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Through the looking glass with Marco Polo

It’s the stuff of fantasy, not unlike the world of Alice in Wonderland, or of Dorothy in the Land of Oz, or of the time traveler in The Time Machine. Like the time traveler, Marco Polo (and his father and uncle) returned to their Venice home dressed in rags, and telling stories of an incredible land where they had been for 17 years: a faraway place of unimagined riches, and of cities far in advance of those in Europe, and no one believed them. The fortune in jewels sewn into their clothing was ample evidence, and some began to believe their story.

A few years later, while imprisoned in Genoa for a year, Marco relayed his journey to a professional writer who produced a compelling narrative, entitled “The Travels of Marco Polo” (which is reviewed here). The book made Marco famous, but still few believed him. On his deathbed, his family begged him to recant his story and thereby save his soul. Marco insisted it was all true, adding, “I have not told half of what I saw.” After Polo’s death, a clown calling himself Marco Millions entertained Venetians for several years.

Gradually, the Western World accepted Marco Polo’s tale as being true. Subsequent travelers attempted the same journey but with the collapse of the Mongol Empire, the Silk Road the Polos had traveled had been closed.

The lure of riches compelled Christopher Columbus to cross the Atlantic in search of Polo’s fantastical world--and discovered America instead. What exactly did the Polos find that stunned Western Europe?

Like most Venetians, the Polos were merchants who frequented the trading centers of Asia Minor. Some European merchants traveled as far east as Baghdad, and encountered stories of faraway lands where the silks, spices, jewelry, and perfumes they traded for actually came from. They met travelers who had been as far east as India. The trade route was known as the Silk Road. Before Marco was born, his father and uncle (Niccolo and Maffeo) had followed the Silk Road to its farthest destination—to China. The emperor, Kublai Kahn (grandson of Genghis Kahn) received them warmly. The Kahns were Mongolian conquerors, with an empire that stretched from the East China Sea to Russian, and to the Middle East, and was ruled by family members and trusted subordinates located throughout their far-reaching empire. They were cruel but somewhat enlightened rulers, who fostered education and the arts, and were tolerant of differing religions and peoples (as long as they paid their taxes and were respectful of the ruling elite). They welcomed trade and established protective guard at various points along the Silk Road. Clearly, the most prestigious and luxurious place to rule the empire was from the capital of China, where Kublai Kahn held court and welcomed the Polo brothers. He asked them questions regarding the European legal and political system. He also inquired about the Pope and the Church in Rome. He sent them back to Europe with a number of questions for the Pope concerning the Seven Arts (grammar, rhetoric, logic, geometry, arithmetic, music and astronomy) and a request for oil from the lamp of Jerusalem. By the time the Polos arrived in Rome, the Pope was dead and the election of his successor delayed indefinitely. They returned to Venice and learned Niccolo had a son, Marco, age 17, who had been born while they were away. Eventually, they secured what Kahn requested. In 1271, the three set out for China.

They sailed to Acre, a port south of Constantinople, then rode camels to the Persian port of Hormuz. They expected to board a ship and sail directly to China, but none of the ships were seaworthy. They continued overland to Balkh (in present-day Afghanistan), and on through the high-mountain pass of the Western Himalayas, to the Taklamakan Desert of Northwest China. At some point, they joined a caravan of traveling merchants and were attacked by bandits. The Polos escaped but many members of the caravan were killed, captured, or sold into slavery. Having reached China, they circled north of the Yellow River, passed four times through the crumbling Great Wall, and, after three-and-a-half years of travel, arrived safely in the court of Kublai Kahn. They presented the emperor with sealed papers from the Pope and the sacred oil from Jerusalem. Kahn held a great feast in their honor and apparently took a liking to young Marco, now age 21. Marco was a bit naive (so say the scholars) but quick witted and bright. He knew four languages and became a valued government official and member of the emperor’s court. Soon after the Polos arrived, Kahn’s army secured control of southern China, and Marco was sent on a number of imperial visits to China’s southern and eastern provinces. Many of the places Marco saw would not be seen again by Europeans for another 500 years.

Kahn had made Beijing his seat of government, and built an extensive palace adorned with gold and silver, with separate living quarters for each of his four wives and children; his concubines, government officers, and guests; and a great hall that seated six-thousand. Outside the palace were vast courtyards, gardens and waterways, all enclosed by a marble wall.

Kahn's palace was separated from Beijing by a river, well guarded and secure. Kahn enjoyed hunting and fishing, and had thousands of acres of hunting preserves for his personal use; vast lakes stocked with fish from throughout China, a zoo for tigers from India, over ten-thousand pure white horses, and a man-made mountain planted with trees from throughout Asia, brought in on the backs of elephants. Marco described Kahn's summer palace as “the greatest there ever was. . . . The rooms are all gilt and painted with figures of men and beasts . . . all executed with such exquisite art that you regard them with delight and astonishment.” Marco’s description later inspired the English poet Colerage to write his famous poem about Kublai Kahn’s “stately pleasure-dome in Xanadu" (actual name: Shang-du).

Downtown Beijing was stunning too, with twelve suburbs that Polo described as more beautiful than the city, where the business class lived in grand residences, many with walled gardens. In the city proper were numerous hotels, thousands of shops and booths, even hospitals. Food of all kinds abounded, and every day a thousand loads of raw silk entered the gates to be turned into clothing for the residents. The streets were arrow straight and created a grid that Polo described as resembling a chess board. Standing atop the gated arch at one end of the city, he noted you could see the gate at the far side of the city, a distance of six miles.

