- The Travels of Marco Polo: Edited by Peter Harris
- Everyman’s Library, 391 pp.
On The Road
The Polos sail from Venice (1271)
… of antres vast and deserts idle,
Rough quarries, rocks and hills whose heads touch heaven
It was my hint to speak, — such was the process;
And of the Cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders …
— OTHELLO, William Shakespeare
Yes, antres vast indeed, vast deserts idle, and the all the rest, mountains that would make even Mont Blanc, Matterhorn, Piz Bernina and Jungfrau, all so long part of Europe’s commerce, ancient wars, and latter-day Romantic 19th Century tourism seem less than challenging to a Scout troop’s summer junket. Shakespeare may have taken his geography from the mosaic compilation first made into English from Latin and French manuscripts in the early decade(s) of the 15th Century, known as the “Travels of Sir John Mandeville,” a person who has never been traced in history. Whereas that work is focused on the Middle East, and offers a vast congeries of fantastic anthropological curiosities, concocted names, places and events, Marco Polo’s “A Description of the World,” famously known after his death and burial in Venice’s cathedral of San Lorenzo in 1324, leaving three daughters and a Will, and known everywhere since in Europe as “The Travels of Marco Polo,” has amazed and puzzled us to this day. Apparently Columbus had a Latin version with him when he sailed West in search of Cathay in 1492. And it is no wonder, for this is perhaps the most incredible recounting of an incredible journey that the West has enjoyed and studied since the far more limited wanderings of Herodotus through the Classical World of his time in the Fifth Century, BCE, whose purview extended only to Persia in the East.
How it all began would make an essay in itself. Suffice it to say that Marco’s father Nicolò and uncle Maffio had made their way starting in 1253 from Constantinople, presumably along the millennia-old Silk Road, to Cambalú [Beijing], where Khubilai Khan ruled as the Mongol emperor over all of China. Having been halted by warfare, they were guests in a benevolent Khanate, where they waited to return home; but an ambassador from Khubilai happened to arrive, and finding these merchants able men, offered to escort them to Cathay. It should be mentioned that there had already been various contacts earlier. In 1253, Louis IX dispatched the Franciscan William of Rubruck — the fourth European mission in the 13th Century— to the Mongol Khan Mangu, hoping to convert their power, partly because of the Islamic threats around the Mediterranean; moreover, it seems Nestorian Christians had long been part of the ruling courts to the East. Indeed, Khubilai’s mother was a Nestorian Christian herself. Rubruck traveled 9000km to Karakorum, made a good impression over a year’s stay and returned to write an important record. But by the time of the Polos, Khubilai had established his capital in Dadu, or Beijing. In short, the very rich, complex, teeming worlds to East were, though unknown, sending rays of information that tempted and encouraged the Venetian Polos to seek their fortune in the unknown vastness in the sunrise regions. And fortunes they found indeed.
The new Everyman’s edition of the Travels offers every necessary and useful assistance to the reader: A succinct Introduction, several pages of Chronology in the form of a table listing the outstanding historical events in Europe, accompanied by literary landmarks, a Note concerning names, a Mongol Genealogy, all followed by pages of hand-sketched maps that suggest merely the bare outlines of vast Asian territories from the Black Sea eastward to Java. Trying to visualize those nearly two decades of Marco’s movements and sojournings, even in our time of easy satellite imagery, requires an exertion of one’s imagination that is truly daunting. Were it to be offered stage by stage in color photographs as a coffee-table publication, it could prove much too heavy to lift. In any case, the gold-covered walls and silver-wrapped marble halls that excited the poet Coleridge’s [opiated?] vision of Xanadu are gone; and the populous cities of Polo’s Cathay, populous still, are nothing like those he describes. Field and river, a vast Grand canal to the southern ports, forest and roads, inns and stations all the way to Poland, are lost. Everything the Mongols conquered from the times of Genghis, Khubilai’s grandfather, all that the Tang and following dynasties created, especially the opulent and luxuriant Song, gone, even what was taken up and preserved from the Yuan Dynasty when the Ming gradually overthrew their Khanate, subsequently to retreat from the great sea trade routes of China, those huge ships which we are only beginning to glimpse in records. (Most likely a turning inward when the Ming found their gold and silver reserves flowing away over the vast trading routes that brought them exotic imports of precious commodities. The Mongols had issued paper money, and put the gold into furniture and such, guaranteeing their scrip. Mongols gone, metals going, scrip worth less than a current US dollar.)
