Marco and the Polos

Marco and the Polos 7: Marco Polo Comes Home

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I’m going to start this story at the end. Marco Polo comes home in 1295, a man of 41 or 42 years. And maybe we shouldn’t call it home because he’d been away about 24 of those years, longer than he’d ever lived in Venice.

Anyways, he comes back, and pretty quickly he’s in trouble again. The details are a little murky here, but somehow, somewhere, he’s taken prisoner by the Genoese. Maybe they get him at the Battle of Laiazzo, but that seems too early, or maybe it’s Curzola, but that seems too late. One writer gives up on being exact and has him, quote, “taken prisoner at some obscure and otherwise unrecorded engagement of armed merchantmen in 1296.” 

The details don’t really matter though. What’s important is that he is a prisoner. And we probably shouldn’t picture a barren cell rounded out by beatings and bad food here. His was more the imprisonment of a gentleman kept for ransom, likely enjoying some freedom but not beyond the city walls. 

Marco did not pass his time alone. He spent it in the company of a Rustichello da Pisa, a writer of Franco-Italian Arthurian romance, and together, they wrote the Travels of Marco Polo. Marco narrated the events and spoke of the many wondrous people and places he had seen, and Rustichello recorded his words, glued them together, and provided the stylistic flourishes that at times echoed his Arthurian stories. Or at least, that’s how the story goes.

Maybe at the time of the 1299 peace with Genoa, maybe not, Marco was free to again return to Venice. There, he lived a fairly unremarkable life; he’d had all his adventures already.  He seems to have been comfortable. He married up, to the daughter of a more prestigious family than his own, and he had three daughters who likewise married into the elite. He inherited money, lent money; sometimes he lent to relatives who he then brought legal action against for failure to repay. And he engaged in business ventures in musk and other goods. And of course, he received visitors, who were drawn to the book.

Marco was not going to die in obscurity, only to have his work gain new life after his own had ended. As I mentioned at the end of the last episode, the book was widely translated and transcribed even within his own lifetime, and we know that Pietro d’Abano of the University of Padua came to consult with him and also Thibaut de Chepoix, a representative of Charles of Valois, to obtain a copy of that book.

But obscurity or not, Marco did die. During the night of Sunday the 8th of January, 1324, he died, and he was buried at the church of San Lorenzo. But that was not the end of his story, and besides, we have some catching up to do.   

Hello, and welcome back. I’m Devon, and this is Human Circus: Journeys in the Medieval World. If you’re enjoying the podcast, please do rate and review it on iTunes, and perhaps also sign up to the Patreon for as little as a dollar a month, for that is how we avoid being scooped up by giant birds and sent crashing to the ground like helpless elephants. You can find information about the Patreon, and all other things Human Circus, at Now, back to the story, and to the conclusion of the Marco Polo series. Today, I’ll be talking about two journeys: that of a book, and that of a man making his way back to Venice after many years away. 

When Marco Polo died, he did not leave behind mountains of gems, jewels, and expensive exotica. There had been substantial losses on the return trip, and in the end, the spoils of his two decades abroad, though tantalizing, were not chests of rubies and sacks of silver. There were however silks, including quite expensive ones that had Mongol designs worked into them with gold thread and other materials; there was a Buddhist rosary, the silver belt of a Mongol noble, the tall headdress of a Mongol woman, complete with pearls and gold, and the golden tablet of authority that the khan had given to him. Aside from his Mongol slave, who we know as Pietro and who Marco released when he made his will, there was nothing else to show for having been to the other end of the continent and been, by his own account at least, somebody pretty important there. 

He didn’t exactly end his life in poverty though. His household included 24 beds, and his share of the Polo property had grown. At the time of his death, his holdings included stocks of musk, horsehair, silk, and white silk cocoons intended for sale. His purse was full of silver, and there actually was a chest of silver too; he left behind respectably pious donations, and the rest to his daughters and to his wife. But, unless you were his wife or daughter, that wasn’t really his legacy. The legacy was the book.

The book travelled far, and it started to take on different forms. By the 16th century you apparently had one manuscript that was a Tuscan translation of a Latin translation of a Tuscan translation of the Franco-Italian in which the original is thought to have been written, and this is an extreme example, but it didn’t take anything so dramatic for the the text to change. 

Some time in the years before 1314, while Marco was still alive, Francesco Pipino of Bologna was directed by his Dominican superiors to produce a Latin translation of the text, and in his preface, he made his purpose clear. “Let none deem this task to be vain and unprofitable,” he said. “For I am of the opinion that the perusal of the book by the faithful may merit an abounding grace from the Lord; in contemplating the variety, beauty and vastness of God’s creation, as herein displayed in his marvellous works… .” 

The book was cast as one of marvels yes, but as the varied marvels of god’s earth, and of course the reader was not intended only to idly ponder such great diversity. Pipino hoped also that the, quote, “sloth of undevout Christians may be put to shame, when they see how much more ready the nations of the unbelievers are to worship their idols.” “Moreover,” he continued, “the hearts of some members of the religious orders may be moved to strive for the diffusion of the Christian faith, and by divine aid to carry the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, forgotten among so vast multitudes, to those blinded nations, among whom the harvest is indeed so great, and the labourers so few.” It was a great big world, and of its population, Christians were coming to realize that they made up a smaller percentage than they would have ever thought possible; it was time, Pipino urged, to go out and do something about it.

Of course, as the purpose changed, so followed the text. The chivalric style of the original was replaced. The opening passage, directed at emperors, kings, and dukes, was gone, and so were others. The chapters were reorganized, and non-Christian religions became hemmed in by new descriptors: they were “wretched,” “abominable,” or “wicked.” There was to be no question as to impartiality or cosmopolitanism when it came to religious matters in this book. And this wasn’t the only alteration the text underwent.

One 15th-century Irish-Gaelic rendition slapped on an origin story of a Francesco the Franciscan having translated the book from an original Mongol version, and it really put some sparkles on the battle scenes too. Different versions featured magnificent illustrations that seemed to spring from an illuminator’s lazy scanning for key terms or just from their expectations as to what a book of the east should contain, rather than from the text itself. Still others might lead you to believe the book to be the work of, quote, “a gentleman of Venice who went sailing there with his four sons, descendants one after the other.” The text could be found bound up with the Romance of Alexander and Jean de Mandeville, or with Odoric of Pordenone and other travellers to the east. The variations were many, and you’ll find if you read the Travels of Marco Polo now that the footnotes will be full of references to how version X gives Y date as being 10 years earlier, or that another manuscript orders the passage you’re reading entirely differently. For these reasons and more, it’s been said that it’s more accurate to speak of “the books” of Marco Polo than “the book.”  

If those books may at first have been greeted with some measure of disbelief, or bound up with romances, in the early decades of the 14th-century, an increase in merchant and missionary traffic connected Europeans to China, developing small communities there and bearing witness to the truth of this grand civilization beyond the Muslims and the Asian Steppe. There were Franciscan houses in Zaiton, Hangzhou, and Yangzhou. There was a community of Genoese merchants at Yangzhou, where the gravestones of one family’s son and daughter have been found. There was a church in the Yuan capital, built there by a Venetian merchant named Pietro. 

Though the situation would not last, letters and travellers returned from these trips confirming much of what Marco had seen and moving the text solidly away from pure fantasy. Given all this, it is interesting then to find a Florentine transcriber in 1392 who explains that he has copied down the book, quote: pass the time and to keep melancholy away. Since these seem to me incredible things; and what he [Marco Polo] says seems to me not so much lies as more than miracles. And yet what he speaks of could be true, but I don’t believe it - though in the world one finds very different things from country to another. But these, it seems to me - though I’ve enjoyed copying them - are things not to be believed nor to give faith to, so it seems to me.

At the end 14th century, as with now, there were those who were not convinced by Marco’s wild tales. 

Christopher Columbus at least does seem to have been convinced. His copy of the book is peppered with marginal notes on “gold in the greatest abundance,” “infinite spices,” “much incense,” and more. 

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves now. We know that the books travelled far and wide. We’ve seen them in the shops or on our own shelves. What about Marco himself? What brought him back from China? 

The question of what caused Marco Polo to return to his estranged birthplace is an open one. Why then? Why at all? A few answers present themselves. It’s been suggested by John Man that Marco may have lost someone close to him in China, a courtesan perhaps, and no longer had anything tying him there. Marco was no monk, and people love to muse over his potential relationships, especially in connection with the Princess Kokochin. 

Others, have suggested that the Polos sensed the imminent demise of their patron, Kublai. The khan’s wife and favourite son had died; he was suffering health problems likely tied to his increasing weight and alcoholism; and, though still staggeringly powerful, he was reeling from one failure to another at home and abroad. The end could not be far off, and the Polos may have decided that they did not wish to remain without his protection and with the prospect of being caught up in a potentially-bloody Mongol succession. Or perhaps Kublai’s love was like an excessively drunk friend’s embrace, pleasant at first but then suffocating and exponentially less so, and the Polos simply leapt at a timely opportunity to disentangle themselves. 

Here, I’ll tell you the story that Marco and Rustichello concocted, or at least the one that has been transmitted down to me. But first, a quick break.

According to the text, the Polos were feeling more and more that they had stayed long enough, that their wealth was great enough, that they would very much like to make the return journey, and that, quote, “however honoured and caressed by the [khan], this sentiment was ever predominant in their minds.”

So they were looking for a way out. They were pondering how they might extricate themselves from this luxurious prison; they were waiting for opportunities, and they had a deadline. They didn’t know when exactly the clock would run out, but they could see the khan deteriorating, and they worried about how they would get home without his support. The text says that they considered his help absolutely necessary, that were he to die before they could make their journey, then they would not get another chance. They needed Kublai to be on their side in this while he was still around to do so.  

It was Marco’s father, Niccolo, who made the approach. He waited for a day when Kublai seemed most especially cheerful, and you can imagine this was not a comfortable wait. He’s maybe keeping an eye on the khan - how is his mood today? How much has he had to drink? What news has he had? Has anyone angered him? And all the while, time ticks along, Kublai gets a little older, and they’re still wanting to leave. Finally, Niccolo picks a time that seems good to him; he throws himself at the khan’s feet and makes his plea for “his majesty’s gracious permission for their departure.”     

However, for all of Niccolo’s care, he had not chosen the right time. And maybe there was never going to be a right time because Kublai Khan did not give his gracious permission. He seems instead to have been rather hurt that they should have considered leaving at all. Why would they want to go, and risk themselves on such a difficult journey? What could there be for them out in the world that he could not provide right there and then? Was it wealth or honour? If so, he would gladly grant them whatever they could wish for, but out of his respect for the Polos, he could only refuse their petition to leave. So, they were still looking for a way out.   

Of course, this is all a little hard to swallow now, these heaping mounds of self-glorification wrapped in hardship that Marco ladelled on. Were they really so beloved by the khan that he could not bear to part with them? Maybe they were. They’d been about for two decades and would eventually come home with at least some kind of endorsement in the form of those golden tablets. Perhaps they really were such personal favourites. Either way, they apparently needed a good reason to leave, and this needs a bit of consideration itself. 

Marco Polo often seems entirely free to do as he pleases in the Travels. At least, he claims to have moved about quite independently within the khan’s domains. What was to stop he and his family from going where they wished? From the riches they are said to have gained, they should have been able to afford the costs of the trip, and they were experienced travellers too. It seems though that for at least Marco, if not the other Polos, the situation was not unlike that of a soldier, bound to the serve his lord - John Man has suggested that this could have been exactly what he was - and if he was free to roam his lord’s realm, he was not so free as to be able to strike off on his own without penalty. 

When that good reason the Polos had been waiting for first arrived, Marco was away on one of his wanderings. An embassy had arrived from Kublai’s great-nephew, Arghun Khan, grandson of Hulagu and lord of the Ilkhanate. Arghun had sent a request. His wife, Boloḡān Kātūn, had died in 1286, first making known her last wish that none should replace her but one of her own family. Now, Arghun’s ambassadors had arrived at the khan’s court to make good on her wish. 

It’s a somewhat odd story, particularly when you consider that Arghun had several other consorts already and would add another also named Boloḡān Kātūn before his ambassadors could even return; however, the idea that he would have sought another woman of royal Mongol lineage, of Genghisid heritage, is certainly plausible enough, and there are other sources that refer to the marriage and the embassy. 

At first, all of this had nothing to do our Venetian friends. Kublai greeted his great-nephew’s men with honour and hospitality, and a woman was sent for, a 17 year old whose name was Kokochin, and you’ve probably come across her before. In tellings of Marco’s story, few writers seem able to resist her as a love-interest for Marco, but really the text gives us no reason to think she was any such thing. She was however described variously in the two translations I’m looking at here as “beautiful and charming,” and “handsome and accomplished,” and the ambassadors, upon meeting her, “highly approved.”

All was made ready for their departure, and attendants were chosen to form a suitable escort for an Ilkhan’s consort. Kublai Khan saw them off in great style. They set off back the way the embassy had come, overland for Baghdad, and if all had gone well, they would off ridden right out of our story, and maybe the Polos would never have found their reason to return. But all did not go well. Just had been the case for Niccolo and Maffeo all those years earlier, there was war in the way. 

Having travelled for eight months, their further progress was obstructed and the roads shut up against them, by fresh wars that had broken out amongst the Mongol princes. Much against their inclinations, therefore, they were constrained to adopt the measure of returning to the court of the grand khan, to whom they stated the interruption they had met with.

The text is no more specific, but these fresh wars very likely involved Kaidu of the House of Ogedei, or of Dawa, the Chagataid khan he had appointed. From a distance of seven centuries, Kaidu’s whole life appears one of restlessness and struggle, a consistent effort of the body, mind, and will against his cousins in Yuan China and the Ilkhanate, and around this time, he was also fighting to support his pick for Batu’s old throne. Somewhere in all that constant exertion, the ambassadors’ path home was blocked. There was to be no Pax Mongolica for them, no easily hopping along the much-praised relay network with its rest-houses and fresh horses, so back to Kublai they went, doubtless adding another little grain of irritation to his lifelong grievance against his cousin, and back into the path of the Polos. 

It happened that Marco was also returning to the khan at that time, with much to tell him of all that he’d seen. He’d been away on one of his wanderings, this time on the seas of Southeast Asia, which he reported were safely navigable. And of course the news, when it reached the ears of the Ilkhan ambassadors, was extremely interesting. The khan had a man who was familiar with the seaways south. They had been three years gone from home, and if they were not to go by land, then perhaps they might return by water. They reached out the Venetians, and a confluence of interests began to form. 

The ambassadors needed a safe trip home with Kokochin, and the Polos a pressing reason to make that trip. Both parties wished to convince the khan that they should be allowed to go together. Maybe the Polos  simply agreed to accompany them home, without going into their own issues at all, but I like to imagine here a series of furtive meetings here on how best to proceed with their cause. Who knew what fits of vexation might result if the Polos bothered Kublai bothered again with the same question. This time, it was agreed that the Ilkhanids would make their approach with Kokochin and point out “with what convenience and security they might affect their return by sea, to the dominions of their master,” Kublai’s great nephew, how much less expensive it would be to dispatch them this way, and how much swifter too. Once they had the khan’s agreement, they would turn to the topic of the Polos, for Kokochin’s voyage would be far safer in the company of a fellow like Marco, who had so recently sailed south. 

The Ilkhanids got their audience, they made their requests, and the khan pulled a face. As the most powerful ruler of his time, I don’t imagine that he was much in the habit of needing to conceal his feelings on anything much at all, and he did not disguise his displeasure at what was being asked of him. The idea of parting with the Polos was “exceedingly displeasing” to him, as he’d already made abundantly clear. However, constrained by politeness and the “importance and urgency” of the case, the khan agreed. He would let his beloved Venetians go from his grip.

And I feel I must interrupt the story here to rain on Marco Polo’s extra-special self-importance parade a little. We’ve seen in the last episode how developed the trading networks were between China and India. It seems really unlikely that there was nobody about who could equal Marco in navigating the oceans they were to sail, but, to be fair, it is possible that there was nobody about in the court at that particular moment, no known quantities or figures of real standing who would be suitable to escort a member of Mongol royalty and also be familiar with large parts of the route. It is worth noting that Rashid al-Din, writing in the early 1300s, and Yuan sources, would both speak of this mission to deliver Kokochin to the Ilkhan, though admittedly neither would mention the Polos by name.

The text has Kublai Khan grudgingly call them before him for one last audience. He greets them with warmth and reassures them of his lasting love and regard. He provides them with a golden tablet, those passports which provided free, safe, and well-supplied passage throughout his realms. He made them promise that once they had spent some time with their family, that they would return to him immediately. Finally, he either granted them authority to act as his ambassadors to the pope and kings of Europe, or he attached men to their party for that purpose - it depends on the version you’re reading. At last, having given their word that they would not be leaving him forever, the party was ready.

A fleet was prepared for them, of 13 or 14 ships. At least 4 or 5 of these were large enough to carry crews of 250, and 4 masts, while the others were perhaps the smaller boats mentioned elsewhere in the text, that would work as pods around the larger vessels and tow them where necessary. Marco is, for what it’s worth, very complimentary of these boats, speaking highly of their construction and maintenance. They were made of fir-timber, fastened with good iron nails, and sealed with a substance made by kneading together hemp-fibers with wood-oil and lime. There were 50-60 cabins, and there were 13 water-tight compartments within the hull in case of leaks caused, Marco helpfully adds, “by running on a rock or by the blow of a hungry whale.” 

On the khan’s orders, they were provisioned for two years, and rubies and gems given to them as gifts. And then they embarked. It was around the beginning of 1291, and Kublai, for all his insistence that they return, was never going to live long enough to see if his uncaged birds would come back to him.    

In just a moment, we’ll follow the Venetians, Ilkhanids, and Kokochin on their way south and then west, but first, a quick pause.

The Marco text covers this journey in the barest of detail, offering for example that after three months of navigation they arrived at Sumatra, but leaving the rest for elsewhere in the book. We know from elsewhere in this series how Marco found it splintered into kingdoms, each with their own language, how he was struck at being so far south he could no longer see the North Star, how he noticed a clear difference between the coastal populations, often Muslim, and the hill peoples, often cannibals. 

Marco and company were detained on Sumatra by weather, waiting for the winds to change, and they observed the trade in spices and wood, they witnessed those hideously ugly unicorns, and they drank excellent wine, fit to cure dropsy, and tisick, and spleen. For five months they waited, and then they sailed on, west across the Bay of Bengal, and then northwest along the Indian Coast and the Arabian Sea, encountering many things that were strange to them. 

They saw fine cotton cloths that put them in mind of spiders’ webs. They saw how the bodies of great lords were burnt upon death, and that his attendants threw themselves upon the same fire saying “that they [had] been his comrades in this world, and that they ought also to keep him company in the other world.” They saw temples in which families would consecrate their daughters, presenting them to their gods, and where the monks would call on the girls to make a banquet and dance before the gods, leaving the meat a respectable length of time until it was said to be consumed by the deities and then taking it away to eat. 

They saw people who Marco deemed members of a class of idol-worshipping Brahmin, chughi in his words, or yogis. These ascetics ate only a little, mostly rice and milk, and drank twice a month a strange potion of sulphur and quicksilver that granted them their long lives, 150-200 years, Marco reported. He went on that they went naked, wearing only a small ornament tied about their forehead, that they daubed themselves with a powder made of burnt cow dung, and that they ate no from bowls but from leaves, and of those never green leaves, for those were said to still contain a soul and it would be a sin to eat from them. 

In some versions of the text, the description continues in a rather more judgemental tone:

They are such cruel and perfidious Idolaters that it is very devilry! They say that they burn the bodies of the dead, because if they were not burnt worms would be bred which would eat the body; and when no more food remained for them these worms would die, and the soul belonging to that body would bear the sin and the punishment of their death. And that is why they burn their dead!

That opening exclamation seems very much the sort of thing that Francesco Pipino might have written into the account.

For eighteen months, they sailed the waters around India, and they didn’t have it all their own way. On the contrary, the death toll was severe, particularly so in some versions of the text. One has only 8 surviving of an initial company of 600, sailors not included, a real blood bath, while the rather more reasonable version has 600 total dying, including two of the three Ilkhanid ambassadors. I keep talking about medieval travellers who made it home - funny how the chronicles are all written by people who survived - but it’s moments like this that are a helpful reminder of what kind of enterprise long distance travel was at this time. It meant years away from home and a pretty good likelihood of death by disease or violent misadventure while you were out there. Really, I should do a series on travellers who didn’t make it. Mini episodes maybe.        

Of course, we already know that’s not what happened to Marco. The Polos, Kokochin, and that sole surviving ambassador arrived safely at their destination, often thought to be Hormuz, at the narrows between the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf. They got there, but they found that they were too late. They were like waiters trucking out long-delayed dishes from the kitchen only to find their frustrated customer had in the meantime moved on. Kokochin’s fiancé, the one who had his sent his ambassadors all the way to Great Uncle Kublai in China, was dead. 

Arghun was the grandson of Hulagu; great, great grandson of Genghis Khan; and the fourth Ilkhan, and I’m not going to do him justice here. If you’re an Arghun fan, be reassured that I will be returning to him some time down the road, that there’s another story he’ll be part of. For now, know that he’d sent away for a royal consort, and that he had, in the meantime, been convinced by an Indian monk to take a steady course of those mercury and sulphur mixes which were said to prolong life. Eight months of that program, and he became ill and died in 1291. And maybe it hadn’t even been his unfortunate new diet plan that had killed him - there is talk that it was murder - but it’s certainly a tempting enough theory.  

So when our travellers arrived, all was not quite as they’d expected. Likely, their arrival was not quite expected. Arghun’s eldest son, Ghazan, was still young to occupy the throne, or so the text tells us. But Ghazan had been 20 years old when his father had died, young, but not exactly an infant in need of a regent. It seems instead that circumstances had prevented Ghazan from making the grab for power when the opportunity presented itself. Sometimes being close to the center of power, being the first qualifying candidate to apply for the job, is enough, and it was Ghazan’s uncle, Gaykhatu, who had filled the vacancy. 

Ghazan did not challenge his uncle’s rise to power. Relations, indeed, seem to have been friendly between the two, and it was Gaykhatu who received the travellers and directed them to escort Kokochin on to Ghazan. As it happened, that future 7th Ilkhan was in the northeast of their territory with an army of 60,000 men, guarding the passes against any attacks from Kaidu’s direction, and so there the Polos had to go, getting further away now from the city of Venice, and likely wondering if they might ever be free to go there. 

Marco tells us that Gaykhatu’s rule was unpopular, perhaps consider illegitimate, and that they went to and from Ghazan under heavy escort, for “the people were disposed to commit insult and proceed to outrages, which they would not have dared to attempt under the rule of a proper sovereign.”

Still, despite threats and outrages from an unhappy populace, they brought Kokochin at last to her new husband, though what she thought of it we do not know. She’d been dragged halfway around the world with no prospect of ever returning, and all to marry a man she had never met before. In some versions of the Polo text, he says that she wept in sorry when the Venetians left; and that’s not impossible - after 2 years of travel they were among the few familiar faces in her new life - but in a way it’s more about him than her: see how loved and respected our most wonderful narrator was among the Mongol royalty, the text seems to shout, and how none of them wished him to go!

On their return journey, the Polos paused again at the court of Gaykhatu, and there stayed for another 9 months, and how long that must have seemed, now they were so close, relatively speaking, to their destination. What could have held them there? Perhaps they were waiting for the best possible circumstances in which to depart - it was still not a journey to be taken lightly - or maybe this was yet another Mongol ruler who found them simply too charming to be allowed to leave. 

Leave they did though, going by way of Trebizond on the Black Sea. Marco doesn’t say anything of it, but we know from other sources that they had a little trouble in the area. The Empire of Trebizond, a Byzantine successor state, was in the midst of a dispute with Venice, and the Polos were unlucky enough to wander into the middle of it. We know they would later claim to have had goods worth 4,000 Byzantine golden coins seized from them on the way through and that by 1310 only 1,000 would have been regained. But when the time came to record his story, this didn’t make it in. 

After that setback, it was on to Constantinople, to Negroponte on the Greek island of Euboea, and, at last, to Venice. It was 1295, and they had been gone for a quarter-century. Who of their family would still have recognized them?

There is a tradition recorded by the 16th-century scholar Giambatista Ramusio that indeed no one did when they appeared on the doorstep. Like Odysseus, they were said to arrive unlooked for and unknown, and who could have blamed their sceptical relations? Here were three strangers of bizarre manner and garb, claiming to be family members long considered dead. They had to quote Ramusio in translation, “an indescribable something of the [Mongol] in their aspect and in their way of speech, having forgotten most of the Venetian tongue. Those garments of theirs were much the worse for wear, and were made of coarse cloth, and cut after the fashion of the Mongols.” 

Clearly, the Polos weren’t in the kind of fine silks to be found in Kublai’s China. They were dressed for travel, and had travelled far. They would have been deeply foreign to their Venetian relatives, and looking very much more the impoverished con-men than long-lost kin. 

They were so foreign in appearance, that, according to Ramusio, their family did not accept them at all. The Polos actually had to withdraw and plan a new approach. They had to invite all involved to an enormous feast at which they paraded in their silken fineries, displayed multiple crimson wardrobe changes, and cut open their ragged clothes to let spill gems of great value and variety upon the table, all to the amazement of their guests. Then, in all that grandness, the guests were somehow convinced that they did after all recognize these good people as their noble friends of times past, that these were indeed the Polos who had gone away. 

Maybe that wasn’t quite how it happened, but one way or another, the returning Polos were accepted into their family home and grew comfortable there. And they aged, and did business, and one by one they died. First Niccolo, around the time of their arrival. Then Maffeo, in 1309. And then, as I said at the beginning, Marco Polo himself, in 1324.

By then Gaykhatu was dead, and Ghazan, and Kokochin too. And Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan and founder of the Yuan Dynasty in China, he had died in 1294, when the Polos had not yet even completed their journey home.     

As for Marco, I want to read one last quotation from the book. It’s the end of the prologue, the end of the “story” portion of the book really, where the reader gets this tale of a trip to the khan’s China and back again, once for Niccolo and Maffeo alone, and then once more with Marco. It reads:

The foregoing narrative may be considered as a preliminary chapter, the object of which is to make the reader acquainted with the opportunities Marco Polo had of acquiring a knowledge of the things he describes, during a residence of so many years in the eastern parts of the world.

Like travel narratives before and since, Marco Polo’s takes pains to assert its own truth. You can believe this, it says. I have stepped on these shores, and sailed these seas; I have seen these far off places, observed their peoples, and spoken to their lords. And I have lived at the court of the greatest lord of them all, of Kublai Khan, the Yuan Emperor. Believe me.     

Marco and the Polos 6: The Grand Tour

Marco Polo Catalan Atlas

You must know that on leaving the port of [Quanzhou] you sail west-south-west for 1500 miles, and then you come to a country called Champa, a very rich region, having a king of its own. The people are Idolaters and pay a yearly tribute to the Great Kaan, which consists of elephants and nothing but elephants.

You have heard that the king of this land was old and had no stomach for the fight which Kublai Khan’s commanders brought into his lands, and that he lacked the forces to oppose them. Or perhaps, you think, he instead had wisdom to see that peace could be more cheaply bought in elephants than in blood.

The king, in fear or in wisdom, sent his messengers to the khan, offering to submit to his rule, and asking him to call upon his general to withdraw and leave in peace the realms that the king had long ruled in peace. Moved by pity, or perhaps relief at the ease with which his cause was won, Kublai Khan accepted this proposal, and from then on received “every year a tribute of 20 of the greatest and finest elephants that were to be found in the country.”

There are very great numbers of elephants in this kingdom, and they have [eagle-wood] in great abundance. They have also extensive forests of the wood called [ebony], which is jet-black, and of which chessmen and pen-cases are made. But there is nought more to tell, so let us proceed.

Hello, and welcome back. I’m Devon, and this is Human Circus: Journeys in the Medieval World. A quick reminder before we get going that that you can find me online at and on twitter at circus_human, and that rating, review, subscribing, and signing up for the podcast Patreon is how we keep our astonishingly large fleet afloat in terrible weather. And on that note, a huge thank you to Alan T and Juan Alvarez, my newest patrons. Thank you both very much. 

My initial plan for this episode had been the theme of Yuan failure in Southeast Asia and Kublai’s ongoing inability to effectively extend his power into its jungles and heat, and in the face of persistent and occasionally brilliant resistance. I felt like doing something different though, having just talked about Kublai’s problems with imperial overreach during the last episode, so I’m putting that aside. 

One of the areas of the Marco Polo text I really haven’t done justice to yet is his description of the world outside of China, so that’s what I’m doing today: talking about the images he brought back to Venice and Europe. It’s Marco the travel guide; it’s one late 13th-century understanding of the world, or at least that part of it between Southeast Asia and the African coast.  

I’m doing something slightly different today. It’s not the usual format. It’s you as Marco, so when I say, for example, that you think of a people as beasts, I am neither saying that I think they are beasts nor saying that I think you think they are beasts. It’s only that Marco thought so, or at least the text said so, which is maybe not the same thing. Anyways, what I’m trying to do here is present a picture of the world as he reported it, the things he found interesting to relate to his European audience. So that’s why you’re going where he went. Some of today’s destinations he visited himself, others most definitely not.

Your journey starts as you sail from Champa and arrive at the island of Java. It is vast, held by the most knowledgeable navigators you’ve met to be maybe the largest island in the world, and it is ruled by one king who is beholden to no other power, not even to the great khan himself. You do notice that the people here worship idols, but your attention is drawn quickly to the abundance of pepper, nutmeg, spikenard, galangal, cubebs, cloves, and all manner of other drugs and spices which are to make their way around the world from this place. Ships come laden with other goods to trade for those spices and make their owners a rich profit, or to collect the gold which is produced here (a likely confusion with Borneo) and take it back to China. You yourself find a way aboard one of these ships, but you are not bound for China.

Your destination is much closer at hand. Java the Lesser, which some know as Sumatra, sits just to the northwest, and its name belies its great size. Like the one you have just left, this island produces spices, some of which are not to be found anywhere else in the world, and the perfumed eagle-wood too. Unlike Java, it is not united. You find fractured kingdoms and peoples, some friendly to you, but others less so. In one area of coastal towns you find mostly those converted by the frequent visits of Muslim merchants, living according to the laws of Muhammed, while up the in the hills and away from the water, the people live like beasts. You find that they worship for a day the very first thing they had set their eyes on that morning, and, significantly more worrisome, they eat human flesh. You don’t linger long, but then the neighbouring kingdom is little more to your taste. 

Here too, you find beasts, this time lacking either law or religion. They call themselves the khan’s subjects, yet they pay no tribute nor receive any emissaries. However, the area does not lack for wildlife. There are wild elephants in great numbers, and you see unicorns too. You find they are nearly as large as elephants and hairy as buffaloes, with heads like wild boars, and equipped in the middle of their foreheads with a thick black horn. They are altogether uglier than you’d imagined, and not at all like in the stories, generally mired in mud when you see them, not in maidens’ laps. There are also monkeys in the area, and the thought occurs to you that these are probably the pygmies that people bring home and claim are brought from India; really there is no such thing, just Sumatran monkeys, hair plucked but for the beard, and skin dried and then treated with saffron and other substances. Satisfied at least to have solved this mystery, you move along. 

In the next kingdom, contrary winds detain you for five months, but fortunately you are not alone for you fall in with a company of 2,000 men. You’re able to dig in deep ditches and fell trees for walls, and good thing too, for some the people are fearsome and wild, and well known to be eaters of men. Others are less unfriendly and keep you well supplied. They have the best fish in the world here. They have coconuts. They have bread made of flour that is found under the bark of a tree. They have an excellent wine derived from trees which remind you of date palms, and in a pleasant haze, the months pass quickly enough. 

However, you meet savage men in the hills with tails the thickness of dogs, and you meet others whose practices disturb you more than that. When one of them is sick, they call on a sorcerer to determine if the patient is to live or die. If the sorcerer foretells that they won’t recover, then they the matter is not left to play out as it will. They are promptly suffocated with cloth, cooked, and consumed by all their kin, down to the last of the marrow, and the remains of their bones are carried off in a chest. Captured enemies who cannot afford the ransom receive similar treatment. This, of Sumatra, you won’t be missing. 

To the north, you encounter small islands. At one, the people go entirely naked in stark contrast to the high prices which the spices and wood will fetch. At another, the people’s faces put you in mind of large dogs, as does their cruelty. You do not stay long. 

From these islands, you sail south by southwest for a time, covering nearly a thousand miles of water and crossing the Bay of Bengal until at last, you come to Ceylon (Sri Lanka). It is a large island, but you’ve heard it was once even larger, and that the strong north wind and the low and flat nature of the island at that end have conspired to submerge much of it. 

The people are idolaters and scarcely clothed. They live on rice, meat, and milk, and drink tree-wine much like that you’ve had before. But none of that is what interests you most, for you know what interests Kublai Khan. He has sent embassies on multiple occasions asking after a great ruby. No other country in the world produces rubies, but this one does, and sapphire, and topaz, and amethyst besides, and the island’s king has a ruby unlike any other. It is thick as a man’s arm and without flaw, and it seems, in the light, to be a piece of flame. Many times, Kublai has asked what price he might pay to possess it, and many times, the king has said it is not to be had for any price. Still, it seems there may be an even greater treasure on the island, and this one Kublai has sought more successfully.

There is a large mountain at the island’s centre, difficult enough to approach that massive iron chains are fixed to its sides to make it at all possible; however, many do make the climb. They come in pilgrimage to the sepulchre at its peak though there is some disagreement over whose relics are within. There are those who say that they are the remains of Adam, the first man, others, that they are of the very first of the idolaters, the son of a wealthy and powerful king.

This prince, you are told, would not be moved by worldly affairs, even when tempted by all the king would offer, and seeing his steadfastness, the king built a wonderful palace to be his prison, for he had no other sons to name as heirs. Within that palace, the prince was ensconced in beauty and untroubled by illness or aging or any of the ugliness of the world, until one day, when he went outside and he saw a dead man, and then a very old man, and both sights troubled him terribly. He was greatly disturbed, and asked after what he had seen: do all people age so? Do they all die? The prince refused to return to his comforts. He went on to live the life of a great saint, to take himself to mountains lofty and pathless where he endured many hardships. And he did not die only once. He died fourscore times and more, as a man and then an ox, and then a horse, and so on, and on, until after his 84th life he became a god. This is the story you have heard, and you know too that your khan has acquired some of those relics for himself, whether they be of Adam or the Buddha, that his envoys have paid a rich price to bring back two teeth, some hair, and dish from their resting place to the court of Kublai.       

You leave the island and its mountaintop sepulchre behind you, and you go west but not far, only until you reach the mainland, and the coast of India. There, you learn something of the local pearl industry, how in the months of April and May, the divers work all day on and under the water for the shells, and how they are protected by fish-charmers who keep the more dangerous sea-life at bay. The merchants must pay both groups from their profits, and another 10% for the king, and you chance to see that king yourself. He’s a striking figure, with a cloth around his waist, a necklace of gems, and a silk thread strung with 104 pearl and ruby prayer beads. When you see him, he is astride his horse but bound by a circle that has been traced in the ground. The people here will not cross outside of a circle drawn about them by one who they owe until they have made good on that debt, and you see the king himself so confined, a credit to his sense of justice. You also see a man paraded on a cart through the streets. He has 12 knives, and he takes one up, shouting that he is slaying himself for the love of his god, and runs it through his arm. You gather that he is a condemned criminal who has been permitted to sacrifice himself to his chosen deity rather than be slain by the king’s men for his crime, and you turn away after the fourth knife. 

You find the climate here difficult to endure at times. It is hot beyond measure, hot enough, that were you to put an egg in one of the rivers, the very heat of the sun would boil it before you could leave it far behind. The rains come only a quarter of the year, saving what would otherwise be an entirely uninhabitable country, and then there are the pests. Light cane-work beds which can be lifted by cord to the ceiling are necessary or else you will be bitten by tarantulas, fleas, and other vermin. Meanwhile, outside, the poor sleep on the ground. 

In this region also is a small town. It’s largely unvisited by merchants but pilgrims both Muslim and Christian go there, you’ll be going there too. Pilgrims come to take up red earth from the ground, for it is known for its healing properties, and particularly for its power in curing fevers. It was here in this small Indian town that Saint Thomas came and eventually died, and you’re told the story of that tragic accident. The saint was praying outside his hermitage one day, surrounded by the peacocks which are so plentiful in the region, when a local hunter, who would claim to have seen nothing but peacocks, fired an arrow which struck Thomas in the side. The saint would quickly succumb to his wound, but it was not the last he was seen in the town.

Apparently, a local baron was stuffing all the Christians’ houses with his rice so that no pilgrim could find shelter. Though the people pleaded with him to move his rice and no longer hinder their devotions, he ignored their entreaties. This bitter situation went on unchanged until one night the saint himself was suddenly there before the baron. He was in his home, pressing a fork to his throat and promising an evil death if the man did not empty his rice from the houses. In the morning the baron submitted, and Saint Thomas is said to have here worked many more great miracles since. 

Further to the north is a place you hear of where the king has been dead for forty years, but he is not missed, for the queen, who rules still, is more beloved than ever any other lord or lady. In her realm, diamonds are abundant beyond belief, but they are hard to come by. You are told that they often lie in unreachable valleys and amongst the most venomous of snakes. Fortunately, the people of the region have contrived a solution to this. They throw pieces of meat down into valleys and gullies, and then watch as white eagles swoop down to take the meat, now pebbled with gems from the valley floor. All that remains to be done is then drive the eagles from their nests, or else wait longer and take the eagles themselves or, later still, sort through their droppings for the diamonds. But that’s not where you’re going. You’re headed west from the hermitage of Saint Thomas, and into Kerala, and in just a moment, we’ll be going there too. 

The Indian province of Kerala is where you understand all Brahmans to come from. You identify the Brahmans as the best and most honest traders of the world, and unswayed by temptation. However, they are also, to your way of thinking, excessively swayed by signs and omens, seeing them everywhere. The length and character of their shadow in the morning sun on a particular day of the week, the path of a bird seen as they walk, the source of a tarantula on the wall: any of these might be seen by a Brahman as a good or bad omen and acted on accordingly. 

In Kerala, you meet merchants whose ships have come from the west, from Hormuz, Aden, and elsewhere, and from all about the country, people come to trade with them, bringing a thriving business to the region. And in the city of Kollam, there are more merchants still, from China, Arabia, and the Levant. They come for the pepper, the brazilwood, the ginger, and the indigo, a herb which is prepared in large vessels that boil beneath the sun. They find, as you do, a population mostly of idolaters, but with some Christians and Jews, and they find, as you do, people everywhere chewing at a certain leaf, sometimes prepared with spices and quicklime, and spitting out the saliva that plentifully results.   

And perhaps they too are struck by the creatures of this country, for all its birds and beasts are altogether strange, most unlike your own. It must be that incredible heat which makes them so. The peacocks are beautiful and larger than you’ve seen and the lions black all over. There are parrots of all colours, kinds, and sizes, and even the rooster and hen is different here. From, fowl to fruit, everything differs from what you know, and is finer, and better. The palm-sugar wine is excellent also, and strong, and you rub at your eyes as you look at monkeys so peculiar, you would take them for men.

Further north and west along the Arabian coast of India, you see the North Star, which had been hidden from Java, rise to two cubits above the horizon, and you come to Mangalore. It has language and king all its own, and it offers tribute to no other ruler. 

To this place, ships come in from all quarters, but especially from China, bringing copper, gold, and silk, cloves, and spikenard. They take back pepper, ginger, and cinnamon. And from here, one hundred vessels of corsairs set out every year, the pirates even bringing their families with them. They form up in fleets and spread out in cordons across the water, sometimes as long as 100 miles. When one corsair has sighted a vessel to be taken, they signal the rest with smoke, so that the surrounding pirates will close in too and join them in the plunder. They do not kill unnecessarily though, and when they then let the ship go, considerably lighter than before, they bid its masters to go out and amass still more wealth so that it may be brought back to them again. At your next destination, you hear that the pirates force their victims to drink a preparation of tamarind and sea water to make them vomit up any gems or other valuables they might have swallowed and thought hidden. 

That next province is Gujarat, home, you’re told, to the most desperate pirates in existence. The people here grow pepper, ginger, indigo, and great quantities of cotton. They produce the skins of goats, oxen, buffaloes, and unicorns, all to be shipped off to Arabia, and they make lovely mats in blue and red leather, with figures of animals and birds worked into them, and gold and silver wire embroidery. 

Soon, you’ll be coming to the end of your travels in mainland India. As the land curves west into Makran, and the people are less and less likely to be idolaters and more and more to be Muslims, you will put once more to sea. You regret that you cannot see or indeed describe all the islands of India, for there are said 12,700 of them. For now, you are going 500 miles south to the islands of Female and Male. 

The islands, 30 miles apart, are very much out of stories you have heard of places elsewhere in the world, but never seen yourself. As the names of islands imply, on one live the men and on the other the women, all Christians who follow the Old Testament. Only for three months of the year - March, April, and May - do the men move over to women’s island, returning with the coming of June to their own island, and their work. They fish most productively, drying their catch to provide ample food for the year and more to trade with besides. Chief among them is a bishop who answers to the archbishop of another island, where you are going next. 

That is the island of Socotra, near the mouth of the Gulf of Aden. Its archbishop answers to Baghdad, not Rome. The people, Christians, are practised in spearing whales with a cord and float attached, so that when the whale dies they may easily locate it and bring the whale to shore where they take oil from the head and, in great quantity, ambergris from the stomach. However, though the population is Christian, the island also produces the greatest enchanters in the world. They have spells which will turn the wind and confound passing ships, that will produce terrible storms and disasters, and that will have much viler effects than you care to recall.

Trade comes to island, picking up gold, cotton, ambergris, and salted fish, and there are pirates in abundance too, who come to sell their plunder to willing buyers. And among all these travellers and traders from near and far, you hear stories of other lands. 

You are told of Madagascar, a noble and beautiful island 1,000 miles to the south where four elders govern over a Muslim populace. Due to the curious nature of the currents, ships rush south to the island in three days over distances that will take them twenty to return, but still they make the trip with gold and silk which they trade for the ambergris, sandalwood, and elephant tusks produced there. They can go no further south though; those currents are such that if they go any further, they will not be able turn back north, in any season. 

On the island are elephants in quantities beyond those in any other country; there are camels, whose meat the people eat exclusively; there are leopards, bears, and lions; and there is another creature, which you had heard of at the court of Kublai Khan. It is said that there is a gryphon, though not of the kind you have read of before. Not half-lion and half-bird, it looks more like an eagle but of such great size and strength that the bird apparently swoops down to snatch up an elephant in its talons, carry it high into the air, and then send it smashing to the ground and its death, to be eaten at the bird’s leisure. The bird is known as the rukh, and word of it had reached the great khan himself. 

You remember how Kublai had heard tell of the rukh even from his capital, and had sent out an envoy to ask after the matter, and then another when the first became detained. His men returned safely and with strange stories to tell, chiefly of the rukh, but they didn’t bring only stories. They brought two boar’s tusks weighing more than 14 pounds each, from creatures big as buffaloes, and they brought a feather of the rukh far beyond the proportions of any known bird. How delighted had Kublai been, and what gifts he had given those who had brought it to him. But you are far away from all of that now.

Some thousand miles northwest of Madagascar is the island of Zanzibar. You drink wine there made of dates, rice, good spices, and sugar. You watch the trading in elephant tusks and ambergris. You admire the giraffes at length, for they really are beautiful. You note the strength of the people, that they may carry for four and eat for five. But you write at length that they are hideously ugly, in a way you have not throughout your other travels, that the men “look like very devils,” and the women are a “disgusting site.” Your customary cosmopolitanism seems to be slipping.

Eventually, you reach the mainland coast of Africa and the great province of Ethiopia with its elephants and ostriches, lions, apes, and leopards, its six kingdoms and its six kings, three Muslim and three Christian. Its Christians are marked on their faces with hot iron as part of their baptism, and their history in the region traces back to the preaching of St Thomas the Apostle as he passed on towards India. Here, the people are skilled soldiers and practised horsemen, and they have no shortage of practice in struggle with the Nubians and the Sultan of Aden.

Actually, you hear one particular story of how the greatest king of Ethiopia, a Christian, had recently thought to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, there “to adore the Holy Sepulchre of Our Lord God Jesus Christ the Saviour.” But his advisors would not have it. Were he to go himself, they counselled, he would be far too vulnerable to the predation of his enemies, who were powerful. Instead, he ought to send a holy man in his stead. 

The advice seemed good, and the king selected a bishop who would make the trip on his behalf. And that bishop did set out and arrive at the sepulchre and there pay it honour and make a generous offering on the king’s behalf. It was on his return journey though that the sense of the king’s men was born out. As the bishop passed through Aden, its sultan heard word of his passing, a Christian, a bishop, and an envoy of the Ethiopian king. He was seized, questioned, and forcibly circumcised; you have been put to shame in spite of your king he was told, and then he was released. 

Time it took to recover and to make his way home to the king, but he did recover and make it home. His king greeted him with happiness, and listened with delight as the bishop told of all he had seen in Jerusalem and of every detail as to the sepulchre itself, but then the tale turned to return journey, to his mistreatment at the hands of the sultan, and to the sultan’s parting words. Then the king was not so pleased. Such was his grief and wrath over this offence that “he was like to die of vexation. And at length his words waxed so loud that all those round about could hear what he was saying. He vowed that he would never wear crown or hold kingdom if he took not such [fitting] vengeance on the Soldan of Aden that all the world should ring therewithal, even until the insult had been well and thoroughly redressed.” 

The Ethiopian king mustered men, horses, and elephants with castles on their backs. He gathered these around him and made over land and gulf for the Kingdom of Aden in great force, and the sultan’s men came forward to meet the Ethiopians at a strong point, a pass near their frontier where they thought they could hold the invaders. But you’re told that vengeful king would not be stopped, that his were better soldiers and slew a “marvelous number” of their enemies and drove them back into their own land. Repeatedly, they were attacked in the narrows of the pass but each time prevailed, killing more. You’re told that the king entered his enemy’s land and remained there for a month, killing and destroying until his appetite was satisfied, and then he returned in triumph and joy to his own country, his rival humbled, his bishop and his honour avenged. As for you, you will be travelling on to Aden yourself.  

At the port of Aden, you marvel at the traffic, and at the volume of goods which pass through. Ships carry horses out to India, where they’ll fetch a higher price than anywhere else, and others arrive with pepper and spice. The incoming ships are often unloaded onto smaller boats to continue on for seven days before the goods are transferred onto camels for a further journey of 30 and so come to Alexandria; that is how all that city’s spices arrive. 

No wonder then that the sultan is counted one of the richest princes of this world. On all of this traffic, he collects duties, and you detect no sign that he has been damaged significantly or set back in wealth or influence by the Ethiopian invasion you’d heard so much about.

His rule extends to your next destination, whose king is subject to him, the great city of Esher, its lord a Muslim who governs his people justly and well. He makes a good profit on his frankincense monopoly, the product of trees like small firs from which sap is allowed to flow through small cuts and is collected. Aside from frankincense, his lands produce dates, of which wine is made, and fish in something beyond abundance, so much so that two large tuna can be had for a single Venetian silver. Smaller fish are caught in astonishing quantities in the months of spring and then fed to beasts throughout the year, for there is no grass for them here in this place which is perhaps the driest in the world. And in some ways, the people eat little different from their animals: larger fish are cut into pieces of a pound or so, dried, and then eaten like biscuits all year. And the sheep! You will remember those best of all of this place. They are pretty little creatures, but they have no ears, only horns.

With some regret, you leave the lovable sheep behind you and carry on up the Arabian coast, moving northeast, until you come to Qalhat, a noble city with strong fortifications. It sits at the mouth of the Gulf of Oman, where its ruler can choke off trade passing into the gulf and so force his rivals to bend to his will or else lose out on the massive revenues that result from that trade. As you set out over the gulf yourself, bound for Hormuz, you think yourself very tired of salt fish and dates.

You have been to Hormuz before, on your way east, and you think now, as you did then, that the heat is truly horrifying, stiflingly, fatally so. The temperature is only made at all bearable by the cunning ventilation on the windward side of their homes. However, the countryside is home to beautiful birds of kinds not seen elsewhere, and you are able to reacquaint yourself with the city’s good wine of dates and spices. The first drink induces uncontrollable vomiting, but after that, one is all the better for it. You sit by the harbour and sip and you look with alarm on the boats. You have seen boats on the rivers of China, the Ocean of India, and many else besides, but these scarcely deserve the name. They are made of planks stitched together with coconut fibres and then rubbed with fish oil, and you are not in the least surprised to learn that many are lost to storms on the journey to India. 

As you move homeward, the end of your journey in sight, you hear stories of other places. You hear, for example, of somewhere to the north known as the Land of Darkness, where it is always night and neither moon nor stars appear. Its people are tall and colourless, unruled by any king, and amass many valuable pelts through hunting. Mongols go there sometimes, raiding upon mares that have left foals behind so that when they are ready to return home they simply allow the horses beneath them to return to their foals, which they do, unerringly, through the darkness. You feel some regret at never having seen such a thing yourself, but only a little. For you have seen many things, not the Land of Darkness and not the great province of Russia with its sable fur, silver mines, and unbearable cold, but much else besides, and you are ready to go home, 

You are making your own way overland towards Constantinople from which you will sail for Venice, and as you near your goal, your writings taper off. Many merchants and others have been there, and many of your audience will already know of where you walk now, so you do not bother to record further descriptions. And there you leave me. And there we leave our grand tour. 

We’ve seen now some Marco Polo’s broader picture of the world outside of China, and of the networks of trade which he encountered, around Indonesia with its spices, from China to India, or India to Arabia, and on to Egypt and elsewhere. We’ve seen some of the products and practices that interested him, a 13th-century European understanding of the Buddha’s origin story, and the end of Saint Thomas at the hands of an Indian peacock hunter. 

There is some misleading information in there to be sure, everything from locations out of any rational order to the rukh and other such myths from off the side of Marco’s path which, as with your own, likely did not cross Madagascar. That said, there was also a lot of quite accurate information that would have been new to his audience, and that was a relatively huge audience. This is pre-printing press we’re talking about, but the book was something of a bestseller in its time. It was written out again and again, and, though we lack a patient zero, we have a multitude of other manuscripts to prove it, 150 surviving medieval and renaissance copies, which, if you’re not sure, is indeed a lot. In its first twenty years alone, the book would be reproduced in Latin, German, Venetian, Tuscan, Franco-Italian, and French.

And I’ll talk more about that next time, when I’ll be back with the final Marco Polo episode, or at least the final one for now. I’ll be following Marco’s adventures on his way back to Venice - his awkward parting with Kublai, the mysterious or maybe not so mysterious Kokochin, the massive loss of life the homeward trip entailed -  and I’ll also be taking up the writing of the book itself.

Marco and the Polos 4: Did You Go to China, Marco?

Marco Polo and Kublai Khan

At times in this series I’ve talked about the near-mythical nature of this character we’re discussing, how Marco Polo can easily fade into legend in our minds, and how there was that story of him on his deathbed being challenged by a friend to correct the record and remove any fabrications while he still could. On that occasion, he is to have said that if anything he’d actually held material back, and that the truth was only more wonderful, not less.

That end-of-life acquaintance was not the last person to question Marco Polo’s story. His medieval audience often read it as romance or fable, and there’s been a tradition of scepticism ever since, where his accounts are concerned. Was his role with Kublai Khan as he said it was? Did he get out of Kublai’s capital to see the rest of China? Did he even go to China at all? Did he actually even make it east of the Black Sea? Was he instead spending two decades in Constantinople and his family’s other places of business? Was his book only a patchwork of previous Persian travel narratives? It’s a line of questioning that has long existed and was reignited in the 1990s by a new book on the topic. Today, I’ll be picking up those questions. 

Hello, and welcome back. I’m Devon, and this is Human Circus. At this time, I’d like to remind you that rating, reviewing, and subscribing is how we keep the horsemen from our walls, and that you can find me online at I posted a little written addition to the last episode there, on The End of the Song in Marco and otherwise, and I’ll keep doing that with the pieces that don’t, for whatever reason, quite fit into the main podcast narrative. So do give that a look if you’re interested. 

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Last episode, I told you about Marco Polo’s peculiarly triumphalist depiction of Kublai Khan as the bearer of the Genghisid dynastic legacy, and we left off with the mention that Marco is said to have been on-site, or at least in the city, to witness the violent end of the khan’s head of finance, Ahmed. This episode, it’s on to the questions of whether he was in China at all and, if so, what he was doing there. We’re going to talk about some of the answers that have been proposed in response to these, but we’ll start with what the text has to say. What does it tell us he was doing? 

Of course, the short answer is that it doesn’t tell us a whole lot, at least explicitly. In a few of his few personal references, Marco says that he acquired the wool of a yak and the dried head and hooves of a musk deer, that he was once kidnapped along with many of his companions who lost their lives, or that he had to recover from illness for a time in the crisp, clean mountain air of what is now Afghanistan, and all of these fragments pass the reader by quickly. They come and they are gone again without further explanation. But if as the reader you’re wishing for more, you find to your amusement that when he does stretch out into a personal anecdote, it’s straight into one of the book’s most renowned falsehoods; it’s the story of the siege of Xiangyang, the Song fortress-city which blocked the tributary south. The siege had actually concluded in 1273, a few years before Marco had even reached the Khan’s court, but that didn’t stop him from writing his family in or from giving them a real starring role in the proceedings.

Xiangyang, along with its pontoon-bridge-linked sister city, Fancheng, had been proving a tough nut to crack. Its population of 200,000 was protected by six kilometres of 7 meter walls and a 90 meter wide moat with one side opened onto the river, itself a 500 meter wide avenue for resupply when in flood, and at other times a tangled maze of shallows. Actually getting at those walls was exceedingly difficult, let alone storming or undermining them, but it had to be done. Marco positions the city as a last hold-out at the end of war against the Song, falling only after the rest of the empire had already been defeated; really though, it was an earlier move in that campaign. The city was the door that needed to be opened in order for the Mongols to move south along the waterways, and the defenders knew it. 

They’d been prepping. They’d been strengthening their fortifications and securing supplies, and then they’d been busily resisting nearly 3 years of siege. There’d been occasional attempts to break out, quickly stifled, and there’d been periodic battles as resupply fleets tried to fight their way into the city, getting men and resources in but suffering massive losses in the process. While the Mongol besiegers were coming out on top in these encounters, and capturing many ships in the process, there was little progress being against the city itself and little sign that things were going to change soon. Something had to be done, so that’s when the Polos stepped in, and, in Marco’s telling, really showered themselves with glory.

They stepped up before the khan at his court, and they addressed him like this: 

"We could find you a way of forcing the city to surrender speedily;" whereupon those of the army replied, that they would be right glad to know how that should be. All this talk took place in the presence of the Great Kaan. For messengers had been despatched from the camp to tell him that there was no taking the city by blockade, for it continually received supplies of victual from those sides which they were unable to invest; and the Great Kaan had sent back word that take it they must, and find a way how. Then spoke up the two brothers and Messer Marco the son, and said: "Great Prince, we have with us among our followers men who are able to construct mangonels which shall cast such great stones that the garrison will never be able to stand them, but will surrender incontinently, as soon as the mangonels or trebuchets shall have shot into the town.

Well, that certainly sounded alright to Kublai, and he “bade them with all his heart” to begin at once. 

The Polos set to work. They gathered timber and those followers they’d spoken of, according to one translation “a German and a Nestorian Christian, who were masters of that business,” and in another, Nestorians who were not their followers at all but rather “some of the ablest smiths and carpenters” under the khan’s command. The Polos and their team constructed a pair of mangonels capable of hurling 300 pound rocks at their target, and once completed, the two siege engines were demonstrated for the khan, who marvelled at their effectiveness. Then, to quote Marco: 

And what shall I tell you? When the engines were set up and put in gear, a stone was shot from each of them into the town. These took effect among the buildings, crashing and smashing through everything with huge din and commotion. And when the townspeople witnessed this new and strange visitation they were so astonished and dismayed that they wist not what to do or say. They took counsel together, but no counsel could be suggested how to escape from these engines, for the thing seemed to them to be done by sorcery. They declared that they were all dead men if they yielded not, so they determined to surrender on such conditions as they could get. Wherefore they straightway sent word to the commander of the army that they were ready to surrender on the same terms as the other cities of the province had done, and to become the subjects of the Great Kaan; and to this the captain of the host consented.

So the men of the city surrendered, and were received to terms; and this all came about through the exertions of Messer Nicolo, and Messer Maffeo, and Messer Marco; and it was no small matter.

Marco wasn’t wrong about that; the collapse of Xiangyang wasn’t small at all, but it wasn’t quite all as he’d described it either. As it happens, Kublai had not sat about in helpless vexation until his illustrious Venetian guests proposed a solution. He’d dispatched a messenger who in only 5 weeks had reached the city of Tabriz to find the khan’s nephew Abaqa, heir to Hulagu’s Ilkhanate. What Kublai needed were better siege engines, capable of the power and range the city’s situation required, or rather he needed better siege engineers, and that was what the Ilkhan Mongols had. They’d used massive counterweight trebuchets when they’d taken Baghdad, Aleppo, Damascus, and other cities, and it turned out that they could spare an engineer or two for their eastern cousins. 

So it wasn’t Niccolo, Maffeo, and Marco who engineered the fall of Xiangyang. It was Ismail and Ala al-Din who wintered with their families as guests of Kublai and then, in the spring of 1272, started the work that was needed. By the summer of that year, their creation stood ready to fling over 200 pounds of rocks around 200 metres, and the last phase of the siege began. First to go was the bridge connecting Xiangyang to Fancheng, and then the defences of Fancheng itself. Its walls were broken and its people brought out and slaughtered. They were piled high and in easy sight of Xiangyang’s defenders as a preview of what they could expect for themselves. Then Ismail turned his machine towards Xiangyang and with the first shot struck a watch tower, shaking the city and throwing its people into complete confusion. Soon after that, a surrender was arranged.  

It was all kind of how Marco had said it had been, but then again not quite, not quite when he said, or where he said it fell in the Song campaign, or who he had said deserved credit for all that siege engine brilliance. 

Moments like this in the text are, I suspect, what really leads people to start to doubt the veracity of the entire work, to point to them and say “Well if he’s lying here, why should we believe any of it at all?” Clearly, he wasn’t really where he said he was. Maybe, as John W. Haeger argued, he’d gotten as far as Daidu but no further, gathering up the stories on which his book would be based. Or maybe it was all just a fantasy that Marco had cobbled together from the safety of his family’s trading post in the Black Sea port of Soldaia, or maybe as far east as Bukhara if we’re being generous, its sources no more first-hand than first-hand encounters with Persian travellers and their reports on which the whole thing must have been based. The older Polos may well have been to see the khan all those years earlier, and got their hands on one of those golden tablets, but little Marco had not been nearly so ambitious.  

That was basically the contention of Frances Wood in her aptly titled 1995 book Did Marco Polo Go to China? She argued that he didn’t, and not only because of what appear to be lies regarding his personal involvement, with the siege being the prime example. Wood pointed to errors in dates, distances, and descriptions, including numbers of arches on bridges, gates in walls, and that sort of thing. However, this is not an argument I find compelling; I don’t remember how many windows there are on the front of the building where I work and I walk past it multiple times, most days of week. If Marco had not written down exactly when an event had occurred in his roughly 2 decades away, exactly how far it been between this city and that, or exactly how many arches were on that particular bridge in that particular city, well I can’t really blame him for not getting it all quite right. 

In addition to these slip-ups, Wood brought up a lack of Chinese names and terms in Marco’s account, but this also, isn’t really convincing. It seems reasonable enough to begin with that Marco would have relied on the terminology of the administrators, of Persian and Turkic. And then we have historian Stephen Haw pointing out that a number of the place-names used really do seem to be transliterations of 13th-century Chinese, only run through the garbling pens of subsequent generations of scribes to whom the words would have been entirely unfamiliar and meaningless. Though it was not always the case, the vast majority Chinese locations he was referring to can now be identified with relative ease.

So that’s all very understandable, but what about Marco’s failure to include fairly striking aspects of Chinese culture? There were no observations as to the writing, tea-drinking, or book-printing. Where was the foot-binding and where was the great wall? After this quick pause, I’ll try to answer those questions


As was mentioned last episode, Marco does not seem have been enormously interested in Chinese culture or, with few exceptions, the Chinese themselves, and this lack of interest and might go some way to explain why he didn’t really settle into descriptions of the writing system and why there’s no tea-drinking going on. His interests were those of his patron, Kublai; they were those of the conquerors and the administrators. He was not, in this sense, a man of the people. 

That point aside, let’s look at the specifics. It’s true enough that he doesn’t write of the wonders of book-printing, but he does seem impressed by money printing; there’s actually a fairly detailed passage on its production. As for foot-binding, it should be noted that one manuscript does contain a reference to certain Chinese women walking with extremely small steps and this could have been reference to foot-binding. If so, whether the women in question were bound themselves or were mimicking the walk of those who were, it would have been a much more readily observable phenomenon than the binding itself. Finally, as others have noted before me, if we are to say that Marco has been caught out in not including some of these aspects of Chinese culture and that he must have gotten his information from other sources, other more genuine travellers, then we would have to ask why those sources had no information on these aspects, and so on, and so on.   

So what else did Wood have to say? One of the main points she and others have relied on to challenge Marco’s presence in the east, is the total lack of any mention of him or his family in the Chinese sources. If he really was, as he’d claimed, governor of Yangzhou for three years, then where were the records verifying this? Why was there no record of him at all? Firstly, it has to be acknowledged that Marco probably wasn’t the governor of Yangzhou for three years, that this was a lie, an embellishment, an exaggeration to some degree at least. But that aside, we don’t know if he appears under a different Mongol or Chinese name; we don’t know what name we should be looking for. Additionally, we should not be surprised if his presence, assuming he didn’t really govern a city, was simply not noted at all. Other well known travellers such as Odoric of Pordenone and Giovanni da Montecorvino also passed through unnoticed in Chinese sources, and Giovanni de Marignolli too. An absence of evidence, of this kind at least, was not an evidence of absence. 

