Marco Polo

Marco Polo

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Marco Polo is one of the most well-known heroic travelers and
traders around the world. In my paper I will discuss with you Marco Polo's
life, his travels, and his visit to China to see the great Khan. Marco
Polo was born in c.1254 in Venice. He was a Venetian explorer and merchant
whose account of his travels in Asia was the primary source for the
European image of the Far East until the late 19th century.

Marco's father, Niccolù, and his uncle Maffeo had traveled to
China (1260-69) as merchants. When they left (1271) Venice to return to
China, they were accompanied by 17-year-old Marco and two priests. Early
Life Despite his enduring fame, very little was known about the personal
life of Marco Polo. It is known that he was born into a leading Venetian
family of merchants. He also lived during a propitious time in world
history, when the height of Venice's influence as a city-state coincided
with the greatest extent of Mongol conquest of Asia(Li Man Kin 9). Ruled
by Kublai Khan, the Mongol Empire stretched all the way from China to
Russia and the Levant. The Mongol hordes also threatened other parts of
Europe, particularly Poland and Hungary, inspiring fear everywhere by
their bloodthirsty advances. Yet the ruthless methods brought a measure
of stability to the lands they controlled, opening up trade routes such as
the famous Silk Road. Eventually,the Mongols discovered that it was more
profitable to collect tribute from people than to kill them outright, and
this policy too stimulated trade(Hull 23).

Into this favorable atmosphere a number of European traders
ventured, including the family of Marco Polo. The Polos had long-
established ties in the Levant and around the Black Sea: for example, they
owned property in onstantinople, and Marco's uncle, for whom he was named,
had a home in Sudak in the Crimea(Rugoff 8). From Sudak, around 1260,
another uncle, Maffeo, and Marco's father, Niccolù, made a trading visit
into Mongol territory, the land of the Golden Horde(Russia), ruled by
Berke Khan. While they were there, a war broke out between Berke and the
Cowan of Levant, blocking their return home. Thus Niccolù and Maffeo
traveled deeper into mongol territory, moving southeast to Bukhara, which
was ruled by a third Cowan. While waiting there, they met an emissary
traveling farther eastward who invited them to accompany him to the court
of the great Cowan, Kublai, in Cathay(modern China). In Cathay, Kublai
Khan gave the Polos a friendly reception, appointed them his emissaries to
the pope, and ensured their safe travel back to Europe(Steffof 10).

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They
were to return to Cathay with one hundred learned men who could instruct
the Mongols in the Christian religion and the liberal arts.

In 1269, Niccol and Maffeo Polo arrived back in Venice, where
Niccol found out his wife had died while he was gone (Rugoff 5). Their son,
Marco, who was only about fifteen years old, had been only six or younger
when his father left home:thus; Marco was reared primarily by his mother
and the extended Polo family-and the streets of Venice. After his
mother's death, Marco had probably begun to think of himself as something
of a orphan(Rugoff 6). Then his father and uncle suddenly reappeared, as
if from the dead, after nine years of traveling in far-off, romantic lands.
These experiences were the formative influences on young Marco, and one
can see their effects mirrored in his character: a combination of
sensitivity and toughness, independence and loyalty, motivated by an
eagerness for adventure, a love of stories, and a desire to please or
impress(Li Man Kin 10).

Life's Work

In 1268, Pope Clement IV died, and a two- or three-year delay
while another pope was being elected gave young Marco time to mature and
to absorb the tales of his father and uncle. Marco was seventeen years old
when he, his father and uncle finally set out for the court of Kublai
Khan(Stefoff 13). They were accompanied not by one hundred wise men but
by two Dominican friars, and the two good friars turned back at the first
sign of adversity, another local war in the Levant. Aside from the pope's
messages, the only spiritual gift Europe was able to furnish the great
Kublai Khan was oil from the lamp burning at Jesus Christ's supposed tomb
in Jerusalem. Yet, in a sense, young Marco, the only new person in the
Polos' party, was himself a fitting representative of the spirit of
European civilization on the eve of the Renaissance, and the lack of one
hundred learned Europeans guaranteed that he would catch the eye of the
Cowan, who was curious about "Latins"(Hull 29).

On the way to the khan's court, Marco had the opportunity to
complete his education. The journey took three and a half years by
horseback through some of the world's most rugged terrain, including snowy
mountain ranges, such as the Pamirs, and parching deserts, such as the
Gobi. Marco and his party encountered such hazards as wild beasts and
brigands; they also met with beautiful women, in whom young Marco took a
special interest. The group traveled numerous countries and cultures,
noting food, dress, and religion unique to each(Li Man Kin 17). In
particular, under the khans's protection the Polos were able to observe a
large portion of the Islamic world at close range, as few if any European
Christians had. By the time they reached the khan's court in Khanbalik,
Marco had become a hardened traveler. He had also received a unique
education and had been initiated into manhood.

