James A. GILMAN
MARCO POLO: THE FIRST EUROPEAN
The Role & Function of The International Marco Polo Centre, Korcula, Croatia
The past Millennium -- the thousand years separating 1,000AD from 2,000AD -- has, more than anything else, been the Age of Discovery: of the steady widening of Man's awareness of the resources of the world he lived in, and his growing ties with those strangers in other lands who held the golden keys to his own future prosperity: the keys of trade, and of knowledge.
This transformation of our Earth from a global forest of ignorance, the habitat of myths and of monsters, into a global civilisation with the capability to take Mankind to the stars, has been the product of the courage of those men and women who, down the ages, have wondered at what lay beyond the horizon -- and dared to leave home and haven to find out; to explore, to map, to record, and then to return home again with information that often sounded incredible, and with tales that seemed beyond belief.
Of all the great explorers whose names light the fires of our imagination and whose exploits line the shelves of our libraries and museums, one name above all others leaps from the pages of history as though emblazoned in letters of gold, possessing the power still, after 700 years, to stir the blood and catch the breath. A name which, once breathed, conjures up a swirling mist of romantic visions of men and of horses, of mountains and vast open spaces reaching to the ends of the Earth; of the mysterious East, opulent with the treasures of the Orient and ruled by a legendary Khan enthroned in splendour within his 'pleasure dome' at fabled Xanadu. That name is MARCO POLO.
Polo was a young man of only 17 when he set out from his home in Venice, a little over 700 years ago, on an epic journey to the other side of the world. What he found there was to change his life, and the future of the Europe he had left behind him, more profoundly than any discovery made by any other explorer before him, or since. For whereas other explorers changed the maps of the world as a result of their discoveries, Marco Polo changed its history. And it is in this fact that his greatness lies.
What he discovered beyond the horizon that marked the edge of Europe was more than just a country, different from his own. It was a whole new world, a civilisation called Cathay ruled by an all-powerful Emperor called Kublai Khan from his Court at Xanadu, itself a fabled city located at the crossroads between legend and reality. To Marco Polo, coming from the narrow, cramped, impoverished world of Mediaeval Europe the incredible wealth, the knowledge, the inventions, the technology, the culture, the philosophies-- indeed, the whole civilisation -- of Cathay were as astonishing and as unbelievable as the discovery, by a modern-day astronaut, of a celestial city called Heaven on the dark side of the Moon.
Out of that journey was to come the world’s first best-seller after the Bible: Marco Polo’s own account of his 25 years’ wandering through the length & breadth of Cathay in the service of its Emperor, which was to inspire generations of Europe’s explorers, traders, fighting men and men of culture for hundreds of years after his death.
This was the book which inspired a certain Christopher Columbus to follow the setting sun in search of a sea route to the riches of Cathay -- only to stumble across America in the dark. This was the book which revealed to Europeans the locations of the Spice Islands whose products -- more valuable than gold dust in the Middle Ages, when dinner was full of either salt, or maggots -- laid the foundations of Europe’s commercial prosperity. This was the volume that unlocked the gateway to trade between East and West, along the Silk Road and other caravan routes that threaded the empty plains and deserts of Central Asia. And this was the flame that fuelled the imaginations of all the great European ocean voyagers in the centuries that followed, transforming the flat map of Marco Polo’s schoolroom days into the rounded globe of our own.
Above all Marco Polo, returning to the stagnant society of mediaeval Europe bursting with revelations of a civilisation called Cathay where wealth, knowledge and culture were the hallmarks of everyday living, and the currency of life throughout an entire Continent, dynamited the walls of ignorance imprisoning that society and bequeathed its members, in the pages of his book, a vista of fresh fields of knowledge which, centuries after his death, was to lead to that great flowering of European culture we know as the Renaissance.
In his discovery of the cultural benefits that accrued from the dissolving of barriers between cities and between states, as the PAX MONGOLIA had dissolved them throughout the Empire of Kublai Khan, Marco Polo did more than simply re-draw the maps of Europe’s geography. His great achievement lay in his re-drawing of the map of men’s minds, making Europe a new idea to be explored: a Continent-wide homeland for future generations of Europeans, replacing the old mediaeval political states -- and states of mind -- of the Europe of his own generation. In thus sowing the seeds of European economic prosperity, cultural development and political unity which were to blossom long after his death Marco Polo, in his vision of the potential of Europe to become a Continent-wide civilisation, rather than a cluster of independent warring states, most assuredly deserves the title of
The First European.