Alright, you may be thinking, but what about the wall? What kind of person goes to China and doesn’t mention the Great Wall? 

The simple answer to the wall question is that the Great Walls have not always been so great. While the idea of the Long Wall had long existed, it’s thought that Marco would have only chanced to see something pretty unimpressive: pounded-earth remains held together by bundled wood and forming a not particularly great sight on the journey between Shangdu and Daidu. Consider this early 14th-century poem:

The high mounds of earth beside the road are said to be the ruins of the ancient Great Wall.

The water in the caves of the pools along the way is good for my horse to drink.

I am very lucky to live at a time of an honest and enlightened government.

Peace reigns in this border area where the flames of war raged in the past.

The crops are growing luxuriantly and cattle and sheep are all over the fields.

It is a pity that I cannot sing the full praises of our wise sovereign.

Clearly, these are not awe inspiring sights of power and strength. These are hillocks. They’re remnants and reminders of another time, suitable for this kind of stopping-by-the-ruins reflection on past and present, and for Marco, they would not have carried that same cultural weight. Among all the more recent signs of war and conquest, would he have even registered these shadows of borders and dynasties that had passed from the world? If so, he didn’t bother to write about it.  

Before I move on from the question of Marco’s veracity, I want to quickly compare his observations to some of his near-contemporaries. Odoric had written of foot-binding and cormorant fishing besides. If Marco was in China, was he really such a dull fellow as to miss so much? Not at all. In fact, the renowned world traveller Ibn Battuta hadn’t mentioned foot-binding either, and Odoric himself had said nothing of the writing system or of tea. Besides, Marco had his own strengths, reporting on topics which others did not, or did not manage so clearly: porcelain, coal, paper money, and salamanders among them. And note that by salamanders he meant asbestos and identified it as not, as was commonly thought, the skin or fur of some amphibian but rather as something to be mined and then formed into fibres, with all the unusual properties around fire which the old lizard-skins were said to have had.

Marco’s reporting on China has generally since been corroborated. You find, perhaps surprisingly, that once you get past issues of personal experience in the design and direction of siege engines and in governing cities, Marco was very reliable. The details concerning paper currency, administrative structure, and taxes and levies have all been found to be accurate, and on everything from the penalties for cattle theft to the work on the “magnificent” Grand Canal, from his description of Chinese ships to the post-mortem marriages of Mongol children, from the attempted invasion of Japan to the planting of roadside trees, and on a multitude of other topics too, Marco has been vindicated by more recent research. 

The scholarly consensus then is that Wood’s arguments were unconvincing and contained a number of misinterpretations or errors, but if we set that matter to rest and accept that Marco did indeed make it to China, that leaves us still with the question of what he was doing there. One of the more believable answers the text provides is that he was frequently present in the old Song Dynasty capital of Lin’an, or, as Marco calls it, the “celestial city” of Kin-Sai, the “celestial city,” so let’s hear what he has to say about it.

He describes its busy waterways and streets of stone and brick, its crowded markets and plazas, and its most pleasant situation between lake and river. He describes the joy of taking a boat out on the canals, to sit at table and chair and be propelled along the banks by boatmen with long poles, a “gratification,” he says, which “exceeds any that can be derived from the amusements on the land.”  He says that the bridges thrown across the main canals were high enough for masted ships to pass beneath, and, in an often-cited gross exaggeration, he refers to a common saying that the city contained 12,000 bridges. There were large stone warehouses for the goods of traders from India and elsewhere, and sources other than Marco record a community of Arab merchants. There were public baths, moderately priced wine shops, and stores selling “spices, drugs, trinkets, and pearls.” He speaks of delicious fruits: peaches white and yellow, imported raisins, and unusually large pears. He speaks of plentiful game of all kinds; the highly productive lake contained geese and ducks that were cheaply available, and enormous loads of fish were brought from the sea. However, he also notes that the poor had to eat whatever kind of meat they could come by, no matter how unclean; it was not a paradise.   

Of the people of the city, Marco has more to say than the usual rundown of idolaters, Christians, and Saracens. He notes the courtesans were in all parts of the city in numbers which “[he] dare[s] not venture to report,” and he has nothing but high praise for them, in their appearance and charms. Travellers who experienced their company could never forget it, he says, and when they had gone away, they said they had been to the heavenly city and wanted nothing more than to be able to return. And he finds the other people of city charming too, if perhaps in other ways. They were openly friendly with one another and with strangers too, inviting them into their homes and sharing food and advise with them freely, but they had no love for soldiers. They remembered who they were conquered by, and they resented it.   

At times, the sheer size of the place seems to have startled Marco. I have seen estimates that the city was home to a population of 1-2 million and that it was the largest in the world at the time, and Marco was amazed at the number of fish which were brought into the city and all sold in only a few hours. He tries to communicate the vastness of the numbers here, of people and of goods, and he settles on pepper as his example, citing his source as a customs official. The daily tally of imported pepper was 43 loads of 243 pounds each, for a total of 10,449 pounds. And he makes the point again later, saying of the port of Quanzhou, that so much pepper passed through it, that the amount shipped on to Alexandria for western consumption was perhaps less than a hundredth of the total. 

I’ve pointed out that the Marco Polo text was a little short on wonders, with not much in the way of monstrous races, fantastic beasts, and that sort of thing; however, the picture of China he presents really would have been fantastic to his European audience. These would have been astonishing images he was describing, of a place beyond the Muslim world and beyond the marauding horsemen of the Asian steppes, where the massive cities of an advanced civilization rose and were inhabited by unbelievable numbers of people. Even if they don’t seem that way to us, these were the wonders which would filled his readers with amazement and doubt.

Bridge quantities aside, the depiction of the city is highly believable and full of detail. The text tells us that “This city was frequently visited by Marco Polo, who carefully and diligently observed and inquired into every circumstance respecting it, all of which he entered in his notes… .” And if you’re wondering whether Marco spun the whole thing from memory, then this is a reassuring point. He was taking notes, and he would have had to to produce a text so packed full of descriptive detail and information. He would also have had to if he was to do as the text tells us, and travel the wide realms of the great khan, reporting to him on what he saw. 

This is probably the prevailing image of Marco Polo, that of the imperial raconteur, regaling Kublai with tales of all that he could not go out and see for himself, and it’s presented in the text’s prologue. We read that Marco picked up the most commonly used languages and, having proven himself to Kublai, was sent about on the khan’s business or travelled for his own private reasons; and everywhere he went, he observed and he enquired. He saw that his khan took great pleasure in hearing of new things, of the customs and practices of peoples, and of the many eccentricities of the lands under his rule. So Marco wrote them down as he went, returning now and then to his khan to speak of what he’d seen and heard in the wide world, to earn his khan’s favour and the envy of others at the court. And then he returned to Venice and did the same thing for us, or rather for his contemporaries, in the form of this book. 

It’s interesting, if inconclusive, to imagine that as he was apparently working from those notes, he might have told his readers some of the same stories he’d once told the khan. I always like to ask myself, when reading travel narratives, what seems to have most interested the writer. Here, I find it entertaining to think that what we may be getting, muffled by the layers of transmission, is what Marco thought would most interest Kublai Khan. And what was that? Whether we take them be driven by a Mongol emperor’s tastes, those of Marco himself, or his imagined audience, what themes leap off the page again and again?

The basics are clearly who the people are, what they do, and what they produce; for example, he might say that at such-and-such-a-place they are mostly idolaters, a blanket term which encompassed Buddhists but also many others that Marco did not or could not differentiate, that they live off the fruits of the land, and that they grow great quantities of the most excellent rhubarb which is then carried abroad. I mention this first because it’s very tempting, as a reader, to let these elements fade to white noise in the foreground of the text and jump straight to the sex and magic, but that wouldn’t really be representative of the text’s contents. Once, we get past the basics though, what do we see? We see astonishment at the scale of business and transactions, the numbers involved. We see curiosity as to different currencies, the making and use of paper money but also when he comes across salt-cakes, porcelain, or seashells being used for the purpose. We see a clear interest in ships, whether they be the huge numbers of Chinese river boats - 15,000 seen at one city he claims - or the detailed workings of vessels along the Indian coast. We see, as I’ve already mentioned in this series, an enthusiasm for hunting, whether it be simply a potentially fruitful area or the large-scale operations of the khan and his court. Finally, as people have often commented on, we see sex and magic, and after this pause, we’ll get into that.


One of the categories that seems to always catch Marco’s attention is marital and sexual norms, and fair enough; he was encountering some ideas that would have challenged the ones he grew up around. In one province of what he broadly terms Turkistan, he’ll write that if a woman’s husband is away from the home for 20 days then she may seek another if she wishes. Another area was likely off the track of Marco’s travels and perhaps somewhere he heard about from the elder Polos or other travellers entirely; there, he says that the men would go away when a traveller arrived, leaving the women of the house to entertain the new arrival for as long as he wished to stay. Elsewhere, among the idolaters, and here he likely means Buddhists, he finds the laity living as, quote, “beasts of the field,” taking mortal sin with indifference, while those in the monasteries were deemed to “lead more correct lives.” 

Mongol marriages, even polygamous, are given the stamp of virtuous approval, and praised for the chastity, modesty, and solemnity involved, and also for the superior population they allowed, a population that could accomplish great conquests or a tremendous postal system over unimaginable distances. Tibet, on the other hand, gets much more morally judgemental treatment, their customs deemed “scandalous,” “shameful and odious.” Apparently, unwed young women would bring travelling merchants home with them, asking only a token in return that they might hang about their neck, and the girls with the most tokens were considered the most beautiful and most favoured in future marriage. In some versions of the text, following the moral leanings of a scribe or translator, this was disgraceful, but in others Marco only says he relates it “as a good story to tell, and to show what a fine country that is for young fellows to go in.”

Marco also tells us about magic, and maybe he told Kublai too. There are demons in the empty places of nature, luring us to our deaths; there are spirits in the darkness whose voices horrify us when we make camp for the night. There are the magicians of Kashmir and Tibet, “filthy and indecent,” and supposedly eating the flesh of executed criminals, but according to Marco more skilled in magic than anywhere else in the world. And what magic exactly? He tells us that they would climb to the roof of Kublai’s palace when the clouds were threatening, and shield their khan from bad weather, even while rain and lightning stormed all around. They could also “cause tempests to arise, accompanied with flashes of lightning and thunderbolts, and produce many other miraculous effects.” They could make vessels of wine and milk fill the khan’s cups, as if done by an invisible hand, and then cause the cups to float through the air to his table, untouched. They did whatever they willed with their “infernal arts,” though Marco admits that this last example stretched credibility.     

Elsewhere, we read about the Yunnan province, which does not get a glowing review in this travel guide. The atmosphere was so foul in the summer that merchants would actually leave for healthier air “in order to escape from death.” The people used poison on their arrows and carried poison on their person, ready to swallow it rather than endure torture at the hands of their enemies if they were captured. Distinguished strangers were murdered in order for their spirits to be captured to the benefit of the murderer’s household. And when a rich person fell ill, there was sorcery. Or rather there was shamanism, which amounts to much to same thing in Marco’s account: long ritualized sessions of music and dancing leading to possession by the evil spirit that had caused the illness and, having found from that spirit which deity had been offended, a sacrifice of sheep, followed by feasting on the meat by the shamans themselves. “And thus do the demons sport with the blindness of these deluded and wretched people,” or so one description concludes, perhaps another bit of editorializing on the part of a scribe along the way.

These were some of the things Marco might have told Kublai about, as he apparently wandered his khan’s domains, but what took him on those travels? As I mentioned, Marco is said to have gone out on the business of the khan, gathering stories of what he’d seen and heard. He apparently resolved an unspecified “important concern” in one city, earning Kublai’s trust; he went west as the khan’s ambassador for a time; he was sent elsewhere to examine the customs revenues; he governed Yangzhou for three years, though, again, it’s generally thought that he didn’t.         

One analysis (that of Paul Pelliot) regarding Marco’s activities is that he was involved in salt administration, and certainly there are no shortage of references to salt in the text. In what is now north-eastern Afghanistan, salt was mined from the mountains; in Tibet, it was collected from salt springs and boiled down in small pans; in Yunnan province, it was produced from brine wells to the enrichment of the locals and their khan alike; in the region governed by Hangzhou, it was harvested from the salt lagoons which dried up in the summer. All told, it was a very salty book, but all of this is not to say that Marco necessarily played this role either. Salt was immensely important to Yuan China’s economy and the revenues involved would have of course excited his interest in demonstrating the vastness of this distant civilization. And besides, the idea of a salt-based empire would have been cozily familiar to the Venetian, his old home-city itself having established a great deal of its power on a monopoly over the very same resource. So Marco the salt administrator, well, maybe. 

What seems fairly likely is that Marco was involved in administration of some sort, as an overseer or accounting official. His grasp of Yuan finances, customs, organizational structure and taxes seems to indicate it, and something of an itinerary has been mapped out along these lines by Peng Hai, and fairly convincingly too. Starting from early 1275 he has Marco in Ningxia for three years and then in Yunnan and Vietnam until 1280; from there he’s in the capital of Daidu for 2 years and then sent as an accounting official to Yangzhou from 1282 until 1284, and then to Hangzhou into 1285. He was in the field with Kublai in 1287, when his khan dealt with the challenge of Nayan, as covered in a previous episode, and then he was off to Southeast Asia for three years before heading for home. Is this accurate? It certainly could be. There’s a lot of supporting, or at least suggestive, evidence, if nothing one would call conclusive. 

We have then this developing picture of a man who really did go to China, really did meet the khan and serve him in some capacity or at least live in his immediate world, and who may or may not have worked in the salt industry or as a roving accountant. And maybe we can zoom in a little further.

Stephen Haw and others have zoomed in and suggested that the picture we get could match that of one of the keshig, the khan’s 12,000-strong personal guard whose members were often dispatched on tasks as needed and could even rise to become generals or senior administrators. It’s a tantalizing possibility. It’s also a fairly realistic one that still fits with our romantic image of Marco as a loyal servant to the khan whose business might believably take him abroad in the empire. You can picture him there, waiting upon the khan and available for his order to spin him to this town or that to see to some managerial need or financial assessment, and then returning to thrill Kublai with intricate descriptions of all that he’d seen. It’s all very cinematic. And Marco himself mentions the keshig too. 

"You must know,” he says, “that the Great Kaan, to maintain his state, hath a guard of twelve thousand horsemen, who are styled Keshican, which is as much as to say ‘Knights devoted to their Lord.’ Not that he keeps these for fear of any man whatever, but merely because of his own exalted dignity."

Of course, what Marco does not say is that he was one of these “Knights devoted to their Lord.” He does not say that he did the khan’s bidding as a member of this fiercely loyal personal guard, and maybe there was good reason for that. Maybe, even with all that carrying on about the near heavenly nature of his most supreme wonderfulness, the khan of khans, it was a step too far to be communicating to his European audience that his adoration had extended to this point, that he, now a respected citizen of Venice, had, as historian John Man puts it, “actually worshipped a pagan emperor as if he were god.” Or maybe this is another case of projecting the fantastic back on Marco’s story. Maybe the reason for the omission was something less complicated. Maybe Marco simply wasn’t a member of the keshig.

Marco Polo remains a charmingly mysterious fellow. If he’s now been solidly tied to a real stay in in 13th-century China, there’s still a great of uncertainty that surrounds him, with the potential for new information to be discovered or old ideas overturned. Peng Hai thinks he has identified the illusive Marco in the pages of the Yuanshi, the History of the Yuan, and in the figure of a courtier who clashed with a powerful family at Kublai’s court. This courtier had been arrested for breaking a rule which did not allow men to walk on the same side as women within the palace, but he had been a favourite of the khan and Kublai had asked after him, and, hearing of his predicament, had him freed. The courtier’s name is recorded as Buluo. It fits nicely enough with the material of the Polo text, and it would indeed be quite something, the long-sought sign of Marco’s passing in a Chinese source. But that’s about as definite as we can be at this point. Perhaps more signs will emerge.     

That’s where I’m going to leave things for today. This has been a far from all-encompassing look at the topic. There’s a lot more out there, and I haven’t even got to the question of authorship yet, but I hope I’ve given some idea of how Marco and his book have come to be viewed and why.

If you’re enjoying the podcast, please do check out the Patreon page, which, again, you can find at There are rewards which include early access to ad-free episodes and also scripts if you like to read along or look something up after, and from the $1 per month level on up you’re entered in draws for thematically appropriate books in which I’ll try to transcend my usual, shockingly ugly handwriting to convey my thanks. And on that note, thank you again, those of you who have already signed up.

In a few weeks, I’ll be back with more Marco Polo. We’ve got a couple of episodes left in this series still, and with this next one we’ll be getting away from China and heading for Myanmar, Japan, and elsewhere, and seeing the limits of Yuan Mongol expansion. I’ll talk to you then.


  • The Travels of Marco Polo, the Venetian, translated by William Marsden, edited by Thomas Wright. George Bell & Sons, 1907.

  • The Travels of Marco Polo: The Complete Yule-Cordier Edition, translated by Henry Yule and revised by Henri Cordier. Courier Corporation, 1993.

  • Haw, Stephen G. Marco Polo's China: A Venetian in the Realm of Khubilai Khan. Routledge, 2006.

  • Larner, John. Marco Polo and the Discovery of the World.Yale University Press, 1999.

  • Man, John. Marco Polo: The Journey that Changed the World. HarperCollins, 2009.

  • Olschki, Leonardo. Marco Polo's Asia. University of California Press, 1960.

  • Rossabi, Morris. Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times.University of California Press, 1988.

  • Vogel, Hans Ulrich. Marco Polo was in China: New Evidence from Currencies, Salts and Revenues. Brill Academic Pub, 2012.

Marco and the Polos 3: Marco and the Great, Great Khan

Kublai khan

People often like to say that in sports they pull for the underdog. Maybe it’s boxing, and you’re desperately hoping an apparent mismatch will become something more interesting or that the clearly anticipated and carefully planned narrative will be overturned entirely. Or maybe it’s more of a team sport and there’s a particularly arrogant franchise you’d like to see end their season in disappointment, or at least be forced to put on a bit of show before the coronation. But it might be different if you found yourself parachuted into the A-side’s locker-room, if you shared in their celebrations, their triumphs, and their broader culture too, if they told their stories to you, and if you maybe developed an appreciation for where they’d come from and why, and of how they came to occupy this place at the top and all that made them champions. Maybe you wouldn’t be so keen to see them knocked off.

That is, in a sense the position Marco Polo found himself in. He was there at the summer palace of an undefeated champion who’d lost little in the way of confidence over a long and successful career, and he seems to have settled into the culture there, to have heard their stories, and their songs. He’d picked up the origin account and the anecdotes and seen the highlight reel; he’d spent some time, some solid years, embedded there, and he’d gotten a bit of a sense of why they’d succeeded. He’d found them at their most glorious and could not have imagined how it would ever have been otherwise. 

Little wonder then that Marco wasn’t too interested in upsets. 

Hello, and welcome back. I’m Devon, and this is Human Circus. If you haven’t yet, please do rate, review, and subscribe on iTunes. It helps me out and it secures a steady stream of medieval travellers in your direction. If you have a topic you’d like to hear about, a question about something that’s come up already, or just want to say hi, then you can do so by way of my new and shiny website at where you can find any and all human circus related material. I’ll be posting some new writing there also, some previews of upcoming topics, and perhaps a few other things too, along with episodes and sources, etc, so please do come by and check it out. Asks and invitations aside, let’s get back to the story.

Last episode, we saw the 3 Polos extricate themselves from their Venetian home and the delays posed by papal elections and we made our way to Acre, up to Lesser Armenia, and east on to the summer palace of Kublai Khan at Shang-du, with some pauses on the way to talk Assassins and Priest-Kings. We left off with some questions about the Polos’ time in China and the creation of the text itself, and I must admit that I won’t be answering those questions yet today because we also left off with the Khan’s very warm welcome of the youngest Polo and the idea of a friendship to come, and that’s what we’re onto today: Marco’s glowing depiction of Kublai Khan and general enthusiasm for the while Mongol imperial project. And I should note that for convenience I am for now going to be say Marco here when I talk about the voice of the text rather than “Marco Polo author,” or Rustichello, the man generally credited with doing the actual writing, but that’s an issue for later on. For now, let’s talk about Marco’s new best friend, the khan of khans.

I have in my notes here a section simply marked off as “the wonderful wonderfulness of the khan,” and that should give you some idea of the kind of 5-star reviews which he gets in the Polo text. The khan is introduced as “lord of lords… [who] respect to number of subjects, extent of territory, and amount of revenue, … surpasses every sovereign that has heretofor been or that now is in the world.” And there’s more buttering up to come, that Kublai is “brave and daring in action” and “considered to be the most able and successful commander that ever led the [Mongols] to battle,” that “his limbs are well formed, and in his whole figure there is a just proportion. His complexion is fair, and occasionally suffused with red, like the bright tint of the rose, which adds some grace to his countenance. His eyes are black and handsome, his nose is well shaped and prominent.” 

