Friday, October 10, 2014

Marco Polo



Fig.1: "Okay, fine: POLO! What do you 
want from me?"
MARCO?! Oh, there you are. Sometimes I have trouble finding my audience for this blog. Thank goodness someone like Marco Polo (fig.1) once lived so we can annoy the crap out of people by repeating his name! Of course, the man had other achievements outside his delightfully rhyming moniker. For 24 years, this Venetian merchant traveled across Asia with this father and uncle, mostly under the employ of the famous Mongol ruler, Kublai Khan. While he was hardly the first European man to visit China, he achieved fame by describing his journey in his book commonly known as The Travels of Marco Polo, which was essentially one long Christmas letter bragging about his family vacation (everyone has that friend, don't they?). Though his outrageous stories were disputed even back then, many found the tales of mystical lands beyond their reach to be extremely fascinating, and might just have helped kick of the Age of Exploration that Europeans so love (and everyone else rues) to this day.

Polo was born in the Republic of Venice in 1254. His wandering instincts didn't come out of nowhere; Venice was the merchant capital of the Mediterranean at this time, and many made their living (and sometimes, their dying) traveling to bring in goods from Asia and Africa. This included Marco's father, Niccolò, who commuted back and forth from Venice to Constantinople with his brother, Maffeo (which allowed them to take advantage of the HOV lanes). Constantinople had been controlled by Venice since the Fourth Crusade got distracted and kicked the Byzantines out earlier in the century. This changed when the obviously Greek Michael Palaeologus took back the city in 1261, blinding any Venetians who dared stick around. Luckily Niccolò and Maffeo fled east, making it all the way to the court of Kublai Khan, who was in the process of conquering China for funsies. Kublai accepted the Polos as European ambassadors, and sought to learn more about the Christian religion (this was before they came knocking at your door on Saturday mornings while you're in your bathrobe). Meanwhile, Marco grew up in Venice under the aid of his aunt, who took over when his mother died of obscurity. It wasn't until 1269, when the young lad was at least 15, that his deadbeat dad finally came showed up to take him to soccer practice.

Of course, Niccolò and Maffeo were on a scavenger hunt for Kublai Khan, and had to return to China with 100 priests, oil from the lamp of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, and the Italian delicacy known as "pizza rolls." In a visit to the Pope in 1271, the Polos were only able to get two friars (who would ditch them shortly into their journey anyway) as well as merely Bagel Bites (the poor man's pizza rolls), but they were able to get a bargain on what some fast-talking swindler said was oil from the lamp of the Holy Sepulcher (what Kublai didn't know wouldn't hurt him). And so the brothers began their return trip to the eastern reaches of Asia, this time bringing the strapping Marco along with them since he was 17 and didn't need to be in school or anything. He related the long journey in his famous narrative, first sailing to Acre in present-day Israel, then heading overland through the cities of Trebizond, Baghdad, and Hormuz. They encountered the tall, awe-inspiring mountains of the Pamirs, the hot, remote desert sands of the Gobi, and the long, painful nights on the john due to a little something called Traveler's Diarrhea. Of the Gobi, Marco complained, "This desert is reported to be so long that it would take a year to go from end to end; and at the narrowest point it takes a month to cross it. It consists entirely of mountains and sands and valleys. There is nothing at all to eat." Yeah, try driving on the Jersey Turnpike, you whiny-face.

Fig.2: And I can't even go into my attic without getting lost...
Finally, by 1275, the Polos finally made it to Kublai's palace of Xanadu, eager for a nice cold beverage and a pull-out couch to sleep on. Niccolò introduced his son to the Khan, to which he replied, "He is heartily welcome!" before slapping Marco hard on the back and giving him a nice strong noogie. Thus began Marco Polo's 17-year stay within the Khan's dominions in the Far East, becoming an official in his administration, participating in local festivals, as well as being hired on as a tax collector for a few years (hey, I didn't say all of his exploits were cool). During this time he was able to travel across Kublai's Yuan Empire, which stretched from points in Siberia down to Vietnam, including much of what of what the communists today call China. He visited the capital of Dadu (the former and cooler name for Beijing), the cities along the Grand Canal, the far northern city of Karakorum, the splendid seaport of Hangzhou, and the local laundromat (you gotta smell good while representing the probably-stinky Khan).

