Marco Polo is perhaps the most well-known Western figure to travel into the mysterious and mystifying great East. Providing well-described tales of his journey, Polo’s stories are likely to awaken the inner traveller in anyone who reads or hears of his saga. True or exaggerated, Polo’s twenty-four-year voyage across land and sea exhibits his, at the time, unheard-of determination and influence. Even the Great Khan, conqueror and ruler of much of the Eastern land of the time, found a great confidant in Marco Polo and managed to keep him under his tutelage for seventeen years. Under the Great Khan, Polo was able to acquire power and prestige across the land, likely contributing to his immensely delayed return to Venice. Thus begins the tale of Marco Polo’s travels…
Ye Emperors, Kings, Dukes, Marquises, Earls, and Knights, and all other people desirous of knowing the diversities of the races of mankind, as well as the diversities of kingdoms, provinces, and regions of all parts of the East, read through this book, and ye will find in it the greatest and most marvellous characteristics of the peoples, especially of Armenia, Persia, India, and Tartary, as they are severally related in the present work by Marco Polo, a wise and learned citizen of Venice, who states distinctly what things he saw and what things he heard from others.
For this book will be a truthful one. It must be known, then, that from the creation of Adam to the present day, no man, whether Pagan, or Saracen, or Christian, or other, of whatever progeny or generation he may have been, ever saw or inquired into so many and such great things as Marco Polo. Who, wishing in his secret thoughts that the things he had seen and heard should be made public by the present work, for the benefit of those who could not see them with their own eyes, he himself being in the year of our Lord 1295 in prison at Genoa, caused the things which are contained in the present work to be written by Master Rustigielo, a citizen of Pisa, who was with him in the same prison in Genoa; he divided it into three parts.
The elder Polos, when they left Constantinople in 1260, had not planned to go far beyond the northern borders of the Euxine. They first landed at Soldaia, in Crimea, then an important trading city. From Soldaia they journeyed in a northerly and east-north-easterly direction to Sara (or Sarra), a vast city on the Volga, where King Cambuscan lived, and to Bolgara (or Bolghar) where they stayed for a year. Going south a short distance to Ucaca, another city on the Volga, they journeyed directly to the south-east, across the northern head of the Caspian, on the sixty days’ march to Bokhara, where they stayed for three years.
From Bokhara they went with the Great Khan’s people northward to Otrar, and thence in a north-easterly direction to the Court of the Khan near Pekin. On their return journey, they arrived at the sea-coast at Layas, in Armenia. From Layas they went to Acre, and from Acre to Negropont in Romania, and from Negropont to Venice, where they stayed for about two years.
On the second journey to the East, with the young Marco Polo, they sailed directly from Venice to Acre towards the end of 1271. They made a short journey southward to Jerusalem, for the holy oil, and then returned to Acre for letters from the Papal Legate.
Leaving Acre, they got as far as Layas, in Armenia, before they were recalled by the newly elected Pope. On setting out again, they returned to Layas, at that time a great city, where spices and cloth of gold were sold, and from which merchants journeying to the East generally started. From Layas they pushed northward into Turcomania, past Casaria and Sivas, to Arzingan, where the people wove “good buckrams”.
There is much reason to believe that, whilst employed in the service of the emperor, Marco Polo had visited some of the eastern islands, lying the nearest to the coast of China, such, perhaps, as the Philippines.
Marco Polo tells us much about Aden, and about towns on the Arabian coasts, but the fleet probably never reached them. All that is certainly known is that they arrived at Ormuz, in the Persian Gulf, and passed inland to Khorassan. On leaving Khorassan they journeyed overland, through Persia and Greater Armenia, until they came to Trebizond on the Euxine Sea.
Their most direct route from Tabriz would have lain through Bedlis in Kurdistan to Aleppo, but at this time the sultans of Egypt, with whom the kings of Persia were continually at war, had possession of all the seaports of Syria, and would pay little respect to their passports.
By the way of Georgia to Trebizond, on the Euxine Sea, their land-journey was shorter and more secure, and when at that place they were under the protection of the Christian prince, whose family reigned in the small independent kingdom of Trebizond, from 1204 to 1462. Here they took a ship and sailed home to Venice, first stopping at Constantinople and at Negropont. “And this was in the year 1295 of Christ’s Incarnation”. J. M.
Marco Polo, the subject of this memoir, was born in Venice in 1254. He was the son of Nicolo Polo, a Venetian of noble family, who was one of the partners in a trading house, engaged in business with Constantinople. In 1260, this Nicolo Polo, in company with his junior partner, his brother Maffeo, set out across the Euxine on a trading venture to the Crimea. They prospered in their business, but were unable to return to their base, owing to the breaking out of a Tartar war on the road by which they had come. As they could not go back, they went forward, crossing the desert to Bokhara, where they stayed for three years. At the end of the third year (the fifth of their journey) they were advised to visit the Great Khan Kublai, the “Kubla Khan” of Coleridge’s poem.
It is difficult to read Marco Polo as one reads historical facts. One reads him as one reads romance, as one would read, for instance, the Eve of St Mark, or the Well at the World’s End. The East of which he writes is the East of Romance, not the East of the AngloIndian, with his Simla, his missions to Tibet, and Reuter telegrams. In the East of Romance there grows “the tree of the sun”, or “dry tree” (by which Marco Polo passed), a sort of landmark or milestone, at the end of the great desert. The apples of the sun and moon grow upon that tree. Darius and Alexander fought in its shade. Those are the significant facts about the tree according to Marco Polo. We moderns, who care little for any tree so soon as we can murmur its Latin name, have lost wonder in losing faith.
All who have read the stories of The Thousand and One Nights must be acquainted with the size and powers of an extraordinary bird, there called the roc; but its celebrity is not confined to that work. “Rukh,” says the Arabic and Persian Dictionary, “is the name of a monstrous bird, which is said to have powers sufficient to carry off a live rhinoceros.” Its existence seems, indeed, to have been universally credited in the East; and those Arabian navigators with whom our author conversed would not hesitate to attest to a fact of such notoriety; but they might find it convenient, at the same time, to lay the scene of its appearance at a place so little frequented as the southern extremity of Madagascar, because the chances were small of any contradiction from local knowledge. The circumstance, however, of its resorting thither from the southern ocean, gives room to a conjecture that the tale, although exaggerated, may not be altogether imaginary, and that it may have taken its rise from the occasional sight of a real bird of vast, although not miraculous dimensions. This may be either the albatross (diomedea exulans), which, although the inhabitant of more southern latitudes, may accidentally visit the shores of Madagascar, or the condor of southern Africa. Some of the former are known to measure no less than fifteen feet between the extremities of the wings, and must appear to those who see them for the first time an extraordinary phenomenon…
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