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Did Marco Polo write about or bring back fireworks from his travels?

Did Marco Polo write about or bring back fireworks from his travels?

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I have read a lot of anecdotal accounts claiming that Marco Polo was "impressed" with fireworks he saw in Cathay, and other stories that he "brought back fire crackers" or "introduced gunpowder" to Europe. For example, on the page History of Fireworks, it says "Marco Polo is credited with bringing gunpowder to Europe in the 13th century." (without any reference). Yet, when I have read the Travels of Marco Polo (in English translation), I did not see any mentions of fireworks. At one point he says farmers heaped up bamboo stalks and set them on fire to frighten animals, but this seems to refer just to the normal crackling and popping noises bamboo makes when it is set afire in large quantities, not to actual fireworks (bamboo makes a very loud cracking sound when it is set on fire, check out this video: bamboo on fire or this one (at 5:55) bamboo popping in a fire pit).

So, did Marco Polo write about or bring back fireworks from his travels, or is that just a myth?

Apparently, Europe was exposed to gunpowder prior to Marco Polo: the Wikipedia page references several sources speaking of Mongol usage of gunpowder at the Battle of Mohi (Hungary) in 1241; Marco Polo was not even born at that time.

This page ends with the following rather assertive sentence:

There is, however, no truth in the tradition that he brought back the secrets of gunpowder, the compass, printing or noodles.

Apparently, gunpowder and firecrackers were described in 1267 by Roger Bacon (Marco Polo was 13 at that time, and had not yet departed to, let alone returned from, China). Firecrackers and fireworks are not exactly the same thing, although they are both used for festive and ritual reasons. Fireworks properly said (i.e. the ones which go up and are meant visual rather than auditive usages) were common in Song's China, especially during imperial celebrations. Since the Mongols (Yuan) adopted the pomp of the Chinese court, it is highly probable that Marco Polo, during his 18 years presence at Khubilai's court (1274 to 1292), saw quite a lot of it.

It is hard to prove a negative, but chances are that Marco Polo bringing back gunpowder or any derivative (e.g. fireworks) to Europe is a myth. As all popular myths, it also includes variants; e.g. that page depicts Marco Polo bringing gunpowder to the Chinese, not the other way round.

What Did Marco Polo Bring Back From China?

The most significant and enduring things Marco Polo brought back from China were information and inspiration. During his travels in the East, Polo saw many things that were utterly foreign and new to Europeans, and his later account of his travels generated immense interest among his Western contemporaries. Similarly, his adventures summoned other Europeans to invest in exploration.

Most of what is known of Marco Polo's travels in China come from his own hand, so the source is not exactly unbiased. However, taken at his word, he ultimately traveled extensively there, eventually becoming an envoy to the Mongol ruler Kublai Khan. In this enhanced capacity, Polo witnessed phenomena all over the empire, including a vast and astonishingly efficient system of communication and roadways. Additionally, Polo became fascinated with the Chinese usage of paper currency, an idea yet to be fully pondered in his native Europe. He visited Kashgar and Hetian, locations celebrated for beautiful jade. He also visited desert grottoes adorned with magnificent Buddhist carvings.

After Polo returned home to Venice in 1295, he became embroiled in the city's war with the Genoans and was ultimately imprisoned. While incarcerated, Polo wrote what later became his famous account of his travels, which motivated future generations of explorers to find wealthy and exotic lands -- generations such as that of Christopher Columbus, an explorer thought to have had his own personal copy of Polo's book. While some speculate that Marco Polo brought back material things, such as pasta from China, these stories may prove more legend than fact. According to Culinary Lore, Polo mentions encountering noodles in China, but the text suggests that he was comparing the noodles he saw abroad with those he was already familiar with in Europe.


Birthplace and family origin

Marco Polo was born in 1254 in Venice, capital of the Venetian Republic. [10] [11] [12] His father, Niccolò Polo, had his household in Venice and left Marco's pregnant mother in order to travel to Asia with his brother Maffeo Polo. Their return to Italy in order to "go to Venice and visit their household" is described in The Travels of Marco Polo as follows: ". they departed from Acre and went to Negropont, and from Negropont they continued their voyage to Venice. On their arrival there, Messer Nicolas found that his wife was dead and that she had left behind her a son of fifteen years of age, whose name was Marco". [13]

His first known ancestor was a great uncle, Marco Polo (the older) from Venice, who lent some money and commanded a ship in Costantinople. Andrea, Marco's grandfather, lived in Venice in "contrada San Felice", he had three sons: Marco "the older", Maffeo and Niccolò (Marco's father). [14] [15] Some old Venetian historical sources considered Polo's ancestors to be of far Dalmatian origin. [16] [17] [18]

Nickname Milione

Marco Polo is most often mentioned in the archives of the Republic of Venice as Marco Paulo de confinio Sancti Iohannis Grisostomi, [19] which means Marco Polo of the contrada of St John Chrysostom Church.

However, he was also nicknamed Milione during his lifetime (which in Italian literally means 'Million'). In fact, the Italian title of his book was Il libro di Marco Polo detto il Milione, which means "The Book of Marco Polo, nicknamed 'Milione ' ". According to the 15th-century humanist Giovanni Battista Ramusio, his fellow citizens awarded him this nickname when he came back to Venice because he kept on saying that Kublai Khan's wealth was counted in millions. More precisely, he was nicknamed Messer Marco Milioni (Mr Marco Millions). [20]

However, since also his father Niccolò was nicknamed Milione, [21] 19th-century philologist Luigi Foscolo Benedetto was persuaded that Milione was a shortened version of Emilione, and that this nickname was used to distinguish Niccolò's and Marco's branch from other Polo families. [22] [23]

Early life and Asian travel

In 1168, his great-uncle, Marco Polo, borrowed money and commanded a ship in Constantinople. [24] [25] His grandfather, Andrea Polo of the parish of San Felice, had three sons, Maffeo, yet another Marco, and the traveller's father Niccolò. [24] This genealogy, described by Ramusio, is not universally accepted as there is no additional evidence to support it. [26] [27]

His father, Niccolò Polo, a merchant, traded with the Near East, becoming wealthy and achieving great prestige. [28] [29] Niccolò and his brother Maffeo set off on a trading voyage before Marco's birth. [30] [29] In 1260, Niccolò and Maffeo, while residing in Constantinople, then the capital of the Latin Empire, foresaw a political change they liquidated their assets into jewels and moved away. [28] According to The Travels of Marco Polo, they passed through much of Asia, and met with Kublai Khan, a Mongol ruler and founder of the Yuan dynasty. [31] Their decision to leave Constantinople proved timely. In 1261 Michael VIII Palaiologos, the ruler of the Empire of Nicaea, took Constantinople, promptly burned the Venetian quarter and re-established the Byzantine Empire. Captured Venetian citizens were blinded, [32] while many of those who managed to escape perished aboard overloaded refugee ships fleeing to other Venetian colonies in the Aegean Sea.

