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.
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.