Rabban Bar Sauma 1: The Monks of Kublai Khan

The Journey of Rabban Bar Sauma

In the 1280s, Arghun Khan, lord of the Ilkhanate, might well have given hard thought to his situation and to his family’s recent past. His father, Abaqa, Kublai Khan’s nephew, had died in 1282, the final years of his reign and life consumed with an ultimately unsuccessful campaign against the Mamluks in Syria. Arghun’s uncle had been Abaqa’s successor, and had sought to deal with the Mamluks in a different way, reaching out to their Sultan as one Muslim ruler to another, asking for their submission. But after only 2 years, his uncle was gone, opposition to his Islamization of the khanate and the violent uprising of Arghun himself having led to his displacement and death. And Arghun Khan, great-great-grandson of Genghis Khan, stepped into power. His way was very much that of his father.

Like Abaqa before him, he seems to have viewed the Mamluks as a threat that might better be overcome with Latin Christian cooperation. Abaqa had been in communications with then-Prince Edward on crusade; his envoys had gone to Pope Gregory X’s Council of Lyons in 1274, and in 1276 and 77 to the court of Philip III in France and that of King Edward I in England. They’d been to see Pope John XXI before his brief papacy was cut short by a collapsing ceiling, then to Edmund again, and to the crusader states of Tripoli, Cyprus, and Acre ahead of the 1281 push against the Mamluks. But he’d had little to show for it in the end, perhaps only the aid of some Knights Hospitallers. If Arghun were now going to succeed against his rivals in Egypt, he would need to do better than that.

His first attempt in that direction was a 1285 message delivered by a Christian astronomer to Pope Honorius IV. The message referenced the khan’s mother’s Christianity, his family’s history as defenders of Christians, and his charge from Kublai to seize and hold “the land of Christians” under his protection. And it continued with something like this:

As the land of the Muslims, that is, Syria and Egypt, is placed between us and you, we will encircle and strangle it. We will send our messengers to ask you to send an army to Egypt, so that us on one side, and you on the other, we can, with good warriors, take it over. Let us know through secure messengers when you would like this to happen. We will drive out the Saracens, with the help of the Lord, the Pope, and the Great Khan.

And less than two years later, with nothing concrete to show for that first attempt, Arghun was again looking for an alliance. This time, he sent a man known as Rabban Bar Sauma.

Hello and welcome. I’m Devon, and this is Human Circus: Journeys in the Medieval World, following medieval travellers and the broader histories their stories wove through. Before we get going, I’d like to request that if it’s an option for you, if you are enjoying the podcast, appreciate the hilariously long hours that go into it each of these 50 minute episodes, and place some value on what you hear, that you consider signing up to my Patreon at patreon.com/humancircus, or through the website at humancircuspodcast.com. There are $1, $3, and $5 options, and honestly, if I could get %10 of you to join in at the $1 option, it really would make a substantial difference in my life. 

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And now, to the story.

I’ve talked before on this podcast about the journey between Europe and eastern Asia, as far as China. I’ve followed the stories of friars and merchants going off to see the Mongols, and those have been some of my favourites so far. Today, I’m covering something related, but something a little bit different from those other travellers. 

I’d considered doing this story as part of the Marco Polo series, or right after, but at the time, I felt like a break from the Mongol world, felt like maybe if you’d been listening all the way through, you could use a bit of a palate-cleanser too. But it’s time to get back to the Mongols, only to follow a traveller going in the other direction from all those friars, to trace his steps from the Mongol Empire to the cities of Europe on imperial business, to tell the story of Rabban Bar Sauma and his protege Marcos.

In the preface to the 2010 edition of his book on our subject, historian Morris Rossabi mentions that his friends had urged him to use the title From Beijing to Paris: A Reverse Marco Polo, but he had resisted their suggestions. He recognized that the title might grab readers’ attention, but he said that the comparison to the much more famous Venetian, the framing of this story as that of a Turkic Marco Polo out of the east, would quote “slight Rabban Sauma’s mission,” that the Marco Polo reference would undersell the significance of Bar Sauma, for the latter’s voyage had “greater potential to change the course of Eurasian history.” As we’ll see, that wasn’t just the standard case of a writer setting out the colossal nature of their particular pet topic. Bar Sauma’s story is as important as it is fascinating.

