Marco Polo: A Traveller’s Saga

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“The Christians say that their God was Jesus Christ, the Saracens Mahomet, the Jews Moses and the idolaters Sakyamuni Burkhan … I do reverence and honor to all four, so that I may be sure of doing it to him who is greatest in heaven”.

—Marco Polo [from “Marco Polo” by Richard Humble.]

Renowned adventurer and traveler Marco Polo was born into a merchant family in 1254, in Venice, which was one of the most prominent centers of trade in medieval Europe. He received a fairly typical education for children of merchants at that time in learning how to read, write, calculate and by the age of fifteen he embarked upon a journey with his father Niccolo and uncle Maffeo.

Based on Marco Polo’s account of the journey in his book “Il Milione”, their travel took them through Armenia and Persia to Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. From there they went north through Persia to the Oxus River in Central Asia to Lop Nur (in western China), across the Gobi Desert.

The Polos’ journey took place on land and they were forced to cut through challenging and sometimes hostile territory. But through it all, Marco reveled in the adventure. Years later he recapitulated exceptionally accurate accounts of the places and cultures he had witnessed then – The Middle East and The Orient.

It took the Polos four strenuous years including the legendary crossing of the Gobi desert to reach China.

Polo recounts the passage through the hostile terrain of Gobi desert vividly:

“When a man is riding through this [Gobi] desert by night and for some reason … he gets separated from his companions … he hears spirit voices talking to him …Often these voices lure him away from the path and he never finds it again.”

— Marco Polo [from “Marco Polo” by Richard Humble.]

In China they were welcomed in the court of Kublai Khan, the Mongol leader whose grandfather, Genghis Khan, had conquered Northeast Asia.

The Polos spent the next 17 years in China. Kublai Khan took an immediate liking to young Polo because he was an engaging storyteller and conversationalist. Khan sent him on numerous diplomatic missions throughout the Empire. Marco Polo not only carried out his diplomatic assignments but also entertained the Khan with interesting stories and observations about the lands that he visited.

The three Polos eventually left the court of Kublai Khan with a final assignment to escort a Mongol princess to Persia. Upon completing the task they returned to Venice in 1295.

Back home Marco Polo became popular as “the man with a million stories”.

His knowledge about ships however, embroiled him in a war as a naval captain & subsequently led to his imprisonment after a defeat. He is believed to have written his book in prison.

The sights and smells, geography and ethnicity of the new realm that was brought to the western world by Marco Polo through his chronicles, greatly influenced his readers. His observations on Asian commerce became the basis on which commercial ventures got planned by European merchants, cartographers studied his accounts to seek out new routes to India and the Orient.

Marco Polo has been credited with the introduction of noodles into Italy and of spaghetti into China! With perhaps greater warrant, he has been cited as an authority on-inter alia-the capital of the Mongol ruler Kublai Khan, on the Mongol postal relay system, on the trade in horses across the Arabian Sea, and on political conditions on the north-west frontier of India in the mid thirteenth century.

Marco Polo’s story has inspired countless other adventurers to set off and see the world. Two centuries after Marco’s passing, Christopher Columbus set off across the Atlantic in hopes of finding a new route to the Orient.

With him was a copy of Marco Polo’s book.

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