As impressed as he was with Beijing, it was the old capital city of Hangzhou that particularly caught his attention. Marco called it “the city of Heaven, the most magnificent city in the world.” The Polos were from Venice, one of the richest cities of 13th-Century Europe. Tellingly, it paled in comparison to Hangzhou. Like Venice, it was a city of canals, only much larger, situated between a broad river and a vast lake of clear water. Writes Polo: “It is commonly said that the number of bridges, of all sizes, amounts to twelve thousand. Those which are thrown over the principal canals, are connected with the main streets, have arches so high, and built with so much skill, that vessels with their masts can pass under them. . . .

“From the sea, which is fifteen miles distant, there is daily brought up the river, to the city, a vast quantity of fish. . . . At the sight of such an importation of fish, you would think it impossible that it could be sold; and yet, in the course of a few hours, it is all taken off. . . .

"The streets connected with the market-squares are numerous, and in some of them are many cold baths, attended by servants of both sexes. The men and women who frequent them have from their childhood been accustomed at all times to wash in cold water, which they reckon conducive to health. At these bathing places, however, they have apartments provided with warm water, for the use of strangers, who cannot bear the shock of the cold. All are in the daily practice of washing their persons, and especially before their meals. . . .

“In other streets are the quarters of the courtesans, who are here in such numbers as I dare not venture to report . . . adorned with much finery, highly perfumed, occupying well-furnished houses, and attended by many females domestics. . . . In other streets are the dwellings of the physicians and the astrologers. . . . On each side of the principal street are houses and mansions of great size. . . . The women have much beauty, and are brought up with delicate and languid habits. The costliness of their dresses, in silks and jewelry, can scarcely be imagined.”

There were other things that captured Marco’s attention. There was the Grand Canal, 1100 miles long, connecting Beijing and Hangzhou (still the longest canal in the world). The economy dwarfed that of Europe. Marco reported that the manufacture of iron was around 125,000 tons a year (a level not reached in Europe before the 18th Century) and salt production was on a prodigious scale: 30,000 tons per year in one province alone. There was the use of paper money and banking, moveable-type printing and the making of books; an imperial postal system, and a sophisticated communications network throughout China that allowed Kahn to manage his Empire without having to leave his palace. The land was fertile and food was ample, as was the production of silk, an industry Marco encountered wherever he traveled in China. Flowers grew everywhere. In the bathhouses, water was heated by “burning stones” (coal, still unknown in Europe). While astrology and magic were commonplace. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism were accepted and taught in several houses of worship. There were also public granaries to store the surplus of good crops for public distribution in times of famine. Kahn instituted a policy that taxes would be remitted to all peasants who had suffered from drought, storms, or insect depredations. Writes Marco: “Not a day passes in which there are not distributed, by the regular officers, twenty-thousand vessels of rice, millet, and panicum.” There was also an organized system of state care for aged scholars, orphans, and the infirm.

Wherever Marco traveled in China, he saw ornate buildings, fine art and food served on porcelain dishes. He encountered people dressed in silk who were ever courteous. The country was highly civilized, seemed to lack nothing, and was well in advance of Europe.

How to explain the China the Polos saw that was so unlike the rest of the world? For one, China was isolated, hemmed in by the largest ocean, the highest mountains, and one of the most extensive deserts in the world. China’s isolation gave her comparative security and permanence. The only practical way to enter was from the north, and it was there China had built the Great Wall. The climate was ideal, and the soil rich and fertile, watered by regular rainfall, with a number of major deep-draft rivers, the longest and widest being the Yellow River in the north, and the Yang-tze in the south. Without having to worry about a steady food supply, China evolved early into one of the world’s great civilizations, and one of the most populated areas on earth. The society was rigidly hierarchical, and down through the centuries ruled by an elite, both kind and cruel. Dynasties came and went, but for the vast majority of people (the peasant farmers and fisherman who put food on tables throughout the land) life was hard but tranquil.

The Polos had no intention of staying as long as they did. Kahn did not want them to leave. They became worried about ever returning home, fearing that if Kublai died, his enemies might turn against them because of their close involvement with the ruler. After 17 years, Kublai’s great-nephew, and ruler of Persia, sent representatives to China in search of a potential wife, and they asked the Polos to accompany them, so they were permitted to go to Persia with the wedding party.

They departed from the port city of Quanzhou with a fleet of 14 ships. The party sailed south to the port of Singapore, traveled north to Sumatra, crossed the Bay of Bengal, rounded the Indian peninsula, encountered several storms and mishaps that decimated several ships, and after two years arrived in the port of Hormuz. While there, they learned Kublai Kahn had died. The Polos joined a caravan that brought them to Acre, where they boarded a ship bound for Venice. Arriving home, Marco was now a man of 41 years.

After fighting in a war with Genoa (that landed him in jail and resulted in the writing of his book), he returned to Venice, married, had three daughters, and lived another 30 years.

Today, the Venice airport is named the Marco Polo Airport. A number of sites Marco described on his journey are today noted landmarks, and in China is the eleven-arch stone bridge he described (and is still in use), now called “The Marco Polo Bridge.”

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