THE TRAVELS OF MARCO POLO
Doubleday & Company, 1948, 343 pp.
Translated and Edited by William Marsden
Re-edited by Thomas Wright
The Book League of America, New York
The first chapter gives an overview of the travels, beginning with Marco Polo’s father and uncle from Venice and proceeding to extensive travels including Marco.
Travel is so burdensome, difficult and lengthy that transversing continents takes years. When Nicolo and Marco (Marco’s father and uncle) return from the first trip, they discover that Nicolo’s wife, whom he left pregnant, has died, and his son Marco is 19 years old.
The time period covers the last half of the 13th century, about 1250 to 1290. The Kublai Khan, descendent of the great Genghis Khan, rules nearly all of Asia.
The descriptions cover virtually all of Asia, including central Asia, Russia, Tibet, China, Japan, Indonesia, India, and islands off the coast of Africa, Madagascar and Zanzibar. Country and place names are different so that often you don’t know, what countries and cities are being described, unless you can translate the names (Cathay = China, for example) or by general distances and directions described.
People are described as Christians, Mohametans, or idolaters. The practices of the peoples, the government, leaders, and warfare, the produce of the places, the animals and notable plants are described. We think of these places as primitive in that time, and some were, but some were very civilized, for example in having strict morals and using paper money.
A few things are undoubtedly specious as, for example, one place where men have tails, and detailed, fantastic miracles.
Describing Irak, we read,
“The Mahometan inhabitants are treacherous and unprincipled. According to their doctrine, whatever is stolen or plundered from others of a different faith is properly taken, and the theft is no crime; whilst those who suffer death or injury by the hands of Christians, are considered as martyrs. If, therefore, they were not prohibited and restrained by the powers who now govern them, they would commit many outrages. These principles are common to all the Saracens. When they are at the point of death, their priest attends upon them, and asks whether they believe that Mahomet was the true apostle of God. If their answer by that they do believe, their salvation is assured to them; and in consequence of this facility of absolution, which gives free scope to the perpetration of everything flagitious, they have succeeded in converting to their faith a great proportion of the Tartars, who consider it as relieving them from restraint in the commission of crimes.” (32)
“Kublai-khan, it is to be understood, is the lineal and legitimate descendant of Chingis-khan the first emperor, and the rightful sovereign of the Tartars. He is the sixth grand khan, and began his reign in the year 1256. He obtained the sovereignty by his consummate valour, his virtues, and his prudence, in opposition to the designs of his brothers, supported by many of the great officers and members of his own family. But the succession appertained to him of right. It is forty-two years since he began to reign to the present year, 1288, and he is fully eighty-five years of age.” (108)
“From this discourse it must be evident that if the pope had sent out a person duly qualified to preach the gospel, the grand khan would have embraced Christianity, for which, it is certainly known, he had a strong predilection.” (115)