Saturday, July 18, 2009

Marco Polo

Marco Polo (1254-1324), of Venice, Italy, is one of the most famous travelers in history and probably the most famous who ever traveled on the Silk Road. He stayed in China for about 24 years and went further than any European before him - from Mongolia to China. He became a confidant to Kubla Khan. And he brought back hundreds of stories of China to Europe.
Marco was the son of a Venetian merchant, Niccolo Polo. Niccolo and his brother Maffeo, also a merchant, established a trading post near the coast of Dalmatia ( a region of Croatia).They traveled widely and in 1260 arrived in the Crimean port of Sudak. From they went to Surai on the Volga River where they spent a year trading. A civil war broke out and the brothers had to find another route out of the area. They found themselves stranded in Bukhara in Uzbekistan for three years. At that point the Mongolian ambassador arrived and persuaded them to go with him to meet the Great (Kublai) Khan, who had never seen a westerner. it was an arduous journey which included crossing the Gobi Desert. In 1266 they arrived in the Great Khan's capital of Beijing. They were well received by the Khan and the people of Beijing. The great Khan wanted to know all about the West and the brothers spent a year with him. When they finally left, Kubkai Khan gave them a tablet with stated that they were under his protection. It took them three years to get home. They arrived back in Venice in April 1269.
When they returned to Venice, Marco was 15 years old. He had been 6 when they had left. His mother had died during this time. Two years later, in 1571, Marco joined his father and uncle on a journey to back to Cathay.
They traveled a different route this time, going around the Taklamakan desert and passing through Yarkand, Khotan, Cherchen, and Lop-Nor. Marco proved to be an astute observer of people and their customs. He noticed that in Yarkland the natives were prone to goiters, that there was an abundance of jasper and chalcedony in the rivers of Pem province. But he really brought to life the Gobi Desert. "This desert is reported to be so long that it would take a year to go from end to end; and at the narrowest point it takes a month to cross it. It consists entirely of mountains and sands and valleys. There is nothing at all to eat."
"When a man is riding through this desert by night and for some reason -falling asleep or anything else -he gets separated from his companions and wants to rejoin them, he hears spirit voices talking to him as if they were his companions, sometimes even calling him by name. Often these voices lure him away from the path and he never finds it again, and many travelers have got lost and died because of this. Sometimes in the night travelers hear a noise like the clatter of a great company of riders away from the road; if they believe that these are some of their own company and head for the noise, they find themselves in deep trouble when daylight comes and they realize their mistake. There were some who, in crossing the desert, have been a host of men coming towards them and, suspecting that they were robbers, returning, they have gone hopelessly astray....Even by daylight men hear these spirit voices, and often you fancy you are listening to the strains of many instruments, especially drums, and the clash of arms. For this reason bands of travelers make a point of keeping very close together. Before they go to sleep they set up a sign pointing in the direction in which they have to travel, and round the necks of all their beasts they fasten little bells, so that by listening to the sound they may prevent them from straying off the path."
---- Marco Polo, Travels

