Marco Polo (1254-1324) was a Venetian merchant believed to have journeyed across Asia at the height of the Mongol Empire. He first set out at age 17 with his father and uncle, traveling overland along what later became known as the Silk Road. Upon reaching China, Marco Polo entered the court of powerful Mongol ruler Kublai Khan, who dispatched him on trips to help administer the realm. Marco Polo remained abroad for 24 years. Though not the first European to explore China—his father and uncle, among others, had already been there—he became famous for his travels thanks to a popular book he co-authored while languishing in a Genoese prison.
Marco Polo: The Early Years
Marco Polo was born around 1254 into a prosperous merchant family in the Italian city-state of Venice. His father, Niccolò, and his uncle Maffeo had left the year before on a long-term trading expedition. As a result, he was raised by extended relatives following his mother’s death at a young age. Niccolò and Maffeo first spent about six years in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey), which had been under Latin control since the Fourth Crusade of 1204. The two brothers then went to the port city of Soldaia (now Sudak, Ukraine), where they owned a house.
The Byzantine re-conquest of Constantinople in 1261, along with upheavals in the Mongol Empire, may have blocked their way home. Niccolò and Maffeo therefore turned east in order to trade in such things as silk, gems, furs and spices. After spending three years in Bukhara in present-day Uzbekistan, they were encouraged by a Mongolian embassy to visit Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, who controlled a huge swath of Asia. Kublai quizzed them on European affairs and decided to send them on a goodwill mission to the pope. In 1269, the two brothers finally made it back to Venice, where Niccolò and Marco Polo met each other for the first time.
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Marco Polo’s Travels Along the Silk Road
Two years later, Niccolò and Maffeo sailed to Acre in present-day Israel, this time with Marco at their side. At the request of Kublai Khan, they secured some holy oil from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and then backtracked to Acre to pick up gifts, papal documents and two friars from newly elected Pope Gregory X. The friars quickly abandoned the expedition, but the Polos continued on, possibly by camel, to the Persian port city of Hormuz. Failing to find any boats to their liking, they instead took a series of overland traders’ routes that, in the 19th century, would become known as the Silk Road. Over the next three years they slowly trekked through deserts, high mountain passes and other rough terrain, meeting people of various religions and cultures along the way. Finally, around 1275, they arrived at Kublai Khan’s opulent summer palace at Shangdu, or Xanadu, located about 200 miles northwest of his winter quarters in modern Beijing.
Kublai, who generally relied on foreigners to administer his empire, took Marco Polo into his court, possibly as a tax collector. At one point, the Venetian was sent on official business to the port city of Hangzhou (then called Quinsai), which, like Venice, was built around a series of canals. Marco Polo also purportedly journeyed across inland China and into present-day Myanmar.
After many years of seeking a release from service, the Polos finally secured permission from Kublai to escort a young princess to her intended husband Arghun, the Mongol ruler of Persia. In 1292 the Polos joined a flotilla of 14 boats that set out from Zaitun (now Quanzhou, China), stopped briefly in Sumatra and then landed in Persia 18 months later, only to find out that Arghun was dead. The princess was made to marry Arghun’s son. The Polos, meanwhile, stayed on with Arghun’s brother for nine months before heading to Venice via Trebizond (now Trabzon, Turkey), Constantinople and Negrepont (now Euboea, Greece). They arrived home in 1295, the year after Kublai’s death sent the Mongol Empire into an irrevocable decline.
Marco Polo in Venice
Shortly thereafter, Marco Polo was captured in battle by Venice’s archrival Genoa. While in prison he met the Arthurian adventure writer Rustichello of Pisa, with whom he would collaborate on a 1298 manuscript called “Description of the World.” It has since become better known as “The Travels of Marco Polo” or simply “The Travels.” With the help of notes taken during his adventures, Marco Polo reverently described Kublai Khan and his palaces, along with paper money, coal, postal service, eyeglasses and other innovations that had not yet appeared in Europe. He also told partially erroneous self-aggrandizing tales about warfare, commerce, geography, court intrigues and the sexual practices of the people who lived under Mongol rule.
A Genoese-Venetian peace treaty in 1299 allowed Marco Polo to return home. He probably never left Venetian territory again. The following year, he married Donata Badoer, with whom he would have three daughters. Not much is known about his golden years except that he continued trading and litigated against a cousin. Marco Polo died in January 1324, having helped to inspire a later generation of explorers. Everything we know about him comes from his own text and a few Venetian documents; Asian sources never mentioned him. This lack of hard evidence has caused a small number of skeptics to question whether Marco Polo actually made it to China. They back up their case by pointing to certain inaccuracies in “The Travels,” as well as his failure to report such practices as chopstick use and foot binding. Nonetheless, most scholars are convinced by the detailed nature of Marco Polo’s account, which, they say, overwhelmingly checks out against available archaeological, historical and geographical records.