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istory has kept some tremendous people in the books, many can argue — including me- — that they have changed the world. Have they changed it for the better or worse? We shall be the judges of that, but what is important is that we don’t forget the names of those who have changed our world, despite their reasons. Marco Polo has remained in the history books as one of the biggest explorers, however, the reliability of his accounts is still debated to this day…

Marco Polo was born on September 15, 1254, in the Republic of Venice. He was a merchant by trade, but history reminds us of his name not for his economic activity, but for his accounts of a trip to China in the second half of the 13th century. Marco was only 17 years old when he went on the journey that would mark his whole life and the world. In his accounts, he mentions the year 1271 as the date of departure on the long journey to China. He set off with his father and uncle. Data about Marco Polo’s family, respectively about Niccolo and Maffio Polo, Marco’s father, and uncle, is very limited.

His famous journey

In their journey they crossed the plateau of Anatolia and Armenia, then Kurdistan, descending into the valley of the Tigris River, following the stream, through Mosul and Baghdad, to Basra. From there, the three Venetians headed for Tabriz, crossing Iran to Hormuz, in the Persian Gulf.

A map presenting Marco Polo’s Journey (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The initial intention was to go through the sea, but giving up this idea, the Venetians returned to the north and, after Iran and the Dashi-Lut desert, along the southern coasts of the Hindukush mountains, reached the foot of the Pamirs, from where they descended to the Kashgar oasis, then bypassed the Takla-Makan desert to the south and reached northwestern Tibet. From here, in the valley of the river Sulehe, they arrived in the port of Ganzu.

Polo wearing a Tartar outfit, date of print unknown (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

After a year-long hiatus, the three passed through the lands of the Tangiers (Tibetan peoples northeast of the plateau) and entered Kai-Ping Fu, the summer residence of the great Kubilai Inn (1214–1294), where they were treated by the grandson of Genghis Khan and the founder of the Yuan Dynasty (1280–1368). This residence is located north of Hanbalâk (Beijing).

There they quickly gained the trust of the Mongol ruler Kublai Khan whose service they served from 1275 to 1290, being a clerk, then ambassador of the Mongol Yuan dynasty. Then Marco Polo and his father and uncle returned to Venice by sea, following the sea route that bypassed South Asia, stopping on the island of Sumatra (five months), then the islands of Nicobar and Andaman, Ceylon, and the southern shores of Iran, until they reached Hormuz.

Life as a prisoner (making of a best seller)

The causes of his imprisonment are unknown even to this day. There are several hypotheses. One of them is that he took part in the naval battle of September 7, 1298, when, near the Dalmatian coast, the Genoese fleet crushed the Venetian one, taking many prisoners. However, in his book Polo — which he wrote in prison with the help of his cellmate, Rustichello of Pisa —, we find that the work was completed in 1298. In this context, it is hard to believe that the manuscript of his travel stories, known as Il milione would have been completed in less than three months, in the space of a cell, without documents or other notes.

The book about Marco Polo’s travels (Source: Book Encyclopedia)

Hence the second theory that Marco arrived in the Genoese prison shortly after returning from his trip, in 1296 or 1297, without knowing the reasons. What is certain is that Marco Polo dictated his stories during the Asian trip to his cellmate, Rusticello in Pisa.

The original manuscript of Il milione (Description of the World) is in Old French and was kept at the National Library in Paris, being published only in 1824. Known under several titles: “Diversity of the World,” “Book of Wonders,” or “Million”. The work of Marco Polo is one of the greatest travel writings of the Middle Ages and the first to reveal to Western Europe the immense and fabulous world of China and Asia. However, throughout his life, but also in the following centuries, other variants of this manuscript appeared, mostly in Italian. Probably some even dictated by Marco Polo after returning home to the Doge’s fortress.

Rustichello da Pisa, was an Italian romance writer best known for co-writing Marco Polo’s autobiography (Source: Flickr)

At present, about 80 such manuscripts (variants) of the work are known, many of them having different details. It must be said that the original document contains a series of stories, legends, and anecdotes, which certainly did not belong to Marco Polo, but also to Rusticello of Pisa, who in turn was a cultured man and, although he had not traveled to China, he knew from his readings all the information he put together along with that told by Marco.

Marco Polo was released from prison in 1299 and lived until 1324 when he died at the age of 70. When he was released, he discovered that his travel stories, called Il milione, were rapidly spreading. Even to this day, the book is still a best seller in many countries.

Questioning Marco Polo’s Legacy

From the beginning, there were doubts about the authenticity of the stories. Some say that Marco Polo went as far as Constantinople, where the Polo family had relations and business since the beginning of the twelfth century.

The hypothesis that he did not travel to China is based on the fact that his travelogues do not mention defining elements for this civilization at that time such as:

  • The Great Wall of China;
  • The pattern of stories within the book;
  • The absence of Chinese and Mongolian names in the book.

It would have been possible for someone to hold high positions with the first emperor of the Mongol Yuan dynasty, but this would have taken many years and even then, you would not expect the Mongols to share such information with Western Europeans from the other side of the globe whom, outside of Europe, did not have the best reputation around the world.

I will let you be the judge when it comes to the validity of Marco Polo’s journeys as described in the book. I like to think that they are real, but if they aren’t it would not be the first time an important historical figure had lied to capture attention.

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