Just a great a guy, was the khan, and he was not merely a brave and handsome fellow either. The khan, we are told, was remarkably generous, acting with quote “admirable and astonishing liberality … towards the poor,” providing grain and cloth for those families who needed it, and adored by all. And if that weren’t enough, in an old Mongol khan ploy, he claimed Christian sympathies too: it was only that these idolaters around him demonstrated the strength of their religion so ably, and if the pope were only to have sent those hundred men who could refute their arguments, if the power and effectiveness of Christianity were only to be demonstrated, well, he was very much on their side, really. 

We see Kublai on the hunt, on rather large scale hunts, borne about by up to four elephants in a beautifully carved wooden litter, lined inside with cloth of gold and outside with the fur of lions. His twelve best falcons and twelve favourites of his officers accompany him, and when a bird is sighted, he lifts the curtain and orders the release of his falcons, looking on with delight from his couch as they overpower their prey. And he whiles away the day this way before retiring to his camp, a massive array of tents and pavilions to house the nobility, the ladies of his court, the guards, and ten thousand falconers, 10 thousand really just meaning “a lot,” with all that would have been needed to accompany them.

We see Kublai in his grand hall, enjoying a great feast with his empress at his left and eldest son at his right, blood relatives at lower tables, and then further out, lesser officers lower down, and more still seated on the floor or waiting outside, hoping to make their petition. There is wine and mare’s milk without end, and there is such abundance of food that Marco here allows himself a rare, and soft, critique of the khan’s ways, deeming them “excessive.” At his signal, the khan is served by officials with their faces veiled so that their breath will not trouble his food or drink, figures who immediately withdraw three paces to prostrate themselves. Music plays as he eats and drinks, rendering the act momentous, that of a god eating from their table, and when the eating is done, the tables are cleared to make room for jesters, jugglers, and gymnasts, amusing all until the night is done, and the company make their stumbling exit, the strict rule not to touch the the threshold on the way momentarily relaxed to account for those too heavily affected by alcohol to avoid it. 

We see Kublai at his birthday party, a great festival. He’s a September baby, apparently, and he appears dressed all in gold with the nobility and officers all similarly dressed, some “ornamented with precious stones and pearls,” if less grandly than the khan. He receives gifts from all over his realm: precious metals, stones, and cloths. There are parades of richly adorned elephants, and of camels too, and sometimes, a lion is led forward, specially trained to prostrate itself before the khan in a clear demonstration of his absolute dominance over even the most wild and powerful manifestations of nature.

And we see Kublai at war. We see it in detail with the rebellion of Nayan, a prince of sorts and ruler of four provinces. It’s one of the passages where the text really zooms in for a moment on an event.

We read that Nayan was moved by the power he had accumulated, and a certain amount of youthful arrogance too, to become his own master and to overthrow the khan. And why not, you might think. The khan had after all won his throne by force of arms and was fair game. Nayan reached out first to Kaidu, head of the house of Ogedei and lord of the Chagatayid territory, seeking his assistance, and Kaidu, ever up for opposing Kublai in all things, agreed, promising to contribute one hundred thousand horsemen to the effort. But such large scale arrangements were not so quickly or quietly made, and before they could properly begin, Kublai had heard and he had acted.

In some sources, he sent his foremost general to investigate and Nayan revealed his treacherous and deceitful nature by hosting the general at a feast and then failing in his attempt to trick and trap the general, who escaped. According to Marco, he mustered what men were within 10 days journey and came up with 360,000 horse and 100,000 foot, obviously absurd quantities which apparently included his “falconers and domestic servants.” Maybe this indicated that he was indeed grabbing up whatever troops he could find quickly, before more extensive preparations could alert his enemy and, worse still, allow Kaidu’s forces to unite with Nayan’s, but by “domestic servants” the text likely means the keshig, something between a personal guard and civil service, not just a case of grabbing up the butler and the cook and getting out there. 

Kublai’s army moved quickly, coming close to Nayan’s without the enemy’s knowledge, coming so close that only a range of hills separated them, and still the one side did not know the other to be there, still did not know even as their enemies camped for two days and waited, as the khan consulted his astrologers for the proper time to strike. Then, one morning when he was told his victory was assured, he did strike. 

His men poured down into the plain, and only then did Nayan wake to their presence. He lamented that the connection with Kaidu hadn’t been achieved sooner, and, I can only assume, that he and his commanders had completely failed to secure a basic awareness of their surroundings. Perhaps they’d thought themselves to be safe there in their base of operations while their target sat comfortably ignorant in the luxury of his palace. But no, the target was here, now, approaching them in person in “a large wooden castle,” flying the sun and moon standard, bristling with bowmen. and “borne on the backs of four elephants,” their bodies covered in hardened leather and gold cloth.

“An infinite number of wind instruments” sounded then, and cymbals and drums and “such singing, that it was wonderful to hear,” and then they closed, first by arrow, then by lance, sword, and mace, until the piles of horses and men were high enough that it become difficult for the two sides to advance upon one another. So it went, from morning to noon, undecided, but at some point Nayan saw the threat of being surrounded and in attempting his escape he was taken and brought before the khan. Death was quickly arranged, wrapped in a carpet so that his noble blood would not spill beneath the sky, and with his surviving supporters pledging their loyalty to Kublai, that was an end to things.          

The text plays it all for glory, celebrating this special occasion which saw Kublai Khan go out in person to meet a military challenge long after he’d relaxed into his role as emperor and handed over such the bulk of such responsibilities to his sons and generals. But the story carries a bit of a double-edged message. Marco is, as always, here trumpeting the greatness of the Genghisid dynasty, the unifying power of its claim to the conquest of the world; however, for all this grandness, and Marco’s talk of a ruler who surpassed all others, in some respects Kublai did not even surpass his Mongol khan forebears. Yes, he would gain pretty vast parts of China, but he lacked in Central Asia the Chagatai Khanate lands, in the west the Golden Horde or Kipchak Khanate, and centred around present-day Iran, the Ilkhanate. He lacked things which even his older brother Mongke had possessed, so even as Marco doesn’t break stride in his narrative of unbroken greatness from Genghis Khan all the way up through to Kublai, the Nayan story serves as a little reminder that something had changed. 

That process of crumbling imperial unity which we followed through the To See the Mongols series was reaching its conclusion by this point, and of the different Mongol khanates only the Ilkhans would continue to offer any kind of allegiance, and that only performative. As a leader ascended to rule the Ilkhanate, they would look back east for legitimization and approval, but they wouldn’t be taking orders, marching to the assistance of Kublai and his descendants or participating in a vast pan-familial invasion of the kind that had seen princes of all the Ghengisid branches slicing into Central Europe and Southern Syria. Kublai Khan was still the founding emperor of the Yuan Dynasty in China, and that was still something pretty substantial; however, he was not really the khan of khans and the lord of lords, not any more, and, despite Marco’s description to the contrary, he was aging into obesity and alcoholism, and he stood only with great pain. 

Not that any of this halted Marco in heaping on the praise, for Kublai and for the Mongols more generally. The Franciscans who’d travelled to the khans before him had expressed disgust or irritation at a broad range of Mongol characteristics and behaviours, but not so with Marco. He found much to like.    

He describes the Mongols’ bravery in battle and in danger of all kinds, their ability to survive in any circumstance. “No people upon earth,” he claims “can surpass them in fortitude under difficulties, nor show great patience under wants of any kind. They are perfectly obedient to their chiefs.” And it goes one. The woman are praised for their “decency of conduct … their love and duty to their husbands,” and the men for their loyalty to their wives, whether they be few or many.  

This sort of thing wasn’t entirely new. Those friars before him had come to some of the same conclusions, but they’d also followed up with disapproval and even rancorous hostility. Friar Carpine had eventually concluded that the Mongols’ “evil habits [were] so numerous, they [could] hardly be set down,” while Friar William declared his willingness to preach war against them as best he could the world over. Now, Marco does admit that “[the Mongols’] disposition [was] cruel,” but he was otherwise overwhelmingly complementary of these people most perfect in marriage and perfect in war, patient through hardship, and loyal to their leaders. When he describes Genghis Khan’s initial conquests, he even attributes to the khan such an inclination towards, and I’m quoting here, ”justice and other virtues, that wherever he went, he found the people disposed to submit to him, and to esteem themselves happy when admitted to his protection and favour… .” He makes it sound like terror-tactics, large-scale butchery, and military conquest would have been entirely unnecessary to achieve expansion, only the realization of the tremendous goodness to be found in the supreme khan’s affectionate embrace. 

But that had been some time ago, hadn’t it. It had been in the first years of the 13th century when Genghis had been becoming Genghis and unifying the neighbouring clans under his rule, and now that century was almost over. 

This brings us to Marco’s one real critique of the Mongols, and it’s an interesting one: that the Mongols he came to know were not the Mongols who had spread across Asia and spilled triumphantly beyond its limits. They had, he says, started to forsake their own laws and to take up the customs and habits of the idol-worshippers and the Muslims. They’d started to settle in among the peoples they were to have conquered, to enjoy life among them, to soften and become corrupted by civilization, to lose the characteristics that had made them so uniquely capable of conquest in the first place. 

It’s a theme Marco returns to later, though he doesn’t make the connection himself, in spinning a bit of a fairytale of the Southern Song’s demise. Their ruler, we are told, was kind, generous, and just, but too safe for his own good, too secure behind his walls, and too given to whiling away his hours in the royal park with the thousand most beautiful women he could find. And that, we are told, led to his flight by ship before the khan’s approaching armies, that softness, that fleshiness of his character, bringing the entire empire to destruction. As a historical depiction of the the Southern Song’s final days, it’s been roundly dismissed, but the way it’s presented in contrast with the khan’s character is fascinating.

Quote: “Very different from the temper and habits of [the Song ruler] were those of Kublai Khan, emperor of the [Mongols], whose whole delight consisted in thoughts of a warlike nature, of the conquest of countries, and of extending his renown,” or so we are told. But the depictions of these two rulers have more similarities than he lets on. After all, in the Marco Polo text, we see Kublai at feasts, celebrations, and, at about his most active, on the backs of elephants, peeking out through the curtains to admire the ferocity of one of his falcons from the comforts of a couch. Marco says of this Song ruler that he ignored the world of war and weapons for the company of beautiful women, but the khan had an entire infrastructure in place to facilitate exactly that, scouting them from a particular region and then bringing them in for periods of training and tryouts, which Marco tells us all about. 

It’s seems an inconsistency, his apparent admiration for Kublai while seeing something similar as rot at the root of a dynasty’s collapse, and I don’t believe he is here trying to make a subtle go of predicting the decline and fall of the khan’s empire; that apparent admiration of his for Kublai and the Genghisid legacy appears to be very real and quite untroubled by doubts as to its future. And admittedly, the Mongols could not in the end be accused of forgetting all things to do with war, even if their rulers did spend their fair share of time in the park.

The whole idea of the Mongols experiencing a kind degenerative gentrification as they got used to the life of their new neighours makes for an interesting point, but not because it’s unique.

What Marco was touching on was the sort of traditionalist challenge that may have informed Nayan’s rebellion, likely motivated Kublai’s brother in their civil war, and was at the root of the challenge Kaidu long presented to Kublai’s rule and even that of his successor. In other words, it’s the kind of attack that Kublai fought off throughout his entire reign, militarily and culturally. What’s interesting here is that Marco would voice it at all, an uncharacteristic note of criticism of Kublai’s Mongols in China when he makes no such acknowledgment of this idea as a powerful one in propelling inter-Mongol conflict, of moving Nayan or others to rebel. He’s very much the voice of the establishment, spinning tales that likely echo those of court historians and entertainers. Quite possibly then, when he worries that the Mongols are being corrupted, he’s expressing not only the contention of those who rebelled against Kublai’s rule, but also an anxiety that was present at the court of the Yuan ruler himself.  

At the end of August, the milk of the khan’s special herd of white mares was sprinkled on the ground, and Marco and the rest of that court followed his beloved khan to Kublai’s capital. Remember that their first meeting was in Shang-Du, his summer retreat; it was still a pretty grand affair, and still really quite new, but Kublai had needed something different. He no longer wanted something Mongol and Chinese, as he had in the past, when he’d ordered the construction of Shang-Du. He’d wanted something entirely Chinese as the site and symbol of a new and Chinese empire like those which had governed before. For that, he had looked to an old imperial home, to Zhongdu, the Jin Dynasty capital which the armies of Genghis had destroyed in 1215, and he ordered construction to begin there where an overgrown parkland surrounded a beautiful lake. 

That’s where Marco, the khan, and thousands of others were bound, and over the course of some 20 years, he likely made the trip often, but he doesn’t describe the route in any great detail. Elsewhere, there is drama to be found in the act of travel; there is a place where tangled piles are made of the bones of wild goats, to mark the way when the path is too covered in snow to see; and there is another, a desert, where voices are heard, malicious spirits which lure stragglers away from their parties and to their doom with familiar-sounding calls, and where the sudden sight of phantasmal brigands cause the unwary to flee in terror and become terminally lost in the dunes. 

By comparison, the grand procession from summer home to imperial capital was evidently less exciting. However, as a logistical feat it is really quite impressive, involving an army of human and animal life to be settled and fed at established towns along the way, at least one them an old imperial stronghold itself, the refurbished skeleton of yet another empire. And the journey to the capital had other significance too, as a parade to the new centre of the Yuan Mongol world, more than 1300 kilometres from Karakorum. 

Marco records the name of Kublai’s new capital as Cambaluc, a decent enough attempt at Khan-baliq, literally the Khan’s city, but it was also known as Daidu, and if you looked for it now on a map, you’d be looking for Beijing. 

As Marco entered it, he described another nested city, like Shangdu, with the palace within an inner city within another city, walls within walls within walls. For the construction, Kublai had again turned to his advisor Liu Bingzhong, the Shangdu architect, as well as the ingenious water-engineer Guo Shoujing, and possibly also a Central Asian Muslim named Ilkhtiyar al-Din. A temple sprang up dedicated to Kublai’s ancestors and granting Genghis Khan a Chinese title. There was a Buddhist temple too, a white pagoda which still can be seen. An astronomical observatory. A Green Mount to which the khan ordered the most handsome trees in his realms be brought and replanted and a pavilion at its peak. Bridges, lakes, and gardens, abundant wildlife and game in the parklands, and fish, swans, and aquatic birds in the waters. And the palace. 

The palace was a single story but high roofed, and covered in tiles of different colours, of “red, green, azure, and violet,” raised on marble and accessible on all 4 sides by marble staircases. Within were halls, chambers, and apartments, all beautifully decorated with gilding, and carvings of dragons, warriors, beasts, and battle scenes. This was where Kublai had founded an imperial Chinese dynasty, where, again with the help of Liu Bingzhong, he had taken the name Yuan to refer to that dynasty, a word carrying the senses of source, of origin, of prime mover, of spring, of eldest, and of much more besides. Mongol touches were present - the ermine skins in the khan’s sleeping chambers, the gers, or tents, in the parks, the soil of the Mongol steppes for the royal altar - but this was recognizably a Chinese imperial city, its buildings, rituals, and institutions an open appeal on the part of its ruler.    

Marco doesn’t only linger over this palace and the greatness of its occupant. He also turns to outer city, and the world of its inhabitants, and in his telling reveals a discontent among them under Kublai’s rule, if one he blames a Muslim minister for. 

He tells us that Khan-baliq was a city of astrologers, a city of 5,000 of them, and that these astrologers, based upon their charting of the heavenly bodies, would make predictions about the future, that in one month there would be lightning and heavy rains or in another sickness, discord, and conspiracy. They would write their predictions up on small squares and sell them to those desiring a look at the future, with the most proven forecasters being the most honoured and the most sought after. Or they would provide more specific readings, for the beginning of any great venture, in war, business, travel, personal life, or the development of a new capital. It seems that one of the readings offered as to Kublai’s new capital spoke of rebelliousness and treachery in the city, and this only further fed a suspicion in the khan’s mind which already had some history behind it.

Even back before Kublai Khan had been Great Khan, there had been a rebellion in northern China led by a local leader who had fought on behalf of the Mongols against the Song. More importantly, it was assisted by one of one of Kublai’s long-time Confucian advisors, who he’d had to execute, and this betrayal really seems to have stung. Quite aside from the fact that there would, naturally, be an abundance of uprisings in the occupied Song territory, historians such as Morris Rossabi have pointed to a growing distrust of the Chinese on Kublai’s part, a distrust that would impact his policies moving forward. So even as he moved to make himself familiar to the Chinese, taking up a number of his advisers’ suggestions to adapt in rituals, laws, institutions, and material culture, he refused to take other steps such as continuing with the traditional civil service examinations. He recognized that doing so would have limited his officials to those with a demonstrated familiarity with the Confucian texts. And he didn’t want that. Where possible, he’d actually look to govern China with administrators from elsewhere.

With all this in mind, Kublai kept a pretty tight grip on the locals. A great bell rang out every night, and from then on, one had to remain inside or find yourself swept up by patrols with your fate to be decided on in the morning. Only a dire emergency would excuse going out and then you had to carry a light. It must have been an eerie place to be of an evening, with all its people sealed up inside, the odd few dashing out on urgent matters, or scurrying silently as they could in the darkness, avoiding the roving guards who moved through the streets in groups of 30-40. It was an occupation. And it was the scene of building displeasure under the governance of Ahmed, one of a powerful council of twelve that saw to the empire’s affairs, and one who apparently was particularly favoured by Kublai.

Ahmed is described as a “crafty and bold man.” He filled public offices to further his interests, and extracted “presents” from those he’d seen appointed; he manipulated, bribed, and threatened to gain the most beautiful women as wives and otherwise; he brought about the execution of any who opposed him; and he and his sons generally seem to have reigned as tyrants beneath the khan’s nose, massively enriching themselves over two decades. 

That was the picture Marco offered at least, but Ahmed appears in other sources too; and he was not, or at least not only, the entirely self-interested predator we see in Marco’s sketch. Born near present-day Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan, he was Kublai’s finance minister, the man in charge of the khan’s tax collection and financial policies and thus likely an unpopular fellow at the best of times. And this was an expensive time; there were the intermittent incursions from Kaidu to be dealt with on the Central Asian border, support required for the Korean vassal, the conquest of Myanmar, and disastrous overseas adventure in Japan, all of which had to be paid for, in addition to non-military costs such as massive new construction and infrastructure projects. Ahmed was the one responsible for squeezing the fruit, and Kublai was a ruler who needed a lot of juice.       

That may partially explain the evisceration Ahmed receives in the Yuan sources, and it’s worth noting that he’s not the only villainous financial administrator to be found there. He appears as a man who abused the very economic policies he had created for his own profit, whose appointments were driven by nepotism, and who leaned heavily on false accusations in order to undermine political opponents and see them retired or executed. On the other hand, in Persian sources such as Rashid al-Din, Ahmed gets a much kinder portrayal, as someone who held his office “with honour for nearly 25 years,” who encouraged trade, and, if he had brought his supporters and family members into offices around him, well that was perfectly natural, and indeed necessary to see his policies enacted in the face of a great deal of personal hostility. Maybe he was simply a successful player for power whose successes and position as a foreign-born finance minister over a conquered people made him hateful in the eyes of those who felt the effects of his decisions and those he outmaneuvered at court. 

Of course, there is no question of such nuances in Marco’s dramatic telling. As he has it, the khan had been bewitched, had actually fallen victim to magic spells that had brought him under his cunning minister’s sway and rendered him blind to the man’s corruption and abuses. He goes on to say that the people of the city waited for a chance to deal with Ahmed, and two conspirators in particular were waiting. Marco identifies them as Vanku and Chenku, leaders of men, either militarily or as civil officers, while from others we see them as Wang Zhu and Gao. The former was a military commander who’d found himself a brass club which he was saving just for Ahmed, and the latter was a Buddhist monk and magician who’d apparently once murdered somebody to fake his own suicide after one of his magic tricks had proven less than magical. 

This delightful pair chose a time when Kublai was away from the city, gone early to his summer retreat on the night of April 10th, 1282, and they went into action, to assassinate Ahmed and then send out word to their contacts that the uprising should begin and that all with beards should be killed. There are variations on the plan, but they all revolve around faking the arrival of Kublai’s son Zhenjin. In the Marco version, Wang Zhu and Gao sneak into Zhenjin’s palace and light up one of his apartments before having a messenger sent to Ahmed, telling him that the khan’s heir, who Ahmed feared and respected, had arrived suddenly in the city and required his attendance. All seemed to go well, but they didn’t know that Ahmed, in hurrying through the city had bumped into a commander of the guard who was bemused to hear that the Zhenjin should have come so secretly that he hadn’t heard of it and followed after Ahmed. So when the target entered that lit up room and perceived a seated figure, he prostrated himself before it, and Gao stepped forward and cut off his head. But then the commander stepped forward too from the doorway, and he raised the alarm with a cry of treason, and he shot Wang Zhu where he sat. 

