1254 – 1324
Venetian (Italian) Traveler
Exploration Ranking 8th of 26
700th anniversary of Marco Polo's birth. Map depicts his
journey from Italy to China in 1275. Italian stamp from 1954.
In 1275, Marco Polo became one of the first Europeans to arrive in China. His account of his experience in China was the most widely read book after the Bible(1) and established the image of China among Europeans for hundreds of years. Polo is one of the most influential travel writers of all time.(2) Also, his book gave considerable impetus to the Europeans’ (including Christopher Columbus’) quest for the riches of the East (i.e. Asia).(3) For centuries, Europe’s maps of the Far East were based on the information provided by Marco Polo.
Polo’s book remained hugely influential because by the fifteenth century almost all direct links with the East were severed.(4) The Mongol Empire collapsed, the Ming dynasty, after the spectacular voyages of Zheng He, had been seized by xenophobia and closed its frontiers. With the exception of Conti’s reports (fifteenth century traveler from Italy), almost all European knowledge was nearly two hundred years old. Islam hemmed Christian Europe in. The Ottomans crossed into Europe and barricaded the land routes. The Mamluk dynasty, in Cairo, controlled the desirable wealth of the East and traded it through Alexandria and Damascus at monopoly prices. Of the exact sources of the spices, silks, and pearls sold to the Venetians and Genoese, there were only muffled rumors.
In 1271, Marco, seventeen, set off with his father and uncle for China. About eight years earlier, Marco’s father and uncle passed through China, returning to Europe with a friendly letter for the Pope from Kublai Khan, the Mongol ruler in China. This time they reached Peking (now Beijing), China after three and a half years of traveling. They were again made welcome and Kublai Khan was particularly impressed by young Marco–-so much so that he employed him as a representative of the imperial court. Marco went on many diplomatic missions, to such places as Malaya, Sumatra, Tibet and Sri Lanka, on behalf of Kublai Khan. He even recorded a journey to Burma and India. The Polos stayed in the service of Kublai Khan for seventeen years.
In 1292, they decided it was time to leave. They sailed to Hormuz, at the entrance to the Persian Gulf, in Chinese boats called junks. From there they went by land to Trebizond and sailed back to Venice via Constantinople (modern Istanbul). In all, the journey took three years, and when they finally arrived back in Venice, they had been away for twenty-four years. Marco was forty-one when he returned. He married and became a merchant like his father and uncle.
(1) Mankind: The Story of All of Us, Chapter – Survivors, Part 4 – Dream To Sail West, DVD, 2012, A & E Television Networks.
(2) Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Pathfinders: A Global History of Exploration (New York, 2006), p. 80.
(3) Kenneth Nebenzahl, Atlas of Columbus and the Great Discoveries (New York, 1990), p. 7.
(4) Roger Crowley, Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire (New York, 2015). p. 16.
1. Polo’s Il Milione (“The Million”) known in English as the Travels of Marco Polo, c. 1300, originally in Franco-Italian.
2. Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu by Laurence Bergreen, 2007.