Marco Polo

Marco Polo: The Merchant Who Became the World’s Greatest Explorer

Marco Polo may be one of the world’s most famous men. He left his home town at a young age to travel to Asia with his father and uncle. A book about his travels was published and became a bestseller overnight, though many did not believe him. There are marvels that we are yet to understand about this mysterious man and what he saw throughout his life. For years the masses argued that he was a liar. However, even on his deathbed he swore he had spoken only a fraction of the truth.

Marco Polo’s Early Life

Marco Polo Travels
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Born in Venice, Italy, in 1254, Marco Polo was a part of a wealthy merchant family. His mother died at a young age and he was raised by extended family for much of his early life. Niccolo, his father, and Maffeo, his uncle, were on the road during his early childhood. At the age of 15 his father and uncle returned from Asia after spending years travelling and selling wares. Upon their arrival home, the brothers set to work planning on their return to Asia. In their travels they had spent time with Kublai Khan, ruler of the Mongol Empire. The Khan had wished them to return as soon as they could and bring 100 priests with them. For the next two years, Marco, his father and uncle planned their return to Asia.

Niccolo and Maffeo had been armed with a golden passport from Kublai Khan The golden passport ensured the family’s safety on their travels within the Mongol Empire. This ‘passport’ stated that horses, lodging and escorts must be provided if and when needed. Failure to do this would result in disgrace, if not more. This item would likely prove useful for their return. The family planned on using their vessel to sail back to Asia. This, however, was made impossible by the ship’s state of disrepair. Stories about the brothers’ travels spread through Venice as they prepared to leave once again. Many Venetian citizens found it hard to believe that there were sophisticated cultures outside the Holy Roman Empire. Not only that, but the Mongol Empire was the largest empire the world has seen. Few were ready to believe that there were people who had progressed further than they had.

The Polo Family Return to China

Marco Polo Journeys to Asia
credit: khanacademy

Finally, in 1271, the Polo family left Venice once again. In Acre they were given proper credentials and who friars were assigned to accompany them on their journey. However, the friars turned back to Venice days after leaving when they reached a war zone. The Polo family continued to modern day Yumurtalik in south-eastern Turkey and passed through Tabrīz, Iran. In 1272 they reached the Persian Gulf and decided against risking sea passage to India. They passed through deserts and eastern Iran before turning north-east and reaching Afghanistan. The three remained In Afghanistan for a year, though the reason for this has been a subject of debate.

Once they left Afghanistan, the Polo family traversed the Central Asian highlands and the Pamirs, in modern day Tajikistan. The family had largely travelled with Muslim peoples so far in their journey through western Asia. On their travels, however, they had also met Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Manichaeans and Nestorian Christians. They reached Kashi (now Uygur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang) after crossing the mountains. From there, they followed the main Silk Road and most likely travelled along the oases. They encountered a different civilization in the province of Gansu, where the people were Buddhist but primarily of Chinese culture. These oases led to Shazhou on China’s border, to a place now known as Dunhuang.

The manner of reaching the Mongol summer capital has been debated. Uncertainty had remained whether the Polo family went directly to the capital or after a detour. Historical records state that Marco Polo arrived at the Mongol court in 1275. However, research done by Matsuo Otagi has suggested their arrival to the Mongol court was in 1274.

Marco Polo Arrives in Mongol Court

Polo Family Arrive in the Mongol Court
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Marco Polo describes in great detail his arrival in Mongol court with his father and uncle. In his books he recalls accounts in a third party manner with exceptional detail. Here, he describes his first meeting with Kublai Khan as if he were an observer.

“They knelt before him and made obeisance with the utmost humility. The Great Khan bade them rise and received them honourably and entertained them with good cheer. He asked many questions about their condition and how they fared after their departure. The brothers assured him that they had indeed fared well, since they found him well and flourishing. Then they presented the privileges and letters which the Pope had sent, with which he was greatly pleased, and handed over the holy oil, which he received with joy and prized very hightly…”

“When the Great Khan saw Marco, who was then a young stripling, he asked who he was. ‘Sir’ said Messer Niccolo, ‘he is my son and your liege man.’ ‘He is heartly welcome,’ said the Khan. What need to make a long story of it? Great indeed were the mirth and merry-making… the Great khan and all his Court welcomed the arrival of these emissaries. And they were well served and attended to in all their needs. They stayed at Court and had a place of honour above the other barons.”

