Travels of Marco Polo Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The travels of Marco Polo in Asia stimulated Western interest in Eastern commerce and influenced later explorers, including Christopher Columbus.

Summary of Event

In 1254, the year in which Marco Polo is believed to have been born, Italy was divided into warring city-states, and Genoa and Venice vied for naval dominance. Although deep in the Middle Ages, thirteenth century Europe witnessed an amazing increase in geographical knowledge as well as an increase in contact between Western Europe and the Far East. China, remote and exotic, held such a fascination for Europeans that tales of travel to that land were eagerly sought and circulated by the educated. [kw]Travels of Marco Polo (1271-1295) [kw]Marco Polo, Travels of (1271-1295) Polo, Marco Exploration;of Asia[Asia] Asia, European exploration of Italy;1271-1295: Travels of Marco Polo[2490] Turkey;1271-1295: Travels of Marco Polo[2490] China;1271-1295: Travels of Marco Polo[2490] Iran;1271-1295: Travels of Marco Polo[2490] Trade and commerce;1271-1295: Travels of Marco Polo[2490] Cultural and intellectual history;1271-1295: Travels of Marco Polo[2490] Polo, Marco Polo, Niccolò Polo, Maffeo Gregory X Kublai Khan

Before the Tatar (Mongol) conquest of Asia Minor and the consequent arrival of Tatar embassies in the West by the late thirteenth century, contact with the Far East had already been made by such men as Giovanni da Pian del Carpini and William of Rubrouck, the latter being sent by Louis IX of France. Trade Trade;China routes and opportunities that had not existed since the time of Roman rule were finally reopened. By 1260, Niccolò Polo, Niccolò Polo and Maffeo Polo, Maffeo Polo, the father and uncle of Marco Polo, members of an adventurous Venetian family, had left the young Marco behind and begun their epic journey eastward to the court of the khan of the Pipchak Tatars at Serai. Their hardships were compensated for by trading so successful that the brothers lingered for more than a year while amassing considerable profit. When they decided to return to Venice, however, they found that their route was cut off by local wars and mutinies, so they made a momentous decision to visit the court of the great khan of China. In Beijing, they were received graciously by that powerful medieval monarch, and after concluding business there, they were urged to return home and bring back Christian missionaries from the West for the further edification of the royal court. To expedite their journey, they were given the services of a trusted Tatar guide.

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After an arduous journey overland to Venice, they learned in 1268 that Pope Clement IV had died and that no successor had yet been elected. Having decided to undertake a second journey east, they managed to secure from the new pope, Gregory X Gregory X , the services of two inept Dominicans, who soon decided to desert the mission. The Polos, nevertheless, went back to Beijing, this time taking with them Marco, the teenage son of widower Niccolò Polo and a lad destined to leave a lasting record of his wanderings in the company of his father and uncle.

Marco and his two relatives began their remarkable journey in 1271, going by sea to Acre. After arriving at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, they abandoned their plan of traveling by sea and turned north, following the ancient caravan routes through Iraq and Persia, traversing Persia and Turkmenistan until they reached the Oxus River (now the Amu Dar’ya). Travel by land;Marco Polo[Polo, Marco] They crossed the plain of Pamir and traveled across the incredible desolation of the Gobi Desert into the ancient mercantile cities of Samarqand, Yarkant (Shache), and Kashgar (Kashi), until they reached Tangut, in the extreme northwest of China. Finally, in the spring of 1275, the three Polos were made welcome at Shangdu, the summer capital of Kublai Khan Kublai Khan , the Mongol Mongols emperor of China.

Marco soon became a favorite at the Chinese court of the Great Kublai Khan. He studied the native languages and in 1277 became a commissioner in the Mongol government. The khan came to trust the young Venetian so much that he relied on his advice in affairs of state and of commerce. Marco’s descriptions of the great emperor and of his mighty palace outside the capital fired the imaginations of generations of explorers and travelers, all of whom wished to view for themselves the eight square miles (twenty-one square kilometers) of enclosed barracks, parade grounds, vast arsenals, storerooms, living quarters, library, and especially the sumptuous treasury. As a trusted agent of Kublai Khan for seventeen years, Marco Polo had the unique opportunity, seldom offered later, to observe a developed and sophisticated way of life unknown to Western society. At one point, he served Kublai Khan as governor of Yangzhou. Fortunately, he was an enlightened observer who appreciated his responsibility to record this ancient civilization for all posterity.

