Travel History: Marco Polo, the World’s First Great Travel Writer?

The Italian Marco Polo is probably the world’s most famous traveler and one of the world’s first travel writers. The famous Venetian is believed to have left Venice at age 17 to embark on a 24-year journey through the Persian Gulf and Asia, spending much of this time in China in the court of the great Mongol emperor Kublai Khan. Polo’s book, Description of the World, offered one of the first detailed descriptions of the then mysterious eastern cultures to Europeans and would even inspire Christopher Columbus. The world that Polo described seemed quite strange and unbelievable to most readers, and even today many historians question the veracity of many of his stories. Some historians even doubt whether Marco Polo existed at all. Intrigued? I was very interested in learning more about this famous man and will share what I found during my research about the man, his amazing travels, and the legacy of Marco Polo.

Marco Polo explorer from Venice China the Travels of Marco Polo Description of the World

Depiction of Polo in Tartar costume

Marco Polo: The Man and His Incredible Journey

Early Life

Marco Polo is believed to have been born in 1254 in Venice, Italy (a few believe he was born on the island of Korčula in present day Croatia). Very little is known about his childhood except details gained from his own book. He grew up in a Catholic family and lived his early life alone with his mother. His father Niccolò and uncle Maffeo were wealthy merchants and had set off together on a long 9-year trading journey when Marco was a young boy. During this time, young Polo would receive an informal education, learning the mercantile business and how to read and write Italian. Sadly, his mother would die when he was young and Marco would be raised by other relatives until his father’s return.

Meanwhile, Marco Polo tells us in his book that his father and uncle after several years of trading in Constantinople (present day Istanbul, Turkey) would travel further southeast, spending time in present-day Greece, Ukraine, Russia, Uzbekistan, and China. During the Polo brothers’ time in Bukhara, Uzbekistan they are approached by an ambassador of Kublai Khan and given the message that the emperor would like to meet them. Kublai Khan was the grandson of Genghis Khan and ruler of the great Mongol Empire, which at its height was one of the largest land empires in history and governed approximately one-fourth of the world’s population at the time. Kublai Khan is said to have been very intrigued by these two European men (Europeans were very rare in China at the time), and officially invites them to spend time with him in China so that he can learn more about Europe. In order to learn more about Christianity and Western culture, Khan sends the Polo brothers back to Italy with the task of asking the Pope for 100 learned Westerners and oil from the lamp of the Holy Sepulcher. Marco Polo’s father and uncle finally return to Venice in 1269 and are united with Marco who is now fifteen or sixteen years old. During their trip back, the current Pope dies in 1268 and the Polos are delayed in their journey back to Khan as they must wait until the new Pope is elected in 1271.

Marco Polo explorer from Venice China the Travels of Marco Polo Description of the World

Kublai Khan

Marco Polo’s  Journey

After a long wait, the Polo brothers’ finally receive permission from newly elected Pope Gregory X to retrieve the holy oil and the Pope gives the Polos gifts to take to Kublai Khan on his behalf. Instead of sending 100 scholars, the Pope only sends two Dominican friars as he believed the journey was two dangerous to send so many men. Niccolò and Maffeo set forth back to Asia to fulfill their promise to Kublai Khan, but this time, with 17-year-old Marco Polo in tow. This would be Marco Polo’s first real travel experience, and what an incredible journey!

Marco Polo explorer from Venice China the Travels of Marco Polo Description of the World

Depiction of Niccolò and uncle Maffeo meeting Pope Gregory X

It would take the Polos three years to reach Asia, following the Silk Road, a network of trade routes that linked Europe to Asia. They would travel from Venice to the city of Acre (present day Israel) and would continue by caravan through present-day Armenia, Anatola, Georgia, and Baghdad. While crossing present-day Iran, the caravan would encounter sandstorms and bandits, leaving some members of their caravan captured or killed. Early into the journey, the two Dominican friars leave the group and head back to Italy, frightened by Muslim raiders and bandits. Marco Polo provides a rich description of the Mongolian culture, including their government, food (e.g., extensive use of milk products), the round tent homes called yurts, and, of course, their expert horsemanship skills. He also notes practices the Mongols had borrowed from the Chinese including their extensive message delivery system and use of coal and paper money. These were all new and foreign to Polo. Marco Polo would report getting sick as they moved east through Afghanistan and cross the Pamir Mountains. These mountains at the time were believed by the travelers to be the highest mountains in the world and the long strenuous journey across these mountains took 52 days! However, Marco Polo notes that the cold pure mountain air helped cure him of his illness. The Polos finally arrive in China and young Marco encounters many Chinese trading posts. As he travels in China, Marco is very surprised by the sheer number of people in China (much more populous than Europe at the time), the riches (jade, silk, furs, spices, weapons), and complexity of their society. The last imposing stretch of the journey occurs when the threesome must now cross the large, arid Gobi desert. Setting off on camels, they ride through the desert and Marco talks about how weary travelers may see mirages and hear voices that can divert them from their paths and led them to stray into the depths of the desert. After a month, they leave the hot sands of the Gobi desert to finally be met by a messenger from Kublai Khan who takes them to Khan’s summer palace in Shangdu (north of current day Beijing, China) for a celebration feast.