Marco Polo’s Role in the Khan’s Court

Marco Polo on aboat on China
credit: artrenewal

Due to Marco Polo being a master of four languages, he was held in high regard by the Khan. He was quickly appointed to administration posts and even served at the Khan’s court. Because of Kublai Khan’s trust in him, he was sent on various missions to India, China and Burma. In his books Marco Polo described in great detail the Mongol capital as well as the ceremonies and hunting. The summer palace was described as being the ‘greatest palace that ever was’. He claimed the walls were covered in silver and gold and the hall large enough to seat 6,000 people. Its structure was formed from cane supported by 200 silk cords. This structure enabled the site to be taken apart and reconstructed when the Khan moved.

Marco Polo was appointed as an official of the Privy Council by Kublai Khan in 1277. For three years he acted as a tax inspector in Yanzhou and visited Karakorum as well as Siberia. His father and uncle were said to be part of the assault on Siang Yang Fou and constructed siege engines.

Details are sparse as to what Marco Polo and his family did for all the years they were in Asia. He outlines different roles he was entrusted with but gives little more in many cases.

Notable Observations

Medieval Chinese Paper Money
credit: silkroad

During his travels, Marco Polo observed many new things. Some of these were new to the world while others were only new to him. His years spent travelling across Asia showed him and the western world many new things. In fact, these observations from the 1200s are now common practise in the world today.

Imperial Mail

The Imperial Mail system used in the Mongol Empire was a new and impressive system. In his writings, Marco described the communication system as having three grades of dispatch, much like today. Second class messages were carried on foot and couriers had relay stations every three miles. Bells hung on the belts of these couriers in order to announce their arrival. This was done to ensure enough time for their relief to prepare themselves. By doing this, a smooth takeover was more likely and the message could be delivered more efficiently. This method made it possible to cover what would be a 10 day journey in 24 hours. Every three miles at the posts a log was kept and patrolled by inspectors detailing the flow of messages.

Twenty-five mile horseback relay stages were used for first class messages. Similarly, imperial messages from the Khan were delivered via riders. These messages were carried non-stop and carried the tablet with the gerfalcon, the symbol of the Mongol Empire. Riders approaching their post would sound a horn to announce their arrival and ostlers would bring a fresh horse. This efficient method meant that the rider could swiftly continue their journey on a new horse and continue without delay. Marco Polo stated that these riders could travel up to 300 miles in a day to deliver their imperial messages.

Paper Money

Marco Polo was met with those in the Mongol Empire using paper as a substitute for gold or silver. Both young Marco as well as his father and uncle were surprised to learn of this. Ultimately, they deemed Kublai Khan’s stature as a ruler as the reason for the success. “With these pieces of paper they can buy anything and pay for anything. And I can tell you that the papers that reckon as ten bezants do not weight one.”


It should be noted that coal was not a new discovery by any means. Rather, this tells us that despite being an educated man from Italy, Marco was ignorant of many common things in the world. He writes about the use of coal as follows:

“It is true that they have plenty of firewood, too. But the population is so enormous and there are so many bath-houses and baths constantly being heated… would be impossible to supply enough firewood, since there is no one who does not visit a bath-house at least 3 times a week and take a bath – in winter every day, if he can manage it. Every man of rank or means has his own bathroom in his house…so these stones, being very plentiful and very cheap, effect a great saving of wood.”

The Polo Family Leave the Mongol Empire

For 17 years the Polo family lived and worked in Kublai Khan’s Mongol court. In their time there they acquired wealth in the form of gold and jewels, but became eager to leave. The Khan was in his seventies and his death would likely put their life at risk. Upon Kublai’s death, the new ruler would have the power to strip the family of their wealth or their lives. With great reluctance, Kublai agreed to the Polo’s wish to return home. This, however, could only be done if they escorted a Mongol princess by the name of Kokachin to Persia.

