MARCO POLO, 1253-1324, I

The interest of the Genoese and Venetian merchants in encouraging the exploration of Central Asia—The family of Polo, and its position in Venice—Nicholas and Matteo Polo, the two brothers—They go from Constantinople to the Court of the Emperor of China—Their reception at the Court of Kublaï-Khan—The Emperor appoints them his ambassadors to the Pope—Their return to Venice—Marco Polo—He leaves his father Nicholas and his uncle Matteo for the residence of the King of Tartary—The new Pope Gregory X.—The narrative of Marco Polo is written in French from his dictation, by Rusticien of Pisa.

The Genoese and Venetian merchants could not fail to be much interested in the explorations of the brave travellers in Central Asia, India, and China, for they saw that these countries would give them new openings for disposing of their merchandise, and also the great benefit to be derived by the West from being supplied with the productions of the East. The interests of commerce stimulated fresh explorations, and it was this motive that actuated two noble Venetians to leave their homes, and brave all the fatigue and danger of a perilous journey.

These two Venetians belonged to the family of Polo, which had come originally from Dalmatia, and, owing to successful trading, had become so opulent as to be reckoned among the patrician families of Venice. In 1260 the two brothers, Nicholas and Matteo, who had lived for some years in Constantinople, where they had established a branch house, went to the Crimea, with a considerable stock of precious stones, where their eldest brother, Andrea Polo, had his place of business. Thence, taking a north-easterly direction and crossing the country of the Comans, they reached the camp of Barkaï-Khan on the Volga. This Mongol prince received the two merchants very kindly, and bought all the jewels they offered him at double their value.

Nicolo and Matteo remained a year in the Mongolian camp, but a war breaking out at this time between Barkaï, and Houlagou, the conqueror of Persia, the two brothers, not wishing to be in the midst of a country where war was being waged, went to Bokhara, and there they remained three years. But when Barkaï was vanquished and his capital taken, the partisans of Houlagou induced the two Venetians to follow them to the residence of the grand Khan of Tartary, who was sure to give them a hearty welcome. This Kublaï-Khan, the fourth son of Gengis-Khan, was Emperor of China, and was then at his summer-palace in Mongolia, on the frontier of the Chinese empire.

The Venetian merchants set out, and were a whole year crossing the immense extent of country lying between Bokhara and the northern limits of China. Kublaï-Khan was much pleased to receive these strangers from the distant West. He fêted them, and asked, with much eagerness, for any information that they could give him of what was happening in Europe, requiring details of the government of the various kings and emperors, and their methods of making war; and he then conversed at some length about the Pope and the state of the Latin Church. Matteo and Nicolo fortunately spoke the Tartar language fluently, so they could freely answer all the emperor's questions.

Kublaï-Khan's feast on the arrival of the Venetian Merchants
Kublaï-Khan's feast on the arrival of the Venetian Merchants.

It had occurred to Kublaï-Khan to send messengers to the Pope; and he seized the opportunity to beg the two brothers to act as his ambassadors to his Holiness. The merchants thankfully accepted his proposal, for they foresaw that this new character would be very advantageous to them. The emperor had some charters drawn up in the Turkish language, asking the Pope to send a hundred learned men to convert his people to Christianity; then he appointed one of his barons named Cogatal to accompany them, and he charged them to bring him some oil from the sacred lamp, which is perpetually burning before the tomb of Christ at Jerusalem.

The two brothers took leave of the khan, having been furnished with passports by him, which put both men and horses at their disposal throughout the empire, and in 1266 they set out on their journey. Soon the baron Cogatal fell ill, and the Venetians were obliged to leave him and continue their journey; but in spite of all the aid that had been given to them, they were three years in reaching the port of Laïas, in Armenia, now known by the name of Issus. Leaving this port, they arrived at Acre in 1269, where they heard of the death of Pope Clement IV., to whom they were sent, but the legate Theobald lived in Acre and received the Venetians; learning what was the object of their mission he begged them to wait for the election of the new Pope.

The brothers had been absent from their country for fifteen years, so they resolved to return to Venice, and at Negropont they embarked on board a vessel that was going direct to their native town.

On landing there, Nicolo was met by news of the death of his wife, and of the birth of his son, who had been born shortly after his departure in 1254; this son was the celebrated Marco Polo. The two brothers waited at Venice for the election of the Pope, but at the end of two years, as it had not taken place, they thought they could no longer defer their return to the Emperor of the Mongols; accordingly they started for Acre, taking Marco Polo with them, who could not then have been more than seventeen. At Acre they had an interview with the legate Theobald, who authorized them to go to Jerusalem and there to procure some of the sacred oil. This mission accomplished, the Venetians returned to Acre and asked the legate to give them letters to Kublaï-Khan, mentioning the death of Pope Clement IV.; he complied with their request, and they returned to Laïas or Issus. There, to their great joy, they learnt that the legate Theobald had just been made Pope with the title of Gregory X., on the 1st of September, 1271. The newly-elected Pope sent at once for the Venetian envoys, and the King of Armenia placed a galley at their disposal to expedite their return to Acre. The Pope received them with much affection, and gave them letters to the Emperor of China; he added two preaching friars, Nicholas of Vicenza and William of Tripoli, to their party, and gave them his blessing on their departure. They went back to Laïas, but had scarcely arrived before they were made prisoners by the soldiers of the Mameluke Sultan Bibars, who was then ravaging Armenia. The two preaching friars were so discouraged at this outset of the expedition that they gave up all idea of going to China, and left the two Venetians and Marco Polo to prosecute the journey together as best they could.

Marco Polo
Marco Polo.

Here begins what may properly be called Marco Polo's travels. It is a question if he really visited all the places that he describes, and it seems probable that he did not; in fact, in the narrative written at his dictation by Rusticien of Pisa it is stated "Marco-Polo, a wise and noble citizen of Venice, saw nearly all herein described with his own eyes, and what he did not see he learnt from the lips of truthful and credible witnesses;" but we must add that the greater part of the kingdoms and towns spoken of by Marco Polo he certainly did visit. We will follow the route he describes, simply pointing out what the traveller learnt by hearsay, during the important missions with which he was charged by Kublaï-Khan. During this second journey the travellers did not follow exactly the same road as on the first occasion of their visit to the Emperor of China. They had lengthened their route by passing to the north of the celestial mountains, but now they turned to the south of them, and though this route was shorter than the other, they were three years and a half in accomplishing their journey, being much impeded by the rains and the difficulty of crossing the great rivers. Their course may be easily followed with the help of a map of Asia, as we have substituted the modern names in place of the ancient ones used by Marco Polo in his narrative.