Marco and the Polos 7: Marco Polo Comes Home

Marco Polo.png

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 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.