When this young European from Korcula arrived at XANADU and knelt in homage before KUBLAI KHAN, that meeting between East and West was one of the most momentous in European history. For it marked the beginning of Europe’s slow evolution from a motley collection of quarrelsome states, closed off to all that was going on outside its own Continent, to a Continent-wide civilisation of cultural diversity, eager to reach out in trade and in friendship to its nearest neighbours: the civilisations and the peoples of Asia, with whom it shares the greatest landmass on the world globe.
For this reason, together with his pioneering role in building a cultural bridge between the two worlds of East and West, EUROPA-YOUTH sees in the young Marco Polo a fitting role model for today’s young Asians as well as Europeans, epitomising as he does those qualities of daring, initiative, imagination and intellectual curiosity, coupled with a capacity for wonderment, that will be needed by today’s youth of all nationalities if they, like Marco Polo before them, are to have a hand in changing the history of, and the relationship between, our two Continents.
There is magic, there is power even, in a name, even in today’s technological society. The name of Marco Polo, a historical figure linking East with West seven centuries ago, possesses the power still, after 700 years, to "stir the blood and catch the breath" of Asians and Europeans alike. It is the power, and the magic, of his name that has drawn us here today to China, from all over Europe & Asia. That same name has the power and the magic, also, to draw other Europeans to the East and other Asians to the West, forging new links between our civilisations which can only make of us better people, and of our respective nations, better societies. All that is lacking is the key to unlock this power and this magic; and this, we believe, we have now created, in an idyllic island off the coast of Europe belonging to one of Europe’s newest and youngest nation states: Croatia -- the birthplace of Marco Polo.
It is surprising that no monument to this cultural and commercial innovator has ever existed anywhere within the Europe whose destiny he was among the first to fashion. We could find no location anywhere in which the life and achievements of Marco Polo are honoured. Were such a monument to be brought into existence today it ought to be, we felt, something more significant than a mere statue in his memory It should take the form of a living facility both honouring the life, the times, and the achievements of Marco Polo, and also encouraging and facilitating scholarly research into his contribution to European historical and cultural development. Above all, we felt, it should have as its goal the forging and strengthening of those personal ties between individual people in the East and the West first initiated by Marco Polo 700 years ago on that fateful day at Xanadu, when the First European pledged his services, and his heart, to the Foremost Lord of Asia, Kublai Khan.
Within the last two years just such a monument has finally been established.
Though a Venetian by citizenship Marco Polo was born in Croatia, on the island of Korcula -- then a part of the Venetian Empire -- off the Dalmatian coast. Here, the house in which, traditionally, he was born is still standing. Historical evidence of a Dalmatian and a Korculan origin for the Polo family is provided by a number of literary documents. A manuscript in the British Museum, on well-known families in the Europe of his day, testifies to the Dalmatian origins of the Polo family. An ancient chronicle published by Achivo Storico per la Dalmatia not only refers similarly to the family’s Dalmatian origin, but also states that before Marco Polo became an established Venetian citizen after writing his famous account of his travels, the Polo family had had no association with the City of Venice. Another document published around 1400 in Buletino di Archeologia e Storia Dalmatia refers to a certain Bogavaz Polo as being the owner of a dwelling-house in Korcula, whilst a record exists of a Mateo Polo applying to the Community of Korcula, in 1430, for the award of a plot of land on which to establish his shipbuilding workshop "as his forefathers had been making small ships there for centuries" (Archive Kapor, Korcula). Added to this documentary evidence is the hard fact that there are in Korcula today many families bearing the name ‘de Polo’.
In October 1995 an International Symposium on Marco Polo was held in Korcula under the aegis of the Croatian Academy of Arts & Sciences, at which EUROPA-YOUTH -- a Wales-based European Youth Initiative supported by The European Commission -- put forward a proposal to establish, in the city and country of his birth, an International Marco Polo Centre dedicated to the memory of that great European, and to the cause of furthering the expansion of cultural ties and links of friendship between Europe and Asia. Published in the Proceedings of this Conference (ISBN 953-154-085-3), this proposal was warmly welcomed and endorsed by Conference participants, as well as by the Croatian Academy and the Korcula City Council, and steps were taken to begin initiating such a project.
