Marco and the Polos 7: Marco Polo Comes Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marco and the Polos 1: From Venice to the World

Polos Leave Constantinople

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next, we read that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To See the Mongols 7: Mongol Civil War

Hulagu at Siege of Alamut

In the mid-1250s, Friar William returned from his travels, and the princes of the house of Tolui set about the tasks that their brother, the great khan Mongke, had assigned to them. And these tasks, these new conquests, were not just further acquisitions of a Mongol Empire. Like the fruits of Batu’s successes in the west, to have and to hold, and to pass down through his family, they were legacies, seeds of new and distinct dynasties, dynasties that were soon to grow apart from one another and even lead to armed clashes between the great Mongol families.

The next years were going to bring changes to the empire. There’d be growth, as Kublai and Hulagu stretched it new directions; there’d be real adversity, as they ran up against the Mamluks of Egypt and the Southern Song of China; and there’d be upheaval in the east and in the west as both Batu and Mongke would die and leave room for new faces, new directions, and new conflicts as the far-flung members of the Mongol imperial houses, the descendants of Genghis Khan, would turn against one another: the leader of the house of Chagatai fighting against the Jochid Golden Horde of Batu’s successor, the Jochids against a new Toluid khanate in Persia, a civil war within the house of Tolui over who would replace Mongke as great khan, and then an Ogedeid challenge to the victor’s supremacy. It was, to quote Lone Wolf & Cub and Liquid Swords, a bad time for the empire. But it was not all bad. If the Mongol Empire was growing apart, it at least was certainly still growing. 

Hello and welcome. My name is Devon, and this is Human Circus. At this time, I gently remind you that ratings and reviews are highly appreciated, and that if you choose to do neither, then like Mongke Khan says, “how can we know what will happen?” And of course, as always, donations are always welcome in lieu of reviews. They keep me in hosting money for the podcast, help pay the late fees at the library, and subsidize my crippling mare’s milk habit. That business out of the way, let’s begin. 

We’ve been following Friar William for a few episodes now, so it’s been a while since we’ve checked in with the wider world to see how things are going out there. First though, I want to note that last episode I left the poor friar stranded in Acre against his stated will, saying he’d be stuck teaching there; he would in fact make it to France a few years later though, likely thanks to the intervention of his royal patron, King Louis. He would get there to meet with English philosopher and fellow friar, Roger Bacon, who would write about the meeting. 

That postscript aside, we’re going to catch up on that wider world now, and we’re going to roll that world forward through the difficult process of establishing a new great khan and its ramifications for the many only-slightly-less-great khans who held sway over much of the Eurasian landmass. We’re going to prepare the way for the great celebrity traveller of the 13th century, the Venetian Ibn Battuta, and the star of Italo Calvino’s excellent Invisible Cities, Marco Polo. He’ll be making his grand entrance next episode, and that means we’ll be dipping into yet another fascinating period of turmoil in the ever-shifting Mongol landscape (because it’s really always an interesting time in Mongol history). Today, it’s the rise Hulagu and Kublai. Both will carve out important new Mongol territories and navigate a civil war, but only one will live to join us next episode. 

Checking in with our characters, Mongke Khan was right where we left him, solidly in command of a still-unified empire; Hulagu was invading Persia; and Kublai was conquering the Dali kingdom and administering to his Northern Chinese holdings. Let’s start with Kublai, the subject of one of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s most productive dreams.

Dali, in the Yunnan province, wasn’t an end in itself. It was part of a longer term goal, the opening of a new front on the west of the Southern Song Dynasty, and it had gone beautifully for Kublai. With the assistance of Uriyang-kadai, son of the famed general Subedei, he’d defeated the main Dali army, executed the chief minister and the officials who had unwisely killed his envoys (hardly ever a good idea when visited by Mongol ambassadors), and seized the territory without any unnecessary slaughter of the general population or its ruling family. It was a show of restraint for which the Chinese sources credit his Confucian advisor, and as we’ll see, maybe more critical spectators did too. For now though, the campaign, the first entirely under his own command, was considered a great success, and Kublai settled down to govern and enjoy what he’d earned; but of course his choices in governance and enjoyment were going to have consequences.

