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Marco Polo

Marco Polo

Marco Polo was born in 1254. He was a Italian traveler and explorer. He was the first European to cross the entire continent of Asia and leave a record of what he saw and heard.

Marco Polo was born in Venice in 1254. His father Nicolo Polo was a merchant. Marco's mother died when he was just 15 years old. When he was 17, he went to China with his father and uncle. Marco Polo served as a government official while over there. His father and uncle served as military advisers to Kublai Khan.

In 1260, he made an overland journey from Bukhoro, Uzbekistan, to China. Two years later, he made a second journey. The route led from modern-day Akko, Israel, to the Persian Gulf, northward through Iran to present-day Amu-Darya, up the Oxus the Pamir to present day Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, and finally across the Gobi Desert. They reached Shang-tu in 1275.

The Polo's left China in the 1292, they left the country as escorts for a Mongol princess traveling by sea to Iran. They got to that country by Sumatra, near southern India. They then went overland past Tabriz in northwest Iran. They went along the east coast of the Black Sea, and past Constantinople. They returned from China in 1295.

In 1298, Marco Polo served as a captain of a Venetian galley that participated in a battle between the fleets of Venice and Genoa. He was taken prisoner by the Genoese. While jailed, he dictated to a fellow prisoner what he saw and heard while he traveled. Marco Polo's book, "The Travels of Marco Polo", first published in French, is probably the most famous travel book in history. It was the basis of the first accurate maps of Asia. The book helped Christopher Columbus in his explorations. Marco Polo died in 1324 when he was 70 years old. When on his death bed, he said "I didn't tell half of what I saw, because no one would have believed me."

When the two brothers, Nikola and Mate Polo, this time together with young Marko, found themselves again in this big town, they went straight to the emperor's palace where they saw the ruler in the company of a great number of dignitaries. They bowed in front of him with the greatest respect. The Khan ordered them to get up and expressed his great joy at seeing them again. They showed him the letters and the credentials which they had received from the Pope and they handed him, as they had promised, the holy oil from Christ's tomb. Then the Khan saw Marko, who was by then twenty one years old and asked: "Who is that young and handsome young man?" "Your majesty", replied Nikola Polo, "this is my son and your servant." The Great Khan replied "He is welcome and it pleases me much."

In the time of Marko Polo, Peking was a densely populated town. The tradesmen and the citizens of all possible professions had their own quarters. There was a special quarter for about 20,000 prostitutes, who were treated with respect because they were considered persons of social significance in a big city. The body guards of the Great Khan numbered 10, 000 people. Roads lead from the capital to various parts of China. Every region was properly noted in the official books, as well as the distance from Peking to every town and village of the empire. Marko was impressed especially by the Kahn's courier service on horseback which could bring him information from the most distant part of the huge country in a few days. This was possible due to courier stations where both horse and horsemen were exchanged. In this way message could travel about 500 kilometres in one day. Besides the couriers on horseback there existed a postal service run by messengers. They would carry small objects from place to place along a system of roads. Every horseman and messenger would be given permission to pass in the form of a small plaque on which was written where he came from and in which direction he was going. When he reached one station he would show his plaque and take another which would serve him as permission to pass until the next station. Any mistake, and its maker, was revealed in such a way. According to Marko's opinion there were 10,000 stations in China and at least 300,000 horses. He expressed his doubts in his book that Europeans would believe in these inconceivable numbers.

The fortified inner town was situated inside Khanabalik (Peking); here stood the emperor's palace, halls and gardens. The walls of the palace were decorated with carved and gilded dragons and paintings of birds, animals and war scenes. The roof shone in the sunshine with its spectrum of colours: yellow-red, azure blue, green and violet. Not far from the palace was an artificial hill, about thirty metres high and more than a thousand metres in circumference. On it Kublai Khan ordered the most beautiful trees from all over the world to be planted. On the top of the hill, called Green mount, there was a magnificent pavilion where the Great Khan used to go to refresh his spirit. At the foot of the Green mount, there was a big lake in which all kinds of fish were swimming intended for the Khan's table. The Khan's four wifes were living inside the palace. Numerous concubines were also living close to the Khan in the palace, and about thirty would be chosen every year among the most beautiful girls from Kungurat, the province known for its beautiful women. The parents considered the choice of their daughter for the Khan's concubine as the greatest possible happiness.

