Category: Marco Polo (page 1 of 3)

Marco Polo: Medieval Map


There are many obvious differences between the two maps. One visually striking difference is how much closer the points appear to be in the Medieval Map. I had a difficult time finding a portolan map that could incorporate Marco Polo’s expansive route from the Middle East to Asia. As is noticeable, the points appear to be shorter distances and are more scrunched together. In routing Marco Polo’s points of travel, I often found myself having to redo the placement of Marco Polo’s locations. I finally realized that the Medieval Map was far smaller in comparison to my modern map so my points were going to have to be much closer together than I expected. The hardest points to map were the Middle Eastern locations. The portolan map is missing some Middle Eastern countries making the Middle East much smaller. I was able to find where to place these points but I had to move the points closer together. Additionally, China appears to be much smaller in comparison to India. One reason this is so is that the portolan map’ was originally made for traveling traders, so its sole purpose was to provide detailed routes along the coastlines of these countries. Because of this, the mapping of the inside of these countries was not as much of a priority as the coastline of the Middle Eastern and Asian countries. Upon looking at this map, Marco Polo would have likely used the portolan map as a way to navigate by sea and understand where he was in reference to the traveling ports. The visual descriptions of the land within the Middle East and Asia were not correct representations, so this kind of map would not have aided in his journeys by land. Ultimately, in The Travels of Marco Polo, Marco Polo expressed his knowledge about the traveling ports and his physical location to these ports showing further evidence of how he would have used the portolan map.

The Travels of Marco Polo: Medieval Map and Analysis

Many of the places that Polo discusses past the middle east are not visible on the Ebstorf map. Since the creator of the map resided in a monastery in Germany, they might not have had the proper source information in order to depict Asia as the vast continent it is. Instead, halfway through the landmass that is Asia, we begin getting illustrations of wonders and other religious points, such as the garden of eden. Armenia is located so far eastward, that there are no distinct representations of the Great Khan’s cities. The map would not have been useful for Polo’s travels, as it would have turned him around, however it would have been interesting to watch as monks and other map-makers attempted to make sense of Polo’s journeys. The choice to underplay the Great Khan’s power and territory could have been circumstantial – as those residing in Germany did not border his ever-growing empire the same way that Italians did – or it could have been a political choice.

Polo’s journey begins in Venice, marked by the point outside of Rome, given that that peninsula is meant to represent Italy. Rather far towards the upper-left corner of the map is a little island labeled Armenia. Here is the point for Ayas, the city that Polo describes as a gateway to the rest of Asia. Given that on this map it is rather far past the red title of Asia, the creator of this map did not agree. Back towards the center of the map is Baghdad. This markers location was chosen due to the size of the building marking this city, and its proximity to Syria, Assyria, and Arabia. Continuing to the oasis city of Talikhan, the marker is placed in unidentified land, farther east, near a mountain range, in which several beasts reside because the short description of Talikhan that Polo provides indicates that it was a smaller, less frequented city that was useful for re-supplying and a bit of trade, but not much else. Kara Khoja, the desert city that Polo travels through while crossing the Taklamakan, is marked nearby on its own island, as it would have been large enough to still gain recognition, and would have been close to other desert locations, moving towards the direction of “Asia” in general. The point marking Chagan-nor is in the upper-left corner of the map where there were several depictions of birds. Before visiting the Great Khan’s royal city in the Northeast of Asia, Polo stopped in the land of Prester John, therefore the location of Chagan-nor would need to be somewhere east enough to only be a few days ride from the kingdom of Prester John. From Chagan-nor we travel Southward in actuality, but west-ward on the map to a depiction of a king sitting upon a throne to indicate Khan-balik. The river parting around the image, mirrors the canal system of the actual city. The point representing Tandintu, in Cathay, has been placed along one of the many rivers on the way from Khan-balik to Kinsai, as the town was predominantly known for trading along the river. Kinsai is marked nearby by the large city-marker along another tributary river. Kinsai, now Hangzhou, was known for its canals, bridges, and lakes, which made it the most beautiful and prosperous city in Southern China. We circle back around to what could be the coast, given the river depicted travels from Northern Asia through India, to the southern seas, where there is a large city marker that is possibly Fu-chau – the city from which Polo departs Cathay and the Great Khan’s realm, and travels into Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. Finally, the point for Java has been placed in the section of the map that was lost over time, as none of the islands past the the red title of “India” were significantly larger than the others before reaching African nations.

The map demonstrates the confusion of Asian geography at the time of Polo’s travels. While a merchant would have had access to more accurate information, the inability of T-O maps to translate actual distances or locations explains a lot of fears about traveling. The map’s spacial understanding of the world is lacking, and many points had to be approximated, however it provides insight to what a great task Polo’s adventures would have been viewed as. The journey from Venice to Armenia alone looks incredibly far and difficult. The beasts illustrated in the deserts demonstrate the fear of lands that Europeans did not know much about. The depiction of the Great Khan as something resembling a European King shows the desire of Europeans to believe that the Great Khan was truly just and would not attack them.

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.


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