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.