Marco Polo

In 1260, the year after Kublai became the Fifth Great Khan, and close to the end of the Crusades, two brothers named Niccoló and Maffeo Polo decided to travel from their home in the Republic of Venice to the capital of Mongolia. They wanted to find the source of the riches of the silk road for themselves. The Venetians were still friendly with the Mongolians, a period known as the Mongolian Peace – or at least as friendly as ‘Latins’ and Mongolians could be with each other. As we know, the Mongolian Empire stretched all the way from the eastern shores of China to the trading ports in Palestine. [By then, Palestine was known as the Levant, the name of the wind from the east.] Theoretically, a merchant traveling the 4,600 miles between the one and the other could stay in Mongolian territory and avoid the Muslims.

The Polos were not the first westerners to visit the east. Jewish merchants had been trading there since the 8th and 9th centuries. But Niccoló and Maffeo were the first to explore and describe it to the Venetians. They sailed to what is now Lebanon, where they hired horses and, later, camels to travel by land to China. 4,600 miles was a long way, even on the fastest Arabian horse. There were as many as thirty-six different languages spoken along the way, and few places to rest or find food. There were difficulties dealing with people of other religions. Bandits loomed behind every tree, rock, and sand dune.

Even so, Niccoló and Maffeo plodded along and successfully reached what is now Beijing, “a journey of three years and a half, on account of the wide rivers, the rain, and cold.” They presented themselves to the king of the Mongols, the emperor of one fifth of the Earth’s surface – none other than the Great Kublai Khan.

Kublai Khan was extremely wise. He was also very curious about the West – after all, he was in the process of acquiring it. Western Europeans purchased his silks and made him rich. He eagerly welcomed the Polo brothers. They could answer his many questions.

Kublai Khan asked the brothers all about Venice and the other European nations. He asked about their religion, about what they ate, and about how they worked. Most of all, he asked the Polos what Europeans liked to buy. Today we call his questioning process, “learning about the target market.” When the Polos left for home a few months later, Kublai supposedly said, “Come back to my country any time you want.”

The brothers returned to Venice in 1269 and shared their story with their families and other merchants. One very curious seventeen-year-old sat in the audience, Niccoló’s son, Marco Polo (1254-1324). [Some accounts say he was fifteen.]

In either 1271 or 1272, the brothers returned to Asia with Marco in tow. A nineteen-year-old was considered an adult in those days, old enough to marry, though there is no evidence Marco left a wife behind. Kublai Khan received the Polos graciously. He welcomed them in the Mongolian royal court. He even employed them. Marco was assigned to gather taxes and act as a diplomat. The only condition was that the Polos could not leave the empire without the khan’s permission, which he would not give for twenty-four years.

Like his father and uncle, Marco shared his knowledge of the west with the khan. He learned to read and write four oriental languages. He learned how scientifically advanced the Chinese were. Today we know that the Chinese had knowledge about mathematics and astrology used in navigation and geographical surveys that the Europeans would not understand for another two hundred years.

During the 1270s, Kublai Khan was trying to figure out how great his empire was. He advised his chief geographer, astronomer, and cosmologist, Guo Shoujing, to devise methods for determining the equivalent of today’s longitudes and latitudes, so Guo Shoujing could measure the full width of the empire east to west, north to south. Guo Shoujing could not have done this if he did not already know how to measure the relationship of the celestial bodies and understand the timing of celestial events, such as eclipses. He knew that the Sun revolved around the earth even if the westerners did not.

Marco Polo may not have known this, but Guo Shoujing discovered that the speed with which planets traveled around the sun varied according to the distance they were from the sun. Western European astronomers did not discover that for another three centuries – credited to Johannes Kepler (1571-1630). In 1280, Chinese astronomers published the Shou-Shi Li Calendar based on the movement of celestial bodies. It divided the year evenly into 365.2425 days. This calendar gave the Chinese important information needed to calculate latitude and longitude. They had the ability to explore the great oceans long before the Europeans.

