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Marco Polo
Italian trader and traveler

1254 - ~1324


Marco Polo, an Italian trader and traveler, became famous for his travels in central Asia and China. He wrote a book that gave Europeans some of their earliest information about China, which was then called Cathay.

Marco was born in Venice. His father, Nicolo Polo, was a merchant. Nicolo and his brother, Maffeo Polo, had left on a trading mission shortly before Marco's birth. Marco's mother died when he was a young boy, and an aunt and uncle raised him. They trained him to be a merchant. Besides reading, writing, and arithmetic, Marco learned about using foreign money, judging products, and handling cargo ships.

Nicolo and Maffeo Polo returned to Venice in 1269. The brothers had traveled to eastern Asia and had met the Mongol ruler Kublai Khan in China. The Khan had invited them to visit China again, and so they prepared for another expedition--one that would include Marco.

In 1271, Marco Polo--then 17 years old--and his father and uncle sailed from Venice to Acre (now Akko), a port in Palestine. From there, they rode camels to the Persian port of Hormuz, which is now in Iran. The Polos wanted to sail to China from Hormuz, but the ships available there did not seem seaworthy. The travelers continued by camel across the deserts and mountains of Asia. More than three years after leaving Venice, they reached Kublai Khan's summer palace in Shangdu (also spelled Shang-tu), near what is now Kalgan. The Khan gave the Polos a hearty welcome.

Kublai Khan valued the experience and knowledge of his guests. Marco knew four languages, and the Khan sent him on many official tours of the kingdom. These tours took Marco to China's southern and eastern provinces and as far south as Burma. Marco served as a government official in the Chinese city of Yangzhou (also spelled Yang-chou) for three years.

As time passed, the Polos began to worry about returning home safely. Kublai Khan did not want the Polos to leave China, but they believed that if Kublai Khan were to die before they left China, his enemies might capture them. Finally, in 1292, their chance came. The Khan's great-nephew, the Mongol ruler of Persia, had sent representatives to China to bring him back a bride. The representatives asked the Polos to accompany them on their return to Persia. Kublai Khan reluctantly agreed. That same year, the Polos and a fleet of 14 junks sailed from Zaitun (now Quanzhou, also spelled Ch"uan-chou), a port in southern China.

The fleet sailed to what is now Singapore. From there, it traveled north of Sumatra and then around the southern tip of India. The Polos crossed the Arabian Sea to Hormuz. There, they left the wedding party and traveled overland to the Turkish port of Trebizond (now Trabzon). They sailed to Constantinople and from there to Venice, arriving in 1295. Their journey to China and back probably totaled nearly 15,000 miles (24,100 kilometers). The men had been gone for 24 years.

The Polos returned from China with many riches. Kublai Khan had given them ivory, jade, jewels, porcelain, silk, and other treasures. When they arrived in Venice, the city was at war with Genoa, its long-time rival. In 1296, the Genoese captured and jailed Marco Polo. Historians do not know the details of his capture. In prison, Polo decided to write about his travels. Aided by his notes, he dictated the story to a popular writer, Rustichello of Pisa. Rustichello translated it into Old French, the literary language of Italy at the time. The book was completed in 1298.

In his book, called Description of the World, [excerpt] Polo told about Kublai Khan's prosperous, advanced empire. He described the Khan's postal system, which consisted of a vast network of courier stations. Riders on horseback relayed messages from one station to another.

Polo commented on many Chinese customs, such as the mining and use of coal as fuel. Coal had not yet been used in Europe. Polo called coal black stones. He also marveled at the Chinese use of paper money, which bore the seal of the emperor. At that time, Europeans traded with heavy coins made of copper, gold, or lead.

Printing had not yet been invented in Europe, and so scholars copied Polo's book by hand. Description of the World was widely read in Europe and may have influenced many explorers. It affected Christopher Columbus's estimate of the distance between Spain and Asia.

Description of the World stimulated European interest in Asia and helped bring to Europe such Chinese inventions as the compass, papermaking, and printing [and pasta.] Genoa and Venice made peace in 1299. Polo was freed and returned to trading in Venice.

< See Mongol Empire


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