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Marco Polo
1254 - 1324
 



The Venetian traveller and writer Marco Polo 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 traveller. 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 travelling 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.
 


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Marco Polo was born in Venice, Italy, probably around 1254.

In 1271, Marco, along with his Father and Uncle, travelled to China. In those days it was known as "Cathay". In 1275, Polo and his Father and Uncle had arrived in Cambuluc (Beijing).

It is thought the Polo family lived in China for around 17 to 20 years. They eventually arrived back in Venice in 1295.

Polo went on to write about his journeys in a book, "Il Milione". Also known as "The Travels of Marco Polo". The book basically became the authoritive subject of China for centuries. Marco Polo died sometime around 1324.

Marco Polo (September 15, 1254 - January 9, 1324 at earliest but no later than June 1325) was a Venetian trader and explorer who gained fame for his worldwide travels, recorded in the book Il Milione ("The Million" or The Travels of Marco Polo). Polo, together with his father Niccolò and his uncle Maffeo, was one of the first Westerners to travel the Silk Road to China (which he called Cathay, after the Khitan) and visit the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, Kublai Khan (grandson of Genghis Khan).

The Polo name originally did not belong to a family of explorers, but to a family of traders. Marco Polo's father, Niccolò (also Nicolò in Venetian) and his uncle, Maffeo (also Maffio), were prosperous merchants who traded with the East. They were partners with a third brother, named Marco il vecchio (the Elder). In 1252, Niccolò and Maffeo left Venice for Constantinople, where they resided for several years. The two brothers lived in the Venetian quarter of Constantinople, where they enjoyed political chances and tax relief because of their country's role in establishing the Latin Empire in the Fourth Crusade of 1204. But the family judged the political situation of the city precarious, so they decided to transfer their business northeast to Soldaia, a city in Crimea, and left Constantinople in 1259. Their decision proved wise. Constantinople was recaptured in 1261 by Michael Palaeologus, the ruler of the Empire of Nicaea, who promptly burned the Venetian quarter. As their new home on the north rim of the Black Sea, Soldaia had been frequented by Venetian traders since the 12th century. The Mongol army sacked it in 1223, but the city had never been definitively conquered until 1239, when it became a part of the newly formed Mongol state known as the Golden Horde. Searching for better profits, the Polos continued their journey to Sarai, where the court of Berke Khan, the ruler of the Golden Horde, was located. At that time, the city of Sarai already visited by William of Rubruck a few years earlier was no more than a huge encampment, and the Polos stayed for about a year. Finally, they decided to avoid Crimea, because of a civil war between Berke and his cousin Hulagu or perhaps because of the bad relationship between Berke Khan and the Byzantine Empire. Instead, they moved further east to Bukhara, in modern day Uzbekistan, where the family lived and traded for three years.

In 1264, Nicolò and Maffio joined up with an embassy sent by the Ilkhan Hulagu to his brother, the Grand Khan Kublai. In 1266, they reached the seat of the Grand Khan in the Mongol capital Khanbaliq, present day Beijing, China. In his book, Il Milione, Marco explains how Kublai Khan officially received the Polos and sent them back with a Mongol named Koeketei as an ambassador to the Pope. They brought with them a letter from the Khan requesting 100 educated people to come and teach Christianity and Western customs to his people and oil from the lamp of the Holy Sepulcher. The letter also contained the paiza, a golden tablet a foot long and three inches wide, authorizing the holder to require and obtain lodging, horses and food throughout the Great Khan's dominion. Koeketei left in the middle of the journey, leaving the Polos to travel alone to Ayas in the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia. From that port city, they sailed to Saint Jean d'Acre, capital of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

The long sede vacante between the death of Pope Clement IV, in 1268, and the election of Pope Gregory X, in 1271 prevented the Polos from fulfilling Kublai’s request. The two brothers returned to Venice in 1269 or 1270, waiting for the nomination of the new Pope.