Almost nothing is known about the childhood of Marco Polo until he was fifteen years old, except that he probably spent part of his childhood in Venice. [33] [34] [25] Meanwhile, Marco Polo's mother died, and an aunt and uncle raised him. [29] He received a good education, learning mercantile subjects including foreign currency, appraising, and the handling of cargo ships [29] he learned little or no Latin. [28] His father later married Floradise Polo (née Trevisan). [27]

In 1269, Niccolò and Maffeo returned to their families in Venice, meeting young Marco for the first time. [33] In 1271, during the rule of Doge Lorenzo Tiepolo, Marco Polo (at seventeen years of age), his father, and his uncle set off for Asia on the series of adventures that Marco later documented in his book. [35]

They sailed to Acre and later rode on their camels to the Persian port Hormuz. During the first stages of the journey, they stayed for a few months in Acre and were able to speak with Archdeacon Tedaldo Visconti of Piacenza. The Polo family, on that occasion, had expressed their regret at the long lack of a pope, because on their previous trip to China they had received a letter from Kublai Khan to the Pope, and had thus had to leave for China disappointed. During the trip, however, they received news that after 33 months of vacation, finally, the Conclave had elected the new Pope and that he was exactly the archdeacon of Acre. The three of them hurried to return to the Holy Land, where the new Pope entrusted them with letters for the "Great Khan", inviting him to send his emissaries to Rome. To give more weight to this mission he sent with the Polos, as his legates, two Dominican fathers, Guglielmo of Tripoli and Nicola of Piacenza. [36]

They continued overland until they arrived at Kublai Khan's place in Shangdu, China (then known as Cathay). By this time, Marco was 21 years old. [37] Impressed by Marco's intelligence and humility, Khan appointed him to serve as his foreign emissary to India and Burma. He was sent on many diplomatic missions throughout his empire and in Southeast Asia, (such as in present-day Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam), [5] [6] but also entertained the Khan with stories and observations about the lands he saw. As part of this appointment, Marco travelled extensively inside China, living in the emperor's lands for 17 years. [7]

Kublai initially refused several times to let the Polos return to Europe, as he appreciated their company and they became useful to him. [38] However, around 1291, he finally granted permission, entrusting the Polos with his last duty: accompany the Mongol princess Kököchin, who was to become the consort of Arghun Khan, in Persia (see Narrative section). [37] [39] After leaving the princess, the Polos travelled overland to Constantinople. They later decided to return to their home. [37]

They returned to Venice in 1295, after 24 years, with many riches and treasures. They had travelled almost 15,000 miles (24,000 km). [29]

Genoese captivity and later life

Marco Polo returned to Venice in 1295 with his fortune converted into gemstones. At this time, Venice was at war with the Republic of Genoa. [40] Polo armed a galley equipped with a trebuchet [41] to join the war. He was probably caught by Genoans in a skirmish in 1296, off the Anatolian coast between Adana and the Gulf of Alexandretta [42] (and not during the battle of Curzola (September 1298), off the Dalmatian coast, [43] a claim which is due to a later tradition (16th century) recorded by Giovanni Battista Ramusio [44] [45] ).

He spent several months of his imprisonment dictating a detailed account of his travels to a fellow inmate, Rustichello da Pisa, [29] who incorporated tales of his own as well as other collected anecdotes and current affairs from China. The book soon spread throughout Europe in manuscript form, and became known as The Travels of Marco Polo (Italian title: Il Milione, lit. "The Million", deriving from Polo's nickname "Milione". Original title in Franco-Italian : Livres des Merveilles du Monde). It depicts the Polos' journeys throughout Asia, giving Europeans their first comprehensive look into the inner workings of the Far East, including China, India, and Japan. [46]

Polo was finally released from captivity in August 1299, [29] and returned home to Venice, where his father and uncle in the meantime had purchased a large palazzo in the zone named contrada San Giovanni Crisostomo (Corte del Milion). [47] For such a venture, the Polo family probably invested profits from trading, and even many gemstones they brought from the East. [47] The company continued its activities and Marco soon became a wealthy merchant. Marco and his uncle Maffeo financed other expeditions, but likely never left Venetian provinces, nor returned to the Silk Road and Asia. [48] Sometime before 1300, his father Niccolò died. [48] In 1300, he married Donata Badoèr, the daughter of Vitale Badoèr, a merchant. [49] They had three daughters, Fantina (married Marco Bragadin), Bellela (married Bertuccio Querini), and Moreta. [50] [51]

Pietro d'Abano philosopher, doctor and astrologer based in Padua, reports having spoken with Marco Polo about what he had observed in the vault of the sky during his travels. Marco told him that during his return trip to the South China Sea, he had spotted what he describes in a drawing as a star "shaped like a sack" (in Latin: ut sacco) with a big tail (magna habens caudam), most likely a comet. Astronomers agree that there were no comets sighted in Europe at the end of 1200, but there are records about a comet sighted in China and Indonesia in 1293. [52] Interestingly, this circumstance does not appear in Polo's book of Travels. Peter D'Abano kept the drawing in his volume "Conciliator Differentiarum, quæ inter Philosophos et Medicos Versantur". Marco Polo gave Pietro other astronomical observations he made in the Southern Hemisphere, and also a description of the Sumatran rhinoceros, which are collected in the Conciliator. [52]

In 1305 he is mentioned in a Venetian document among local sea captains regarding the payment of taxes. [27] His relation with a certain Marco Polo, who in 1300 was mentioned with riots against the aristocratic government, and escaped the death penalty, as well as riots from 1310 led by Bajamonte Tiepolo and Marco Querini, among whose rebels were Jacobello and Francesco Polo from another family branch, is unclear. [27] Polo is clearly mentioned again after 1305 in Maffeo's testament from 1309–1310, in a 1319 document according to which he became owner of some estates of his deceased father, and in 1321, when he bought part of the family property of his wife Donata. [27]


In 1323, Polo was confined to bed, due to illness. [53] On January 8, 1324, despite physicians' efforts to treat him, Polo was on his deathbed. [54] To write and certify the will, his family requested Giovanni Giustiniani, a priest of San Procolo. His wife, Donata, and his three daughters were appointed by him as co-executrices. [54] The church was entitled by law to a portion of his estate he approved of this and ordered that a further sum be paid to the convent of San Lorenzo, the place where he wished to be buried. [54] He also set free Peter, a Tartar servant, who may have accompanied him from Asia, [55] and to whom Polo bequeathed 100 lire of Venetian denari. [56]

He divided up the rest of his assets, including several properties, among individuals, religious institutions, and every guild and fraternity to which he belonged. [54] He also wrote off multiple debts including 300 lire that his sister-in-law owed him, and others for the convent of San Giovanni, San Paolo of the Order of Preachers, and a cleric named Friar Benvenuto. [54] He ordered 220 soldi be paid to Giovanni Giustiniani for his work as a notary and his prayers. [57]

The will was not signed by Polo, but was validated by the then-relevant "signum manus" rule, by which the testator only had to touch the document to make it legally valid. [56] [58] Due to the Venetian law stating that the day ends at sunset, the exact date of Marco Polo's death cannot be determined, but according to some scholars it was between the sunsets of January 8 and 9, 1324. [59] Biblioteca Marciana, which holds the original copy of his testament, dates the testament on January 9, 1323, and gives the date of his death at some time in June 1324. [58]

An authoritative version of Marco Polo's book does not and cannot exist, for the early manuscripts differ significantly, and the reconstruction of the original text is a matter of textual criticism. A total of about 150 copies in various languages are known to exist. Before the availability of printing press, errors were frequently made during copying and translating, so there are many differences between the various copies. [60] [61]

Polo related his memoirs orally to Rustichello da Pisa while both were prisoners of the Genova Republic. Rustichello wrote Devisement du Monde in Franco-Venetian. [62] The idea probably was to create a handbook for merchants, essentially a text on weights, measures and distances. [63]

The oldest surviving manuscript is in Old French heavily flavoured with Italian [64] According to the Italian scholar Luigi Foscolo Benedetto, this "F" text is the basic original text, which he corrected by comparing it with the somewhat more detailed Italian of Giovanni Battista Ramusio, together with a Latin manuscript in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana. Other early important sources are R (Ramusio's Italian translation first printed in 1559), and Z (a fifteenth-century Latin manuscript kept at Toledo, Spain). Another Old French Polo manuscript, dating to around 1350, is held by the National Library of Sweden. [65]

One of the early manuscripts Iter Marci Pauli Veneti was a translation into Latin made by the Dominican brother Francesco Pipino in 1302, just a few years after Marco's return to Venice. Since Latin was then the most widespread and authoritative language of culture, it is suggested that Rustichello's text was translated into Latin for a precise will of the Dominican Order, and this helped to promote the book on a European scale. [19]

The first English translation is the Elizabethan version by John Frampton published in 1579, The most noble and famous travels of Marco Polo, based on Santaella's Castilian translation of 1503 (the first version in that language). [66]

