Marko Polo and Korcula by dr. Zivan Filippi
Million - Return to Europe - Travelling by Sea


Marko Polo spent seventeen years in the service of Kublai Khan. Those were the best years of his life, filled with exciting happenings, merchant business, diplomatic missions, love affairs. His father and his uncle also experienced the greatest honours and received prizes for their cleverness in trading and for their fidelity to the greatest ruler of the then world, the powerful Mongol political magician, Emperor Kublai Khan. But their lyfe-cycle and the adult years of Marko Polo had to end in their native soil of Europe and in their homeland Venice, the powerful trading republic to which they had come from the ancient region of Dalmatia and the small Mediterranean town of Korcula.

They communicate their decision to Kublai Khan with a heavy heart. The Khan at that time was laready seventy five years old. There was a great risk that the Great Khan would not release them from his service, because the Polos, and especially the young Marko, were dear to his heart. He had got used to them as extremely capable and not just ordinary persons coming from another civilization that, though it had not achieved the level of civilization of the greatest Asian country, China, from whom just the same he learned a lot. However, as always on their Odyssey through Asia, fortune smiled at them at the right moment. Bolgana, the first wife of the Persian khan Arghun wanted, before her death, a woman from her tribe in Mongolia to succeed her. Therefore, Arghun sent, in 1286, three messengers to Khanabalik asking the kindly Kublai Khan to choose a new wife for him among the beautiful Mongol girls. Kublai chose the princess Cocachin, a seventeen year old beauty. But the messengers, together with Cocachin, had to return to Khanabalik, because war broke out between the Mongol tribes en route. Marko Polo had then just returned from his successful mission in India. The Persian messengers suggested that he might help them to return to Persia by sea. Kublai Khan, although reluctantly, agreed to part company with his faithful dignitaries. He proclaimed the Polos his envoys to the Pope and the European kings and he gave them the small imperial plaque as a permit to secure them safe passage across his big empire. He ordered thirteen ships and enough food and equipment for two years of travel to be put at their disposal. Marko was amazed when he saw these big and powerful ships which were to carry them on their long journey. These were ships built with a double layer of planking, fastened with iron nails, and caulked with oakum. And since the Chinese had no pitch, the boats were coated on the bottom with a paste of quicklime and tung oil. There were sixty cabins in the interior of the boats, and the hold of the ship was divided by bulkheads into small, watertight compartments. In case whales rammed the vessel, the crew could confine the water to one compartment only, remove the cargo from it and repair the damage. This safety measure was not introduced into European vessels until the nineteenth century. As well as the big ships there sailed tug-boats with them in case of need. There were also, on each of the big boats, several smaller ones for fishing, anchoring and other work. The captain, with a crew of three hundred people, enjoyed really royal benefits and was regarded as a divinity.

So the convoy of the Polos, with the princess Cocachin, and with at least two thousand people, left the port of Zayton in spring 1292.

Polo interrupts his story at this point to disclose to us what he had heard about the mysterious island 1,500 miles away from the Asian continent. He calls it Chipangu (modern Japan) and speaks with admiration about its great richness. He mentions the imperial palace with the golden roof, and with floors and windows of golden plaques, and about the abundance of pink pearls which are put in the mouth of the dead before a funeral. Marko's description of the richness of Japan excited the imagination of the European discoverers of the new world - among others of Christopher Columbus, and the cartographer Toscanelli, whose map was used by Columbus, and which put Japan seven thousand miles west of Portugal. At that time, the famous European discoverers did not have the slightest idea that Japan is double that distance away from Europe, and that, between it and Europe there is a whole continent, North America. The famous Kublai Khan heard also about the richness of Japan and sent there two armies of 150,000 Mongol and Korean soldiers combined. They managed to establish a bridgehead on the island of Kyushu, but the Japanese held them there. Then a storm smashed almost the whole of Kublai's armada. From 4,000 ships only 200 of them managed to escape a terrible destiny. Marko Polo, as Kublai's loyal diplomat explains this rare defeat of his master as due to a dispute between two generals ("barons") who commanded the united forces of the Mongols and the Koreans. However, Kublai's great strength lay in horses, not in boats. Marko speaks also about a curious event which happened to the Khan's soldiers when they managed to disembark on Japanese soil and continued to make war there. When they attacked one of the towers of the defenders they killed all the warriors except eight of them whom they were unable to hurt. They had embedded under their skin gold and precious stones so that no steel could pierce them. European explorers in the nineteenth century confirmed these curious stories of Marko's. That was usual way in which Japanese soldiers tried to be invulnerable.

