Marco Polo (1254-1324), is probably the most famous Westerner traveled on the Silk Road. He excelled all the other travelers in his determination, his writing, and his influence. His journey through Asia lasted 24 years. He reached further than any of his predecessors, beyond Mongolia to China. He became a confidant of Kublai Khan (1214-1294). He traveled the whole of China and returned to tell the tale, which became the greatest travelogue.
The Polo Brothers
In 1260 two Venetian merchants arrived aat Sudak, the Crimean port. The brothers Maffeo and Niccilo Polo went on to Surai, on the Volga river, where they traded for a year. Shortly after a civil war broke out between Barka and his cousin Hulagu, which made it impossible for the Polos to return with the same route as they came. They therefore decide to make a wide detour to the east to avoid the war and found themselves stranded for 3 years at Bukhara.
The marooned PPolo brothers were abruptly rescued in Bukhara by the arrival of a VIP emissary from Hulagu Khan in the West. The Mongol ambassador persuaded the brothers that Great Khan would be delighted to meet them for he had never seen aany Latin and very much wanted to meet one. So they journeyed eastward. They left Bukhara, Samarkand, Kashgar, then came the murderous obstacle of the Gobi desert. Through the northern route they reached Turfan and Hami, then headed south-east to Dunhuang. Along the Hexi Corridor, they finally reached the new capital of the Great Khan, Bejing in 1266.
The Great Khan, Mangu’s brother, Kublai, was indeed hospitable. He had set up his court at Beijing, which was not a Mongol encampment but an impressive city built by Kublai as his new capital after the Mongols took over China in 1264 and established Yuan dynasty (1264-1368). Kublai asked them all about their part of the world, the Pope and the Roman cchurch. Niccolo and Matteo, who spoke Turkic dialects perfectly, answered truthfully and clearly. The Polo brothers were well received in the Great Khan’s capital. One year later, the Great Khan sent them on their way with a letter in Turki addressed to Pope Clement IV asking the Pope to send him 100 learned men to teach his people about Christianity and Western science. He also asked Pope to procure oil from the lamp at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
To mmake sure the brothers would be given every assistance on their travels, Kublai Khan presented them with a golden tablet (or paiza in Chinese, gerege in Mongolian) a foot long and three inches wide and inscribed with the words (Left Fig.): „By the strength of the eternal Heaven, holy be the Khan’s name. Let him that pays him not reverence be killed.“ The golden tablet was the special VIP passport, authorizing the travelers to receive throughout the Great Khan’s dominions such horses, lodging, food and guides as they required. It took the Polos three full years to return home, in April 1269.
Although the Polo brothers blazed a trail of their own on their first journey to the East, they were not the first Europeans to visit the Mongols on their home ground. Before them Giovanni di Piano Carpini in 1245 and Guillaume de Rubrouck in 1253 had made the dangerously journey to Karakorum and returned safely; however the Polos traveled farther than Carpini and Rubrouck and reached China.
Marco Polo’s Birth and Growing Up
According to one authority, the Polo family were great nobles originating on the coast of Dalmatia. Niccolo and Maffeo had established a trading outpost on the iisland of Curzola, off the coast of Dalmatia; it is not certain whether Marco Polo was born there or in Venice in 1254. The place Marco Polo grew up, Venice, was the center for commerce in the Mediterranean. Marco had the usual education of a young gentleman of his time. He had learned much of the classical authors, understood the texts of the Bible, and knew the basic theology of the Latin Church. He had a sound knowledge of commercial French as well as Italian. From his later history we can be sure of his interest in natural resources, in the ways of people, as well as strange and interesting plants and animals.
Marco Polo was only 6 years old when his father and uncle set out eastward on their first trip to Cathay (China). He was by then 15 years old when his father and his uncle returned to Venice and his mother had already passed away. He remained in Venice with his father and uncle for two more years and then three of them embarked the most couragous journey to Cathay the second time.
The Long and Difficult Journey to Cathay
At the end of year 1271, receiving letters aand valuable gifts for the Great Khan from the new Pope Tedaldo (Gregory x), the Polos once more set out from Venice on their journey to the east. They took with them 17-year-old Marco Polo and two friars. The two friars hastily turned back after reaching a war zone, but the Polos carried on. They passed through Armenia, Persia, and Afghanistan, over the Pamirs, and all along the Silk Road to China.
