Boucicaut Master, Marco Polo with Elephants and Camels Arriving at Hormuz on the Gulf of Persia from India (detail), from the Livre des Merveilles du Monde, c. 1410-1412
Art,  English

Marco Polo and the Silk Road

The text below is the excerpt of the book The Book of Wonder (ISBN: 9781783107957), written by Marco Polo, published by Parkstone International.

It should be known to the reader that, at the time when Baldwin II was emperor of Constantinople, where a magistrate representing the Doge of Venice then resided, and in the year of our Lord 1250, Nicolo Polo, the father of the said Marco, and Maffeo, the brother of Nicolo, respectable and well-informed men, embarked in a ship of their own, with a rich and varied cargo of merchandise, and reached Constantinople in safety. After mature deliberation on the subject of their proceedings, it was determined, as the measure most likely to improve their trading capital, that they should continue their voyage into the Euxine (or Black Sea).

Angelino Dulcert, Map of the Mediterranean and Baltic, Mallorca, 1339, Marco Polo, The Book of Wonder
Angelino Dulcert, Map of the Mediterranean and Baltic, Mallorca, 1339. Chart of the Baltic Sea, the North Sea, the Atlantic Ocean east of the Mediterranean Sea, the Black Sea and the Red Sea. Two vellum sheets assembled into a map, illuminated manuscript, 75 x 102 cm. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris.

With this view they made purchases of many fine and costly jewels, and taking their departure from Constantinople, navigated the Euxine to a port named Soldaia, from whence they travelled on horseback many days until they reached the court of a powerful chief of the Western Tartars, named Barka, who dwelt in the cities of Bolgara and Assara, and had the reputation of being one of the most liberal and civilised princes hitherto known amongst the tribes of Tartary. He expressed much satisfaction at the arrival of these travellers, and received them with marks of distinction. In return for which courtesy, when they had laid before him the jewels they brought with them, and perceived that their beauty pleased him, they pre sented them for his acceptance. The liberality of this conduct on the part of the two brothers struck him with admiration; and being unwilling that they should surpass him in generosity, he not only directed double the value of the jewels to be paid to them, but made them, in addition, several rich presents.

The brothers having resided a year in the dominions of this prince, became desirous of revisiting their native country, but were impeded by the sudden breaking out of a war between Barka and another chief, named Alau, who ruled over the Eastern Tartars. In a fierce and very sanguinary battle that ensued between their respective armies, Alau was victorious, in consequence of which, the roads being rendered unsafe for travellers, the brothers could not attempt to return the way they came. It was recommended to them, as the only practicable mode of reaching Constantinople, to proceed in an easterly direction, by an unfrequented route, so as to skirt the limits of Barka’s territories.

Childhood home of Marco Polo. Venice, The Book of Wonder
Childhood home of Marco Polo. Venice.

Accordingly they made their way to a town named Oukaka, situated on the confines of the kingdom of the Western Tartars. Leaving that place, and advancing still further, they crossed the Tigris, one of the four rivers of Paradise, and came to a desert, the extent of which was a seventeen-day journey, wherein they found neither town, castle, nor any substantial building, but only Tartars with their herds, dwelling in tents on the plain. Having passed this tract they arrived at a well-built city called Bokhara, in a province of that name, belonging to the dominions of Persia, and the noblest city of that kingdom, but governed by a prince whose name was Barak. Here, from inability to proceed further, they remained three years.

It happened while these brothers were in Bokhara, that a person of consequence and gifted with eminent talents emerged. He was proceeding as an ambassador sent by Alau (mentioned before) to the Grand Khan, supreme chief of all the Tartars, named Kublai, whose residence was at the extremity of the continent, in a direction between north-east and east. Not having ever before had an opportunity, although he wished it, of seeing any natives of Italy, he was gratified in a high degree at meeting and conversing with these brothers, who had now become proficient in the Tartar language. After associating with them for several days, and finding their manners agreeable to him, he proposed that they should accompany him to the presence of the Great Khan, who would be pleased by their appearance at his court, which had not hitherto been visited by any person from their country, adding assurances that they would be honourably received and recompensed with many gifts.

Master Mîrak and his disciple Bihzâd, Mystical Tipsiness in the Garden of Sultan Husayn Mîrzâ Bayqarâ, 1488-1489, Marco Polo, The Book of Wonder
Master Mîrak and his disciple Bihzâd, Mystical Tipsiness in the Garden of Sultan Husayn Mîrzâ Bayqarâ, 1488-1489. Frontispiece for Bûstân (Orchard) by the poet Sa’dî. National Egyptian Library, Cairo.

Convinced as they were that their endeavours to return homeward would expose them to the most imminent risks, they agreed to this proposal, and recommending themselves to the protection of the Almighty, they set out on their journey in the suite of the ambassador, attended by several Christian servants whom they had brought with them from Venice. Their first course was between the north-east and north, and an entire year was consumed before they were able to reach the imperial residence, in consequence of the extraordinary delays occasioned by the snows and the swelling of the rivers, which obliged them to halt until the former had melted and the floods had subsided. They observed many things worthy of admiration in the progress of their journey, but which are here omitted, as they will be described by Marco Polo, in the sequel of the book.

Being introduced to the presence of the Grand Khan, Kublai, the travellers were received with the condescension and affability that belonged to his character, and as they were the first Latins to make an appearance in that country, they were entertained with feasts and honoured with other marks of distinction. Entering graciously into conversation with them, he made earnest inquiries on the subject of the western parts of the world, of the Emperor of the Romans, and of other Christian kings and princes. He wished to be informed of their relative consequence, the extent of their possessions, the manner in which justice was administered in their several kingdoms and principalities, how they conducted themselves in warfare, and above all he questioned them particularly respecting the Pope, the affairs of the Church, and the religious worship and doctrine of the Christians. Being well-instructed and discreet men, they gave appropriate answers upon all these points, and as they were perfectly acquainted with the Tartar (Moghul) language, they expressed themselves always in becoming terms; insomuch that the Grand Khan, holding them in high estimation, frequently commanded their attendance…

Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus, Hagia Sophia, 532-537, Marco Polo, The Book of Wonder
Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus, Hagia Sophia, 532-537. Ashlar and brick, 82 x 73 x 55 m. Istanbul (Constantinople).

Find out more about Marco Polo here:


Marco Polo’s house in Venice, near the church of San Giovanni Grisostomo

National Geographic Marco Polo

Internet Archive

Glasgow Museums


National Museum of Asian Art

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