Kublai ordered the construction of a kind of capital. It was placed carefully at the edges of the two worlds, of the Mongol pasture and the Chinese agrarian lands. K’ai-p’ing, it was initially called, but you might know it better as Xanadu. The new city was quite a picture of luxury, with its marble palace and its hunting park, and for all its grandeur, it drew negative attention to match. To many Mongols it represented a weakening of the traditional ways, a corruption even, and in its design a worrying sign of Chinese influence over its owner’s thinking. He’s gone soft, they might have said; he’s settled down and become something that smacks more of the conquered than it does of the conqueror; he relies too much on his Chinese advisors, on those Daoists, Confucians, and Buddhists. And they weren’t entirely wrong. Kublai was substantially influenced by people like the astronomer and mathematician, former administrator and still Buddhist monk, Liu Bingzhong. In some ways, their man in the east was not as much like them as he had been. 

Likely there was something of these concerns in the tension that grew between Kublai and his brother Mongke; maybe Kublai’s opponents at the khan’s court whispered in Mongke’s ears that his little brother had succumbed to the softening effects of a sedentary life; maybe they just had to tell him of Kublai’s new palace, and how it threatened to outshine his own; or maybe the charges of financial misdeeds and favouring Chinese laws over Mongol ones really were at the heart of the matter.

Those were the accusations that Mongke’s representatives brought to Kublai and the cause for their investigations, and they hadn’t come to hand out slaps on the wrist. After inspecting the records, they conducted a round-up of officials involved and had them killed, notably sparing those with powerful connections to Mongol nobles but largely following a policy of culling the Chinese from Kublai’s administration, reducing that cultural influence in the Mongol government and at the same time cutting Kublai off at knees. And who knows where the investigation was going, and if it might have crept closer to Kublai himself if he hadn’t intervened, but he had to. He initially sent representatives to argue his case, but then he took the more personal route and went himself, seeking to make a personal appeal to the khan and cut out any considerations of taxes, traditions, and Chinese influence.

And the appeal worked. The histories tell us that at the beginning of 1258, the siblings embraced and erased their differences, but some have questioned this sentimental picture of brotherly reconciliation. There were after all other reasons for the khan to forgive Kublai those little oversteps in his territory. Mongke had big dreams, and he needed his little brother to realize them. His sights were still set on Southern China, and he would need every advantage to succeed; losing the support of Kublai and his Northern Chinese connections might have been something he simply could not afford. 

All this time, Hulagu had also been busy. His own campaign had begun more like a multi-year migration, a more than two year march, and it was an enormous operation said to include up to 150,000 people and who knows how many animals. Resources had to be allotted in advance; actually, land had to be allotted in advance. With the number of horses involved, setting aside and preparing pastures for them to pass through was absolutely necessary. When they approached western Iran for example, the commander Baiju and his men were ordered out of the way and into Anatolia to relieve some of the pressure on the grasslands, incidentally bringing fresh violence into those lands. And it was not these considerations alone that made the approach complicated and cumbersome. 

This was also the last great unified Mongol campaign. Much like when the other princes had ridden with Batu as he carved out his Toluid inheritance, Hulagu was not the only Mongol royal at the party; he had three Jochid princes, a Chagatayid, and men from all arms of the imperial family. As the campaign progressed, he would also have Georgian and Armenian armies with their Christian leaders; he’d have Muslim rulers: the Seljuk Sultan, the Atabeg of Fars, the ruler of Mosul, and many more, with their fighters too; he had siege weapons, Islamicate and Chinese, maybe as many as 1,000 Chinese engineers who operated catapults and naphtha-throwers; there were giant crossbows and trebuchets; there were massive bolts, enormous rocks, pots of “Greek fire,” and explosive devices using gunpowder. All of this enormous war machine was directed first of all at the Persian Nizari Ismai’ilis, the Assassins in their legendary mountain fortresses.

