Marco Polo, born in 1254 in Venice, Italy, was only six years old when his father and his uncle, who were merchants and traders, left their families to travel eastward to China. While they were gone, Marco grew up and studied his lessons to gain an education. During this time also, Marco's mother passed away. Upon the return of his father and uncle, Marco lived with them in Venice for two years before the three men embarked with two monks for China. For the two elder Polos, this return journey was a mission based on the request of Kublai Khan. He had asked them to bring back to his domain missionaries to teach Christianity and Western ways and oil from the Holy Sepulcher lamp. The Polos had been delayed granting his request because one Pope died and a vacancy filled several years until a replacement could be nominated and elected.
Once the Polos found two monks willing to make the long trip and received the oil from Pope Gregory, they began their journey that would ultimately last twenty-four years. Danger surrounded the group as they traveled through foreign lands, and the friars fled when they encountered fighting among tribesmen. The Polo men continued onward, trekking across Armenia, Persia, Afghanistan, and then along the route called the Silk Road to China. Illness forced Marco to rest for one year and regain his health before moving on again. As the Polos journeyed, Marco took notes of the different regions and the peculiarities of the people he saw along the way. For their protection and to avoid being sold as slaves or being killed, the Polos dressed like the peoples in the region, showed respect to the inhabitants, and learned several languages.
As they crossed the Gobi Desert, Marco wrote about the life of the Mongols on the steppes, customs, family life, and later he provided a history about the rise of the Mongols and of the Great Khan's life. Pleased with the arrival of his visitors and honored by the gifts they brought from the Pope, Khan made the Polos welcome in his kingdom. Marco's interest and intrigue during the 5,600 mile trip enthralled the Khan who found it all very entertaining. He granted Marco a position in his administration and sent him to Burma, India, and parts of China as an ambassador. All along his travels, Marco recorded what he'd seen and learned, thus allowing the Khan a greater insight into his own realm and beyond. For 17 years the Polos served Kublai Khan's court, and they were rewarded with jewels and precious metals.
Acting as such a great service to the Khan, it was no wonder that he was reluctant to let them leave for home. Yet, the Polos feared that should the Khan die, as he was in his late seventies, they wouldn't be allowed to depart with their considerable wealth. Coming to an arrangement, the Polos could begin traveling homeward if they would first escort a Mongol princess to her husband-to-be. With their protective golden tablet from the Khan which allowed the Polos to travel safely, they made their way through the South China Sea to Sumatra and the Indian Ocean to Hormuz. There they left the princess and continued on to Persia. Along the way, they found out that the Khan had died, but the golden tablet still offered tremendous protection and gave the Polos the power to ask for anything they needed on the journey. They returned to Venice in 1295 during the winter.
Marco didn't venture out on more travels, but during a war with the city of Genoa, he was captured and imprisoned. During this time, a cellmate encouraged Marco to tell of his trip to China and his life with the Khan. This man named Rustichello of Pisa wrote down the story, and The Travels of Marco Polo became a sensation with the public. Many people wouldn't believe all that Marco saw, and thus they called him Marco Milione, indicating that he told millions of lies. Why didn't Marco mention the Great Wall? Why didn't he learn the Chinese language or be mentioned in the Chinese Annals of the Empire? Historians don't know, and many doubt the authenticity of Marco's stories. However, his tales have been read by many generations, providing a travelogue for people later following the Silk Road.
Marco never left Venice after he was released from the Genoese prison. He married a woman from a very respected family, and they had three daughters. At almost seventy years of age, Marco died in January 1324. He will always be remembered as an adventurer to China who inspired future explorers, a story-teller, and for some historians, his mapping details across the longitude of Asia later provided a basis for scientific geography.
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