MARCO POLO, 1253-1324, II

Armenia Minor—Armenia—Mount Ararat—Georgia—Mosul, Baghdad, Bussorah, Tauris—Persia—The Province of Kirman—Comadi—Ormuz—The Old Man of the Mountain—Cheburgan—Balkh—Cashmir—Kashgar—Samarcand—Kotan—The Desert—Tangun—Kara-Korum—Signan-fu—The Great Wall—Chang-tou—The residence of Kublaï-Khan—Cambaluc, now Pekin—The Emperor's fêtes—His hunting—Description of Pekin—Chinese Mint and bank-notes—The system of posts in the Empire.

Marco Polo left the town of Issus; he describes Armenia Minor as a very unhealthy place, the inhabitants of which, though once valiant, are now cowardly and wretched, their only talent seeming to lie in their capacity for drinking to excess. From Armenia Minor he went to Turcomania, whose inhabitants, though somewhat of savages, are clever in cultivating pastures and breeding horses and mules; and the townspeople excel in the manufacture of carpets and silk. Armenia Proper, that Marco Polo next visited, affords a good camping-ground to the Tartar armies during the summer. There the traveller saw Mount Ararat, where Noah's Ark rested after the Deluge. He noticed that the lands bordering on the Caspian Sea afford large supplies of naphtha, which forms an important item in the trade of that neighbourhood.

When he left Armenia he took a north-easterly course towards Georgia, a kingdom lying on the south side of the Caucasus, whose ancient kings, says the legend, "were born with an eagle traced on their right shoulders." The Georgians, he describes as good archers and men of war, and also as clever in working in gold and manufacturing silk. Here is a celebrated defile, four leagues in length, which lies between the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea, that the Turks call the Iron Door, and Europeans the Pass of Derbend, and here too is the miraculous lake, where fish are said to exist only during Lent. Hence the travellers descended towards the kingdom of Mosul, and arrived at the town of the same name on the right bank of the Tigris, thence going to Baghdad, the residence of the Caliph of all the Saracens. Marco Polo gives an account of the taking of Baghdad by the Tartars in 1255; mentioning a wonderful story in support of the Christian idea of Faith, "that can remove mountains;" he points out the route from this town to the Persian Gulf, which may be reached in eighteen days by the river, passing Bussorah, the country of dates.

From this point to Tauris, a Persian town in the province of Adzer-baidjan, Marco Polo's route seems to be doubtful. He takes up his narrative at Tauris, which he describes as a large flourishing town built in the midst of beautiful gardens and carrying on a great traffic in precious stones and other valuable merchandise, but its Saracen inhabitants are disloyal and treacherous. Here he seems to divide Persia geographically into eight provinces. The natives of Persia, according to him, are formidable enemies to the merchants, who are obliged to travel armed with bows and arrows. The principal trade of the country seems to be in horses and asses, which are sent to Kis or Ormuz and thence to India. The natural productions of the country are wheat, barley, millet, and grapes, which grow in abundance.

Marco Polo went next to Yezd, the most easterly town of Persia Proper; on leaving it, after a ride of seven days through magnificent forests abounding in game, he came to the province of Kirman. Here the mines yield large quantities of turquoise, as well as iron and antimony; the manufacture of arms and harness as well as embroidery and the training of falcons for hunting occupy a great number of the inhabitants. On leaving Kirman Marco Polo and his two companions set out on a nine days' journey across a rich and populous country to the town of Comadi, which is supposed to be the Memaun of the present day, and was even then sinking into decay. The country was superb; on all sides were to be seen fine fat sheep, great oxen, white as snow, with short strong horns, and thousands of domestic fowls and other birds; also there were magnificent date, orange, and pistachio trees.

After travelling for five days they entered the beautiful and well watered plain of Cormos or Ormuz, and after two days' further march they reached the shores of the Persian Gulf and the town of Ormuz, which forms the sea-port of the kingdom of Kirman. This country they found very warm und unhealthy, but rich in date and spice trees, in grain, precious stones, silk and golden stuffs, and elephants' tusks, wine made from the date and other merchandise being brought into the town ready for shipment on board ships with but one mast, which came in numbers to the port; but many were lost on the voyage to India, as they were only built with wooden pegs, not iron nails, to fasten them together.

