David Nightingale: Marco Polo (1254-1324)

Oct 8, 2017

Mosaic representing Marco Polo at Villa Hanbury, Ventimiglia, Italy
Credit Lotho2 / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

As a follow-up to my essay on Ghenghis Khan, here's another from the 13th century. As to why someone with only a training in physics would write about these things -- well, the answer might be simply 'so as to work upon my own ignorance'!

After Ghenghis Khan's death in 1227, there was born in Venice in 1254 the now world-famous traveller (regarded later by his fellow Venetians as a story-teller and liar) -- Marco Polo. However, today there is ever-increasing evidence that his descriptions are true.

His father, Nicolo Polo, was a well-off Venetian merchant, and when Marco was only six, father and an uncle started out on a trading expedition to Istanbul and the Crimea. Wanting to go further east in their quest for profit the two businessmen reached Persia (or Iran), and got as far as the ancient cultured city of Bokhara (in Uzbekistan). Bokhara was well-within the great Kubla Khan's empire -- he was a grandson of Ghenghis Khan -- and that empire then stretched from the Caspian Sea to the Pacific.

In Uzbekhistan Marco's father and uncle met an ambassador who was setting off with his party on the very long journey back to the court of emperor Kubla Khan, and were invited to travel with them. The upshot was that father and uncle were well-received by the emperor, who was very interested in learning about Christianity, and asked them to take messages of peace to the Pope. All in all, Marco's father and uncle were away 9 years, by which time Marco was fifteen.

Two years later, father, uncle, and this time with seventeen year old Marco set off to return to Kubla Khan, as promised -- but also because of the prospect of trade and wealth. First there was the long sea journey to the eastern Mediterranean, then overland through eastern Turkey, Armenia, and Persia -- where young Marco fell very ill. Because of this they stopped for a whole year in the relatively fragrant climate of northern Ahghanistan while Marco recovered.

Emperor Kubla Khan's court was in Peking (or what is now Beijing), and when informed of their approach, sent orders that the Venetians' safety be ensured for their final month and a half of travel. Thus, safely onwards to the forbidding Pamir mountains ("The Roof of the World") -- large sections of which have snow year round -- and to Mongolia, Gobi desert, and finally Cathay, or China. By the time of their arrival at the emperor's court in 1275 Marco was 21, and they delivered their few letters from the new pope plus the sacred oil the emperor had requested.

Ultimately, their return journey to Venice was by sea. They had been away 24 years, given up for lost by their relatives, and were seen merely as scruffy peasants, until they unsewed the valuable gems hidden in their clothing.

Sadly, there's no time to mention any of Marco's descriptions of the countries he passed through, but in 2008 PBS showed a 90 min special, of two art school friends from Queens who followed Marco's horseback, mule and camel route by train, camels and dilapidated buses. There's also a fascinating 1964 book by the travel writer Timothy Severin who undertook the route with a couple of friends on motorcycles while a geography undergraduate at Oxford.

In each case many of Marco's unique descriptions -- of dis-used hidden hot baths, the ancient silk looms of Yezd in Persia, paper money and so on, showed that Marco's descriptions were accurate, and it seems increasingly unlikely he was a liar.

References:

1.  "The Travels of Marco Polo", ed. by Manuel Komroff; The Modern Library, Random House, (1926).

2.  "In the Footsteps of Marco Polo",  PBS Thirteen Special, featuring two New Yorkers. Francis O'Donnell & Denis Belliveau. Fascinating 86 minute documentary. (Accompanying hardcover book available from Amazon, 2008).

3. "Tracking Marco Polo", by Timothy Severin; Routledge & Kegan Paul, Broadway House, 68-74 Carter Lane, London EC4, (1964).

Dr. David Nightingale is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the State University of New York at NewPaltz and is the co-author of the text, A Short Course in General Relativity.

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