Marko Polo and Korcula by dr. Zivan Filippi
Million - a Long Voyage


It was in Venice in 1269 that the Polos settled after Marko's birth. When Nikola and Mate Polo returned after fifteen years of trading in Asia back to Europe, Marko was fifteen years old and his mother had died a long time previously. Marko listened with enthusiasm to their stories about the wonders and riches of China. His joy knew no bounds when he learned that he was going with them on the next journey. In the summer of 1271, Marko, at the age of seventeen years, embarked with his father and uncle on the galley and gazed with melancholy at the contours of Venice which he was not see for twenty four years, but he would be seeing more of the world than any man of his time. Navigating along the eastern side of the Adriatic Sea - the usual route of Venetian galleys in the Adriatic - Marko passed near his native Korcula, where he probably stopped to greet numerous relatives, and near which he was to pass again in 26 years time. No sea monsters, in which medieval travellers believed, appeared on their journey across the Adriatic Sea and the Mediterranean, neither did the pirates who usually threatened Venetian boats. After a fey days voyage, the Polos espied the fortified walls of Acra, a Palestinian stronghold, which was fortified by the crusaders and where pilgrims stopped on their visit to the Holy Tomb in Jerusalem. Walking inside the walls of Acra Marko gazed in wonder at the spires and palaces, as well as at the richly clothed noblemen.

His dreams about the heroes of the knightly romances became a reality. Then the Polos went to Jerusalem to satisfy a request of Kublai Khan to bring him holy oil from Jesus's tomb. The Polos were just preparing to continue the journey, when a messenger caught up with them and brought them good news. Their longtime friend, the pope's legate Theobald was proclaimed Pope Gregorius X and was waiting for them in Acra. Despite his great authority he could not satisfy the request of Kublai Khan to send him a hundred friars to help him in the education of his people. He gave them only two Dominicans, but they escaped and asked for the protection of the templars when they heard that Mamelucs, previously slaves and now the masters of Egypt, were ravaging their way towards them.

The Polos had already loaded their ships with their main equipment, particularly with big quantities of quartz, when they heard about the serious wars in the region of Iraq. So then the trading group continued their voyage by land towards Asia Minor, and then to Turkmania (present-day Anatolia), which was famous for its beautiful carpets. Marko, until then, had only heard about flying carpets in the romantic stories told him at bedtime, and now he had the opportunity to see them in their fascinating colours and touch them by hand.

The Turkomans were citizens of the Great Khan, and Marko was especially impressed by their tolerance. Everybody could worship any god or religion, as long as obeyed the laws. That was great news for Marko and a pleasant surprise, as there was a great religious intolerance in Europe in his time.

The Polos small caravan would sometimes join a bigger caravan, and so they proceeded towards Armenia. Marko was enthusiastic about Mount Ararat, at the foot of which they slept, as it was the resting place of Noah and his ark.

They then went towards the southwest and entered Zorzania (today's Georgia). Marko saw there a geyser which jetted out a big quantity of oil, which he said was used for firing candles and for curing rash. Marko, as a typical European of his age, did not know that the Egyptians, Romans and Persians had used oil for lighting, heating and even for impermeables. Also that the Chinese had learned to drill oil wells 200 years B.C.. With their bronze drills and bamboo panellings they penetrated more than one thousand metres deep. However, Marko was among the first in the western world to report that these were deposits of oil in the region of the Caspian Sea.

Marko mentions the Nestorian Christians who were scattered all over Asia and were spreading the Christian doctrine which averred that Christ has two natures: divine and human. This was unacceptable to the European Catholics of that time, who considered that Christ had only a divine nature. However, the Nestorians had founded their Church in China A.D. 638, almost a thousand years before the first Jesuit missionaries started to come there. Marko was to mention them later many times. They got their name from the bishop of Constantinople, Nestorius, who was deposed as a heretic in A.D. 431.

Next, Marko describes Baghdad, the most romantic and mysterious town of the East, although it is not quite sure if he visited it himself. He told the story of how the Khan of Levant occupied Baghdad in 1258 and how he captured the khalif of Baghdad and asked him to eat gold, which he had amassed in enormous quantities on account of his soldiers' wages.