The Assassins had at first submitted to the Mongols and been left alone, but that been before the killing and general lack of cooperation, the murder of of a Mongol general, the refusal of their master to present himself in person to the khan, and the rumoured threat of 400 killers in disguise which had apparently menaced Mongke. The Mongols simply couldn’t afford to leave such a potential enemy at their back as Hulagu advanced, and so they didn’t. They besieged and bombarded Master Rukn al-Din Khurshah in his stronghold. They forced him to submit and then used him to unlock all the other fortresses save only one or two which held out for a whole year. Finally, his usefulness having expired, he and his family were killed. And Hulagu’s forces moved on. 

Next to fall was the seat of the Abbasid caliph, Baghdad. The city had a fearsome reputation, but in truth, its best days were behind it. There is some suggestion that its soldiers had gone unpaid, and that many had for that reason left the city, and there may even have been treachery on the part of a chief minister who was said to have misled his caliph as to the degree of imminent risk while at the same time informing the attackers of his city’s poor defences. Treachery or not, the Mongols and their vassals reached Baghdad in mid-January, 1258, having already destroyed a large part of the garrison, and by early February the caliph and his family had realized the inevitability of their defeat and come outside to give themselves up, but it was too late. The Mongol policy on surrender had been pretty consistent: you give up now, when we arrive or preferably sooner, and life gets to go on; you don’t, and it doesn’t. Letting people call it a day a few weeks into the siege just encouraged the next city down the road to try their luck at resisting too. In such a policy, examples had to be made.

When Caliph al-Musta’sim ventured outside the walls, it didn’t save his city from being sacked. His soldiers were disarmed and they were slaughtered; the men were killed, the children and women rounded up and shipped out, another violent population displacement in the violent Mongol century. In some sources, the number of the dead is as high as one or two million, and even if we discount that entirely, we still need to understand that the chroniclers are telling us that appalling numbers of people had been killed.

There are two stories on the end of Abbasid caliph himself. The most likely version has him and his family feasted by Hulagu before being wrapped or sewn in carpets or cloth and then either bludgeoned to death or trampled by horses so that their noble blood didn’t splash upon the ground. The other, perhaps suspiciously poetic, version has Hulagu gaining access to the caliph’s treasure and then demanding to know why he hadn’t used it to defend his city; in this telling, the conqueror then seals the caliph in with nothing but his riches and waits for him to die in a “see if your gold will help you now!” type situation.

Syria was next. 

Back on the eastern front, some 6,500 kilometres away, a massive and multi-pronged invasion was coming together. Not all of Mongke’s advisors had been keen on the idea of going south; it was hot, they said, and full of disease, unfamiliar conditions, and inconvenient rivers. It’s worth noting that it also represented a politically united giant, managed by an exam-proven bureaucracy, supported by a well-organized tax system, and containing some of the world’s most populous cities, including Lin-an at the top of that list. Mongke would not be talked out of it though. It was, aside from all those things, an incredibly rich prize, and it was besides that within the khan’s destined domains, as was all of Earth. He had the usual rituals conducted, and he set his plans in motion. 

Leaving his youngest brother,  Ariq Boke, at home to run things in his absence, Mongke himself went out with one of four armies in 1257; Kublai, despite questions as to his gout, lead another which was intended to meet up with a third. With the fourth arriving from Yunnan almost 1,500 kilometres to the southwest, they were set to link up around Ezhou. Some 1,000 kilometres to the west of Ezhou, Mongke would be taking Chengdu in Sichuan, but these were big distances they were talking about, and this could never be a quick campaign.

