Who was Marco Polo?

WARNING: The following post has nothing whatsoever to do with noodles. But then neither did the travels of Marco Polo, so what are you complaining about?

So who exactly was Marco Polo? An explorer? Yes, but only secondarily. First and foremost he was a Venetian, which in those days meant he was a businessman, looking to take advantage of the biggest business opportunity that had yet been presented to human beings on planet Earth: the Mongol Empire. The Mongol Empire was the largest single domain the world had ever seen up until that point, stretching from the Pacific Ocean on the east all the way westward to central Europe, some 12 million square miles of territory. It was also the biggest free trade zone the world had ever known. For Genghis Khan, ignorant nomad and barbarian that he might have been, had a fundamental grasp of the connection between trade and wealth, such that he encouraged craftsmen to create tradable goods throughout his gigantic realm. But then of course if you have goods to trade you need markets to sell them, which is where foreigners like Marco Polo and his family entered the picture.

But let’s back up for a moment. The Mongol empire began as a mostly irrelevant confederation of nomadic tribes based in extreme northeastern Asia (Mongolia). That changed, however, when under the leadership of Genghis Khan the Mongols almost literally exploded out of their ancestral lands in 1206, gobbling up all of Central Asia in a remarkably short period of time. By 1259 they’d conquered the Middle East (the Persian Empire), and by 1279 owned everything from Vienna eastward, including China, which was an especially big bummer for the Chinese since they’d never been subjugated by an outside power before.

Being owners of that much real estate meant the Mongols controlled the Silk Road, which was the major artery for goods (especially spices and linens) heading west into the Middle East and Europe. Venice was the de-facto end of the pipe, which is why that city was so heavily populated with merchants. Among them were Marco Polo’s father, Niccolò and his uncle, Maffeo. These two saw the advantages to be had in moving their business concerns eastward, so as to be closer to the source of supply. In the 1250’s they relocated to Constantinople, and a few years after that to the shores of the Black Sea. In time they pressed still further along the Silk Road to the city of Sarai on the Volga River, which was then the capital of the Mongol state known as the Golden Horde. I should point out at this juncture that I’ve always loved that name, and to this day can’t understand why it isn’t the name of a college football team. Good evening and welcome to CBS college football, where tonight the Razorbacks of Arkansas will be taking on Iowa’s Golden Horde. Is that not perfect? But I digress. Still not content, the Polo brothers pressed further eastward until they encountered a diplomatic train of the Il Khanate (the Mongol State that comprised Persia) headed East to see the Grand Khan, a fellow by the name of Kubilai. Kubilai Khan was the grandson of Genghis Khan, head honcho of the Mongol Empire and also, as I mentioned, the new Emperor of China. He was based in a city called Khanbaliq, known today as Beijing.

Now, in those days it was said that the Mongols exercised such tight control over their territories that a young naked woman (or alternately a man with a hat full of gold) could walk from one end of the empire to the other without fear of assault. Nothing could have been further from the truth, which is why anyone traveling in those parts of the world in those days required numerous (and heavily armed) escorts. Such was the Il Khanate’s diplomatic entourage, which welcomed the Polo brothers, since it was well known at the time that Kubilai Khan had never before met a Westerner (what he called a “Latin”), and was eager to know some. The Polos filled the bill, and were welcomed with open arms by Kubilai and his court, which they reached in 1266. It wasn’t long afterward that Kubilai sent the Polos back to Europe on a diplomatic mission to see the Pope. For the great Khan, you see, had become intensely interested in Christianity (it evidently made a lot more sense to him than a lot of the wacky things that were going on in his realm at the time). He hoped to procure 100 or so priests to get the religion going in the East.

In this task the Polo brothers failed. However they did procure a response from the Pope to Kubilai, which obliged them to go back to China. Only this time they decided to take Niccolò’s 17-year old son Marco with them. They departed in 1271, with young Marco taking mental notes of all the strange things he saw all along the way. These notes later became the basis of his famous book, Il Milione, or The Travels of Marco Polo which would become one of the most famous books of the Middle Ages and eventually in all of Western Literature. In it, Marco recounts all sorts of fantastic things he saw on his 17-year journey, from the mildy strange (human beings with tails, birds big enough to carry away elephants) to the obviously made-up (paper money, coal fuel, mail systems). In fact to this day there are more than a few people who still don’t believe Marco Polo ever made it out of the Middle East, which to me is uncharitable to say the least. Yes, the book is filled with all kinds of weird things that he obviously only heard about. Yet modern day scholars have been amazed at the accuracy of much else. Chinese historians in fact use Il Milione to study Kubilai’s Chinese empire (today known as the Yuan Dynasty).

So maybe Marco might not have been a close confidant and emissary of the Great Khan for 17 years like he claimed (though he just as easily might have). The fact is that quite a bit of what he wrote down couldn’t have been recounted by anyone other than an eye-witness. And anyway, he and his father and uncle sure returned to Venice with enough loot to justify their claims of having been honorary members of the Khan’s court. Mixing fact with entertainment was standard operating procedure for writers of the day. Though of course sophisticated moderns like me wouldn’t know anything about that.

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