Marco Polo Explores the East

Marco Polo probably is the most well-known Venetian in the world as well as the most famous European who has ever travelled the Silk Road. He also single-handedly raised 14th century Europeans’ interest in Cathay. However, he certainly was not the first European to make the long and brutal journey to the East.

The earliest recorded person from the West who travelled on the silk road to China was a self-proclaimed ambassador from “Dagin” in 166 CE. “Dagin” is the ancient Chinese name for the Roman Empire. However, since this ambassador’s gifts to the Han Emperor were typical southeastern Asian products such as ivories and rhinoceros horns, Chinese historians believed he was a fraud who just wanted to gain trade permits from the Han border guards.

The next several recorded travelers from the West to the East were envoys from Pope Innocent IV to the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire. These envoys were dispatched after the Mongols defeated the combined European forces of Poles, Czechs, Germans and Crusader Knights in the 1241 Battle of Legnica. Their mission was to negotiate a stop to the Mongol invasion of Europe and to seek a Mongol alliance against the Islamic threat in the Holy Land. Four separate emissaries were sent: three in 1245 and one in 1253. The first three were a Franciscan monk, Giovanni da Pian del Carpine from Magione, Italy; a Dominican friar, Ascelin of Lombardy; and a French Dominican missionary, Andre de Longjumeau. The 4th envoy was a Flemish Franciscan missionary, William of Rubruck, who was also ordered by King Louis IX of France to convert the Tartars to Christianity. William returned to the Crusader State of Tripoli on August 15, 1255. He presented a clear and precise report of 40 chapters to Louis IX. It was a masterpiece of medieval geographical literature. However, this book was not published until 1839, so it was not really known to the public at the time. Marco Polo’s book, “Book of the Marvels of the World” (or “The Travels of Marco Polo”), on the other hand, was published in 1300 CE and became an instant best seller in Europe.

Marco Polo was from a Venetian merchant family who did business in Constantinople. Another source claimed the Polos were of noble origin from the coast of Dalmatia. In 1261, Venice’s arch enemy, the Genoese, helped Michael VIII Palaiologos conquer Constantinople and burned down the Venetian quarter in the city. Niccolo Polo, the father of Marco Polo, and his brother, Maffeo, escaped to Crimea where they formerly did business. On account of a local civil war, they decided to detour to the east. In Bukhara, a city in modern Uzbekistan, the Polos met the ambassador from the Great Khan. This Mongol ambassador persuaded the Polos to journey eastward with him and the Polos agreed. In 1266, they travelled to Da Du, present-day Beijing, capital of the Yuan dynasty set up by the Mongols. They met the Great Kublai Khan who asked the Polos to bring his personal letter back to Pope Clement IV, asking for 100 learned Christians acquainted with the Seven Arts and oil from the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The Polos agreed and made their way home, armed with the Khan’s golden travel tablet inscribed with this decree in both Chinese and Mongolian: “By the strength of the eternal Heaven, holy be the Khan’s name. Let him that pay him not reverence be killed”. This homeward journey took more than three years. When they arrived in the Levant, Pope Clement IV had already died in 1268 and there was a long “sede vacate” before the successful election of the next pope. On the suggestion of Theobald Visconti, then the papal legate to the realm of Egypt, they went home first and they arrived in Venice in 1269.

In 1271, the 17-year-old Marco Polo set out with his father Niccolo and his uncle Maffeo on a journey back to the Far East, bringing with them valuable gifts from the new pope, Gregory X. They first sailed to Acre and rode camels to the Persian port of Hormuz. Originally the Polos wanted to sail to China; when they realized that the boats were not really seaworthy, they decided to travel overland. During the eastward trip, they climbed across “the highest place in the world, the Pamir Mountains”, introducing for the first time this name to the West. They also went around the Taklamakan desert and crossed the Gobi desert. The Polos entered China through the city of Dunhuang, the ending point of the Silk Road and home of the famous Mogao Caves. In May 1275, the Polos finally arrived in Kublai Khan’s old capital and summer residence, Shang-tu, and presented him with the sacred oil from Jerusalem and papal letters. Marco Polo was already 21 years old.

Marco Polo knew four languages. His family had a great deal of knowledge of two worlds and the east-west travel route. These were all useful to Kublai Khan, who appointed Marco to the Privy Council and made him the tax inspector of Yangzhou, a city on the Grand Canal of China, for three years. Marco traveled extensively throughout the Yuan kingdom, as far south as Burma and the Bay of Bengal. He fell in love with the city of Hangzhou which had many canals like his home, Venice. Marco Polo was in the Yuan court for 17 years when the Polos started to worry about the health of the aging Kublai Khan. They were afraid that he might die soon and they would not be able to go home with the enormous wealth that they had accumulated in China. Finally, they had Kublai Khan’s consent to escort the wedding party of a Mongol princess to Persia.

It took the Polos two years to sail from the South China Sea to Sumatra and the Indian Ocean, and then crossing the Arabian Sea to Hormuz. In Persia, they learned of the death of Kublai Khan, but they were still protected by Kublai Khan’s golden travel tablet. From Hormuz, they continued their sea journey home via Constantinople and reached home in the winter of 1295.

Three years after he returned home, Marco Polo joined the Venetian battle against their enemy, Genoa. He was captured and spent a year in a Genoese prison where he and his cellmate, Rustichello of Pisa, together wrote the famous book of his travels. This book became one of the most popular books in Medieval Europe. However, it was nicknamed “ll Milione”, The Million Lies, and Marco Polo was known as Marco Milione because no one believed his tales. Many subsequent Chinese historians have also dismissed Marco Polo’s book as fiction because the Polo’s name never appeared in the Annals of the Empire (Yuan Shih) where visits of many less important foreigners were recorded. Marco Polo never learned Chinese. He never mentioned chopsticks in his book, nor did he mention the Great Wall of China. Nevertheless, his book was read a century later by explorers such as Christopher Columbus and Henry the Navigator with much interest.

Was Marco Polo ever in Cathay? No one will know for sure, but his stories about “stones that burn like logs”, “stones called jasper and chalcedony”, clothing made from a “fabric which would not burn”, people drinking “mare milk”, and “paper currency” are still being read. He was not a historian, but he wrote about the Great Khan’s court life, the rise of the Mongol empire and life on the Steppe. Some of his accounts are still used by modern historians to further their understanding of the historical events and local cultures of the time. His book is still one of the greatest travel books ever written. In Marco Polo’s own words: “No other man, Christian or Saracen, Mongol or Pagan, has explored so much of the world as Messer Marco, son of Messer Niccolo Polo, great and noble citizen of the city of Venice.”


“Ciao”, the Italian salutation for both hello and goodbye, is also from the Venetian language. The Venetian phrase “s-ciao Vostro” literally means “I am your slave”. “S-ciavo” derives from Latin “sclavus”, which comes from the word “Slavic”, which refers to the Balkans where most of the slaves were from. Ciao is now not only used in Italy, it has become part of the English, Dutch, French, German, and Polish vocabulary. Other related variations include the Greek “tsao”, the Finnish “tsau”, the Japanese “chao”, and the Malay “cau dulu”.

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