From Ormuz, Marco Polo, going up again towards the north-east, visited Kirman; then he ventured by dangerous roads across a sandy desert, where there was only brackish water to be found, the desert across which, 1500 years before, Alexander had led his army to meet Nearchus. Seven days afterwards he entered the town of Khabis. On leaving this town he crossed for eight days the great plains to Tonokan, the capital of the province of Kumis, probably Damaghan. At this point of his narrative Marco Polo gives an account of the "Old Man of the Mountain," the chief of the Mahometan sect called the Hashishins, who were noted for their religious fanaticism and terrible cruelty. He next visited the Khorassan town of Cheburgan, a city celebrated for its sweet melons, and then the noble city of Balkh, situated near the source of the Oxus. Next he crossed a country infested by lions to Taikan, a great salt-market frequented by a large number of merchants, and to Scasem; this town seems to be the Kashme spoken of by Marsden, the Kishin or Krishin of Hiouen-Tsang, which Sir Henry Rawlinson has identified with the hill of Kharesm of Zend-Avesta, that some commentators think must be the modern Koundouz. In this part of the country he says porcupines abound, and when they are hunted they curl themselves up, darting out the prickles on their sides and backs at the dogs that are hunting them. We now know how much faith to put in this pretended power of defence said to be possessed by the porcupine.

Marco Polo now entered the rocky mountainous kingdom of the Balkhs, whose kings claim descent from Alexander the Great; a cold country, producing good fast horses, excellent falcons, and all kinds of game. Here, too, are prolific ruby-mines worked by the king and which yield large quantities, but they are so strictly enclosed that no one on pain of death may set foot on the Sighinan mountain containing the mines. In other places silver is found, and many precious stones, of which he says "they make the finest azure in the world," meaning lapis-lazuli; his stay in this part of the country must have been a long one to have enabled him to observe so many of its characteristics. Ten days' journey from hence he entered a province which must be the Peshawur of the present day, whose dark-skinned inhabitants were idolaters; then after seven days' further march, about mid-day he came to the kingdom of Cashmere, where the temperature is cool, and towns and villages are very numerous. Had Marco Polo continued his route in the same direction he would soon have reached the territory of India, but instead of that he took a northerly course, and in twelve days was in Vaccan, a land watered by the Upper Oxus, which runs through splendid pastures, where feed immense flocks of wild sheep, called mufflons. Thence he went through a mountainous country, lying between the Altai and Himalayan ranges to Kashgar. Here Marco Polo's route is the same as that of his uncle and his father during their first voyage, when from Bokhara they were taken to the residence of the great khan. From Kashgar, Marco Polo diverged a little to the west, to Samarcand, a large town inhabited by Saracens and Christians, then to Yarkand, a city frequented by caravans trading between India and Northern Asia; passing by Khotan, the capital of the province of that name, and by Pein, a town whose situation is uncertain, but in a part of the country where chalcedony and jasper abound. He came to the kingdom of Kharachar, which extends along the borders of the desert of Jobe; then after five days' further travelling over sandy plains, where there was no water fit to drink, he rested for eight days in the city of Lob, a place now in ruins, while he prepared to cross the desert lying to the east, "so great a desert," he says, "that it would require a year to traverse its whole length, a haunted wilderness, where drums and other instruments are heard, though invisible."

After spending a year crossing this desert, Marco Polo reached Tcha-tcheou, in the province of Tangaut, a town built on the western limits of the Chinese empire. There are but few merchants here, the greater part of the population being agricultural. The custom that seems to have struck him the most in the province of Tangaut, was that of burning their dead only on a day fixed by the astrologers; "all the time that the dead remain in their houses, the relations stay there with them, preparing a place at each meal as well as providing both food and drink for the corpse, as though it were still alive."

Marco Polo and his companions made an excursion to the north-east, to the city of Amil, going on as far as Ginchintalas, a town inhabited by idolaters, Mahometans, and Nestorian Christians, whose situation is disputed. From this town Marco Polo returned to Tcha-tcheou, and went eastward across Tangaut, by the town of So-ceu, over a tract of country particularly favourable to the cultivation of rhubarb, and by Kanpiceon, the Khan-tcheou of the Chinese, then the capital of the province of Tangaut, an important town, whose numerous chiefs are idolaters and polygamists. The three Venetians remained a year in this large city; it is easy to understand, from their long halts and deviations, why they required three years for their journey across Central Asia.

They left Khan-tcheou, and after riding for twelve days they reached the borders of a sandy desert, and entered the city of Etzina. This was another détour, as it lay directly north of their route, but they wished to visit Kara-Korum, the celebrated capital of Tartary, where Rubruquis had been in 1254. Marco Polo was certainly an explorer by nature; fatigue was nothing to him if he had any geographical studies to complete, which is proved by his spending forty days crossing an uninhabited desert without vegetation, in order to reach the Tartar town.