Marco spent a year in Suchow(Dunhuang). The center of the asbestos industry (I had no idea that asbestos was around so long!) was in Uighuristan. Marco wrote on how to clean asbestos cloth - you throw it into the fire. The Polos brought back from Cathay a specimen of asbestos cloth and presented it to the Pope.
Marco also wrote a detailed history of the Mongols, including the rise of Mongol Empire and the life of the Great Khan.
Finally the long journey was over. Kublai Khan was told of their impending arrival. In May 1275 they arrived at Shang-Tu, the Khan's summer residence. They had traveled for 3 1/2 years and a total of 5600 miles. Marco recalls his meting with the khan:
" They knelt before him and made obeisance with the utmost humility. The Great Khan bade them rise and received them honorably and entertained them with good cheer. He asked many questions about their condition and how they fared after their departure. The brothers assured him that they had indeed fared well, since they found him well and flourishing. Then they presented the privileges and letters which the Pope had sent, with which he was greatly pleased, and handed over the holy oil, which he received with joy and prized very hightly. When the Great Khan saw Marco, who was then a young stripling, he asked who he was. 'Sir' said Messer Niccolo, 'he is my son and your liege man.' 'He is heartly welcome,' said the Khan. What need to make a long story of it? Great indeed were the mirth and merry-making with which the Great khan and all his Court welcomed the arrival of these emissaries. And they were well served and attended to in all their needs. They stayed at Court and had a place of honor above the other barons."
Marco became a favorite of Kublai Khan and was appointed to several high posts. He served at court and was sent on many important missions in China, Burma, and India. Some of the places he saw were not seen again by Europeans until the 19th century.
Marco reported on his many travels around China. He was in awe of China's great wealth and industry. He wrote of their iron industry which produced about 125,000 tons a year (this level of production was not reached in the West until the 18th century). Salt production was about 30,000 tons a year in one providence alone.A canal transportation system linked China's cities and markets. Paper money and credit facilities were highly developed. The citizens, who could purchase paperback books with paper money, eat rice from fine porcelain bowls and wear silk garments, lived in a prosperous city that no European town could match.*
The Polos stayed in China for 17 years. They had acquired great wealth.Kublai Khan was in his late seventies and the Polos were concerned that when he died they might not be able to get their fortune out of the country. The Khan reluctantly let them go after they agreed to escort a Mongol princess to Persia in to marry a prince.
The journey home took 2 years but Marco did not record much of the journey. But 600 passengers and crew died, why it is not known. When they arrived in Persia they learned that the prince had died 2 years before. So the princess married his son. In Persia they also learned that Kublai Khan had died. His protection outlived though him; by showing the Khan's "golden tablet of authority" they were able to travel safely through the bandit infested region.
Marco wrote: "Throughout his dominions the Polos were supplied with horses and provisions and everything needful......I assure you for a fact that on many occasions they were given two hundred horsemen, sometimes more and sometimes less, according to the number needed to escort them and ensure their safe passage from one district to another."
The Polos arrived home in December 1295.
Three years after arriving back in Venice, Marco commanded a galley in a war against the city of Genoa. He was captured and taken prisoner. Marco spent a year in a Genoese prison. One of his fellow prisoners was a writer of romances named Rustichello of Pisa. After some reluctance, Marco dictated his adventures to Rustichello. The book was known during his time as The Description of the World or The Travels of Marco Polo. It was an instant best seller - ok maybe "instant" is the right word. After all the printing press hadn't come to Europe yet. It was one of the most popular books in Medieval Europe and had a major impact. But it become known as Il Milione -The Million Lies and Marco was called Marco Milione. People, while enjoying the book, did not believe the stories were true.
Marco retuned to Venice in 1299 and married Donata Badoer. They had three daughters. He died in 1324 at the age of 70. On his deathbed he said, " I have only told the half of what I saw!" Among his belongings were quanitites of cloth, brocades of silk and gold,and coverings just like those mentioned in his book. There were also other precious objects, among them the "golden tablet of command" given to him by the Great Khan.
"Did Marco Polo really go to China?"has been a question for centuries. Marco never learned the Chinese language, despite being fluent in several other languages and spending 17 years there. His name never occurs in the Annals of the Empire which recorded the names of foreign visitors. Nor did ever mention certain articles which were part of everyday life in China such as women's footbinding, calligraphy, or tea.
Whether they were true or not, his adventures captured not only the people of his time, but people through the centuries. You just have to hear his name and immediately an image of this adventurer/traveler comes to mind. His book opened the minds of men to think of what possibilities might lie to the East.
Today there is much research and authentication of Marco Polo and his travels. Much of what he wrote was verified by travelers of the 18th and 19th centuries.Marco is more respected than ever because the characters and countries he talks about did actually exist. Chinese historians have found the book to be of great value in understanding the important events of the 13th century.
Although Marco receive little recognition from geographers during his lifetime, some of the information in his book was incorporated into maps of the later Middle Ages and in the 15th century it greatly influenced both Prince Henry of Portugal (the Navigator) and Christopher Columbus.
Marco's system of measuring distances by days' journey turned out for later explorers to be very 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.....". Today topographers have called his work the precursor of scientific geography.
I end with Marco Polo's words: " I believe it was God's will that we should come back, so that men might know the things that are in the world, 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 Niccolo Polo, great and noble citizen of the city of Venice."

The manuscript picture is Marco Polo arriving with elephants and camels arriving at Hormuz on the Gulf of Persian from India.
The following website was the main source of my information.

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