Marco Polo, the infamous thirteenth century Venetian traveller, holds honour for being one of the first Europeans to travel Asia during the MiddleAges. While most may be familiar with the popular swimming pool game ‘Marco Polo’, few will be acquainted with the real Marco Polo’s adventures and attainments.
Marco, born in 1254 into a wealthy, merchant family, travelled further than any of his predecessors during his twenty four year journey along the Silk Road. Alongside his father, uncle and two missionaries,Marco left Venice for Cathay (now known as China) in 1271 and returned to Venice in 1295, but just what did Marco’s adventures entail?
In 1269, the Mongol prince Kublai Khan sent Niccolo and Maffeo Polo – Marco’s father and uncle – to Rome as his messengers with a request that the Pope send one hundred Europeans to share their knowledge with him. Despite the failure of the Pope to grant this request, Niccolo and Maffeo set out to return to China in 1271 in search of adventure and profit.
Due to the passing of his mother, this return journey marked the debut of the seventeen year old Marco Polo as a traveller. This voyage, lasting just over three years, took the Polo’s primarily overland, allowing them to travel through places such as Persia and Afghanistan before cutting across the Gobi Desert to Beijing.
Kublai Khan welcomed their return and they spent the next seventeen years there. The Mongol prince was impressed with Marcoand appointed him the position of Special Envoy. Marco had not only demonstrated his ability to travel but also immersed himself in Chinese culture, quickly learning the language and adopting the customs. As Special Envoy, Marco could widen his exploration to the far reaches of Asia. This enabled him to travel to places such as Tibet and India, locations that Europeans had never before seen.
After leaving Asia in 1292 on a mission to Persia and subsequently Rome, then finally reaching Venice in 1295, Marco did not return again. Whilst serving in the Venetian navy in the war against Genoa, Marco was captured in 1298. During his imprisonment, he dictated his adventures to fellow prisoner Rustichello and the resulting book – ‘The Travels of Marco Polo’ – was immensely popular. Although contemporaries questioned the reliability of this account, with the popular Italian title for it being ‘Il Milione’ (short for ‘The Million Lies’), the information in his book proved vital to European geographical understanding and inspired countless explorers, notably Christopher Columbus.