Travelling at the average speed of ten miles a day, the Polos reached the Persian town of Saba (southwest of present-day Tehran). Marko was sightseeing and showed great interest in the magnificent holding the bodies of the three kings who had gone to Bethlehem to bow in front of the new born Christ. Their beards and their hair were still intact.. While in Saba, Marko also visited the sect of the admirers of fire, who were followers of the ancient Persian religion founded by the teacher Zoroaster. Marko explains the origins of that religion by expounding the allegorical story about the box which new the born Christ gave to the three kings. There was a stone in the box, but as they did not know its significance they threw it away. The stone transformed itself immediately into fire and flames. The kings took some fire to their homes, worshiped it as God and offered sacrifices to it. Fire as the symbol of new birth and purification is used in many ancient religions and pagan rituals. In the Catholic liturgy, new fire is connected with the rebirth of Jesus Christ. It has become the anthropological archetype which connects many races and cultures, and it is used often in literature as the structural principle of narration which opens up new visions and adventures to the literary hero. Marko Polo realized the importance of fire for ancient religions, and he uses its description in his story own as well.

Nikola and Mate Polo, together with Nikola's son Marko, came to Kerman, the town known for its spears, swords and other tempered arms made from fine steel, and also for its fine laces depicting various birds and animals, which was woven by women. Climbing cold mountain peaks over three thousand metres high and descending into warm valleys, Marko had the opportunity to see animals in the form of oxen with a hump and a kind of sheep which had a tail of more then fifteen kilos. After they had joined a bigger caravan, they experienced an attack by the wild tribe of Karauns amidst the dusty mist. Marko heard stories of how the Karauns conjured up dust on purpose by means of their diabolical chants. The Polos managed to escape from these wild tribes, but they decided to make the rest of the journey by sea. For that purpose they went to the port of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf. Unlike the poor Iranian plateau, they found themselves in a land full of dates and parrots. They met tradesmen who were offering spices, pearls, linen embroidered with gold, ivory tusks and other goods brought from India. There was such unbearable heat in Hormuz that people spent their whole morning in the nearby river, protecting themselves from the sand which was brought by the wind. Marko heard how that wind, the "simun", has such a tremendous force that it once ssuffocated the entire army of an enemy which was marching towards Hormuz. The bodies of the soldiers became so fragile that they crumbled into dust. Although Marko's story is incredible, the travellers after him confirmed it. However, when some of the passengers saw the ships in which they had to sail further on towards the Indian ocean and heard about the storms which raged there, they lost any wish to proceed by sea.

They returned to Kerman and from there they went by the famous Silk Road, along which all trade with China was travelling. That was also the way by which Buddhism and Nestorian Christianity were spreading. On their way they faced immediately a great desert full of poisonous green water. After a few weeks spent in the desert they reached Tunocain in which the "most beautiful women in the world" lived. Or perhaps it only seemed so to Marko after such difficult days in the desert!

Marko was even more impressed by the story about the sect of Assassins who spread horror over a large part of Asia for more than one century. Their ruler was the "Old man from the mountain", who build a fortified castle in the mountains of Persia, south of the Caspian Sea. He arranged gardens of exuberant vegetation, fruit trees, flowers and fragrant bushes and murmuring streams. Luxurious pavilions were built around the gardens equipped with attractive paintings and rich carpets. Streams of wine, honey and pure water flowed there, and each of the magnificent houses was the residence of the most beautiful girls, skilful in dancing, singing, making love and playing on various instruments. The great master gathered there strong and bold young men, whom he drugged by drinks of hashish. When they woke up from their paradisiac dreams they believed that they were in paradise itself. Then the Old man from the mountain would ask them to kill his political opponents and promised to return them again into the paradisiac valley if they executed his cruel ideas. As they fulfilled all his tasks without objection, the word started to spread that the Old man had a divine power. Among other great personalities they killed the Persian shah, Grand Vizier of Egypt, two caliphs of Baghdad, several leading crusaders and many outstanding rulers. Only the Mongols, after three years of laying siege to the castle and after killing their ruler, managed to annihilate that dangerous sect of killers, who, like the heros from medieval romances went in quest of the Grail, that luxurious paradisiac garden of pleasures and delights. Marko told in detail that wondrous story which so excited his romantic and narrative imagination.

