In a Genoese cell in 1298, Rustichello da Pisa wrote while Marco Polo dictated the account of his journey through Asia in Il Milione, also known as ‘The Book of Wonders’. Paradoxically, this unfortunate situation for the Venetian merchant allowed him to have the necessary time to share the testimony of an era and leave his mark as one of the greatest European travelers in all of History.

The Book of Wonders

This extensive work, full of geographical and cultural details, begins as follow:

“Lords, emperors and kings. Marquesses, dukes, counts, knights, bourgeois and all of you, in short, who yearn to know the different races of men and the enormous variety of the various regions of the world, and wish to learn about their uses and customs, take this book. Take this book and make it read, for in it you will find each and every one of the extraordinary wonders. […] “

Marco Polo offers us in this book a descriptive, ethnographic, economic and political geography, supported by first-hand documents. This is a guide for caravanners in which the known world is described: Eurasia and North Africa, with its realities and fantasies.

The 27 years of his journey began in 1271, embarking with his father Niccolo and his uncle Maffeo, on their way to the capital of the Mongol Empire. During most of this period (17 years) he resided in the Court of the Great Khan.

It should be noted that not all the stories were collected on his travels. Many anecdotes and fantasy elements came from different places and people he met. This has, at times, led to doubts about the veracity of Marco Polo’s trip. However, today we know that the harshness and relentlessness of the physical elements of the territories it traveled, made the route totally conditioned and many of the places it visited were obligatory passages. On many occasions, he had to cross deserts connecting to each oasis, otherwise death would be certain.

Marco Polo was an educated man. He makes references to classical literature and his curiosity could make him very ‘gossipy’ at specific moments. Some of his descriptions also show that he was highly critical of other cultures and it could even be said that he held other merchants in low esteem.

He speaks of Siberia, although he was not there. The encounters he had with other travelers gave him an impression that he himself called the ‘land of darkness’, or ‘the land of shadows’. According to the testimonies he collected, Siberia had a twilight appearance for most of the year. And something similar happened with the general vision at that time for the Atlantic Ocean, known by navigators as the ‘dark sea’.

Marco Polo’s entry into Asia Minor

Through the Mediterranean Sea, the route ran through the most important cities in the Middle East, starting with Acre and Jerusalem, which was in dispute between Christians and Muslims. Upon arriving in Baghdad, Marco Polo described it as gigantic, full of different religions, science, gold and silk. In addition, he realised of a detail that he would not stop seeing from this point on: every city was ruled by the Mongols.

1. First part of Marco Polo’s trip. Source: John Haywood et al. – The history of the world on maps.

In Persia, he told us about mountains, warlike regions, dry and bare sand, and states that the Tartars have mostly destroyed. He said that their leaders are cruel and murderous who fight each other, and he mentioned a region to the north controlled by the hashshashin (Nizaris), a word that means “murderer” or “hashish consumers.”

Of Bukhara and Samarkand he praised its beautiful constructions and that its inhabitants were Christians and Saracens, vassals of the Great Khan’s nephew, whom they repudiated.

Prester John

In the Middle Ages, Europe knew very little about Asia beyond the deserts of the Middle East, where Turkic, Islamic and Mongol peoples lived. In this context, the figure of the mythical Prester John emerged: a Christian king who ruled somewhere in the Far East, according to what was said.

Marco Polo talked about him in his book, and told that he was a Nestorian king who dominated the Tatars, until they rebelled against him. It also said that the Mongols faced the Prester and his army in the Battle of the Yellow River, where he was defeated and died, in such a way that his descendants became vassals of the Khan.

Many travelers, like Marco Polo, searched for his kingdom and tried to gather information about his whereabouts, but none were successful. In fact, one of the theories that are contemplated in this regard explains that he was a fictional character, created by the Christian Church to encourage the European kingdoms to march to the East and fight in the Crusades alongside the mythical Nestorian king. In their quest to reclaim the holy land of Jerusalem, they sought a potential alliance in that part of the world to confront Saracen rule in the Middle East.

The Pamir Mountains and the Taklamakan desert

In the Pamir, Marco Polo faced one of the most inaccessible places on the planet, with peaks, like the Ismail Samani, that exceed 7,000 meters. It is the knot of the most impressive mountain ranges of the trip: Karakorum, Kunlun, Tian Shan or the Hindu Kush, and it was at the same time the only way to reach Cambulac (Khanbaliq) without deviating from the Silk Road.

It’s no wonder he rated the Pamirs as the highest peaks in the world. He made an even more curious reference, when he said “there are no birds in these mountains”, and “the fire does not burn as in the lowlands”, probably due to the lack of oxygen.

The goal was to reach Kasgar, a city that linked the Chinese world with the Muslim world, as well as serving as a refuge for travelers who traveled through Central Asia. Here Marco Polo highlighted the amount of clothes and merchandise that were displayed in every corner, and he told us about the Muslim imprint of the city despite having entered Chinese territory. This was the first time he had met the Uyghurs, the Chinese people who professed Islam, and who today are one of the threatened ethnic minorities in China.

2. The statue of the ram that Marco Polo describes in his trip, delimits the borders of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in the pass of the Pamir mountains.

Despite the harshness of the journey thus far, the caravans had to face even more dangers. The Tarim Valley and the Taklamakan Desert were other challenges that travelers had to overcome to reach the Gobi Desert and find the Exi corridor that would take them to Dunhuang and the most prosperous part of China on the east coast: Guangzhou and Xian. To achieve this, it was necessary to use Bactrian camels, which carried food and water that were being renewed in the chain of oases (Yarkant, Hotan, Che’erchen, and Lop Nur) fed by the thaw of the mountain peaks that surrounded the Tarim basin.