In other tellings, the conspirators also came at night but with a group of followers, presenting themselves as the prince and in his escort. Killing one set of guards who saw through their disguise and tricking another into escorting them to the palace, they called Ahmed forth. And here Wang Zhu got to use that brass club of his, killing Ahmed with a single blow to the head before being seized in the chaos that followed. 

There was to be no revolution after the killing. Instead, there was a swift roundup of conspirators. When he heard what had happened, an enraged Kublai promptly ordered the execution of all involved, and then he sent an officer to look into the matter. Marco has it that this officer reported back with information that enraged the khan again, that this was when evidence of Ahmed’s use of magic came to light, that Ahmed’s body was disinterred and torn apart by dogs, that his sons were flayed alive, and that even his fellow Muslims were punished for his deeds, some as his colleagues or appointees, but others simply as his coreligionists, with new laws at least temporarily imposed on their practices, and new restrictions. 

And in other versions too, it’s in the aftermath where Ahmed was really vilified. His home was searched, and suspicious quantities of wealth were uncovered along with a pair of tanned human skins, and, the real clincher, a jewel that had specifically been given to the khan. But as others have asked before me, why was this incriminating jewel so easily discovered? Why did his family not get rid of it or hide it elsewhere? Did they not know of its origin, or had it been planted on them by Ahmed’s enemies? Of course, it’s difficult to know at this point.

The Ahmed anecdote is an important one in the Polo text. It hints at a lot of issues in Kublai’s reign: financial difficulties, corruption, infighting among his advisors and officials, problems caused when he was seen to privilege one religious group or another, the idea that try as he might to present as a Chinese Emperor, he was still one of the ones with beards, and the list goes on - but it’s also important for another reason. It includes the claim that Marco Polo was present in the city for all of this, there in the capital in 1282 when Ahmed, fairly or unfairly, met his violent end.

And this is significant because the text rarely gives any such indication; you mark them all down as you’re reading through it, but you’re not left with much, just a few snippets really outside of the prologue. You read at one point that he was ill for some time and was cured by the clean air in the mountains of Badakhshan, the northeast of modern-day Afghanistan, and at another that he and the older Polos spent a year in a Tangut city, for reasons he declines to expand on. He says he spent a lot of time at the old Song dynasty capital at Hangzhou, known by the Song as Lin’an and referred to as Kin-Sai by Marco, and in the relative abundance of detail, one can easily believe he spent some time there.

His doings generally have remained a mystery though, a topic still of contention and disagreement, with some even claiming that he never actually went to China at all. And that’s what I’m going to get into next time. I’d originally thought to do so in this episode, but I wanted to really focus here on Marco’s Kublai, on this picture of a khan caught in a curious moment: governing over a conquered population that vastly outnumbered his own forces and doing so, at the direction of his advisors, by making himself more familiar to that population, but also clearly uncomfortable with going too far in that direction, and all the while alienating many in the Mongol world with the moves which he did make. And I wanted to focus on this idea of Marco himself not just as some kind of trans-continental flaneur, but perhaps to be thought of as more of a mouthpiece for empire and a trumpeter for Kublai Khan as the bearer of Genghis’s dynastic legacy. So next time, the doings of Marco Polo in China as governor, ambassador, builder of siege engines, outright liar, or something else entirely. That’ll be the story next episode.


  • The Travels of Marco Polo, the Venetian, translated by William Marsden, edited by Thomas Wright. George Bell & Sons, 1907.

  • Larner, John. Marco Polo and the Discovery of the World. Yale University Press, 1999.

  • Man, John. Marco Polo: The Journey that Changed the World. HarperCollins, 2009.

  • Olschki, Leonardo. Marco Polo's Asia. University of California Press, 1960.

  • Rossabi, Morris. Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times. University of California Press, 1988.

Marco and the Polos 2: Of Assassins and Other Things

Marco Polo Venice

The text we’re dealing with today is about travel, but it isn’t really a travel narrative. In fact for the great majority of the book, or books, there’s very little narrative at all. It follows the journeys of a Venetian merchant family, and there are prices to be found, and products, and quantities too, but it is no merchant’s handbook. The characters within are in circumstances which virtually guarantee adventure, but this is no adventure story either and what little there is seems amongst the books’ most suspect material. It might be said to be a work of geography, and here we’re closer to the truth, but then it’s not easy to use as such and is often hindered by the skeleton of a story that does exist. As a work of history, it’s frequently misleading, and as a book of wonder, it’s rather short on wonders, or at least those of the fantastical kind.

The books of Marco Polo, are, in summary, a pretty frustrating read. But there is something there, sometimes actually there on the page and sometimes more in the space formed by omission, something that has captured people's imaginations for hundreds of years and continues to do so today. With this episode and the next two, I’ll try to get at what that is. 

Hello, and welcome. I’m Devon, and this is Human Circus. At this time I ask of you, like a khan to a pope, that you and all your kings and princes please rate and review the podcast, on iTunes, Stitcher, or your platform of choice, and that you impose upon your cousins, vassals, and land-bound labourers to do the same. Thank you, all of you who have already supported the podcast in this way or with donations, and thank you too, all of you who have supported the podcast just by downloading it. It’s extremely nice on my end to see that people are indeed listening. Now, all of that aside, let’s begin.

Over the next few episodes, I’ll be talking about the Marco Polo text, a book that goes by various names, and I'll be looking at both the history of the book and the history contained within it. I’ll also continue to follow the story, such as it is, that the book gives us of the Polos and their travels. Today, we’ll be looking at their departure from Venice, their journey towards Kublai Khan, and some of the themes of the text as well a bit of the history/mythology it contains. 

Last episode, we started in on the prologue, that of our story and that of the books themselves, following Niccolo and Maffeo from Constantinople, across the waters of the Black Sea and east to meet with Berke Khan of the Golden Horde or Kipchak Khanate, and then, their way home blocked, rather further east, seeking first to find a bit of a long-cut back to the Mediterranean and then taking up the envoys’ invitation that brought them to the palace of the emperor Kublai Khan. When we left them, their mission on the khan’s behalf, the delivery of a letter and the request for holy oil and a hundred men, was stalled by events beyond their control, a papal election or lack thereof. The Polos were forced to wait, and as they did, they dropped in on the family back home in Venice. Let’s pick things up from there.

Marco’s Venice had sailed through the rough patch that followed the fall of the Latin Empire of Constantinople as well as could be expected. The returned Greek emperor had allied himself with Venice’s Genoan enemies and barred the Venetian fleet from its critical anchorage at the gateway to the Black Sea. But the exile hadn’t lasted for long. The emperor had his own motives in not favouring Genoa too much and in playing the two rivals off against each other and had his own troubles with attempting to restore the rest of the old empire, and he soon let them back in the door. Venice’s exclusivity, which it had enjoyed under the Latin Empire, wasn't coming back, but it's colony was allowed to remain in place and most of its trading privileges were restored. If the city was no longer the only player at the table, at least it again had a seat. 

Venice was growing, in prestige and prosperity. From the sacking of Constantinople, it had drawn in the treasures of an empire, and the wealth and goods brought by trade continued to fill its purse, as carpets, cloves, cinnamon, pepper, ginger, silk, slaves, and perfume sailed into its port.   

And what about Marco himself? Given that the book leaves our main character behind to focus on his father and uncle’s time abroad, what can we say of his early years? That he grew up in the shadow of all this imperial splendour. That he was raised in a merchant family. That he lived in the parish of San Severo with his other uncle following his mother’s death. And that he was very likely brought up on the kind of math which we would term “word problems.” 

And we have examples. Maybe you’ll feel closer to Marco to think of him sitting down to a kind of lesson that in some ways sounds oddly familiar: 

Make me this calculation. 2 merchants have their wool on a ship. One of them put 13 sacks and the other of them put 17 sacks [on board]. And when they had arrived in Venice the captain demanded his freight charges from the merchants and they said to him, "Take one of our sacks from each of us and sell it and pay our freight costs and return the remainder." And the captain took 2 of these sacks and sold them and gave 10 coins from the proceeds to him who had 13 sacks and the freight had been paid. And he returned 3 coins to the man who had 17 sacks and his freight was entirely paid. And the merchants said to the captain, "We want to know how much you sold the sacks for, and how you calculated what you took from it for freight charges."

Of course you, or little baby Marco, had to speak for the captain, give the final answer, and show your work. 

Along with this kind of applied math, Marco would have learned about conversions of currencies, weights, and measurements, assessing the value of different products, the movement of silver about Europe, and helpful proverbs like “Good words and evil deeds deceive wise man and fool alike.” All of it appears in the early 14th-century Venetian merchants’ handbook, the Zibaldone da Canal. It’s a few decades later, and of a different merchant family than the Polos, but it’s a taste of the culture Marco would have been brought up in while his father and uncle were away.

Once they were all back together in the city, they waited; they waited for quite a while for a new pope to be declared; they waited until they grew tired of waiting, until they could do so no longer. They waited during the longest papal election in history, as the cardinals were locked in, placed on rations of bread and water, and had the roof removed from over their heads all in order to encourage their timeliness. Two of the cardinals in question actually died during this painful 3 year process, as well as a third who had, perhaps wisely, managed to make himself absent for the whole thing. Understandably, the Polos gave up on waiting, and they left before a new pope was named. 

It was three Polos this time, for Niccolo and Maffeo were joined by Marco for their trip back to Kublai Khan. In fiction, this is often dramatized with Marco convincing his at first reluctant father to bring him along, but really there’s no reason to think this was the case. Certainly there’s no suggestion of this in the text, and if the Mongol khan’s court was a far stretch for a first turn at travelling merchant’s apprentice, it was about time for the younger Polo to get out and experience the world. 

The three of them made first for Acre, where they met again with the papal representative, Teobaldo Visconti, and then went inland to Jerusalem. If they couldn’t get a pope to give them a hundred men, then at least, Visconti had indicated, they might bring the khan some oil. The expedition to the holy city was no great trek as journeys covered on this podcast go, a mere 80 miles as the crow flies, but it may still have presented dangers. They were in the Mamluks’ territory now. 

There had been some limited cooperation between the Mamluks and the crusaders when the former had gone north to face Hulagu’s Mongols in 1260, but a decade since had made quite a difference in where things stood. Since then, the armies of the Mamluk Sultan Baibars had swept out of Egypt and into the remains of the Crusader States, besieging Acre, unsuccessfully, in 1263, but taking a number of towns and castle. They had gone as far north as Lesser Armenia, looting its cities as they went, and in 1268 they had had taken Antioch and massacred or enslaved its people. Antioch’s ruler, Bohemond VI, had not been present at the time, but he had received a letter from Baibars, filling him in on what he’d missed:

Death came among the besieged from all sides and by all roads: we killed all that thou hadst appointed to guard the city or defend its approaches. If thou hadst seen thy knights trampled under the feet of the horses, thy provinces given up to pillage, thy riches distributed by measures full, the wives of thy subjects put to public sale; if thou hadst seen the pulpits and crosses overturned, the leaves of the Gospel torn and cast to the winds, and the sepulchres of thy patriarchs profaned; if thou hadst seen thy enemies, the Muslims, trampling upon the tabernacle, and immolating in the sanctuary, monk, priest and deacon; in short, if thou hadst seen thy palaces given up to the flames, the dead devoured by the fire of this world, the Church of St Paul and that of St Peter completely and entirely destroyed, certainly thou wouldst have cried out “Would to Heaven that I were become dust!”

This was all pretty recent too; less than five years had passed. And Jerusalem was in Mamluk hands when the Polos went. Though the text makes no mention of it at this point, it was likely a tense little shopping trip for the Venetians. Like so much of the Marco Polo text, it’s the stuff of a single sentence, but you can so easily imagine it spun out into a book or a movie. 

Once they had the oil, the Polos were on their way, heading north through Little Armenia, but it wasn’t open roads ahead to China. Instead, they received a letter summoning them straight back to Acre. Larger dramas had played themselves out and now imposed themselves on the Polos, for that long wait we talked about was finally over. There was a new pope, and his name, well his name was now Gregory X, but right up until it was that, it had been Teobaldo Visconti, the Polos’ man in Acre. 

It was quite a stroke of luck for our Venetian friends. The ruler of Lesser Armenia set them up with a galley and sent them back down the coast, and their acquaintance, the brand new pope, set them up with blessings and new credentials. However, he didn’t set them up with 100 well educated Christians. You might have thought that 100 moderately capable men who would do in a pinch might have been scared up for the occasion, but Pope Gregory doesn’t seem to have gone that route. Instead, he kept with tradition where adventures to the Mongol khans were concerned. He sent them with papal letters and a pair of Dominicans, Nicolo da Vicenza and Guielmo da Tripoli. Friars were something that came in twos, not in hundreds, and the Polos weren’t waiting around for another 98. Back up through Lesser Armenia they went.

That's how far they’d gotten last time before being called back by the new pope. This time, that’s how far they got before alarming intelligence reached their ears, and their two friars abandoned ship on the whole project. Clearly, these were not the hardy Franciscans of previous decades, sternly braving starvation, stone-cracking cold, and death by Mongol to venture into alien lands from which some would literally never return. These two apparently just needed to hear about the Mamluk Sultan Baibars laying waste to the country to turn over the papal letters to the Polos and their own safety to a nearby body of Knights Templar. And the timing of this is a little odd, coming solidly between notable two periods of Mamluk incursions into Lesser Armenia and Anatolia. 

It doesn’t seem like any major invasion ought to have caused them any trouble. Still, it’s believable enough that fighting, or rumour of it, was creeping north through Syria at the time our party was passing through. Or maybe this was just a literary device intended to show-off the Polos’ unshakable fortitude in the face of threats that would make lesser men scurry to the relative safety of the nearest crusader outpost. Either way, I fear our days of following Franciscans and Dominicans to the courts of khans may be behind us. There was to be no great friar-Mongol adventure this time. The Venetians continued on, surely not alone, but no longer bringing even 2 of the requested 100, on towards Kublai Khan. 

And this is how that great journey reads in one of the editions I’m using:

Niccolo, Maffeo, and Marco, however, undismayed by perils and difficulties (to which they had long been inured), passed the borders of Armenia, and prosecuted their journey. After crossing deserts of several days’ march, and passing many dangerous defiles, they advanced so far, in a direction between north-east and north, that at length they gained information of the grand khan, who then had his residence in a large and magnificent city named [Shangdu]. Their whole journey to this place occupied no less than three years and a half… .

Like I said, the book is no travel narrative, no great feat of adventure story-writing. Here we have yet another purported three year period which must indeed, as the text admits, have included hard marches over deserts and through “dangerous defiles,” and much more besides, even with that golden tablet of imperial favour and entitlement that Kublai had granted them. But this short paragraph is all the text includes on the matter, a great emptiness into which an imagination might pour all kinds of stories.

And maybe we can fill in some of those blanks by looking elsewhere in the books of Marco Polo. I should explain here, that the narrative part of the books is really very short. It’s a prologue, a set-up for the main body of the text, a justification or explanation for it. The main body is something like a cataloguing of selected towns, cities, and regions from Lesser Armenia on east, with the odd story interspersed. You’ll read that such-and-such a town is noble and good and populated by people of W and X religions who produce Y and Z crops and products, and sometimes things then move hurriedly on to the next noble city with little to differentiate them. In one location, it’s only the swollen legs and glands of the populace that stand out. In other places there are other details that start to colour in the gaps in the narrative or establish other patterns.

Of Lesser Armenia for example, we read that the game was plentiful, both birds and beasts, a feature that always seems to have drawn Marco’s attention; we also read that the air was not particularly healthy, that the city on the coast from which they moved inland was heavily frequented by merchants from Venice, Genoa, and elsewhere trading in spice, silk, and other goods, and that the nobility of the area had in the past been renowned for their expertise as soldiers but now were fallen on drunkenness and cowardice. 

This last point raises questions for me. Was this a generalization based on a personal encounter or two, something like the generalized grumbling of a tourist who once had a disappointing breakfast somewhere? Was it something said locally of the region’s nobility that the travellers picked up on? Or did Marco simply prefer places to people? We’re going to see that cities are often magnificent and noble, but their people, nobles and commoners alike, are often treacherous and bloodthirsty criminals with few redeeming characteristics. And there’s an immediate example of this as the Polos moved east from Lesser Armenia. The Turkomans had excellent horses, and sold fine mules, but the human inhabitants themselves were, like others we’ll meet, “rude people, and dull of intellect.” 

Further east, the Venetians started to pass through lands that were to them alive with the life and legends of Alexander the Great: places where his gates had sealed off the uncivil world, where his army had fought with that of Darius the Achaemenid Emperor, where he’d married Darius’ daughter, or where animals descended from Alexander’s own beloved horse Bucephalus had still, until only recently, still walked the earth; had done so until their owner, the king’s uncle, had refused to surrender them up to the king and been killed for it, and his widow had then destroyed the horses.

The city of Baghdad is described as the “the noblest and most extensive city to be found in [that] part of the world,” home to silks wrought with gold, “velvets ornamented with the figures of birds and beasts,” and studies in “[Islamic] law, magic, physics, astronomy, [and] geomancy.” It is also identified as the place where Hulagu had defeated the last Abbasid caliph and sealed him away with all his riches to ponder, in his last starving, dying days, the uselessness of all that gold. Not the way the caliph’s end is usually believed to have come, but certainly a memorable story.  

The city of Tabriz on the other hand is, of course, “large and very noble,” abundant in precious stones and pearls, delightful gardens, and merchants from Europe and India. Those who were part of such trade were wealthy indeed, but the bulk of the inhabitants very poor, and the Muslim there were singled out as “treacherous and unprincipled.” You might be starting to notice a pattern here. 

As the books wind their way east, Muslims are pretty regularly associated with villainy of one kind or another: in one area given to “savage and bloodthirsty” acts of violence which they’d happily inflict on travellers and traders alike were it not for their fear of Mongol retribution, in another as covetous and sordid merchants, prone to all manner of ill-dealings. Muslims in the books’ depiction are dishonest even with themselves, condensing wine and then giving it another name so as to sidestep prohibitions and drink it, and they are too easily redeemed by the confession of their faith and thus feel free to commit even the most serious criminal acts without repercussions. Piling on to this, there are stories of Muslim persecution of Christians and of miraculous interventions by which they are foiled, in Baghdad and Samarkand in particular. 

Along with all of this though, there are some counter examples which start to stand out. 

Sometimes this might be physical admiration, as in the case of an area of northern Iran where the Muslims are described as, quote, “a handsome race, especially the women, … the most beautiful in the world.” Other qualities stood out too, and not just of appearance. In one area the Muslims are “civilized in their manners, and accounted valiant in war.” In another they are considered keen and skilled sportsmen and hunters, not an inconsequential compliment from one as interested in hunting as Marco seems to have been. Then, on a more personal note, he records learning much from a very wise Turkoman travelling companion, a Muslim. My point here is that the text is hardly immune to the biases of its times; they’re here in abundance. But it does, very occasionally, rise above them or, perhaps more accurately, shuffle around them. The Other in the Marco text is a pretty interesting topic in itself, and I’ll get into it more next episode with its treatment of Mongols and Chinese, but for now let’s turn to the topic I think of as stories of the road.

On the Polos’ travels, they heard stories of the lands they passed through, and these vary quite a bit. You get the humble shoemaker of Baghdad who once accidentally saw the leg of an attractive slipper-buyer and then scooped out his own eye before causing a mountain to move and an Abbasid caliph to secretly convert; you get recent Mongol history given in some detail like Kublai’s war with Kaidu of the house of Chagatai; and between fairytale and rough history, you get things like the Assassins.

I’ve talked a little about the Assassins before on this podcast, about their legendary mountain strongholds and how they fell to the invasion of Kublai’s brother Hulagu, and I’ve long planned to work them more fully in as the focus of an episode, but that won’t be this episode. I bring them up again here though because the Marco Polo telling, which he “testifies to having heard from sundry persons,” is one that has been largely discounted but is also one that has really stuck with us since. It’s a synthesis of the Assassin legends that were already circulating among Europeans, with perhaps a few additions, but it quickly became the standard version, and it might be the one you recognize.

“Having spoken of this country,” it opens, “mention shall now be made of the old man of the mountain.” What comes next is an explanation of how “the old man of the mountain,” Ala al-Din Muhammad III, commanded total obedience from his followers and sent them out into the world to reliably do his bidding in the face of death.  

Between two lofty mountains, there was a beautiful valley, a luxurious garden paradise into which Ala al-Din brought the most delicious fruits and the most fragrant bushes and flowers, all in abundance. There were palaces, richly decorated in gold, paintings, and silks. There were, arranged to flow into them, streams of the purest water, and of wine, milk, and honey. And there were women, skilled in song and dance, in music, and in, quote, “dalliance and amorous allurement.” It was a garden of delights and fascination, an unearthly paradise to satisfy all the senses and every desire. It was in short a place one was meant to want to stay, to cling to, to remain and never to leave, and if you must go, to claw your way back in as quickly as possible. 