As soon as he was elected in 1271, Pope Gregory X received the letter from Kubilai, remitted by Niccolo and Maffeo. Kubilai was asking for the dispatch of a hundred missionaries, and some oil from the lamp of the Holy Sepulcher. The two Polos (this time accompanied by the 17 year-old Marco Polo) returned to Mongolia, accompanied by two Dominican monks, Niccolo de Vicence and Guillaume de Tripoli. The two friars did not finish the voyage due to fear, but the Polos reached Kanbaliq and remitted the presents from the Pope to Kublai in 1274. The Polos spent the next 17 years in China. Kublai Khan took a liking to Marco, who was an engaging storyteller. They set him on many diplomatic missions throughout his empire. Marco carried out diplomatic assignments but also entertained the khan with interesting stories and observations about the lands he traveled. Marco reported that apart from entrusting him with diplomatic missions Kublai Khan also made him governor for three years of the large commercial city of Yangzhou. An Italian community would actually reside in Yangzhou throughout the 14th century, as documented by the findings of the 1342 tombstone of Katarina Vilioni.

According to Marco’s travel account, the Polos asked several times for permission to return to Europe but the Khan appreciated the visitors so much that he would not agree to their departure. Only in 1291 Kublai entrusted Marco with his last duty, to escort the Mongol princess Koekecin (Cocacin in Il Milione) to her betrothed, the Ilkhan Arghun. The party traveled by sea, departing from the southern port city of Quanzhou and sailing to Sumatra, and then to Persia, via Sri Lanka and India (where his visits included Mylapore, Madurai and Alleppey, which he nicknamed Venice of the East). Marco Polo has been described to utilise the Northern Silk Road although the possibility of a southern route has been advanced. In 1293 or 1294 the Polos reached the Ilkhanate, ruled by Gaykhatu after the death of Arghun, and left Koekecin with the new Ilkhan. Then they moved to Trebizond and from that city sailed to Venice. Koekecin would become the principal wife of the Mongol Il-Khan ruler Ghazan.


The Travels of Marco Polo

On their return from China in 1295, the family settled in Venice where they became a sensation and attracted crowds of listeners who had difficulties in believing their reports of distant China. According to a late tradition, since they did not believe him, Marco Polo invited them all to dinner one night during which the Polos dressed in the simple clothes of a peasant in China. Shortly before the crowds ate, the Polos opened their pockets to reveal hundreds of rubies and other jewels which they had received in Asia. Though they were much impressed, the people of Venice still doubted the Polos. Marco Polo was later captured in a minor clash of the war between Venice and Genoa, or in the naval battle of Curzola, according to a dubious tradition. He spent the few months of his imprisonment, in 1298, dictating to a fellow prisoner, Rustichello da Pisa, a detailed account of his travels in the then-unknown parts of China. His book, Il Milione (the title comes from either "The Million", then considered an extremely big number, or from Polo's family nickname Emilione), was written in Old French, a language Polo didn't speak, and entitled Le divisament dou monde ("The description of the world"). The book was soon translated into many European languages and is known in English as The Travels of Marco Polo. The original is lost and there are now several often-conflicting versions of the translations. The book became an instant success, quite an achievement at a time when the invention of the printing press was two hundred years away in Europe.

Marco Polo was finally released from captivity in the summer of 1299, and he returned home to Venice, where his father and uncles had bought a large house in the central quarter named contrada San Giovanni Crisostomo with the company's profits. The company continued its activities, and Marco was now a wealthy merchant. While he personally financed other expeditions, he would never leave Venice again. In 1300, he married Donata Badoer, a woman from an old, respected patrician family. Marco would have three children with her: Fantina, Bellela and Moreta. All of them later married into noble families. Between 1310 and 1320, he wrote a new version of his book, Il Milione, in Italian. The text was lost, but not before a Franciscan friar, named Francesco Pipino, translated it into Latin. This Latin version was then translated back into the Italian, creating conflicts between different editions of the book. Marco Polo died in his home on January 1324, at almost 70 years old. He was buried in the Church of San Lorenzo.
 


