “that it was God’s will that we should return, in order that people might learn about the things that the world contains, since, as we have said in the first chapter of this book, no other man, Christian or Saracen, Mongol or pagan, has explored so much of the world as Messer Marco, son of Messer Nicolo Polo, great and noble citizen of the city of Venice.”
Richard Humble, Marco Polo (New York: Putnam, 1975).
Leonardo Olschki, Marco Polo’s Asia: An Introduction to His Description of the World Called II Milione, translated by John A. Scott (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960).
Chris Twist, Marco Polo: Over/and to Medieval China (Austin, Tx.: Rain-tre Steck-Vaughn, 1994).
Frances Wood, Did Marco Polo Go to China? (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1996).
Born: c. 1254
Died: January 8, 1324
Venetian explorer and writer
The traveler and writer Marco Polo left Venice for Cathay (now China) in 1271, spent seventeen years in Kublai Khan's (1215–1294) empire, and returned to Venice in 1295. His account of his experiences is one of the most important travel documents ever written.
Born into a noble family of Venetian merchants, Marco Polo began his long experience with Cathay through the adventures of his father, Niccolo, and his uncle, Maffeo Polo, partners in a trading operation at a time when Venice was the world leader in foreign commerce. The Polos had left Venice to travel all the way to Peking, China, and back when Marco was only six years old. During their nine-year absence, Marco was raised by his mother and other members of his extended family. He became a tough, loyal, observant young man, eager to please and interested in adventure.
Marco Polo's father and uncle were well received in China by the Mongol prince Kublai Khan in 1266. The Polos impressed Kublai Khan with their intelligence and their knowledge of the world. For these reasons he kept them around for several years. In 1269 he sent them to Rome as his messengers with a request that the pope send one hundred Europeans to share their knowledge with him. Although the pope did not grant the request, the Polo brothers, in search of further profit and adventure, set out to return to China in 1271. Since his mother had died recently, Marco Polo was taken along on the trip, marking his debut, or first appearance, as a world traveler at age seventeen. The return to China, over land and sea, desert and mountain, took slightly more than three years.
Despite their failure to bring back the one hundred Europeans from Rome, Kublai Khan welcomed the Polos back and again took them into his service. He became increasingly impressed with Marco Polo, who, like his father and uncle, demonstrated not only his ability to travel but also his knowledge of the Mongol language and his remarkable powers of observation.
Years in China
With the approval of Kublai Khan, the Polos began widespread trading ventures within his empire. While on these business trips around the empire, Marco Polo demonstrated his quick mind and his ability to relate what he saw in clear, understandable terms. His reports, which formed the basis of his famous account of his travels, contained information on local customs, business conditions, and events. It was in these reports that he displayed his talent as an objective and accurate observer. Kublai Khan read and used these reports to keep informed of developments within his empire.
All three of the European visitors were kept on as messengers and advisers. The younger Polo was used on several extended missions that sent him traveling over much of China and even beyond. By his own account he came near the edge of Tibet and northern Burma. This relationship between the Polos and Kublai Khan lasted more than sixteen years, during which Marco served as Kublai Khan's personal representative in the city of Yangchow, China.
Leaving the khan
Although the Polos enjoyed the profits of their enterprise, they longed to return to Venice to enjoy their wealth. They were prevented from returning for a time because Kublai Khan was unwilling to release them from his service. Their chance to return to Europe came in 1292, when they were sent on a mission to Persia and then to Rome. The assignment represented Kublai Khan's way of releasing them from their obligations to him. In Persia they were to arrange a marriage between one of Kublai Khan's regional rulers and a Mongol princess. They were forced to remain in Persia for nearly a year when the man who was supposed to be married died and a new groom had to be found. From the Persian court, the Venetians continued their journey home, arriving in 1295 after an absence of nearly twenty-five years.
Marco Polo did not return to Asia again. He entered the service of Venice in its war against the rival city-state of Genoa. In 1298 Marco served as a gentleman-commander of a ship in the Venetian navy. In September 1298 he was captured and imprisoned in Genoa. He was famous for his adventures, and as a result he was treated with unusual courtesy for a prisoner and released within a year. Little is known of Marco Polo's life after his return to Venice. He apparently returned to private life and business until his death in 1324.