In this part of the trip he placed particular emphasis on the deserts, employing haunting descriptions that express the concern of traders as they entered the arid regions of western China. He said that they were inhospitable places, where the spirits created illusions in the travelers, and sounds were heard at night that made the men separate from the caravan and become disoriented until they die of hunger or thirst.

He also mentioned, without really knowing it, the Turpan depression, a rift valley in which its lowest point is below sea level (-154 m). He also witnessed small sand storms, salt flats and dunes on his way before reaching Dunhuang.

On the city of Karakorum, former capital of the Mongol Empire, Marco Polo could not make his own description, but had to rely on the stories that his father and uncle provided from previous trips. In short, they draw it as rustic and poor.

He also talked about Xanadu, the Emperor’s summer residence, which was located to the north of the capital and where the temperatures were cooler. However, it is in Cambulac where he finally met the Great Khan and was able to deliver the letters that the new Pope Gregory X had entrusted to them in the city of Acre.

Kublai Khan’s Mongol Empire

Some historians claim that since 1206 Genghis Khan’s expansion of the Mongol Empire made Marco Polo’s journey possible. However, it was his grandson, Kublai who consolidated and guaranteed the trade routes between East and West through the Pax Mongolica, from the Caspian to the China Sea.

In Marco Polo’s eyes, Kublai Khan was a cultured and barbaric man, as well as despotic and tolerant. The Empire was divided into four khanates: The Yuan Dynasty, a Chinese dynasty established by Kublai; the Chagatai Khanate, in Turkestan; the Persian Ilkhanate, founded by another Genghis Khan grandson named Hulagu; and the Golden Horde, which encompassed Kazakhstan, part of Russia, and Ukraine.

3. The Mongol Empire of the Yuan Dynasty. Source: John Haywood et al. – The history of the world on maps.

In 1264, Kublai moved the capital from Karakorum to Cambulac (present Beijing), a cosmopolitan and commercial city. Marco Polo referred to the large amount of merchandise that arrived to the city every day, and highlighted the beauty of its gardens and palaces, while magnifying the dimensions of its walls.

The life of the Polos in China

Today we know of the existence of many foreigners employed by the Mongol Empire, because of the distrust that the subjugated Chinese population aroused. This idea reinforces the possibilities that the Polo family had held a relevant position in the state administration.

However, the extent of their success in those positions is unknown. Maffeo and Niccolo were probably linked to a more technical section, as mentioned in Il Millione, where it appears that they acted as military advisers during the siege of Xiangyan.

In addition to the missions he carried out for the Great Khan, Marco Polo had other administrative responsibilities, including the inspection of taxes, tariffs, and public revenues. Surprisingly, some versions of his book affirm that he was the governor of Yangzhou for three years, although it seems quite unlikely, since the register of rulers for the chinese cities at that time does not show any name that resembles him. However, it does seem clear that he considered himself an adopted son of Kublai.

The conquest of the Song Empire, carried out by Kublai Khan between 1268-79, put an end to the period of Mongol invasions, as attempts by the latter to expand the empire into Southeast Asia and Japan involved costly defeats. Kublai was in his early 80s, and his death would bring new internal disputes, as well as a regime change, which could prove very dangerous for a small group of foreigners. In this context, the Polos saw the stability of their status threatened and requested the release of their responsibilities to the Great Khan, who finally agreed with one last condition: to escort a princess to the Persian Ilkanato of Arghun Khan.

The return of Marco Polo

Thus, accompanied by 600 courtiers and sailors, the Polos put to sea in 14 ships in the port of Quanzhou (Zaiton) heading south. They docked in various places in the China Sea such as Champa (Vietnam) and on some islands on the Malay peninsula, before staying on the island of Sumatra for five months to avoid monsoon storms. In this place, Marco Polo realised how the Polar Star had disappeared below the horizon, as a result of the latitude in which they were.

When they resumed their journey, they crossed the Strait of Malacca and the Bay of Bengal to reach Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and traversed the west coast of India and southern Persia to the port of Hormuz, finally reaching the Khorasan region (Iran). Although Arghun had already passed away by the time the Polos arrived, the princess married her son Mahmud Ghazan.

Unfortunately, once they left the territories under Mongol protection, they were robbed in Trabzon and lost much of their earnings. With some setbacks, they reached Constantinople and finally Venice in 1295.

The legacy of a life

For some scholars and novelists, Marco Polo symbolizes the brilliance of a man with a prodigious memory, a meticulous observer, and a charismatic personality who thrived in the cosmopolitan court of the Mongol Empire. For others, he was a babbler, a credulous merchant who sought gossip in bazaars and ports, a man of little culture, little imagination, and a total lack of humor.

Even today many dispute whether he ever came to China, as he never mentioned the Great Wall, the use of tea, Chinese calligraphy in his accounts, nor does his name appear in the historical records of the Yuan Dynasty. Although in this regard, who knows under what name he was known there?

In any case, Marco Polo’s trip expanded the worldview for European nations. His description of Japan, known as Cipango, inspired Christopher Columbus and his detailed description of the location of spices encouraged many Western merchants to establish new routes and break the Arab monopoly in Asia. Furthermore, the wealth of new geographic information collected in his memoirs was used in campaigns of exploration and conquest in later centuries.

After all, perhaps we should be grateful to those who confined Marco Polo to that cell in the Genoese prison. As the Spanish geographer Eduardo Martínez de Pisón points out: “It seems that it is necessary to lock up geographers so that we can write about our travels”.


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