The Travels of Marco Polo

The Travels of Marco Polo

In 1271, a young Marco Polo traveled to China with his father and uncle, and he spent almost the next twenty years traveling around the East--China, India, Indonesia, even Zanzibar.  He is said to have worked for Kubilai Khan as a diplomat.  He returned to the West in 1295 and some time later was captured as a prisoner of war.  In prison, he met Rustichello of Pisa, who wrote down his stories, and together they produced The Travels, written in Old French with quite a bit of Italian mixed in.  It was a massive popular success even during Polo's lifetime, though right from the beginning people questioned Polo's veracity.  Even now it makes for exciting reading.

Polo starts off by describing the route to China, skipping most of the places already well-known to Westerners, so that he spends a limited amount of time in the Middle East.  When he gets to Persia, he describes Parsi believers, saying that the Magi were from here and identifying their individual home cities.  Then he describes the Silk Road route, and only gets to Kubilai Khan about a third of the way through the book.

He is really pretty fulsome about Kubilai Khan, and spends a lot of time on the wealth and power of the king and court.  I was pleased to notice the bit about the summer palace at Shangdu--popularized as Xanadu by Coleridge--so that was fun.  Prester John, one of my favorite legendary kings, is also found here and is treated as a real person.  His grandsons are named as kings too.  There is quite a bit of history included.

After the glories of Kubilai Khan, Polo travels all over northern and southern China (known to him as Cathay and Manji).  Then he sails to Bengal; the India he describes is somewhat confused geographically, because he made two separate trips, but it is recognizably Hindu in character.  The story of Prince Gautama Buddha is also included, though a bit garbled.  He also describes Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Java, parts of Indonesia, and all sorts of other places.  It's really fun to pick them out on the map and match them up to today's map.

Most of his descriptions are methodical in nature; that is, he'll start with the name of the place, who the king is and whether they owe allegience to the Khan, what religion is practiced, the language, and then the products of the area and anything special about the citizens.  After that, he'll talk about anything interesting--the land, or a river, cultural practices, and so on.

I'm kind of sorry I put off reading this for so long.  It's exciting stuff!  And it wasn't nearly as difficult to read as I expected.  The only problem was that, of course, every time I picked it up, my brain would start playing a tape of kids yelling "Marco!  Polo!" endlessly and forever  Oh, how I hate that game.  I bet that had something to do with my reluctance to read the book!


  1. I have been hoarding a copy of this for years, and I hope to read it before I do an exploration/geography year with my kids. I agree, it is exciting stuff.

    Do you enjoy exploration/geography? Have you read Columbus' Four Voyages? Anyway, he read and studied Marco Polo's writings, too.

  2. I have never read Columbus, but that's a pretty good idea.


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