More about The Travels of Marco Polo, 2018
Marco Polo dictated his Travels (1298–1299) to Rustichello da Pisa while they both languished in a Genoese prison. “…for ye shall find therein all the great wonders and curiosities of Greater Armenia and Persia, and of the land of the Tartars and of India and many other countries…”
In 1271, Niccolo Polo, his brother Maffeo and Niccolo’s son Marco sailed from Venice, a city that had grown rich through trade with Islamic and Byzantium nations, to Acre in the Levant and then on by horseback to Jerusalem. Their mission was to obtain a vial of the holy oil from the lamp of the eternal flame that burns in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Along with the vial, the Polos were to return to the court of Kublai Khan in Cathay with 100 Catholic priests, where they would teach Christianity to the Mongols…alas only two priests would answer the call and both abandoned the Polos at the first sign of trouble early on in the travels.
After Jerusalem, the party pushed on to the Persian port of Hormuz, where they thought they might travel by sea to China but after inspecting the flimsy, unseaworthy boats, they decided to go overland along the great Silk Route to Cathay.
Pushing on into Persia, the Polos arrived at the ancient town of Bukhara that had come to prominence during the 9th and 10th centuries in the Golden Age of the Samanids where literature, and especially poetry, experienced a flowering. It was at this time that Daqiqi wrote the Shahnameh "The Book of Kings", a long epic poem based on the history of the Iranians. From Persia they entered Afghanistan and Balkh.
Balkh was the ancient capital of the great Bactrian Empire where Alexander the Great married Roxanna, the daughter of Darius the Great, and was known by the Persians as the Mother of all Cities. A major stop along the Silk Route, it was where merchants and artisans of all religions converged and where the ideas of Greek art and philosophy would come to spread their influence across Asia.
Leaving Balkh, they moved through The Wakhan Corridor over the Palmirs and across the Taklamakan desert. In this desert half buried in the sand lies the ruins of a 4th century Gandhara Buddhist stupa where Indian missionaries centuries before had made their way to China also along the Silk Route.
Kublai Khan had moved his capital from Xanadu to Zhongdu, present-day Beijing, and so it was there that Marco Polo first met the Great Khan and who being very taken with the young man pressed him into his service, and it was only after many years that the Polos were allowed to leave China. They made their exit from China from the port of Hongzhou sailing west to Indonesia, India, Persia and Turkey arriving in Venice in1275.
The Yuan Dynasty would end in 1368 with the rebellion of the Han Chinese against their Mongol overlords. Almost 200 years later after reading Marco Polo’s book, Christopher Columbus would attempt to sail to China. Blown off course, he would arrive in the Americas discovering new foods and mineral wealth, and his voyage would launch the Age of Discovery and the world of trade of the 16th century.
Inside Central Asia, the 16th century saw a flowering of culture and religious tolerance along the great trading routes.
The Mughal Empire of India was established by Babur whose family roots were from the Turco-Mongol, Timurid dynasty of Central Asia claiming direct descendance from Genghis Khan. The "classic period" of the Mughal Empire that began in 1556 with the ascension of Akbar I to the throne saw economic progress, religious harmony and Mughal art. Akbar also established the Din-I Ilahi religion made up of the elements of Islam and Hinduism, mixed with the teachings of Christianity, Jainism, Sikhism and Zoroastrianism.
In 1501 Shah Ismail established the first capital of the great Safavid Empire at Tabriz, Persia. Ismail, himself a descendant from a mystical Sufi family, established a form of Islam in Persia known as Shi’a and the Safavid Empire saw the rise of poetry, art and architecture. Later in 1557 Shah Abass would move the capital to Isfahan and create a great building program - Isfahan meaning ‘half the earth’. Safavid Persian trade prospered at this time in a country that maintained a religious tolerance.
Suleiman the Magnificent was the tenth and longest-reigning Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, now modern day Turkey, from 1520 until his death in 1566. He was a distinguished poet and goldsmith; he also became a great patron of culture, overseeing the Golden Age of the Ottoman Empire in its artistic, literary and architectural development.
Venice by the end of the 15th century had a population of 180,000 and was the second largest city in Europe after Paris and probably the richest in the world. Through the 16th century Venice began to lose some of its territories to the Ottomans but remained a wealthy city up until the unification of Italy in 1871.
Side A: The 13th century and the cultures of the overland Silk Route
Venice - detail of the Polos leaving Venice in 1271 from the Illustrated Travels of Marco Polo, published 1300.
Jerusalem - 12th century casket and printed textile with an image of the brothers leaving the church.
Persia - Sassanian textile of a hunting scene and embellished with imagery from the Palace of Darius with the Polos on horseback making their way East.
Afghanistan - Ikats of Central Asia and an image from an early Catalan map of the Silk Route.
Mongolia – image from the Illustrated Travels with Kublai Khan hunting with his legendary Cheetah surrounded by a Mongolian textile.
Side B: The 16th century and cultures on sea route on return to Venice.
China – the Polos being farewelled by Chinese merchants, as seen in the ‘Pavilion in the Clouds’, a copy of a popular Ming vase painting, with the sea pattern enveloping the Qilin, a mythical creature said to appear at the appearance or the passing of sage or a ruler.
India – details of the marble mosaics of the Mughal shrine of the Taj Mahal with the Polos intrigued by the strange animals and birds they encountered in the trading ports along their route home to Venice.
Persia - Peacocks and the Fountain, Safavid mosaic from Isfahan in the collection of the Louvre and a testament to the symmetry and grace of Safavid art.
Turkey – A copy of an Iznik vase painting containing an image of an older Marco Polo in Mongolian dress.
Venice – copy of an Italian majolica plate with the insertion of an image of Marco Polo drawn in his chariot by several robust putti.
Polo Marco, The Travels of Marco Polo, Translated and Edited by William Marsden, Re-edited by Thomas Wright, London: George Bell & Sons, 1907
Bellliveau Denis, O’Donnell Francis, In the Footsteps of Marco Polo, Lanham: Rowan and Littlefield, 2008
Calvino Italo, Invisible Cities, translation William Weaver, London: Vintage, 1997
Starr Frederick, S., Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2015.
Dalrymple William, In Xanadu: A Quest, London: Harper Collins, 1989
Bragg Melvin, Professor Gleave R, Loosley Emma, Newman Andrew, In Our Time: The Safavid Empire, BBC Podcasts, Jan 12, 2002
Foot John, Robert Cressi, Venice, Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., https://www.britannica.com/place/Venice/History 2017
The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, Mughal Dynasty, Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., https://www.britannica.com/topic/Mughal-dynasty 2018