However, Marko was most impressed by the banquets of Kublai Khan, which were taking place in the halls for six thousand people. The Great Khan would be sitting on an elevated pedestal, and beside him, on an enormous table, was a big jar of pure gold filled with wine. There were also jars of kumiss and other drinks. Kublai Khan preferred kumiss which was prepared for him exclusively from the herd of white mares. As the Khan drew the vessel to his lips, musicians would start to play and everybody would kneel down until the Great Khan had finished his drink. When eating was done entertainers and dancers would amuse the guests until dawn.

The great annual spectacle was the Khan's birthday, September 28th. 20,000 noblemen attended, all in golden habits, ornamented with jewels and pearls of enormous value. Another court celebration was the New Year. The Great Khan would receive on that day gifts in the form of gold, silver, precious stones and beautiful horses from the whole empire. Sometimes he would amass a hundred thousand horses. All were of white colour which was considered exceptionally lucky. Up to five thousand elephants would be in the procession, wrapped in silk linen quilted with golden filigree. After the procession, the rulers, noblemen, and high clerks would gather in the great hall. One of the dignitaries would stand on an elevated platform and cry: "Bow down and worship!", and everybody had to bow until his forehead touched the floor. Then they would treat themselves with abundant food and drinks amidst great merriment.

The Great Khan was enormouly respected. Everybody coming within 500 metres from him had to lower his voice and behave humbly. If somebody had an invitation to the palace, he had to take off his shoes and put on white leadher slippers before he entered the palace. If he wished to spit he had to take with him a small covered vessel.

Marko was also fascinated by the method of heating. As the Chinese used to take baths three times a week in summer and every day in winter, the Mongols took on that habit from them. They therefore needed a big quantity of fuel in the form of "black stones", which was burning, Marko says, from the evening until the next morning.

Marko describes Kublai Khan as a benevolent dictator. He wished his subjects, of whom the majority were peasants, to live a decent life. Kublai Khan was shrewd enough to express his benevolence not only as a trait of his character but as a useful principle as well. His own income depended on the destiny of the peasants. If storms, blight or locasts devastated their harvest, he would liberate them from paying taxes and give them corn both for sowing and for food. To secure himself from a period of dearth, he would store big quantities of corn when it was abundant. If a family experienced a disastre it would be given as much food and clothes as it had the previous year. Children without a family home were brought up in special institutions, and many hospitals were also built. His officials were distributing thirty five thousand dishes of rice and barley to those who needed it most. Such a policy was very distant from the Mongol scorn for the poor, and was closer to the then Chinese moral principles about help for the needy.

A very significant mark of Kublai's efforts was the building of the Great Canal, which stretched from Peking to Hangchou. He also planted trees on both sides of every big road. Kublai Khan knew how to connect the useful with the beautiful. He encouraged the development of various sciences as well. So he built observatories for the astrologers and astronomers who were very much esteemed then in China. He also showed a great tolerance towards various religions, which was also not only the expression of his character but also a useful approach which prevented conflicts in the empire. He asked the Christian Bible to be brought to him for Easter and Christmas, which he would then kiss. He also worshiped Saracen, Jewish and Buddhist feast days. When asked why he did so he answered: "I respect and honour all four great Prophets: Jesus Christ, Mohamed, Moses and Buddha, so that I can appeal to any one of them in heaven."

Marko liked to watch at the magician's skills of the Buddhist lamas, who mostly came from Tibet. He says that they could stop storms, and he was most impressed when one of them made a vessel containing wine fly from the table into Kublai's hand and back to the table again, after the Khan had drunk it.

Marko was advancing excellently in learning Mongol customs and military skills. He learned several Asian languages in a very short time and excelled in wisdom. The ruler of China noticed immediately his common sense, and was also impressed by his looks and behaviour. He ordered him to be his envoy in a province that was six months by caravan journey away from the capital. On his return, Marko described to the Great Khan all he saw and reported to him the work he had done for him. The ruler was delighted by Marko's intelligent report and Marko Polo, after that time, enjoyed great favour and affection from the Great Khan. The ruler ordered that all must address him by the title "master Marko Polo". So our great traveller remained seventeen years in the service of the Great Khan.