Regarding the first visit, which is antecedent to Marco’s story: his father and uncle, after some long years were sent home charged with an errand by Khubilai, who’d requested their return with 100 savants and a cruse of holy oil from the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Nicolò found his wife dead after 15 years, but his son Marco was 16 and ready for anything. The three, equipped and prepared with trading goods, left Venice for Acre in 1271, intending to reach Dadu [Beijing] and complete their mission for Khubilai. They traveled for three and a half years, via Persia towards Balkh and Kashgar; thence, taking the southern route below the fearsome Taklamakan Desert, they reached Ganzhou at the eastern end of that unmarked waste without any road. That path to this day is littered with the wrecks and bones of travelers.
The Polos were well-received and munificently entertained and employed by Khubilai for the next decade. Marco’s relation of the many wonders and riches of Cathay make up the bulk of the work’s 178 chapters. So extraordinary was that Empire, and so vivid his recount of the many lands and diverse peoples, religions and cultures, apart from his cataloguing of governance and trade, that his Travels met with doubt and skepticism for centuries. Until today, that is, when two hundred years of scholarly research and scrupulous revisions of the several principal texts have substantiated most of his revelations. This edition is replete with careful annotations, indices, maps, and comment. It is a thorough revision of a fine English translation from the early 20th Century, here edited yet again, a service by the classical series of Everyman’s Library.
What is most remarkable to me, and should seem so to others, is Polo’s style: dictated when he was a prisoner of war in Genoa, it is plain, compact, sans excessive commentary let alone our contemporary sort of hype, and quite unlike most similar writings of that period. He covers the fantastic range of tribes and peoples and “nations” in briefest chapters, their ways, their works, their “ethnic” or anthropological curiosities, all without intrusion of tendentious interpretation (or social science commentary), leaving us to ponder their whys and wherefores; as for example their treatment of women and children, their reception of foreigners as strange to “natives” as those are to European wanderers, and of course their foes, identification of their religious sects and peculiarities always terse and neutrally respectful. True, there are some reports that are not first hand, which is why for centuries Europeans scoffed, mocked, or disbelieved, even though Polo turns out to have been accurate for the most part, except where he is reporting at 2nd hand on events or stranger-than-truth phenomena. The latter mostly have to do with magic, shamanistic spells and control over nature, whether by Buddhist “idolators” or Tibetan monks. Some of the more outré occurrences in terms of natural spirits are taken as reported, but can be explained today by the extraordinary sounds and winds experienced today by travelers in the extreme conditions of the wilderness of the Taklamakan Desert, especially in nights without our modern means of illuminating light. [Even today a traveler by jeep from east to west, taking 33 days, reported to me scenes of recent disasters, of the desiccated corpses or skeletons, the remains left by victims of broken-down trucks and overturned cars along the roads that are not roads, paths that shift daily where nothing is marked for a thousand miles between Kashgar and Urumqui.]
Scholars today do not scout Polo’s matter-of-fact assertions of the varied and many assignments and responsibilities Marco undertook during most of a decade to fulfill, at the behest of Khubilai; casting at most but a raised eyebrow at his claim that he was for three years the governor of a great city, since there is no record of that extant. That he traversed most of China, that he went to India for the Khan is accepted. And that he participated in warfare is probable, and possibly even his claim that he, his father and uncle prepared great siege engines that broke down the walls of one besieged city. In the end, given leave to return to Europe, so successful had they proved, so trustworthy and useful in all their dealings, they were ordered to convey a Mongol princess from Beijing to Persia’s Mongol ruler. That voyage was long and offered visits to the Eastern seas, to Sumatra, Borneo, Java and the rest, to Ceylon and finally around India to Persia.