The published editions of Polo's book rely on single manuscripts, blend multiple versions together, or add notes to clarify, for example in the English translation by Henry Yule. The 1938 English translation by A. C. Moule and Paul Pelliot is based on a Latin manuscript found in the library of the Cathedral of Toledo in 1932, and is 50% longer than other versions. [67] The popular translation published by Penguin Books in 1958 by R. E. Latham works several texts together to make a readable whole. [68]


The book opens with a preface describing his father and uncle travelling to Bolghar where Prince Berke Khan lived. A year later, they went to Ukek [69] and continued to Bukhara. There, an envoy from the Levant invited them to meet Kublai Khan, who had never met Europeans. [70] In 1266, they reached the seat of Kublai Khan at Dadu, present-day Beijing, China. Kublai received the brothers with hospitality and asked them many questions regarding the European legal and political system. [71] He also inquired about the Pope and Church in Rome. [72] After the brothers answered the questions he tasked them with delivering a letter to the Pope, requesting 100 Christians acquainted with the Seven Arts (grammar, rhetoric, logic, geometry, arithmetic, music and astronomy). Kublai Khan requested also that an envoy bring him back oil of the lamp in Jerusalem. [73] The long sede vacante between the death of Pope Clement IV in 1268 and the election of his successor delayed the Polos in fulfilling Kublai's request. They followed the suggestion of Theobald Visconti, then papal legate for the realm of Egypt, and returned to Venice in 1269 or 1270 to await the nomination of the new Pope, which allowed Marco to see his father for the first time, at the age of fifteen or sixteen. [74]

In 1271, Niccolò, Maffeo and Marco Polo embarked on their voyage to fulfil Kublai's request. They sailed to Acre, and then rode on camels to the Persian port of Hormuz. The Polos wanted to sail straight into China, but the ships there were not seaworthy, so they continued overland through the Silk Road, until reaching Kublai's summer palace in Shangdu, near present-day Zhangjiakou. In one instance during their trip, the Polos joined a caravan of travelling merchants whom they crossed paths with. Unfortunately, the party was soon attacked by bandits, who used the cover of a sandstorm to ambush them. The Polos managed to fight and escape through a nearby town, but many members of the caravan were killed or enslaved. [75] Three and a half years after leaving Venice, when Marco was about 21 years old, the Polos were welcomed by Kublai into his palace. [29] The exact date of their arrival is unknown, but scholars estimate it to be between 1271 and 1275. [nb 1] On reaching the Yuan court, the Polos presented the sacred oil from Jerusalem and the papal letters to their patron. [28]

Marco knew four languages, and the family had accumulated a great deal of knowledge and experience that was useful to Kublai. It is possible that he became a government official [29] he wrote about many imperial visits to China's southern and eastern provinces, the far south and Burma. [76] They were highly respected and sought after in the Mongolian court, and so Kublai Khan decided to decline the Polos' requests to leave China. They became worried about returning home safely, believing that if Kublai died, his enemies might turn against them because of their close involvement with the ruler. In 1292, Kublai's great-nephew, then ruler of Persia, sent representatives to China in search of a potential wife, and they asked the Polos to accompany them, so they were permitted to return to Persia with the wedding party—which left that same year from Zaitun in southern China on a fleet of 14 junks. The party sailed to the port of Singapore, [77] travelled north to Sumatra, [78] and around the southern tip of India, [79] eventually crossing the Arabian Sea to Hormuz. The two-year voyage was a perilous one—of the six hundred people (not including the crew) in the convoy only eighteen had survived (including all three Polos). [80] The Polos left the wedding party after reaching Hormuz and travelled overland to the port of Trebizond on the Black Sea, the present-day Trabzon. [29]

Role of Rustichello

The British scholar Ronald Latham has pointed out that The Book of Marvels was, in fact, a collaboration written in 1298–1299 between Polo and a professional writer of romances, Rustichello of Pisa. [81] It is believed that Polo related his memoirs orally to Rustichello da Pisa while both were prisoners of the Genova Republic. Rustichello wrote Devisement du Monde in Franco-Venetian language, which was the language of culture widespread in northern Italy between the subalpine belt and the lower Po between the 13th and 15th centuries. [62] [82]

Latham also argued that Rustichello may have glamorised Polo's accounts, and added fantastic and romantic elements that made the book a bestseller. [81] The Italian scholar Luigi Foscolo Benedetto had previously demonstrated that the book was written in the same "leisurely, conversational style" that characterised Rustichello's other works, and that some passages in the book were taken verbatim or with minimal modifications from other writings by Rustichello. For example, the opening introduction in The Book of Marvels to "emperors and kings, dukes and marquises" was lifted straight out of an Arthurian romance Rustichello had written several years earlier, and the account of the second meeting between Polo and Kublai Khan at the latter's court is almost the same as that of the arrival of Tristan at the court of King Arthur at Camelot in that same book. [83] Latham believed that many elements of the book, such as legends of the Middle East and mentions of exotic marvels, may have been the work of Rustichello who was giving what medieval European readers expected to find in a travel book. [84]

Role of the Dominican Order

Apparently, from the very beginning, Marco's story aroused contrasting reactions, as it was received by some with a certain disbelief. The Dominican father Francesco Pipino was the author of a translation into Latin, Iter Marci Pauli Veneti in 1302, just a few years after Marco's return to Venice. Francesco Pipino solemnly affirmed the truthfulness of the book and defined Marco as a "prudent, honoured and faithful man". [85] In his writings, the Dominican brother Jacopo d'Acqui explains why his contemporaries were sceptical about the content of the book. He also relates that before dying, Marco Polo insisted that "he had told only a half of the things he had seen". [85]

According to some recent research of the Italian scholar Antonio Montefusco, the very close relationship that Marco Polo cultivated with members of the Dominican Order in Venice suggests that local fathers collaborated with him for a Latin version of the book, which means that Rustichello's text was translated into Latin for a precise will of the Order. [19]

Since Dominican fathers had among their missions that of evangelizing foreign peoples (cf. the role of Dominican missionaries in China [86] and in the Indies [87] ), it is reasonable to think that they considered Marco's book as a trustworthy piece of information for missions in the East. The diplomatic communications between Pope Innocent IV and Pope Gregory X with the Mongols [88] were probably another reason for this endorsement. At the time, there was open discussion of a possible Christian-Mongul alliance with an anti-Islamic function. [89] In fact, a Mongol delegate was solemny baptised at the Second Council of Lyon. At the council, Pope Gregory X promulgated a new Crusade to start in 1278 in liaison with the Mongols. [90]

Authenticity and veracity

Since its publication, some have viewed the book with skepticism. [91] Some in the Middle Ages regarded the book simply as a romance or fable, due largely to the sharp difference of its descriptions of a sophisticated civilisation in China to other early accounts by Giovanni da Pian del Carpine and William of Rubruck, who portrayed the Mongols as 'barbarians' who appeared to belong to 'some other world'. [91] Doubts have also been raised in later centuries about Marco Polo's narrative of his travels in China, for example for his failure to mention the Great Wall of China, and in particular the difficulties in identifying many of the place names he used [92] (the great majority, however, have since been identified). [93] Many have questioned whether he had visited the places he mentioned in his itinerary, whether he had appropriated the accounts of his father and uncle or other travelers, and some doubted whether he even reached China, or that if he did, perhaps never went beyond Khanbaliq (Beijing). [92] [94]

It has, however, been pointed out that Polo's accounts of China are more accurate and detailed than other travellers' accounts of the periods. Polo had at times refuted the 'marvellous' fables and legends given in other European accounts, and despite some exaggerations and errors, Polo's accounts have relatively few of the descriptions of irrational marvels. In many cases where present (mostly given in the first part before he reached China, such as mentions of Christian miracles), he made a clear distinction that they are what he had heard rather than what he had seen. It is also largely free of the gross errors found in other accounts such as those given by the Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta who had confused the Yellow River with the Grand Canal and other waterways, and believed that porcelain was made from coal. [95]