During the two decades that Marco gathered taxes and served as a diplomat for the Great Khan, he studied China’s geography and surveyed the trade routes. It was Marco who named northern China Cathay. He referred to southern China as Manji. He traveled around Persia and Indonesia [then part of the Mongolian Empire]. He learned about the islands offshore to the east, particularly Cipangu [Japan], and Giava [Java].

It was while the Polos were in China that Kublai Khan’s Mongols captured Hangzhou, the capital of Southern China for the Song Dynasty. By 1279, Kublai had unified Mongolia with China as the Yuan Dynasty.

Finally, on the Khan’s seventieth birthday, Marco, his father, and uncle, pleaded to be released to return to Venice. [Sources vary as to whether Marco’s father and uncle were still in China at this time.] The Polos were frightened that Kublai’s successor would not be as friendly to them. The Khan agreed. He even ordered fourteen zonchi [huge Chinese junks] to take them home.

The vessels sailed south along the coast of China, under Vietnam, across the Bay of Bengal, under India, and across the Arabian Sea to the Strait of Ormuz [Hormuz]. From there, the Venetians traveled by land to Constantinople, then Venice. They arrived home in 1295.

This time the men did not receive the festive welcome home Niccoló and Maffeo had received decades earlier. Venice was at war with her arch-rival Genoa, and the Genoese were winning. The Genoese threw Marco into prison for being on the wrong side. He remained there for the next seven years.

The only one with whom Marco could share his fantastic tales from the previous two decades was his cell-mate, Rustichello da Pisa. Rustichello wrote the stories down, which were later compiled into a book referred to as The Travels of Marco Polo. Rustichello wrote in the Venetian dialect; which means he had probably spent time in Venice before he met Marco in prison. But, since the book was not written in Latin, and copies were written out by hand, it took a while for Europeans to learn about it. Marco’s Polo’s descriptions of the more scientifically advanced Chinese seemed so fantastic to the Europeans, that most people did not believe them. Soon the book was nicknamed Le Livre des Merveilles (The Book of Wonders). It is from this book that we tell you these tales now. [In upcoming articles, we will tell you more about what Marco Polo saw during his trip.]

The Genoese released Marco from prison in 1299. By that time he was forty-five years old. He married, had three children, and finally reaped the benefits of his travels. He and his fellow merchants of Venice took advantage of Marco’s intercontinental connections by striking a deal with the Muslim Turks, Arabs, and Moors who policed the Mediterranean with their ships and pirates. The Venetians paid the Muslims and Mongols a large amount of money to guarantee that all merchandise from the Far East passed through Venetian hands.

The Venetian monopoly allowed Venetian merchants to charge anything they wanted from other Europeans. The merchants of Venice became richer than ever. The timing was perfect, as we also know, because by then, other Christians were no longer allowed in the Middle East. The only way they could obtain the exotic fabrics, jewels, pearls, and spices from the East without buying them from the Venetians was to find different routes besides the Mediterranean – hence the search for the northwest, southwest, and southeast passages.

The Travels of Marco Polo was finally printed in 1477, after the invention of printing in 1452.That was 153 years after Marco Polo’s death, and just fifteen years before Christopher Columbus sailed west across the Atlantic. Historians believe Marco’s tales of his travels were true tales, but they disagree about whether or not Marco really met Kublai Khan. Some think Marco made that part up as he whiled away his time in prison.

There is no doubt, however, that Christopher Columbus obtained a Latin copy of The Travels of Marco Polo, and that it had a huge influence on him. That very book is available for viewing today in the Columbian Library in Seville, Spain – complete with Columbus’ and his brother Bartolomé’s notations in the margins.

Christopher Columbus’ copy of Marco Polo’s Travels with his notes in the margins. Held in the Colón Museum in Seville, Spain.(1)

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  1. Christopher Columbus’ copy of The Travels of Marco Polo with Columbus’ notes in the margins. Held in the Colón Museum in Seville, Spain. {{PD-old}} Public Domain. Via Wikimedia. Image source: