Marco Polo was one of the first and most famous Europeans to travel to Asia during the Middle Ages. He traveled farther than any of his predecessors during his 24-year journey along the Silk Road, reaching China and Mongolia, where he became a confidant of Kublai Khan.
The story of his journey is told in “Il Milione” (“The Million”), commonly called “The Travels of Marco Polo.” Polo’s adventures influenced European mapmakers and inspired Christopher Columbus.
Marco Polo was born around 1254 into a wealthy Venetian merchant family, though the actual date and location of his birth are unknown. His father, Niccolo, and his uncle Maffeo were successful jewel merchants who spent much of Marco’s childhood in Asia.
Marco’s mother died when he was young; therefore, young Marco was primarily raised by extended family.
Brothers Niccolo and Maffeo had gone as far as China, then called Cathay, during their travels. They met the Mongol leader Kublai Khan at his court in Beijing. Kublai Khan, grandson of the great conqueror Genghis Khan, expressed interest in Christianity and requested that the Polo brothers return to Rome to speak to the pope on his behalf. Khan wanted the pope to send the Polo brothers back to Beijing with holy water and 100 learned priests.
When Marco was 15, his father and uncle returned home. Though the pope did not grant their request, the Polo brothers decided to return to Asia. This time, they took 17-year-old Marco with them.
The slow road to China
The party sailed south from Venice through the Mediterranean to the Holy Land. They had brought two friars — the best they could do for Kublai Khan’s request — but upon getting a taste of difficult travel life, the friars turned back. The Polos continued, traveling primarily overland and swinging north and south through Armenia, Persia, Afghanistan, and the Pamir Mountains. Then, they cut across the vast Gobi Desert to Beijing.
The journey took three to four years and was rife with hardships and adventure. Marco Polo contracted an illness and was forced to take refuge in the mountains of northern Afghanistan for an extended period of time. Polo described there being “nothing at all to eat,” in the Gobi Desert. Nevertheless, young Marco Polo enjoyed a keen sense of adventure and curiosity, taking in the sights, smells and cultural phenomena with wonder.
In Xanadu, with Kublai Khan
Finally, the Polos reached Beijing and met Kublai Khan at the summer palace, Xanadu, a glorious marble and gold structure that enchanted young Marco. The Khan happily received the Polos. He invited them to stay and for Niccolo and Maffeo to become part of his court. Marco immersed himself in Chinese culture, quickly learning the language and taking note of customs. The Khan was impressed and eventually appointed Marco the position of special envoy.
This position allowed Marco to travel to the far reaches of Asia — places like Tibet, Burma and India; places that Europeans had never before seen. Over the years, Marco was promoted to governor of a great Chinese city, to the tax inspector in Yaznhou, and to an official seat on the Khan’s Privy Council.
Through it all, Marco Polo marveled at China’s cultural customs, great wealth and complex social structure. He was impressed with the empire’s paper money, efficient communication system, coal burning, gun powder, porcelain, and called Xanadu “the greatest palace that ever was.”
The Polos stayed in China for 17 years, amassing vast riches of jewels and gold. When they decided to return to Venice, the unhappy Khan requested that they escort a Mongol princess to Persia, where she was to marry a prince.
During the two-year return journey by sea across the Indian Ocean, 600 passengers and members of the crew died. By the time they reached Hormuz in Persia and left the princess, just 18 people remained alive on board. The promised prince, too, was dead, so the Polos had to linger in Persia until a suitable match for the princess could be found.
Eventually, the Polos made it back to Venice. After being gone for 24 years, people did not recognize them and the Polos struggled to speak Italian.
Three years after returning to Venice, Marco Polo assumed command of a Venetian ship in a war against Genoa. He was captured and, while being held in a Genovese prison, he met a fellow prisoner and romance writer called Rustichello. When prompted, he dictated his adventures to Rustichello. These writings, written in French, were titled “Books of the Marvels of the World,” but are better known in English as “The Travels of Marco Polo.”
The book was a wild success, though many readers questioned Polo’s reliability, possibly leading to the book’s popular Italian title, “Il Milione,” short for “The Million Lies.” Some questioned whether Polo even went to China or if the entire thing was hearsay. Polo stood by the book, however, and went on to start a business, marry, and father three daughters. When Polo was on his deathbed in 1324, visitors urged him to admit the book was fiction, to which he famously proclaimed, “I have not told half of what I saw.”
Though no authoritative version of Polo’s book exists, researchers and historians in the subsequent centuries have verified much of what he reported. It is generally accepted that he reported faithfully what he could, though some accounts probably came from others that he met along the way. Regardless, the information in his book proved vital to European geographic understanding and inspired countless explorers — including Christopher Columbus, who, it is said, took a copy of Polo’s book with him in 1492.