Modern studies have further shown that details given in Marco Polo's book, such as the currencies used, salt productions and revenues, are accurate and unique. Such detailed descriptions are not found in other non-Chinese sources, and their accuracy is supported by archaeological evidence as well as Chinese records compiled after Polo had left China. His accounts are therefore unlikely to have been obtained second hand. [96] Other accounts have also been verified for example, when visiting Zhenjiang in Jiangsu, China, Marco Polo noted that a large number of Christian churches had been built there. His claim is confirmed by a Chinese text of the 14th century explaining how a Sogdian named Mar-Sargis from Samarkand founded six Nestorian Christian churches there in addition to one in Hangzhou during the second half of the 13th century. [97] His story of the princess Kököchin sent from China to Persia to marry the Īl-khān is also confirmed by independent sources in both Persia and China. [98]

Explaining omissions

Sceptics have long wondered whether Marco Polo wrote his book based on hearsay, with some pointing to omissions about noteworthy practices and structures of China as well as the lack of details on some places in his book. While Polo describes paper money and the burning of coal, he fails to mention the Great Wall of China, tea, Chinese characters, chopsticks, or footbinding. [99] His failure to note the presence of the Great Wall of China was first raised in the middle of the seventeenth century, and in the middle of the eighteenth century, it was suggested that he might have never reached China. [92] Later scholars such as John W. Haeger argued that Marco Polo might not have visited Southern China due to the lack of details in his description of southern Chinese cities compared to northern ones, while Herbert Franke also raised the possibility that Marco Polo might not have been to China at all, and wondered if he might have based his accounts on Persian sources due to his use of Persian expressions. [94] [100] This is taken further by Dr. Frances Wood who claimed in her 1995 book Did Marco Polo Go to China? that at best Polo never went farther east than Persia (modern Iran), and that there is nothing in The Book of Marvels about China that could not be obtained via reading Persian books. [101] Wood maintains that it is more probable that Polo only went to Constantinople (modern Istanbul, Turkey) and some of the Italian merchant colonies around the Black Sea, picking hearsay from those travellers who had been farther east. [101]

Supporters of Polo's basic accuracy countered on the points raised by sceptics such as footbinding and the Great Wall of China. Historian Stephen G. Haw argued that the Great Walls were built to keep out northern invaders, whereas the ruling dynasty during Marco Polo's visit were those very northern invaders. They note that the Great Wall familiar to us today is a Ming structure built some two centuries after Marco Polo's travels and that the Mongol rulers whom Polo served controlled territories both north and south of today's wall, and would have no reasons to maintain any fortifications that may have remained there from the earlier dynasties. [102] Other Europeans who travelled to Khanbaliq during the Yuan dynasty, such as Giovanni de' Marignolli and Odoric of Pordenone, said nothing about the wall either. The Muslim traveller Ibn Battuta, who asked about the wall when he visited China during the Yuan dynasty, could find no one who had either seen it or knew of anyone who had seen it, suggesting that while ruins of the wall constructed in the earlier periods might have existed, they were not significant or noteworthy at that time. [102]

Haw also argued that footbinding was not common even among Chinese during Polo's time and almost unknown among the Mongols. While the Italian missionary Odoric of Pordenone who visited Yuan China mentioned footbinding (it is however unclear whether he was merely relaying something he had heard as his description is inaccurate), [103] no other foreign visitors to Yuan China mentioned the practice, perhaps an indication that the footbinding was not widespread or was not practised in an extreme form at that time. [104] Marco Polo himself noted (in the Toledo manuscript) the dainty walk of Chinese women who took very short steps. [102] It has also been noted by other scholars that many of the things not mentioned by Marco Polo such as tea and chopsticks were not mentioned by other travellers as well. [39] Haw also pointed out that despite the few omissions, Marco Polo's account is more extensive, more accurate and more detailed than those of other foreign travellers to China in this period. [105] Marco Polo even observed Chinese nautical inventions such as the watertight compartments of bulkhead partitions in Chinese ships, knowledge of which he was keen to share with his fellow Venetians. [106]

In addition to Haw, a number of other scholars have argued in favour of the established view that Polo was in China in response to Wood's book. [107] Wood's book has been criticized by figures including Igor de Rachewiltz (translator and annotator of The Secret History of the Mongols) and Morris Rossabi (author of Kublai Khan: his life and times). [108] The historian David Morgan points out basic errors made in Wood's book such as confusing the Liao dynasty with the Jin dynasty, and he found no compelling evidence in the book that would convince him that Marco Polo did not go to China. [109] Haw also argues in his book Marco Polo's China that Marco's account is much more correct and accurate than has often been supposed and that it is extremely unlikely that he could have obtained all the information in his book from second-hand sources. [110] Haw also criticizes Wood's approach to finding mention of Marco Polo in Chinese texts by contending that contemporaneous Europeans had little regard for using surnames and that a direct Chinese transliteration of the name "Marco" ignores the possibility of him taking on a Chinese or even Mongol name with no bearing or similarity with his Latin name. [111]

Also in reply to Wood, Jørgen Jensen recalled the meeting of Marco Polo and Pietro d'Abano in the late 13th century. During this meeting, Marco gave to Pietro details of the astronomical observations he had made on his journey. These observations are only compatible with Marco's stay in China, Sumatra and the South China Sea [112] and are recorded in Pietro's book Conciliator Differentiarum, but not in Marco's Book of Travels.

Reviewing Haw's book, Peter Jackson (author of The Mongols and the West) has said that Haw "must surely now have settled the controversy surrounding the historicity of Polo's visit to China". [113] Igor de Rachewiltz's review, which refutes Wood's points, concludes with a strongly-worded condemnation: "I regret to say that F. W.'s book falls short of the standard of scholarship that one would expect in a work of this kind. Her book can only be described as deceptive, both in relation to the author and to the public at large. Questions are posted that, in the majority of cases, have already been answered satisfactorily . her attempt is unprofessional she is poorly equipped in the basic tools of the trade, i.e., adequate linguistic competence and research methodology . and her major arguments cannot withstand close scrutiny. Her conclusion fails to consider all the evidence supporting Marco Polo's credibility." [114]

Allegations of exaggeration

Some scholars believe that Marco Polo exaggerated his importance in China. The British historian David Morgan thought that Polo had likely exaggerated and lied about his status in China, [115] while Ronald Latham believed that such exaggerations were embellishments by his ghostwriter Rustichello da Pisa. [84]

Et meser Marc Pol meisme, celui de cui trate ceste livre, seingneurie ceste cité por trois anz.

And the same Marco Polo, of whom this book relates, ruled this city for three years.

This sentence in The Book of Marvels was interpreted as Marco Polo was "the governor" of the city of "Yangiu" Yangzhou for three years, and later of Hangzhou. This claim has raised some controversy. According to David Morgan no Chinese source mentions him as either a friend of the Emperor or as the governor of Yangzhou – indeed no Chinese source mentions Marco Polo at all. [115] In fact, in the 1960s the German historian Herbert Franke noted that all occurrences of Po-lo or Bolod in Yuan texts were names of people of Mongol or Turkic extraction. [100]

However, in the 2010s the Chinese scholar Peng Hai identified Marco Polo with a certain "Boluo", a courtier of the emperor, who is mentioned in the Yuanshi ("History of Yuan") since he was arrested in 1274 by an imperial dignitary named Saman. The accusation was that Boluo had walked on the same side of the road as a female courtesan, in contravention of the order for men and women to walk on opposite sides of the road inside the city. [116] According to the "Yuanshi" records, Boluo was released at the request of the emperor himself, and was then transferred to the region of Ningxia, in the northeast of present-day China, in the spring of 1275. The date could correspond to the first mission of which Marco Polo speaks. [117]

If this identification is correct, there is a record about Marco Polo in Chinese sources. These conjectures seem to be supported by the fact that in addition to the imperial dignitary Saman (the one who had arrested the official named "Boluo"), the documents mention his brother, Xiangwei. According to sources, Saman died shortly after the incident, while Xiangwei was transferred to Yangzhou in 1282–1283. Marco Polo reports that he was moved to Hangzhou the following year, in 1284. It has been supposed that these displacements are due to the intention to avoid further conflicts between the two. [118]

The sinologist Paul Pelliot thought that Polo might have served as an officer of the government salt monopoly in Yangzhou, which was a position of some significance that could explain the exaggeration. [115]

