As far as we know, Marco Polo never made
it as far north as Kyrgyzstan; he crossed from what is now Afghanistan
to Kashgar, but this intrepid explorer holds a special place in the
story of the Silk Road…and attention is once more focused on
him as Europe discovers a reawakening interest in China and Central
Polo was born in 1254 into a wealthy family of Venetian merchants, who
travelled wherever business led them. His father, Nikolo, was on a
“business trip” to Xanadu for the early years of
Marco's life and they did not meet until 1269.
On his travels his father had met and become friendly with Kublai Khan
and had returned to Europe as his ambassador to the Pope.
Unfortunately, the most recent pope had died and, tired of waiting for
a new one to be appointed, he and the boy's uncle, Maffeo, set off
again, this time taking the young Marco Polo with them.
They travelled to Acre and then on to what is now eastern Iran and
Afghanistan where they stayed for a year. Setting off again, they
reached Kashgar in what is now China. By then they were on the main
Silk Road, which they followed to the then Chinese border. By 1275, they were back at
the Mongol court presenting sacred oil from Jerusalem and papal letters
to Kublai Khan.
For the next 17 years the Polos lived in the Emperor's dominions.
Little is know of these years Marco Polo gives only vague details in
his book written after his return to Europe.
Marco Polo was popular with Kublai Khan who sent him on fact-finding
missions across the empire. Sometime around 1292, the Polos offered to
accompany a Mongol princess, who was to become the consort of Arghun
Khain in Persia. Sailing to Hormuz via the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra and
Ceylon they continued on to Venice. One can only imagine the amazement
of their family as the ragged figures in their outlandish clothing
turned out to be those they had long given up for dead.
years later Marco was taken prisoner during a naval battle with the
Genoese. In jail he met another prisoner, a writer of romances and
chivalry. Marco began to tell his story and, slowly, his book,
“Il milione”, began to take shape. When it was
eventually published, it was an instant sensation. He was freed and
returned to Venice, where he led a quiet life before dying at the age
of 70. Some scholars have doubted the accuracy of his accounts.
However, the details he gives suggest that he not only visited the
places he describes, but that he did indeed have a position of
influence in the court of the emperor. Amongst the curiosities he
describes which were dismissed at the time as flights of fancy were the
wild animals, particularly the large wild sheep which he described as
having horns “three, four and even six palms in
length”. In fact this largest of all wild sheep did exist
though it remained an enigma in Europe for 600 years. It is now named
the “Marco Polo sheep”.