The Travels of Marco Polo

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Originally dictated in a Genoese prison cell, ‘The Travels of Marco Polo’ straddles the line between travel literature and adventure story. The teller of the story, Marco Polo, claimed that the work was based completely on fact, compiled from his travels around the world. The book was hugely popular in Medieval Europe, despite being widely referred to as ‘The Million Lies’.

Marco Polo was not the first European to venture into Asia, but he traveled much further to the East than any before him, and, according to the book at least, became much more integrated into the cultures there. The real key to the work’s success is the imagination and energy put into the descriptions of Asia, Africa and the Mongol Empire. The work often seems fantastical, partly because some of the things Polo described were indeed made up, but also because the language used is so colourful it seems unbelievable.

The adventure to the East actually started when Nicolo and Maffeo Polo, Marco’s father and uncle, set off for Constantinople in 1260. From this journey they ventured into the lands of the Mongolian tribes, eventually reaching the court of Kublai Khan. The Polos returned to Europe, eventually arriving in their home city of Venice in 1269. Upon his return, Nicolo discovered he had a son, Marco Polo. The Polos, who had promised Kublai Khan they would come back to Mongolia with Catholic missionaries, eventually set off on their return to Asia with Marco and two Catholic friars, in 1271. Although the friars eventually gave up on the journey, the Polo’s returned to the Khan’s court, where Marco became a confidant of Kublai Khan.

Marco Polo remained in the Khan’s court for seventeen years, and was sent on a variety of missions and errands, allowing him to travel in previously uncharted territories. Through his service he explored much of what is now China, as well as venturing into India, and crossing over to Sri Lanka. A recently revealed map, attributed to Polo and signed for authenticity by his three daughters, is believed to sketch out the coast of Japan and Alaska. The origins and veracity of the map have not been confirmed, but some researchers have claimed that it proves Polo’s travels actually took him as far as the shores of North America.

‘The Story of Marco Polo’ details his experiences in this period of his life. It includes descriptions of the journey from Acre (in what is modern day Israel), through Persia and then onto the Khan’s palace in what is now Beijing. The Polos traveled over a series of overland trader’s routes, what would eventually become known as the Silk Road. As well as providing detailed descriptions of Polo’s experiences in the Khan’s court, the book is just as crucial for its depiction of the journey along the Silk Road, providing information on the cultures and landscapes the Polo family encountered.

Some critics question the validity of the text, pointing out that there is no mention of Polo in the detailed records of the Khan’s court from the thirteenth century. They also point out that despite Polo’s extensive stay and travels in Asia, he never made reference to major landmarks, such as the Great Wall, or distinctive cultural traits, such as eating with chopsticks or foot binding.

Polo himself eventually returned to Europe in 1295. He became involved in a conflict between Venice and Genoa, during which he was captured and imprisoned. While incarcerated he met Rustichello, a writer from Pisa who started to write down Polo’s stories.

Whether these stories were a complete fabrication, or just heavily embellished by Polo or Rustichello, they remain a fascinating document. The book was pivotal in shaping opinions on Asia and the Mongol Empire, long after its publication. Whether the book is factually accurate or not, it cannot be denied that the stories within, as well as the history of Polo himself, make it a fascinating read.

By: Daryl Worthington in newhistorian.com