Chinese History Lessons
It is the year 1298. A sailor from Venice named Rustichello is in a jail in Genoa, listening to incredible stories from a fellow prisoner. Rustichello and the other man were captured in a sea battle between Genoa and Venice, two Italian city-states at war over control over trade routes in the Mediterranean Sea. The fellow prisoner described a twenty-four year journey, during which he worked for a rich and powerful ruler in a faraway land we now call China. Rustichello wrote romance novels before he went to sea, so he used his talents to compile a book he called Description of the World. It is better known, however, as the Travels of Marco Polo.
Marco Polo reported that he was fifteen years old when he first met his father in 1269. Nicoló Polo and his brother Maffeo were merchants from the Italian port city of Venice. The Polo brothers often traveled to the grand city of Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey), where they traded goods with merchants from many nearby ports on the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea. Marco's father and uncle continued east from Constantinople to trade in markets along the Silk Road. The Silk Road was a network of trade routes that connected Europe with China. When the brothers attempted to return, they found their route was blocked by a conflict between two local warlords. A Mongol diplomat liked Nicoló and Maffeo, so he invited the Polo brothers to travel east to meet Kublai Khan, the king of all Mongols in his palace in faraway China.
After three years of travel, the brothers reached the palace of Kublai Khan. The Mongol leader was impressed with Nicoló and Maffeo and the stories the brothers told of their Christian faith. Kublai Khan asked the Polo brothers to return to his palace with 100 Christian scholars and oil from a holy lamp in Jerusalem. The brothers told the great khan the oil had magic healing powers. The khan then gave the brothers a golden tablet. The tablet announced that the brothers represented the great Mongol ruler and guaranteed his protection on their dangerous journey home.
Nicoló and Maffeo Polo returned home to prepare for a second journey, but this time they took along Nicoló's son, Marco. The Polos visited Pope Gregory, the head of their church. The Pope gave the Polos many gifts to deliver to Kublai Khan, but instead of 100 scholars, Gregory sent only two friars. At the time of Marco Polo, friars were members of the clergy, but friars did not share the status or education of a priest. A friar was addressed as brother while a priest was called father. The friars began the journey with the Polos, but when they saw the dangers they faced on the Silk Road, the representatives of the pope returned home.
The Polo’s four-year journey across the Silk Road provided Marco with first-hand experience of the many cultures of the Middle East and Asia. Their journey ended once again at the palace of Kublai Khan, a ruler of a vast and rich land that was unknown to all but a few Europeans.
Marco Polo described Kublai Khan as "the greatest lord the world had ever known." Marco described the khan's palace as being surrounded by walls that were four miles long. The palace was decorated with gold and silver and the walls were adorned with beautiful pictures.
Kublai Khan did not trust many of his advisors, so he sent Marco to govern a Chinese city for three years. The Polo family became rich by trading in jewelry and gold, but Kublai Khan would not allow the Polos to return home for seventeen years. An opportunity arose in 1292, when Kublai Khan asked the family to escort a young woman to Persia to be the bride of one of Kublai's nephews. Persia was an ancient kingdom far west of China, but near the Polos’ home in Venice.
Marco Polo reported that thirteen ships carrying six hundred passengers left China, but by the time the party reached Persia, only eighteen passengers were still alive. They also learned that Kublai Khan's nephew had already died by the time they arrived. After leaving Persia, the Polos returned home to Venice in 1295-- after a journey of twenty-four years.
Soon after the Polos returned home, Venice went to war with the rival city-state of Genoa. Marco Polo went to sea, but he was captured by Genoa and put in the prison where he met Rustichello.
The Description of the World was written before the invention of the printing press, so copies were made by hand. The book delighted its readers and stimulated interest in China and the Silk Road. Two centuries later, Christopher Columbus studied the book closely before beginning his journey in 1492 to what he thought would be Asia.
Some observers saw Marco Polo as an astute observer with a keen memory. Some of his most fantastic claims are easy for us to understand today. Marco Polo described paper money, which was unknown in Venice, but had been used by the Chinese for more than a thousand years. He described a spring that gushed a stream of oil. The oil could not be tasted, but it was good for burning. Marco may have been describing petroleum oil, which is used to make gasoline, plastic and other products.
Others argue that Marco Polo made up his stories based on gossip and stories he heard. Marco Polo reported seeing unicorns and gave a first-hand description of a battle that occurred years before he left Venice. Marco failed to mention the Great Wall of China, tea, or rice. The Chinese have no records of the Polo family, and it is unlikely Marco could have been a governor. Many people described Marco Polo's book as Il Milione ("The Million") for they claimed that it contained a million lies. As an old man, Marco was asked if he invented the stories in his book. His answer was that he barely told half of what he actually saw.
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