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It must have been just force of circumstances that made Marco Polo the hero, great adventurer and explorer he is known to be today. Had a civil war not blocked the return path of his father and uncle who had gone to trade at Surai on the Volga River, they would not have taken a detour to Bukhara and from thence proceeded to the East, to China. Enamored by this land and the people, they went back again after they returned to home to Venice. It was on this journey that they took young Marco Polo with them and the rest of course has become history!

Marco Polo was from a Venetian family of merchants that traded a great deal with the Middle East and became wealthy in the process. Born in the year 1254, Marco Polo grew up in Venice and was educated in the same way the son of a wealthy family was in those days. He mastered the classical texts of the time, knew the Bible well and was experienced in the matters of the Latin Church. His interest in French and Italian languages helped his business dealings and apart from all this, he displayed a keen curiosity about everything, even studying rare plants and animals. Though not a nobleman by birth he lived and was brought up like one.

His father Niccolo and uncle Maffeo often went on long journeys to sell their goods in far off places. In the year 1260 when Marco Polo was about 6 years old, the brothers sensed political instability in Constantinople and selling all their property and converting it into gold and jewels they went to the court of Berke Khan at Bulgar. Here they cleverly doubled their wealth and later traveled further towards the East to avoid war torn land and finally ended their journey at the capital of the great emperor Kublai Khan, at Beijing, in 1266

This was a turning point in their lives and though nobody recognized it as such, it was more so for Marco Polo, who was at the time schooling and growing up into a young man at Venice. The course of these events led to Marco’s eventual trip to China, his stay with the great Khan for some 17 years as the emperor’s most trusted aide and then returning a wealthy man to write a book about his travels that achieved him recognition world over, as an explorer and writer.

Kublai Khan had built himself a very impressive capital after the Mongols had established the Yuan Dynasty in China. It is said that he even had the steppes grass grown in his palace courtyard to remind him of his home Mongolia. The Polo brothers were well received by the Khan and treated with great courtesy, especially as the ruler was meeting people of Latin origin for the first time. He made use of their services for a year and then sent them back as his emissaries to Pope Clement IV, requesting the Holy Father to dispatch at least a hundred learned persons to teach Christianity as also other western sciences to the people of his kingdom to make them more learned. Kublai Khan was very keen to get for himself oil from the lamp at the holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and he deputed the Polo brothers to undertake this task for him as well.
Kublai Khan’s great concern for the safety and return of the Polo brothers made him present them with a royal seal, in fact a golden tablet, that when produced before anyone during the journey authorized the holder to receive food, horses, shelter or whatever the person required to make his sojourn comfortable, as he passed through the land that owed allegiance to the Great Khan. Despite this great advantage the Polo brothers took 3 years to reach home to the family they left behind in Europe.

Much had changed in their absence. Marco Polo had grown into a strapping lad of 17 years. His mother had died without seeing his father again. The brothers Niccolo and Maffeo settled down to domesticity for 2 years after which the travel bug bit them again! They prepared for a second trip to Kublai Khan in China and this time took Marco with them. Pope Clement IV had passed away, so the Polos collected letters and gifts for the Mongol ruler from the new pontiff, Pope Tedaldo and in 1271 started afresh on their long journey East. Far from sending the 100 priests to spread Christianity in Beijing as desired by the Great Khan, only two friars escorted the group but they too fled back home when they felt threatened by a war zone on the way. The Polos continued their travel undeterred, crossing Armenia, Persia, Afghanistan and finally over the silk route to China. Incredible as it may seem in today’s jet age, the Polos spent an agonizing three and a half years to cover a distance of mere 5600 miles of journey through treacherous mountains and burning desert sands to Beijing. Marco Polo records in his book how they heard voices of spirits at night when they crossed the deserts - hallucinations no doubt in the mind of a tired and worn out traveler in the hostile sands.

For Kublai Khan who eagerly awaited their arrival it was a great moment when the Polos returned to his court. They were escorted immediately into his royal presence. The holy oil and the messages from the Pope immensely pleased the ruler. It made him happy to see Marco too, as part of the delegation. The Polos were treated with much courtesy and made to stay in the royal court as a mark of great honor to them.