In his long and loyal service to the great khan, Marco Polo visited nearly every part of both northern and southern China, employing the imperial horse and packet-boat system that was kept constantly in readiness for the comfort and convenience of government officials. He cataloged and described many provinces, huge cities, and major commercial towns in lively and intriguing detail. Nothing escaped his notice; he was interested in commerce, the manufacturing arts, the character of the residents in each area, architecture, and even costumes. Marco was especially impressed with the silk industry and the staple commerce between the Levant and the West, and his account of his travels would provide Europeans with an excellent early picture of silk culture, weaving, dyeing, and finishing.

To thirteenth century Europe, the splendors of the Chinese cities must have seemed incredible. Polo’s description of Hangzhou, for example, included even the fabled “twelve thousand” bridges of the city, its many huge markets and bazaars, its cavernous warehouses for its trade with India, its state-owned pavilions for wedding feasts, and even its consumption of six tons of pepper daily.

Marco Polo visited India on official business and duly recorded its commercial life. In the same way, he may also have visited the original homeland of the Mongols, the windswept steppes of Asia, where the ancestors of the great khans had grazed their herds. There is even possible reference to Siberia, though it is doubtful that the adventurous and apparently indefatigable Venetian ever traveled so far north. His account of his journey also indicates great interest in the islands to the south of China, including the Philippines.

In 1292, the Polos increasingly desired permission of the great khan to depart for their faraway home on the Adriatic. So favored were the Polos that Kublai Khan could not abide their leaving, and it was with considerable reluctance that he permitted the trio to depart, with an official commission to escort the Mongol prince’s daughter to her wedding in Persia.

The voyage homeward took the Polos three years. Traveling primarily by ship, Marco recorded his impressions of Java or the “great island,” Sumatra, Sri Lanka, Zanzibar, Bombay, and many other exotic and exciting islands and landfalls. The adventurers finally reached Venice, where they arrived unnoticed. An extraordinary mercantile odyssey of more than twenty years’s duration at last came to a satisfying end.

Significance

Shortly after returning to Venice, Marco Polo was captured by the warring Genoese in a naval battle and imprisoned. In prison, he dictated an account of his experiences to fellow prisoner and writer Rustichello of Pisa. In this famous account of his journeys, Divisament dou monde (fourteenth century; The Travels of Marco Polo Travels of Marco Polo, The (Polo) , 1579), his uncle and father soon fade into the background, allowing the young and adventuresome author to become the dominant figure. The clear, colorful, and eminently readable account made a great and immediate impression on a credulous medieval Europe. It was received with awe and disbelief, and it was not until other travelers to China verified portions of the tales that they came to be sanctioned. Polo’s book is responsible for stimulating Occidental interest in Eastern commerce and influencing explorers such as Christopher Columbus. Indeed, the account of Polo’s travels in Asia was one of the primary sources for the European image of the Far East until the late nineteenth century.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bellonci, Maria, ed. and trans. The Travels of Marco Polo. Translated into English by Teresa Waugh. New York: Facts On File, 1985. This translation of Marco Polo’s adventures contains many illustrations, some in color.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Larner, John. Marco Polo and the Discovery of the World. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999. A discussion of the Polo family, Marco’s relationship with Rustichello, the making of the book, and the explorer’s influence. Contains maps from the fifteenth century. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Polo, Marco. The Travels of Marco Polo. Translated by Ronald Latham. 1958. Reprint. New York: Penguin Books, 1996. One of the best translations into English of Polo’s book. Contains a brief but good introduction by the translator.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Severin, Tim. Tracking Marco Polo. New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1984. Entertaining account of a late twentieth century motorcycling adventurer’s determination to rediscover Polo’s route. Concise history of Polo’s journey with photographs and maps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wood, Frances. Did Marco Polo Go to China? Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1996. Wood argues that Marco Polo may not have made the fabulous journey described in his book. Wood claims that the details of that work could have been taken from the works of other travelers and that Polo’s narrated tale could have been embellished by the ghostwriter who transcribed it. Wood neglects to say where Polo could have been if not in China.

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