The Journeys of Marco Polo and Their Impact

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The Journeys of Marco Polo and Their Impact


Marco Polo (c. 1254-1324) was a Venetian merchant and adventurer who made an extended, twenty-four year (1271-95), journey with his father Niccolò and his uncle Maffeo into central Asia, including seventeen years spent in Mongol-controlled China. He was among the first Europeans to visit this part of the world and was the first to record in detail the many things he observed there. He included information on the culture and religion as well as the geography and government of the regions he visited. His account of the trip was published in 1298 as Divisament dou Monde (Description of the world), now known generally as "The Travels of Marco Polo." Although read widely when it appeared, it was regarded by most readers as a work of fiction. Only later was it realized that most of its contents are quite accurate. In any case, it served to excite Europeans about the riches in trade and culture which might be found in unfamiliar areas of the world and to encourage them to venture out in search of them.


Marco Polo lived at an auspicious time in history. The Dark Ages that had followed the collapse of the Roman Empire were ending. Governments were becoming more stable and trade was increasing. Under Genghis Khan, the Mongols had conquered China and most of the rest of eastern Asia. They had also subjugated Russia and threatened Europe as well. The grandson of Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan (1215-1294) became the Great Khan in 1257 and ruled the immense Mongol Empire. Although the Mongols made no great effort to change the culture of the nations they conquered, they did not trust the natives' participation in government and looked to foreigners, especially Europeans, for help in administering their empire.

For many years, Europe and central Asia had been engaged in trading. The Chinese Empire had been a strong power with a well developed culture since the time of the Roman Empire, and there was active trade between the two empires along a 4,000-mile (6,400-km) caravan route, known as the Silk Road. Although trade declined when the Roman Empire degenerated, trade was revived by the Mongols during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Few traders traveled the entire route from Europe to China; merchandise changed hands a number of times before reaching its destination. A few Europeans, however, had preceded the Polos in making the trip to the court of the Great Khan in China. For instance, Pope Innocent IV sent friars there to attempt to convert the Mongols to Christianity. Among these were Giovanni da Pian del Carpini in 1245 and Willem van Ruysbroeck in 1253.

Although challenged by other nations, Venice controlled the Mediterranean and dominated European trade with the Middle East and with much of the rest of Asia. Marco Polo's family included wealthy merchants and traders—prominent members of Venetian society. His father, Niccolò, and his uncle, Maffeo, traded extensively in the Middle East. They left on a trading mission in 1253, leaving behind Niccolò's pregnant wife who gave birth to Marco in his absence. The brothers traded with the ruler of the western territories of the Mongol Empire and in 1260 left Constantinople on a trip through Afghanistan and Uzbekistan to Shang-tu (also known as Xanadu), the summer residence of the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, Kublai Khan. They arrived in 1265 and remained in Kublai Khan's court until 1269 when they were sent back to Europe as emissaries to Pope Innocent IV, requesting one hundred men to instruct and convert the Mongols and asking for oil from the lamp in the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

When Niccolò and Maffeo returned to Venice, Marco, now fifteen years old, met his father for the first time. His mother had died while he was very young, and he had been reared by an uncle and aunt.

Pope Clement IV had died, and the Polos waited for a new pope to be elected so that they could deliver Kublai Khan's requests. After two years, the cardinals could still not agree on a pope, and the Polos decided to return to China. Seventeen-year-old Marco accompanied them when they left in 1271. They traveled first to Acre in Palestine where they learned that their friend Teobaldo had been elected pope as Gregory X. The new pope provided them with two monks (instead of the one hundred requested), oil from the lamp in the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and papal communications to the Khan. Soon after they set out from Acre, the two monks, afraid of the dangers ahead, turned back, leaving the Polos to proceed alone.

Their journey took them through Turkey, Iran (Persia), Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Marco became ill in the desert but recovered in the cool regions of Afghanistan. They visited Kashmir and crossed the mountains into China. Following the Silk Road, they crossed the Gobi Desert and arrived at the Mongol summer capital, Shang-tu, in 1275.

