THE SILK ROAD
The Silk Road extended approximately 6,437 kilometers (4,000 miles) across some of the world’s most formidable landscapes, including the Gobi Desert and the Pamir Mountains. With no one government to provide upkeep, the roads were typically in poor condition. Robbers were common. To protect themselves, traders joined together in caravans with camels or other pack animals. Over time, large inns called caravanseraiscropped up to house travelling merchants. Few people traveled the entire route, giving rise to a host of middlemen and trading posts along the way.
An abundance of goods traveled along the Silk Road. Merchants carried silk from China to Europe, where it dressed royalty and wealthy patrons. Other favorite commodities from Asia included jade and other precious stones, porcelain, tea, and spices. In exchange, horses, glassware, textiles, and manufactured goods traveled eastward.
One of the most famous travelers of the Silk Road was Marco Polo (1254 C.E. –1324 C.E.). Born into a family of wealthy merchants in Venice, Italy, Marco traveled with his father to China (then Cathay) when he was just 17 years of age. They traveled for over three years before arriving at Kublai Khan’s palace at Xanadu in 1275 C.E. Marco stayed on at Khan’s court and was sent on missions to parts of Asia never before visited by Europeans. Upon his return, Marco Polo wrote about his adventures, making him—and the routes he traveled—famous.
It is hard to overstate the importance of the Silk Road on history. Religion and ideas spread along the Silk Road just as fluidly as goods. Towns along the route grew into multicultural cities. The exchange of information gave rise to new technologies and innovations that would change the world. The horses introduced to China contributed to the might of the Mongol Empire, while gunpowder from China changed the very nature of war in Europe and beyond. Diseases also traveled along the Silk Road. Some research suggests that the Black Death, which devastated Europe in the late 1340s C.E., likely spread from Asia along the Silk Road. The Age of Exploration gave rise to faster routes between the East and West, but parts of the Silk Road continued to be critical pathways among varied cultures. Today, parts of the Silk Road are listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
Early LifePolo was born in 1254, in Venice, Italy. Although he was born to a wealthy Venetian merchant family, much of Polo’s childhood was spent parentless, and he was raised by an extended family. Polo's mother died when he was young, and his father and uncle, successful jewel merchants Niccolo and Maffeo Polo, were in Asia for much of Polo's youth.
Niccolo and Maffeo’s journeys brought them into present-day China, where they joined a diplomatic mission to the court of Kublai Khan, the Mongol leader whose grandfather, Genghis Khan, had conquered Northeast Asia. In 1269, the two men returned to Venice and immediately started making plans for their return to Khan's court. During their stay with the leader, Khan had expressed his interest in Christianity and asked the Polo brothers to visit again with 100 priests and a collection of holy water.
Khan's Empire, the largest the world had ever seen, was largely a mystery to those living within the borders of the Holy Roman Empire. A sophisticated culture outside the reaches of the Vatican seemed unfathomable, and yet that's exactly what the Polo brothers described to confounded Venetians when they arrived home.
Voyage to ChinaIn 1271, Polo set out with his father and uncle, Niccolo and Maffeo Polo, for Asia, where they would remain until 1295. Unable to recruit the 100 priests that Kublai Khan had requested, they left with only two, who, after getting a taste of the hard journey ahead of them, soon turned back for home. The Polos' journey took place on land, and they were forced to cut through challenging and sometimes harsh territory. But through it all, Polo reveled in the adventure. His later memory for the places and cultures he witnessed was remarkable and exceptionally accurate.
As they made their way through the Middle East, Polo absorbed its sights and smells. His account of the Orient, especially, provided the western world with its first clear picture of the East's geography and ethnic customs. Hardships, of course, came his way. In what is now Afghanistan, Polo was forced to retreat to the mountains in order to recoup from an illness he'd contracted. Crossing the Gobi desert, meanwhile, proved long and, at times, arduous. "This desert is reported to be so long that it would take a year to go from end to end," Polo later wrote. "And at the narrowest point it takes a month to cross it. It consists entirely of mountains and sands and valleys. There is nothing at all to eat."Finally, after four years of travel, the Polos reached China and Kublai Khan, who was staying at his summer palace known as Xanadu, a grand marble architectural wonder that dazzled young Polo.