Even the story of how the text comes to us is an interesting one. Bar Sauma’s account had been translated into Syriac, with some deletions, sometime soon after his death, but then both versions seem to have disappeared. There were brief references to his presence in the accounts of the Vatican, and in France and England, but nothing to draw much interest, and none in Chinese sources. 

Bar Sauma’s doings might have remained unnoticed for longer still were it not for a chance encounter between a Mr. Solomon of Northwestern Iran and a young Turkish man in the spring of 1887. The young man had a Syriac manuscript he invited Solomon to see, and Solomon saw it at once for what it was: a thing of interest. He had it copied and shared it with a specialist, and out of the publicity that followed that discovery, another manuscript was turned up. Rabban Bar Sauma, long sleeping, had resurfaced.  

The journey Bar Sauma undertook started as a pilgrimage, and then, after long years of delay, developed into something else: an embassy which revealed the changing nature of the quote/unquote Mongol Empire, and a fascinating look at medieval Europe from the outside in. So let’s get started. Let’s go back before the beginning of his travels, to his early life. Who was Rabban Bar Sauma? To answer that question, we shouldn’t look first to the western cities he visited such as Rome or Paris. We shouldn’t look to Baghdad or some other site within the Ilkhanate. We should look much further east, to China, to the region of what had been called Zhongdu, what would be known as Khanbaliq, Daidu or Dadu, what is now known to many, many more people as Beijing. That was where our protagonist is said to have been born and grown up, and that’s where we’ll find him. 

But first, his parents, because, pretty much uniquely among the texts I cover here, this one actually tells us a little about them.


There was a certain man who was a believer, and he was a nobleman and a fearer of God. He was rich in the things of this world, and he was well endowed with the qualities of nature; he belonged to a famous family and a well-known tribe. His name was Shiban, the [Inspector]. He dwelt in … the royal city in the country of the East. He married according to the law a woman whose name was Keyamta.

And you might be wondering, with this mention of believers and fearers of God, what belief and what God were being referred to. Shiban and Keyamta are sometimes identified as Uyghurs, sometimes as Ongguds, but always as Christians. In particular, they were what are commonly called Nestorians, though as I think I’ve mentioned in the Mongol or Marco Polo series, that is a term imposed from the outside, a name that refers back to one-time Patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius and his teachings, which were deemed heretical at the 431 Council of Ephesus. We might instead use the Chinese term Jingjiao, “the luminous religion,” or call it East Syriac Christianity. We might say they were ärkägün, a Mongol term for Christians, though there’s not much then there to set them apart from Latin Christians, or that they were Yelikiwen, a term for Christians under the Yuan dynasty. 

The terminology I’ll be using here is to say that they were of the Church of the East, and I won’t covering this here and now, but that church had a long and interesting history in China, one which can be traced back at least to a monument erected in 781 for a patriarch of the religion of the Roman Empire. 

Now, some 450 years later, our Shiban and Keyamta wanted themselves a child, but none was forthcoming. However, they prayed constantly to God to provide for them, and, quote, “Everyone who asks receives; and he who seeks finds, and to him that knocks it is opened.” 

It’s written that God interceded, that a child miraculously was born around 1225. They named him Bar Sauma; the term Rabban would be applied later, like Rabbi a term for a teacher. His name meant “the son of the fast,” referring to self-imposed food-deprivation rather than speed, and a pious picture of his early days started to take shape, one of “strict chastity and humility,” and looking every bit as much a hagiography as anything else.

Bar Sauma’s parents saw him educated and, when the time was right, sent to a teacher and then betrothed to an appropriate match, all proceeding as they thought best for him. He became a priest and a keeper in the church, and all was going according to plan. But then at 20 years old his devotion took a turn which made his parents less happy. 


He cast away forthwith the shadow of the world, and renounced straightway the desirable things thereof. He esteemed dainty meats as things which had no existence, and he rejected wholly the drinks which make a man drunk.

