Author: Shannon Nolan (page 1 of 2)

The Travels of Marco Polo: Medieval Map and Analysis

Many of the places that Polo discusses past the middle east are not visible on the Ebstorf map. Since the creator of the map resided in a monastery in Germany, they might not have had the proper source information in order to depict Asia as the vast continent it is. Instead, halfway through the landmass that is Asia, we begin getting illustrations of wonders and other religious points, such as the garden of eden. Armenia is located so far eastward, that there are no distinct representations of the Great Khan’s cities. The map would not have been useful for Polo’s travels, as it would have turned him around, however it would have been interesting to watch as monks and other map-makers attempted to make sense of Polo’s journeys. The choice to underplay the Great Khan’s power and territory could have been circumstantial – as those residing in Germany did not border his ever-growing empire the same way that Italians did – or it could have been a political choice.

Polo’s journey begins in Venice, marked by the point outside of Rome, given that that peninsula is meant to represent Italy. Rather far towards the upper-left corner of the map is a little island labeled Armenia. Here is the point for Ayas, the city that Polo describes as a gateway to the rest of Asia. Given that on this map it is rather far past the red title of Asia, the creator of this map did not agree. Back towards the center of the map is Baghdad. This markers location was chosen due to the size of the building marking this city, and its proximity to Syria, Assyria, and Arabia. Continuing to the oasis city of Talikhan, the marker is placed in unidentified land, farther east, near a mountain range, in which several beasts reside because the short description of Talikhan that Polo provides indicates that it was a smaller, less frequented city that was useful for re-supplying and a bit of trade, but not much else. Kara Khoja, the desert city that Polo travels through while crossing the Taklamakan, is marked nearby on its own island, as it would have been large enough to still gain recognition, and would have been close to other desert locations, moving towards the direction of “Asia” in general. The point marking Chagan-nor is in the upper-left corner of the map where there were several depictions of birds. Before visiting the Great Khan’s royal city in the Northeast of Asia, Polo stopped in the land of Prester John, therefore the location of Chagan-nor would need to be somewhere east enough to only be a few days ride from the kingdom of Prester John. From Chagan-nor we travel Southward in actuality, but west-ward on the map to a depiction of a king sitting upon a throne to indicate Khan-balik. The river parting around the image, mirrors the canal system of the actual city. The point representing Tandintu, in Cathay, has been placed along one of the many rivers on the way from Khan-balik to Kinsai, as the town was predominantly known for trading along the river. Kinsai is marked nearby by the large city-marker along another tributary river. Kinsai, now Hangzhou, was known for its canals, bridges, and lakes, which made it the most beautiful and prosperous city in Southern China. We circle back around to what could be the coast, given the river depicted travels from Northern Asia through India, to the southern seas, where there is a large city marker that is possibly Fu-chau – the city from which Polo departs Cathay and the Great Khan’s realm, and travels into Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. Finally, the point for Java has been placed in the section of the map that was lost over time, as none of the islands past the the red title of “India” were significantly larger than the others before reaching African nations.

The map demonstrates the confusion of Asian geography at the time of Polo’s travels. While a merchant would have had access to more accurate information, the inability of T-O maps to translate actual distances or locations explains a lot of fears about traveling. The map’s spacial understanding of the world is lacking, and many points had to be approximated, however it provides insight to what a great task Polo’s adventures would have been viewed as. The journey from Venice to Armenia alone looks incredibly far and difficult. The beasts illustrated in the deserts demonstrate the fear of lands that Europeans did not know much about. The depiction of the Great Khan as something resembling a European King shows the desire of Europeans to believe that the Great Khan was truly just and would not attack them.

The Travels of Marco Polo: Java

When talking about the Pacific islands, it is hard to tell which ones Polo actually traveled to, as he always describes their distance from Chamba – the port in Southeast Asia – and discusses how one “would get there.” However this vague language can be seen in relation to many of the other locations that Polo travels to, and he often provides distances between lands and the time it would take to get there to aid in understanding the voyage, whether he personally visits the location or not. For the journey to Java, Polo writes that “from Chamba a traveller who sails south-south-east for 1,500 miles comes to a very large island” (Polo, 251). The specific measurements lead one to believe that Polo made this journey, since he would most likely be unable to ask the sailors for the distance in Chamba.

