Marco Polo was a Venetian merchant, explorer and later, a writer of one of the best known travel books in history; ‘The Travels of Marco Polo’. He was famous for traveling extensively in China while documenting the wonders of the Silk Route and the surrounding territories.
Born in September of 1254 in Venice, as the son of a merchant, Marco Polo didn’t meet his father until 1269, aged 15. After they met he began to learn navigation, the merchant trade and business from his father, Niccolo, and uncle, Maffeo. Soon afterwards, the three of them departed for ‘Cathay’, modern day China, via the Silk Route to trade their goods.
Their expedition to China lasted nearly 20 years and was full of close brushes with death, remarkable meetings and a stint for Marco as an emissary for the great Kublai Khan. Marco Polo is remembered in Western culture as a hero and explorer; with famous poems such as the ‘Kublai Khan’ written by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and popular TV series all being inspired by his exploits in China.
However, his life was controversial in his own times and many scholars have questioned the veracity of his travel memoirs. Even so, the story of his life and travels is a remarkable one and went on to influence other great Italian explorers, including Christopher Columbus, in future generations.
The Travels Of Marco Polo – A Journey In 4 Parts.
Also known as ‘Il Milione’, ‘The Travels of Marco Polo’ was first published in 1300 following his safe return from China. His travel writing covers a period of over 20 years and includes memories from his journey along the Asian Silk Road as well as his time as an emissary for the Mongol emperor, Kublai Khan.
Departing with his father and uncle in 1271 and returning in 1295, Marco Polo encountered mysterious cultures, animals and sights that he relayed to a fascinated European audience through his writings. The Travels of Marco Polo is split into 4 books.
The first book covers Marco’s journey through the Middle East, Persia and Central Asia as he and his companions followed the Silk Road into China. The second book in the series describes his meeting with Kublai Khan, the Emperor of Shizu of Yuan, who ruled the Mongol Empire from 1260 until 1294 AD. The second book also describes Marco’s thoughts on China and its feudal society, including observations about its customs, architecture and people.
The third book relates Marco’s experiences on the coastal regions of the East, including his visits to Japan as well as his experiences in India, Sri Lanka and the ports of East Africa. The fourth and final book tells the stories of the Mongol wars with northern enemies, including the tribes from modern day Russia.
The total collection was a sensation after it was published but it was also extremely controversial. His books include descriptions of cannibals and seemingly fantastical creatures and for many of Marco’s contemporaries his stories were too far fetched to be real.
Marco Polo Meets Kublai Khan And Escapes Back Home To Venice.
Marco Polo, with his father and uncle, met the legendary Kublai Khan and was taken into his vast royal court. The power, wealth and influence of Kublai Khan was unheard of in Europe and his empire covered more than 9 million square miles at its peak.
Kublai Khan welcomed Marco and was, according to Marco himself, impressed by his high intellect and respectfulness towards the emperor. Marco was eventually appointed as an emissary for the royal court which gave him the freedom and safety to explore the territories of Kublai Khan without fear of being robbed or taken hostage.
Kublai Khan was remarkable in his own time because he had a great deal of respect for other religions and cultures and sought to learn as much as he could from the people in lands that he conquered. He founded what was, in many ways, the first truly multicultural empire and although he ruled with an iron fist, as long as his subjects swore allegiance to him he was unconcerned about their religious or cultural practices.
This lends some credence to the idea that he would have taken on the young Marco to serve as his emissary, probably in the hope of forging stronger links to the West. It is known for example, that the previous emperor wrote to Pope Innocent IV in 1246 and it is likely that Kublai Khan would have wanted to continue to build on this and may have seen Marco as a way to do so.
In total, Marco spent 17 years in China before he returned home to Venice. Initially the emperor did not want to allow him to return home but after he offered to escort a princess to the coast he was able to set off for Venice in around 1292. He arrived back in Venice, via Constantinople, in 1294 having narrowly escaped death at the hands of bandits on more than one occasion on his way home!
The Travels Of Marco Polo Was Written In Prison.
In a strange twist of fate, Marco Polo composed his famous book about exploration and travel from within the walls of a prison in Genoa! In 1298, just 3 years after his return, Marco became embroiled in a war between the city states of Venice and Genoa during which he was captured and imprisoned.