It was, to be clear, not just charcuterie and artisanal liquors which Bar Sauma was turning from. It was the things of this world more generally, and among them, that marriage his parents had arranged for him, for unlike priests, a monk had to be celibate. And that really seems to be the main issue here. In the text, they mourn that their son was separating himself from them, but the primary worry that comes across is that there would be no one then to continue the family line and to inherit what was theirs. Who, they demanded, was then to be master of their toil’s results?    

Their arguments worked for a while, moving Bar Sauma sufficiently for him to remain living with them, but he was only outwardly convinced, and in that only for three years. That was when he divided up his things and gave them to the poor. His wedding was called off; he was welcomed as a monk, and for the next seven years, he took himself off to a cell, away from the family and community concerned with this world. But still, he felt himself too much of the world, too entangled in its shadowy distractions, and kept from his calling. 

He found a mountain cave, next to a spring and a day’s journey from his parents’ city, and he settled into a life of asceticism, removed from distraction, and, as you might be thinking, also very removed from any path you’d expect to  lead him to one day traverse the length of the Eurasian continent. But that was coming still. It was in 1260, while Bar Sauma was living his cave-bound life, that he met the man who seems to have diverted his life, the same man who would journey from the east to one day sit as Patriarch in the city of Baghdad. 

There had been others. As ever was the case when you just wanted to go off on your own and be a hermit, people heard of this wise man of the mountain, and they came to sit before him and hear him speak. They honoured him, so that the mountainside maybe became a bit of a busy place at times, or so I like to imagine it at least. But one particular visitor, born to the name Marcos and into the family of an archdeacon, was a little bit different from the rest.

From what the text tells us, Marcos had always been an eager student, surpassing his older brothers and then his teachers, and then looking ever further afield. He’d heard of this Bar Sauma too, but it was far, too far for a young man of about 15 years old who’d never travelled alone. It seems that his community and his family pressed him to give up on his idea; however, his mind was not changed by their pressing. For all their attempts, they felt they were speaking “to a statue rather than to a rational man,” and Marcos wasn’t discouraged. He travelled 15 hard days to Bar Sauma’s cave and declared himself there ready to live, to learn, and, as was his goal, to become a monk.

“My son, from where did you come,” asked Bar Sauma. “And how did it happen to you that you have come to this mountain? In what city do your kinsfolk dwell? Who is your father, and whose son are you?” The monk did his best to dissuade his young visitor, probably listing some of the reasons his parents had once given to him, but, perhaps seeing a little of himself in Marcos, he eventually allowed him to stay. He clothed him in wool, taught him, and, only three years of ascetic labour later, saw him take his monastic vows.

And there in the cave, their life may have remained, had it not been for one of them, probably Marcos, musing aloud: 

It would be exceedingly helpful to us if we were to leave this region and set out for the West, for we could then [visit] the tombs of the holy martyrs and Catholic Fathers and be blessed [by them]. And if Christ, the Lord of the Universe, prolonged our lives, and sustained us by His grace, we could go to Jerusalem, so that we might receive complete pardon for our offenses, and absolution for our sins of foolishness.

And after this quick break, we’ll find out what came of that proposal.

At first, Bar Sauma was very much against Marcos’ idea to go visiting abroad. He tried to impress upon him the difficulties of the journey, its great length, the dangers of transcontinental travel in the 13th-century, which Pax Mongolica or no Pax Mongolica, were many. But Marcos had a vision, specifically a vision of the west, and the spiritual treasures that waited for them there, and he persisted. The two of them agreed that whatever might come, they ought not to be separated, even if that meant that one must choose some evil for himself to keep them together. Finally, as you may have already guessed, Bar Sauma was the one to make that sacrifice. 

It was about 1275, sometime around the year that Marco Polo was said to have arrived in China. And to situate that on the Mongol timeline, that was 4 years after Kublai Khan had established the Yuan Dynasty in China, but a year before the surrender there of the Southern Song. It had been some 10 years since his brother Ariq Boke’s surrender had marked the conclusion of the Tuluid Civil War over control of the khanate, with Kublai the victor, but his cousin Kaidu of the house of Ogeidei still threatened, Kaidu’s long-running war on Kublai bursting again to the forefront in 1275 with new invasions. Such was the situation as our two monks began the move west. But first their resolve would be tested. Because of course it would. What kind of story would this be if it were not?