And it wouldn’t be. The summer of 1257 found Mongke in the Liupan mountains, and in the spring of 58 he was taking Chengdu; but then it was 1259 by the time he reached the Chongqing region, and there his progress was halted. There was a fortress on a ridge above a town called Hechuan, and as the rain storms of late spring gave way to heat of summer, disease set in. It was just as his advisors had feared, but Mongke still was not dissuaded.

Meanwhile in Syria, Hulagu’s Mongol machine of death was rolling forward and gathering steam as regional rulers and Ayyubid princes saw the writing on the ruins of the walls and submitted. Not everyone gave way though. Some cities held out, for a while at least, and the governor of Aleppo, Damascus, and Hims, Sultan al-Nasir Yusuf, was not giving in either, or rather he was not doing so with quite the desired levels of speed and commitment. His representatives had been there for Guyuk’s kurultai, and he’d followed up with Mongke and more recently been in touch with Hulagu. But he’d neither appeared in person before Mongke nor offered gifts to Hulagu. His fortresses in northeastern Syria fell first. Then Aleppo suffered a seven-day siege and a slaughter with its citadel holding out for another month. After that, Damascus opened its gates, and it’s said that the Christian Mongol general, Kedbuqa, entered the city side by side with the Prince of Antioch and the King of Lesser Armenia. 

Then - and stop me if you’ve heard this one before - the great khan died, and the future of the whole thing was thrown into uncertainty. Yes, it was Ogedei’s death all over again, and just like Batu had pulled back from Hungary, so did Hulagu from his advance through Syria. There’s some debate over the exact timing and cause of his movement, but it’s known that he left an army under the command of Kedbuqa and withdrew with the bulk of his forces to what we’d called northwestern Iran, west of the Caspian. Things weren’t all the same as they had been for Batu though. He didn’t have a powerful enemy waiting for him back east, as Batu had, didn’t appear to have any reason for delaying matters of succession by his absence, as Batu had. But just like Batu, he was going to stay away. Why?

The answer may have had something to do with Batu actually. You see, Batu Khan, long stable figure of power in the Mongol west, had died. He’d died shortly after Friar William had seen him, in 1255 or 56, and his son Sartaq, confirmed in Karakorum as ruler of the Batu’s Golden Horde and heir to the Jochid rule, had died on the way back west from there. Settling into the Jochid throne now, was Batu’s brother Berke. 

Berke has entered our story before, but only briefly. It was Berke that Batu had charged with seeing Mongke placed on the throne back when that was happening. And William had mentioned him in connection with his disparagement of Sartaq’s Christianity which he found not up to snuff; he’d likewise impugned Berke’s Islamic beliefs as opportunistic and not entirely authentic, more a product of Berke’s base of operations being along a trade route travelled by Muslims than by any deeper held beliefs. But Berke’s beliefs appear to have run a little deeper than William had imagined.

Berke had a number of reasons for opposing Hulagu. In him, Berke was dealing with a fellow Mongol lord, it’s true, but also with a competitor, most immediately one whose land-claims around Azerbaijan and northwestern Iran overlapped with what Berke viewed as having properly been Batu’s and thus part of his own Jochid inheritance. And he was also dealing with a competitor who had attacked a major Islamic centre of culture and power in Baghdad. It was not quite the city it had once been, and tales of the Mongols running the river black with the ink of the books they callously tossed in may have overblown, but it was a major Islamic centre nonetheless, home of the caliph, and its destruction part of a wider campaign against the Islamic realms. Berke, despite what William’s assessment may suggest to the contrary, appears to have been quite angry about Hulagu’s assault on the great Islamic city. 

If land and religion weren’t cause enough, there’s also the fact that three Jochid princes had died during Hulagu’s campaign, and they hadn’t died in battle. One of them had possibly been poisoned, but in other tellings, the three had all been executed at Hulagu’s command after some disagreement over who had authority. It’s a murky chapter in Mongol history, but in some of the sources these deaths are, quite understandably, tied to the outbreak of hostilities between Hulagu and Berke. 

