Marco Polo is a timely topic as the Chinese New Year of the Snake began recently, as determined by the Chinese Lunar Calendar. Legend has it that Marco Polo brought pasta back to Italy from China, but that is not the reason he was included in my fifth grade American history book.
Marco Polo was born in Venice in 1254. His father Nicolò, his uncle Maffeo and Marco Polo were among the first men from Italy to see the wonderful world of East Asia. When Marco Polo returned 24 years later, in 1295, he ripped open the seams of his shabby coat and produced a handful of rich jewels.
A few years after Marco came home, the city of Venice got into a war with Genoa. Marco Polo and a man called Rusticello were captured by the Genoese in a sea fight between the galleys of Venice and Genoa, and were put into prison. To pass the time and entertain the other prisoners, Marco told the story of his travels; he told of giraffes, crocodiles, first printed money and the magnificence of the court of the Great Kublakham.
His companion Rusticello wrote the story down and “A Description of the World” became one of the first travel stories ever written, however all the books then had to be slowly copied by hand.
Circa 1450, someone invented a way to print books, first by wood blocks and later carved metal blocks. Marco Polo’s book and other books on geography were among the first that were printed. These books helped lead men to America, for by describing the riches of the East (as India and China were called in Europe), it not only increased the desire of merchants to trade with the East, but suggested new ways to get there. One of Marco Polo’s books fell into the hands of Christopher Columbus and the rest became early American History…
From our grade school studies, we remember that Marco Polo traveled to China, but he got around a lot more than that, as you will learn from these experts from the “Great Explorers” Series published in England by Lady-bird Books for Young Readers, 1980, Audrey Daly, author.
The Venice that Marco Polo was born into was in 1254 a great network of sea routes. Venetian merchants traded with the farthest limits of the known world. They brought luxuries such as silk, spices and carpets, as well as precious stones from the East, and they sent fleets loaded with these goods to trade fairs as far away as Stowbridge (on the river Ouse) in England. Every great port had quays, which belonged to the Venetians.
Italians knew little or nothing about those who lived on the other side of the world, even though they bought and used the goods that came from those distant lands.
Merchants had to work in relays and one group would meet another and hand on its goods. The Silk Road, as the trading route across Asia to the capital of China was called, was 7,000 miles long. So in the course of a journey, goods changed hands many times. The sailors who brought them the last short stage of the journey could tell nothing of the lands from which the silks and jewels had come.
Marco Polo was the son of an adventurous merchant, Nicolò Polo. When Marco was 15, his father and his uncle Maffeo returned from a trading journey, which had lasted many years. Nicolo found his wife had died during his absence. They had been all the way to the capital of China, Peking, and had been kindly received there by the Mongol Emperor, Kubla Khan. He had been interested in all they told him about the way people lived in the Western World.
The idea of Christian religion had interested the Great Khan most of all. He had asked the two Venetians to go back to Italy with a letter from him to the Pope. In it, he asked the Pope to send him some Christian monks. He had also asked the Polo brothers to return to his court with the monks.
More about Marco
When Nicolo and Maffeo Polo at last arrived back in Venice, they found that the old Pope had died. The Khan’s request would have to wait until a new Pope had been chosen.
Two years passed and still there was no new Pope. Tired of waiting, the Polo brothers made up their minds to set out once more on the long and dangerous journey to Peking. Marco was now seventeen, and they decided to take him with them.
In 1271, Marco went aboard a little ship in the harbor of Venice with his uncle and father. His journey was to last three and a half years, and would make him one of the most famous travelers of all time.
From Venice they sailed down the Adriatic Sea and then through the Mediterranean to the port of Acre (near Jerusalem) in Palestine. Here they met a priest called Theobald. Nicolò and Maffeo had met the Christian monks the Khan had requested. From Ayas, the road lay eastwards through Armenia. It was a rough and difficult road, sometimes becoming a mere track across desert sands. Rivers had to be forded, and often the way led along narrow ledges cut in the side of steep cliffs. They traveled sometimes on foot, sometimes on mules and camels, and camped at night under the stars.
Marco took careful note of everything he saw on the way. One of the strange sights, which he remembered, was a fountain of oil, which came up out of the earth. The people who lived nearby told him that it never stopped. Marco noted, “This oil is not good to eat, but it is good for burning, as a salve for men or camels afflicted with itch or scab. Men come from a long distance to fetch this oil”. The place is known to the modern world as the Baku oilfield, which supplies vast quantities of oil for fuel for today’s airplanes and cars.
Marco Polo, an excellent book for children is available from the Italian Children’s Market (1536 W. 25th St. #321, San Pedro, Calif. 90732, tel
Since “China Towns” are increasingly found adjacent to a “Little Italy” in the U.S.A. and Canada, here is some “Year of the Snake” info to help you chat up a “neighbor” in your area, if you are so inclined: According to Chinese folklore, an emperor in China invented all the animals in his domain to share in the New Year’s celebration. Of all the animals in the kingdom, only twelve came and they came in this order: the rat, ox, tiger, hare, dragon, serpent, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog, and the last to show up was the bear. For those who came to pay him homage, the emperor named a year as a mark of honor for them.
Persons born under a particular sign are believed to possess certain characteristics and may foretell a person’s future. Whether or not you believe in the animal signs, it makes interesting reading anyway!