Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 375 pp., $75.00; $55.00 (paper)
In the autumn of 1271, Marco Polo set off from Venice on the long journey east to Kublai Khan’s summer palace at Xanadu on the Mongolian steppe.
Polo’s expedition had two aims. The first was to convert the Mongol Emperor to Christianity. This was not as unlikely a proposition as it sounded. There were many Eastern Christians among the Mongols; indeed Kublai Khan’s half-brother, Hulagu, had a Nestorian Christian mother. When Polo’s father and uncle, Maffeo and Niccolò, had met the Great Khan three years earlier on their first journey eastward, the Emperor had shown great interest in the Western form of Christianity, and had given them a letter addressed to the Pope. In this the Khan asked for
a hundred persons of the Christian faith, intelligent men, acquainted with the Seven Arts, and able clearly to prove to idolaters that the Law of Christ was best, and that all other religions were false and nought.
The brothers told the papal legate in the embattled Crusader Kingdom of Acre, to whom they delivered the letter, that if they could provide this, Kublai Khan, and all his subjects, might well convert. The Great Khan had also asked the Polo brothers to bring to him what he had heard was the most sacred of all Christian relics: a sample of the holy oil from the lamps that burned at the reputed site of the Resurrection, the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, which was widely believed to possess miraculous properties.
The papal legate understood that this was a crucial chance for Christendom. The Mongol Empire ranged from the Euphrates to the Pacific; it was the largest empire the world had ever seen. If it could be turned into a Christian empire, then surely the days of Islamic power would be numbered and the Crusader kingdom saved. So the legate gave permission for the Polos to take a vial of holy oil east with them, and sent them off with, if not one hundred, then at least two “intelligent men of the Christian faith,” both friars, who were given extraordinary powers of ordination and absolution.
But the Polos also had a second, more hardheaded, and less idealistic object in setting off on such a daunting journey to the edge of the known world. For the Polos were not professional diplomats but ambitious Venetian traders. They hoped to use their expedition to make money by acquiring silks, jewels, and much else, and to bring back solid information about further mercantile opportunities in the East.
Such financial concerns are clearly evident in Marco Polo’s Travels. This celebrated but now little-read book is in fact a surprisingly dry and factual guide to the commerce of the mainly Islamic lands through which the Polos traveled: Seljuk Turkey, Ilkhanate Persia, Afghan Central Asia, and the Islamic Silk Road cities that edged the Gobi Desert. It also takes up the question of the trade of China proper and that of Kublai Khan’s great capital of Khan Balik, now…
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