It may seem unlikely that a European could hold a position of power in the Mongolian empire. However, some records prove he was not the first nor the only one. In his book, Marco mentions an official named "Mar Sarchis" who probably was a Nestorian Christian bishop, and he says he founded two Christian churches in the region of "Caigiu". This official is actually mentioned in the local gazette Zhishun Zhenjian zhi under the name "Ma Xuelijisi" and the qualification of "General of Third Class". Always in the gazette, it is said Ma Xuelijsi was an assistant supervisor in the province of Zhenjiang for three years, and that during this time he founded two Christian churches. [119] [120] [118] In fact, it is a well-documented fact that Kublai Khan trusted foreigners more than Chinese subjects in internal affairs. [121] [118]

Stephen G. Haw challenges this idea that Polo exaggerated his own importance, writing that, "contrary to what has often been said . Marco does not claim any very exalted position for himself in the Yuan empire." [122] He points out that Polo never claimed to hold high rank, such as a darughachi, who led a tumen – a unit that was normally 10,000 strong. In fact, Polo does not even imply that he had led 1,000 personnel. Haw points out that Polo himself appears to state only that he had been an emissary of the khan, in a position with some esteem. According to Haw, this is a reasonable claim if Polo was, for example, a keshig – a member of the imperial guard by the same name, which included as many as 14,000 individuals at the time. [122]

Haw explains how the earliest manuscripts of Polo's accounts provide contradicting information about his role in Yangzhou, with some stating he was just a simple resident, others stating he was a governor, and Ramusio's manuscript claiming he was simply holding that office as a temporary substitute for someone else, yet all the manuscripts concur that he worked as an esteemed emissary for the khan. [123] Haw also objected to the approach to finding mention of Marco Polo in Chinese texts, contending that contemporaneous Europeans had little regard for using surnames, and a direct Chinese transcription of the name "Marco" ignores the possibility of him taking on a Chinese or even Mongol name that had no bearing or similarity with his Latin name. [122]

Another controversial claim is at chapter 145 when the Book of Marvels states that the three Polos provided the Mongols with technical advice on building mangonels during the Siege of Xiangyang,

Adonc distrent les .II. freres et lor filz meser Marc. "Grant Sire, nos avon avech nos en nostre mesnie homes qe firont tielz mangan qe giteront si grant pieres qe celes de la cité ne poront sofrir mes se renderont maintenant."

Then the two brothers and their son Marc said: "Great Lord, in our entourage we have men who will build such mangonels which launch such great stones, that the inhabitants of the city will not endure it and will immediately surrender."

Since the siege was over in 1273, before Marco Polo had arrived in China for the first time, the claim cannot be true [115] [124] The Mongol army that besieged Xiangyang did have foreign military engineers, but they were mentioned in Chinese sources as being from Baghdad and had Arabic names. [100] In this respect, Igor de Rachewiltz recalls that the claim that the three Polo were present at the siege of Xiang-yang is not present in all manuscripts, but Niccolò and Matteo could have made this suggestion. Therefore, this claim seems a subsequent addition to give more credibility to the story. [125] [126]


A number of errors in Marco Polo's account have been noted: for example, he described the bridge later known as Marco Polo Bridge as having twenty-four arches instead of eleven or thirteen. [39] He also said that city wall of Khanbaliq had twelve gates when it had only eleven. [127] Archaeologists have also pointed out that Polo may have mixed up the details from the two attempted invasions of Japan by Kublai Khan in 1274 and 1281. Polo wrote of five-masted ships, when archaeological excavations found that the ships, in fact, had only three masts. [128]


Wood accused Marco Polo of taking other people's accounts in his book, retelling other stories as his own, or basing his accounts on Persian guidebooks or other lost sources. For example, Sinologist Francis Woodman Cleaves noted that Polo's account of the voyage of the princess Kököchin from China to Persia to marry the Īl-khān in 1293 has been confirmed by a passage in the 15th-century Chinese work Yongle Encyclopedia and by the Persian historian Rashid-al-Din Hamadani in his work Jami' al-tawarikh. However, neither of these accounts mentions Polo or indeed any European as part of the bridal party, [98] and Wood used the lack of mention of Polo in these works as an example of Polo's "retelling of a well-known tale". Morgan, in Polo's defence, noted that even the princess herself was not mentioned in the Chinese source and that it would have been surprising if Polo had been mentioned by Rashid-al-Din. [109] Historian Igor de Rachewiltz strongly criticised Wood's arguments in his review of her book. [129] Rachewiltz argued that Marco Polo's account, in fact, allows the Persian and Chinese sources to be reconciled – by relaying the information that two of the three envoys sent (mentioned in the Chinese source and whose names accord with those given by Polo) had died during the voyage, it explains why only the third who survived, Coja/Khoja, was mentioned by Rashìd al-Dìn. Polo had therefore completed the story by providing information not found in either source. He also noted that the only Persian source that mentions the princess was not completed until 1310–11, therefore Marco Polo could not have learned the information from any Persian book. According to de Rachewiltz, the concordance of Polo's detailed account of the princess with other independent sources that gave only incomplete information is proof of the veracity of Polo's story and his presence in China. [129]


Morgan writes that since much of what The Book of Marvels has to say about China is "demonstrably correct", any claim that Polo did not go to China "creates far more problems than it solves", therefore the "balance of probabilities" strongly suggests that Polo really did go to China, even if he exaggerated somewhat his importance in China. [130] Haw dismisses the various anachronistic criticisms of Polo's accounts that started in the 17th century, and highlights Polo's accuracy in great part of his accounts, for example on features of the landscape such as the Grand Canal of China. [131] "If Marco was a liar," Haw writes, "then he must have been an implausibly meticulous one." [132]

In 2012, the University of Tübingen Sinologist and historian Hans Ulrich Vogel released a detailed analysis of Polo's description of currencies, salt production and revenues, and argued that the evidence supports his presence in China because he included details which he could not have otherwise known. [96] [133] Vogel noted that no other Western, Arab, or Persian sources have given such accurate and unique details about the currencies of China, for example, the shape and size of the paper, the use of seals, the various denominations of paper money as well as variations in currency usage in different regions of China, such as the use of cowry shells in Yunnan, details supported by archaeological evidence and Chinese sources compiled long after the Polos had left China. [134] His accounts of salt production and revenues from the salt monopoly are also accurate, and accord with Chinese documents of the Yuan era. [135] Economic historian Mark Elvin, in his preface to Vogel's 2013 monograph, concludes that Vogel "demonstrates by specific example after specific example the ultimately overwhelming probability of the broad authenticity" of Polo's account. Many problems were caused by the oral transmission of the original text and the proliferation of significantly different hand-copied manuscripts. For instance, did Polo exert "political authority" (seignora) in Yangzhou or merely "sojourn" (sejourna) there. Elvin concludes that "those who doubted, although mistaken, were not always being casual or foolish", but "the case as a whole had now been closed": the book is, "in essence, authentic, and, when used with care, in broad terms to be trusted as a serious though obviously not always final, witness." [136]

Are the travels of Marco Polo fact or fiction?

Marco Polo (1254-1324) was one of the greatest’ explorers of the Middle Ages and the first person to make Europe aware China's extraordinary power and culture. He allegedly travelled from Europe and throughout Asia from 1271 to 1295. His adventures were recounted in a book that made him famous. The influence of the story of Marco Polo and his travels on Europeans cannot be overstated. His adventures inspired many later explorers, such as Christopher Columbus and his accounts did much to encourage the development of cartography.

However, not everyone believed Polo’s accounts of his travel in Asia and China. Many have regarded his account as a delightful work of fiction and believe that was a liar. Were Marco Polo’s travels were based on actual events and are the Italian’s account plausible? How reliable is Polo's account as a historical document?

Life of Marco Polo

Marco was born in 1254 in the Republic of Venice, which was a great mercantile power in medieval Europe and had extensive trading contacts with the Muslim world. He was born into a successful family of merchants. We know little about his early life, but he appears to have been apprenticed to a merchant and received little formal education. At the age of seventeen, he accompanied his uncle and father on a trading expedition to Asia. They had already traded and traveled in Asia for many years.