After giving away what possessions they had to the poor, they left their mountain cave for the city, looking to join up with a caravan, or find escorts, and to gather provisions for the long trip ahead. However, once the Christians there heard of their plan, they did not think it a good one. “Do you not know how far away your destination is?” they asked, gathering around in a kind of intervention. “Have you not heard, or have you just forgotten, the danger of the road, and the fact that you will never arrive? Why not instead stay where you are? And perform works here, where you have been called to do so.” But the monks replied that they had withdrawn from this world already, and neither toil nor death troubled them at all. They asked only for these peoples prayers that their desires to come to Jerusalem be fulfilled. Leaving in peace, they travelled on. 

In our text, the next recorded stop, though there must have been many others, was the one where Marcos’ family lived, Kosheng in our source, sometimes identified as Marco Polo’s Tenduc. It’s a fascinating place where excavations have uncovered a walled settlement with wooden houses and palaces, elaborate gardens, Chinese tile, and crosses, and here too, the monks’ plans were not happily received. They themselves were very welcome, as the Christians of the city and the monk’s parents came out to greet them with joy. But as it emerged that Marcos had not returned to be close to his family again and was instead departing for a horribly distant land from which he was never likely to return, they were deeply saddened and did not offer their encouragement. The trip was not proving to be a popular one.

Next up in the chorus of disapproval, in some versions of this story at least, was a pair of  more powerful voices. This time it wasn’t parents. It was the lords of the city, who’d heard of this odd pair passing through their territory and called them in to hear more about it. And these were not your average commanders of a regional outpost; they were members of Mongol royalty, sons by marriage to the great Kublai Khan. And they wanted to know why these two peculiar men would ever want to leave their wonderful homeland.

“Why are you going west?” they asked. “We have  taken very great trouble to draw hither monks and fathers from the West. How can  we allow you to go away?" It was an interesting question, especially as an indication of the deliberate effort to collect literate men from afar - remember Niccolo and Maffeo Polo being asked to bring back 100 Christian scholars as another example. But what could our monks give by way of an answer? 

Well this was what they said:

We have cast away the world. And as long as we live in the society of men there will be no peace to us. Therefore it is right that we should flee because of the love of Christ, Who gave Himself unto death for our redemption. Whatsoever is in the world we have cast behind us. Although your love moveth us not to depart, and your gracious goodness would hold us fast, and your alms are bestowed upon us lavishly; and although it is grateful to us to sojourn with you, we remember the Lord's word which saith, 'What shall it profit a man if he possess the whole world and lose his soul? And what shall a man give as a substitute for his soul?' We earnestly desire the separation, but wherever we shall be we shall always remember, according to our feebleness, both by night and by day, your kingdom in [our] prayers.

Seeing they would not be held unless by force, the two lords now offered gifts, of rugs, gold and silver, and animals for transport, and at first the monks would not accept the gifts, for what were they to do with worldly things of which they had no need? As the lords pointed out in response, they very clearly could and should use those worldly things. The two monks did not know what the two lords did, that the path ahead was a dangerous and expensive one. The climates they made to pas through would be extreme, the risk of natural disaster substantial, and the potential for a violent death considerable. There were levies to be paid, the traveller’s protection money, and there was food needed for 6 months or more, with every potential for the “or more” to extend pretty much indefinitely. 

They would need those gifts, and if they did not, well they could just distribute them among the monasteries they found at their destination. Unable to argue with all of that, Bar Sauma and Marcos took the gifts and took their leave, going then from the city and continuing the journey west. 

In some versions of this story there’s no mention of their being sponsored by Mongol royalty; in others, Kublai himself was the sponsor, giving them clothes which they were to baptize in the Jordan River and then place upon Jesus’ sepulchre. But whether it was he or his extended family members, it seems pretty clear that somebody subsidized the trip, and somebody who required no financial return too. And that sounds like royalty, like people who could afford the costs and be content with diplomatic or religious returns on their investment, and who could also supply them with letters of safe passage.