Record of his travels
While imprisoned in Genoa, Marco Polo related the story of his travels to a fellow prisoner named Rusticiano, a man from Pisa, Italy, who wrote in the romantic style of thirteenth-century literature. A combination of Marco Polo's gift of observation and the writing style of Rusticiano emerged in the final version of Marco Polo's travels. The book included Polo's personal remembrances as well as stories related to him by others.
In his book, which was translated into many languages, Polo left a wealth of information. The information contained in his maps has proved remarkably accurate when tested by modern methods. His observations about customs and local characteristics have also been proven true by research.
For More Information
Collis, Maurice. Marco Polo. London: Faber and Faber, 1950.
Latham, Ronald. The Travels of Marco Polo. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1958.
Stefoff, Rebecca. Marco Polo and the Medieval Explorers. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1992.
The Venetian traveler and writer Marco Polo (ca. 1254-ca. 1324) left Venice for Cathay, or China, in 1271, spent 17 years in Kublai Khan's realm, and returned to Venice in 1295. His account of his travels is one of the most important travel documents ever written.
The scion of a noble family of Venetian merchants, Marco Polo began his long experience with Cathay through the adventures of his father, Niccolo, and his uncle, Maffeo Polo, partners in a trading operation at a time when Venice was the world leader in foreign commerce. Marco's trip to China was preceded by the prolonged odyssey of his father and uncle all the way to Peking and back. In China they were well received by the recently established Mongol prince Kublai Khan in 1266. The Polos impressed Kublai Khan with their intelligence and their familiarity with the world. For these reasons he retained their services for several years. In 1269 he sent them to Rome as his envoys with a request that the Pope send 100 Europeans to share their knowledge with him.
The Polos' mission received little attention in Rome, but in 1271 the Polo brothers, in search of further profit and adventure, set out to return to China. It was this second trip that provided the occasion for the 17-year-old Marco Polo to make his debut as a world traveler. The return to China, over land and sea, desert and mountain, took slightly more than 3 years.
Despite the failure of their mission to Rome, the Khan welcomed the Venetians back and again took them into his service. He became increasingly impressed with the youngest Polo, who, like his father and uncle, demonstrated not only his ability in travel but also his facility for the Mongol language and for using his remarkable powers of observation.
Under the benevolence of Kublai Khan, the Polos initiated widespread trading ventures within his domain. While on these business trips around the empire Marco Polo first demonstrated his perceptiveness and his ability to relate what he saw in clear, understandable terms. His reports, which formed the basis of his famous account of his travels, contained information on local customs, business conditions, and events. It was in these reports that he displayed his talent as a detached and accurate observer. Kublai Khan read and used these reports to keep abreast of developments within his empire.
All three of the European visitors were maintained as envoys and advisers. Marco was used on several extended missions that sent him traveling over much of China and even beyond. By his own account he skirted the edge of Tibet and northern Burma. This business-diplomatic relationship between the Polos and Kublai Khan lasted more than 16 years, during which Marco served as the Khan's personal representative in the city of Yangchow.
Although the Polos enjoyed the profits of their enterprise, they began to long to return to Venice to enjoy them. They were detained primarily because of the unwillingness of Kublai Khan to release them from his service. Their chance to return to Europe came in 1292, when they were sent on a diplomatic mission, first to Persia and then to Rome. The assignment represented the Khan's way of releasing them from their obligations to him. In Persia they were to arrange a dynastic marriage between one of the Khan's regional rulers and a Mongol princess. They were detained in Persia for nearly a year when the prince died and a new marriage had to be arranged. From the Persian court, the Venetians continued their journey home, arriving in 1295, after an absence of nearly a quarter century.
Marco Polo did not return to Asia again. He entered the service of Venice in its war against the rival city-state of Genoa. In 1298 Marco served as a gentleman-commander of a galley in the Venetian navy. In September 1298 he was captured and imprisoned in Genoa. His fame as an adventurer had preceded him, and he was treated with courtesy and leniency. He was released within a year. Little is known of Marco Polo's life after his return to Venice. He apparently returned to private life and business until his death about 1324.