The Polos left Venice and did not return home for 24 years. They had traveled the Silk Road and made their way to China and they appear to have been very successful. During his travels, Polo spent over 17 years in China. Marco apparently even served in the administration of the Emperor and had visited the Imperial court, many times. [1]

The Polos returned to Venice in 1295 with a great many gemstones and jewels. Marco was a wealthy man and married the daughter of a leading merchant. Venice was frequently at war with its great rival, the Italian city-state of Genoa. Marco was so wealthy that he fitted out a warship which he personally commanded. He was captured at the great Venetian defeat by Genoa at the battle of Curzola (1298) and was imprisoned by the Genoese and held for ransom.

In prison, the merchant was held captive with Rustichello da Pisa, who was a well-known popular writer. Marco recounted his many adventures in Asia to the Pisan writer. Rustichello later used Marco’s stories and he incorporated them into a book. [2] The book The Travels of Marco Polo was a best-seller and was read throughout Europe. Marco was later released and returned to his native Venice. Polo continued to trade but he never again left his home city and he died in 1324. There has been controversy over the veracity of his claims, since his death.

The travels in China and elsewhere

Based on the book, it is possible to reconstruct the travels of Marco. It has been estimated that he traveled over 15,000 miles on horseback, ship and foot. The books opens with an account of his uncle and father traveling the Silk Road and meeting the great Emperor, Kublai Khan, the Emperor of China in his capital Dadu (present-day Beijing). He was the grandson of the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan and he ruled Northern China and later conquered south China and beyond, forging one of the greatest Empires in the Medieval World.

Kublai Khan founded the Yuan Dynasty, that ruled all much of East Asia, for almost a century (1271-1368). He requested that the Polos secure him some holy oil and to bring a message of goodwill from him to the Pope. The two Venetians eventually made their way to Venice, and here Marco met his father for the first time in years. He accompanied the two older men back to Asia and traversed the Silk Road and he vividly describes the dangers on this route, including bandits, deserts and dust storms.

Upon his arrival in China, he met Kublai Khan and became a valued member of his court, partly because of his skill with languages. [3] Polo even carried out administrative duties for the Khan and as a result, he visited many areas of China. He traveled throughout the domains of the Mongols in East Asia. He also visited Tibet, Burma and even sailed on the South China Sea. Marco met many members of the Mongol and Chinese elite and visited many cities.

The Khan was reluctant to let the Venetians to return home, for reasons unknown. The Europeans knew that they needed the protection of the Khan and that if he suddenly died or was deposed they could be killed. Sometime in 1293, the Mongol ruler of the Ilkhanate Empire in Persia contracted a marriage alliance with Kublai Khan.

The Emperor of China agreed and sent one of his daughters or a niece to Persia, to become the wife of the Mongol ruler. [4] The Polos used this occasion to secure permission to leave the court of the Great Khan, and they traveled to with the bride and her retinue. They took the sea route, and Marco observed many islands and harbors, in modern Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and the Persian Gulf. The Polos barely survived the perilous journey, and after arriving in Persia, they made their way to the Byzantine Empire and found a passage to Venice.

Omissions and exaggerations

The Travels of Marco Polo has always divided audiences. Many have treated the book as a work of fiction. There are those who believe that it does give a flawed account of East Asia. Those who are skeptical of the narrative point to the many omissions. [5] This has led some to suggest that he only visited the Chinese capital, or only repeated stories he heard from others.

There is, in fact, no mention of the Great Wall of China, which traverses a large part of the north of that vast country. Then while he makes references to many place names, modern scholars have not been able to identify them. Then he failed to mention many customs of the Chinese and Mongols, that would have seemed novel and noteworthy to a European traveler, such as footbinding. [6]

Then there have been many who accused the Venetian of fabricating some of his adventures. Some of his tales do verge on the fabulous and there are obvious embellishments. There are certainly omissions in the account of Polo, and this is something that is not unexpected. He did not actually write the book, he only dictated it to Rustichello.

Moreover, Marco may have forgotten some facts, he was often recalling things that happened almost 20 years earlier. Marco Polo has become synonymous with many down the centuries as a great exaggerator. [7] In particular, he was accused of exaggeration and even outright lies when he recounted the sexual practices of single Tibetan women. However, anthropologists in the twentieth century confirmed Marco’s claims. There are some who dispute the fact that the Venetians could have become so close to the great Mongol leader Kublai Khan. [8] However, the Yuan Dynasty often employed foreigners in China in the government because they did not trust the native Han Chinese and this increases the likelihood, that Marco was actually close to the Khan.

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Facts in his narratives

Some scholars pointed out that there are many proven historical facts in his narrative. He gave a very accurate account of the Mongol system of administration and their rule. Polo also accurately described Chinese social norms and practices at the time. He also recounted quite correctly the prosperity and advanced technology of the Chinese state and its many cities. [9]

Some of his observations have been proven to be correct by archaeologists. For example, the Italian observed that there were many Nestorian Churches in Central China and the remains of these have been found in recent decades. Persian documentary sources have confirmed the story of the Mongol princess being sent to Persia to marry the Ilkhanate ruler.

Moreover, the Venetian was able to observe accurately the technologies of the Chinese, especially naval technology. It is believed that he shared these when he returned home to Venice. In general, many of his descriptions of the geography of China and East Asia was generally accurate and so too is his description of the Northern Silk Road. Evidence that he knew China very well can be seen in his accurate accounts of paper currency and taxation. [10]

There is a wealth of details that would confirm that the Polo visited China and was familiar with Yuan society and its economy. There is also evidence that his descriptions of his travels outside China were also on the whole accurate. The Italian also gave a good description of Hindu customs in India, and the spices of South-East Asia. However, it is probably safe to assume that Marco did not always fully understand what he had seen. [11]

Rustichello and the travels of Marco Polo

Many believed that Rustichello embellished the travelogue of the Venetian and his adventures. He was a writer who specialized in Romances and fabulous tales and was best known for his popular stories on King Arthur and Camelot. The Travels of Marco Polo has many of the stylistic characteristics of the Pisan writer’s earlier works. There are some references to marvels and fabulous stories in the narrative of the Italian. There are notorious descriptions in the book of men with the heads of dogs.

Then there is the historically inaccurate story of a great Christian ruler in Asia, who was called Prester John. In some passages of the narrative, there is a blend of true facts and fabrications. For example, when the Italian, describes the Indonesian Island of Sumatra, he stated correctly, that there were cannibals on the island, but he also says that there were men with tails to be found here. It seems likely that Rustichello either encouraged the Venetian to exaggerate somethings or to make things up. [12] The author appears to have spiced up some of Polo's adventures to make his book more appealing.

The Pisan writer also added material from his own writings, to make the work more appealing to the general audience. It was also expected, at the time that a work of travel literature would have fabulous stories and reports of marvels. The more fabulous stories in the travelogue have done much to undermine the credibility of the account of Marco Polo. [13]


During his lifetime and since many people believed that Marco had made his journey to China up and that he was a liar. As he lay on his deathbed, a Dominican friary implored the Venetian to admit that he had lied in his book and to repent, so that he would die sinless. The proud merchant refused and said he had only told the truth and that he had not related half of what he had witnessed. In general, the Venetian had given a faithful account of what he saw on his travels on the Silk Road, China, and Asia. The book about his travel has enough facts that have confirmed by other sources and archaeology to make his story credible.

It does appear that he traveled extensively in China and served the great Khan. Much of what is recorded in the 14th-century narrative is accurate and therefore, it has some historical value. However, it cannot be denied that there are many fabulous and incredible stories in the book. These stories may have been a result of the Pisan author who recorded the stories and his desire to make the work a success. Marco Polo’s records of his travels and adventures are in general authentic and somewhat reliable, however, they need to be read with care because of some fabrications, exaggerations, and omissions.

Further Reading

Polo, Marco. The Travels of Marco Polo. No. 306 (London, JM Dent & Sons, 1918).

