Medieval Times

The Remarkable Journey of Marco Polo

Marco Polo was not your average Venetian merchant. His life trajectory, guided by a series of remarkable coincidences

story of marco polo

Marco Polo was not your average Venetian merchant. His life trajectory, guided by a series of remarkable coincidences, placed him as a chronicler of the exotic and an emissary for one of history’s most powerful empires.

In 1253, driven by commercial ambition, Marco’s father, Niccolò, and uncle, Matteo, embarked from Venice towards Constantinople, then a declining hub of Orthodox Christianity. Unaware of Marco’s birth, they spent years prospering in the Crimean jewel trade. Yet, geopolitical shifts and the expansion of the Mongol Empire forced them further east. Reaching Sarai, their escape from Genoese rivals led them to Bukhara, where civil strife unexpectedly stalled their travels.

It was in Bukhara that a fateful encounter with a Persian envoy would change their destiny. Impressed by their linguistic prowess, he urged them to continue eastward to the court of Kublai Khan, promising honors and riches. This unlikely invitation propelled them across Asia, a journey previously undertaken by only a few European missionaries.

Arriving at Kublai’s capital of Xanadu, the Polos found an emperor intrigued by the West and seeking a Christian influence within his court. In a stroke of luck, their presence answered his desire perfectly. He dispatched them back to Europe with a request for 100 priests, holy oil, and a “golden pass” granting them safe passage throughout the empire. Upon returning to Venice in 1269, they found tragedy and opportunity – Niccolò’s wife had passed, but his son, Marco, had grown into an adventurous young man.

In 1271, this unlikely trio, armed with only two priests (and a papal letter) instead of a hundred, set sail on Marco’s grand initiation— a journey that would ultimately make him an invaluable recorder of the East for a Western world hungry for knowledge of the unknown.

From the Crusades to the Heart of Asia

The Polos’ journey swiftly transformed from a merchant expedition into an odyssey of survival. War raged around them: Muslim dynasties clashed with Crusaders, while Mongol factions tore at each other. Their golden pass was a mere talisman, not a shield. They steered clear of the maelstrom by threading through eastern Turkey, traversing a scarred Iraq and Persia, before reaching the sweltering port of Hormuz (modern-day Bandar-e Abbas). Marco’s later recollections obscure their precise path, his memory clouded by time and the sheer scope of his experiences.

Yet, even amidst embellishments, kernels of truth shine through. His tales of the ‘Caraunas’ and their king, ‘Nogodar’, veil the threat of the Qaragunas – a Mongol force known for their volatile shifts between obedience and brigandage. Their legacy lives on in the Hazara and Mogholi peoples of Afghanistan.

Hormuz, a bustling yet hostile port, seethed with oppressive heat. The infamous simoom, a wind of desert fire, was said to sear flesh in an instant. Thoughts of seaborne passage to India were perhaps quashed by the sight of flimsy vessels lashed with coconut twine. Thus, they turned, retracing their steps northeast across the arid heartlands of modern-day Iran. Here, they gleaned chilling accounts of the ‘hashishin’, an enigmatic sect of assassins named for their alleged use of hashish. Marco spins fantastical yarns: drugged youths, ensnared by paradise gardens and seductive maidens, dispatched on deadly missions. While the Polos never saw the assassin stronghold of Alamut, a grim mountain fortress, its downfall at Mongol hands in 1257 likely lingered in whispered tales.

In Afghanistan, Marco admired the resilient grandeur of Balkh, twice-ravaged by Genghis Khan yet stubbornly clinging to life. A keen eye for beauty shines through, as he marvels at the women of certain regions, or wryly notes the curious custom of padded trousers for feminine allure.

Their path then wound upwards, along what would become the Wakhan Corridor – a sliver of Afghanistan guarding against encroachment from both the British and Russian empires. This ancient gateway to China was harsh and awe-inspiring. They scaled the Pamirs, glaciers gleaming coldly beneath towering peaks. Marco claimed the frigid air banished an unknown ailment. High on the Wakhjir Pass, they would have crossed into what is now Tashkurgan, the caravanserai a welcome respite. Though Marco bypasses the treacherous Gez Defile and the icy sentinel of Mustagh Ata, surely their imposing presence lingered in his mind.

Kashgar, an oasis wrested from the desert, offered respite. This first major city within modern-day China was the heartland of the Uighur people. Marco’s observations betray a touch of cultural bias, yet the Uighurs were far from ‘wretched’. They possessed a rich culture, their scholars prized throughout Asia for their linguistic mastery.

The Silk Road – Marco Polo’s Journey Eastward

In the barren heart of Asia lies the Taklamakan, a vast desert where only sand-flies and hardy camels endure. This was a fearsome place for medieval travelers like Marco Polo, who recounted tales of demonic voices luring men to their doom. Yet, the dangers of the Taklamakan were bypassed by the legendary Silk Road– a lifeline of oases skirting the desert’s southern edge. Marco mentions still-thriving towns like Yarkan and Khotan, while others like Lou Lan have vanished beneath the sands, their ruins now hidden amidst China’s nuclear testing grounds.

This was the furthest edge of China’s empire in the west, and so it was for Kublai Khan. Marco, like a distant comet, was now drawn into the gravitational pull of Xanadu, the empire’s dazzling center. Yet, Kublai’s hold on this far-flung region (“Great Turkey” as Marco termed it) remained fragile, constantly menaced by his rebellious cousin, Kaidu.