In December 1997 the Korcula City Council published an official decree establishing the Centre, utilising the traditional family home of Marco Polo in that city as the primary base for the Centre’s operations. On the 7th September 1998 -- being the 700th Anniversary of the major sea battle off the coast of Korcula in which Marco Polo, commanding a Venetian War Galley, was captured by the opposing forces of Genoa, to be subsequently imprisoned in that city (where he was to dictate his famous account of his travels in Cathay to a fellow-prisoner, the Italian writer, Rustichello) -- the International Marco Polo Centre was officially opened.
As envisaged in the original EUROPA-YOUTH proposal, the Centre was to incorporate two principal roles:
(1) That of a Visitor Centre catering for tourists, general visitors and school groups providing, in popular form, a comprehensive overview and assessment of Marco Polo’s life, times, journeys and contribution to European historical and cultural development. Such a display would include a survey of all the products, ideas and discoveries he brought back to Europe from Cathay, utilising ‘state of the art’ electronic displays together with virtual reality experiences -- not to mention computer games! -- as well as more traditional display methods, to provide an exciting, imaginative, informative and educational experience for tourists and visitors of all ages and nationalities. This part of the Centre might also incorporate an auditorium showing video and film programmes relating to the life and journeyings of Marco Polo, together with videos & films of the various areas of Europe and Asia through which he passed in his travels to, and through, Cathay. It might also incorporate displays featuring life-size models of Marco Polo in his family home as a child in Korcula; of Polo and his fellow-travellers to Cathay with their horse & camel transportation; of them at the Court of Kublai Khan in Xanadu; of the sea-battle off the coast of Korcula; of his writing his account in his Genoese prison; etc., all with accompanying soundtrack. Links would also be shown between Polo’s account of his travels and the influence of this upon subsequent explorers and navigators such as Columbus, whose personally-annotated copy of Polo’s book, with which he embarked upon his attempt to find a sea route to Cathay only to discover America instead, is preserved in a University Library in Spain.
(2) That of a Research Centre catering for scholars of all nationalities. The Centre would bring together in one place and make accessible copies of all known works relating to Marco Polo’s life and achievements, and would incorporate an exhaustive computerised database containing all known references to him and the full ramifications of all his discoveries. In so doing the Centre would, hopefully, provide a definitive record of Marco Polo’s place in, and his contribution to European and, indeed, World history and cultural development. It would bring together in one place all the necessary facilities for ongoing scholarly research into the Marco Polo era in European history -- an era occupying a seminal place in the establishment of links between East and West -- and would, of course, incorporate computerised links with Nankai University and other centres of research into Marco Polo and his era, in China and elsewhere. It would also encourage scholars of all nationalities and disciplines to visit Korcula and not only utilise the Centre’s facilities, but experience at first hand something of the cultural background which gave birth to Marco Polo and shaped his early, formative years. Korcula is also a lovely place for a family holiday, too!
Such a Centre would have the potential to become the principal focus in Europe of research into Marco Polo’s life and times, his travels and discoveries, his achievements and their contribution to European civilisation and cultural development. It would be the only place in Europe dedicated to interpreting the life, and evaluating the contribution to European development, of the First European. As such, it would be a proper and very fitting memorial to Marco Polo.
In addition to its twin role as both a tourist facility and a historical research centre, the International Marco Polo Centre will, it is hoped, also provide a focus for a programme of pan-Euro-Asian youth projects designed to bring together young people from both Continents in friendship and mutual cultural understanding.
The first such project being planned by EUROPA-YOUTH is a Euro-Asian Youth Expedition in the footsteps of Marco Polo, from Korcula via Venice to the site of Xanadu in Northern China: The Marco Polo -- Cathay Challenge. With the internationally-renowned explorer Colonel John Blashford-Snell acting as the Expedition’s Adviser, EUROPA-YOUTH envisages inviting every independent nation state in Europe and Asia to each provide two participants aged under 25 (one male, one female, and including those with physical or mental disabilities) to take part in this unique event, which will offer these young adventurers an exciting challenge to expand the horizons of their individual personalities, and discover the limits of their own physical and psychological endurance and resilience, through confronting and overcoming the various natural hazards thrust upon them in the course of their arduous trek.