In his discussion of the travellers’ requirements, Morris Rossabi talks about what was needed to facilitate the journey: “camel grooms, interpreters, baggage handlers, cooks, and guards,” the pack animals themselves, and new escorts for each distinct leg of the journey. For all that the monks insist in our source that they are simple men who need for nothing of this world, some 12-40 other men might have been involved in getting them where they were going.

The monks and their party, whoever may have been included in it, travelled southwest along the Helan Mountains, south of the Gobi Desert. They met fellow Christians and finally found communities that were supportive of their quest, greeting them with warmth and then showering them with gifts to aid them.  

On they went, the next stretch taking them along what’s sometimes called the Southern Silk Road, south of the terrifying Taklamakan Desert, the “Sea of Death.” They avoided the worst of the desert, but still it was “a toilsome and fatiguing journey of 2 months; the region was a bare and barren desert and it was without inhabitants.” It was largely without water too, the text reporting that during those 2 months, there were only 8 days when, with some difficulty, they managed to find water to fill their skins. Sandstorms were frequently reported in the region, and heat-induced hallucinations which, in a place that allowed no margin for error, might easily lead to death. By good fortune or good guidance, our monks would not succumb to either one. They’d be travelling through to Hotan.

That oasis town had long traded on its rich resources in black and white jade, had traded with the Chinese as far back as 200 BCE, and had later developed into a major Buddhist center, and an important link in the spread of the religion. Over time, and after conquest by the Turkic Kara-Khanids and then the Mongols, it had become something else. Marco Polo had reported its population to be entirely Muslim, but the place the monks arrived at was home to a variety of languages and religions. And though the text makes no mention of it, they must have found some friendly faces they could stay with because they were stuck there for six months, a helpful reminder, if any were needed, of how little control you sometimes had over your own timetable, when regional conflicts got in the way. 

We read that the caravan routes were cut by war between Kublai’s forces and some local commander, that grain was scarce, and that many starved as a result. Fighting between Kaidu and Kublai had come to area, and Bar Sauma and Marcos were witness to some of the results when they went on to Kashgar.

Marco Polo had been to Kashgar himself and written of vibrant markets for trade and craft, beautiful gardens, vines, and fruit trees, and the monks would have known it as home to a metropolitan see of their church. But the city they found was emptied of inhabitants and had been picked over by plunderers. There was nothing and no one there for them. At least they themselves were not attacked though. And they would find some help on that front just up the road, in the camp of Kaidu.

They’d reached him by a somewhat circuitous route, adding further weeks to the journey and fording a river, but evading the violence that was all around them in the land. They found Kaidu in Talas, where forces of the Umayyad Caliphate had once clashed with the T’ang Chinese, and where they were now going to need to be a little bit clever in order to come away safely.

Kaidu Khan, just to review, was head of the house of Ogedei and for long stretches held sway over the Chagatayid Khanate too. He was something of Kublai Kublai’s personal nemesis during his reign, a tireless adversary, even outliving Kublai himself to carry on the war against the great khan’s son. 

That was who the monks appeared before to ask for assistance, an imposing figure, one who seems to have wished them no harm, but one was no friend to the rulers they left in their homeland or those of the Ilkanate where they were bound. They could not afford to appear to be too friendly to either, and they same to have done well for themselves. Having prayed for the khan and his khanate, they came away from the meeting with an order of safe passage through his realms. An order which it sounds like they badly needed. 

The text is not specific here, but there is mention of their travelling in “a state of exhaustion [to which] fear was added.” They would have traversed difficult mountain landscapes, where the cold, winds, altitude sickness, and avalanches all threatened, and then deserts and bandits too. They would have passed the skeletons of fellow travellers and their pack animals, and when they came to Khorasan, where present-day northeastern Iran spills into Afghanistan, they had somehow lost much of what they had with them on the road, though whether that was due bad weather or banditry, it doesn’t say. 