Polo is awed by the island and for the first time besides his description of Japan, the reader is presented with a kingdom that the tartars could not overpower: “And I assure you that the Great Khan has never been able to conquer it, because of the long and hazardous voyage that must be made in order to get there” (Polo, 251). After countless accounts of the tartar’s strength and the Great Khan’s influence, the mention of regions powerful enough to exist outside of the empire is shocking. However Polo’s association of merchants, spices, and other goods with that power is unsurprising. “It is a very rich island, producing pepper, nutmegs, spikenard, galingale, cubebs, and cloves, and all the precious spices that can be found in the world. It is visited by a great number of ships and merchants who buy a great range of merchandise” (Polo, 251). Merchants willingly traveling a far and dangerous route that the Great Khan himself is unwilling to travel creates a perspective of merchants as strong and courageous in a way that the greatest ruler in the world at the time was not.

In a more technical sense, when talking about Java, Polo demonstrates mathematical accomplishments of those who travel. Polo mentions that Java is the largest island in the world, “having a circumference of more than 3,000 miles” (Polo, 251). Assuming that the circumference is reference to the length of the shoreline, Java’s size is one-third of the actual largest island in the world, as Australia is about 9,000 miles of shoreline. In order to comment on the length of the shoreline, Polo would have had to have asked sailors or other experts. Knowledge of the length shows advancements in measurement and geography given that an individual measuring the exact length of the island along the beaches in unlikely.

The Travels of Marco Polo: Chagan-nor

Following his visit to Prester John, Polo returns to the provable world with a stop in Chagan-nor, or “White Pool,” where the great Khan has a large, beautiful palace. Polo uses this stop to demonstrate the wealth of the Great Khan in a rather non-traditional matter. Instead of describing the decadence of the palace, or large quantities of jewels, Polo describes the birds that the Khan uses for leisure.

Our introduction to the palace states that the Great Khan “enjoys staying there because there are lakes and rivers here in plenty, well stocked with swans” (Polo, 107). Polo later goes on to discuss his hunting birds, and the sport he enjoys in it (Polo, 107). This is a good look into the leisure time of the Great Khan during this period.

While here, the reader gains an even more detailed understanding of how the Great Khan spends his leisure time. Polo gives the different types of cranes that the Great Khan hunts half a paragraph – which would have been several lines in the original, and therefore would have been a lot of spaces to give to a description of birds. Afterwards, Polo describes the flocks of “cators” – “great partridges” – that the Great Khan keeps several miles away (Polo, 107). Even from the start of this passage, when Polo mentions the swans living in the palace’s lakes, he is very interested in the birds present. Possibly because they are so different from the birds in his native land, or the birds he had seen along his journey since he has re-entered an area of water, away from the desert, where birds can not find sufficient food to survive.

In explaining the quantity of cator’s the that Great Khan owns, Polo describes their lodging as “many huts” that the Great Khan had built for them for the winters (Polo, 107). These birds had “many guards… set to watch [them] to prevent anyone from taking them” (Polo, 107). Entire fields of grain are grown for the birds to eat, and those fields are also protected so that no one may take their food (Polo, 107). The Khan’s dedication to these birds and ability to support a flock of this size demonstrates his wealth and power. The Great Khan can afford to leave men to protect his birds, instead of himself. He can afford entire fields to feed the birds instead of his people.

The Travels of Marco Polo: Kara Khoja

En route to Cathay, Marco Polo relays the histories of different Great Khans as he reaches the cities that they impacted. Following a description of Mongu Khan, Polo introduces the city of Kara Khoja along the desert road.

While here, Polo’s observations center on the religious practices of the city’s people. Rather quickly he notes that the city is comprised of mostly idolaters, with some Nestorian Christians, and that “the Christians often intermarry with idolaters” (Polo, 89). In recording this, Polo draws attention to the unusualness of Christians marrying outside of their own religion. Being from Venice, close enough to the epicenter of the Catholic church, and from a city of mostly Christians, interfaith marriages would have been a foreign concept to Polo.