And with these hostilities, we’re finally getting to that moment I’ve been hinting at for some time, that period when the great Mongol Empire begins to split apart at the familial seams and becomes a set of slightly less great Mongol Empires, plural. This was no fleeting division in the Mongol core. This would be open war In a few years between the Jochid Golden Horde and Hulagu’s Ilkhanate, but for now, Hulagu was merely pinned down by conflict and not going east to participate in raising Mongke’s replacement. Actually, he faced threats on two different fronts. In addition to that of Berke in the north, another power also demanded his attention: the Mamluks.

The Mamluks were the Turkic slave soldiers of Ayyubid Egypt who had recently risen against the ruling dynasty and were right in the messy part of establishing their own. Despite the struggles, assassination, and infighting that defined that process, they could still prove more than a match for the forces Hulagu had left behind with Kedbuqa in Syria. And they weren’t mincing words about it either. When they received the Mongol envoys and their demands for surrender and submission to Hulagu Khan, they killed them; they cut their bodies in half and they spiked their heads over Cairo’s gates. It was not normally a recipe for success. It had meant complete obliteration for the Khwarazmian Dynasty, and for others since then, but that was not to be the Mamluks’ fate.

They did not wait locked away in their cities and fortresses for the horsemen to knock at their door. They prepared themselves for war, and when they realized that Hulagu and much of his armies had left the neighbourhood, they went on the offensive. North, they rode, gathering other fighters to their cause including men who’d formerly served the Ayyubids and others who’d fought for the Jochid princes in Hulagu’s great army. They also reached out to their crusader neighbours to propose an alliance.

And this must have been a difficult proposition for the crusaders. In recent years, they’d surely been thrilled to see the Mongols sweeping in like the legend of Prester John come back to life and better than ever, sacking Baghdad, taking Damascus, devastating Aleppo and favouring Christians over Muslims as they did so. But longing for Prester John at a safe distance, all the way to the furthest reaches of Asia, was quite a bit different from having his overpowering armies on your doorstep and spilling over into your house. John of Beirut and Julian of Sidon, Christian lords both, had made raids into the now-Mongol lands and the resultant massacre at Sidon when Kedbuqa hit back had significantly cooled local enthusiasm for the Mongols as saviours of Christianity, and so had Pope Alexander IV’s new policy of excommunication for anyone cooperating with the Mongols. 

All this was then theirs to consider, and though they did not militarily support the Mamluks in their bid to remove the Mongols from Syria, didn’t ride in their company, the crusaders didn’t hinder their passage either. Far from it, they even agreed to resupply the Mamluks at Acre where the army rested beneath their walls. Nothing then stood between the Mamluk forces and Kedbuqa’s Mongols, who came south to meet them. On September the 3rd, 1260, the two sides collided. They were likely roughly equal in numbers, probably 10-12 thousand a side, both heavily reliant on skilled cavalry, and in this contest, the Mongols were about to be out-Mongoled. 

First contact was made by the soon-to-be Mamluk Sultan Baybars. He and the vanguard clashed with the Mongols and then withdrew, thrown, their enemies thought, into retreat. And Kedbuqa’s forces gave chase, as so many of the Mongols’ enemies had before. They rode in confident pursuit until the Mamluks reached a predetermined point at ‘Ayn Jalut, “the Spring of Goliath,” where David was said to have slain the giant, where the plain narrowed between Mount Gilboa and the hills of Galilee, and where the bulk of Mamluks waited in the hills under the command of their leader, Qutuz. There, Baybars turned back about and Mamluk cavalry poured down around the Mongols, the attacker, as had happened so many times the other way, becoming the attacked. 