While he was in prison Marco met the romance fiction writer Rustichello of Pisa who was a fellow prisoner at the time. The two struck up a friendship. Marco was desperate to make a record of his travels abroad and so he dictated his adventures to Rustichello who wrote the whole book for him. The two of them were released in 1299 by which time they had finished the book which would make Marco famous and wealthy.
Was Marco Polo The First Westerner To Visit China?
Although he may have been the most famous explorer to visit the East, Marco Polo was by no means the first to travel to China or other parts of Central Asia and Persia. 20 years before Marco set off for the East with his father and uncle, a Franciscan monk named Giovanni da Pian del Carpini traveled to China. The monk was granted an audience with the Mongol Khan, the previous emperor to the Kublai Khan that Marco met.
In later decades other Catholic emissaries would travel the Silk Road to China, including William of Rubruck who arrived in the 1250s in the hope of converting the Mongols to Christianity; something that was largely unsuccessful. Many of the early Christian missionaries to China were inspired by the myth of Prester John. The legend spoke of a Christian King that ruled over an unknown empire in the East although this is now known to be untrue.
Interestingly, Marco Polo mentions Prester John in his books and even describes a battle that he claimed took place between the Christian King and the Mongol empire. This, among other factors, has brought the travelogue of Marco Polo into doubt among scholars and historians.
Were The Travels Of Marco Polo Fact Or Fiction?
There’s a great deal of speculation as to whether or not Marco Polo really did travel as widely as he claimed. This debate began in his own lifetime when many people thought that his claims to have visited China, and other parts of the world, were an elaborate hoax!
In Marco’s own life he was already widely considered to be a ‘teller of tall tales’ and his works were generally thought to be fictional although loosely based on real events. Marco’s descriptions of the Mongol palaces were too incredible to be believed and modern archeology has found little evidence to support his claims about, for example, the Royal Palace of Xanadu.
Another factor that brought the travels of Marco into doubt was that he wrote his books in collaboration with a famous fiction romance writer! Rustichello was already well known in his own time for inserting himself, and Marco, into historical battles and court intrigues in the palaces of Venice. This discredited Marco’s stories further in his own life and only adds to the case made against him by modern historians.
There is also no evidence that Marco ever visited India, Sri Lanka or East Africa, as he claims in his books. However, it does seem that Marco did travel down the Silk Road, with his father and uncle, and did reach China. Whether or not he was made an emissary for the great emperor Kublai Khan is much more questionable though!
However, it’s not only the things which Marco added but the things he failed to mention which make his writings less believable. For instance, never once does Marco mention the Great Wall of China, something which would have been very well known in China at the time.
Nor does Marco ever mention the practice of ‘foot binding’ which was fairly common among the elite of China at the time. This unusual practice would have been impossible to ignore if Marco had spent time in the royal courts and since it had no direct equivalent in the West it would probably have been worth mentioning!
The Truth About Marco Polo’s Adventures May Never Be Known For Sure.
Shortly after Marco Polo returned to Venice the Kublai Khan died and his empire descended into warring tribal kingdoms that destroyed the relative harmony of his reign. Tribes and other warring bands reclaimed lands all along the Silk Road and had no interest in trading with the wider world. This made the passage to China too dangerous for merchants to risk the journey and so the great land bridge to the East was closed to the West by the early 1300s.
The closure of the Silk Road made it impossible for future travelers and merchants to confirm or deny the stories of Marco Polo for several centuries and so his book became one of the last reports of a lost kingdom in the East. This added to the mystique of his work and so, despite lingering doubts, The Travels of Marco Polo has retained its position as one of the most important historical records of Kublai Khan’s legendary empire.
However, what is for sure is that Marco Polo did leave behind the first Western record of many of China’s most important inventions, including porcelain, gunpowder and paper money.
The Mysterious Legacy Of One Of The World’s Most Famous Travel Writers.
There will always be questions as to the historical accuracy of Marco Polo’s works however even if they were, in part at least, flights of fancy they captivated the imaginations of Europeans for centuries to come.
Great poets, such Samuel Taylor Coleridge and world changing explorers, such as Christopher Columbus, were inspired by his works. And so even though we may never know the entire truth about Marco Polo’s tales, his legacy has left an indelible mark on the history of the West.