The remarkable quality of Polo’s objective descriptions of the more than several religions in various parts of the mainly Buddhist Mongol regime, his accounts of folk customs, food, various sexual practices, and most of all of the fantastic cities over which Khubilai held sway by a complex and rather modern bureaucratic-military organization leave one to wonder. The incredible grand hunts, a tradition of the Mongol homelands, but elaborated by the richest court imaginable, are worth one’s patience amongst so many wonders even of the Tibetan heights, lacking birds because the air is so thin, and lacking real (cooking or heating) fire for the same reason. Even the trade in extraordinary manufactures, the technologies of which go back to the Tang Dynasty of the 7th Century, and their arts and crafts, was truly immense, often carried from the Red Sea and Egypt, around India and Ceylon, and to east to Java and the Philippines in huge, many-masted ships. His descriptions of flora, fauna, hunting and feasting, of the immensely various high regions and river valleys, and the daily life and commerce are fairly encyclopedic if scarcely exhaustive. It seems that world is more fantastic than our own travel brochures today can suggest for comfortable tourists. There has never been such an extensive realm, nor one with such an incredible structure of rapid communication over thousands of miles. Commerce thrived from Persia to Java, and one reason that may account for it, was order — and a flat tax of 10%. The law was strict and strictly administered everywhere, which was a marvel to Polo, in comparison with fractious Europe.
It would be a mistake to read the calmly objective exposition of the world(s) Marco saw as having taken place in an altogether stable and peaceful epoch. Such an empire offers many opportunities to rebellion, revolt, insurrection and upheaval. It might be noted that Polo relates without much fuss one dangerous attempt against Khubilai. What follows is a passage describing a serious plot against the Empire, hatched out of a great sub-Khanate to the west of China. It is a wonderful report, and the conclusion Polo draws regarding Islam is as valid today as it was more than seven hundred years ago. So disturbing was that cabal, in fact, that the tolerant (his mother was a Nestorian Christian) and most learned Khubilai banished Moslems from his court. This short narration by itself would make a thriller “historical” pastiche novel today, or movie for that matter. The “Cathaians” described are the Han Chinese:
… Cenchu, having held this consultation together, imparted their designs to some of-the leading persons of the Cathaians, and through them to their friends in many other cities. It was accord¬ingly determined amongst them that, on a certain day, immedi¬ately upon their perceiving the signal of a fire, they should rise and put to death all those who wore beards; and should extend the signal to other places) in order that the same might be carried. into effect throughout the country. The meaning of the distinc¬tion with regard to beards was this; that whereas the Cathaians themselves are naturally beardless, the Tartars, the Saracens, and the Christians wear beards. It should be understood that the grand khan. not having obtained the sovereignty of Cathay by any legal right; but only by force of arms, had no confidence in the inhabitants, and therefore bestowed all the provincial gov¬ernments and magistracies upon Tartars, Saracens, Christians, and other foreigners, who belonged to his household, and in whom he could trust. In consequence of this, his government was universally hated by the natives, who found themselves treated as slaves by these Tartars, and still worse by the Saracens.
