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History Cat Lessons: Creative and Engaging

Marco...

Polo...

 
Marco Polo
Family Issues

 

Born into a family of merchants, young Polo grew up in the bustling Italian port town of Venice, which was a major hub of goods and travelers coming in from the Middle East. In fact, while Marco was still a bun in the oven so to speak, his father and uncle set out to make what they thought would be a routine trip to Constantinople to sell their silks.

 

Near Baghdad, the Polos entered the mighty Mongol Empire which stretched from Egypt to China - the largest land empire ever seen. The older Polos ended up in China at the court of the  Kublai Khan (aka the Great Khan) and didn't return to Italy until 15 years later. Marco was inspired by the stories of his father and uncle and set his mind to travelling to Cathay (as China was called back then). A few years later, the Polos (with Marco this time) set out again for the court of the Great Khan. They had a mission given to them by the Great Khan on their first trip, which was to establish relations between the Pope and the Mongols. Other Europeans had tried to convert the Mongols to Christianity, but the Polos were the first to meet the Great Khan and it seemed likely they would succeed.

Marco Polo's Diary

 

According to Marco Polo's book that was written while he was in prison (we'll get to that later), the Polos set out from Constantinople to meet the new Pope at the city of Acre (in Israel) to get a letter to give to the Great Khan. From there they headed to the Caucus Mountains and then into Persia. Here they hooked up with a caravan for safety. As bad luck would have it, the caravan was attacked by bandits and only a few people (including the Polos) made it out alive. At the port of Hormuz (southern Iran), the Polos hoped to hire a ship to China. They decided to take their chances on the Silk Road after seeing the poor condition of the ships. The Polos made their way into Central Asia and Marco writes about the great markets and strange customs of the people he sees. Polo tells us of a king, The Old Man of the Mountains, who had a group of followers called ashshāshīn (assassins) trained to kill his enemies.

 

Crossing the Pamir Mountains (remember the Trail of Bones we talked about earlier?), Marco wrote about freak storms, the difficult terrain, and adjusting to the thin mountain air. He also wrote about the group of dog-headed people, called the Cynocephali, who lived on an island that no longer exists (maybe in the Aral Sea?).

 

After exiting the mountains, the Polos found themselves in the city of Kashgar just on the edge of China- but still in Mongol territory. The Polo party had one last hurdle to cross (two, technically) -  the Taklamakan and Gobi Deserts. The Gobi was known as a place haunted by ghosts. Polo even wrote about this experience:

 
"If, during the daytime, any person remains behind on the road, they unexpectedly hear themselves called by their names, and in a tone of voice (from someone they know).  These ghosts often were the cause of someone being led from the main path and being lost forever. "
 

​In 1275, after three and a half years, the Polos finally reached Cathay and the court of the Great Khan. Marco was a great storyteller and he and the Khan really hit it off smashingly. In fact, the Khan invited the Polos to stay with him as advisers. The Polos lived in imperial apartments and often made official voyages to parts of the empire on behalf of the Khan.

 

In his book, Marco Polo described the grand palaces coated in gold and silver. The Khan was so wealthy that even his servants wore silk cloths over their mouths when serving dinner. Silk in Europe was so expensive that only the wealthy could afford it. Marco also talked about how the Mongols used their wealth to help famers and the poor who were in need. Free hospitals and schools were built throughout the empire.

Even though Buddhism was the official religion of the empire, other religious beliefs were met with tolerance.  Polo talked about seeing a black rock that burns (coal) and paper money (paper was still unknown in Europe).

 

After ten years with the Great Khan, the Polos decided to head back, loaded with jewels sewn into their clothes. One trip across the northern route was enough so they headed to Vietnam to catch a ship to Europe. A storm forced them to Sumatra where Polo got his first sight of a unicorn that had "the hide of a buffalo...in the middle of its forehead they have a single horn." The beast was described as ugly and wallows in the mud. Altogether, Polo was not impressed with his first unicorn sighting.

(We now know that it was a Rhinoceros). 

 

 

Twenty-four years after leaving Venice, the Polos returned to their home city. Apparently the journey changed their appearance so much that their own family mistook them for being Asians. Once word got out that the Polos returned, they became legends across town. Of course, everyone wanted to hear about their adventures, but everyone figured they were making up such crazy stories. Fabulous wealth was not enough for Polo. He was bored with everyday life in Venice and when war broke out between his hometown and a rival Italian city Genoa, he jumped at the chance for adventure. He joined the navy as a consultant but found himself on the losing side of one particularly nasty sea battle. Polo was taken as a POW and locked in a Genoese castle prison.

 

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"Angamanain is a very large Island. The people are without a king and are Idolaters (worship idols), and no better than wild beasts. And I assure you all the men of this Island of Angamanain have heads like dogs, and teeth and eyes likewise; in fact, in the face they are all just like big mastiff dogs! They have a quantity of spices; but they are a most cruel generation, and eat everybody that they can catch, if not of their own race."
Retrace the steps of Polo
Marco Polo...Fact or Fiction?

 

You may have heard stories of torture and rat infested prisons of the medieval ages. Those are for the most part true; but not for a wealthy prisoner like Marco. To pass the time in the clink, he wrote a book of his time on the Silk Road called A Description of the World. Actually, writing back then was painstakingly done by hand on vellum. If you could afford it (which Marco could), you hired someone to get hand cramps for you. A professional scribe named Rustichello actually did the writing. Like any editor, he wasn't content with leaving the story as is but added his own personal touches.

 

Some modern historians claim that Polo never even left Italy but made it all up from the comfort of his arm chair. Their evidence: A description of the world gets facts mixed up and describes events that happened long before Polo's journey. To make their case even more convincing, these historians point out that Polo never even talked about Chinese icons like the Great Wall, chopsticks, or footbinding of noble Chinese ladies.

 

Polo's defenders blame Rustichello for adding in wild stories of dog-headed people and switching around details to make the story sell more copies.  Did Polo travel to Cathay and meet the Great Kahn? We'll never know for sure.  But Polo's stories did spark an Age of European Exploration in the 1400s that led men like Columbus, Magellan, and de Gama to seek out Asia and its riches for themselves.

 

"Angamanain is a very large Island. The people are without a king and are Idolaters (worship idols), and no better than wild beasts. And I assure you all the men of this Island of Angamanain have heads like dogs, and teeth and eyes likewise; in fact, in the face they are all just like big mastiff dogs! They have a quantity of spices; but they are a most cruel generation, and eat everybody that they can catch, if not of their own race."

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