Of all the travel sagas ever written, none is more richly astonishing than Marco Polo’s Description of the World. First published around 1300, it records a land of such fabulous difference that to enter it was like passing through a mirror; and it is this passage—from a still-provincial Europe to an empire of brilliant strangeness—which gives the tale even now a dream- like quality. Even in its day—and for generations afterward—Polo’s book was often regarded merely as the fairy-tale conceit of a vainglorious merchant. Only with time has its portrait of China at the height of the Mongol dynasty—a portrait rich in details that once seemed too outlandish to be believed—been largely corroborated.
Marco Polo was born in 1254 into a family of Venetian merchants, wealthy if not patrician. Even before his celebrated journey, his father and uncle had traveled from Constantinople to the Crimea, then continued some five thousand miles east to the court of Khubilai Khan—the Mongol emperor of a newly conquered China—probably at Cambalú, modern Beijing. Marco Polo describes their prodigious journey only briefly, as a prelude to his own. He records how the two men started back for Europe with a request from Khubilai that the Pope send them back to him. They were to bring with them a hundred Christian savants and some oil from the lamp above Christ’s sepulcher in Jerusalem. By the time Polo’s father arrived in Venice in 1269, after sixteen years away, his wife was dead and he had a fifteen-year-old son whom he had never seen. This was Marco.
Two years later the seventeen-year-old youth, with the two elder Polos, set out on the long journey back to Cambalú. Their route is not always easy to follow. Marco’s account, dictated almost thirty years later, is full of gaps and muddled chronology. But it seems that after visiting Acre on the coast of Palestine the Polos moved in a wide loop from eastern Turkey down through modern Iran to Hormuz on the Persian Gulf. From there they crossed Persia northeast to Balkh, in today’s Afghanistan, and over the Pamir Mountains through Kashgar to the Taklamakan desert of northwest China. Skirting this dangerous wasteland southward, they then circled north of the Yellow River to the khan’s summer palace of Xandú, and at last to Cambalú. The journey had taken three and a half years.
There follows the heart of Polo’s narrative: a portrait of Khubilai Khan’s world that is both reverential and intimate. In turn he evokes the great palaces of marble with walls sheathed in gold and silver, the curious court etiquette and sumptuous ceremonial banquets, the imperial pavilions, hunting and falconry. He describes the empire’s fiscal policy and the novel use of paper money, the khan’s easygoing religious faith, his wardrobe, his superb postal system, even the privacies of his sex life and harem.
Then, traveling south, Polo writes of the …
Copyright © 2008 by Colin Thubron
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.