Who are MARCOS
Marco Polo was a merchant like his father and uncle. You lived in the city of Venice, Italy, in the 13th century. The three traveled through Asia to China. That was an extraordinarily long journey back then.
After many years, Polo came back to his homeland. When he later became a prisoner in a war, he had his experiences written down. He reported not only about wealth in China, but also about many inventions, such as money made from paper instead of coins. Back then, people in Europe thought he was a show-off and a liar. Most scientists today think that he really went to China because he reported so much that was correct.
How did the trip come about?
Niccolò Polo was a wealthy merchant from Venice, an important state in Italy. He traveled to Constantinople with his brother Matteo or Maffeo. At that time, his son Marco was not yet born. They wanted to sell precious stones and traveled to the Crimean peninsula in the Black Sea. They got further and further east, among other things because of wars in Asia. In 1266 they are said to have made it to Beijing.
Beijing was the capital of China even then. However, there was no Chinese ruling, but a Mongol. He had the title of Great Khan. The Mongols under Genghis Khan had conquered China. The Great Khan wanted the Polos to travel to the West: they should deliver a message to the Pope and then come back.
What did Marco Polo experience?
When Niccolò and Matteo returned home in Venice, many years had passed. They saw Marco for the first time, who was then fifteen years old. Marco's mother had already died, Marco had grown up with his uncle and aunt.
The Polos waited until a new Pope had been elected. Then the three of them traveled east again in 1271. The journey was very dangerous. In the desert the polos had hardly any water and robbers lay in wait for prey. Two monks who were traveling with us, who were supposed to turn China into a Christian country, turned back in fear. It took almost four years for the polos to reach Beijing.
The city of Beijing was far more impressive than anything Marco Polo knew from Europe. He saw golden roofs and huge palaces. Marco Polo served the Great Khan Kublai. As a confidante of Kublai's, he traveled to other countries in Asia. He was often the first European there.
After seventeen years in China, Kublai was very old. The Polos were afraid that a new Great Khan might not be so kind to them. They traveled back to Europe via Persia, mostly by ship. They had been away from Venice for 24 years.
How do you know about the trip today?
Soon after his return, Marco Polo boarded a ship again: Venice was at war with Genoa. The soldiers of Genoa captured Marco Polo. This captivity lasted three years. Marco came back to Venice, where he married some time later. He finally died in 1324.
While in captivity, Marco Polo told another prisoner about his experiences in Asia. That other prisoner was a story-maker, Rustichello of Pisa. Rustichello probably not only wrote down what he heard from Marco Polo, but also added a little something to make the story more exciting.
Rustichello wrote the story in French and called it Book of the Wonders of the World. Because books couldn't be printed back then, they were copied over and over again by hand. Mistakes were made in the process. Today we know several manuscripts, each of which tells the story a little differently.
Was Marco Polo a show-off and a liar?
Marco Polo wasn't the only person from Europe who had traveled to Asia. But his story told of many individual things and described the countries in Asia fairly precisely. Before that, people in Europe had little idea what it was like in the interior of Asia or in China.
He told of huge cities and strange inventions by the Chinese. For example, they were already using paper money. This is why some readers in Europe did not believe the story of Marco Polo. He had whispered everything together to make himself important.
Even today, some scientists think that Marco Polo may not have been to China at all. What he says he could have heard or read in Persia. Marco Polo, for example, does not mention the Great Wall of China, nor does the Chinese eat with chopsticks.
Most scientists agree, however, that Marco Polo actually traveled to the countries he reports on. His story is actually quite good if you want to learn something about ancient China. As a merchant, Marco Polo was interested in salt, currencies and the manufacture of paper.
Marco Polo's story was important to geography: he told how long it took him to travel from country to country. It made it possible to appreciate a bit how big Asia was. Perhaps many a map draftsman has found out about Marco Polo.
One of his readers was Christopher Columbus, who lived about 200 years after Marco Polo. He also wanted to go to China, but in his day that was no longer possible overland: Muslim rulers blocked the way. That is why he traveled west by ship. Because, according to Marco Polo, Asia was so big, the sea route to the west couldn't be that far.
Great Khan Kublai meets Marco Polo
A Chinese drawing of what Kublai Khan looked like
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