The Venetian trader and adventurer Marco Polo was an exceptionally astute observer as he traveled the caravan routes to China, Tibet, and India, and then returned by sea over twenty years later, with tales of countries few people in Europe had ever seen before. His brother and uncle had travelled there in 1260-65, then returned again four years later, and reported on their meeting with the Kublai Khan at Kaifeng (Beijing) and his request for one hundred Christian missionaries. The Khan's message was ultimately relayed to the Pope but he did not send the requested missionaries. When he left Venice with his father in 1271, Marco Polo was a boy of seventeen, and had no idea what adventures were ahead of him. Virtually no one in the Western world at that time could possibly have known since they literally had no maps of China or the route to get there, and all they knew about Asia was ancient myths and legends of faraway lands. For centuries, Marco Polo was accused of exaggerating his exploits and called Marco Millione or Marco of a Million Tales. Even today, there are questions about whether he ever went as far to the east as China but simply recorded the stories of others who had been there. Thousands of copies of his book were circulated, though, and it was translated into most European languages, even though widely considered a book of fables and tall tales. Robin Brown, a famous naturalist, travel writer and producer of nature films paid exceptionally close attention to the archeological record, description of tools, towns, plants and animals in Marco Polo's account and determined that most of it was genuine.
Marco Polo did know that there were hostile Muslim countries to the east and that the Christians had been fighting Crusades against them for 150 years, while the Muslims also believed they were waging holy wars against the infidels. Purely fictitious stories like those of Sir John Mandeville described an ancient Christian kingdom of Prester John in the Far East, and various popes of the Catholic Church imagined that they would become allies of the West. In fact, various expeditions were sent out to make contact with this imaginary kingdom, like Giovanni de Piano Carpini in 1245-48 and Guillaume du Pue in 1365, but with no success. Based on his own experiences and observations, Marco Polo doubted that Prester John ever existed.
It took four years to reach China again, and upon their arrival in 1275 the Great Khan took Marco into his service and eventually made him and ambassador and city governor, or so he claimed. As the product of a feudal society, Marco Polo would have easily grasped this concept of service to a king, patron or overlord, and being a commoner he had actually advanced far above his station in life by receiving such commissions from an emperor. Neither the Polo's nor the Khan seemed have had the strong sense of race and racism that existed in later centuries, when Europeans colonized and enslaved 'natives' they regarded as inferior. In fact, the absence of racism in the modern sense is a striking feature of Marco Polo's travel accounts, although he was well-aware of religious and cultural differences. He was certainly no Puritan or Victorian, and frequently commented on how beautiful he found the women of the eastern lands, and wrote extensively about their sexuality. Nor was this written in terms of exoticism or Orientalism as Edward said would have described it, with its veiled assumptions about the superiority of white Westerners. In short, Marco Polo simply lacks the race and color consciousness that is so noteworthy in the records of later explorers and adventurers, and seems to blend in naturally as one of the many servants of a foreign ruler in a multicultural empire.
After many years, Marco and his father and uncle received permission to leave China, as long as they agreed to escort a Mongol princess back to the Caliph of Baghdad. This part of the story seemed particularly unbelievable to both contemporaries and later observers, since he wrote about how they departed China with a fleet of fourteen large ships and hundreds of passengers, visiting Vietnam, Sumatra, Ceylon and India before sailing up the Persian Gulf. He claimed that only eighteen people survived this very long and hazardous journey, including the princess. Her intended husband had died so his son carried out the arranged marriage. All of this sounded like a romantic legend of fable, which is how most of Marco Polo's contemporaries read it, but in reality the accounts he gave of these lands were genuine.
When Marco Polo returned to Venice he joined in the fighting in the wars against Genoa, and was captured in 1298 and held prisoner for two years. During this time, he recounted his Description of the World to Rusticello of Pisa, with the help of some notes sent from Venice. No original copies of these notes or the Marco Polo manuscript exist, and no other witnesses were still alive to confirm the truth of his narrative. Robin Brown's research indicates that he had many of the details correct, however, such as the location of Khan-Balik (Beijing), the description of the Forbidden City as it existed in the 13th Century, as well as cities like Kinsai (Hangzhou) and the type of commerce being carried out on the China Sea. He was correct about the Asian branch of Christianity called Nestorianism that was still influential in Asia, even among the Mongols before they were converted to Islam. It would appear that the Christians missed a great opportunity when they failed to send the missionaries that the Great Khan requested. Even the fact that he did not describe the Great Wall of China, which was in ruins at this time and did not take its contemporary form until the time of the Ming Dynasty after 1500, confirms the accuracy of his account.
Marco Polo was the first European to provide a reasonably accurate description of the countries of Asia, as well as the climate, plant and animal life, hostile Tartar tribes in Central Asia, and the deserts and mountains. He called the crocodiles of India 'dragons," the man-eating tigers that drag men out of boats 'striped lions', while the rhinoceros was a 'unicorn'. None of these animals had ever been seen in Europe before, and naturally he fumbled in his search for words that would convey their appearance or relating them to familiar legendary creatures. Europeans in the medieval period had never seen elephants, either, but Marco Polo did in India, and noted correctly that they were used in battle and carried archers on their backs. Other strange created he observed included tarantulas, the white horses of Mongolia, musk deer in Tibet, pythons and cobras in India, and the giant falcons of Central Asia. He also saw birds with feathers nine feet long (great auks), black rocks that burned (coal), fabric that could not catch fire (asbestos) and a black liquid that was flammable (petroleum). In Turkey, he claimed to have seen the remains of Noah's Ark on Mount Ararat, and in Persia the tomb of the three Wise Men who had traveled to visit the infant Jesus. Supposedly they came from Persia, and the local people still told stories about the first Christmas. On the Roof of the World in Afghanistan, he noted that water seemed to boil more slowly, and modern science confirmed the truth of this statement due to lack of sufficient oxygen in the air. From China, Marco Polo brought back samples of gunpowder, compasses, printed documents, paper money, ice cream and pasta, all of which seemed incredible to his contemporaries, but the reality is that the East was actually more advanced than Europe at this time, and its cities were far larger than any medieval Westerners had even seen.
In the Middle East, Marco Polo encountered stories of the Old Man in the Mountain which were later proven to be historically accurate. This legendary ruler with numerous castles, fortresses and pavilions recruited young men from the mountains, drugged them with opium and hashish, and then trained them in the martial arts and assassination methods when they agreed to become his disciples. Originally, this ruler's name was Alo-eddin (or Aladdin), who had been a renegade from the Caliph of Cairo, and his followers were known as Hassashin or Assassins, which referred to the drug that they used. Their assassination and terror missions were almost always suicidal, and they carried out their acts of mayhem in murder in public, with the belief that they would go to Paradise immediately after their deaths. For 200 years, this sect spread terror throughout the Middle East, from Kurdistan to Egypt, and controlled large parts of the entire region where few travelers would dare to venture.
Marco Polo reportedly defied death many times in his travels, whether from blizzards, floods, brought, ambushes or epidemics. He hazarded journeys through mountains and…