Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 205
Marco Polo was a thirteenth-century Venetian explorer, arguably the world’s most well-traveled explorer, and The Travels of Marco Polo chronicles his journey through Asia as a special envoy to Kublai Khan. Kublai Khan was the rich and powerful leader of the Mongol Empire, and he commissioned Marco Polo to travel...
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- Critical Essays
Marco Polo was a thirteenth-century Venetian explorer, arguably the world’s most well-traveled explorer, and The Travels of Marco Polo chronicles his journey through Asia as a special envoy to Kublai Khan. Kublai Khan was the rich and powerful leader of the Mongol Empire, and he commissioned Marco Polo to travel through his empire and survey the people and their traditions, the flora and fauna, and the geography of the land.
Marco Polo began his travels at the age of seventeen, and he spent the next twenty years trekking across a vast area of the world that most had ever explored. He told the stories of his journey to the narrator of the book, Rustichello of Pisa, and Rustichello relates the tales of the explorer’s travels. He also creates a portrait of what was then the Mongolian Empire as a culturally rich and wondrous land. Marco Polo traveled along the Silk Road, an ancient trade route that wound through Northern China, Central Asia, Mesopotamia, and Eastern Europe. In The Travels of Marco Polo, Rustichello recounts the explorer’s encounters with the people of these lands and the experiences he had that gave him a personal understanding of the various cultures in the Mongolian Empire.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1869
Nicolo and Maffeo Polo set forth on their first trip to the East in 1260, with a cargo of merchandise for Constantinople. From there, they venture on into the lands of the Tartar princes. Having at last reached the court of Kublai Khan, China’s emperor, they manage to ingratiate themselves into his highest favor. During their stay, the khan questions them about the Catholic faith and asks them to return to Europe and ask the pope to send missionaries to his distant land. In the year 1269, the two Polos arrive in Venice. There they learn that Pope Clement is dead, and that Nicolo Polo’s wife also died after giving birth to a son, Marco Polo.
There is a long delay in the naming of a new pope. At last, the Polos decide to return to Kublai Khan and to take young Marco with them. Scarcely do they leave Italy, however, when word follows that Gregory the Tenth was elected in Rome. The Polos at once ask the new pope to send missionaries to Kublai Khan, and Gregory appoints two priests to accompany the merchants. Before their arrival at the khan’s court, the priests turn back when confronted by strange lands and unknown dangers. Young Marco Polo remembers that the journey to the land of Kublai Khan took three and a half years.
Kublai Khan receives them graciously and appoints Marco one of his attendants. In a short time, Marco learns four different languages, and he is sent by Kublai Khan on various important missions. For seventeen years, the Polos remain at the court of Kublai Khan before they express a desire to return to their own country with their wealth. They feel that if the great khan should die, they will be surrounded by envious princes who might harm them. The khan is unwilling to part with the Polos, but they manage to get his permission by offering to transport some barons to the East Indies. Fourteen ships are made ready for the homeward voyage. The expedition arrives at Java after about three months. Eighteen months more are required for the voyage to the territory of King Argon in the Indian seas. During the voyage, six hundred of the crew are lost as well as two of the barons. From there, the Polos take an overland route to Trebizond. En route, they learn that the great Kublai Khan is dead. The three arrive home safely in 1295, in possession of their wealth and in good health.
When the time comes for him to dictate to the scribe, Rustichello, the story of his travels, Marco remembers that Armenia is divided into two sections, the lesser and the greater. In Armenia Major is the mountain said to have been Mount Ararat, where Noah’s ark came to rest. Near this place is a fountain of oil so great that caravans of camels haul away the oil, which is used for an unguent as well as for heat and light.
At the boundaries of the province of Georgiania, Alexander the Great had a gate of iron constructed. This gate, although not all of iron, is commonly said to enclose the Tartars between two mountains.
At Teflis is a fountain wherein hundreds of fish make their appearance from the first day of Lent until Easter Eve. During the remainder of the year, they are not to be seen. Baudas, or Baghdad, known in ancient times as Babylon, lies along the river that opens out upon the Sea of India. The city is one of the great cities of the world and its ruler one of the richest men of all time. He loses his life through his unwillingness to spend a penny of his wealth for its protection. His captor locks him up in his tower, where he starves to death surrounded by gold. In that region, a Christian cobbler causes a mountain to move and, by his miracle, converts many Arabs to Christianity.
In Irak, Marco visits a monastery in which the monks weave woolen girdles said to be good for rheumatic pains. He also visits Saba, from where it is said came the three Magi who adored Christ in Bethlehem. At Kierman, on the eastern confines of Persia, Marco sees the manufacture of steel and products in which steel is used. Much rich embroidery is also found there, as well as splendid turquoises. The Karaunas of the region learn the diabolical art of producing darkness in order to obscure their approach to caravans they intend to rob.
At Ormus, Marco encounters a wind so hot that people exposed to it die. A whole army is once wiped out by the wind, and the inhabitants, seeking to bury the invaders, find the bodies baked so hard that they cannot be moved. Bitter, undrinkable water, the tree of the sun, and the old man of the mountain are all from that region. The old man of the mountain administers drugs to young men to make them think they are truly in paradise. At his orders, they assassinate anyone who is not of the true faith. His followers hold their own lives of little worth, convinced that they will return to Paradise upon their deaths.