Tucci, Giuseppe. "Marco Polo." East and West 5, no. 1 (1954): 5-14.

Zhou, Gang. "Small Talk: A New Reading of Marco Polo's Il milione." MLN 124, no. 1 (2009): 1-22.


Marco Polo lived at an auspicious time in history. The Dark Ages that had followed the collapse of the Roman Empire were ending. Governments were becoming more stable and trade was increasing. Under Genghis Khan, the Mongols had conquered China and most of the rest of eastern Asia. They had also subjugated Russia and threatened Europe as well. The grandson of Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan (1215-1294) became the Great Khan in 1257 and ruled the immense Mongol Empire. Although the Mongols made no great effort to change the culture of the nations they conquered, they did not trust the natives' participation in government and looked to foreigners, especially Europeans, for help in administering their empire.

For many years, Europe and central Asia had been engaged in trading. The Chinese Empire had been a strong power with a well developed culture since the time of the Roman Empire, and there was active trade between the two empires along a 4,000-mile (6,400-km) caravan route, known as the Silk Road. Although trade declined when the Roman Empire degenerated, trade was revived by the Mongols during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Few traders traveled the entire route from Europe to China merchandise changed hands a number of times before reaching its destination. A few Europeans, however, had preceded the Polos in making the trip to the court of the Great Khan in China. For instance, Pope Innocent IV sent friars there to attempt to convert the Mongols to Christianity. Among these were Giovanni da Pian del Carpini in 1245 and Willem van Ruysbroeck in 1253.

Although challenged by other nations, Venice controlled the Mediterranean and dominated European trade with the Middle East and with much of the rest of Asia. Marco Polo's family included wealthy merchants and traders—prominent members of Venetian society. His father, Niccolò, and his uncle, Maffeo, traded extensively in the Middle East. They left on a trading mission in 1253, leaving behind Niccolò's pregnant wife who gave birth to Marco in his absence. The brothers traded with the ruler of the western territories of the Mongol Empire and in 1260 left Constantinople on a trip through Afghanistan and Uzbekistan to Shang-tu (also known as Xanadu), the summer residence of the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, Kublai Khan. They arrived in 1265 and remained in Kublai Khan's court until 1269 when they were sent back to Europe as emissaries to Pope Innocent IV, requesting one hundred men to instruct and convert the Mongols and asking for oil from the lamp in the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

When Niccolò and Maffeo returned to Venice, Marco, now fifteen years old, met his father for the first time. His mother had died while he was very young, and he had been reared by an uncle and aunt.

Pope Clement IV had died, and the Polos waited for a new pope to be elected so that they could deliver Kublai Khan's requests. After two years, the cardinals could still not agree on a pope, and the Polos decided to return to China. Seventeen-year-old Marco accompanied them when they left in 1271. They traveled first to Acre in Palestine where they learned that their friend Teobaldo had been elected pope as Gregory X. The new pope provided them with two monks (instead of the one hundred requested), oil from the lamp in the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and papal communications to the Khan. Soon after they set out from Acre, the two monks, afraid of the dangers ahead, turned back, leaving the Polos to proceed alone.

Their journey took them through Turkey, Iran (Persia), Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Marco became ill in the desert but recovered in the cool regions of Afghanistan. They visited Kashmir and crossed the mountains into China. Following the Silk Road, they crossed the Gobi Desert and arrived at the Mongol summer capital, Shang-tu, in 1275.

Marco was introduced to Kublai Khan and the Mongol court and was impressed with its splendor. The Polos remained in the Mongol court in Shang-tu and in Beijing, serving as advisors to the Khan, for seventeen years. Marco was good at languages, and he immediately became a favorite of Kublai Khan who sent him as his emissary to various parts of the Mongol Empire. Marco was, therefore, able to explore and observe the country and people of much of China and of parts of India. He was the first European to visit Burma, and he traveled to Ceylon on a mission from Kublai Khan to buy Buddha's tooth and begging bowl. He kept notes on all he observed so that he could make detailed reports to the Khan on the conditions in the various parts of his realm.

After a number of years, the Polos wished to return to their native Venice. Kublai Khan was getting old, and they were concerned that they would not be safe among the Mongols after his death. Kublai Khan valued their service and, for a number of years, would not let them leave. He finally granted them permission to return to Europe in 1292, provided they accompany the Mongol princess Kokachin to Persia where she would marry Arghun, the Mongol Khan of Persia. They set out with six hundred escorts and fourteen ships. Marco was able to add a great deal to his store of knowledge of Asia on their voyage, which took them to Vietnam, the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, Ceylon, and the shore of Africa before landing at Hormuz on the Persian Gulf. Only eighteen of the six hundred escorts survived the long hazardous trip. From Hormuz, the Polos accompanied Kokachin on to Khorasan, where she married the son of the recently deceased Mongol ruler who had requested her as a wife. The Polos then traveled on to Tabriz and Constantinople, across Armenia, and finally returned to Venice in 1295. Marco, who had been seventeen when he left home, was now forty-one years old. The Polos had changed so much since leaving home that they were not recognized initially by their family and friends. They had been robbed on the trip back from China, losing much of the wealth they had accumulated in the service of the Mongol Empire, but they managed to bring back ivory, jade, jewels, porcelain, and silk as proof of their tales of China and the Far East.

The Polos settled back into influential positions in the Venetian trade community. Soon after his return, Marco served as the gentleman-commander of a warship in a trade war with Genoa and in 1296 was taken prisoner at the battle of Curzola. While imprisoned in Genoa, he met a prisoner from Pisa named Rustichello (also known as Rusticiano), an author of some renown. Marco told the story of his Asian travels to Rustichello. When he was freed, Marco returned to Venice, married and had three daughters. The dictated memories of his travels were published in 1298 as Divisament dou Monde (Description of the world), and they gained him immediate notoriety. Unfortunately, many readers regarded the book as fiction, a chivalric fable similar to the King Arthur legend. Its truth was not realized until after Marco Polo's death.

What Did Marco Polo Discover?

Although Marco Polo is not known for any particular discoveries, he was one of the first Europeans to explore the Far East. He traveled farther than any explorers before him, journeying for over 24 years on the Silk Road, documenting the foreign culture, technology and civilizations.

The account of Marco Polo's extensive journey through Asia was written by Rustichello of Pisa, who was a romance writer that Marco Polo met in jail. This book, "The Travels of Marco Polo," made Marco Polo famous. Many skeptics doubted the veracity of Marco Polo's dictated claims, but he steadfastly proclaimed that his memoirs were accurate, declaring, "I have not told half of what I saw” as he lay on his deathbed.

Marco Polo is credited for introducing many advanced Chinese technologies to the Western world. Paper money and the use of coal are two of the main concepts that did not become common until Marco Polo introduced them. It is also speculated that Marco Polo introduced eyeglasses to Europe.

Marco Polo heavily influenced many explorers to come, including Christopher Columbus, who was an avid admirer and carried Marco Polo's book with him on his voyage to the New World. He planned on continuing Marco Polo's work by contacting the successor to Kublai Kahn, who was one of Marco Polo's main friends and employers during his travels.

There are those who believe that Polo never took the journey down the Silk Road to China and in fact, made it no further than the Black Sea. They believe that the adventures described in his book were made up from stories he heard from others along the road he did travel. It doesn&apost help his case that there were many exaggerations in The Travels of Marco Polo, plus there were also interesting exclusions, such as the fact that he failed to mention the use of chopsticks for eating, or that he had seen the Great Wall. It also helps these naysayers that no mention of Marco Polo has been found in any historic Chinese records. On the other hand, the majority of historians are prone to believe the Marco did indeed make it to China and work in the service of Kublai Kahn, especially because of the preponderance of cultural information in the book. Plus, there are those who have used his journal to retrace his footsteps, and they declare the geography to be so accurate, they believe the trip happened.

On his deathbed, Marco was encouraged to admit that The Travels of Marco Polo was a work of fiction, but to his dying breath he declared, "I did not tell half of what I saw."


Please note: The audio information from the video is included in the text below.