And for all that, it was still apparently a very close thing. One wing of the Mamluk army was said to have been on the verge of breaking and only rallied when Qutuz threw aside his helmet to reveal his face and called them to his side. He’d be dead soon, murdered by a Baybars-led conspiracy, but his terrible gamble or act of martial defiance in butchering Hulagu’s envoys was going to pay off. The Mongols’ Syrian conscripts abandoned them. Kedbuqa either fell there and then or was taken and put to death, his last words defiant. And his army fled, hunted, before turning again to engage, but they were shattered. 

This was not an ending to Mamluk-Ilkhanid Mongol hostilities; there were interesting times ahead, as the Golden Horde and the Mamluks supported each other against Hulagu and his heirs, and then further shifts as those heirs converted to Islam themselves, but for now, for our purposes, I think we can see why Hulagu may have felt himself too engaged in regional events to make the trip east to meddle in imperial politics. And how was that going by the way? How was that succession playing out?

Not smoothly, one has to say. When Mongke Khan had collapsed on campaign in the August heat, Hulagu had broken off his military engagements, but Kublai does not seem to have done the same, does not seem to have immediately turned for traditional Mongol territory, the burial of the great khan, and the selection of a new imperial ruler at the kurultai. “Let us pay no attention to this rumour,” he is instead reported to have said, “We have come hither with an army like ants or locusts. How can we turn back, our task undone?” Maybe Kublai felt he needed a fresh military triumph to bring to the table for succession talks. His army pressed forward.

They laid siege to Ezhou and were helpfully joined first by Uriyang-kadai’s army, slightly depleted by fighting and disease, and then less helpfully by Song reinforcements. Somehow - it seems the siege was not exactly watertight - these reinforcements made their way into the besieged town, and further months passed. The Song commander, the emperor’s chancellor actually, offered a deal: yearly tribute if only the Yangtze would be acknowledged as the new border; however, Kublai was not interested. What could such a deal offer them now when they had already crossed the Yangtze by force, and could do so again in the future as they pleased? As it turned out, it was going to need to be in the future because there was troubling news arriving, much more so than that of Mongke’s death. Word came from Kublai’s wife that the little brother they’d left at home, Ariq-Boke, was in the process of mustering forces, his intentions as yet unknown.

It wasn’t clear just yet what these forces were to be used for, but it soon would be. Two days after the news had arrived, messengers came from Ariq-Boke, innocently inquiring after Kublai’s health and offering greetings, and they claimed to have no idea of any troops being raised at all. Naturally, Kublai was suspicious. He left generals in charge of the siege of Ezhou and went north to assess matters for himself. Messages were sent back and forth: to Ariq-Boke, asking about the troops and animals being gathered; why weren’t they being sent to aid efforts against the Song? And then back again to Kublai, with gifts of falcons and calming words of reassurance, that an army was no longer being raised. Ariq-Boke is said to have been counselled to soothe his brother’s suspicions, “so that [Kublai] may feel secure and grow careless.” But Kublai neither felt secure nor grew careless. He accepted the gifts and parted peacefully with the messengers as if all was well and his heart truly at ease, but then he immediately wrote to his generals: “Abandon the siege ... at once and come back, for our mind, like the revolution of Fate, has changed.” 

The next escalation was to be that of the competing kurultais. Each man called his supporters to him and announced himself to be the one and only Great Khan; however, these ceremonies were both not quite legitimate, and it was a fact that would return to haunt Kublai long after this chapter in his life had ended. 

There’s some disagreement over who made the first move, whether Kublai was reacting to Ariq-Boke’s declaration, or whether it was the other way around. One version finds Ariq-Boke gathering what supporters were at hand, not near Karakorum where Kublai might more easily strike at him and where such gatherings were traditionally held, but in the Altai mountains where he summered. Though he is portrayed in sources such as Rashid al-Din as the usurper, the schemer, and plotter, he can also be seen to represent the more traditionalist inclination within the Mongol empire, and he had no shortage of support. He counted amongst his allies the old khan’s sons, one of Mongke’s wives, and grandsons from the Ogedei, Chaghatai, and Jochi lines, but it seems doubtful they were all able to attend his hastily summoned kurultai. Even more doubtful than this was his claim to the support of both Berke and Hulagu, but that was exactly what he trumpeted across the empire in an effort to cement his authority and to paint Kublai as the rebel outsider under excessive Chinese influence and trying to manipulate his way to the throne. 