Over this garden valley, Ala al-Din had absolute power. You could only get there through a secret passage from an impregnable mountain fortress, and you only entered when, if, and how he wanted you to. The chosen were young men from the surrounding area, those who showed bravery and a certain promise in the martial disciplines. He secluded these youths at his castle, lecturing them daily on his power to grant entrance into paradise, and dosing them with opium. You’d awaken to find yourself in a palace apartment within the valley, surrounded by beautiful women, with milk and honey flowing through the room and a head full of drugs and, soon exquisite, exquisite wine too. A few days of this and all its joys and you’d again be moved in your sleep, whisked away to the unpleasantly normal world outside. Where had you been, you would be questioned before Ala al-Din and his people; in paradise, you confidently replied, by the favour of the old man of the mountain. 

Such were the rewards which waited for those who did his bidding, and so his followers had no fear when thrown into danger. Fear was for those who crossed him and his people, whether king, vizier, or caliph, for their fate was a very public death by dagger at the hands of a man who knew his own fate already to be assured in the happiest of ways. 

The text wraps things up with the Mongols dismantling that legendary fortress, and this did indeed happen, but it should be noted that there are no reports of heavenly garden valleys. Possibly they had just been very well hidden. Then, the text wanders on to other things, to a waterless desert and to a town which produces the best melons in the world, cut in long thin spirals and dried in the sun for shipment. Such is the peculiarity of the Marco Polo text, mixing these details which can seem to us somewhat mundane with highly dramatic bursts of history or legend.

And the Polos also wandered on, their experiences on the road very occasionally bubbling to the surface in the text in little hints and allusions. Maybe Marco was kidnapped at a certain point, losing many of his fellow-travellers as they were sold into slavery or put to death. Elsewhere, he might have been present to witness winds of such an extreme temperature that the locals would submerge themselves in water up to the chin to save themselves from the suffocating heat. It was said to be so bad that the baked remains of anyone caught out in the open would fall apart on contact, limbs dropping to the ground as people tried to clear their corpses. It was all very colourful and unpleasant. 

These moments of Marco’s personal experience come up very rarely after the prologue, really forming an infinitesimal portion of the text, so much so that their purpose is slightly unclear. Are they intended to entertain, to break up a sometimes monotonous geographical parade? Honestly, there's really not enough of them for that, and, that being the case, “why not?!” I want to ask, want to ask while roughly shaking Marco by his shoulders in fact. The man and some immediate relatives make a 13th-century land journey to China and the court of Kublai Khan and the text has fairly little to say about it. Again, I think it's part of what makes the subject matter so appealing to turn to fiction, a great sea of possible and even likely adventures that exist in these openings, just waiting to be coloured in, but it's also more than a little aggravating.

Verification seems another likely reason to reference personal experience. You can believe these things I'm telling you to be true because I was there and I saw them. It’s a common enough inclusion, sometimes quite repetitive even, in medieval travel narratives, but that's not the case here. The aspects Marco is attested to have experienced on the journey east are few - you wouldn't get to your other hand in counting them off - and they seem almost inconsequential the details that are supported in this way, not at all matters of great importance or attached to key locations where it's crucial to establish that he was there.

In the end the personal material in this section feels a little like accidental inclusions, inadvertent slips that made it into the text. So let’s put them aside for now. We’ll be returning to Marco’s role in his own story next episode, and to the creation of the text itself, but for now let’s turn to another section of legend and history. Let’s turn to Prester John. 

Yes, it's the return of that mythical priest king who I keep threatening to do a series about so often does he pop up. And here’s another example, in the Marco Polo text. What’s he doing there? Well, he’s serving as a father figure and a mentor to Genghis before falling out with the great khan and being overthrown by him. If you’re familiar with the Genghis story, then you’ll have heard this one before. This was the Ong Khan, the regional ruler whose favour Genghis had sought out long before he himself rose to any kind of great stature. This seemingly odd association, of local ruler long defeated with Christian saviour, is not unique to this book. The Ong Khan had been associated with Prester John in the past. Friar William makes a mention of the connection, and speaks of crossing Prester John’s supposed realms but finding none save the odd Nestorian who recognized what he was talking about. And communications from the Mongols also included reference to themselves as the conquerors of the priest-king and the inheritors of his lands and authority. As travellers like the friars we followed went into Mongol territory, there was a great deal of curiosity as to Prester John, and lo and behold, there he was found. But he had changed. 

This was not the otherworldly figure, the dispenser of miracles who lived among monstrous beings and went to war with an invincible army forming up in unlikely numbers behind jeweled crosses. This was someone more modest, someone who had diminished in stature as they had drawn closer to him, someone who had faced and been defeated by Genghis Khan. And it wasn’t relegated entirely to the past either; there’s a present-day descendant of Prester John serving as the Mongol Khan’s vassal in the Marco Polo text, and his realm produces fine quality azure stone and camel-hair products. It’s an interesting transition which I need to get further into at some point, but one can immediately see the obvious propaganda value in it for the khans, their power eclipsing this nearly all-powerful Christian saviour even as their armies seemed at first to realize the promise of defeating the Muslims in the Holy Land. And this was Marco Polo’s little part in it all, as he, his father, and his uncle, travelled across countryside that had been Prester John’s, making their way towards Kublai.  

The Polos may well have been concerned that when they finally arrived at the khan’s court, they would find themselves unwelcome, perhaps forgotten; something of the sort may have been going through their minds when they made to leave without waiting for a new pope. It would after all have been years since Niccolo and Maffeo had left Kublai’s company, 8 years by the book’s accounting of time, in some editions at least. Who could know what other whims, interests, or ideas might attract the attention of a Mongol emperor in such a long interim, and whether or not he would still care to see them when they arrived. 

As it turned out, they needn’t have worried. The text informs us that they were given the royal welcome, met 40 days’ journey from their destination and with orders given to ease their way and give what comfort could be offered as they approached. That was how they came to Shangdu and found Kublai Khan waiting for them.

If you’ve listened to episode 7 of my Mongols series, you’ve come across Shangdu before, though not by that name. Back then, when Kublai had first established it, back when his brother Mongke had still ruled as great khan, it been Kaiping, the shiny new capital designed for him by his advisor Liu Bingzhong. In 1264 it had been renamed Shangdu, or Upper Captital, but it was no longer Kublai’s primary city. As of 1267, that had been another city, at present-day Beijing, but when the Polos visited the khan, they did so in Shangdu, now his summer capital. 

The city of Shangdu was three nested cities within one square outer wall of two and a half kilometres of pounded earth on all sides. On a map, the outer city took up an L shape across the top and down the left side, while in the lower right quadrant, more than a quarter really, was the imperial city, and then boxed within that, the palace city. For a closer look than that, we’ll need Marco’s help.

The text describes a palace of marble and other attractive stones, elegant in design and skillful in execution, its chambers and halls all in gilt and exquisitely painted with the figures of people, beast, birds, flowers, and trees, paintings that you could only regard “with delight and astonishment.” But it’s the khan’s special park and hunting enclosure that really receives the attention here. There were rich and beautiful meadows, watered by many rivers and brooks and dotted with fountains, and stocked with animals of all kinds that were not “ferocious in nature” and which roamed among trees and plants brought to that place for the khan’s enjoyment. More than 200 hundred hunting hawks and falcons were kept on the grounds and at least one hunting leopard which was carried on horseback, presumably on a horse with no sense of smell or self-preservation, until it was to be loosed at the khan’s command. At a particularly lovely spot, by a grove of trees, was the khan’s pavilion, its gilt pillars, wrapped in dragons, supporting a roof of varnished bamboo. It was in short a place to which the resources of a great power were exerted to facilitate the leisure of one man’s summer months.

That was was the Shangdu the Polos arrived at, and the text relates that all the khan’s highest officers were there when they were ushered into his presence, and that the travellers stepped forward and prostrated themselves on the floor before him. Kublai commanded them to rise, and they did so. Then he asked after their mission on his behalf. What of their travels, and what of the pope? What of the oil and those one hundred men? How had it all gone? 

Now we know there were to be no 100 forthcoming, but that doesn’t seem to have bothered the khan overly. He listened in silence to their story, and then greeted with enthusiasm first “the letters and presents of Pope Gregory,” and then the holy oil. The latter was received with reverence, we read, and instructions given for it be “preserved with religious care,” though whether that meant being assigned to some of the city’s Nestorians, placed within Kublai’s own chambers, or something more like the warehouse from Indiana Jones, it does not say. The pope’s letters, on the other hand were read out on the spot, much to the enthusiasm of the khan, who commended “the fidelity, the zeal, and the diligence,” of his ambassadors. 

Around this point, Kublai noticed Marco Polo, and he asked who he was. To this Niccolo answered, “This is your servant, and my son;” upon which the khan replied, “He is welcome, and it pleases me much.” It was to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Marco and his family were going to be staying on in Shangdu and, so the text tells us, elsewhere throughout their host’s empire, particularly in China. What would be going on during this time? What would Marco be doing for all those years? The text offers some possibilities - ambassadorship, governorship, building war machines - but how believable is all of this? And what of this text itself. What of the circumstances of its creation, its spread, and its popular reception? All that and more, next time. I’ll talk to you then.


  • The Travels of Marco Polo, the Venetian, translated by William Marsden, edited by Thomas Wright. George Bell & Sons, 1907.

  • The Mission of Friar William of Rubruck, translated by Peter Jackson. The Hakluyt Society, 1990.

  • Cathay and the Way Thither, Being a Collection of Medieval Notices of China, Vol. III, translated and edited by Henry Yule and Henri Cordier. London, 1916.

  • Ackroyd, Peter. Venice: Pure City. Chatto & Windus, 2009.

  • Daftary, Farhad. The Assassin Legends. I. B. Tauris, 1994.

  • Larner, John. Marco Polo and the Discovery of the World. Yale University Press, 1999.

  • Madden, Thomas F. Venice: A New History. Viking, 2012.

  • Olschki, Leonardo. Marco Polo's Asia. University of California Press, 1960.

  • Steinhardt, Nancy Shatzman. Chinese Imperial City Planning. University of Hawaii Press, 1999.

Marco and the Polos 1: From Venice to the World

Polos Leave Constantinople

Certain historical figures are so steeped in layers of legend that they start to lose focus in our eyes, and we almost need to remind ourselves that yes, this was a real person. For me, and I suspect for many people, the character we’re getting into today is one of those figures, an almost fantastical being existing in the strange in-between of myth, history, and poetry, and this illusory element isn’t helped by his cultural appearances, his destination in Coleridge’s opiated dream, his tall tales of the empire in Italo Calvino’s novel, his adventures in a Netflix series, and so on. To one degree or another they swing wildly away from any attempt at historical accuracy, but they remain tethered to Kublai Khan and his Mongol Empire, giving our character’s life a surreal quality, that of a fable, but one grounded in this very real 13th century.

And if you are skeptical about his story, then your reaction is not unlike that of his contemporaries. There’s an anecdote of his death bed, where a friend brings him one of the manuscripts and urges him to set the record straight, to speak out against some of the book’s more incredible statements. However, far from offering any retraction, he’s supposed to have replied that on the contrary he had not told half of what he’d seen.

Of course, we’re talking about Marco Polo here, the 13th century Venetian traveller, merchant, ambassador, adventurer, administrator, and many other roles too, both more and less likely. And yes, he was indeed a real person. 

Hello and Welcome. I’m Devon, and this is Human Circus. I should start out today with an apology for the lateness of this episode. As you can probably still hear in my voice, I’ve had a head cold which won’t go away. I’ve been waiting until its gone to record, but for now I’ve given up on the gone part, so we’ll see how this goes.

I also have an announcement to make, that I’ve found a new home since I last recorded. That’s a new hosting service, which shouldn’t affect you at all, but also a new podcast network. Human Circus is now part of the podcast network. It’s full of great shows, which I can happily recommend, and I’m very excited to be joining them all there. One change which you will notice is that ads will start to appear on the show. Sometimes that will be for the other podcasts on the network and sometimes for sponsors’ products. I realize that, given the choice, you’d probably opt for no-ads in your podcast listening, but these sponsors are going to help make the whole project more sustainable for me and also help me make improvements to the show, so I ask you to bear with them, and me. Now, announcements out of the way, let’s get to the story. 

If you look at the title of this episode, you’ll see I’m starting a new series, focusing on the travels of Marco Polo, but we’re not starting from scratch here. The previous run of 7 episodes, To See the Mongols, led up to this point, tracing exchanges between Mongols and Western Europeans and wrapping up by looking at the rise of Kublai Khan. So if you haven’t listened to those yet, they do give a lot of good background and context for this series and you may want to hear them first.

Today, we won’t be seeing much of Marco himself, just a glimpse of him at the end. Instead, we’re going to set the scene with a look at his city of Venice and its role in Mediterranean competition and Eurasian trade; and we’re going to look at the first Polos’ meeting with Kublai Khan, that of Niccolo and Maffeo. This is the prelude.

The story of the Polos could begin at many points. You could go with the origins of Venice as a 6th century safe haven for those escaping invasion in the lagoons, but that would be crazy. You could look at the centuries of allegiance to the Byzantine Empire culminating in the Golden Bull of 1082 which allowed special trading rights and exemptions, most importantly with regards to trade in Constantinople. You could follow the early crusades, and the Venetians response to them, slow, by some tellings, to sabotage their trading success in the eastern Mediterranean until they sensed the possibility of success, and then plunging in to earn privileges and advantages in the resultant crusader kingdoms. All of those would make sense, but not wanting to turn this into an extended history of Venice podcast, I’m going to start with the Latin Empire of Constantinople in the beginning of the 13th century.

Now, sometimes it’s easy to lose any sense of time in historical events. You hear a story, and it becomes a little bubble in your consciousness, adrift from any connection to all the other little bubbles bobbling about in there. So let’s try to raft some of those bubbles together. Today, we’re starting in 1204 and then jumping forward to the main storyline starting around 1260. What do those dates mean? What else is happening? What can we tie this particular bubble to?

Well, the first years of the 13th century gave us the rise of Genghis to become great khan of the Mongols, the founding of the Franciscan and Dominican orders, and also that of the University of Cambridge. And in 1215,  on the 15th of June, the Magna Carta was signed. In the second half of the century, when our story will be taking place, we get the University of Paris, the birth of Dante Alighieri, the work of Thomas Aquinas, King Edward’s struggles with Scotland and with William Wallace of Braveheart fame, and the beginnings of the Ottoman Empire. There’s more of course; there always is, but hopefully there’s something there for you to hang this story next to. Now, let’s get back to 1204.

In that year, Constantinople had fallen to the fourth crusade, with Venice taking a role that has been depicted as opportunistic, morally malleable to the moment one might say, even villainous some have said. Others have painted a more complex picture in which the Venetians and their doge appear less Machiavellian, and more just playing the cards they were dealt. It’s a great story in itself, and I’m going to put that aside as part of a near-future topic.

For now, know that Venetian involvement had secured the city a significant share of the spoils. That meant countless works of Byzantine art and treasure, the great bronze horses of the hippodrome, statues of the old Roman tetrarchs, and the 50,000 silver marks still owed for the fleet they had supplied, but it also meant a full 3/8s of the city and its empire. The Venetian leader, Enrico Dandolo, managed to arrange for right of conquest to a run of coastal territory and ports that connected his city to the Black Sea: the coast of western Greece, the Ionian islands, the Peloponnese, Naxos, Adrianople, Gallipoli, and control of key harbour districts of the imperial capital itself, to which he added the island of Crete, purchased for a thousand marks. He negotiated all of this and also the exclusion of Genoa and Pisa, their Italian rivals in trade and more fatal forms of competition. The exclusion was part of a long running, bitter back and forth, a sometimes bloody contest for the riches which the Mediterranean and its ports could provide. And this latest move placed Venice in an excellent position.

The lagoon city had problems certainly. It now had an empire of sorts to administer to, and Crete alone was going to cost it years of fighting with the Genoans. But it also had opportunities. Whether on through the Red Sea by way of its trading relationships in Egypt for which it had received a papal dispensation, from the Crusader Kingdoms and east to the Persian Gulf, or overland from Constantinople and the Black Sea ports, Venice was now admirably situated for business in the goods of the east, of Central Asia, China, and India. It’s the last of the three routes, the overland one, that we’re concerned with today, and that was deeply impacted by the rise of the Mongol Empire. 

Linking China and India with the Mediterranean was hardly a new invention; Seneca, the first century Roman, had bitterly complained of the popularity of Chinese silk in his time, and money and goods had flowed back the other way too. However, if you’ve listened to my last run of episodes, and you should, you’ve seen the degree to which western Europeans friars of the 13th century felt themselves to be entering a new and strange world, one which Alexander the Great had sealed away with walls of biblical proportions and which may or may not have contained dog-headed men. At least one Roman embassy is said to have actually visited China, yet a millennium later, we have these Franciscans taking their plunge into total darkness. What had happened?

The short answer is that Western Europe had largely retracted from the broader Eurasian trade system. And this is not to say that “the Silk Road,” as these routes are popularly known, went unused. Jewish Rhadanite traders had travelled those paths, and as the Islamic caliphates had stretched from Spain to the Indus River, so had Muslims.  But Latin Christendom had become detached from all of this in the periods between the fragmentation of the Western Roman Empire and the Crusades. Now, with much of Asia unified under a Mongol Empire and a reignited European taste for what the east had to offer, Venetians and others would join them and re-engage in the trade from the Mediterranean, and through it from the cloth-producing markets of the north, to India, to China, to the quote/unquote “spice islands,” and elsewhere.

This moment of relative unity that allowed them to ease into transcontinental business has been called the Pax Mongolica, a reference to the idea of the Pax Romana, the “Roman peace” that had stabilized the realms within its ambit and allowed for the kind of easy exchange of goods and ideas that could only occur under such conditions. Of course, it may also bring to mind the words that Tacitus had put in the mouth of a Caledonian chieftain, that the Romans had made a desert and then called it peace. And there’s some truth to that here. The Mongols had done their fair share of desert-making as their conquests had forged a vast empire. But leaving aside how they had gone about it, the Mongols had, for a moment, made one what had been many, or at least they very briefly had. Mongol Peace is a bit of a misleading term, as by this point the Mongol khanates are already fighting each other. Still, for mile after mile, you travelled under Mongol authority.

And this is credited as having had an enormous impact. People, goods, and ideas could move more easily under this semi-unified rule. They were subject, broadly, to one set of laws and stable tribute gatherers, not ambushed figuratively and physically by this bandit lord’s men and that local king’s extortionate demands. Of course, there was still danger. As we saw in the preceding episodes, the natural environment itself could be terminally daunting, and the threat of physical violence was clearly not entirely banished from the situation. Demons and less supernatural sources of death still lurked in the shadows of possibility. Mongol force had not entirely tamed all within its domains, and in the conquered territories of the empire we find those who still held out; Friar William mentions Alans in the Caucasus and also those who had escaped Mongol service and now clawed out a living through raids and brigandry. But it was still easier. 

There was a system of law that discouraged local warfare and theft, an ability to anticipate to some degree the costs one would accrue in travel, and a saving in securing and protecting the goods in transit. I think a lot of people probably imagine the Mongol-controlled steppes as a land where you were promptly shot on sight by ruthless, mounted archers, but as should be becoming pretty clear, religious figures, ambassadors, and, most importantly for us, merchants, were generally able to move through it without experiencing such misfortune.

Venice was one of the powers which was going to be doing well out of this. The city’s merchants had been doing very well in fact, trading, among other things, in cloth, spices, and slaves, and this Pax Mongolica, however misleading that “Pax” part may be, opened new possibilities, many of which could be found in Constantinople. 

In that city, they had the deck stacked pretty well in their favour. I mean, it’s true that much of the local populace likely hated them. The Venetians were inseparably associated with the bloodshed of the 4th Crusade, and events in which Constantinoplites had been violently juiced by their rulers to pay off the crusaders and seen significant sections of their city, significant numbers of their homes I should say, burned in massive fires for which Venetians were in no small part to blame. So there was that. But they very much had the run of the city. In the port they had six jetties, they had churches, and they had two large fondachi, the facilities which catered to travellers and merchants with warehouse space, an inn, and a central courtyard to receive caravans of goods. They had a governor, or podesta, making trade agreements on their behalf, and they were propping up a faltering Latin Emperor whose barons even pawned the crown of thorns, supposedly THE crown of thorns, to them in desperation. They shipped silk, spices, slaves, wood, and riches home to Venice. They had the run of the city and the gateway to the Black Sea, but it couldn’t last forever. 

