Category: Marco Polo (page 2 of 3)

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. 


The Travels of Marco Polo: Andaman

On Marco Polo’s voyage to India, he passes through many islands. One of the islands he comes across is Andaman. There is no description of his journey or how his journey led him to this island.

One of the first things Marco Polo says about the island is its greatness in size. He then discusses the defining aspects of the island. He says, “the people have no king. They are idolaters and live like wild beasts” (Marco Polo, 258). Marco Polo goes into more detail about the native people of Andaman and their physical characteristics. He says that the men of the island are worth describing and speaks of their animalistic features. He describes the men saying, “all the men of this island have heads like dogs, and teeth and eyes like dogs; for I assure you that the whole aspect of their face is that of big mastiffs” (258). He then defines them as a cruel race that feasts on outsiders to their land.

Marco Polo sets up the culture of the island as a place that is vastly different in comparison to his Western culture or what he considers to be civilized. He begins saying that the people do not have a ruler suggesting the island has a lack of authority and structure. He also says they are idolaters which Marco Polo uses negatively to suggest they have anti-Christian beliefs. Marco Polo moves onto describe the native people of Andaman. He compares the people to dogs, specifically to mastiffs in not only their facial features but further says they act like ferocious dogs in how they devour the people who do not belong to their land. Marco Polo’s racist views are evident in this passage. He already looks down on their culture for their lack of order and differing beliefs. Marco Polo expresses his opposition even further using fearsome descriptions of the Andaman natives. His descriptions of the people in Andaman suggest the cruelty of the entire race. It seems Marco Polo is using race as a signifier of personal attributes. Even further, it seems Marco Polo is alluding to the fact that the people who look and act in this dog-like manner must have something to do with their lack of authority and in their (what he believes) sinful views.

Marco Polo also focuses on the island’s goods and location. He says the island has an “abundance of spices of every kind” (158). Additionally, he says Andaman has food such as milk, rice, and “every sort of flesh.” Marco Polo emphasizes their fruits such as, apples and coconuts, and says they have others that are different from the ones in his home country. He then describes the difficulties ships have reached the island. He says the island is situated in a treacherous sea that does not allow ships to anchor or sail from the island. Marco Polo explains this is so because the sea is so strong it is able to eat away at the shore and drag trees from their roots into the gulf. Ships then get stuck in the gulf in the mass of trees and are unable to get out.

It is typical of Marco Polo to express interest in goods and resources due to his position as a trader. His emphasis on the different fruits on the island shows the reader that he intends on relaying to Westerns about the differences in land and culture. The passage about the unbelievable strong seas seems intentionally included in order to attract readers and make his journey sound thrilling. There is also a contradiction in the last section since it does not explain how Marco Polo was able to reach and depart from this said treacherous sea. This could either be read as a false assertion or that Marco Polo never traveled to the island.



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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