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Marco Polo

Explorer Marco Polo arriving at the court of Kublai Khan (Platt 97)
Marco Polo – explorer and one of the first Europeans to enter China

Marco Polo can lay a claim to being the world’s greatest and most famous explorer. He travelled to an Asia virtually unknown to medieval Europe, recounting marvels which both awed and inspired.

His account, ‘The Travels of Marco Polo’ was in fact not written himself but dictated to a popular writer of the time, Rustichello da Pisa, as Polo languished in prison. Some of the things Marco Polo talks about are clearly the result of imagination or exaggeration and earned Polo the nickname ‘Il Milione’ ‘the Million’. We have no way of knowing which parts were actually dictated by Polo, and which were embellishments by Rustichello.

Marco Polo – exaggerations

The exaggerations in ‘The Travels’ have led some modern historians doubt that Polo ever got to China at all. He described some things in great detail, like the (very efficient) Imperial postage system, paper money, and details of Court social and political life (backed up by official records) that he could not have found out about except by being present.

On the other hand he seems to have failed to observe such everyday things as chopsticks, footbinding and tea. Overall, most historians think he probably did make it to China, but some of his taller stories (like being promoted to a high position in the bureaucracy) were probably false.

Nevertheless in spite of the exaggerations, Polo offered a glimpse of far off places unknown to Europeans. He describes civilisations of the Middle East and South East Asia in detail, as well as such marvels as the rhinoceros. His descriptions of the Far East were an inspiration to Christopher Columbus who set off to find them with a copy of ‘The Travels’ in hand.

Marco Polo’s Journey

Marco’s journey took him through Central Asia to China, then through South East Asia, around India, and back to Europe through the Middle East. He was away for 24 years.

Marco was the son of a Venetian merchant Niccolo Polo who, with his brother Maffeo, travelled to the court of Chinese Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan. They were sent back to Europe by the Khan with orders to obtain some oil from the Lamp of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem as well as one hundred of the wisest Christian scholars. They returned with Marco, and the Holy Oil, but only two scholars, both of whom turned back when things were getting dangerous.

Marco Polo eventually came to reside at the court of the Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan and arguably one of the most powerful rulers on earth. Polo described the might and extravagance of court life in ‘The Travels’, including the enormous hunting parties, the Imperial stud of 10,000 horses and the Emperor’s four wives, hundreds of concubines, and around fifty sons.

Marco Polo’s tall stories

Some of Polo’s more doubtful stories include his description of the people of Yunnan. According to him, the people always carry poison so that they can easily commit suicide if found guilty of some crime. To combat this, the police always carried dog dung – if someone took poison they would be forced to swallow the dog dung, and would regurgitate the dung and the poison as a result.

Upon visiting the Kingdom of Ormus in the Persian Gulf, Marco Polo describes a wind so hot as to suffocate anybody caught in its path. According to Polo, the citizens of Ormus would decamp to the river whenever they detected the approach of the wind, and survive by immersing themselves up to the neck in the water.

Whilst Marco was present an army of 1600 cavalry and 5000 foot soldiers approached, intending to invade the city. The citizens were in the river at the time, but when they returned they found every soldier of the invading army dead, bodies baked so thoroughly that they crumbled when touched.

Marco Polo is a well-known and much admired figure among modern Chinese. According to popular Chinese belief, Italians have China and Polo to thank for both pizza and spaghetti.

According to them, spaghetti was Polo’s attempt to recreate much longed-for noodles when he returned home, and pizza resulted from his attempts to recreate ‘Xiàn bĭng’, a kind of stuffed pancake. These ideas probably rely as much on the imagination as do Polo’s own stories of court astrologers able to control the weather through black magic.

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