When Bar Sauma and Marcos arrived at Tus, something of a Khorasanian capital for the Ilkhanate, they would have found a town that was again thriving following its Mongol devastation. According to Juvaini, the 13th-century historian, Tus had been reduced to “nothing … but the name and there were not more than fifty habitable houses in the whole town and even these scattered, one here, one there, in odd corners.” The Mongol governors had not left the town in that state for long though. During the 1240s they’d worked to rebuild it, complete with gardens, parks, and a restored palace, but our monks indicate none of this, only that they stayed in a nearby monastery where they were welcomed by fellow-Christians, and that they were grateful to god for having delivered them from the worst of the journey’s dangers. There were, they hoped, much easier times ahead of them, with brigandry, inter-Mongol warfare, and some of the more perilous features of the Central Asian landscape now safely behind. We’ll be having a look at those times in just a moment, after this short break. 

Bar Sauma and Marcos were in Ilkhanate territory passing between the Dasht-e Kavir Desert and the Caspian Sea, heading for Azerbaijan. They had planned from there to travel south to Baghdad, and to meet the head of their church, Patriarch Mar Denha, but it turned out that they wouldn’t need to go that far to see him. In the spring of 1280, he was in the area. He was in Maragheh, the site of Hulagu’s capital and of Nasir al-Din al-Tusi’s magnificent observatory, where astronomers from as far afield as Spain and China studied and contributed to an immense library of knowledge. And when our monks came before him, quote: 

… at the sight of him their joy grew great, and their gladness was increased, and their minds were made to be at peace, and their anxious thoughts were set at rest. And they fell down on the ground before him, and they wept as they did homage to him and they behaved as if they saw our Lord JESUS CHRIST in the person of MAR DENHA, the Catholicus. May his memory be for blessing!

And when they had spoken, the patriarch looked and wondered, and he asked, where have you come from? From Khanbaliq, they answered,

… from the city of the King of Kings Kublai Khan. We have come to be blessed by you, and by the Fathers, and the monks, and the holy men of this quarter of the world. And if a road opens to us, and God has mercy upon us, we shall go to Jerusalem.

Over the next few days, I’m sure they rested themselves and recovered from their long journey, and they met regularly with Mar Denha. They asked permission from him to go on to Baghdad, to see its religious sites and receive blessings, and to visit the monasteries of the land, and they were given permission, letters of introduction, and a guide to take them that way. Baghdad, like Tus, had quite recently suffered under a Mongol invasion. The sack of the city in 1258 by the armies of Kublai’s brother, Hulagu, had been a horrifying affair. It’s written that the three days of pillage and general slaughter had perhaps been provoked by attacks on Mongol envoys and the caliph’s unwillingness to immediately surrender, though there is some disagreement over exactly how indiscriminate the killing had been. 

I’d love to have seen a little of Baghdad as it was just over two decades years later, through Bar Sauma’s eyes, but our monks don’t give us any idea of what they saw. They say that they went to the great church at nearby Ctesiphon, where the Patriarch, the Catholicus, of the Church of the East was consecrated, that they went on to the monastery of Saint Mari the apostle. They went to Beth Garmai, where Ezekial was said to be buried, to Sinjar, Nusaybin, and Mardin, Erbil and Mosul, to the shrines of saints, and everywhere they remarked on blessings received, relics visited, and the warm welcomes of their coreligionists. 

Rossabi has speculated that some degree of that warmth was due to mounting hostilities in the region between the Muslims and the Buddhist and Christian communities, hostilities which the Ilkhans seem to have managed in classic colonial fashion. He’s put forward the idea that these Mongol-favoured visitors from afar were seen as potentially being very useful tools in those hostilities. And maybe he’s right, because Bar Sauma and Marcos were not allowed to while away their time in the local monasteries for too long. They had arranged for a cell all to themselves but quickly received word from the patriarch that he wanted to see them, and when he saw them, he said that he had heard they had been received into a monastery and that the idea did not please him.

He was not just happy to see these pilgrims from the east. He wanted to make use of them, perhaps saw in their arrival the apparent blessings of the Mongol khan and wanted to take advantage of it. If you enter a monastery, he said, you shall only be furthering your own peace; whereas, if you stay, you can support the Door of the Kingdom with your hands and aid the entire community. He wanted them to go the Ilkan on his behalf and request a letter confirming his appointment as Catholicus. That business done, they would be permitted to continue on to Jerusalem, as they had wanted to. 

