In 1298 a Venetian
adventurer named Marco Polo wrote a fascinating book about his travels
in the Far East. Men read his accounts of Oriental riches and became
eager to find sea routes to China, Japan, and the East Indies. Even
Columbus, nearly 200 years later, often consulted his copy of 'The Book
of Ser Marco Polo'.
In Marco's day the book was translated and copied by hand in several
languages. After printing was introduced in the 1440's, the book was
circulated even more widely. Many people thought that the book was a
fable or a gross exaggeration. A few learned men believed that Marco
wrote truly, however, and they spread Marco's stories of faraway places
and unknown peoples. Today geographers agree that Marco's book is
Marco Polo was born in the city-republic of Venice in 1254. His father
and uncles were merchants who traveled to distant lands to trade. In
1269 Marco's father, Nicolo`, and his uncle Maffeo returned to Venice
after being away many years. On a trading expedition they had traveled
overland as far as Cathay (China). Kublai Khan, the great Mongol emperor
of China, asked them to return with teachers and missionaries for his
people. So they set out again in 1271, and this time they took Marco.
From Venice the Polos sailed to Acre, in Palestine. There two monks,
missionaries to China, joined them. Fearing the hard journey ahead,
however, the monks soon turned back. The Polos crossed the deserts of
Persia (Iran) and Afghanistan. They mounted the heights of the Pamirs,
the "roof of the world," descending to the trading cities of Kashgar (Shufu)
and Yarkand (Soche). They crossed the dry stretches of The Gobi. Early
in 1275 they arrived at Kublai Khan's court at Cambaluc (Peking). At
that time Marco was 21 years old.
At the Court of the Great Khan
Marco quickly became a favorite of Kublai Khan. For three years he
governed busy Yangchow, a city of more than 250,000 people. He was sent
on missions to far places in the empire: to Indochina, Tibet, Yunnan,
and Burma. From these lands Marco brought back stories of the people and
The Polos became wealthy in Cathay. But they began to fear that jealous
men in the court would destroy them when the khan died. They asked to
return to Venice. Kublai Khan refused. Then came an envoy from the khan
of Persia. He asked Kublai Khan for a young Mongol princess for a bride.
The Polos said that the princess' journey should be guarded by men of
experience and rank. They added that the mission would enable them to
make the long-desired visit to Venice. The khan reluctantly agreed.
Since there was danger from robbers and enemies of the khan along the
overland trade routes, a great fleet of ships was built for a journey by
sea. In 1292 the fleet sailed, bearing the Polos, the princess, and 600
noblemen of Cathay. They traveled southward along Indochina and the
Malay Peninsula to Sumatra. Here the voyage was delayed many months.
The ships then turned westward and visited Ceylon and India. They
touched the East African coast. The voyage was hazardous, and of the 600
noblemen only 18 lived to reach Persia. The Polos and the princess were
safe. When the Polos landed in Venice, they had been gone 24 years. The
precious stones they brought from Cathay amazed all Venice.
Later Marco served as gentleman-captain of a ship. Forces of the rival
trading city of Genoa captured it, however, and he was thrown into a
Genoese prison. There he wrote his book with help from another prisoner.
Marco was released by the Genoese in 1299. He returned to Venice and
engaged in trade. His name appears in the court records of his time in
many lawsuits over property and money. He married and had three
daughters. He died about 1323.
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