When he arrived there, he found a city measuring three miles in circumference, which had been for a long time the capital of the Empire, before it was conquered by Gengis-Khan, the grandfather of the reigning emperor. Here Marco Polo makes an historical digression, in which he gives an account of the wars of the Tartar chiefs against the famous Prester John who held all this part of the country under his dominion.

Marco Polo after returning to Khan-tcheou left it again, marching five days towards the east, and arriving at the town of Erginul. Thence he went a little to the south to visit Sining-foo, across a tract of country where grazed great wild oxen and the valuable species of goat which is called the "musk-bearer." Returning to Erginul, they went eastward to Cialis, where there is the best manufactory of cloth made from camels' hair in the world, to Tenduc, a town in the province of the same name, where a descendant of Prester John reigned, but who had given in his submission to the great khan; this was a busy flourishing town: from hence the travellers went to Sinda-tchou, and on beyond the great wall of China as far as Ciagannor, which must be Tzin-balgassa, a pretty town where the emperor lives when he wishes to hawk; for cranes, storks, pheasants, and partridges abound in this neighbourhood.

At last Marco Polo, his father, and his uncle, reached Ciandu or Tchan-tchou of the present day, called elsewhere in this narrative Clemen-foo. Here Kublaï-Khan received the papal envoys, for he was occupying his summer palace beyond the great wall, north of Pekin, which was then the capital of the empire. The traveller does not tell us what reception he met with, but he describes most carefully the palace, the grandeur of the building of stone and marble, standing in the middle of a park surrounded by walls, enclosing menageries and fountains. Also a building made of reeds, so closely interlaced as to be impenetrable to water; it was a sort of movable kiosk that the great khan inhabited during the fine months of June, July, and August. The weather during the emperor's sojourn in this summer palace could not but be beautiful, for, according to Marco Polo, the astrologers who were attached to the khan's court were charged to scatter all rain and fog by their sorcery, and the travellers seem to believe in the power of these magicians. "These astrologers," he says, "belong to two races, both idolaters; they are learned in all magic and enchantments, above any other men, and what they do is done by the aid of the devil, but they make others believe that they owe their power to the help of God, and their own holiness. These people have the following strange custom: when a man has been condemned and put to death, they take the body, cook, and eat it; but in the case of a natural death they do not eat the body. And you must know that these people of whom I am speaking, who know so many kinds of enchantments, work the wonder I am about to relate. When the great khan is seated at dinner in the principal dining-hall, the table of which is eight cubits in length, and the cups are on the floor ten paces from the table, filled with wine, milk, and other good beverages, these clever magicians, by their arts, make these cups rise by themselves, and without any one touching them, they are placed before the great khan. This has been done before an immense number of people, and is the exact truth; and those skilled in necromancy will tell you that it is quite possible to do this."

Marco Polo next gives a history of Kublaï, whom he considers to possess more lands and treasures than any man since our first father, Adam. He tells how the great khan ascended the throne in the year 1256, being then eighty-five; he was a man of middle height, rather stout, but of a fine figure, with a good complexion and black eyes. He was a good commander in war, and his talents were put to the proof when his uncle Naïan, having rebelled against him, wished to dispute his power at the head of 400,000 cavalry. Kublaï-Khan collected (in secret) a force of 300,000 horsemen, and 100,000 foot-soldiers, and marched against his uncle. The battle was a most terrible one, so many men being killed, but the khan was victorious, and Naïan, as a prince of the blood royal, was condemned to be sewn up tightly in a carpet, and died in great suffering. After his victory the khan made a triumphal entry into Cathay, capital of Cambaluc, or, as it is now called, Pekin. When Marco Polo arrived at this city he made a long stay there, remaining until the emperor needed his services to undertake various missions into the interior of China. The emperor had a splendid palace at Cambaluc, and the traveller gives so graphic an account of the riches and magnificence of the Mongol sovereigns, that we give it word for word. "The palace is surrounded by a great wall, a mile long each way, four miles in length altogether, very thick, ten feet in height, all white and battlemented. At each corner of this wall is a palace beautiful and rich, in which all the trappings of war belonging to the great khan are kept; his bows, quivers, the saddles and bridles of the horses, the bow-strings, in fact everything that would be wanted in time of war; in the midst of each square is another building, like those at the corner, so that there are eight in all, and each building contains one particular kind of harness or trapping. In the wall on the south side are five doors, the middle or large door only being opened when the emperor wishes to go in or out; near this great gate on either side is a smaller one through which other people may pass, and two others for the same purpose. Inside this wall is another, having also eight buildings to be used in the same manner."