From Tunocain the Polos went towards Balkh, in northern Afghanistan, where the trade routes between West and East cross. Balkh was still lying in ruins after Genghis Khan had destroyed it completely in 1222. Then, after twelve days journeying they came in front of the mountain chain where the precious white salt was extracted. Behind the mountains lay the province of Badakhstan, famous for its mines of rubies and sapphires. The clever king of that province restricted the digging of rubies in order to keep up their value. Marko describes shortly his year-long fever which he cured by changing the air and by staying in the mountains.

After Marko's recovery, the small caravan of Europeans entered the valley of Kashmir, of which Marko says that it is full of shamans who practised black magic. Marko met these shamans later at the court of Kublai Khan.

Continuing their way towards the southeast, our travellers climbed the lofty Pamirs, where three big mountain chains meet, which the local people call the Top of the World. Among the wild animals that Marko noticed there, were huge sheep with curled horns more than one metre long. That 'king' of sheep later got a Latin name in Marko's honour, Ovis poli. The mountains were more than 5,000 metres high so there were no birds at their peaks. Marko noticed that the air was so diluted that fire gave less heat and they could not cook their food properly.

The caravan reached the ancient town of Khotan, well-known for its deposits of semi-precious stone nephrite of various colours, from which many decorative objects were made. The travellers were following the southern arm of the Silk Road and thus came to one of the biggest deserts in the world, Takla Makan (in present-day Sinkiang province ). There were twenty resting places across the desert, but water was rare and not always drinkable. Our travellers were finding human and animal bones, which laid the foundation for many fearful stories about that big desert. Marko used to listen with great interest how some passengers would sometimes lag behind their caravan and then start to hear voices and see the false figures of their fellow-travellers. Sometimes they would hear music, singing or the clasking of arms. That would lead them in a completely different direction from the caravan, and often to death. Although at the time many people did not believe in Marko's stories, they proved later to be true. The sounds heard by straying travellers came from the falling of sand heaps among the dunes, so that these regions are called "sand which sings". The visions are created by waves of heat and because of the parched thirst of the travellers. Later they were called mirages.

Marko's prose is given poetic beauty by the mixture of dream and waking, reality and imagination, probable and improbable, explicable and inexplicable. Marko's narrative technique became a model for many writers who did not have the opportunity to experience such interesting adventures as Marko Polo did.

After thirty days of travelling through the desert, the caravan of the Polos arrived in the town of Shachau, which means in Chinese "sandy region", situated in the province of Tangut and belonging to the Great Khan. This fortified city was founded in the seventh century by the first emperor of the T'ang dynasty. Although the Nestorian Christians and Saracens lived there, the majority were "idolaters", as Marko called them. They spoke "unusual" language, made a livelihood from agriculture, and they are bad tradesmen. They built a great number of monasteries and churches full of idols, to whom they worshiped and offered the sacrifices. As a way of baptizing their children, the idolaters killed a large ram offering it to the idol with great ceremony and praying for the well-being of their children. "If you will believe them" - as Marko says - the idol will feed on that meat, while a part of that meat the idolaters took home. The idolaters also offered similar sacrifices in food to their dead before cremating them. The family of the dead would build a small wooden hut, swathed in silk and gold, on the path leading to the place of burning. When the funeral procession passed by that hut it would stop there, and wine, meat and other food would be brought out, "all that in the conviction that the dead person would be paid the same attention in the other world". The relatives would wait for the procession to arrive at the place of burning with prepared figures of people, horses, camels, and with small round pieces cut out from parchment in the form of golden coins, putting them on the fire together with the body. Because they believed that the deceased would, in the other world, receive as many servants, cattle and "soldi", an equal number of parchment substitutes were burned together with them. Before the burning, the astrologers were invited and informed of the year, day and hour of the birth of the deceased. After the astrologers had determined under which constellation planet and sign the deceased was born, they proclaimed the day on which he should be burned. The body was kept, until that day, in the house and in a coffin of thick and nicely coloured plates. To prevent decay they put camphor and spices in the coffin, and filled the fissures with tar and lime. They laid a table with food in front of the deceased because they believed that his soul came every day to eat and drink. When the day determined by the astrologers arrived, the deceased was ritually burnt with the greatest honours.