During his captivity in Genoa, Marco Polo dictated the story of his travels. The man he told his story to was a fellow prisoner named Rusticiano, a Pisan who wrote in the romantic style of 13th-century literature. A combination of Marco Polo's gift of observation and the literary style of Rusticiano emerged in the final version of Marco Polo's travels. The book included Marco Polo's personal recollections as well as stories related to him by others.
In his book, which was translated into most languages, Marco left a wealth of information. His cartographical information has proved remarkably accurate when tested by modern methods. His observations about customs and local characteristics have also been verified by subsequent research.
Ronald Catham translated The Travels of Marco Polo (1958). The standard biography is Henry Hersch Hart, Venetian Adventurer: Being an Account of the Life and Times and of the Book of Messer Marco Polo (1942), updated and reissued as Marco Polo: Venetian Adventurer (1967). Other works on Polo include Maurice Collis, Marco Polo (1960), and Hildegard Blunck, Marco Polo: The Great Adventurer (1966). □
Explorer, merchant, and author
Childhood. Marco Polo was born into a noble family and grew up in Venice (although his place of birth is uncertain). He was reared with the traditional education for Italian boys—trained in the classics and theology. He knew French as well as Italian and was interested in “the ways of people and interesting plants and animals.”When Marco was six years old, Niccolo and Maffeo, his father and uncle, respectively, traveled to Cathay (China) and met Kublai Khan. They left China with good relations and the intention to return. When the Polo brothers returned to Venice, Marco was fifteen years old, and his mother had passed away. Two years later, when he was seventeen, Marco left home with his father and uncle and accompanied them on their return trip to China.
Explorer. With his father and uncle, Marco traveled along the Silk Road into western Asia. The three men made it through to China across a route farther north than had previously been taken by the brothers. All along the way Marco recorded what he observed in each place that they visited. Three and a half years after leaving Venice, and 5,600 miles later, the small party finally reached the original capital of Kublai Khan at Shandu (then the summer residence). For twenty-four years Marco traveled and explored the vast regions of Central Asia, China, and South Asia.
Service in the Khan’s Court. Marco met and later became a confidant to Kublai Khan. He served on the Khan’s court for the remainder of the time he was in China. In 1277 the Khan appointed him as an official of the Privy Council. He was also named as a tax inspector for three years in Yangzhou, a city on the Grand Canal, northeast of Nanjing. Marco’s service to the Khan gave him the ability to travel to Burma, India, and other places throughout China, which also allowed him to become “a gifted linguist and master of four languages.”In his book Marco described Kublai Khan’s capital, ceremonies, hunting practices, and public assistance in great detail. He also included a description of the rise of the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). Compared to the grandeur of Chinese civilization, Marco felt that everything in Europe was on a much smaller scale. He discovered that China had been using paper currency and coal for years, both new concepts to him. He wrote of a communication system that was established throughout the khan’s territory. He was impressed by the extreme wealth of the dynasty, including its strong economy, iron production that well exceeded that of Europe, and the abundance of salt produced from the land. Overall, he concluded that China was a land of prosperity that could not be compared with any European country at the time. In 1295, after living seventeen years in China, the Polos returned home.
The Book. Three years after his return, Venice was engaged in a war against its rival city of Genoa. Marco Polo was captured during the fighting and was incarcerated in a Genoese prison for a year. While in prison he met a writer of romances and told him about his travels to China, which became known as Description of the World or The Travels of Marco Polo. Though his stones were met with disbelief, the book inspired generations of adventurers, including Christopher Columbus. Marco Polo died at the age of seventy at his home in Venice.
“Marco Polo and His Travels,” Internet website, <http://www.silk-road.com/artl/marcopolo.shtml>.
Morris Rossabi, Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).
Marco Polo's extensive travels led him to China, where he spent 17 years and established himself as an official in the Mongolian court. He recorded his experiences in Il milione, or "The Million," a classic of travel literature known in English as "The Travels of Marco Polo."
Polo was the son of an itinerant merchant. His father, Niccolò, and uncle, Maffeo, spent many years traveling and trading before Marco was born. In fact Marco was around the age of 15 or 16 when he first met his own father. By then Niccolò had established great wealth for his family, though whether or not he was an actual member of the aristocracy is unclear.