Plan of Pekin
Plan of Pekin.

Thus we see that all these buildings constituted the emperor's armoury and harness-store; we shall not be surprised that there was so much harness to be kept when we know that the emperor possessed a race of horses white as snow, and among them ten thousand mares, whose milk was reserved for the sole use of princes of the blood royal.

The Emperor's palace at Pekin
The Emperor's palace at Pekin.

Marco Polo continues his narrative thus:—"The inner wall has five gates on the south side, answering to those in the outer wall, but on the other sides the walls have only one gate each. In the centre of the enclosure made by these walls, stands the palace, the largest in the world. It has no second story, but the ground-floor is raised about eight feet above the ground. The roof is very high, the walls of the rooms are covered with gold and silver, and on this gold and silver are paintings of dragons, birds, horses, and other animals, so that nothing can be seen but gilding and pictures. The dining-hall is large enough to hold 6000 men, and the number of other rooms is marvellous, and all is so well arranged that it could not be improved. The ceilings are painted vermillion, green, blue, yellow, and all kinds of colours, varnished so as to shine like crystal, and the roof is so well built that it will last for many years. Between the two walls the land is laid out in fields with fine trees in them, containing different species of animals, the musk-ox, white deer, roe-buck, fallow-deer, and other animals, who fill the space between the walls, except the roads reserved for human beings. On the north-western side is a great lake, full of fishes of divers kinds, for the great khan has had several species placed there, and each time that he desires it to be done, he has his will in it. A river rises in this lake and flows out from the grounds of the palace, but no fish escape in it, there being iron and brass nets to prevent their doing so. On the northern side, near an arched doorway, the emperor has had a mound made, a hundred feet in height and more than a mile in circumference; it is covered with evergreen trees, and the emperor, being very fond of horticulture, whenever he hears of a fine tree, sends for it and has it brought by his elephants, with the roots and surrounding soil, the size of the tree being no impediment, and thus he has the finest collection of trees in the world. The hill is called 'green hill,' from its being covered with evergreen trees and green turf, and on the top of the hill is a house. This hill is altogether so beautiful that it is the admiration of every one."

After Marco Polo has concluded his description of this palace, he gives one of that of the emperor's son and heir; then he speaks of the town of Cambaluc, the old town which is separated from the modern town of Taidu by a canal, the same which divides the Chinese and Tartar quarters of Pekin. The traveller gives many particulars of the emperor's habits, and among other things, he says that Kublaï-Khan has a body-guard of 2000 horse-soldiers; but he adds, "it is not fear that causes him to keep this guard." His meals are real ceremonies, and etiquette is most rigidly enforced. His table is raised above the others, and he always sits on the north side with his principal wife on his right, and lower down his sons, nephews, and relations; he is waited upon by noble barons, who are careful to envelope their mouths and noses in fine cloth of gold, "so that their breath and their odour may not contaminate the food or drink of their lord." When the emperor is about to drink, a band of music plays, and when he takes the cup in his hand, all the barons and every one present, fall on their knees.

The principal fêtes given by the grand khan were on the anniversary of his birth, and on the first day of the year. At the first, 12,000 barons were accustomed to assemble round the throne, and to them were presented annually 150,000 garments made of gold and silk and ornamented with pearls, whilst the subjects, idolaters as well as Christians, offered up public prayers. At the second of these fêtes, on the first day of the year, the whole population, men and women alike, appeared dressed in white, following the tradition that white brings good fortune, and every one brought gifts to the king of great value. One hundred thousand richly-caparisoned horses, five thousand elephants covered with handsome cloths and carrying the imperial plate, as well as a large number of camels, passed in procession before the emperor.