Marko gradually became one of the most devoted dignitaries to Kublai Khan. Realizing how much the Khan was interested in the customs of the peoples of his empire, Marko carefully noted all his observations and experiences so that the official reports were transformed into interesting stories. Unlike the legendary Sheherezade, who delayed her death with her story telling to the cruel shah, Marko Polo was achieving, by his report-stories, greater and greater respect in the eyes of his master and so he became a kind of court writer. But the Great Khan knew how to use other talents of the young Marko. He pointed out, in his descriptions, to the abilities of various provincial rulers, and their shortcomings, and provided the Khan with a knowledge of trade, geography and governing. The Great Khan used this as the basis for his policy for the controlling of the distant regions within the enormous area of his empire. So Marko visited Burma and Korea, and came to Tibet and India. Wherever Marko Polo arrived he found prosperous communities, each of them trying to make use of its economic advantages. As skilful businessman, Marko noticed the advantage of using paper money in some places. This was an entirely new thing introduced by Kublai Khan. He issued special banknotes made of strong thick paper which was produced by pounding the bark of mulberry trees. The paper was cut to the desired size, reliefs were impressed inside and the cliches were done. The banknotes were stamped in the imperial palace with special colours, diluted in red ink. This paper money could be exchanged for gold of equal value instantly. After five years all banknotes were withdrawn from use. As the buying power of money decreased over the years, so its value in circulation also decreased. Thus the Great Khan fought inflation. Paper money was used in the provinces which today comprise the regions of modern China, whereas the hunting peoples of the Siberian north and various tribes of the far away south used a more primitive way of paying, with snails for example. Marko, however, was not conscious of the epoch making discovery which consisted in the fact that money was printed. This had been known in China since the ninth century. But he was especially delighted to see on his travels that the Mongol rulers did not destroy Chinese culture. Not only did they not destroy the towns but they respected the imprisoned Chinese emperor and his main wife and gave him a palace. There they continued to live isolated but in luxury. The Mongols adopted the basic ideas of Chinese philosophy, which distinguished man from things, so that they were only killing their opponents if it was necessary for the achievment of their strategic aims.

Marko Polo arrived in Burma as the official envoy of Kublai Khan in 1278, one year after the big battle between the kings of Burma and Bengal and the Mongol army. He describes that great event which took place in the plain of Vochan. The Mongols were approaching that valley with 12,000 well-equipped horsemen to face a much bigger Burmese army of 60,000 horsemen and infantry-men and 2,000 elephants. When the Mongol soldiers saw the elephants they were so scared that they turned back and started to gallop to the rear. Then the Mongol captain had the salutary idea of making the horsemen dismount from the horses and tie them to trees in the nearby wood. His soldiers then started to shoot at the elephants hitting their vulnerable parts with numerous arrows, which was the Mongol's favourite weapon. The elephants started to run away towards the wood with enormous noise, while the wooden "castles" on their backs, holding twelve to sixteen well-armed warriors, were falling down while striking the branches of the trees. When the Mongols saw that the elephants ran away, they mounted their horses again and began to chase the enemy. Then a fierce battle occurred. "Then might you see swashing blows dealt and taken from sword and mace; then might you see knights and horses and men-at-arms go down; then might you see arms and hands and legs and heads hewn off: and beside the dead that fell, many a wounded man, that never rose again, for the sore press there was. The din and uproar were so great from this side and that, that God might have thundered and no man would have heard it!" After the battle the Mongol commander took some elephants to Kublai Khan and from that time he always included them in his armies. Kublai Khan knew how to use them better that the Burmese king.

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Marko's second important mission took him to the province of Manzi. This was an independent province in southeast China, which Marko describes as the richest province of the Eastern world. Immediately after Marko's arrival there Kublai's general, Bayan, crushed its resistance to the Mongol force, forcing the minor king and his queen-mother to recognize Mongol reign. Both were spared their lives, and the new Son of heaven did not humiliate them. Marko tells of how the Queen only consented to give up the struggle when she heard that the commander of the Mongolian army was called Bayan-Hundred Eyes. Their astrologers had earlier predicted that the man with hundred eyes would bereave them of their kingdom. The city of Yangchou lay within the same province; it was one of the biggest towns in the province, and Marko served there as a governor. Is it because of Marko's modesty that he speaks little about that town and nothing about his experiences as the governor?

