Much of Marco Polo’s early life is still in question, including the place and date of his birth. Marco Polo’s father was one of three Venetian brothers who had formed a business partnership as merchants. Nicolo Polo, Marco’s father, and Maffeo Polo are known to have been at the court of Kublai Khan in the 1260’s. The khan apparently became interested enough in religion to send the two men to request that the pope send Christian missionaries to his land. When the Polos arrived home in 1269, they found that Pope Clement IV had died the year before. They waited for the election of a new pope before setting off once again for China, taking with them young Marco Polo and letters explaining the cause for their delay. They were followed some months later by two Dominican monks, but these missionaries never reached their destination.
According to Marco Polo’s account, his father and uncle hoped to journey to China by sea, taking ship on the Persian Gulf. Finding that plan to be infeasible, they traveled overland to the court of Kublai Khan, passing on their way through lands explored by no other Europeans until the nineteenth century and arriving at their destination in 1275, when Marco Polo was about twenty or twenty-one years old. Kublai Khan, pleased to see the Venetians, made them welcome at his court. Young Marco studied the languages of Kublai Khan’s dominions and entered the service of that great ruler. Traveling for the khan took Marco Polo to much of Asia: into the Chinese provinces of Shanxi, Shaanxi, Sichuan, and Yunnan, and into the areas now known as Myanmar and Tibet. Marco Polo, finding that the khan took great interest in all phases of life, took many notes on his travels and reported in great detail and in person to the ruler, who seems to have esteemed the young Venetian. Apparently Marco Polo for a time served as the governor of the province of Yangzhou, while the two elder Polos served Kublai Khan in the capacity of military advisers.
So important and rich did the three Europeans become that they grew fearful of what jealous courtiers or a new ruler might do to them in the event of Kublai Khan’s death. Fearing the worst, they petitioned for permission to return to their homeland; their wish was not at first granted. However, an opportunity...
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