Of course, this would have enraged Kublai, but if the story is true, it’s likely that Ariq-Boke’s dishonesty also drove many Mongol notables away and into the arms of Kublai, the only viable alternative. In this telling, this is the point where Kublai calls an assembly of his own, a kurultai but again not one at Karakorum. His would be at K’ai-p’ing. He likely had Hulagu’s support but that was going to have to be in spirit alone. He did have northern China though, with its wealth of men and resources. He had the army he’d taken to war against the Song. And he had powerful allies, lords like his cousin, Khadan of the House of Ogedei  who was going to aid him in cutting Ariq-Boke off from southern supplies. Kublai was going to try to starve and squeeze the Karakorum his rival had returned to. 

Whoever had gone first, they were both out in the open now with their positions announced, and already they were beginning to take one another’s pieces off the board. An Ariq-Boke loyalist, and Ogedeid grandson, was caught leaving Kublai’s kurultai to tell his khan what he’d seen, and he’d be killed. Meanwhile, Kublai tried to have one of his own supporters set in control of the Chagadaiyid lands, but Ariq-Boke intercepted him and his 100-man escort and had them all killed.

Like Kublai, Ariq-Boke sought to place his own creature in charge of the Chagadaiyids, a man named Alghu; however, he didn’t have quite the hold over him that he thought he did. Alghu was supposed to send supplies once established, but instead he turned on Ariq-Boke and his ally Berke, raiding his territories and substantially expanding Chagadayid holdings at the expense of both the Golden Horde and his former political patron. 

Maybe he sensed the way events were moving. Ariq-Boke, for all the traditionalist support he must have had around him at Karakorum to even contemplate the whole endeavour to begin with, was becoming isolated within the traditional Mongol lands, and that was no longer such a great proportion of the empire.

In a series of battles, Kublai was closing in, and Ariq-Boke was being driven deeper into the north, running low on allies, supplies, and hope, while his opponent now wintered in Karakorum itself. He needed some good news, and he did receive something of a reprieve when a rebellion in China demanded Kublai’s personal attention, but he gained little from it in the end. As 1263 turned into 1264, starvation set in among his army, and his friends became fewer. Alghu threatened from the one side and Kublai the other. There’s a story of a great wind sweeping in and carrying off his own tent and breaking its supporting post. It was not a good omen, and indeed Ariq-Boke did not have great things in the future. He had made his play for the throne, and he’d come up short. Really, there could only be one outcome.

As the end closed in, Ariq-Boke tried to make a last brotherly appeal. Much like Kublai had done with Mongke, he presented himself and asked or peace, submitting to his brother’s will. There, in Rashid al-Din’s account, “The khan looked at him for a time and was moved with brotherly feeling and sorrow. Ariq-Boke wept and tears came to the khan’s eyes also. He wiped them and asked: “Dear brother, in this strife and contention were we in the right or you?” Ariq-Boke answered: “We were then and you are today.”” Morality had been decided in force of arms and political maneuvering. 

Feasting followed, and for the moment, Ariq-Boke took his place among the other princes, but the whole matter could not go so easily forgotten. Ariq-Boke is said to have taken the responsibility entirely upon himself, declaring himself the author of the crime; however, so much damage and strife called for more than one scapegoat. Kublai had his defeated brother’s commanders asked what fate ought to befall ones such as they who had brought about such discord. At first there was silence, and then a senior member among them spoke: “O emirs, why do you not answer ? Have your eloquent tongues become mute? That day when we set Ariq-Boke upon the throne we promised each other that we should die in front of that throne. Today is that day of dying. Let us keep our word.” 

