(born 1254, Venice [Italy]—died January 8, 1324, Venice) Venetian merchant and adventurer, who traveled from Europe to Asia in 1271–95, remaining in China for 17 of those years, and whose Il milione (“The Million”), known in English as the Travels of Marco Polo, is a classic of travel literature.
Travels of the Polo family
Polo’s way was paved by the pioneering efforts of his ancestors, especially his father, Niccolò, and his uncle, Maffeo. The family had traded with the Middle East for a long time, acquiring considerable wealth and prestige. Although it is uncertain if the Polos were of the nobility, the matter was of little importance in Venice, a city of republican and mercantile traditions.
The family appears to have been shrewd, alert, and courageous; about 1260 they foresaw a political change in Constantinople (e.g., the overthrow of the Crusaders who had ruled since 1204 by Michael VIII Palaeologus in 1261), liquidated their property there, invested their capital in jewels, and set off for the Volga River, where Berke Khan, sovereign of the western territories in the Mongol Empire, held court at Sarai or Bulgar. The Polos apparently managed their affairs well at Berke’s court, where they doubled their assets. When political events prevented their return to Venice, they traveled eastward to Bukhara (Bokhara) and ended their journey in 1265, probably at the grand khan’s summer residence, Shangdu (immortalized as Xanadu by English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge). Establishing friendly relations with the great Kublai Khan, they eventually returned to Europe as his ambassadors, carrying letters asking the pope to send Kublai 100 intelligent men “acquainted with the Seven Arts”; they also bore gifts and were asked to bring back oil from the lamp burning at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
Polo’s journey to Asia
Little is known about Marco’s early years except that he probably grew up in Venice. He was age 15 or 16 when his father and uncle returned to meet him and learned that the pope, Clement IV, had recently died. Niccolò and Maffeo remained in Venice anticipating the election of a new pope, but in 1271, after two years of waiting, they departed with Marco for the Mongol court. In Acre (now ‘Akko, Israel) the papal legate, Teobaldo of Piacenza, gave them letters for the Mongol emperor. The Polos had been on the road for only a few days when they heard that their friend Teobaldo had been elected pope as Gregory X. Returning to Acre, they were given proper credentials, and two friars were assigned to accompany them, though they abandoned the Polos shortly after the expedition resumed.
From Acre the travelers proceeded to Ayas (“Laiazzo” in Marco’s writings, now Yumurtalik, on the Gulf of skenderun, also called the Gulf of Alexandretta, in southeastern Turkey). During the early part of 1272, they probably passed through Erzurum, in what is now eastern Turkey, and Tabriz, in what is now northern Iran, later crossing inhospitable deserts infested with brigands before reaching Hormuz on the Persian Gulf. There the Polos decided not to risk a sea passage to India and beyond but to proceed overland to the Mongol capital.
They next traveled through deserts of “surpassing aridity” toward the Khorasan region in what is now eastern Iran. Turning gradually to the northeast, they reached more hospitable lands; Badakhshn (“Balascian”), in Afghanistan, in particular, pleased the travelers. Marco suggests that they remained there for a year; detained, perhaps, by illness (possibly malaria) that was cured by the benign climate of the district. It is also believed that Marco visited territories to the south (other parts of Afghanistan, Kafiristan in the Hindu Kush, Chitral in what is now Pakistan, and perhaps Kashmir) during this period. It is, however, difficult to establish which districts he traversed and which he may have described from information gathered en route.
Leaving Badakhshn, the Polos proceeded toward the Pamirs, but the route they followed to cross these Central Asian highlands remains uncertain. Descending on the northeastern side of the chain, they reached Kashi (“Cascar”) in what is now the Uygur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang, China. By this point the Polos were on the main Silk Road, and they probably followed along the oases to the south and east of the Takla Makan Desert—Yarkant (“Yarcan”), Hotan (“Cotan”), Che’erchen (“Ciarcian”), and Lop Nur (Lop Lake). These stepping-stones led to Shazhou (“Saciu”) on the borders of China, a place now called Dunhuang.
Before reaching Shazhou, the Polos had traveled primarily among Muslim peoples, though they also encountered Nestorian Christians, Buddhists, Manichaeans, and Zoroastrians. In the vast province of Gansu (called “Tangut” by Marco), an entirely different civilization—mainly Buddhist in religion but partly Chinese in culture—prevailed. The travelers probably stopped in Suzhou (“Sukchu”; now Jiuquan) and Ganzhou (“Campiciu”; now Zhangye) before entering the Ningxia area. It is not clear whether they reached the Mongol summer capital of Shangdu (“Ciandu”) directly or after a detour; in any event, sometime in 1275 (1274, according to the research of Japanese scholar Matsuo Otagi) the Polos were again at the Mongol court, presenting the sacred oil from Jerusalem and the papal letters to their patron, Kublai Khan.
Sojourn in China
For the next 16 or 17 years the Polos lived in the emperor’s dominions, which included, among other places, Cathay (now North China) and Mangi, or “Manzi” (now South China). They may have moved with the court from Shangdu, to the winter residence, Dadu, or “Taidu” (modern Beijing).
Unfortunately, because Marco’s book Il milione is only incidentally a biography and autobiography, it is exceedingly difficult to ascertain where the Polos went and what they did during these years. Nevertheless, it is well known that many foreigners were in the employ of the state, since the Mongol rulers did not trust their Chinese subjects; so it would have been natural for the Polos to fit in most honourably and successfully with this motley society.
The extent of their success and the specific roles they filled, however, remains an open question. The elder Polos were probably employed in some technical capacity. Once and very abruptly, a glimpse in Il milione is obtained of them acting as military advisers during the siege of “Saianfu” (formerly Xiangyang, now Xiangfan), a city that was finally taken, according to Marco, thanks to some “great mangonels” (missile-throwing engines) built according to the Polos’ specifications. The whole episode is dubious, however.
Marco was about age 20 when he reached Cathay. Although he knew little or no Chinese, he did speak some of the many languages then used in East Asia—most probably Turkish (in its Coman dialect) as spoken among the Mongols, Arabized Persian, Uighur (Uygur), and perhaps Mongol. He was noticed very favourably by Kublai, who took great delight in hearing of strange countries and repeatedly sent him on fact-finding missions to distant parts of the empire. One such journey took Polo to Yunnan in southwestern China and perhaps as far as Tagaung in Myanmar (Burma); on another occasion he visited southeastern China, later enthusiastically describing the city of “Quinsay” (now Hangzhou) and the populous regions recently conquered by the Mongols. Apart from the missions he undertook for the emperor, Polo may have held other administrative responsibilities, including inspection of the customs duties and revenues collected from the trade in salt and other commodities. According to some versions of Il milione, he governed the city of Yangzhou for three years sometime between 1282 and 1287; but this assertion seems hardly credible and hinges entirely on the interpretation of one word. There is, however, ample evidence to show that Polo considered himself an adoptive son of his new country.