Marco Polo (1254–1324)
Episode #2 of the course “Europe’s greatest explorers”
Marco Polo was the son of a prominent merchant family in Venice, and he was the first European to extensively write in a European language about travels to the Middle East, China, and India. He was probably born in Venice, although the exact date and location are unknown. When Marco Polo was about six years old, his father and uncle left to pursue trade in Asia. They returned nine years later with stories of the court of Kublai Khan, the “Great King” of the Mongols in Beijing. They had an order from the Khan requesting that the Pope send him some oil from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
When Marco’s father and uncle procured the oil and set out to return to China in 1271, 17-year-old Marco accompanied them. The Polos sailed across the Mediterranean Sea and traveled by land to Persia, through the Gobi Desert, and to Beijing. When they arrived at the court of Kublai Khan, the ruler was pleased to welcome them and immediately took Marco into his employ.
Fluent in four languages and with a mind for detail, Marco was appointed to a high position in the Khan’s administration and performed special missions for him in Burma, India, and throughout China. Polo spent 24 years traveling in China, 17 of which were in the Khan’s employ. He returned to Venice in 1295.
In 1298–99, he dictated his stories into a book, although scholars are unsure where or when it was first published. The fantastic Book of the Wonders of the World, which is also known as The Tales of Marco Polo, recounts a series of incredible adventures. From accounts of men who were part dog to stories of gilded cities nearly blinding to behold, Polo’s tales were extravagant and fanciful. He was obviously infatuated with the culture and people he encountered. He recounts a detailed history of the Mongol lineage and triumphs, and he provides an immense amount of knowledge about people and customs throughout India.
In Italy, Polo’s travel account is known as Il Milione, or “The Million Lies.” His accounts of the Khan’s riches were so unbelievably large that people assumed they were false. For example, he described the stables housing over 10,000 pure white horses and the palace dining hall seating over 6,000 dinner guests.
It was one of the most influential books of its time, informing European maps of Asia in the 1300s. Even travelers today find that Polo’s details about the time needed to travel to certain areas remain accurate. As an extremely popular collection of stories, Polo’s book enjoyed a commercial success rarely seen in the days before printing presses. Hundreds of editions were published, with translations into as many as 40 languages. For nearly 400 years, it was known as the most comprehensive source of information on the world outside Europe that was available to Europeans.
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