Well, this was perhaps more a case of aiding the patriarch than of aiding the community, but then the monks had at least managed to maneuver their own own goal onto the itinerary even if it meant that they did have to go some 7-800 km out of their way and ever further from Jerusalem. So off they went, from Baghdad to Tabriz for a meeting with Abaqa the Ilkhan, a meeting which is almost casually passed over in the text. 


And when the two monks went to the Blessed Camp, the Amirs brought them in before the King, and he asked them about the object of their coming, and what their native country was; and they made a reply to him which revealed unto him their object. And Abaqa Khan commanded the nobles of his kingdom to fulfil their petition, and to give them the written orders which they had asked for. And the two monks sent the written order which [the] Catholicus had demanded to him by the hands of his messenger, and they and their companions set out for Jerusalem.

And that was the full extent of their audience with one of the most powerful people in the world, within the perspective of the text only a diversion on the road to Jerusalem, only a delay, and not one of the most serious ones.

Their road took them next through Armenian Ani, “the city of a thousand and one churches” with so much to wonder at, and then on  with an eye to finding a safe route onward, but that safe route was not to be found. They heard from people of the region that the way forward was cut by murders and theft, and perhaps by Mamluks. They heard that it was impossible to go any further in safety, and I have to think that this was not a casual mention from a man coming the other way. There must have been a seriously escalating narrative of an absolute bloodbath on the road ahead. Because they’d travelled more than 6,000 km as the crow flies to put them where they where, well north of 7,000 when you start to take into account the actual on the ground movement. They’d come all that way to visit all the holy sites of the region but most especially, it seems from the text, to visit Jerusalem. And now they gave up. They listened to to the warning, very wisely I’m sure, and they turned back. They went back to the patriarch, and he was again very happy to see them, for he had another little job in mind.

But first Denha applied the butter. The two visitors from afar had “received blessings from all the Houses of God, and the shrines which [were] in them, and it [was his] opinion that when a man  visit[ed] them with a pure heart, the service thus paid to them [was] in no way less than that of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.” Besides, it was no time at all to be going to Jerusalem; they had seen that for themselves. These niceties aside, he got down to what he really wanted. He wanted them to travel to China, so he could take advantage of their good standing there.

He wanted Marcos to be made metropolitan, a leader of the Church of the East in China, and Bar Sauma to be given his own office. High honours indeed, but though the monks wouldn’t have known it at the time, being appointed by this patriarch wouldn’t end happily for the last metropolitan in China. Simon had  been named just the year before but, even before departing, had not been thought loyal to the patriarch. Simon was said to have planned to make accusations against Denha to Kublai, and he would be ordered into a monastery in China. He’d escape, only to be recaptured, and then he and many of his followers would wind up dead in that monastery. 

It was a dangerous job, but Bar Sauma and Marcos didn’t need to know of Simon’s sad story to know they weren’t interested in the offer. However, they were going to need to go about their refusal gently, tactfully. His word was the same to them as the command of Christ, they assured their superior, but they had to give voice to what was in their hearts. They had come a very long, long way.

They had come a long way, and they had not done so only to turn back again now. They, quote: 

...[did] not intend to endure a repetition of the hardship which [they had] already suffered. For the man who is tripped up twice by the [same] stone is a fool. And moreover, [they] declared that [they were] unworthy of this gift, and for defective creatures [like themselves], a responsibility of this kind was too difficult.

But unfortunately or them, the patriarch did not agree. He saw the gift as an entirely suitable one, and he let them know it. The monks were out of excuses. Bar Sauma had spent years of his life in seclusion from wider society, but now he was very much involved in its politics, whether he liked it or not. He and Marcos could only agree. 

As luck with have it, however, the same issues that had plagued their attempt at the holy city now reared their head again, only this time in the monks’ service. It was only a few days after the decisions had been made that news arrived that their way home could not be managed at that time. They were wholly cut off from travelling that way for, quote, “the hearts of the kings of the two frontiers were changed.” 

Which was of course all a rather poetic way of saying that the fighting between Kaidu and Kublai, never far from the surface, had boiled over yet again. To go would be perilous, beyond the usual dangers even, and perhaps impossible. Bar Sauma and Marcos would be staying for the time being. But they would be doing so in new and interesting circumstances because before the trip had been called off, the ceremonies had gone ahead. 