However, with all his modesty and cautiousness he could not avoid mentioning the greatest event in which himself, Master Polo, and Masters Nikola and Mate took part directly. The Mongol army laid siege for three years to the rich silk town Sa-yan-fu (Siang-yang-fu) but did not manage to capture it because of the ditches filled with water that encircled it. The Great Khan himself was with the majority of his army in the vicinity of the town. Messengers told him that their siege could not succeed because the town received its victuals from the areas they could not occupy. But the Khan ordered them to find some solution. Then the two brothers Polo and their son - then already an experienced Khan's diplomat - appeared on the stage and said: " Oh Great Prince, among our co-travellers are people who know how to construct catapults which will throw such big stones that the station will not be able to withstand the siege and they will give up immediately when mangonels and trebuchets start to hit the town." Khan begged them to construct these catapults as quickly as possible, although he had never heard of them before nor had he seen them. Then the three Polos started to work, ordered wood in big quantities, and sought out among the co-travellers there were a Nestorian Christian and a German who knew well how to build this efficient weapon. They built three catapults each of which could carry s stone of 150 kilos. The emperor insisted that they tried them in his presence, and when he saw the orbit of the stone he was delighted. Then he ordered the catapults to be brought to his camp in the vicinity of Sa-yan-fu. When the apparatuses were ready, one big stone was shot from each catapult to the town. They destroyed several buildings and caused panic among the population. The leaders of the besieged town began to consider what to do, but the opinion prevailed that it was some kind of magic and that they would all be killed if they continued to resist. They declared that they were ready to surrender under the same conditions as other towns and to become loyal citizens of the Great Khan. "So the men of the city surrendered, and were received on terms; and this all came about through the exertions of Messers Nicolo, Maffeo, and Marco; and it was no small matter. For this city and province is one of the best that the Great Khan possesses, and brings him in great revenues."

But Marko Polo was not interested only in the battles. With his Mediterranean curiosity he admired even more the achievements of Chinese civilization, and he had unique opportunity to get acquainted with it at the peak of its glory. He was impressed especially by the "Heavenly city" of Kinsai, on the river of Yangtze, which he calls Coromoran. That city was saved from destruction by the Great Khan so that Marko experienced it in all its magnificence. The town extended in area more than a hundred kilometres and had 1,600,000 families, 12,000 stone bridges, which were so high that a big fleet could pass under them. There were twelve guilds, and each of them had 12,000 craftsmen's buildings, in each of which 20 to 40 craftsmen worked. They also supplied other big Chinese towns with their products. The number of tradesmen and the town's wealth is unknown. They lived in the greatest luxury and their wifes did no any physical work but enjoyed their luxurious robes and various entertainments. "These women are indeed very noble and angelic creatures!" There is a lake inside the town of almost fifty kilometres in area. Beautiful palaces are erected around it, as well as many churches. There are two islands in the middle of the lake, and a large building is built on each of them, equipped as the emperor's palace. Any citizen can use it for a wedding or some other ceremony. Sometimes a hundred different feasts take place in these buildings. There are also luxurious apartments in them, where guests can sleep after the banquet. There are many pleasure boats for relaxation on the lake, on which the citizens of Kinsai embark after a work. When the Great Khan occupied that town he ordered a the guard of ten people to be on each bridge in case of trouble. Each watchman had a hollow instrument of wood and metal on which they struck every hour, day and night. Special precautions were taken in case of fire because there were many wooden houses in the town. The guards watched lest someone lighted a fire at an inappropriate time and without care. If this happened the offender was severely punished. There is a big tower in the middle of the town on which a wooden plaque hangs. When fire appears somewhere, the watchman strikes the plaque with the hammer so that the sound can be heard everywhere. All streets are paved by stone or brick. But the earth is left unpaved at the sides of the paving in order that the Khan's horses may gallop. The main street is paved with two parallel ways of which each is ten paces wide. A space of fine pebble is left in the middle and under it arched conduits take water into the canals. Thus the road is always dry. The city of Kinsai has 3,000 baths to which water is brought from a source. There are hot baths which people can enjoy several times a month. "These are the most beautiful baths in the world; large enough for 100 persons to bathe in together. The ocean is only 40 kilometres from the town at a place called Gan-fu, where there is a town and an excellent harbour. Many merchant ships from India and other countries come there. And the great river Coromoran (Yangtze) flows from the city of Kinsai to that sea port, so that ships can sail to the city itself." Marko was so impressed by the outside appearance of the town that he hardly noticed that Kinsai was one of the greatest centres of culture, education and art the world has ever known. There were more books in the libraries of Kinsai in Marko's time than in the whole of the rest of Asia.