Category: Marco Polo (page 1 of 3)

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: Hormuz

In Marco Polo’s travels through the Middle East, he speaks of the city, Hormuz. He says that after riding for two days he reaches Hormuz which lies on the coast of the Indian Ocean. Marco Polo first speaks of the great harbor where merchants bring items, such as silk, pearls, valuable stones, spices, elephant tusks, an abundance of gold, and other valuables from India. Marco Polo emphasizes the land’s successful trade and says it is a center for commerce. He says they have a king named Ruemedan Ahmad and have cities and towns that serve under this territory.

Marco Polo then discusses the climate of Hormuz. He says they have sweltering heat temperatures. He then speaks of their good wine. This information would have glamorized Marco Polo’s journey since wine is considered an expensive good. He then discusses the differences in food and says the natives do not eat “our sort of food.” He says they eat salt fish, dates, onions in contrast to the wheat bread and meat of Marco Polo’s people. Marco Polo highlights the culture difference between the natives and the people from Western Europe through the variation in food.

Marco Polo also notices the poor quality of the ships at Hormuz. He goes into the technical specifics regarding the poor material that is used to build the ships. He says this would make it risky to sail in these ships. He assumes that many of the ships would sink due to the stormy climate of the Indian Ocean. Marco Polo evidently believes this information was important to share with either traveling merchants or anyone in Western Europe planning on going on an expedition. Additionally, Marco Polo, who is already largely interested in trade would find this information valuable to note.

Marco Polo describes the people of Hormuz. He immediately states that they are black and worship Mahomet. He addresses their race and the fact that they worship someone different from Christian beliefs. It can be interpreted that Marco Polo was derogatively describing the people of Hormuz. He then begins to discuss how the climate impacts the people. The people are unable to live in the cities in the summer since they would die from the dangerous heat. He discusses the extreme measures people take to protect themselves from the sun and dangerous heat winds. Marco Polo shares a story of how the king of Kerman ordered his men to surprise attack the people of Hormuz; however, when they got close to the city, thousands of men perished from the winds. This story could have been an exaggeration given the multitude of men that perished. Additionally, it would have been enticing for his intended audience to read about the difference in climate and the dangers of Marco Polo’s travels.

Marco Polo then goes on to discuss the difference in their mourning rituals. He immediately states his opinion and how bizarre it is that these people mourn their dead daily for four years after their death.

From this passage, it is obvious Marco Polo takes an interest in a location’s trade and goods. He makes a point to say the goods that are bought and traded. Additionally, he speaks of the excellent harbor in Hormuz that allows for this location to be a center for trade and alludes to the territory’s high status. Along with this, he discusses their poorly built ships that would impact their ability to travel from their land. Marco Polo also makes a note to discuss the differences in climate and foods they eat. He over exaggerates the hot temperatures most likely to make a note of how different the physical land is from Western Europe. His story of a thousand men that perished would most likely have been incorporated to create a thrill for his audience and to glorify his journey. Lastly, Marco Polo addresses the people of Hormuz. He identifies the people as black and as Mahomet worshipers. As seen in his previous passages, Marco Polo does not think highly of dark-skinned individuals especially those who do not worship the same god as him showing this was a racist remark. He also discusses the mourning rituals and how strange he finds them. The natives spend much of their time mourning their dead which most likely differs from Western European mourning customs. It can be interpreted that Marco Polo thinks of trade as a marker for a territory’s success, but he shows a personal investment in cultural differences.

The Travels of Marco Polo: Quilon

When Marco Polo journeys through India, he speaks of the kingdom, Quilon. The kingdom is located 500 miles south-west in relation to Maabar.

Marco Polo introduces this province saying the people are mainly idolaters with the exception of a few Jews and Christians. He says the people have their own language and answer to a king who is subordinate to no one. From previous passages, it is clear that Marco Polo uses the term “idolaters” derogatively to show that their religion opposes Christian ideals. He makes a point to include that Jews and Christians are among the people to show there were other religious groups aside from idolaters.

Next, Marco Polo speaks of the province’s produce. He says they harvest large amounts of pepper and Quilon brazil. He says that pepper is specifically grown in the months of May through July. Marco Polo also mentions the growth of indigo how it is specifically produced. He additionally he mentions the hot climate and expresses the extensiveness of it saying if one were to put in an egg in one of the rivers, the egg would boil. He then mentions how this territory thrives in trade because of the exchange of goods from the following countries: Arabia, Manzi, and the Levant. The countries are able to trade by sea. Marco Polo almost always mentions trade given that he is a professional trader.

In Marco Polo’s description of these goods, he expresses how these crops are produced in detail. It is evident that he is trying to show Western Europeans how different their crops, as well as their methods, are in producing these goods. He mentions the months in which pepper is grown and goes into the specifics of how Indigo is produced. Indigo was a rare commodity in Western Europe so it would have been fascinating to Western audiences in learning how it was made. In addition, he exaggerates the hot temperatures which can be assumed that the rivers did not reach boiling temperatures. This was most likely used to once again captivate his targeted European audience.

Marco Polo also focuses on the variety of beasts. He mentions black lions, parrots that differ in color and size, peacocks, and hens. He then emphasizes how unique these animals are from the ones he has seen in Western Europe and even from “those of all the rest in the world.” He emphasizes on their grandness and difference from everywhere else which can be assumed that he was trying to relate enchanting information back to Western Europe. In addition, he also expresses the difference in their fruit that is due to the land’s hot climate. He speaks of their wine and how it has uses sugar causing the people to be intoxicated faster in comparison to grape wine. This comparison to grape wine is telling that he views the wine Europeans drink to be better since it does not make people as intoxicated which was seen as improper and undesirable. He then makes a point to speak of Quilon’s good physicians who keep their people in good health which is important for audiences to know if they do wish to travel given that sickness and rise in death tolls were prevalent.

Lastly, Marco Polo discusses the appearance of the people of Quilon in how they dark-skinned and dress almost naked with a piece of loincloth. Similar to other travel passages, Marco Polo makes a point to describe their unique dress; however, he does not express this with as much disdain in his previous passages which shows maturity in sharing information about other people’s’ cultures. On the contrary, he expresses disapproval for the how the people face no religious repercussions for engaging in sexual actions. His dislike is clear since he expects there to be some sort of punishment for this kind of action most likely having to do with his Christian views. He also says that is customary for men to marry his father’s widow, cousin, or his brother’s wife. He says that this was a commonly seen throughout the Indies. He seems to be saying this as if it were something new and only occurred within in the Indies, but from other travel narratives, this practice seems to be universal. It is inconclusive as to why he would find this to be unique.

In this passage, it is clear that Marco Polo chose to focus more on the animals and goods in Quilon. It can be interpreted that he is drawn to these specific aspects since they dramatize the vast difference in climate and vegetation. Since Marco Polo aims to captivate Western Europeans, it would make sense that he would want to focus on the things that would make this specific territory standout and be as memorable as possible.


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. 


Older posts