If Marco Polo had not stayed in China between 1274 to 1295, the world would not know much about Kublai Khan and his court. The son of the merchant Niccolo Polo, Marco joined his father and uncle at the young age of seventeen on a journey that would take him across the vast continent. Marco, his father, and his uncle Maffeo were welcomed by Kublai Khan in his court when they arrived in 1274/1275. The young man spent seventeen years in China until he, his father, and his uncle left in 1292. They arrived in Venice in 1295—several times richer than when they first left the Republic. It was Marco Polo’s knowledge of Yuan China which made him one of the most fascinating travelers of the Medieval Period. These events are recorded on the Bible Timeline with World History during that time.
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Niccolo and Maffeo’s First Journey
Marco Polo was born in the Republic of Venice on September 15, 1254. He was the son of the wealthy Venetian merchant Niccolo Polo and the nephew of Maffeo. In the mid-1250s, the brothers Niccolo and Maffeo loaded their goods into a ship and sailed to Constantinople to trade. At that time, the Byzantine capital was ruled by the Latins and the Venetians also traded there. They spent a few years trading in Constantinople but left the city before the Byzantines regained the Empire from the Latins.
The two brothers sailed to the Crimean port city of Soldaia (modern Sudak) in 1260. They traveled to the encampment of Berke, the Khan of the Golden Horde, and gave him jewels as tribute. Berke Khan was pleased with the Polo brothers, so he rewarded them with additional capital and goods. Niccolo and Maffeo stayed in Crimea until they were forced to leave and trade somewhere else again in 1262.
They then went to Bukhara and made the dangerous journey across Asia to China. They arrived in Kublai Khan’s capital in Dadu/Khanbaliq around 1265 or 1266. The khan received and welcomed them at his court. The khan was interested in Europe and in Christianity, so he told them to go back to the continent. Before they left, Kublai told them to bring back 100 priests and the oil from the lamp of Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. He also gave them a paizu (safe-conduct) which they could use while traveling in Mongol territory.
The brothers retraced their route from China to West Asia. They reached Acre in the Levant in 1269, but they learned that Pope Clement IV had died. They decided to return to Venice and wait for the election of the new pope. They docked in Venice in 1270, and Niccolo saw his son, Marco, for the first time. The boy’s mother died when he was six, and an uncle took him in until his father arrived. Marco Polo was around fifteen or sixteen when he met his father.
The Second Journey
Niccolo and Maffeo delivered Kublai Khan’s letter to Pope Gregory X in 1271. The pope, however, could only send two Dominican friars who were based in the Levant to the Khan. So Niccolo, Maffeo, and Marco sailed from Venice to Jerusalem in 1271. They met up with the two Dominican friars and took a bit of oil from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with them. The two friars did not realize that the journey would be difficult, so they decided to turn back. The Polos were forced to continue the journey back to the Khan without the priests. It took them around three years before they could reach China.
Their original plan was to board a ship bound for China in Hormuz, so they followed the Tigris River until they arrived in the port city. But for some reason, they detoured and headed north to the desert instead of boarding a ship to China. They passed the Pamir Mountains (in modern Tajikistan) and arrived in the oasis city of Kashgar on the western edge of the Taklamakan Desert. They crossed the desert and entered China via Dunhuang in Gansu after thirty days.
Marco Polo was fascinated with the unfamiliar customs and new things (such as asbestos) that he saw in Chinese cities. They continued to travel through the province of Gansu and pushed east to Shangdu, the Khan’s summer retreat. Kublai Khan’s messenger, however, went ahead and sent word that the Latins were coming to Shangdu. They arrived in Kublai’s summer palace around 1274 or 1275. The Khan welcomed them, but he was disappointed that the Polos failed to bring the 100 priests that they promised.
The Polos were not the first Europeans to visit the Mongols. John of Plano Carpini and William of Rubruck had been to Mongolia before them, although their missions were unsuccessful. This may have been due to their lack of charm as compared to Marco Polo. It was also possible that the previous Mongol rulers were not as welcoming nor as cosmopolitan as Kublai Khan.
Marco Polo was 20 or 21 years old when they arrived at Kublai Khan’s court in Shangdu (Xanadu). He mastered several languages including Uighur and Mongol during their journey. His mastery of these languages impressed Kublai Khan. He was also a keen observer and a good storyteller. His insights were so valuable to Kublai that he ordered them to stay in China until further notice.
Marco Polo at Kublai Khan’s Court
Kublai Khan, at that time, was at the height of his power. His army had chipped away at the Southern Song strongholds until its Empress Dowager surrendered Hangzhou to him. By 1279, any resistance from the Southern Song disappeared when the last brother of the emperor died after he drowned while on the run.
Kublai Khan was at Shangdu when the Polos arrived in China. Marco was impressed with its magnificence. Years after his stay in China, he recorded that the palace grounds was spacious and had wide courts. The palace walls were decorated with splendid paintings of people, plants, and animals. The Khan sat on a great and glowing throne on top of a platform while he held court.