Kublai Khan greeted the Polos warmly and invited them to stay on
in his court. Here, if Marco's account is to be believed, the Polos became
great favorites of the khan, and Kublai eventually made Marco one of his
most trusted emissaries(Great Lives from History 16765). On these points
Marco has been accused of gross exaggeration, and the actual status of the
Polos at the court of the khan is much disputed. If at first it appears
unlikely that Kublai would make young Marco an emissary, upon examination
this seems quite reasonable. For political reasons, the khan was in the
habit of appointing foreigners to administer conquered lands, particularly
China, where the tenacity of the Chinese bureaucracy was legendary. The
khan could also observe for himself that young Marco was a good candidate.
Finally, Marco reported back so successfully from his fist mission-
informing the khan not only on business details but also on colorful
customs and other interesting trivia-that his further appointment was
confirmed. The journeys specifically mentioned in Marco's book, involving
travel across China and a sea voyage to India, suggests that the khan did
indeed trust him with some of the most difficult missions(Rugoff 25).

The Polos stayed on for seventeen years, another indication of how
valued they were in the khan's court. Marco, his father, and his uncle not
only survived-itself an achievement amid the political hazards of the
time-but also prospered(Great Lives from History 1678). Apparently, the
elder Polos carried on their trading while Marco was performing his
missions; yet seventeen years is a long time to trade without returning
home to family and friends. According to Macro, because the khan held them
in such high regard, he would not let them return home, but as the khan
aged the Polos began to fear what would happen after his death(Hull 18).

Finally an opportunity to leave presented itself when trusted
emissaries were needed to accompany a Mongol princess on a wedding voyage
by sea to Persia, where she was promised to the local khan. The Polos
sailed from Cathay with a fleet of fourteen ships and a wedding party of
six hundred people, not counting the sailors. Only a few members of the
wedding entourage survived the journey of almost two years, but luckily
the survivors included the Polos and the princess. Fortunately, too, the
Polos duly delivered the princess not to the old khan of Persia, who had
meanwhile died, but to his son(Li Man Kin 21).

From Persia, the Polos made their way back to Venice. They were
robbed as soon as they got into Christian territory, but they still
managed to reach home in 1295, with plenty of rich goods. According to
Giovanni Battista Ramusio, one of the early editors of Marco's book, the
Polos strode into Venice looking like rugged Mongols(Stefoff 17). Having
thought them dead, their relatives at first did not recognize them, then
were astounded, and then were disgusted by their shabby appearance. Yet,
according to Ramusio, the scorn changed to delight when the returned
travelers invited everyone to a homecoming banquet, ripped apart their old
clothes, and let all the hidden jewels clatter to the table(Great Lives
from History 1676).

The rest of the world might have learned little about the Polos'
travels if fate had not intervened in Marco's life. In his early forties,
Marco was not yet ready to settle down. Perhaps he was restless for
further adventure, or perhaps he felt obliged to fulfill his civic duties
to his native city-state. In any event, he became involved in naval
warfare between Venetians and their trading rivals, the Genoese, and was
captured. In 1298, the great traveler across Asia and emissary of the khan
found himself rotting in a prison in Genoa-an experience that could have
ended tragically but instead took a lucky turn. In prison Marco met a man
named Rustichello from Persia, who was a writer of romances(Stefoff 21).
To pass the time, Marco dictated his observations about Asia to
Rustichello, who, in writing them down, probably employed the Italianized
Old French that was the language of medieval romances. Their book was soon
circulating, since Marco remained in prison only a year or so, very likely
gaining his freedom when the Venetians and Genoese made peace in
1299(Rugoff 32).

After his prison experience, Marco was content to lead a quiet
life in Venice with the rest of his family and bask in his almost instant
literary fame. He married Donata Badoer, a member of the Venetian
aristocracy. eventually grew up to marry nobles. Thus Marco seems to have
spent the last part of his life moving in Venetian aristocratic circles.
After living what was then a long life, Marco died in 1324, only seventy
years of age. In his will he left most of his modest wealth to his three
daughters, a legacy that included goods which he had brought back from
Asia. His will also set free a Tartar slave, who had remained with him
since his return from the court of the great khan(Li Man Kin 25).

Works Cited

Great Lives from History. Ancient and Medieval Series. Pasadena,
California: Salem Press, 1988. 2: 1675-1680. Hull, Mary. The Travels of
Marco Polo. California: Lucent Books Inc., 1995.

Li Man Kin. Marco Polo in China. Hong Kong: Kingsway International
Publications, 1981. Rugoff, Milton. Marco Polo's Adventures In China. New
York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1964.

Stefoff, Rebecca. Marco Polo and the Medieval Explorers. Chelsea House
Publishers, 1992.
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