Marco Polo by Grevembrock
  • Occupation: Explorer and Traveler
  • Born: Venice, Italy in 1254
  • Died: January 8, 1324 Venice, Italy
  • Best known for: European traveler to China and the Far East

Marco Polo was a merchant and explorer who traveled throughout the Far East and China for much of his life. His stories were the basis for what much of Europe knew about Ancient China for many years. He lived from 1254 to 1324.

Marco was born in Venice, Italy in 1254. Venice was a wealthy trading city and Marco's father was a merchant.

The Silk Road referred to a number of trade routes between major cities and trading posts that went all the way from Eastern Europe to Northern China. It was called the Silk Road because silk cloth was the major export from China.

Not many people traveled the entire route. Trading was mostly between cities or small sections of the route and products would slowly make their way from one end to the other trading hands several times.

Marco Polo's father and uncle wanted to try something different. They wanted to travel all the way to China and bring the goods directly back to Venice. They thought they could make their fortune this way. It took them nine years, but they finally made it home.

When did he first travel to China?

Marco first left for China when he was 17 years old. He traveled there with his father and uncle. His father and uncle had met the Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan during their first trip to China and had told him they would return. Kublai was leader over all of China at the time.

It took Marco Polo three years to get to China. Along the way he visited many great cities and saw many sites including the holy city of Jerusalem, the mountains of the Hindu Kush, Persia, and the Gobi Desert. He met a lot of different types of people and had many adventures.

Marco lived in China for many years and learned to speak the language. He traveled throughout China as a messenger and spy for Kublai Khan. He even traveled far to the south to where Myanmar and Vietnam are today. During these visits he learned about different cultures, foods, cities, and peoples. He saw many places and things that no one from Europe had ever seen before.

Kublai Khan by Anige of Nepal

Marco was fascinated by the wealth and luxury of the Chinese cities and of Kublai Khan's court. It was nothing like he had experienced in Europe. The capital city of Kinsay was large, but well organized and clean. Wide roads and huge civil engineering projects like the Grand Canal were well beyond anything he had experienced back home. Everything from the food to the people to the animals, like orangutans and rhinos, were new and interesting.

How do we know about Marco Polo?

After twenty years of traveling, Marco, along with his father and uncle, decided to head home to Venice. They left home in 1271 and finally returned in 1295. A few years after returning home, Venice fought a war with the city of Genoa. Marco was put under arrest. While he was under arrest, Marco told detailed stories of his journeys to a writer named Rustichello who wrote them all down in a book called The Travels of Marco Polo.

The Travels of Marco Polo became a very popular book. It was translated into multiple languages and read throughout Europe. After the fall of Kublai Kahn, the Ming Dynasty took over China. They were very wary of foreigners and little information about China was available. This made Marco's book even more popular.

  • The Travels of Marco Polo was also called Il Milione or "The Million".
  • The Polo's traveled home in a fleet of ships that also carried a princess who was to marry a prince in Iran. The journey was dangerous and only 117 of the 700 original travelers survived. This included the princess who made it to Iran safely.
  • Some have speculated that Marco made up much of his adventures. However, scholars have checked his facts and believe many of them are likely true.
  • During the time when the Mongols and Kublai Khan ruled China, merchants were able to elevate themselves in Chinese society. During other dynasties merchant were considered lowly and looked down upon as parasites on the economy.
  • Marco had to travel across the great Gobi Desert to get to China. It took months to cross the desert and it was said to be haunted by spirits.

Take a ten question quiz about this page.

For more reading and reference see these books:

Marco Polo: The Boy Who Travelled the Medieval World by Nick McCarty. 2006.
Marco Polo: A Journey Through China by Fiona MacDonald. 1997.

16 Fun Facts About The Travels Of Marco Polo

Most of you have heard of “Marco Polo” the entertaining, swimming pool game, but have you heard of Marco Polo, the Venetian explorer who traveled thousands of kilometers to China?

Here are 16 facts about one of the first Europeans to travel across Asia!

Fact 1: Marco Polo was born in 1254 in Venice, Italy, however the exact date of his birth is not known.

Fact 2: Marco Polo was just 17 when he, his father (Nicolo Polo) and uncle (Maffeo Polo) set off on a trip in 1271, across Asia and through China. The Polo family was well known for trading with the Middle East which brought them great wealth and prestige.

Fact 3: Marco Polo traveled with his father and uncle for 24 long years, 17 of those he spent in China.

Fact 4: Marco Polo knew four languages and was well educated, particularly in merchant subjects such as foreign currency and appraising.

Fact 5: The Polo threesome sailed from Venice, along the Mediterranean Sea to the Middle East, Afghanistan and Iran, and crossed inhospitable deserts. After four years of travel they reached Xanadu, China, the summer palace of Kublai Khan, located about 200 miles north of present-day Beijing.

Fact 6: Marco’s father and uncle had previously been befriended by Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, who conquered China and became the first emperor of the Mongol Dynasty. Upon their return with Marco, they were given important positions at Kublai’s court. There Marco studied Chinese.

Fact 7: In 1275, Kublai Khan appointed Marco as his envoy and for the next few years he travelled through China on missions. It is believed that Marco explored far-flung areas of Asia, which had never been seen by Europeans.

Fact 8: Sometime in the 1280’s Marco was appointed the governor of the city of Yangzhou where he ruled for three years. However, modern historians doubt the accuracy of Marco’s account because he was very young for such an esteemed position.

Fact 9: The Polo’s headed back to Venice in 1293 and Kublai Khan died just a year after their departure. The Polo’s decided it was time to return home since Kublai was nearly 80 and his death might have been dangerous to foreigners in an exotic country.

Fact 10: Prior to their departure, the Polo’s joined Kublai’s wedding party. He had arranged for his daughter to be married in Persia. During the trip, Marco visited modern day Vietnam, Sumatra, Sri Lanka and India.

Fact 11: On their way home, the Polo’s passed through the kingdom of Trebizond, modern day Turkey, where the local government robbed them of around 4,000 Byzantine gold coins.

Fact 12: Marco Polo introduced the concept of paper money to Italy! He also described the use of coal, eyeglasses and a complex postal system that he had seen in Mongolia, which led to their use in Europe.

Fact 13: Marco Polo’s book, describing his adventurous journeys through Asia, inspired Christopher Columbus and other explorers to set out on their own travels.

Fact 14: Marco Polo sometimes confused the animals he encountered along his travels with mythical creatures he has heard of as a child. For example, he mistook a crocodile to be a giant serpent that could swallow a man. Marco was also one of the first European’s to lay eyes on a rhinoceros, which he misidentified as a unicorn.

Fact 15: Stories about Marco Polo stem from his colorful narrative about his voyage “The Travels of Marco Polo”. But, did you know that Marco did not write the book on his own? The book was written while Marco was imprisoned in 1298 during the Venetian battle against their rival city of Genoa. In prison, he met Rustichello of Pisa, a talented writer of romance. Polo dictated the tails of his travels to Rustichello who wrote them down in Franco-Italian.

Fact 16: Although many historians claimed his book was fabrications and false, Marco never admitted to exaggerating the tales of his voyage. On his deathbed he is believed to have said “I did not tell half of what I saw”.

Return Home and the 'Travels of Marco Polo'

In 1292, Kublai Khan agreed to let Marco Polo, his father and uncle return home, after they convoyed a Mongolian princess Kokachin to marry a Persian king. In 1295, they finally reached Venice by sea via the Black Sea and Constantinople. The information about China and some Asian states they brought back, aroused great interest among the Venetians. In 1298 AD, Marco Polo joined in the war between Venice and Genoa. Unfortunately he was captured and put into a Genoese prison, where he met a writer, Rustichello da Pisa. The writer recorded the story of his travels, well-known as The Travels of Marco Polo. The book has detailed descriptions of the wealth of China, a Japan filled with gold, and the exotic custom of Central Asia, West Asia and Southeast Asia soon made it a bestseller.

Afterwards, the book became very popular in Europe and paved the way for the arrivals of countless westerners in the following centuries.