Avoiding to travel the same route the Polos did 10 years ago, they made a wide swing to the north, first arriving to the southern Caucasus and the kingdom of Georgia. Then they journeyed along the regions parallel to the western shores of the Caspian Sea, reaching Tabriz and made their way south to Hormuz on the Persian Gulf. They intended to take sea route to the Chinese port. From Hormuz, however, finding the ships „wretched affairs..only stitched together with twine made from the husk of the Indian nut“, they decided to go overland to Cathay and continued eastwards. From Homurz to Kerman, passing Herat, Balkh, they arrived Badakhshan, where Marco Polo convalesced from an illness and stayed there for a year. On the move again, they found
themselves on „the highest place in the world, the Pamirs“, with its name appeared in the history for the first time.
When the Polos arrived the Taklamakan desert (or Taim Basin), this time they skirted around the desert on the southern route, passing through Yarkand, Khotan, Cherchen, and Lop-Nor. Marco’s keen eye picked out the most notable peculiarities of each. At Yarkand, he described that the locals were extremely prone to goiter, which Marco blamed on the local drinking water. IIn the rivers of Pem province were found „stones called jasper and chalcedony in plenty“ – a reference to jade. At Pem, „when a woman’s husband leaves her to go on a journey of more than 20 days, as soon as he has left, she takes another husband, and this she is fully entitled to do by local usage. And the men, wherever they go, take wives in the same way.“ Cherchen was also a noted jade source.
It is tthe Gobi desert (Right Fig.)where Marco Polo left us the feeling of awe for the vastness of desert and its effects on those hardy enough to penetrate it: „This desert is reported to be so long that it would take aa 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.“ Despite the dangers encountered during the Gobi crossing, Marco’s account suggests that the route was safe and well established during Mongol’s reign. After they left Gobi, the first major city they passed was Suchow (Dunhuang), in Tangut province, where Marco stayed for a year. Marco also noted the center of the asbestos industry in Uighuristan, with its capital Karakhoja; he added that the way to clean asbestos cloth was to throw it into a fire, and that a specimen was brought back from Cathay bby the Polos and presented to the Pope.
The fact that Marco was not a historian did not stop him offering a long history about the Mongols. He provided a detailed account of the rise of Mongol and Great Khan’s life and empire. He described the ceremonial of a Great Khan’s funeral – anyone unfortunate enough to encounter the funeral cortege was put to death to serve their lord in the next world, Mangu Khan’s corpse scoring over twenty thousand vvictims. He told of life on the steppes, of the felt-covered yurt drawn by oxen and camels, and of the household customs. What impressed Marco most was the way in which the women got on with the lion’s share of the work:“the men do not bother themselves about anything but hunting and warfare and falconry.“ In term of marriage, Marco described that the Mongols practiced polygamy. A Mongol man could take as many wives as he liked. On the death of the head of the house the eldest son married his father’s wives, but not his own mother. A man could also take on his brother’s wives if they were widowed. Marco rounded off his account of Mongol’s home life by mentioning that alcoholic standby which had impressed Rubrouck before him:“They drink mare’s milk subjected to a process that makes it like white wine and very good to drink. It is called koumiss“
Marco’s account of the Mongol’s life is particularly interesting when compared to the tale of many wonders of Chinese civilization which he was soon to see for himself. Kublai Khan, though ruling with all the spender of an Emperor of China, never forgot where he had come ffrom: it is said that he had had seeds of steppe grass sown in the courtyard of the Imperial Palace so that he could always be reminded of his Mongol homeland. During his long stay in Cathay and Marco had many conversations with Kublai, Marco must have come to appreciate the Great Khan’s awareness of his Mongol origins, and the detail in which the Mongols are described in his book suggests that he was moved to make a close study of their ways.
Finally the long journey was nearly over and the Great Khan had been told of their approach. He sent out a royal escort to bring the travellers to his presense. In May 1275 the Polos arrived to the original capital of Kublai Khan at Shang-tu (then the summer residence), subsequently his winter palace at his capital, Cambaluc (Beijing). By then it had been 3 and half years since they left Venice and they had traveled total of 5600 miles on the journey. Marco recalled it in detail on the greatest moment when he first met the Great Khan (Left Fig.):
“ They knelt before him and made obeisance with the utmost humility. The Great Khan bade them rrise 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.“
Years Serviced in Khan’s Court
Marco, a gifted linguist and master of four languages, became a favorite with the khan and was appointed to high posts in his administration. He served at the Khan’s
court and was sent on a number of special missions in China, Burma and India. Many places which Marco saw were not seen again by Europeans until last century. Marco went on great length to describe Kublia’s capital, ceremonies, hunting and public assistance, and they were all to be found on a much smaller scale in Europe. Marco Polo fell in love with the capital, which later became part of Beijing, then called Cambaluc or Khanbalig, meant ‘city of the KKhan.’ This new city, built because astrologers predicted rebellion in the old one, was described as the most magnificent city in the world. He marveled the summer palace in particular. He described „the greatest palace that ever was“. The walls ...
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