Marco Polo is one of the most well known heroic travelers and traders around the world. In my paper I will discuss with you Marco Polo’s life, his travels, and his visit to China to see the great Khan. Marco Polo was born in 1254 in Venice. He was a Venetian explorer and merchant whose account of his travels in Asia was the primary source for the European image of the Far East until the late 19th century. Marco’s father, Niccolo, and his uncle Maffeo had traveled to China as merchants. When they left Venice to return to China, they were accompanied by 17 year old Marco and two priests.
Early life, despite his enduring fame, very little was known about the personal life of Marco Polo. It is known that he was born into a leading Venetian family of merchants. He also lived during a favorable time in world history, when the height of Venice’s influence harmonized with the greatest extent of Mongol conquest of Asia. Ruled by Kublai Khan, the Mongol Empire stretched all the way from China to Russia and the Levant. The Mongol crowds also threatened other parts of Europe, particularly Poland and Hungary, inspiring fears everywhere by their ruthless advances. Yet the ruthless methods brought a measure of stability to the lands they controlled, opening up trade routes. Into this favorable atmosphere a number of European traders ventured, including the family of Marco Polo. The Polos had long-established ties in the Levant and around the Black Sea: for example, they owned property in Constantinople. Around 1260, Marcos uncle, Maffeo, and Marco’s father, Niccolo, made a trading visit into Mongol territory, the land of the Golden Horde, ruled by Berke Khan. While they were there, a war broke out between Berke and the Cowan of Levant, blocking their return home. Thus Niccolo and Maffeo traveled deeper into Mongol territory, moving southeast to Bukhara, which was ruled by Cowan.
In 1269, Niccolo and Maffeo Polo arrived back in Venice, where Niccolo found out his wife had died while he was gone. Their son, Marco, who was only about fifteen years old, had been only six or younger when his father left home: thus; primarily his mother and the streets of Venice reared Marco. Then his father and uncle suddenly reappeared, after nine years of traveling. These experiences were the very finest influences on Marco, and one can see their effects mirrored in his character: a combination of sensitivity and toughness, independence and loyalty, motivated by an eagerness for adventure, a love of stories, and a desire to please or impress.
Marco was seventeen years old when he, his father and uncle finally set out for the court of Kublai Khan. They were accompanied not by one hundred wise men but by two Dominican monks, and the two good monks turned back at the first sign of misfortune, another local war. Aside from the pope’s messages, the only spiritual gift Europe was able to furnish the great Kublai Khan was oil from the lamp burning at Jesus Christ’s supposed tomb in Jerusalem. Yet, in a sense, Marco, the only new person in the Polos’ party, was himself a fitting delegate of the spirit of European civilization on the eve of the Renaissance. The lack of one hundred learned Europeans guaranteed that he would catch the eye of the Cowan, who was curious about "Latin’s".
On the way to the khan’s court, Marco had the opportunity to complete his education. The journey took three and a half years by horseback through some of the world’s most rugged terrain, including snowy mountain ranges, such as the Pamirs, and parching deserts. The group traveled numerous countries and cultures, noting food, dress, and religion unique to each. In particular, under the khan’s protection the Polos were able to observe a large portion of the Islamic world at close range. By the time they reached the khan’s court in Khanbalik, Marco had become a hardened traveler. He had also received a unique education and had been initiated into manhood.
Kublai Khan greeted the Polos warmly and invited them to stay on in his court. The Polos became great favorites of the khan, and Kublai eventually made Marco one of his most trusted consuls. For political reasons, the khan was in the habit of appointing foreigners to administer conquered lands, particularly China, where the tenacity of the Chinese bureaucracy was legendary. Finally, Marco reported back so successfully from his first mission informing the khan not only on business details but also on customs and other interesting trivia that further appointment was confirmed. The Polos stayed on for seventeen years, another indication of how valued they were in the khan’s court. Apparently, the elder Polos carried on their trading while Marco was performing his missions; yet seventeen years is a long time to trade without returning home to family and friends. According to Macro, because the khan held them in such high regard, he would not let them return home.
As the khan aged the Polos began to fear what would happen after his death. Finally an opportunity to leave presented itself when trusted emissaries were needed to accompany a Mongol princess on a wedding voyage by sea to Persia, where she was promised to the local khan. The Polos sailed from Cathay with a fleet of fourteen ships and a wedding party of six hundred people, not counting the sailors. Only a few members of the wedding entourage survived the journey of almost two years, but luckily the survivors included the Polos and the princess. Fortunately, too, the Polos duly delivered the princess not to the old khan of Persia, who had meanwhile died, but to his son.
From Persia, the Polos made their way back to Venice. They were robbed as soon as they got into Christian territory, but they still managed to reach home in 1295, with plenty of rich goods. Having thought them dead, their relatives at first did not recognize them, then were astounded, and then were disgusted by their shabby appearance. Yet, the scorn changed to delight when the returned travelers invited everyone to a homecoming banquet, ripped apart their old clothes, and let all the hidden jewels clatter to the table.
The rest of the world might have learned little about the Polos’ travels if fate had not intervened in Marco’s life. In his early forties, Marco was not yet ready to settle down. He became involved in naval warfare between Venetians and their trading rivals, the Genoese, and was captured. In 1298, he found himself rotting in a prison in an experience that could have ended tragically but instead took a lucky turn. In prison Marco met a man named Rustichello from Persia, who was a writer of romances. To pass the time, Marco dictated his observations about Asia to Rustichello. Their book was soon circulating, since Marco remained in prison only a year or so, very likely gaining his freedom when the Venetians and Genoese made peace in 1299.
After his prison experience, Marco was content to lead a quiet life in Venice with the rest of his family and bask in his almost instant literary fame. He married Donata Badoer, a member of the Venetian aristocracy. Marco died in 1324, only seventy years of age. In his will he left most of his modest wealth to his three daughters, a legacy that included goods which he had brought back from Asia.