The palace was surrounded by wide hunting grounds and lush parks. Deer and goats roamed the hunting grounds, while the khan kept leopards, lynxes, tigers, hunting dogs, falcons, and hawks. Kublai Khan allowed Marco Polo to roam the palace grounds whenever he wanted.
Marco Polo noted that Kublai Khan’s family, advisers, and attendants came with him when he went outside Shangdu to hunt. A large royal tent was reserved for him. Smaller tents, meanwhile, were set up for his four principal wives, twenty-two sons, and hundreds of courtiers. They feasted on delicious food every day even when the camp was far from Shangdu.
The Khan and his court returned to Khanbaliq/Dadu during the end of summer. The residents of his official capital lined the sides of the road and welcomed them upon their arrival. Kublai also allowed Marco Polo to live in his palace in Dadu. The young Venetian noted that it was larger and more magnificent than the royal palace in Shangdu. The feasts in Dadu were also more splendid than in Shangdu. Marco Polo once attended a feast where Kublai hosted as many as 40,000 noblemen and merchants.
When he had the chance to roam Dadu, Marco Polo noted that the capital was lively and full of merchants from all over China and Asia. He also had the chance to mingle with ordinary Mongols and Chinese. Marco learned the Chinese language during his stay in Dadu. He noted that even ordinary people received food and clothing from the tribute of linen, silk, and hemp given to Kublai Khan.
Road networks stretched across the Yuan Empire during the Khan’s reign. These roads were lined with trees that protected the travelers from the heat of the sun. Post houses also dotted these road networks. The post houses also served as lodges for merchants and other travelers. Marco Polo was surprised to see paper money and coal being used in China as both had not reached Europe during the 13th century.
Marco Polo as Kublai Khan’s Envoy
Marco Polo said that Kublai Khan appointed him as an envoy to the southern and southwestern provinces of China. He and his guards traveled south where they became victims of bandits. They reached Tibet where Marco marveled at the abundance of gold, cloves, ginger, cinnamon, and coral. He was also impressed at the size of the Tibetan mastiff.
They crossed into an uninhabited region of Tibet and into the province of Yunnan. The province was ruled by one of Kublai’s sons, and it was famed for the abundance of salt. Marco noticed that they did not use paper money, but they molded salt into bars and stamped these with Kublai’s seals. The people of Yunnan then used these salt bars as currency. They soon left Yunnan and came back north to Dadu.
The Return to Venice
The Polos stayed in China for seventeen years. They saw the Khan consolidate his power in China, Korea, and the Mongolian homeland. But they also saw his failures in the invasion of Japan and the death of his beloved empress Chabi and heir Zhenjin. They also saw the intrigues and schemes of Kublai’s advisers and sons in his court while the Khan gradually declined. The Polos were unsure that they would still enjoy the same privileges the moment the Khan died and his heir succeeded the throne.
So they made plans to leave before the Khan died. The Khan was dismayed when the Polos made their petition, and he did not allow them to leave his court. An opportunity arrived several years later when the Ilkhan ruler Arghun sent a message to Kublai Khan. Arghun’s favorite wife had died, so he requested the Khan to send a princess from his dead wife’s tribe who could take her place.
The Khan decided to send Princess Kokochin of the Bayaut tribe. However, the Persian envoys did not want to return to the Ilkhan capital of Tabriz overland because it was dangerous. They asked the Khan if they could travel by sea, and the Polos saw an opportunity to leave China. Since the Mongols were not used to traveling by sea, the Venetians volunteered to escort the princess to Persia. The Khan finally agreed to let the Polos go, and he also sent them letters to the rulers of Europe.
The party traveled south to Quanzhou (in present-day Fujian Province) where they boarded a ship bound for Persia in 1292. They made several stopovers along the way, including the kingdom of Champa (modern south and central Vietnam), Java, Sumatra, and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). They visited several ports in India where Marco met some Jews and Christians. After a difficult journey in the Indian Ocean, they finally reached Hormuz to deliver Princess Kokochin.
The Polos continued the journey throughout Persia via land. They traveled to the Black Sea port in Trebizond and from there they boarded a ship bound for Constantinople. From Constantinople, they reached Venice in 1295 via the Mediterranean. The Polos’ long adventure in Asia had ended, and they were finally home.
Picture by: Salviati – http://urbanesalonanddayspa.com/15fa8o-marco-polo.org-cheap, Public Domain, Link
Atwood, Christopher Pratt. Encyclopedia of Mongolia and the Mongol Empire. New York, NY: Facts On File, 2004.
Buell, Paul D. Historical Dictionary of the Mongol World Empire. Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2003.
Moule, A. C., Paul Pelliot, and Marco Polo. Marco Polo: The Description of the World. London: Routledge & Sons Limited, 1938.
Polo, Marco, and Noah Brooks. The Story of Marco Polo. New York: Century, 1897.
Odum, Justin. UW Departments Web Server. Accessed January 10, 2017. https://depts.washington.edu/silkroad/maps/marcopolo.html.
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