To most of us Venice is the most romantic place of the world. It is a dream to visit this city of opalescent domes and palaces which look as fragile as blown glass and the arches as fine as laces. There when your gondola drifts under the Rialto Bridge, which Shakespeare’s Shylock frequented, you see a sign in a quiet little corner that says ‘The house of Marco Polo’.
With a start, you realise that he was no fable but the greatest merchant of Venice who ever lived, the mightiest traveller the world has ever seen.
Marco Polo gave the first eye witness report on Asia to the western world. The reports documented by him in his tale of marvellous travels are called Book of Marco Polo.
Venice in the 13the century was a sailor’s town and the greatest maritime trading power of the age. Normally, long routes extending over land and sea led to the fabled city of Europe. From India, the merchants of Venice obtained pearls, diamonds and sapphires. From Siberia came the Ermine and the Sables. From China came spices, camphor and costly textiles. Yet for all these trades, the people of Venice had never seen the lands from where these riches came. But there were 2 Venetian traders with strong hearts than others. Their names were Nicolo Polo and Maffeo Polo, two brothers from a noble family who dealt in trade. Marco Polo was the son of Nicolo Polo.
The brothers travelled everywhere and traded everything. these travelling brothers while trading in Southern Russia were stuck on their way and their return journey was cut off by local war. Since they could not go back to Venice immediately, they boldly resolved to push forward into the unknown Orient. Buying and selling, learning languages and studying the trend in the markets, the brothers reached the great city of Bokhara in the heart of Central Asia, 3000 miles from home. For 3 years, they did business in Bokhara and became quite famous as international traders. They were so popular that Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan came to know of them in distant China. His Empire stretched from the Arctic Sea to the Indian Ocean and from the shores of the Pacific to the boarders of Central Europe. Kublai Khan was a man of liveliest curiosity and had never met any Western European before. So he invited the brothers to Peking, China. So they went. For 9 years, the Polos were absent from Venice.
They returned to Venice as emissaries to deliver a letter to the Pope from Kublai Khan asking for 100 learned monks to convert the Mongols to Christianity and teach the arts and science of Europe; never before the Church had such a missionary opportunity. But the letter slipped through indifferent hands. Only 2 Dominican monks accepted the challenge and began the journey with Polo brothers. At the first hint of danger, the monks returned back to Venice; but not the youngest member of the family, Marco Polo, son of Nicolo Polo who was just 17 then. He accompanied his father and uncle to the Orient. He was a curious lad, fond of adventures and very much interested in world geography. He was a polished youth and had a mind that soaked up every bit of fact. He had a lively curiosity and a memory that stored all that he learnt and observed during his travels.
Marco Polo had this delightful quality of documenting his travels. It must have been the spring of 1275, when he first saw the valley of the Oxus, lost in the heart of Central Asia. His reports say that the country side was enamelled with wild Crocuses, daffodils and snow drops. He described the squealing camels, the dusty markets smelling of spicy food, the colourful costumes of Arabs, Persians, Turks, Tartars, Kurds, Mongols, Russians and Chinese all bargaining loudly in their own languages.
The Polos had a tough time traversing through those perilous territories. They waded through torrential rains, flooded rivers, sand storms and avalanches. The toiled over giddy slopes of the Pamir Mountains.
Beyond the Pamir Mountains, the Polos came to the Gobi Desert where the bones of men and animals lay strewn along the way. From this wild place, a century earlier, the fierce nomadic Mongols under Genghis Khan had overrun greater part of Asia and even reached Budapest. Kublai Khan, the benefactor of Polos, upon hearing the Polo’s slow approach dispatched an escort to sweeten their last month of their journey. And so, after 4 years on the way, the Polos amid lavish celebrations entered the presence of the Khan before whom Asia trembled. When the Khan enquired about the youngest member of the Polo family, Nicolo proudly brought Marco forward and said, ‘he is my son sir and your servant”.
From the beginning, the Khan took a liking for the young man. He took him for hunting on elephant backs and to his stately palace at Xanadu. For 3 years, Marco Polo was governor of the rich city of Yangchow. He was sent on missions to Burma, to the wilds of Western China and the boarders of Tibet and south to India. By now, Marco Polo had mastered 4 Oriental languages. His lively colourful accounts of his missions, his memory for 1000s of detail enchanted the Khan.
Marco Polo saw and described a great and wonderful civilization, the stable and peace-loving China of the middle ages in his book. He described the broad streets, paper money, night-time police patrols, public carriages like the modern taxi, high bridges to allow the masted ships pass beneath, drains under the streets to carry off the gutter streams, elevated super highways and tree-lined avenues, all far ahead of Europe in those days.
For 17 years, Marco Polo served the Khan. His father and uncle became very rich traders and then a great home sickness overcame them. They longed to return to their sweet home Venice. The Khan refused permission. After a long wait and persuasion, the Khan reluctantly consented and allowed the Polos to return. First they were asked to escort the new bride of Khan’s great nephew to Persia. The Polos were given great fortune in gold. 13 ships were fitted out to them. They set sail on a journey full of disasters in which several ships and many of the men were lost. Three years later, on one wintry day, in 1295, the 3 men reached their house on San Chrysostom Canal in Venice. All the 3 of them looked strange, ragged and travel strained. Their faces unrecognizable and the servants refused them entry. To make matters worse, they were clumsy with their Italian words. With great difficulty, they could convince their friends and relatives about their identity. The 3 carried their fortune under the linings of their rags. How they could carry their fortune under the linings all through the perils that beset them is beyond understanding.
Before reaching Venice, they almost died when they were arrested in Genoa. Marco Polo was put in a cell with a scribe. To pass the time and to set the record straight, Marco Polo dictated the volume to the scribe we treasure as the Book of Marco Polo. He described everything that he saw and experienced. Here for the first time, Europe could read accounts of Japan, Korea, Indo China, Burma, Java, the Andaman Islands, Siberia, Ethiopia and Madagascar. Later on he was released from prison.
He talked of a black rock (coal) when dug up and set afire as fuel burnt longer than wood. He told of another rock from which could be spun a wool that did not burn (Asbestos). He described a fountain in the Caucasus flowing not with water but with oil (oil wells of Arabia). He also reported that a great ocean bounded Asia to the east. This gave an idea to Christopher Columbus that by sailing west across the Atlantic, one might reach China. And so a volume of the Book of Marco Polo accompanied the discoverer of America on his momentous voyage.
Marco Polo died at the age of 70 and said before his death that he had reported only half of what he saw and experienced.