Fig.3: Please tell me he didn't go out
collecting taxes wearing that!
Thanks to his extensive time there, he was able to describe Chinese customs unknown to Europeans at that time. He reported of "large black stones...which burn and make flames like logs," as the Chinese had long been utilizing coal as a major source of heat. Little did Marco know that in a few centuries coal would power Europe through the Industrial Revolution, as well as create the poisonous smog people take away as a souvenir in their lungs when they visit China today. He was also fascinated by the use of paper money, for which he had to trade in his gold upon arrival. Marco marveled at its value, stating that "they are so light that the sheet which is put for ten bezants [coins from the Byzantine Empire] of gold weighs not one," meaning he wouldn't be getting much pocket exercise while he was there. The postal system implemented by the Khan was also quite impressive, with courier horsemen traveling up to 300 miles by nightfall, including Sundays (take that, you lazy postmen of today!). Whether or not Marco Polo's reports of Chinese practices actually influenced European technology of later days, his audience was in awe of their way of life, and wondered what life would be like with ideas and products made in China. (Yeah, it is pretty great.)

Around 1292, the Polos were getting all China-ed out, however, and wanted to return to their homeland. This was partly because Kublai Khan was getting up there in age, and the Venetians preferred not to stick around for the Mongol national past-time: bloody succession disputes. Initially the Khan refused their departure, unwilling to let the poker nights with his Italian besties come to an end. However, the Polos saw their chance when a Mongol princess was about to be sent to Persia to marry a prince there; since they were knowledgeable of the route, they offered to act as a GPS that wouldn't have to recalculate all the time. They left by sea that year, sailing around Southeast Asia and India, though they stopped to pee and check out the sights along the way (in that order of importance). The journey was a long and hazardous one, taking two years with many sailors dying of disease. When they finally got to Hormuz to drop of the princess, they learned that the prince just passed away, meaning everyone who died did so in vein (the other Mongol past-time). The Polos  finally returned to Venice in 1295. Much of their wealth earned in China was lost on the return trip, but that was nothing compared to the wealth of knowledge Marco now had. He can buy food with that, right?

Fig.4: Large print edition available
if you ask the scribe nicely enough.
The Polos returned to the family business of merchanting, but Marco found it a little dull compared to his days in China (sans the tax collecting part). When Venice went to war with their regular sparring partner, Genoa, Marco commanded a ship in the navy and was captured in battle in 1296. While in jail, he met a struggling writer named Rustichello, who had been looking for a good subject to write about (13th century Europe wasn't ready for robots or space women yet). When Marco began rambling on about his journeys through Asia, Rustichello broke through his writer's block and worked with him to create Livres des Merveilles du Monde (fig.4), literally translated to mean Book of the Marvels of the World, but colloquially retitled to the less haughty The Travels of Marco Polo. Surprisingly, the book was a hit throughout Europe even before the days of the printing press, meaning that his narrative had to be written down over and over again in order to make multiple copies (can't I just ctrl-c and ctrl-v?). By the time he was released from prison in 1299, Marco Polo practically became a celebrity, with paparazzi always hanging around his house just in case he did anything embarrassing.

Of course, many found these stories to be a bunch of hogwash (literally, they washed their hogs with the pages). Even back then, people were skeptical that Polo even went to China, and merely just repeated the Spark Notes version of other people's trips to the Far East. The nickname for The Travels quickly became Il Milione (The Million), short for The Million Lies of Marco Polo, as coined by a cheeky Amazon reviewer who rated it one star. As the centuries passed, and Europeans became more acquainted with China (much to the Chinese's chagrin), many complained that Polo left out the obvious stuff like chopsticks, footbinding, and that Great Wall thing. However, historians have pointed out that Polo focused more on the actions and traditions of the Mongol rulers as opposed to the Chinese citizenry, and the Great Wall of China wouldn't really be more than the Ant Hill of China until the Ming Dynasty's renovations over two hundred years later. In an age when historical evidence is out to disprove everything (looking at you, Washington-haters), Marco Polo's testimony has stood up in court, especially in his details of paper money and salt production that no other Europeans recorded before that time. I'd still trust his word over Wikipedia and their stupid articles.

Fig.4: Polo's description inspired
the creation of the Fra Mauro map,
which loads a lot quicker than the
new Google Maps.
In the end, Polo lived his life out as a regular Marco, getting himself a wife and children that I'm sure never tired of his China stories. Legend has it that while he was on his deathbed in 1324, people flocked to him to ask if he made it all up; instead Marco said, "I did not write half of what I saw!" and then took that half with him to the grave. Polo's influences could be immediately felt on existing trade routes and mapmaking (fig.4), and it wouldn't be long before other Europeans wanted to find their way to the Far East, with some of them accidentally running into that America thing on the way. A certain Genoan by the name of Cristoforo Colombo kept a copy of The Travels with handwritten notes in the margins with him as reference during his epic voyages nearly 200 years after it was published (though, in Polo's defense, he didn't say anything about enslaving indigenous peoples and giving them smallpox). The words of Marco Polo continue to resonate today, and is a testament to how early this phenomenon of globalization really started to take place. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to "Marco?!" my way to the hole-in-the-wall Chinese buffet I can never find. Wish me luck!

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