The Polos had originally planned to be gone for only a few years. However, they were away from Venice for more than 23 years. Debate has swirled among historians as to whether Polo ever really made it to China. There is no evidence outside his famous book that he traveled so far east. Yet his knowledge of the culture and its customs are hard to dismiss. His later account told of Khan's extensive communication system, which served as the foundation for his rule. Polo's book, in fact, devotes five pages to the elaborate structure, describing how the empire's information highway efficiently and economically covered millions of square miles.
Khan's acceptance of the Polos offered the foreigners unparalleled access to his empire. Niccolo and Maffeo were granted important positions in the leader's Court. Polo, too, impressed Khan, who thought highly of the young man's abilities as a merchant. Polo's immersion into the Chinese culture resulted in him mastering four languages.
Polo the ExplorerKublai Khan eventually employed Polo as a special envoy he sent to far-flung areas of Asia never before explored by Europeans, including Burma, India and Tibet. With Polo, as always, was a stamped metal packet from Khan himself that served as his official credentials from the powerful leader.
As the years wore on, Polo was promoted for his work. He served as governor of a Chinese city. Later, Khan appointed him as an official of the Privy Council. At one point, he was the tax inspector in the city of Yanzhou.
From his travels, Polo amassed not only great knowledge about the Mongol empire but incredible wonder. He marveled at the empire's use of paper money, an idea that had failed to reach Europe, and was in awe of its economy and scale of production. Polo's later stories showed him to be an early anthropologist and ethnographer. His reporting offers little about himself or his own thoughts, but instead gives the reader a dispassionate reporting about a culture he had clearly grown fond of.
Journey Back to EuropeFinally, after 17 years in Khan's court, the Polos decided it was time to return to Venice. Their decision was not one that pleased Khan, who'd grown to depend on the men. In the end, he acquiesced to their request with one condition: They escort a Mongol princess to Persia, where she was to marry a Persian prince.
Traveling by sea, the Polos left with a caravan of several hundred passengers and sailors. The journey proved harrowing, and many perished as a result of storms and disease. By the time the group reached Persia's Port of Hormuz, just 18 people, including the princess and the Polos, were still alive. Later, in Turkey, Genoese officials appropriated three-quarters of the family's wealth. After two years of travel, the Polos reached Venice. They'd been gone for more than two decades, and their return to their native land undoubtedly had its difficulties. Their faces looked unfamiliar to their family and they struggled to speak their native tongue.
The Travels of Marco PoloPolo’s stories about his travels in Asia were published as a book called The Description of the World, later known as The Travels of Marco Polo. Just a few years after returning to Venice from China, Polo commanded a ship in a war against the rival city of Genoa. He was eventually captured and sentenced to a Genoese prison, where he met a fellow prisoner and writer named Rustichello. As the two men became friends, Polo told Rustichello about his time in Asia, what he'd seen, where he'd traveled and what he'd accomplished.
The book made Polo a celebrity. It was printed in French, Italian and Latin, becoming the most popular read in Europe. But few readers allowed themselves to believe Polo's tale. They took it to be fiction, the construct of a man with a wild imagination. The work eventually earned another title: Il Milione ("The Million Lies"). Polo, however, stood behind his book, and it influenced later adventurers and merchants.
Family and ChildrenAfter his release from prison in 1299, Polo returned to Venice, where he married, raised three daughters and, for some 25 years, carried on the family business.
DeathPolo died at his home in Venice on January 8, 1324. As he lay dying, friends and fans of his book paid him visits, urging him to admit that his book was fiction. Polo wouldn't relent. "I have not told half of what I saw," he said.
- OVERVIEW (National Geographic): https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/silk-road
- OVERVIEW (UNESCO): https://en.unesco.org/silkroad/about-silk-roads
- OVERVIEW (History Channel): https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-middle-east/silk-road
- FAMOUS TRAVELERS ON THE SILK ROAD: https://www.travelchinaguide.com/silk-road/history/famous-travelers.htm
- MARCO POLO: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marco_Polo
- MARCO POLO’S TRAVEL JOURNAL (National Geographic article): https://www.nationalgeographic.co.uk/history-and-civilisation/2019/09/marco-polos-odyssey-spawned-one-of-the-worlds-first-best-sellers
- OVERVIEW (TED Ed): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vn3e37VWc0k
- OVERVIEW (Knowlegia): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J-pfeFbssMw
- OVERVIEW (CNN): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nXptcteCeqg
- OVERVIEW: (Past to Future): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aGG0kgVqhWY
- MARCO POLO BIOGRAPHY (Biographics): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LprAn1nhjzM
- MARCO POLO BIOGRAPHY (Geo History): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sjJ381Wd9dI