Perhaps the moment was not staged quite so dramatically as that, but it came to the same thing in the end: death for those leading men, powerful, but not enough that they couldn’t be killed in the circumstances. But Ariq-Boke himself was another matter, a deeply awkward one that was to be decided at the kurultai Kublai then called for. He’d won the war. Now, he wanted the prize: the ceremonial legitimization of his authority by all branches of the royal family and perhaps also advice as to the fate of his little brother. His messengers went out, and again I’m relying on al-Din here in saying that it seems the khans all had other pressing matters on their plates. 

Alghu, who the messengers reached first, replied that he too had taken power without the approval of either Kublai or Hulagu, and when all the worthies of the Mongol world were assembled and spoke on whether they thought him right or wrong, then he would say what he thought. Hulagu, who they reached next, said, more or less, that when Berke set out for a kurultai, he would go also. And Berke, wouldn’t you know, had something similar to say: just let Kublai and Hulagu arrange a time and a place, and he would be there. Alghu worried for his own unofficial status, and Hulagu and Berke worried about each other. 

We know that the Jochid lord and his Ilkhanate counterpart would not be meeting in peace in the Mongolian interior. It was open war ahead between them, civil war one might say, and what was broken would never be whole again. And Kublai, he would get neither a proper kurultai to declare his election nor any assistance or at least shared responsibility in dealing with Ariq-Boke. There’d be no moment of mutual guilt, no Ides of March at which he and Hulagu could stick their knives in together.

And maybe Ariq-Boke’s death came entirely innocently, the exhaustion of the losing campaign and an unhealthy lifestyle. It’s possible he was just another member of the Genghisid bloodline with a severe drinking problem and health problems to match. But under the circumstances it’s a little hard to believe he went in peace, in his tent, and by natural causes, that as Rashid al-Din so tersely puts it: “in the autumn … Ariq-Boke was taken ill and died.” Poison seemed likely to many observers then, and it seems likely enough now too.

More deaths followed in 1265 to 67: Berke Khan, ruler over the Jochid Golden Horde; Hulagu, founder of the Ilkhanate that was to become its own Mongol-Persian empire; and Alghu too; he’d taken power of the Chagatayid Khanate rather opportunistically but would then die in the midst of struggles with Kaidu of the House of Ogedei when Kaidu rose against Kublai Khan. It was all falling apart, and there’d be less and less to bind it all together. 

A mighty empire would remain in the east though, and we’ll be going there. There’d be unity enough still for travellers to pass from one end of the continent to the other, and Kublai was going to do alright for himself, proper kurultai or not. He was going to survive those bloody years of the mid-60s, and he’d play host to our next journey. 

In the last years of the Latin Empire of Constantinople, in 1260, a pair of Venetian merchants left that city ahead of a storm and made their way, like William had, across the Black Sea to Soldaia, and, like William, from there they went east. Their names were Niccolo and Maffeo Polo, and it’s their story, theirs and that other, lesser-known, Polo that we’ll getting into next. Thanks for listening. I’ll talk to you soon. 


  • Al-Din, Rashid. The Successors of Genghis Khan, translated by John Andrew Boyle. Columbia University Press, 1971.

  • Asbridge, Thomas. The Crusades: The War for the Holy Land. Simon & Schuster, 2010.

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

  • Lambert, Malcolm. Crusade and Jihad: Origins, History, and Aftermath. Profile Books, 2012.

  • Man, John. Kublai Khan: From Xanadu to Superpower.Bantam Press, 2006.

  • Marshall, Robert. Storm from the East: From Genghis Khan to Khubilai Khan. University of California Press, 1993.

  • Rachewiltz, Igor de. Papal Envoys to the Great Khans.Faber & Faber, 1971.

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