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Marco Polo, The First Western Traveler Recorded Ancient China?

By Cédric Rischitelli “I have not told half of what I saw and did,” were Marco Polo’s final words on his deathbed, according to the Dominican monk, Jacopo d’Acqui. In human history, few travellers are as renowned and venerated as the Venetian merchant, Marco Polo. Born in 1254, he reputedly spent a great part of his life travelling along the Silk Road and living in China. The 13th-century travelogue, Il Milione (The Travels of Marco Polo in English), still makes one dream. However, since times of publishing up to today, there has always been some scepticism regarding his stories, written down by Rustichello de Pisa. Some even question whether the explorer had ever set foot in China. Could it be that Marco Polo had merely recounted the stories that he’d heard

By Cédric Rischitelli

“I have not told half of what I saw and did,” were Marco Polo’s final words on his deathbed, according to the Dominican monk, Jacopo d’Acqui. In human history, few travellers are as renowned and venerated as the Venetian merchant, Marco Polo. Born in 1254, he reputedly spent a great part of his life travelling along the Silk Road and living in China. The 13th-century travelogue, Il Milione (The Travels of Marco Polo in English), still makes one dream. However, since times of publishing up to today, there has always been some scepticism regarding his stories, written down by Rustichello de Pisa. Some even question whether the explorer had ever set foot in China. Could it be that Marco Polo had merely recounted the stories that he’d heard from other travellers who passed by Venice?

Seven hundred years after Marco Polo’s death in 1324, various studies appeared demonstrating that in essence, the stories told in Il Milione were authentic (with perhaps some slight exaggerations here and there). Marco Polo had followed his father and uncle–Niccolò and Maffeo Polo–in their second trading travels to the Mongol capital of China, Khanbaliq (nowadays Beijing). Along the way, the 17-year-old Marco learned several languages, mastered four alphabets, and discovered lands shrouded in mystery. The Polos travelled about 12,000 km in 3 years; through Acre (present-day Israel), passing by Baghdad and the port city of Hormuz, crossing the Middle East, entering China from Kashgar, stopping in Karakorum and finally arriving at their destination, where they met Emperor Kublai Khan. 


Caravan on the Silk Road. Marco Polo traveling in a caravan, illustration from the Catalan Atlas (1375), in the collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, France. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)


Marco arrived in Asia during a period of political change, as Kublai Khan had finished conquering all parts of China. The arrival of the Venetians was ideal for the Mongol emperor, as he needed non-Mongol administrators to help him rule his newly expanded empire. The Polos were asked to stay in China, and Marco—an efficient businessman—was appointed a foreign emissary, taking various diplomatic and administrative roles. The Venetians stayed in service of the emperor for 16 or 17 years, before heading back to their home city. Legends say Emperor Kublai Khan was reluctant to let them go, because they had been so useful. On the way back, the Polos took a different route, sailing on a Chinese ship around India, through Sumatra and the Andaman Islands, reaching Hormuz again, then Aden, Constantinople, and finally arriving at their dear Venice in 1295. Along the way, as a last service to the emperor, they escorted the Mongol Princess Cogatin to Persia, to become the bride of a Persian Khan. After 24 years away, the Polos’ return home was met with great surprise. They wore Mongol clothes and barely spoke their native language. Their relatives had thought them long dead. Yet, they brought back a great fortune in gems and stories, and so, were welcomed back with open arms.


Marco Polo travels. (Photo. britannica.com)


This return home could have been the end of Marco Polo’s story. Most of the many Europeans who’d travelled through the Silk Road for trade were forgotten. However, destiny (and local geopolitics of the time) led a war between Venice and Genoa to imprison Marco in Pisa. By good fortune, he met the romantic writer Rustichello da Pisa in his cell, and enchanted him with stories from the East. Rustichello wrote it all down in a French dialect, and the first copy of Il Milione came to be. Marco told of epic wars, magical palaces and even unicorns (or more likely, just rhinoceroses). He described the cultures, foods, religions, and sexual habits of peoples whom he encountered during his 24 years away. He explained the widespread use of paper as currency and coal to generate heat. Once out of prison, Rustichello published the manuscript that soon became a ‘best-seller’. Marco’s bizarre account introduced most Europeans to the great civilisations of the East, and the public loved it (even if sometimes sceptical of the authenticity). Soon, the book was translated into Venetian, German, English, Catalan, Argonese, Gaelic, and Latin. While printing was still unavailable in Europe, Il Milione became a mainstream story within a century. Sadly, the original text has been lost to time. It is unclear if the book is Marco Polo’s storytelling or Rustichello’s own interpretation.

While their journey to China and back can be verified as following known merchant routes, the locations of Marco’s 16—17 years of stay in the Mongol Empire are unclear. Nonetheless, his vivid and enthusiastic descriptions of the splendid world he discovered truly captured the European public’s curiosity and attention. This fascination is still alive today.


Marco Polo at the Kublai Khan. Marco Polo at the Kublai Khan, Miniature from the Book “The Book of Marco Polo” (“Il milione”), originally published during Polos lifetime 1298-1324, but frequently reprinted and translated. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)


Going back to Marco Polo’s final words, if it is indeed true that he told of only half of what he saw, one can only wonder what marvellous stories he took to his grave. His legacy to modern culture is still evident. Regarding Western history, Marco Polo is credited with having inspired the age of European exploration, even though it sadly led to European colonialism. In popular culture, some note that Il Milione, as the first travelogue ever written, sparked interest in a genre of literature that became extremely popular over the centuries. Scholarly research is still underway to find lost fragments of the original text. Nowadays, the world is only a click away thanks to the internet. In such a world, Marco Polo reminds us to keep our enthusiasm and an open mind, while encountering new cultures, customs, and worlds. He was a courageous traveller, a cultural bridge builder, and a testament to human curiosity. While describing what he saw, the Venetian never judged or criticized, just reported with great enthusiasm. If today we can learn something from this traveller, it may be to be open, curious, and willing to engage with unknown realities without prejudice or bias.


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