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.