Venice could not support such an unsustainable regime indefinitely. The Latin Empire Of Constantinople increasingly lacked the approval of the locals, was weak from the start both militarily and financially, and was soon hemmed in on land by Nicaea, one of the Byzantine states that had survived exile from the imperial capital, and at sea by the Genoans, who wanted back in. The end couldn’t be long, and in July of 1261, it came. The forces of Michael Palaiologos, who’d schemed and fought his way to Nicaean dominance, reclaimed Constantinople as Byzantine, not with the assistance of Genoan naval pressure, but simply by way of a poorly secured section of the walls. No prolonged siege was required, just the timely presence of Michael’s general who acquired two vital pieces information: one, that the Venetian fleet and much of the Latin garrison were away raiding in the Black Sea and two, that there was a convenient passage by which his men might enter the city quietly, open a gate, and secure large portions of its walls by dawn. And so it went. The Latin Emperor Baldwin II awoke to an unpleasant surprise and was forced to escape in such a hurry that he left his sceptre and crown behind him, and the city’s Venetians rushed to follow. But two of Venice’s most famous men had already left the city.        

Two of the sons of Andrea Polo da San Felice, Niccolo and Maffeo Polo, had been carrying on their business in Constantinople since around 1254. We read that “these respectable and well informed men, [had] embarked in a ship of their own, with a rich a varied cargo of merchandise.” The third brother in this fraterna compagnia, Marco but not that Marco, remained behind in Venice, likely to continue to conduct the merchant family’s transactions in his brothers’ absence. It was a standard enough business arrangement and made sense when partners would be gone for seasons or years at a time. In this case, the partners were going to be gone a little longer even than that. 

Niccolo and Maffeo apparently spent their time in the then still Latin imperial city trading their varied cargo for “fine and costly jewels,” and just how much time they spent doing this is totally unclear. Dates generally in this part of the story are speculation and the tying together of known events, so you’ll see the brothers Polo leaving Venice anytime between 1250 and 1255 and in some sources staying until as late as 1269; this last date is clearly incorrect though as they are to have left when the Latin Emperor still reigned and that puts a cap of 1261 on things. I’m going to follow historians such as Peter Jackson, who I relied on frequently in the Mongols series, and say that they departed Constantinople in 1260. They did so then, safely ahead of the Byzantine recapture of the city, but they may have been pushed to go by the increasing threat of political and economic instability, may have sensed the inevitability of coming change. It’s fairly likely that they did, and that this led them to convert their stock to the gems which of course carried the benefit of being highly portable and easily sewn away into their clothing. Across the Black Sea they went, bound for the city of Soldaia, a trading centre on the Crimean Peninsula from which foods, furs, and slaves passed on into Europe, Egypt, and elsewhere. 

It was much the same itinerary we saw Friar William follow, and William had mentioned meeting many merchants in the city from Constantinople. The Polos themselves had a trading house there, so they weren’t strangers to Soldaia, but, as with William, they wouldn’t be staying in they city. Maybe they had not found business to their liking on arrival; perhaps the demand for their jewels was not what they’d thought it would be or the competition too fierce for profits to match their desires. More likely though, it had been their plan all along to strike out overland from the Black Sea port. They would have heard, certainly, from their time in Constantinople, that the Mongol rulers had a tremendous appetite for gems both as luxury goods and as currency, and that they could expect to find ready buyers for what they carried. Whether by necessity or, more likely, by prior intent, they went east.

Their mode of travel now was the horse, The Travels of Marco Polo tells us, but it tells us little else. As we’ll see when we get deeper into the text in the next episode, it really isn’t a travel narrative and is often a frustrating read from which to try to piece together any kind of coherent story. And this is still just the prologue to Marco’s journey proper which we’re dealing with. We need to look elsewhere then for the details on what the road may have been like.   

They would have travelled northeast until they reached Tana, where the Don River meets the northeast corner of the Sea of Azov. There we can pick up the thread of Florentine trader Francis Balducci Pegolotti, who would write about the route nearly a century later in his Merchant’s Handbook. He describes the road from Tana to the Volga River as 25 days by ox-wagon or 10-12 by horse-wagon, and then from there up to Sarai by river. Salt-fish and flour you’d need to set out with, enough to last, but you could buy meat along the way. Pegolotti reckoned it to be the most dangerous stretch of the whole long road to China, though if you had 60 men in your company, you’d still “go as safely as if you were in your own house,” but even more than armed men, he emphasizes the absolute need to hire a good guide and interpreter before leaving Tana. It was foolish to imagine you might save money on a translator of lesser skill and expense, for you’d surely end paying much more than what you’d saved at every step and possibly find yourself in real danger.

What arrangements the Polos made, we do not know. We do know that they had several Christian servants who they had brought with them from Venice, and would be with them for the duration of the trip, and we know that they made it. They made it to Sarai, and they made it to Berke Khan. And we should quickly cover who this was. 

This was a grandson of Genghis Khan by way of Jochi, Genghis’ eldest son though perhaps not his biological son. Berke was by this time khan of the Golden Horde, the Jochid domain that Batu Khan had carved out and which stretched from central Ukraine to Eastern Kazakhstan.

Maffeo and Niccolo reached the Jochid khan at an interesting time, but then, as I’ve said before, it was really always an interesting time in the Mongol empire. In this case, Mongke, the great khan, had died, and there was a civil war, the Toluid Civil War between his brothers, to decide who would replace him, with Berke supporting the claim of the traditionalist youngest brother against that of the eventual victor, Kublai. More regionally, the years building up to the Venetians’ arrival had seen hostilities brewing between Berke and his neighbour to the south, his cousin Hulagu Khan, whose Ilkhanate now stretched across Persia, much of Anatolia, and northern Syria. Hulagu had committed various acts of mass violence against Berke’s Muslim co-religionists; most notably he had sacked Baghdad and killed its Abbasid Caliph; he may also have been responsible for the deaths of up to three Jochid princes who’d died under unclear circumstances as part of his campaign; and finally, he’d occupied land in northwestern Iran and around the Caucasus that had been part of the Jochid Mongols’ territory. Balanced against all of this, “he’s my cousin” started to looked pretty inconsequential.

For what it’s worth, chroniclers tend to favour religion as Berke’s primary motivator for going to war again his relative, but he had financial reasons for doing so too. Because Hulagu had cut him out of the immensely profitable trade routes running through Iran, Berke and his successors, while continuing to fight for that territory, were going to need to look elsewhere. And this would actually lead to Golden Horde khans really elevating trade through the Black Sea, something which had previously gone largely ignored. What had once been a distant second was now by necessity their first option in trade, and this pivot towards the Black Sea could have already been taking shape in Berke’s mind as the Polos arrived.

They would have found him holding court at either Sarai or Bolgar along the Volga River. The former was by then a walled palace surrounded by tents and pavilions and complete with markets, religious buildings, and public baths, while the latter was something more established, a centuries old urban centre that had been the capital of the Volga Bulgars and was taken by the Mongols in 1237. 

And again our source is pretty sparse here, with none of the details with which the Franciscans had coloured their encounters with the khans. It mentions Berke giving them a warm reception, and it mentions an exchange of sorts. Apparently, the Polos laid some of their stock in jewels before the khan and seeing how much they pleased him, made him a generous present of the lot. And Berke, pleased indeed and unwilling to be shown up as less generous, ordered them given double the jewels’ value and “several rich presents” too. It’s an interesting moment. Perhaps we are meant to admire the merchants’ daring success here, the immense profits of their largesse, but clearly they had not come so far with the fruits of their trading in Constantinople to hand them over without expectation of reward. This was a predictable mode of transaction which, with the one participant being royalty, was performed as an exchange of gifts. These Venetians were not the Franciscans of earlier decades, navigating unknown waters, and they had surely picked up, in Constantinople and Soldaia, from the readily available body of knowledge on dealing with Mongol royalty. 

Whatever their expectations, the Venetians seem to have done well out of it, but for reasons we don’t know, they didn’t take their winnings and turn for home. They apparently stayed on for a year in the khan’s domains, but doing what? Were they trading this entire time, had the khan requested they stay, or were they simply really, really enamoured with life at Berke’s court?      

Whatever kept them, they waited too long. They waited until Constantinople had fallen back into Byzantine hands, cutting off their return, with Venetian merchants blinded or otherwise maimed in the violent aftermath; they waited until open war between Berke and Hulagu blocked the possibility of passing down between the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea and to the city of Tabriz; and rather than wait any longer, they chose to  embark on an absurdly long detour. They were going to try and circle round to the north of the Caspian Sea, pass down well to the east of it into what’s now Uzbekistan, and then make a sweeping turn south toward Turkmenistan and Afghanistan and west for the Mediterranean. It’s probably for the best that it didn’t come to that. 

As it was, their jumping off point was Ukek, midway between Sarai and Bolgar, and it was a substantial hike to their destination, the city of Bukhara, a grinding 2,300 km according to Google Maps, which doesn’t offer a horse option but estimates it to be a 473 hour walk. Of this epic trek, the text has only this to say: that at one stretch they crossed a desert for 17 days and that they found there “neither town, castle, nor any substantial dwelling, but only [Mongols] with their herds, dwelling in tents on the plain.” It’s been pointed out that this was an old caravan route and that, contrary to claims of having seen nothing but tenting Mongols, they must have passed through substantial commercial centres like Urgench and Khiva along the way. The text does say they took an “unfrequented route,” -they were carrying a great deal of wealth and likely fearful of being caught up in fighting or attacked by thieves- so maybe they avoided these centres, but that doesn’t seem likely. Their survival doesn’t seem likely, if that was the case. It’s more probable that this was just another missing element in the text. This wasn’t after all their story, and storytelling was not the strength of the text.

In Bukhara, the brothers found an ancient city and an important centre of trade and religion, but one that had fallen on hard times and had more to come quite shortly. Genghis Khan and his army had arrived in 1220, and the garrison had left. With little other choice, Bukhara had surrendered; its people were taken out of the city, and the Mongols stormed in. They took everything they could, killed everyone that they found still within the walls, and left a burning ruin in their wake. One chronicler tells us that Genghis “contented himself with slaughtering and looting once only, and did not go to the extreme of a general massacre.” The useful artisans and women were enslaved, the young men enlisted to be driven up against the walls of the next city and soak up the casualties. Everyone seems to have been taken, slain, or scattered, but then we read of a rebellion in the area in 1238 and new slaughter, and still the city seems then to have been reestablished. Sorghaghtani Beki, an immensely powerful and capable administrator, and mother of Kublai and Hulagu, had overseen Bukhara’s rebirth, financing an important madrassa there among other projects. 

Though there would be more violence ahead, for now the city was again on the upswing, helped by its position along well travelled and long established trade routes. However, as Niccolo and Maffeo arrived it was also caught in the middle of a war. Its connection to continental trade was strangled off, and so was the Venetians’ progress. They were stuck in that city for three years, and we really don’t know what they were doing. Maybe they took part successfully in the local trade that still continued; maybe they took advantage of the opportunity to absorb knowledge and language from the diverse array of people that had repopulated this centre of trade, the Persians, Mongols, Turks, Chinese, and more. Maybe they simply settled into the everyday life of a trading city on the tense knife-edge of being swallowed up in civil war.

However they occupied their time, they were eventually offered a curious escape route, not a door opening back to their home in the west, but further east and further in. Some men had come to town, were passing through actually, and they happened to hear of these two Venetians who were living there. They were envoys of Hulagu, the khan of Persia, and they were on their way to the court of Kublai Khan, ostensibly still great khan of all the Mongols, though the empire was cracking apart at its dynastic seams. Would the brothers like to join them?  They could promise safe and secure passage, an honourable reception, and a khan who would be most interested to meet them. Between that and being stuck in Bukhara, it was not a hard choice. Would they like to come? Certainly, they would. 

Again, we’re given little detail as to the journey, but this time we’re given a reason up front. The brothers witnessed “many things worthy of admiration” in the area, but those are to be saved for later, for Marco Polo’s telling. Fair enough then. I’ll do the same. But I will comment on the time this is supposed to have taken them, a full year from Bukhara to Kublai’s court, on account, apparently, of the extreme weather, the snows and flooded rivers. Having just followed the journeys of elderly and overweight friars making the full trip from Constantinople or Hungary to the Karakorum region in less time, this seems a little weak on the Polos’ part. Perhaps I’m being a little harsh on them though. Maybe even in the envoys’ company, war still slowed their advance; maybe the envoys had business along the way somehow pressing enough to delay them in their dealings with Kublai; or maybe the weather really was particularly bad; they were going through some pretty punishing terrain after all. And maybe it wasn’t really a full year. 

However long it took, it’s worth noting that even in this time of strife, they were able to make the journey at all. They’d been stranded in Bukhara for three years, but a traveller with the title and tablet of a khan’s envoy could still freely move about in safety, likely by way of the system of relay stations that dotted the empire and facilitated rapid travel for those on official business.  Whether one year or not, these envoys delivered them to Kublai Khan just as they had promised.

And I’ve been following friars over the long roads to the Mongols for 7 or 8 episodes now, so I fear I may be becoming a little blasé about meeting the Mongol khans. Make no mistake though; this was quite a big deal. According to the book, this was an enormous deal and Kublai Khan had never seen a, quote, “Latin” before. That does seem a little suspect. Mongke Khan’s camp had been brimming with all manner of European artisans, slaves, and soldiers. Still, this was a milestone, a new kind of encounter, certainly the first Venetian merchants that we know of making the trip and meeting the great khan of the great Mongol Empire and the founder of the Chinese Yuan dynasty in what was to be his summer palace. 

We don’t have a great deal of information about the meeting, of course, but with what we do have, we can contrast the Venetians’ experience with those of the friars who came before them. Those Franciscans had been successful in gathering information about these barely known horse-people but had been repeatedly frustrated in efforts at making any kind of spiritual or diplomatic headway among them and had generally come away with more threats than promises to carry home. 

Kublai Khan greeted these guests warmly, “with great honour and hospitality,” and then, as previous khans had of their visitors, closely questioned the Venetians on the European emperors, quote, “how they maintained their dignity, and administered justice in their dominions; and how they went forth to battle, and so forth. And then he asked the like questions about the kings and princes and other potentates.” The Mongols seem always to have been seeking to learn and ready to take opportunities to discover what they could of far-off lands, peoples, and their rulers, from interviews like this right up to the reconnaissance which preceded their invasions. 

Next, we read that:

...he inquired about the Pope and the Church and about all that is done at Rome, and all the customs of the Latins. And the two brothers told him the truth in all its particulars, with order and good sense, like sensible men as they were; and this they were able to do as they knew the [Mongol] language well.

Now there are a few things to note here. First, that they had learned the language during their long travels, maybe in Bukhara. It was an enormous advantage over early visitors to the steppes, men like Friar William who had eventually picked up only enough to realize that he could not at all trust his translator and had struggled horribly as a result of these limitations. However, those previous travellers had generally had a bit of a different attitude towards sharing information with the Mongols. They had also answered questions about who the most powerful men in Europe were, but they had been very aware that the people they were speaking to may very well soon be coming over the plains and through the mountains to use any information they were given against them. Previous travellers had also usually found excuses to not return with Mongol ambassadors, recognizing that these were potential spies and scouts they would be bringing home with them. Not so with the Polos. They seem to have been only too happy, when Kublai requested it, to accompany one of his men back to Rome. Maybe this  was because the idea of Kublai taking action against Christian Europe was no longer really a live threat. 

While previous messages from the Mongols had offered only promises of invasion if the pope and all his kings did not promptly offer their submission, the tone here was dramatically different. This was a khan whose efforts were entirely focussed on China and whose western domains were really no longer actually under his control; Berke Khan’s Golden Horde was independent, and Hulagu’s Ilkhanate recognized Kublai’s official supremacy but not really his governance and was in any case entirely caught up in fighting the Golden Horde and the Mamluks. So for Kublai, Europe was much further away than it had been for his predecessors. It was quite out of mind, as a prospective conquest at least. So what did Kublai Khan want?

What he wanted was holy oil from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, a curious request, but not one that necessarily indicated any interest in converting. What he was asking for was, aside from anything else, a token of spiritual power and prestige to be delivered to him by a foreign religious leader; it was, as such, an instrument, among many I’m sure, which could demonstrate his greatness and the power and reach of his empire. I’m thinking here of the way the gifts from King Louis of France, of a specially made chapel tent and various books and relics, had been used 20 years earlier, how they were displayed to visiting leaders and ambassadors in a way which said “look how the Franks have offered their submission; look how all the world’s powers bow before me.” I think the holy oil might be put to similar use.

Kublai may have also wanted the oil for quite a different kind of power. This was after all a holy object, held to be so by the Christian world, and as we saw in the last series, Mongols were often quote syncretic about these things. Spiritual power was, after all, spiritual power. So long as it worked, they weren’t necessarily picky. 

He also wanted people. Specifically, he wanted the pope to send him 100 well-educated Christians, well-suited to argument and to disproving the words of the “idolaters” and other folk. If they could accomplish this, it was claimed, then he and all his people would become Christians, but again, I don’t think conversion was ever on the menu.

It’s quite conceivable that these promises simply made their way into the story by way of its Christian transcribers, an issue I’ll return to in later episodes, but, that aside, the possibility of a Christian Mongol khan had been dangled about before, with little to show for it. Moreover, Kublai had long relied heavily on the Buddhist and Daoist advisors who were very close to him, and it’s unlikely he would reject them and potentially damage his rule in China. Instead, I think it’s more probable that Kublai wanted the Latin Christians as a balancing force. He’d witnessed firsthand in Northern China the violently disruptive effects of religious conflict and had been called on then to facilitate a fierce debate to decide the issue. These 100 of the pope’s men could be brought in to counteract the dominance of Muslims, Buddhists, and Daoists in his counsel and administration, or they might be put to use as officials in conquered regions to deflect local resentment from the Mongols themselves. Religious or otherwise, a purpose could always be found for 100 well-educated individuals.  

And with that, the Venetians had their commission, and they’d be given something to aid them in carrying it out: a golden tablet granting the bearers rights to make use of the system of imperial stations for shelter and fresh horses, and to call on local governors to escort them and on cities and towns to provide provisions. They’d taken the long way to Kublai, but the way home should have been much smoother with that golden tablet in hand.

Yet all does not seem to have gone smoothly. Their Mongol ambassador companion fell ill, quickly and seriously, and had to be left behind, and again weather seems to have caused delay to an unreasonable degree. This time it was said to be three years, owing to the “extreme cold, the snow, the ice, and the flooding of the rivers,” and they probably weren’t three years; likely the time span here is just meant to convey the great difficulty of their travels, the grand nature of their feat. But however long it took them, the reached Layas in Lesser Armenia, about as far east as you can go on the south coast of Anatolia before the land curves south.

From Layas they were sailing for the crusader city of Acre, arriving in April of 1269, or 70, or 72, or 60, depending on the manuscript. And immediately they received bad news in regards to their Mongol-commissioned errand, that mission to deliver a letter to the pope and secure holy water and a full 100-strong complement of his best Christian minds. It turned out that the pope was dead. This was pretty fresh news, working from the 1269 arrival date. Pope Clement IV had died recently, in November of 1268. What were they to do? They weren’t going to be making the return journey to Kublai just yet, not if they were to complete their business with the pope. They were going to need to wait for a new one to materialize. That’s what the papal legate in Acre, Teobaldo Visconti, apparently urged them to do, and that’s what they did. They, quote, “determined upon employing the interval in a visit to their families in Venice,” which was very sweet of them. 

As it turned out, they wouldn’t be in and out the door. This would be the longest papal interregnum on record, an excruciating electoral ordeal, in which the cardinals were physically locked up in a building to motivate the decision making process. Niccolo and Maffeo didn’t yet know that though. 

They arrived in Venice to find that while they had been away time had passed there also. Niccolo had left a wife, and he returned to find her dead. He’d surely heard while in Constantinople that his son had been born, but he returned to find that baby-Marco was already a young man of around 15 years old.

And that’s where we’ll leave Marco Polo and his family for today. With my next few episodes, we’ll get into the travels of Marco himself. We’ll pick up his story as he joins Niccolo and Maffeo on their return journey. We’ll get into the long quest to separate fact from fiction, and we’ll get into the story of the books themselves. I’ll talk to you then.


  • The Travels of Marco Polo, the Venetian, translated by Willam Marsden, edited by Thomas Wright. George Bell & Sons, 1907.

  • The Mission of Friar William of Rubruck, translated by Peter Jackson. The Hakluyt Society, 1990.

  • Cathay and the Way Thither, Being a Collection of Medieval Notices of China, Vol. III, translated and edited by Henry Yule and Henri Cordier. London, 1916.

  • Abu-Lughod, Janet L. Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350. Oxford University Press, 1989.

  • Ackroyd, Peter. Venice: Pure City. Chatto & Windus, 2009.

  • Ciociltan, Virgil. The Mongols and the Black Sea Trade in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries. Brill Academic, 2012.

  • Larner, John. Marco Polo and the Discovery of the World. Yale University Press, 1999.

  • Madden, Thomas F. Venice: A New History. Viking, 2012.

  • Olschki, Leonardo. Marco Polo's Asia. University of California Press, 1960.