For two months the Polo's convoy was sailing from the port of Zayton to Indo-china (which Marko calls Champa). The king of Indo-china was paying annual tribute to the Great Khan of twenty elephants and much of the scented aloe wood.

Marko Polo and his escort were forced to stop in Sumatra for five months because of the southwest monsoons. As the natives were cannibals, Marko arranged a ditch filled with water round the camp on the coast and a strong guard. But, due to Marko's diplomatic skill, these cannibals became very friendly and supplied our travellers with food. Then Marko saw, for the first time in his life, "nuts as big as human head" (coconuts), and the tree which gave flour for bread and cakes (sago). Marko says that fish in Sumatra is the best in the world. Marko's escort drank palm wine after fish. They would put a cup under a cut in the palm tree and the vessel would be filled with white or red wine in a day and a half. Marko wrote that this wine is a cure for the sick spleen. When the cut branch does not give any more wine, the natives water the roots of the tree and wine starts to flow again very soon. The Malayans call this tree "gomuti" and they can also get sugar from it. Marko says that the liquid in the coconut "has a better taste than wine and than any drink that has ever existed". Marko "saw" in Sumatra the mountain tribe whose members had tails like a dog.

Marko discovered divers searching for pearls in the shallow waters near Ceylon. As there were a lot of sharks in these waters, the tradesmen of the pearl shells would protect the divers by hiring a special caste of Brahmin sorcerers who would cast a spell on the sharks while the divers were picking up the shells. However, the sorcerers would remove their spell during the night lest rival divers should appear. It seems that the sorcerers did find some means of deterrence of sharks, as this practice was exercised for centuries.

Sailing towards the coasts of India, Marko Polo's convoy reached the large nearby island of Ceylon. Marko sets here the story about the life of the Indian prince Sakyamuni, who became Buddha and founded the Buddhist religion. He was the son of the king of that big and rich island, who had an inclination towards the life of the saints from his early childhood. The king tried to persuade him to take over his throne. He built for him a big palace and ordered beautiful girls to entertain him with song, dance and other worldly pleasures. However, no girl managed to lure him into the world of pleasure, so that he remained alone, shut in the palace. His father did not allow any old or sick man to approach him, so that the young man was not aware about the inevitable end of every living being. But one day, the ill-fated prince rode to the nearby wood and saw a dead man on the road. When he asked what that thing which lay on the earth was, they told him it was a dead body. "Must all men die?" asked the prince with sorrow. He saw on the same road a toothless old man who could not walk. When he received, in this way, his first experience of the old age and death, the young prince returned to the palace and took a vow that he was going to look after That one who does not die and Who created him. Thus he reached the high mountains where he decided to live an ascetic life. If he were a Christian, Marko says, he would have become "the great saint of our Lord Jesus Christ" due to his good and pure life. When he untimely died, his body was brought in front of his father who loved him very much. The father ordered his servants to make a figure of gold and precious stones in his likeness and decreed that all had to worship it. The inhabitants of Ceylon proclaimed him the greatest of all their gods and they idolised him. Marko adds that the young prince died four times and each time he was reborn as another animal: ox, horse etc. But he was reborn as a god only after he had died eighty four times. Thus the Europeans learned from Marko' story about the noble founder of the Buddhist religion. Although a member of another Church, Marko speaks with sympathy about the young Buddha. He confirms this affection for him by emphasizing that the Great Khan sent for Buddha's relics from his tomb on the top of the mountain.