Despite the voyage taking two years, Marco Polo gave little description of what happened in that time. The voyage resulted in the lives of 600 people being lost, presumably to scurvy, cholera or drowning. They passed through the South China Sea to Sumatra and to the Indian Ocean. Finally, they docked at Hormuz, where they learned of the death of Arghun, the Persian prince Kokachin was to wed. In light of this, the Mongol princess married prince Ghazan, Arghun’s son. At the same time, the group learned of the great Kublai Khan’s death. His death, however, did not stop the power of his golden tablet the Polo family carried. In fact it was due to this tablet that the family were able to pass through the interior safely. Marco Polo wrote about the tablet’s power in his books, staying:

“Throughout his dominions the Polos were supplied with horses and provisions and everything needful…I assure you for a fact that on many occasions they were given two hundred horsemen… sometimes more and sometimes less… according to the number needed to escort them and ensure their safe passage from one district to another.”

The Polo Family Return to Venice

Painting of Venice
credit: 1startgallery

Eventually the Polo family left Persia and made their way back to Europe. The moment they stepped from the Mongol dominion into a Christian country, they were robbed. This robbery left them with only a small portion of their earnings from their work with the Khan. They reached Constantinople after some delays and at last Venice in 1295.

Many in Venice had thought the Polo family dead. When they returned to their home and were met by the crowd, their stories began to be told.

Marco Polo and His Book of Travels

Marco Polo on his Travels
credit: fineartamerica

For three years Marco Polo commanded a galley in a war against Genoa, Venice’s rival city. During the fighting he was captured and was thrown into prison. There, he met Rustichello of Pisa, a famed writer of romances. The writer eventually prompted Marco to tell the story of his travels and the pair created a book. This book was known, at the time, as The Description of the World or The Travels of Marco Polo. His book became a bestseller instantaneously as it spoke about the strength of the Mongol Empire and many other things. The book ended up becoming one of the most popular books in medieval Europe and made a huge impact.

Although the details mentioned in his books can now be confirmed, this was not the case in his lifetime. His book became known as Il Milione, or The Million Lies and he was given the nickname Marco Milione. The incredible and outlandish details mentioned in his book were, to many, all lies.

The Life of Marco Polo in Venice

Crossing the Sands
credit: edsitement

Eventually peace was made between Venice and Genoa in the summer of 1299. Marco Polo had spent a year in prison working on his book with Rustichello. He returned to Venice and remained there with his wife and three daughters until his death in 1324. Aged 70 and on his deathbed, many still wanted to know if he had truly seen what he claimed to. To this, he replied “I did not write half of what I saw, for I knew I would not be believed”.

In his will he left his family a large sum of money. Moreover, he stated that his servant, who was from the Mongols, was to be set free. Years after his return to Venice it was found that he still owned exotic items from the Mongol Empire. Among the silk and brocades was the Khan’s golden tablet.

Marco Polo’s Importance in History

Map of Marco Polo's Journey
credit: britannica

Still today many people are sceptical as to whether Marco Polo ever made it to China. In his works he never mentioned many aspects of Chinese culture, such as calligraphy or tea. While this may seem odd, it should not discredit his incredible stories. His accounts are confirmed by what we know today, though this may not mean he witnessed these things first hand. Stories of dragons and monstrous elephant-killing birds may seem like a fairy-tale but perhaps they ring true. Entirely true or not, Marco Polo’s works and stories have lived on. Christopher Columbus took a copy of The Travels of Marco Polo with him when he set off in 1492.

” I believe it was God’s will that we should come back… so that men might know the things that are in the world… as we have said in the first chapter of this book, no other man, Christian or Saracen… Mongol or pagan, has explored so much of the world as Messer Marco, son of Messer Niccolo Polo… great and noble citizen of the city of Venice.”

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