The first description Polo gives his audience is that of Lesser Armenia, and the town of Ayas. Despite the passage’s size, Polo provides the image of a bustling, geographic and economic epicenter that acts as the beginning of many long journeys. He simultaneously highlights the importance of this region for trade and gives modern readers insight into the knowledge and attitude of Italians in the 13th century in relation to the Middle East.
In describing the actual city of Ayas, Polo calls it “a busy emporium” with large amounts of spice and silk trade (Polo, 46). It is the starting point for a majority of journeys east due to its central location along the Mediterranean. Polo notes a large number of merchants from Venice and Genoa, two Italian city-states on the opposite coasts of the Italian peninsula. Modern readers are given insight to the wealth of Venice and Genoa, as well as the merchant culture that must have existed in the two cities.
Outside of the city, Polo takes great interest in the geopolitical location of the entirety of Lesser Armenia. He describes it as “bounded on the south by the Promised Land, now in the hands of the Saracens; on the north by the western district of Turkey, known as Karaman; on the north-east and east by eastern Turkey, with the towns of Kaisarieh and Sivas and many others, all subjects to the Tartars; and on the west by the sea that is crossed by ships sailing to Christendom” (Polo, 46). This description of Lesser Armenia’s surrounding area demonstrates an intricate understanding of the geography and settlements of the Middle East. Polo had access to information on geological features and directions, town names, and groups of people. His position as a merchant would have given him access to this information, as his father and uncle would have been able to relay it to him, and interactions with the locals would have allowed him access to information other Italians would not have had. However the way that Polo introduces each new region, with a name and only one qualifying characteristic, indicates that the average Italian noble who would have read this book, understands where Turkey’s regions and who the Tartars are.
In his explanation of regions surrounding Lesser Armenia, Polo generalizes European nations as “Christendom.” By labeling this region by its shared religion, as opposed to racial or political features, Polo demonstrates the importance of religious identity to the Medieval traveler. Religion in this time would therefore act the way that race does in the modern era to unify regions and create discord amongst different groups of people. In describing the Turks later on, Polo writes that “the Turkomans, who worship Mahomet and keep his law, are a primitive people, speaking a barbarous language” (Polo, 46). For Polo, religion is important enough to be listed as a reason for one groups barbarism.
The opening and closing scenes in any text are places of privilege. By beginning this account with the physical beginning to his, and many other merchant’s, journey Polo highlights this importance of Aya and Lesser Armenia. It is the start. By recording important details of the geopolitical situation in the region, Polo also demonstrates the knowledge of geography and culture that Italian travelers possessed as early as the 13th century.