Little is known of Polo's early years in Venice, however, details are abundant once his travels began. Polo's father had years earlier established a good relationship with the Mongol court and the Emperor Kublai Khan. Niccolò and Maffeo had originally been sent back to Europe as papal ambassadors for the emperor. In 1271 the Polos, with Marco in tow, set out to return. Accompanied by two friars, they departed from Acre to deliver papal letters to Kublai Khan. However, the friars soon abandoned the party, leaving the three Polos to continue on their own to China.
In 1272 the Polos most likely made their way through the territory that is now eastern Turkey and northern Iran. To avoid taking the sea passage to India, the party chose to travel over land to the Mongol capital. It took them a couple of years, but in around 1274 they reached their destination and presented their patron, Kublai Khan, with sacred oil from Jerusalem as well as papal letters.
The Polo family stayed in the Mongolian empire for the next 16 or 17 years. It was there that Marco seemed to endear himself to the emperor. This personal association afforded him certain responsibilities, including being sent on fact-finding missions to remote parts of the territory. Research suggests that aside from his travel assignments, Marco was also a sort of government official.
Around 1292 the Polos, hoping to once again see their home and their families, offered to accompany a Mongol princess to Persia. Although Kublai Khan was reluctant, he finally granted his permission, and their fleet of 14 ships set sail, eventually arriving in Venice in 1295.
In 1298, while on another voyage, Marco was apprehended by the Genoese. He was sent to Genoa and locked in a prison. It was there that he met Rustichello, a prisoner from Pisa who was a writer. As he was not at ease with the Venetian or Franco-Italian language, Marco dictated the story of his travels, the basis of Il milione, to Rustichello.
Because Polo's account was written before the time of the printing press, copies of the book were made by hand. This left the door open for subsequent scribes and translators to take liberties with the content. Today there is no known authentic copy of Il milione.
Once completed, the book, later published as Divisament dou Monde (Description of the world), was an instant success. It included details of the politics, agriculture, military power, economy, sexual practices, religions, and other customs of the Far East. Polo lived a reclusive existence sustained by a modest fortune until he died at the age of 70.
AMY LEWIS MARQUIS
Marco Polo (mär´kō pō´lō), 1254?–1324?, Venetian traveler in China. His father, Niccolò Polo, and his uncle, Maffeo Polo, had made (1253–60) a trading expedition to Constantinople. A war blocked their return, and they journeyed eastward to reach Kublai Khan's eastern capital at Kaifeng in 1266. They returned to Venice in 1269, and in 1271 they left with young Marco for Kublai's court. The party reached Cambuluc (modern Beijing) in 1275. Marco Polo became a favorite of the khan, who employed him as an adviser and a tax assessor, sending him on business to central and N China, SE Asia, and India. For three years he apparently governed a Chinese city (Yangzhou). In 1292 the travelers, acting as escort for a Mongol princess who was to wed the khan of Persia, left Kublai's realm; they were back in Venice by 1295. Marco Polo soon joined Venetian forces fighting Genoa and was taken prisoner (1298) following Venice's loss in the Battle of Curzola. During his two-year captivity, aided by notes and reports written while he was in the East and by his fellow-prisoner and coauthor Rustichello of Pisa, he dictated an account of his travels.
The prologue of the work tells of Polo's life. The remainder of the book describes places he had visited and heard of and recounts the customs of the inhabitants. Polo made reference to much of Asia, including the Arab world, Persia, Japan, Sumatra, and the Andaman Islands, and to E Africa as far south as Zanzibar. He told of paper currency, asbestos, coal, and other phenomena virtually unknown in Europe. Polo was wonderstruck at Asian splendors and was sometimes credulous of exaggerated accounts, but scholars agree that his accurate reports of the events he witnessed and people he met are of great value. During the Renaissance it was the chief—almost the sole—Western source of information on the East, and until the late 19th cent. there was no other European material on many parts of central Asia. Of the annotated translations of his book the most useful is that by Sir Henry Yule (3d ed. 1903).
See studies by M. S. Collis (1960), H. H. Hart (1967), C. A. Burland (1970), J. Larner (1999), and L. Bergreen (2007).