Marco was introduced to Kublai Khan and the Mongol court and was impressed with its splendor. The Polos remained in the Mongol court in Shang-tu and in Beijing, serving as advisors to the Khan, for seventeen years. Marco was good at languages, and he immediately became a favorite of Kublai Khan who sent him as his emissary to various parts of the Mongol Empire. Marco was, therefore, able to explore and observe the country and people of much of China and of parts of India. He was the first European to visit Burma, and he traveled to Ceylon on a mission from Kublai Khan to buy Buddha's tooth and begging bowl. He kept notes on all he observed so that he could make detailed reports to the Khan on the conditions in the various parts of his realm.

After a number of years, the Polos wished to return to their native Venice. Kublai Khan was getting old, and they were concerned that they would not be safe among the Mongols after his death. Kublai Khan valued their service and, for a number of years, would not let them leave. He finally granted them permission to return to Europe in 1292, provided they accompany the Mongol princess Kokachin to Persia where she would marry Arghun, the Mongol Khan of Persia. They set out with six hundred escorts and fourteen ships. Marco was able to add a great deal to his store of knowledge of Asia on their voyage, which took them to Vietnam, the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, Ceylon, and the shore of Africa before landing at Hormuz on the Persian Gulf. Only eighteen of the six hundred escorts survived the long hazardous trip. From Hormuz, the Polos accompanied Kokachin on to Khorasan, where she married the son of the recently deceased Mongol ruler who had requested her as a wife. The Polos then traveled on to Tabriz and Constantinople, across Armenia, and finally returned to Venice in 1295. Marco, who had been seventeen when he left home, was now forty-one years old. The Polos had changed so much since leaving home that they were not recognized initially by their family and friends. They had been robbed on the trip back from China, losing much of the wealth they had accumulated in the service of the Mongol Empire, but they managed to bring back ivory, jade, jewels, porcelain, and silk as proof of their tales of China and the Far East.

The Polos settled back into influential positions in the Venetian trade community. Soon after his return, Marco served as the gentleman-commander of a warship in a trade war with Genoa and in 1296 was taken prisoner at the battle of Curzola. While imprisoned in Genoa, he met a prisoner from Pisa named Rustichello (also known as Rusticiano), an author of some renown. Marco told the story of his Asian travels to Rustichello. When he was freed, Marco returned to Venice, married and had three daughters. The dictated memories of his travels were published in 1298 as Divisament dou Monde (Description of the world), and they gained him immediate notoriety. Unfortunately, many readers regarded the book as fiction, a chivalric fable similar to the King Arthur legend. Its truth was not realized until after Marco Polo's death.


"The Travels of Marco Polo," as Marco Polo's story is now generally known, had a significant impact on subsequent exploration. When they were first published, the tales he told seemed fantastic to Europeans who had never been exposed to the details of central Asia. There are certainly fantastic elements in the book. He describes animals and customs that are clearly fictional, and it is evident that he relates many things that he did not witness himself. He seems rather gullible in accepting the tales of others as truth. It is also possible that Rustichello embellished the material to make the book more interesting. Since it was published before the printing press, each copy had to be hand-reproduced, and changes in the original content undoubtedly occurred during this process. In fact, there are well over one hundred different manuscript versions. Nevertheless, most of what he reported was true, and as time passed it came to be accepted as such. The book became an important source of knowledge on the geography, people, culture, government, religions, technology, plants, and animals of the vast area to the east. It provided a new view of the world and opened up new possibilities for trade and exploration. It served as a significant enticement for merchants, explorers, rulers, and churchmen to seek greater understanding of central Asia and to form closer relationships with its inhabitants. Maps of Asia were based on his descriptions until the sixteenth century, and many of the ventures of the Age of Exploration of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, including the voyages of Christopher Columbus, were inspired by the "Travels." Marco Polo's book was not replaced as the most important source of information on central Asia until the nineteenth century and may, indeed, be the most influential travelogue ever written.


Further Reading

Polo, Marco. The Travels of Marco Polo the Venetian. Translated and edited by William Marsden, re-edited by Thomas Wright. Garden City: International Collectors Library (Doubleday), 1948.

Polo, Marco. The Travels of Marco Polo. New York: Orion Press, 1958. (From a fourteenth century manuscript in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris)

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The Journeys of Marco Polo and Their Impact

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