At Shangdu, Marco is very impressed by the Khan’s expansive marble palace (Shangdu is where we get the term Xanadu). The grounds around the palace are full of streams, fountains, gardens, birds, and wild animals. Polo tells us that Kublai Khan rides on his horse through the grounds to hunt with hawks and a leopard riding behind him on his horse. Kublai Khan takes a strong liking to young Marco and tasks him to deliver messages and make reports on other areas of the country. Marco even reports being a governor of the city of Yanghou from 1282 to 1285 (this is greatly disputed).  Meanwhile, Marco reports that his father and uncle serve as military advisers to the Mongol emperor and even help win a battle. Over the next 17 years, Marco travels throughout China, witnessing the use of silkworms to make silk, the dangers of tigers, the great ceremonies of monks in Tibet, great tombs and pagodas made of silver and gold in Mien, the Burmese use of gold on their teeth and tattoos, the use of elephants for battle, magicians in Bangladesh, and all kinds of strange wild beasts and fauna that were completely foreign to Europeans. Marco’s favorite city in China was Kinsai (present-day Hangzhou), a major city of trade with Persia, and a city that was reported to have 3,000 public baths and 12,000 bridges.

Marco Polo

In 1291, the Polos finally head back to Venice. Marco writes that Kublai Khan did not want the Polos to leave as he enjoyed their company, but allows them to leave in order to escort a Mongolian princess bride to the Khan of Persian and to then visit their families in Venice with the expectation they would then return to China. The three Polos set off in a fleet of boats with golden tablets from Kublai Khan that guarantee them safe passage and special treatment throughout the Empire. As one can imagine ship travel in the thirteenth century was long and difficult with numerous dangers and hardships; many of the fleet’s crew perish along the way. The Polos end up needing to stop on the island of Sumatra for a while and then land in India, where they continue the rest of their journey on land. After safely escorting the princess, they learn that Kublai Khan has died and the Polos return home to Venice in 1295. Some versions of the book report that the Polos’ relatives did not recognize the three dirty and oddly dressed men with their unbelievable tale until they undress, revealing a fortune in gemstones hidden in their garments which helped validate their story. While the Polos had amassed great riches and wealth in Kublai Khan’s court, much of this is lost on their journey home and they come back with only a modest fortune in gemstones and other goods. Marco Polo had left Venice at age 17 and did not return to his home city until age 41!

Marco Polo explorer from Venice China the Travels of Marco Polo Description of the World

Polo’s journey

The Book and The End of His Life

After Marco’s return, he would join the Venetian army and would get captured and imprisoned by the Genoans who were fighting the Venetians for control of trade routes in the Mediterranean Sea. Marco would spend three years in prison, where he would meet fellow prisoner and Italian romance writer Rustichello da Pisa. Rustichello was intrigued by the Venetian’s Asian travels and he would write Polo’s travel tales down in Old French. This travelogue has been translated into numerous languages and in English it is known as the Book of the Marvels of the World, Description of the World, or The Travels of Marco Polo.

Marco Polo explorer from Venice China the Travels of Marco Polo Description of the World

Chapter from an old manuscript copy

The book was widely read in Europe during Polo’s lifetime. Many readers found it to be an enlightening account of Eastern culture and it would even inspire other famous explorers such as Christopher Columbus and traders to head East to cash in on the vast riches of the Orient. However, many other readers found the travelogue to be filled with unbelievable tales invented by two lying Italians. Marco Polo earned the nickname Marco il Milione, suggesting that Marco was a man who invented a million stories.

Little is known about Marco Polo’s life after the release of the book other than that he was married and had three daughters and likely continued in the mercantile business in Venice. Before his death in January 1324, Marco is believed to have been asked about whether he made up some of the stories and he reportedly said “I did not tell half of what I saw.” Interestingly the only real shred of evidence of Polo’s existence other than the book is a last will and testament that he dictated to a priest and witness as he lay dying. In the will, he leaves money to his wife and daughters and various religious and local institutions and releases a Tartar slave (potentially someone who he met during his travels in Asia) from servitude.

Marco Polo: Is His Story True?

There are a lot of questions and controversies surrounding Marco Polo’s book. Are the stories real?  Did Polo ever make it to China? Did Marco Polo ever exist or was he simply an invented character in Rustichello’s book?