This time the Polos remained in the empire of Kublai Khan for 17 years and collected great wealth for the services they rendered to the ruler. Marco Polo was a special favorite of the king and was given many responsible posts in high offices. The young boy could speak several languages and impressed the Great Khan very much with many skills. Marco was therefore sent on many important assignments to neighboring countries like India and Burma and returned with much success after these trips. Kublai Khan came to depend more and more on Marco Polo in administrative matters of the state, thereby giving Marco great importance in the court.

Fascinated as this young Venetian man was by the lavish lifestyle of the royalty there, there were certain things he had never encountered before in his life in Europe nor imagined existed anywhere in the world! He wondered with amazement at asbestos, coal, paper money and the imperial post that he experienced in the land of the Great Khan.

That paper money could be successfully used in place of gold, silver and precious stones to trade, was something the young Polo found difficult to believe.

Coal was also a new phenomenon to Marco. He had seen large logs burn in his home in Venice but these little stone-like black pieces that could burn so brightly simply defied the man’s imagination. Coal was by no means a rarity in Europe but obviously Marco Polo had seen none in his hometown.

The king’s communication system that worked with great efficiency too impressed Marco greatly. It had 3 stages of dispatch depending on how important the message to be sent was. Messengers on foot who wore bells around their waists that jangled and announced their arrival carried ordinary messages. A fresh messenger relieved them every 3 miles. More important matters were sent through men on horseback. New riders every 25 miles, took charge of the dispatch and sent it quickly on its way. Urgent mail, as that sent by the King himself was deputed to horse riders who rode without a stop, only changing horses periodically till the job was accomplished! The system worked very well and made Marco Polo exclaim in wonder!

As Marco Polo spent more years in China, his respect for the land and people only grew. The Yuan Dynasty’s economy was very strong, in fact much better than that of Europe at the time. They produced 125,000 tons of iron a year. Salt production was at an equally impressive level. Transportation of goods and people to different parts of the land was achieved through canals. People used finely crafted porcelain bowls to eat in, read paperbacks and wore exquisitely fashioned silk clothes. They seemed more prosperous and advanced in their way of living than their counterparts in any Western country in that age.

Kublai Khan was getting on in years and this made the shrewd Polos decide it was time to return home to Venice rather than risk losing their accumulated fortune if their benefactor and king died or worse still got overthrown. They offered to escort a Mongol princess Kokachin to Persia where she was to marry a prince. Though Kublai Khan was hesitant to see his friends leave, he agreed with great reluctance and the Polos set off homewards on this pretext. The journey back was by sea and as gruesome as the inward trip they made. It took two years to complete and some 600 passengers aboard died during the time. Prince Arghun who was betrothed to the princess too was no more. So the girl was married off to his son, instead. The Polos received news in Persia that the Great Khan had died, proving their fears true. They carried on with their journey assisted by the golden tablet of Kublai Khan that still commanded great respect and ensured they reach the shores of their homeland safe and sound.

Curiously Marco Polo wrote his famous travelogue, with the help of a prison mate Rustichello of Pisa when the former was captured and taken prisoner in a war against neighboring Genoa, three years after his return from China. Marco Polo dictated while his fellow prisoner jotted down what he said. The book was called The Travels of Marco Polo and received wide acclaim from everyone who read it, though there were some especially amongst the Europeans who sneered and called it a pack of lies.

Even today there are skeptics who ask why Marco Polo never mentioned the Great Wall of China in his writings or Chinese foot binding of women, tea or calligraphy? Nor could Marco Polo, the acknowledged and versatile linguist speak the Chinese language, despite having lived there so long. His critics felt he fabricated the stories with the help of what he learnt from Arab and Persian merchants whom he met during his journeys.

Whether his book was fiction or not it caught the imagination of many people. The manuscript edition ran into hundreds of copies, as the demand for it grew even after Marco Polo passed away at the age of 70, in 1324.

Many experts today are convinced by their research that much of what Marco Polo wrote was confirmed by travelers of the 18th and 19th centuries to China. There is greater respect for him because of this though some vital questions still remain unanswesred.
 

 

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