The Marco Polo -- Cathay Challenge is a bold, exciting concept -- the last great caravan trek in history. Its goal is to follow Marco Polo to Xanadu and, by so doing, to commemorate the initiative of all those explorers who, by expanding the horizons of our two Continents and our world, made the Second Millennium just ended an Age of Discovery. Additionally, it will celebrate the initiative of our young adventurers themselves, in overcoming many obstacles and hazards to reach their destination. That is our goal. Our purpose in mounting such an Expedition is much more than this, however. It is to change these young people as a result of their shared experiences, the better to equip them to start changing the world of the Third Millennium which they -- not ourselves, their elders -- will be responsible for shaping For Xanadu is more than just a dot on a map, marking the site of an ancient settlement that was once the Court of Kublai Khan. Names have their own magic, as we have already seen; and names like Camelot, Shangri-la, and Xanadu mark out the frontiers of the territory of man’s imagination. They are landmarks on the road from the harsh landscapes of our everyday reality to that destination we are all seeking, somewhere beyond the horizon, where life is brighter, braver, and more fulfilling than in the here and now of this industrialised, polluted, vandalised and troubled society of ours, at the tail-end of the Twentieth Century.
Psychologically, such an Expedition as the Marco Polo -- Cathay Challenge has the potential to fire the imaginations of young people everywhere, lifting their eyes up from the dull realities of everyday life to follow a glittering star of adventure across the horizons of the everyday world. But these young explorers following in the footsteps of Marco Polo will be seeking not just the ruins of an Emperor’s stately pleasure-dome guarded by the ghosts of Mongol warriors. They will also be seeking a solution to the equation of their own hopes and fears for the future as they stand, with us, on the threshold of a new Millennium; an answer that will hopefully be revealed through their shared experience of the hazards of their journey of discovery across the Roof of the World, and be underlined by the new friendships made between those from the East and those of the West.
By the time these young men & women have endured the rigours of nature, and the pressures of exposure to the elements and to their own inner selves -- by the time they have survived the Taklamakan Desert, whose very name means "you go in, but you never come out", have experienced the daily life of nomads forever on the move, have maintained the punishing 21st Century schedules of daily observations, experiments and communication transmissions, have survived sandstorms, hunger and thirst to wearily mount, at their journey’s end, the surviving mound that marks the site of Kublai Khan’s pleasure-dome in modern-day Xanadu -- by the time they have done all these things, they will no longer be the same young men & women who enjoyed the pageantry of their ceremonial departures from Korcula and Venice.
They will no longer be young Chinese, young Russians, young British, young Germans, and young Danes. They will have become friends whose comradeship, forged in the furnace of adversity shared and dangers faced in common and overcome, will make them ready to confront the prejudices and ignorance that presently divides our societies, speaking out with a clear voice of our common humanity, our shared interests, and our joint future as citizens of the world and as friends of mankind.
This is the purpose of the Marco Polo -- Cathay Challenge. This, indeed, is the whole purpose of EUROPA-YOUTH. And this will, we hope, be one of the main purposes of the International Marco Polo Centre in Korcula.
Practically, this Expedition will provide both a show-case and a proving-ground for European & Asian industry and co-operation, bringing the two Continents’ hi-tech resources and products (such as telecommunications) to bear upon the age-old problems of surviving a hazardous journey across inhospitable terrain using minimal natural facilities. There are plans to link the Expedition directly with schools all over Europe & Asia via the well-established ‘QUESTLINK’ programme, so that it may be utilised as a mobile educational laboratory, trawling for original data and conducting experiments on behalf of its young student associates as it winds its way across the face of two Continents.
The Marco Polo -- Cathay Challenge has the support of the Mayors of both Korcula and Venice, together with that of the Chinese authorities, who have allocated EUROPA-YOUTH an official partner in this venture: the China International Sports Travel Company, of Beijing. It also has the support of the All China Youth Federation.