Arguments Made by Skeptics

Some of the strongest arguments against Polo’s stories are that there are no written records of Polo’s incredible journey. Marco Polo does not show up in any of the detailed records kept by the Vatican or the Chinese during this time. Much less noteworthy visitors to China are noted during this time but no mention of the Polos. Similarly, there is almost nothing in Venice, except the will and some say this just demonstrates someone with the same name existed. A few sections of the book are contrary to surviving Chinese records, including the claim that Marco Polo was a Chinese governor (records show otherwise) or that his uncle and father helped the Mongols win an important Chinese battle (again, records show otherwise). Skeptics also point to striking omissions of certain things in the book that any visitor to China would certainly have seen and would have been noteworthy, such as the Great Wall, chopsticks, calligraphy, foot binding, and tea drinking. The general lack of personal details, lack of precision about the route taken, and use of Mongol and Turkish words instead of Chinese have also led people to doubt whether Marco Polo ever visited China.

Arguments Made by Believers

While most believers do agree that some parts of the books are likely exaggerated or simple fiction, such as Polo being governor, they note that this doesn’t mean the rest of the book is untrue. It would not be uncommon for a traveler to exaggerate or embellish his adventures and it would also not be unusual for the writer to take his own liberties on the tale to encourage sales. Further, since Marco Polo is recalling his own trip, many of the inaccuracies may be due to distorted memories, misunderstandings, and erroneous beliefs. Scholars also note that many of the embellishments could further have been added as it was hand copied and translated over the years since no original version is known to exist. Historians further argue that the omissions Polo made can be explained and that his detailed descriptions of Mongol culture, China’s paper currency, use of silkworms, mail system, burning of coal, and other details make it clear that his journeys were in fact true. Believers also point to the existing will and testament of Marco Polo in Venice and say that it demonstrates proof that he existed.

Which Side is Correct?

Scholars are still divided. On one side you have those who don’t believe that Marco Polo ever existed at all but was just the figment of the writer’s imagination to help sell the book by putting it from the viewpoint of a young man rather than a collection of stories the writer picked up from traders. Others believe that Marco Polo existed and did do some traveling, but never reached China, which accounts for many of the books omissions and inconsistencies. Other historians believe the book is for the most part a true tale of Marco Polo’s travels. Given that no original version of the book exists (there are dozens of versions which vary widely) and there are no written records of Marco Polo, except for the will, it seems fairly likely that this mystery may never be solved.

The Legacy of Marco Polo

Polo’s book was recognized as the most important account of the world outside Europe that was available during Polo’s lifetime. At the time of the book, most Europeans knew very little about China and many Europeans believed fantastical things such as that some Chinese had heads like dogs and that mythological beasts such as unicorns, dragons, and giant serpents roamed there. In fact, you can see in the book that Polo believes he sees unicorns (rhinos) and giant toothed serpents (crocodiles) on his journey. Polo’s book is one of the first major writings in Europe to describe the advanced Chinese society and technology. Many Europeans  were very surprised to learn how populous, rich, and complex the East was and the accounts of the people showed that they were very much like Westerners.  The book today also provides some of the best surviving descriptions of certain places such as the palace at Shangdu and had some influence on the development of European cartography. The great journey and tales of riches would inspire other explorers such as Christopher Columbus during the Age of Exploration. In fact, initially Columbus would try to match up the land of America with Polo’s descriptions as he believed he had also reached Asia.

Marco Polo explorer from Venice China the Travels of Marco Polo Description of the World

To me, what is most amazing about the book is not whether or not it is true,  but that the adventures of Marco Polo are still read today, centuries after Polo supposedly made his great journey. Most people have heard of Marco Polo and associate his name with visions of the exotic Orient and the great explorers of the past. Polo is often erroneously credited with introducing macaroni and ice cream to Europe and his name has been given to a number of travel clubs, frequent flier programs, a species of sheep, and even a popular swimming pool game. He has also inspired more recent explorers to try to follow in his footsteps in order to try to prove his story true. Recently in 2009, two American friends, Denis Belliveau and Francis O’Donnell) retrace Marco Polo’s journey from Venice to China via land and sea

Perhaps the thing that matters most is not the truth of the stories or existence of Marco Polo, but the fact that the book has inspired people to travel and instilled a curiosity to explore and learn about other cultures. If Ethan and I can someday have even a fraction of the influence of Polo’s book, we’ll be very happy!

Selected References

Marco Polo’s Book (English translations): 

Links to online translations and editions of the book (many of these are not easy reads for the casual reader):

Books about Marco Polo and His Travels:

Television/Online Videos:

Online articles:

Marco Polo explorer from Venice China the Travels of Marco Polo Description of the World

Depiction of Marco Polo – no one knows for sure what he looked like

What do you think of Marco Polo and his book? Was any of this information about the great Venetian adventurer new to you?  if you like this article, you might want to check out our other travel history and research articles.