Exploration and Settlement

Marco Polo

When did Marco Polo travel to the Far East?

Marco Polo (1254–1324) was only in his teens when he left Venice in about 1270 with his father, Niccolo, and his uncle Maffeo, traveling an overland route to the East. The Polo brothers had made such a trip once before—in 1260 they had traveled as far as Beijing, China, but upon their return home, they learned that Niccolo’s wife (Marco Polo’s mother) had died. So when the pair of adventurers set out again, they took the young Marco Polo with them.

The Polos traveled from Acre, Israel, to Sivas, Turkey, then through Mosul and Baghdad (in Iraq) to Ormuz, a bustling trade center on the Persian Gulf, where they intended to take a ship for the East. Seeing the ships, the travelers determined they weren’t reliable transport, so they opted to continue on land, heading north to Khorasan (in Iran), through Afghanistan, and to the Pamirs, a high plateau range in central Asia. It took the Polos 40 days to transverse the high-altitude range, finally reaching the garden city of Kashgar (China). From there, the Polos followed a path skirting the Taklamakan Desert and then rested before crossing the Gobi Desert, which they did in 30 days’ time, covering some 300 miles. Stopping in Tun-hwang, the center of Buddhism in China, the European travelers then followed a southeast path that would have paralleled the Great Wall (constructed in the third century B.C.). After following the Yellow (Huanghe) River, the Polos were met by emissaries of Kublai Khan (1215–1294). They continued with their guides on a 40-day trip to Xanadu (Shang-tu), China, 300 miles north of Beijing, where they were received by Kublai Khan himself, founder and ruler of the Mongol dynasty and grandson of Genghis Khan (c. 1162–1227). It was May 1275.

Kublai Khan, who was an ardent Buddhist and a patron of the arts, took a liking to the young Marco Polo, who entered into diplomatic service for the ruler. In that capacity Marco Polo traveled to India and visited the Kingdom of Champa (what is now Vietnam), Thailand, the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, Sri Lanka, and India. The Polos, European courtiers who were well liked by the Great Khan, stayed in China until 1292, finally returning home by way of Sumatra, India, and Persia (present-day Iran). In 1295 they arrived back in Venice, which they found at war with long-time rival Genoa. The Polos carried with them many riches, including ivory, jade, jewels, porcelain, and silk. Marco Polo was now a man in his forties and had spent most of his life thus far in the Far East.


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