Marko Polo depicts faithfully the ceremonies of burning the dead, although he does not believe very much in their utility. Later anthropological investigation found that the ceremonies of burning the dead have been known in many civilizations without regard to the level of their development. Fire destroys the material part of the victim, purifies it and liberates it from its material chains in order that its soul comes in contact with the gods. It transforms the material properties of man into immaterial essence, making him closer to the divinity and opening the door of heaven for him. The Sicilian philosopher Empedoclo, who proclaimed himself god while alive, is said to have jumped into the fiery crater of Etna in order to confirm his divine mission. Although Marko Polo, as an educated Christian, speaks with an ironic smile about the idolaters who believe in more gods, he notices exactly the role of fire in the rituals of the so called primitive peoples. By means of the phenomenism of fire and the ritual ceremony of eating they incorporated themselves into the eternal circle of birth, dying and rebirth and thus gave sense to life on earth.

Marko's travels continued along the mountains of Karakorum and diverged a little towards the south, where Marko admired the unusual ox yak and musk bull. When the Polos were at a distance of forty days from their goal - court of Kublai Khan - his escort waited for them and lead them to his magnificent summer residence in the town of Shangtu (in Chinese a "higher court"). Thus they made the last stretch of their great journey into the unknown in royal style. Marko was excited by the splendour and magnificence of the royal palace with its marble walls with gilded rooms and the exceptional paintings of people, horses, wild animals, birds, and trees. The palace was situated in a park enclosed by a twenty kilometre long wall. The Khan kept their a stud of 10,000 white horses and mares. The milk from the mares served the Khan and his family for drinking. A special tribe kept the horses, but nobody else was to drink the milk when the Khan was in his summer palace. The Khan stayed there during the summer heat only, and then he toured other big towns in China. While looking at the beautiful palace in Shangtu, Marko was convinced that he had come to an exotic and rich land, where he would be able to devote himself, as would do his father and his uncle, successfully to trade.

The beauty of the Khan's summer residence can best be illustrated by the verses of the English romantic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He fell asleep one day in 1816, after he had read about the travels of Marko Polo, and dreamed a dream which he transposed into a poem the following morning. He called the park in Shangtu Xanadu. Kubla Khan

In Xanadu did KUBLA KHAN
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where ALPH, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice six miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

As Marko's journey proceeded, there appeared more and more signs of prosperity. The land was cultivated. The Chinese population was on a high level of civilization and, although submitting to the Mongol military leaders, they kept their own customs. Although they lost many citizens, the Chinese remained different from their invaders. At that time China was struggling in a sea of troubles and disturbances. The Sung dynasty was peaceful and paid ransoms to various conquerors. When the eastern half of China fell under the Mongol reign, the emperor's court moved to Nanking and then to Hangchou. That ruling dynasty raised Chinese culture and civilization to a high level but was unable to resist the strong attacks of Genghis Khan and his very bellicose successor, Ogodai. The southern dynasty of Sung fell just before Marko's arrival in China. The Kubla Khan was preoccupied with strengthening his rule and he looked favourably at Chinese culture. Marko took note of the very efficient Chinese organization of society and heard about the many good deeds of previous Chinese emperors. The Chinese had an advanced feeling for belonging to the community and for the care of all members of society, distinguishing them from the simpler and tougher Mongols.

Marko Polo, although under the influence of his medieval western education which supported a social organization based on the mutually opposed poles: nobleman/plebeian, man/woman, native/foreigner, priest/faithful, physician/patient, landlord/shephard, divinity/mortal ..., realized more and more the value of the Chinese idea of social and economic stability and common harmony. Marko was very much interested in religion and its customs. After meeting, on his journey, several groups of Nestorians, various tribes of idolaters, Muslims, he was enchanted in China by a variant of Buddhism, mahajana-budhism. He was impressed especially by their rituals with the multitude of priests or lamas. They used, while preaching, wooden or metal rollers with an axis, with prayers written on them. You could say that these were the forerunners of present-day TV invisible screens from which broadcasters read their text.

Marko's caravan came to the very door of the Chinese capital, which was then called Khanabalik; this was the time of the Yuan dynasty.


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