Silk Roads

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 humancircuspodcast.com 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 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 recordedhistory.net 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.

Sources:

  • 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.