Their plans being thus arranged, Vanchu and Cenchu con¬trived to enter the palace at night, where. the former, taking his place’ on one of the royal seats, caused the apartment to be lighted up, and sent a messenger to Achmach, who resided in the old city, requiring his immediate attendance upon Cingis, the emperor’s son) who had unexpectedly arrived that night. Achmach was much astonished at the intelligence, but, being greatly in awe of the prince, instantly obeyed. Upon passing the gate of the city, he met a Tartar called Cogatai, the captain of twelve thousand me~ that continually guarded the city, who asked him where he was going at that late hour. He replied that he was proceeding to wait upon Cingis, of whose arrival he had just heard. ‘How is it possible,’ said the officer, ‘that he can have arrived in so secret a manner, that I should not have been aware of his approach in time to order a party of his guards to attend him?’ In the meanwhile the two Cathaians felt assured that if they could but succeed in dispatching Achmach they had nothing further to apprehend. Upon his entering the palace and seeing so many lights burning, he made his prostrations before Vanchu, supposing him to be the prince, when Cenchu, who stood there provided with a sword, severed his head from his body. Cogatai had stopped at the door, but upon observing what had taken place, exclaimed that there was treason going forward. and instantly let Ayan arrow at Vanchu as he sat upon the throne, which slew him. He then called to his men. who seized Cenchu, and dispatched an order into the city, that every person found out of doors should be put to death. The Cathaians perceiving, however, that the Tartars had discovered the conspiracy, and being deprived of their leaders, one of whom was killed and the other a prisoner, kept within their houses, and were unable to make the signals to the other towns, as had been concerted. Cogatai immediately sent messengers to the grand khan, with a circumstantial relation of all that had passed, who. in return, directed him to make a diligent investigation of the treason, and to punish, according to the degree of their guilt, those whom he should find to have been concerned. On the following day, Cogatai examined all the Cathaians, and upon such as were principals in the conspiracy he inflicted capital punishment. The same was done with respect to the other cities that were known to have participated in the guilt.
When the grand khan returned to Cambalú, he was desirous of knowing the causes of what had happened, and then learned that the infamous Achmach and seven of his sons (for all were not equally culpable) had committed those enormities which have been described. He gave orders for removing the treasure which had been accumulated by the deceased to an incredible amount, from the place of his residence in the old city to the new, where it was deposited in his own treasury. He likewise directed that his body should be taken from the tomb, and thrown into the street to be torn in pieces by the dogs. The sons who had followed the steps of their father in his iniquities he caused to be flayed alive. Reflecting also upon the principles of the accursed sect of the Saracens, which indulge them in the commission of every crime, and allow them to murder those who differ from them on points of faith, so that even the nefarious Achmach and his sons might have supposed themselves guiltless, he held them in contempt and abomination. Summoning there¬fore, these people to his presence, he forbade them to continue many practices conjoined to them by their law, commanding that in future their marriages should be regulated by the custom of the Tartars) and that instead of the mode of killing animals for food, by cutting their throats, they should be obliged to open the belly. At the time that these events took place Master Marco was on the spot. [Italics added for emphasis.]
We shall now proceed to what relates to the establishment of the court kept by the grand khan.
It is a useful adage, and one wishes people would keep it in mind, that “The past is a foreign country.” Nothing can be more so than the wonders and splendors of the Mongol Empire at its height. One reads Marco Polo to this day wishing he had been able to provide what novelists like to paint in vivid colors. On the other hand, a good ambassador is the one who sends matter-of-fact reports of the sovereign realm in which he serves. True, Polo doesn’t conceal his wonder at the customs and grandeur of the court he served so long, and his admiration for its ruler. What we want to know is what he saw and learned and how things were. Color we must provide for ourselves. The sheer amount of detailed plain information in his Travels affords us that opportunity, and what is more important all of it furnishes insights to historians and scholars today, even though there may some whose disciplines lead them to cavil and discount about what our present perspective for the most part accepts. We should be much the poorer in every respect were it not for those extraordinary feats of travel and endurance, and Venetian minds the sharpness and versatility of which were non pareil then, and in retrospect superior to those we see around us in our time.
Amongst the long list of classics in Everyman’s catalogue, this new THE TRAVELS OF MARCO POLO stands out, a rare gem indeed. None of us will ever drive a golf ball above the rocky fairways of the moon, nor trek across the sands of Mars; but to visit the forever vanished and immense lands of Kubilai Khan is a treat not to be missed.