Marco weaves a compelling tale of Kaidu’s formidable daughter, Aijaruc (‘Moonlight’). A towering, valiant woman, she refused all suitors unless they could defeat her in wrestling. Her victory streak amassed her a fortune in horses until her pride was humbled by a powerful prince. True to form, Aijaruc followed her father into battle, snatching up enemies with the deftness of a hawk. While there’s a kernel of truth in this (Kaidu did have a favored daughter named Kutulun), Marco likely embellished for dramatic effect.

Exiting the desert, Marco encountered the western end of the weathered Great Wall, built centuries earlier to repel nomads like the Mongols. To him, this once-mighty earthwork would not have seemed impressive, abandoned long before the Mongol rule. It’s likely he barely deemed it worthy of mention.

By the spring of 1275, Marco and his party had drawn attention. News raced ahead – Mongols bearing a golden pass, likely the same ‘Latins’ who had visited Kublai’s court years before. Escorted for forty days, Marco was destined for an audience with Kublai Khan himself at the glittering Xanadu.

Here, amidst greener lands, Marco documents two curious creatures. First, shaggy cattle resembling elephants – this is the earliest known Western description of the yak. Secondly, a dainty “dog-sized” deer, likely a musk deer, the source of prized perfume. He even fumbles at its Mongolian name (gudderi), knowledge only gained through first-hand experience.

Marco Polo and the Splendors of Kublai Khan’s Empire

Midway through his exploration of modern-day China, Marco Polo encountered the storied city of Yinchuan. Once the center of the Tangut people’s Western Xia empire, by Marco’s time it lay within the dominion of Genghis Khan’s successors. Marco, ever observant, employed local terminology in his descriptions, like the Mongol name, Egrigaia, for the city and Helan Shan for the neighboring mountain range.

Traversing the Ordos region of Inner Mongolia, Marco beheld signs of settled life—villages and fertile fields. He reached a place brimming with “crafts that provide for the emperor’s troops.” This was Xuanhua, a strategic location on the road from present-day Beijing to the old Mongol frontier. From here, a turn toward Beijing would lead him to Kublai Khan’s grand capital, while a leftward path wound its way to Xanadu, the Khan’s resplendent summer retreat. As the season favored his guides steered a course toward Xanadu, just 250 kilometers away.

The name Xanadu is a Westernized version of Shang Du, the Chinese term for ‘Upper Capital’—a fitting designation considering Beijing’s status as Dadu, or ‘Great Capital’. And while English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge infused Xanadu with fantastical caves and mythical rivers in his renowned poem, the reality lay within the rolling grasslands and hills of the Mongolian plateau. Even so, Marco’s era Xanadu was a sight to behold—a bustling Chinese-style city of 120,000, its borders teeming with felt tents and bustling traders.

Beyond the main gate, Marco and his companions were received in “a very fine marble palace” for an audience with Kublai Khan himself. The great leader was overjoyed by the return of his ‘Latin’ envoys, and Marco was awestruck by the man he deemed “the most potent…that ever hath existed.” After recounting their travels and presenting the pope’s gifts, Niccolò formally placed Marco in the service of Kublai Khan.

“Welcome is he too,” responded Kublai, initiating a remarkable bond that would endure for 17 years. Marco’s closeness to the emperor rivaled that of any minister, bolstered by Kublai’s appreciation for Marco’s independent perspective. Fluent in Mongolian, Marco embarked on numerous journeys across the empire, likely with intelligence-gathering motives. It’s speculated that he even served in the emperor’s elite keshig, his personal guard. Though Marco meticulously chronicled his observations for a European audience, the true purpose of some of his missions likely remained veiled to protect his unique rapport with the mighty Khan.

A Venetian’s Glimpse

Marco Polo’s epic journeys across the vast Mongol Empire were punctuated by periods immersed in the opulence of Kublai Khan’s court. He witnessed extravagant rituals, meticulously orchestrated events, and an imperial lifestyle of unmatched scale.

Kublai Khan’s seasonal migrations between Xanadu, his summer retreat, and the vibrant new capital Beijing, took weeks. The Khan traveled in a luxurious chamber borne by a quartet of elephants. Beijing, rebuilt after the devastation wrought by Genghis Khan, boasted glittering temples, expansive gardens, and a sprawling palace complex built to accommodate feasts for thousands. The surrounding parklands were a sanctuary filled with deer and gazelle.

Court life was a symphony of regimented tradition overseen by meticulous officials and steeped in ritual. The Khan’s birthday, New Year celebrations, and the annual spring hunt were the pinnacles of this orchestrated existence. Gifts poured in from the empire’s farthest corners, and courtiers by the thousands prostrated themselves before the enthroned Khan. Feasts were lavish affairs, the dignitaries attended by ministers with their very breath muffled by napkins, a testament to the ruler’s exalted status.

The spring hunt was Kublai Khan’s ultimate display of dominance over the natural world. Tens of thousands of hunters, falconers, and their hounds participated in this sweeping, month-long event. The emperor himself presided from the opulent howdah carried by his elephants, with falcons at the ready. From within his opulent traveling palace, he would watch his birds of prey take flight amidst the unfolding spectacle of the hunt.

Marco Polo’s time in service to the Great Khan came to an end in 1292. Sensing the fragility of favor under a new ruler, he and his kin departed on a sea voyage escorting a princess to Persia. By the time of their return in 1296, Kublai Khan was gone, and with him, the world of wonders that the Venetian had witnessed.

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Isabella Rossi
Isabella Rossi received her Ph.D. in Medieval History from the University of Florence. She covers a wide range of topics, from feudalism to the early Renaissance in Europe.

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