In most cases, when Polo records that a city is predominantly occupied by idolaters, that is the most information we get about their religion. Occasionally he’ll record burying practices or one particular practice of the group, that may not even be grounded in their religion. However, in Kara Khoja, we’re given the origin story of the idolaters’ religion. Polo explains that “they declare that the king who originally ruled over them was not born of human stock, but arose from a sort of tuber generated by the sap of trees, which we call esca; and from him all the others descended” (Polo, 89). A group of desert dwellers believing their origins come from the sap of a tree illustrates the importance of vegetation in the life of those with so few plants. Plants provide nourishment through sap and water. Any plants that survive in the desert must be sturdy, rare, and determined. Therefore if a people believe they come from something so rare, they recognize the harshness of their environment and the difficulties that come along with living there.  

Alongside their religious practices, the idolater’s education is made note of; “The idolaters are very well versed in their own laws and traditions and are keen students of the liberal arts” (Polo, 89). This description shows that Polo is surprised by their level of education. In Venice, a majority of the population would not have been able to read, and would have received a low level of education if any at all. Therefore a population of “keen students of the liberal arts” would have been impressive. 


The Travels of Marco Polo: The city of Kinsai

After leaving Changan, the home of many Tartar palaces, Marco Polo travels through a wealthy and well-populated province filled with “idolators, using paper money, [who are] subject to the Great Khan” (The Travels of Marco Polo, 213). “Then he reaches the splendid city of Kinsai, whose name means ‘City of Heaven” (Marco Polo, 213). Despite being located in a province of idolaters, who might have a different concept of afterlife or heaven, Polo translates the city in a way that the western, Christian, reader would understand. Like in his translation of the city’s name, Polo uses this section to relate the beauty of a city thousands of miles away back to his home in Europe. However Rustichello complicates his accounts by creating doubt in whether or not the details are true.

In describing the layout of the city, Polo is incredibly invested in the waterways. He describes the large clear lake on one side of the city that is connected to the huge river through different channels and streams that carry off waste and provide transportation (Marco Polo, 214). “And through every part of the city it is possible to travel either by land or by these streams” (Marco Polo, 214). There are over 12,000 bridges connecting roads over channels, which are both big enough to transport goods to market in (Marco Polo, 214). Polo’s investment in describing the waterways makes sense given that he is from Venice, a city with a similar plan to it. His attention to the water could demonstrate admiration for the engineering and city planning that accompanies the extensive channel network and large number of tall bridges. The passage demonstrates the intelligence of the city’s builders, as well as creates a link back to the west. Venice is also a city made of channels and waterways with large amounts of markets – just as Kinsai boast ten main markets and countless smaller ones. Here the reader can see the importance of trade, mobility, and engineering to the educated Italian merchant.

Despite the familiarity presenting a potentially personal moment for Polo, the reader can not help but be skeptical of its authenticity. Instead of relying Polo’s personal experience in the city, Rustichello includes “the account of it sent in writing by the queen of the realm to Bayan, the conqueror of the province, when he was besieging it” (The Travels of Marco Polo, 213). This account was meant to be passed on to the Great Khan, in order to convince him not to ransack and destroy the entire city while conquering it (Marco Polo, 213). This account invites skepticism of its accuracy, given that it was written by a queen attempting to keep the heritage of her city intact. In order to reassure its accuracy, Rustichello includes his common aside to the reader:  “…and it is all true, as I, Marco Polo, later saw clearly with my own eyes” (Marco Polo, 213). The description reads as if it came from Polo’s own memory, and not the letters of a woman who has lived, probably, her entire life in the city. The combination of admittance that the account is not his own, followed by the reassurance that he was indeed there, and then the account reading as the rest of the story creates a confusing effect. It highlights Rustichello’s apathy towards accuracy and inclination towards romance and spectacle, demonstrating what the Medieval reader would have wanted from Polo’s story.  

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