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Marco Polo

Polo, Marco (c. 1254-1324), Italian traveller and author, whose writings gave Europeans the first authoritative view of life in the Far East.

Polo was probably born in Venice, although he may have been born in Venetian Dalmatia on the island of Curzola (now Korcula), off the Croatian coast, where his family originated. His father Nicol and uncle Maffeo were Venetian merchants and business partners who had commercial interests in Constantinople (now Istanbul) and the Crimea. When Constantinople suddenly fell into the hands of rival Genoese merchants, Nicol and Maffeo Polo set out in 1260 to search for new markets to the north of the Caspian Sea, and reached Bukhara (in present-day Uzbekistan), then one of the key cities on the caravan route to China.

They remained there for three years, before joining Persian envoys on their way to visit the great Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan in his court at Shangdu (Shang-tu, the Xanadu of Coleridge's poem Kubla Khan) near present-day Beijing. This involved traveling along the Silk Route via Samarqand, the deserts of northern Tibet and steppes of Mongolia. They were welcomed to the court of Kublai Khan, who commissioned them to return with 100 missionaries to convert his people to Christianity, as he was being threatened by Islamic armies from the south. It took the Polo brothers three years to return to Venice, via Bukhara, Persia, Syria, and Acre (near Jerusalem), arriving home in 1269.

Two years later, taking 17-year old Marco along with them, they set out once again for China. They visited Acre to obtain a letter from the pope to Kublai Khan. Gregory X, who had just been elected pope and was still in the Holy Land, sent a flask of oil from the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and two Dominican friars, who promptly deserted. The Polos crossed Persia to Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf hoping to travel to India by sea, but unable to find a boat they considered safe, they travelled overland north-east through the deserts and mountains of Persia to Kashgar (present-day Kashi) on the Chinese border.

Here Marco Polo was so ill that they were forced to rest for a year before continuing their journey up the River Oxus (today's Amu Darya) into the Hindu Kush and Pamir mountains where he observed the large horned sheep that would later bear his name (also known as the Argali), and commented on the effects of high-altitude sickness. They then skirted the Takla Makan Desert to the Lop Lake region of Sinkiang Province (present-day Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region), China; and finally across the Gobi Desert by camel caravan to the court of Kublai Khan at Shangdu, which they reached in 1275, three and a half years after leaving Europe. They were the first Europeans to visit most of the territory they traversed in this journey, particularly the Pamir and the Gobi Desert.

Marco Polo entered Kublai Khan's diplomatic service, acting as his agent on missions to many parts of the Mongolian Empire for the next 17 years. He travelled in Tibet and along the Yangzi, Yellow, and upper Mekong rivers, and was probably the first European to visit the interior of Burma. He visited the Mongol capital at Karakorum in modern-day Mongolia and may have reached Siberia in the north, as well as taking a sea voyage to the Indonesian archipelago. For three years from 1282 to 1285, Marco Polo may have been governor of the city of Yangzhou (Yangchow). His father and uncle served as military advisers to Kublai Khan. As Kublai Khan grew older, they became concerned about the stability of the empire and in 1292 the three Polos left China, as escorts for a Mongol princess betrothed to the Persian Khan.

War still prevented the use of the overland route, and so they decided to travel to Persia by sea. They were provided with a fleet of 14 ships and a crew of 600. They sailed from Zaitun (present-day Quanzhou) on the Chinese coast by way of Sumatra and the Strait of Malacca to Sri Lanka, the Andaman and Nicobar islands, arriving in Hormuz in 1294. All but 18 of the original crew had died during the two-year journey. The Khan of Persia had died the previous year, and the Princess married his son and heir instead. The Polos eventually arrived in their home city of Venice in 1295, 24 years after their adventures had begun, and extremely rich men mostly as a result of the jewels and precious stones they had sewn into their clothes for safe keeping.

When war broke out between Venice and Genoa, Marco Polo served as a captain in the Venetian fleet and was taken prisoner in 1298 along with 7,000 others off the Dalmatian coast of Croatia. During his imprisonment by the Genoese, he dictated to a fellow prisoner and writer of romances, Rusticello of Pisa, the detailed account of his travels. He was released from prison in 1299 and returned to Venice where he married, had three daughters, and lived comfortably until he died at the age of 70, and was buried beside his father in the church of San Lorenzo.

The Travels of Marco Polo, first produced in French as Livre de Merveilles du Monde, is perhaps the most famous and influential travel book in history. With a wealth of vivid detail, it gave medieval Europe its first consequential knowledge of China and its first information concerning other Asian countries, including Siam (Thailand), Japan, Java, Cochin China (now part of Vietnam), Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Tibet, India, and Burma. For a long time it was the only existing source in Europe for information on the geography and life of the Far East.

Although criticized even to the present day for some of its more fanciful ideas and exaggerations, the book became the basis for some of the first accurate maps of Asia made in Europe. It helped to arouse in Christopher Columbus an interest in the Orient, that culminated in his expedition in 1492 when he attempted to reach the Far East of Polo's description by sailing due west from Europe; and suggested the all-sea route from Europe to the Far East around Africa finally accomplished in 1497-1498 by the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama.