One thing that is known to every scholar and other researchers is that they know very little about Marco Polo. However, the lack of much information about the explorer has not prevented people from analyzing his life and travels by using the book he claimed he wrote after returning from Japan and China. In his book, Marco narrates his experiences in his travels and his interaction with people of different traditions and customs.
To give a brief history of the explorer, Marco Polo was born in 1254 in Venice, Italy. He is known as one of the most famous Venetian explorers, especially through his book he wrote titled Marco Polo Travels. He started his journey in 1271, accompanied by his father and uncle, and traveled to several parts of Asia to collect several priests (Polo, 5). However, they could only afford to collect only two priests, and therefore, they were not able to achieve their primary objective. However, in the journey, they encountered many challenges that taught them many lessons that Marco Polo felt were worth putting in writing. Passing through harsh territories like deserts, and interacting with many people with different traditions and customs was also important.
Marco Polo, his father, and uncle used overland trade routes after they had failed to secure a boat that they liked. Their decision made them embark on a journey of three years full of challenges as they had to trek through deserts, high mountains, and many other rough terrains that offered nothing but bitter and interesting experiences for Marco Polo. As they moved from one desert to another, one mountain to another, they came across different people with different traditions, cultures, religions, and customs. They had to interact with such people and interact with them to know much about the place and the way of living. It was a long journey, but a successful one as Marco Polo and his colleagues finally arrived in Kublai Khan in 1275.
Geographically, Marco Polo's reflections on the physical features were remarkable. He stated that they came across mountains and deserts that posed a serious challenge to them. Marco Polo stated in his book that the deserts were so long that it would take them a whole year to move from end to end (Polo, 63). In the deserts, there was a lot of sand and mountains that made the journey even more tiring. There was also nothing to eat in the deserts and mountains, and this goes on to explain the hardships that Marco Polo and his father and uncle went through. In the course, we have learned many deserts and mountains in Asia such as Gobi, Karakum, Thar, and Takla Makan, the deserts are not as long as Marco Polo reflected in his book. Therefore, much of Marco Polo's geographical reflections can just be seen as assumptions and exaggerations. This will make any scholar wonder if indeed Marco Polo had traveled from Venice to Kublai Khan.
Additionally, Marco Polo’s elaborate explanations of the Orient Wonders, and the royal palace at Xanadu, the metropolis of Quinsai, are too much for many readers of his book. Many Venetians had even branded Polo as a man of telling tall stories by the time he was an older man (Yule, 14). This is because both Polo and his ghostwriter were known for exaggerating things, and therefore, people have a reason to be skeptical about his tales. According to what we have learned in the course, there are significant differences between Polo’s descriptions of Orient Wonders and the royal palace at Xanadu, the metropolis of Quinsai.
Apart from reflecting on the geographical features, Marco Polo also reflected on the culture, traditions, and customs of the people he met along the journey to China. Marco described the wonders of the Mongol empire, which he states had implemented the idea of paper money that had first failed in Europe. However, what we learned through the course about Mongol empires differs greatly from how Polo described their traditions, customs, and cultures.
Another important Polo's reflection in his book is that he traveled to China 17 times as the great Khan sent him. However, his book does not talk about Chinese peculiarities. These include women with feet of lotus tied with a band so that they do not grow big, the tea ceremony, the Great Wall, and the porcelains, among many other peculiarities. Additionally, there are no Chinese documents or historians who have cited Marco Polo despite the presence of other foreigners who visited Khan's court being registered in the Chinese documents. Most of the Chinese documents about history that we reviewed in this course did not mention Marco Polo, making it difficult to believe Polo's story.
Another reflection of Marco Polo is about the people of the Japanese. He described the Japanese as people who had massive gold quantities. According to him, the roof of King's palace is of pure gold, with the paving on the floor still being made of gold, which is almost two fingers thick. The reflection is partly true because Japan had a tremendous amount of gold. However, the purposes of gold that Marco Polo describes are incorrect because there is no record (Yule, 19). The traveler also mistook some animals as unicorns, as documented in his reflections. Marco Polo saw several animals, such as monkeys, elephants, crocodiles, and Asian rhinoceros. He described the crocodiles as serpents with sharp claws able to swallow a person at ago. He also describes the rhinoceros as unicorns.
How accurate, how reliable do you find Marco Polo’s accounts?
Marco Polo describes quite a several experiences on his travelogue. However, the accounts are not entirely true and reliable. The reason behind this is because what he describes is not the fact. For instance, historians question whether the traveler went to china because in his accounts, he leaves out major characters who were under the reign of Khan. In the accounts, he also fails to include even a few Chinese names or Mongol place names. Marco Polo further never described some of the major Chinese peculiarities, including the tea ceremony and the great wall (Yule, 29). He also claims to be more intimate with the Khan, but Marco Polo is not even mentioned in the official documents that belong to the Chinese. Marco Polo further claims to be a great merchant which is doubtful because his interest is in curiosity instead of paper money. Therefore, Marco Polo's accounts cannot be entirely relied on and not completely accurate.
Do you think his reports can/should be used as a historical source? On what do you base your opinion on?
According to the reflections I described above, the reports of Marco Polo should not be completely relied on as historical sources. This is because they are not based on facts as some are quite controversial, such as his idea of gold usage among the Japanese people, how he mistakes some animals like unicorns and his description of the Mongol empire.
Polo, Marco. The Travels of Marco Polo: The Venetian. Arcturus Publishing, 2019.
Yule, Henry. The Travels of Marco Polo. Vol. 2. BoD–Books on Demand, 2018. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=QBJFDwAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PA24&dq=Marco+Polo+&ots=397MzfBDvw&sig=LJwsxxHgch4YIbU7ozHhCAc6yqE
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