During the three winter months of December, January, and February, when the khan is living in his winter palace, all the nobles within a radius of sixty days' march are obliged to supply him with boars, stags, fallow-deer, roes, and bears. Besides, Kublaï is a great huntsman himself, and his hunting-train is superbly mounted and kept up. He has leopards, lynxes and fine lions trained to hunt for wild animals, eagles strong enough to chase wolves, foxes, fallow and roe-deer, and, as Marco Polo says, "often to take them too," and his dogs may be counted by thousands. It is about March when the emperor begins his principal hunting in the direction of the sea, and he is accompanied by no less than 10,000 falconers, 500 gerfalcons, and many goshawks, peregrine, and sacred falcons. During the hunting excursion, a portable palace, covered outside with lions' skins and inside with cloth of gold, and carried on four elephants harnessed together, accompanies the emperor everywhere, who seems to enjoy all this oriental pomp and display. He goes as far as the camp of Chachiri-Mongou, which is situated on a stream, a tributary of the river Amoor, and the tent is set up, which is large enough to hold ten thousand nobles. This is his reception-saloon where he gives audiences; and when he wishes to sleep he goes into a tent which is hung all round with ermine and sable furs of almost priceless value. The emperor lives thus till about Easter, hunting cranes, swans, hares, stags, roebucks, &c., and then returns to his capital, Cambaluc.

Marco Polo now completes his description of this fine city and enumerates the twelve quarters it contains, in many of which the rich merchants have their palatial houses, for commerce flourishes in this town, and more valuable merchandise is brought to it than to any other in the world. It is the depôt and market for the richest productions of India, such as pearls and precious stones, and merchants come from long distances round to purchase them. The khan has established a mint here for the benefit of trade, and it is an inexhaustible source of revenue to him. The bank-notes, sealed with the emperor's seal, are made of a kind of card-board manufactured from the bark of the mulberry-tree. The card-board thus prepared is cut into various thicknesses according to the value of the money it is supposed to represent. The currency of this money is enforced, none daring to refuse it "on pain of death;" the emperor using it in all his payments, and enforcing its circulation throughout his dominions. Besides this, several times in the year the possessors of precious stones, pearls, gold, or silver, are obliged to bring their treasures to the mint and receive in exchange for them these pieces of card-board, so that, in fact, the emperor becomes the possessor of all the riches in his empire.

According to Marco Polo the system of the Imperial Government was wonderfully centralized. "The kingdom is divided into thirty-four provinces, and is governed by twelve of the greatest barons living in Cambaluc; in the same palace also reside the intendants and secretaries, who conduct the business of each province. From this central city a great number of roads diverge to the various parts of the kingdom, and on these roads are now post-houses stationed at intervals of twenty-two miles, where well-mounted messengers are always ready to carry the emperor's messages. Besides this, at every three miles on the road there is a little hamlet of about fourteen houses where the couriers live, who carry messages on foot; these men wear a belt round their waists and have a girdle with bells attached to it, that are heard at a long distance; they start at a gallop, quickly accomplishing the three miles and giving the message to the courier who is waiting for it at the next hamlet; thus the emperor receives news from places at long distances from the capital in a comparatively short time." This mode of communication also involved but small expense to Kublaï-Khan, as the only remuneration he gave these couriers was their exemption from taxation, and as to the horses, they were furnished gratuitously by the provinces.

But if the emperor used his power in this manner to lay heavy burdens upon his subjects, he exerted himself actively for their good, and was always ready to help them; for instance, when their crops were damaged by hail-storms, he not only remitted all taxes, but gave them corn from his own stores, and when there was any great mortality among the flocks and herds in any particular province, he always replaced them at his own expense. He was careful to have a large quantity of wheat, barley, millet, and rice, stored up in years of abundant harvest, so as to keep the price of grain at a uniform rate when the harvest failed. He was particularly careful of the poor who lived in Cambaluc. "He had a list made of all the poorest houses in the town, where they were usually short of food, and supplied them liberally with wheat and other grain according to the size of their families, and bread was never refused to any applying at the palace for it; it is computed that at least 30,000 persons avail themselves of this daily throughout the year. His kindness to his poor subjects makes them almost worship him." The whole affairs of the empire are administered with great care, the roads well kept up and planted with fine trees, so that from a distance their direction can easily be traced. There is no want of wood, and in Cathay they work a number of coal-pits which supply abundance of coal.

Map of the World according to Marco Polo's ideas

Marco Polo remained a long time at Cambaluc, and his intelligence, spirit, and readiness in adapting himself, made him a great favourite with the emperor. He was intrusted with various missions, not only in China, but also to places on the coast of India, Ceylon, the Coromandel and Malabar coasts, and a part of Cochin-China near Cambogia, and between the years 1277 and 1280 he was made governor of Yang-tcheou, and of twenty-seven other towns which were joined with it under the same government. Thanks to the missions on which he was sent, he travelled over an immense extent of country, and gained a great amount of ethnological and geographical knowledge. We can now follow him map in hand through some of these journeys, which were of the greatest service to science.