Marco Polo’s remarkable 24-year odyssey | Sunday Observer

Marco Polo’s remarkable 24-year odyssey

Most of us have read Marco Polo’s interesting stories about his visits to China and his descriptions of the vast country and his experiences as a traveller. Some of the stories found in his notes appear to be incredible. Historians wonder whether he wrote tall or true stories.

When Marco Polo, aged 17, left Venice with his father, Nicolo and his uncle Maffeo, both merchants, on a journey across Asia in 1271, he would not have known that he was heading for a 24-year odyssey. The tales he brought back, later put into book form, have raised the question whether he faked the whole story. A whiff of suspicion has always lingered about him since he published a book giving details about his long trip.

The suspicion was due to the fact that even Venetians who were familiar with world affairs could not believe what he wrote. As they had never seen paper money or coal, they laughed at Marco when he wrote about them. They believed that Marco had not ventured beyond Constantinople (Istanbul).

Nicolo always encouraged his son Marco to probe what is unknown. As leading Venetian merchants, the Polos traded in silks, spices, precious stones, furs and gold. They used to buy them from middlemen who came from India, Tartary (Siberia) and Cathay (China). In 1260, however, they decided to embark on a long trip that would enable them to visit the court of Kublai Khan, the king of Tartars and the Emperor of Cathay.

At the time, the Khan Empire was the largest in the world. The Polos arrived at the palace of Kublai Khan knowing well that he was the most feared monarch in the world. However, to their great surprise, Kublai Khan welcomed the Venetian merchants and expressed his desire to know more about Europe and Christianity.

Arduous journey

The Polos had to journey by hose, camel, yak and oar-powered galley. Sometimes they had to walk. They travelled through deserts, snowfields, mountains and slopes braving inclement weather. Their journey was constantly disrupted by torrential rains, floods, sand storms and avalanches. In addition, some of them fell ill on the way. Young Marco had to stay in Afghanistan for a year because of his ill health.

Unlike his father or brother, Marco was armed with a stack of notebooks. He wrote descriptions about the places he visited and the people he met. His notes reveal that people always extended their hospitality to them wherever they happened to be. Once, the Polos visited the house of a tribal chief. He welcomed the visitors and ordered his wives and daughters to entertain them in any way they liked. Marco records in his notes that the women did not object to any of their requests.

In his long journey, Marco marvelled at the sight of coal. He described coal as “veins of black stones which, when lighted burn like charcoal and give out considerable heat.” He described oil as “a substance spurting from the ground and used for burning in lamps.” He discovered a material which can be spun into thread and woven into cloth that will not burn.

Today we know it as asbestos. He also saw coconuts for the first time. He saw “the nuts the size of a man’s head, pleasant to taste and white as milk.” He describes crocodiles as “huge serpents with jaws wide enough to swallow a man.”

Impressive palace

Marco has devoted a lot of space to write about Kublai Khan’s court in Peking (Beijing). The emperor took a fancy to Marco Polo and showered many favours on him. Marco marvelled at the grandeur of the emperor’s palaces in Peking and Shangtu.

The palaces had been built of purest marble and stone and ornamented with intricate carvings, gilded and decorated with priceless art. The Peking palace was surrounded by ramparts 40 feet high. There were also rare trees brought from other countries. The emperor had stables and pastures for 10,000 pure-white horses.

Although Marco was no stranger to affluence, he gaped at the dazzling court and courtiers. They were dressed in cloth of gold and silks with skins of the sable, the ermine and other animals all in the richest of fashion. The emperor had four queens and a number of concubines. Every two years, he brought in more than 100 beautiful damsels and kept them in his well-furnished harem.

First traveller

While in China, Marco learned the Chinese and Mongolian languages. Kublai Khan was so impressed that he appointed Marco as his emissary and sent him out on various missions. Marco served as Governor of the city of Yangchow for three years. Finally, he became a Commissioner in the Imperial Council in Peking.

Marco never gave up his habit of taking down notes wherever he went. Being a methodical person, he became the first traveller to mark a route across Asia. He was also the first to write about the wealth and vastness of China with its mighty rivers, large cities and swarming population. When he returned to Venice, he brought back exotic sights, sounds and smells of the countries he visited.

Marco Polo says China was a highly developed country even at that time. According to him, the Chinese cities were clean and there were highways linking major provinces. There was a pony-drawn express mail service. All the major cities had police stations and fire brigades.

Return journey

The Chinese were using paper money, something unheard of in Europe at the time. He describes Hangchow as a “celestial city” because of its grandeur and beauty. He has compared it to Paradise. According to him, there were 10,000 bridges in the city and ships could sail beneath them.

After serving the emperor for 17 years, Marco Polo, his father and uncle decided to leave China.

The emperor who was in his 70s did not want them to leave but later permitted them to do so. He knew that jealous rivals at court might make life difficult for Marco Polo on the event of his death. When they finally left the kingdom, they were given a large stock of gold and jewels.

The Polos’ return journey to Venice took three years. When they finally set foot in Venice, even their family servants could not recognise them. They thought that their masters had died on the way. To prove that they are not imposters, the Polos threw a banquet and displayed their wealth. On seeing the diamonds, rubies and pearls, the servants recognised them as their masters.

Marco Polo left Venice at the age of 17 and returned home when he was 41. He had learned a lot about countries and the people. However, there were some people who did not believe what he wrote in his notebooks. As a result, he was a prophet without honour in his country during his lifetime. Many surprising events followed. Marco Polo’s rivals captured his ships and put him in jail. While in jail, he called for his notebooks and dedicated his memoirs to a fellow prisoner. After many centuries, “The Travels of Marco Polo” became an indispensable book for explorers. When the book was first published, people laughed at him for writing tall stories.

On his deathbed, he confessed that he had not told half of what he had seen. John Larner, a historian at the University of Glasgow said, “Never before or since has one man given such an immense body of new geographic knowledge to the West.” Today nobody will believe that Marco Polo had written tall stories.

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