On the overland route to Cathay, Marco meets Nestorian Christians as well as people who are part Christian and part Muhammadan. There he finds a miraculous pillar said to remain upright without visible means of support. In Peyn, he discovers chalcedony and jasper as well as peculiar marriage customs. Passing over a desert, he hears strange sounds that are attributed to evil spirits but are later explained as the sounds of shifting sand dunes. At Kamul, he discovers the primitive hospitality of turning over houses and wives for the entertainment of strangers. At Chinchitalas, he discovers the use of material that will not burn, asbestos.
On the borders of the Gobi, the Polos gather supplies for their trip through the desert. They pass close to the land of Prester John and hear the history of the war between Prester John and Genghis Khan. Marco sees the land of Tenduk, governed by the princes of the race of Prester John.
Kublai Khan is a great king who rewards generously those who aid him in the conquest of other nations. Each noble so favored receives a golden tablet inscribed by the khan for the protection of its wearer. Kublai Khan has four principal wives, plus a number of women who are given to him each year. He has some fifty sons, all of whom are appointed to high places in the empire. In the winter, the khan lives in Peking, in a magnificent palace that is eight miles square. His personal bodyguard consists of twelve thousand horsemen.
Greatest in interest among his people are the Tibetans, who produce the scent of musk, use salt for money, and dress in leather. Gold dust is found in their rivers, and among them are said to be sorcerers. Karazan is known for its huge serpents, or crocodiles, which the natives kill for hides and gall. This gall is a medicine for bites from mad dogs.
In Kardandan, Marco observes fathers who take over the nursing of babies. In the city of Mien, he sees two towers, one of silver and one of gold. Bengal he finds rich in cotton, spikenard, galangal, ginger, sugar, and many drugs. The region also supplies many eunuchs.
For a time, Marco holds the government of the city of Yan-Gui upon orders of the khan. Nicolo and Maffeo Polo aid the khan in overcoming the city of Sa-Yan-Fu, the two Venetians having designed a catapult capable of hurling stones weighing as much as three hundred pounds.
Marco thinks the city of Kin-sai, or Hang-chau, so beautiful that the inhabitants might imagine themselves in paradise. There are twelve thousand bridges over the canals and rivers of the city, and the houses are well-built and adorned with carved ornaments. The streets are paved with stone and brick. The people are greatly concerned with astrology. The inhabitants provide for firefighters who keep a constant guard throughout the city. From this city, the khan receives revenue of gold, salt, and sugar.
In the kingdom of Kon-cha, Marco finds people who eat human flesh. He also finds there a kind of chicken covered with black hair instead of feathers. He observes with much interest the manufacture of Chinese porcelain. In his travels, he sees the merchant ships of India, which are large and built in sections so that if one section springs a leak, it can be closed off while repairs are made. On the island of Java he obtains pepper, nutmeg, spikenard, galangal, cubebs, cloves, and gold. Idolators live there as well as cannibals. Elephants, rhinoceroses, monkeys, and vultures are in abundance. He also discovers that the natives pickle certain monkeys so that they resemble dead pygmies. These creatures are then sold as souvenirs to sailors and merchants.
In Lambri, he sees what he thinks are men with tails. He also sees the sago tree, from which the natives make flour. On the island of Nocueran, he visits people living like naked beasts in trees. They possess the red and white sandalwood, coconuts, sapanwood, and cloves. At Angaman, he sees more cannibals. In Ceylon, he finds rubies, sapphires, topazes, amethysts, and garnets. The grave of Adam is believed to be on a high mountain in Ceylon.
Marco thinks India the noblest and richest country in the world. Pearls are found in abundance. The kingdom of Murphili is rich in diamonds. In the province of Lac, he hears that people often live to the age of one hundred fifty years and manage to preserve their teeth by a certain vegetable they chew. In Kael, he finds people chewing a leaf called tembul, sometimes mixed with camphor and other aromatic drugs as well as quicklime. At Cape Comorin, he finds apes of such a size as to appear like men. At Malabar, he finds gold brocades, silk, gauzes, gold, and silver. At Guzzerat, he discovers pirates of the worst character. In Bombay, he buys incense and horses.
Marco visits the island of Madagascar, where the inhabitants report a bird so large it is able to seize an elephant in its talons. He thinks the women of Zanzibar the ugliest in the world. The people do business in elephant teeth and tusks.
Marco recalls how Kublai Khan and his nephew, Kaidu, fought many battles for the possession of Great Turkey. More than a hundred thousand horsemen were brought to fight for each side. At first, Kaidu was victorious. Kaidu had a mannish daughter, Aigiarm, who battled with any man who wanted her for a bride. At last, she seized the man of her choice from the hosts of enemies in battle.
Marco believes that Russia is a region too cold to be pleasant. He speaks of trade in ermine, arcolini, sable, marten, fox, silver, and wax among the natives, who are included in the nation of the king of the Western Tartars. Marco gives thanks to God that the travelers are able to see so much and return to tell about the marvels of many lands.