Marko shows similar benevolence towards the Indian Brahmins and yogis. He says that the Brahmins are the most honest tradesmen in the world, that they never lie and that they help foreigners to sell their goods without profit to themselves. They hate all killing and even the killing of animals. They believe very much in various signs and omens, as shades, and especially the movements of the tarantula spider. He says that yogis believe that all things have souls, and that they do not wish to kill either worm or lice. They do not use plates but they eat from dry leaves and they drink only water. They never mix with women. They sleep naked in nature without any covering and they reach a very old age.

However, Marko liked more the luxurious royal courts than the shacks of the poor. He was especially impressed by the Indian king from the Coromandel coast. The king did not wear any clothes because of the warm climate and he was always adorned with precious decorations; among other things, with a medalion of diamonds, a necklace of 104 pearls and rubies, gold bracelets on hands and legs and with rings on the fingers of both hands and legs. Five hundred women, together with many noblemen, accompanied the king wherever he went. When he died and was cremated, his subjects were throwing themselves in the fire in order to follow him. Marko mentions also the custom of suttee when wives throw themselves on the funeral pyre after their husband.

Marko's frequent observation of the ritual of fire, as the way to achieve the divine life in heaven, speaks also about his restless, fiery temperament which incited him always to thirst after new knowledge and new adventures of both spirit and body.

Although Marko introduced India to Europe, with his accurate observations of the customs and the way of life of Indian inhabitants two centuries before Vasco de Gama - who was later celebrated as the discoverer of that "unknown" subcontinent - he could not ignore the fantastic legends extant before the time of his travels. One such story is about "the island of women" which was visited by men from their own island only in spring time. Another fable is that about the "roc" bird from Madagascar, which was so strong that it could carry three elephants. Even this fantastic story might prove to be true as was the case with other descriptions Marko's. This bird is mentioned in the "Arabian Nights" from the seventh century in the story about the sailor Sinbad.

Finally, after more than two years of toilsome but exciting travelling across the south seas, the convoy arrived in Persia. Marko does not mention at all Scylla and Charybdis through which his expedition passed, all possible storms and distresses, the attacks of various native tribes and diseases, unbearable heat, rotten food and water. He summarizes all this in one single sentence when he says that from six hundred travellers, not counting the crew, only eighteen survived the journey.

After arrving at their destination, the court of the Persian shah Arghun, the Polos learned that he had died, but his son Ghazan resolved the awkward situation and decided to marry the princess Cocachin, who had been intended for his father. The Polos rested in Persia for eight months from their tiresome travelling and there they received the news that their friend and protector, the Great Khan, had died. The man they must thank, to a great extent, for their riches and their rich life filled with exciting events. The princess Cocachin was cried while she was bidding farewell to Marko Polo, and our convoy converted itself into a caravan. The Polos arrived over land to Trebizond on the Black Sea, where they were happy to meet the familiar faces of Venetian and Korculan tradesmen. But they experienced their first setback in that first port in touch with the Christian world. Thieves stole from them a big quantity of golden coins.

From Trebizond, via Constantinople and the Aegean Sea, they finally entered their Adriatic Sea and, by that well-known trade route passed by Marko's native Korcula. That was in 1295, exactly 701 years ago.

When he returned to Venice Marko was forty one years old and he had seen and experienced more than any of other citizen in the medieval Europe. Nobody among their friends (who did not even recognize them) believed in their stories. But Marko conceived a cunning plan. He organized a banquet at which he invited all his friends and distant relatives. Our three travellers put on the most expensive robes of satin, silk and damask. To their visitors' amazement, the Polos took off their sumptuous clothes, left the banqueting hall and returned in the rags in which they had entered Venice, fearing that they would experience the same ill-luck as in Trebizond. Then, like the wizards from Thousand and One Night, they took off the poor rags and cut the seams with a knife. To the amazement of the incredulous Venetians, rubies, sapphires and emeralds started to fall. After that they were treated by their co-citizens with the greatest respect.

That was one more moral from Marko's entire quest for the Grail. The human desire for the unattainable breaks all obstacles. But the real pleasure is in the journey towards the shining Grail, and not in the treasure itself, which Marko attained.


BACK (Million - At the Court of Kublai-Khan) ---- NEXT (The Battle Before Korcula)
MARCO POLO Homepage ---- Korcula.NET