Marco Polo (1254-1324) was born in Venice or on the island of Korcula (in present-day Croatia). His ancestors came to Venice from Dalmatia and did not belong to the most famous Venetian merchant families. When Marco was six years old, father and uncle of Marco Polo set off on a nine-year great journey to the East, to Beijing (Hanbalai, or Tatu), which Khan Kubilai, grandson of Genghis Khan, made the capital of his dominion. During this time the boy’s mother died and he was brought up by his father’s aunt. Marco received a quite bearable education for the time – he read the Bible and some ancient authors, could count and write. And he spent his free time on the Venetian canals or in the harbour.
Kubilai made Marco’s father promise to Niccolò and his uncle Maffeo to return to China and bring some Christian monks with him. The turning point in Marco’s life was the return of his father and uncle to Venice. He listened with eagerness to their stories about the mysterious countries they had visited, about the wonderful people among whom they lived. In 1271 the brothers set off with Marco on a long journey to the East, taking with them 17-year-old Marco.
In his “book”, Marco tells us that they reached Acre (Palestine) from Venice, and from there they went to the port of Ayas (in the south of Asia Minor), crossed the Armenian highlands and went down along the Tigris to the port of Basra. Polo then probably reached Tabriz and reached Hormus via Kerman, suggesting that they would reach China by sea. However, the ships appeared to the traders to be very unreliable and they returned to Kerman. They travelled with a caravan along the southern foothills of the Hindu Kush, crossing the Pamir in 12 days and heading down to the oasis of Kashgar. After circumnavigating the Takla Makan Desert from the south, they moved from the oasis to the oasis through the Kumtag sand; from the well to the well, the Venetians moved further into the valley of the Shulehe River and finally reached the Chinese city of Ganzhou (Zhangye), where they lived for a year. The expedition reached Beijing in 1275 and was warmly welcomed by Kubilai.
Marco was a hard-working young man and had the ability to speak foreign languages. While his father and uncle were engaged in trade, he learned Mongolian. Kubilai, who used to bring talented foreign experts closer to the court, hired Marco for the civil service.
Soon Marco became a member of the Privy Council and the Emperor gave him several orders. One was to report on the situation in Yunnan and Burma after the Mongol conquest of these two countries in 1287, and another was to buy a Buddha Tooth in Ceylon.
Marco was subsequently appointed prefect of Yangzhou. In 1290 he asked to be released home, but Kubilai refused. He did not manage to leave China until 1292, when he was called to accompany the Mongolian princess Kokachin to Persia, where she was to marry the Viceroy King Argun, Kublai’s grand-nephews.
Once in Persia, Marco received the news of Kublai’s death. This relieved him of his obligation to return to China and he went to Venice. The year after his return to Venice, Marco was captured by the Genoese in the eastern Mediterranean on board a Venetian merchant ship.
From 1296 to 1299 he was imprisoned in Genoa. The writer Rustichello da Pisa, who happened to be in the same cell as the traveller, asked Marco to tell him about his travels in the eastern world. This is how the famous “Book of Marco Polo” or “The Wonders of the World” was written. The book contains not only descriptions of China and the Asian mainland, but also of the wide world of islands from Japan to Zanzibar.
The East was under the rule of the Tatars at that time. As a close friend of the great Khan Kubilai, Marco Polo was able to travel freely through his country, from Russia to India and China. The book describes in short form the different kingdoms, cities and islands.
Information about the traditions, wealth and customs of a nation is interspersed with legends, tales and wonders. Battles between warring Tatar tribes are described. Many medieval superstitions had their origin in this book by Marco Polo.
The book written by Marco Polo was published at the beginning of the 14th century and has since become a table book for many important travellers of the era of the Great Discoveries, including Christopher Columbus.
From this book Europeans learned for the first time about many Eastern countries, their natural riches and technical achievements – paper money, printed cardboard, sago palm, compass and change, but also the combustible “black stone” – coal and the location of the desired spices. Amazingly, the journey to the land of spices, bypassing the Arab trade monopoly, led to a redefinition of the world and the disappearance of many white spots on the map. And so travel book of Marco Polo was one of the few works that influenced the course of history.
So why do some researchers claim that journey of Marco Polo to the Empire was nothing more than a great mystification? The fact is that the book contains a number of gaps that cast doubt on its veracity.
It is quite possible that Marco Polo himself never visited the Empire. So says Francis Wood, Head of the Chinese Literature Department at the British Library. In 2000, in the book “Was Marco Polo in China?”, which caused a great stir in academic circles, the researcher openly doubted that the “great traveller” had ever travelled east of his family’s trading houses in Constantinople and Crimea.
All those who have tried to repeat journey of Marco Polo over the past centuries have lost sight of him there. The researchers began to ask questions that were not answered. During his travels, how could he “not notice” the largest defence structure in the world – the Great Wall of China?
Why did the traveller, who lived in the northern capital of China for so many years, visit many Chinese cities and therefore see many Chinese women without saying a word about a custom that was widespread among Chinese women, to mutilate their feet even then?
Why nowhere does Polo mention such an important and characteristic mass consumption product in China as tea? It is precisely because of such gaps, even if one considers that Marco undoubtedly knew neither the Chinese language nor the Chinese geographical systematics (with a few exceptions), the most sceptical historians already suspected in the first half of the 19th century that Marco Polo’s “book” was nothing more than a mere compilation of China guides compiled by traders from Persia.
According to Francis Wood, Marco had plenty of time both to study Persian sources on China and to revise them creatively, for “The Wonders of the World” was written by this Venetian merchant in 1299 during … his imprisonment in a Genoese prison.
According to some sources Marco was involved in the war between Venice and Genoa around 1297 and was captured by the Genoese during a naval battle. In 1298 in prison he dictated the “book” to his cellmate, a famous adventurer and writer of the time, Rustichello, who may have helped the “great traveller” in his work.
In 1299 Marco was released and returned to his homeland, where he lived for another 25 years as a wealthy and famous man. More than 140 lists of his “books on the diversity of the world…” in a dozen European languages and dialects have reached us.
But even if it was not easy for contemporaries to understand where Marco Polo had the truth and where fantasy took place (Marco was nicknamed Million for his penchant for exaggeration and fiction), Europeans came up with the idea of a great country of China, the supposedly fabulously rich Japan, the islands of Java and Sumatra, the richest Ceylon and Madagascar.
And it turns out that even if Marco Polo’s “book” was actually only a compilation, the compilation is not only very skilful, but almost brilliant in its meaning. To this day it is one of the rare medieval works – literary works and scientific works – that is read and re-read.
It has been included in the golden treasury of world literature, translated into many languages, published in many countries and reissued. In 1299 Marco was released. In the eyes of his fellow citizens he remained a freak, nobody believed his stories.
Marco Polo died in Venice on 8 January 1324.