The development and funding of the International Marco Polo Centre in Korcula, and of such projects as the Marco Polo -- Cathay Challenge, is far beyond the ability of the City of Korcula to undertake alone. Indeed, we have no wish to see an international initiative of this degree restricted by the narrow confines of the resources of one small city. EUROPA-YOUTH has proposed the involvement of major European and international bodies such as The European Commission, The Council of Europe, and UNESCO in developing the Centre as a European Cultural Heritage Foundation, funded as a co-operative venture by contributions made in the name of every nation state in Greater Europe, as a public expression of the new spirit of European unity and symbolising, under the name and achievements of one of the earliest and greatest of Europeans, the reality of Europe today: that we are the largest grouping of independent nations with a common cultural heritage in the history and geography of the world.
To oversee, direct and monitor such international involvement in the Marco Polo Centre and its programme, EUROPA-YOUTH further proposes the establishment of an International Marco Polo Committee, based in Zagreb with official Croatian Government support, with an international membership of distinguished historians and other academics together with representatives of cultural, artistic, scientific, technological, and other specialities, bound by a common interest in Marco Polo, his era, and his potential for promoting cultural, commercial, and educational links between Europe and Asia. Dedicated to working towards this end, the Committee -- to which we propose giving the ‘working title’ of ‘THE XANADU GROUP’ -- would be committed to developing the International Marco Polo Centre in Korcula as a European focus for such work. We should like to see, as Founding Members of this Committee, distinguished colleagues from Nankai and other Universities in China, who have for many years been in the forefront of the battle for recognition of the existence of Marco Polo, of his seminal role in the cultural history of our two Continents, and of the potential of his name to kindle new flames of comradeship, co-operation and kinship between the peoples of Asia and of Europe.
We hereby cordially extend an invitation to our Chinese colleagues to join us in establishing such a Committee. Indeed, we would like each nation represented at this Conference here today to be represented, also, on ‘THE XANADU GROUP’.
* * * * *
In Xanadu today, nothing is left of Kublai Khan’s ‘stately pleasure-dome’ The great buildings have crumbled to dust. The green meadowlands have returned to the desert. Nature has wiped her fingers over the face of the capital of one of the greatest civilisations in the history of mankind, reducing it to a few splintered stones extruding through a skin of muddy soil.
But the memory of Xanadu remains as a vision of a society where culture means something more than competition, and whose men and women gather together to create a brighter future for their children, not to make war against their neighbours.
At the Inaugural Conference of EUROPA-YOUTH in Wales in November 1993, among the more than 50 delegates assembled from 26 nations were two especially important people. One was a young man from Korcula, a descendant of Marco Polo’s family. The other was a young lady from Mongolia, a descendant of the family of Kublai Khan. Together they jointly opened our Conference with the following words:
"In the same spirit of friendship which brought our ancestors, Marco Polo of Europe and Kublai Khan of Cathay, together 700 years ago at Xanadu, we two young people from opposite ends of the earth -- Mate de Polo of Korcula and Dashzeveg Delegsuren of Mongolia -- join hands today in peace and friendship to welcome delegates to this Inaugural Conference of the EUROPA-YOUTH Initiative, established to bring young people together from East and West in friendship and understanding, to help create a better world for everyone, everywhere, and to put something of the spirit of Xanadu into the lives of all who take part in this great adventure."
I have the honour, as well as the very great pleasure, to invite all of you assembled here today to join us in this great adventure.
EUROPA-YOUTH proposes the establishment of an International Committee, based in Zagreb, to develop & progress the work of The International Marco Polo Centre in Korcula and to seek major funding for this work from the International Community (eg The European Commission, The Council of Europe, UNESCO, etc.)
We suggest that such a Committee might have the title ‘The Croatian Cultural Heritage Committee’ with the ‘working title’ ‘THE XANADU GROUP’
We further suggest that His Excellency President Stjepan Mesic be invited to become Patron of this Committee, as a public reflection of its international standing and importance; that Dr. Antun Vujic, Minister for Culture, be invited to become its President; that Prof.Dr.Ivo Padovan be invited to become its Chairman; and that Prof.Li Zhi-An of Nankai University, Tianjin, China, be invited to become its Vice President
Such a Committee with such leadership and based in Zagreb might assume the following structure:
‘THE XANADU GROUP’
The Croatian Cultural Heritage Committee Zagreb
promoting Tourism, Academic Research, Youth
Patron: H.E.The President of the Republic of
President: The Croatian Minister for Culture, Dr. Antun Vujic
Vice President: Professor Li Zhi-An, Nankai University, Tianjin, China
Chairman: Professor Dr. Ivo Padovan, The Croatian Academy