A Syriac name had first been chosen for Marcos, the new metropolitan. Suitable candidates had been written down and placed face down before the altar, and then “pious divination” had been used to make the selection. Where Marcos had been now stood metropolitan Mar Yahballaha. Newly credentialed, and one of them newly named, they then retreated back to the monastery, and to the peace they’d been rudely yanked out of. There, the text tells us, “they sat down in their cell for two years, more or less.” They turned their thoughts inward, or at least, I think one of them did. 

It’s entirely fitting, and no accident, that Marcos would become metropolitan and not Bar Sauma. Remember it had been the younger Marcos that was said to have inspired their journey in the first place, and maybe it’s an invention of the text, but it’s worth wondering if Bar Sauma would ever stirred from his mountain retreat were it not for his more ambitious protege. Mar Yahballaha was a man with dreams. 

And this time that dream was again quite specific. He dreamed that he had entered a great church, and in it he saw images of the saints, and among them the cross. He reached out his hand towards it, to receive its blessing, but it receded from him, pulling away and up towards the roof, until he grasped and kissed the cross. And then he went outside, where there were high trees full of fruit, both hard and soft, and he plucked them and ate some, giving others to the people gathered all around. 

When he woke up, he shared his dream with Bar Sauma. What did his older colleague make of it? And I do in part wonder if he was not already very sure of what he’d make of it, if he knew that Bar Sauma would say that his arm outstretched for the blessings of Christ and the saints meant that he was attain a great stature, greater than metropolitan, and that his shared enjoyment of the fruit meant that he was to enjoy a heavenly gift and spread its joy to many people, or something of the sort. 

And the dreams returned. This time, Yahballaha dreamed that he was seated upon a high throne with students gathered before him, hearing his teachings. As he talked, his tongue grew from his mouth, longer and longer, and then dividing into three with fire on the tip of each. The people watching marvelled, and they glorified God. 

This time Bar Sauma told him it was not a dream at all; it was a sign and a revelation that surely the patriarchal throne would one day be given to him, so that he could complete his service. All he needed was an opportunity, and of course, in time it would come.

It occurred to Yahballaha that he ought to go again to Baghdad to receive his blessing, but as he neared his destination, news reached him. Denha was not yet buried, but he was dead. 

Yahballaha rushed on to the church to join the mourners. He tore at his clothes and wept in bitter anguish, falling to the ground in a manner which, though I don’t want to cast judgement at 700 years distance, may have been a trifle performative. The table was set for him to realize his dream, but we’ll get to that next episode, that and the adventures of his mentor Rabban Bar Sauma. 

Thanks for listening everybody. I very much appreciate you joining me on this journey, this one in particular, and on the podcast more generally. I will have another episode out around the end of the month, but this will be my last before Christmas, so merry Christmas, Christmas-y folk, and happy holidays to all of you.


  • The History of Yaballaha III Nestorian Patriarch and of his Vicar Bar Sauma Mongol Ambassador to the Frankish Courts at the End of the Thirteenth Century, translated by James A. Montgomery. Columbia University Press, 1927.

  • The Monks of Kublai Khan, translated by Sir E. A. Wallis Budge. The Religious Tract Society, 1928.

  • Nestorian Tablet: Eulogizing the Propagation of the Illustrious Religion in China, with a Preface, composed by a priest of the Syriac Church, 781 A.D. https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/eastasia/781nestorian.asp

  • Jackson, Peter. The Mongols and the Islamic World. Yale University Press, 2017.

  • Jackson, Peter. The Mongols and the West: 1221-1410. Pearson Longman, 2005.

  • Keevak, Michael. The Story of a Stele: China's Nestorian Monument and Its Reception in the West, 1625-1916. Hong Kong University Press, 2010.

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

  • Rossabi, Morris. Voyager from Xanadu: Rabban Sauma and the First Journey from China to the West. Kodansha International, 1992.

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 humancircuspodcast.com. 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:

...to 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 4: Did You Go to China, Marco?

Marco Polo and Kublai Khan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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