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Why was Marco Polo important?

While Marco Polo is best known in modern popular culture as the namesake for a children’s swimming pool game, the Venetian explorer was a crucial figure in world history in the years leading up to the Renaissance. His popular book, commonly called The Travels of Marco Polo — though it was originally titled Livre des Merveilles du Monde (Book of the Marvels of the World) orDevisement du Monde (Description of the World) — was a lavish description of his journey through Central Asia and China in the late 13th century. 

Polo’s travelogue was much more than an account of the paths he took across the globe; he also described the people and environments he encountered along the way. By doing so, he introduced his European audience to Asian cultures that were previously unknown to them, and planted the seeds of the modern era’s global perspective. But the book was also filled with exaggerations, supposed run-ins with mythical creatures, and supernatural events. Those aspects, combined with a dearth of historical records to corroborate some of Polo’s more tangible claims, have led some scholars to doubt that he ever made it to China at all. Let’s make some sense of this famed explorer and his influential book.

The court of Kublai Khan

Marco Polo came from a family of Venetian merchants, though historians disagree on whether they actually attained the level of wealth and status commonly attributed to them. Around 1260, his father Niccolò and uncle Maffeo set out on a long journey of their own through the Mongol Empire, which at the time encompassed modern-day Mongolia as well as China under the rule of Kublai Khan, who founded China’s Yuan dynasty. The journey ended in Shangdu, also known as Xanadu (modern-day Inner Mongolia), the summer palace of the emperor. Niccolò and Maffeo were granted an audience with the emperor, and upon their departure, Kublai Khan instructed them to return to Shangdu with 100 priests and oil from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. They arrived back in Venice around 1269, and set out on the return trip to Shangdu two years later, this time with Marco joining them — but with only two of the requested 100 priests. Marco was around 17 or 18 years old at the time.

Over the next three years, the Polos traveled by land back to Shangdu. The route took them through the historic cities of Acre, Baghdad, Hormuz, Kashgar, Karakorum, and Khan Bhalik in modern-day Israel, Iraq, Iran, and China. Along the way, the two priests abandoned the journey, so with the exception of the requested holy oil, the trio arrived at the emperor’s court empty-handed. Perhaps because of this debt, the Polos spent the next 17 years under the employ of Kublai Khan, though it’s unclear whether they remained for the entire duration purely by choice. During that time, Marco was sent throughout Central Asia by Kublai Khan, and given a stamped metal passport to identify him as a special envoy to the emperor.

A prisoner’s account

When Polo returned to Venice, war had broken out with the Republic of Genoa. After joining the war effort, he was captured by Genoans during a naval battle and imprisoned. It was in the Genoese prison where he met the writer Rustichello of Pisa, to whom he dictated the stories that would comprise The Travels of Marco Polo.

The book recounted the approximately 23 years that Polo spent traveling to Kublai Khan’s court, throughout Asia as special envoy, and back to Venice. He described the customs of the ruling family, including their funeral traditions, the common homes he encountered across the empire (lightweight, felt-covered huts), and the typical Mongol diet of horse meat and milk. The book also discusses marriage customs and religion, conventions of war, the justice system, and, perhaps most famously, the paper money used by the empire, which was novel at the time. Contrary to popular belief, though, Polo was not responsible for introducing pasta to Italy, as the dish appeared in Europe before his return from Asia. However, he did reintroduce forgotten spices, such as ginger.

There were also plenty of exaggerations in Polo’s account. He claimed that Kublai Khan’s hunting outfit contained a team of 20,000 dog handlers and 10,000 falconers, and described new year celebrations with a parade of 5,000 elephants and more than 100,000 white horses given to the emperor as gifts. He even told of encounters with sorcery-wielding wizards, weather-controlling astrologers, feasts that included levitating wine glasses, and evil spirits haunting the Gobi Desert — claims that are products of a superstitious era. 

The impact that the book had

When The Travels of Marco Polo was published around 1300, most Europeans knew very little about other civilizations. Similarly, the Mongol Empire in modern-day China thought of itself as chung-kuo, or the center of the world. Polo’s book was enormously popular, and printed in multiple languages, including French, Italian, and Latin. But most readers at the time took the account as fiction — the book was sometimes known as Il Milione, a moniker with an unclear origin that some suggest meant “the million lies.” 

Eventually, however, Polo’s descriptions began to be used as a cultural bridge between the East and West, and helped inspire Europe’s Age of Exploration. Christopher Columbus brought a copy with him during his expeditions more than a century later. And some of the book’s seemingly outlandish claims have since been revealed not as lies but rather as mischaracterizations, such as Polo’s recounting of a unicorn sighting, which was likely actually a rhinoceros, an animal he wouldn’t have been familiar with.

To this day, Polo remains something of a historical enigma. No original manuscript of his book exists, though even an original artifact would constitute secondhand information, since the book was dictated by Polo to Rustichello. Marco Polo scholar and philologist Eugenio Burgio has been working with a team to reverse-engineer the various existing translations of the book into an English-language text as close to the original version as possible, with an intended publication date later in 2024. Until then, what we have are translations of translations of an oral account, which brings to mind another children’s game: telephone. 

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