In 1298, Marco Polo dictated an account of his travels through Asia to a writer from Pisa (a city in Italy) when they were both imprisoned together. The book, which Polo called “Il Milione,” (“The Million” in Italian) was the first known travel account, and Marco’s stories opened European minds to the wealth and cultures of China, Japan, and India.
Marco Polo’s adventures began when he was 17 years old, when he left with his father and uncle for China. Nikola and Mate Polo had recently returned from a 15 year journey in Asia, where they had served at the court of Kublai Khan, the Mongol emperor who ruled over two thirds of Asia. The Khan had asked the Polos to bring some European scholars to his court so that they could teach him about Christianity.
The explorers traveled overland from Palestine to China. Marco describes the many sights and cultures he saw along the way, sometimes with great accuracy and sometimes with fanciful imagination. In fact, when Marco Polo was on his deathbed, he was accused of making up many of the stories he told.
When the Polos arrived in China, Marco was presented to Kublai Khan by his father. The Khan was impressed with Marco’s wisdom, behavior, and his ability to learn the Asian customs and languages quickly. When Marco was sent as an ambassador to one of the Khan’s distant provinces, he performed well and from that time, Marco enjoyed the favor and affection of the Khan.
Mongol Passport, Yuan dynasty (1279-1368)
Under the Mongol empire a merchant like Marco Polo could travel safely from one end of Eurasia to the other. The iron passport depicted below is from Yuan dynasty China. Issued to government officials and important guests, it guaranteed safe passage to anyone traveling in Mongol-ruled territory. The writing on it was invented by a Tibetan monk especially for the Mongolian language. Marco Polo probably carried one of these. The inscription on this Mongol passport says: “By the strength of eternal Heaven, an edict of the Emperor [Khan]. He who has no respect shall be guilty.”
Seventeen years later, the Polos returned to Italy, sailing from China to India as escorts for a Mongol princess traveling to Iran. When Marco returned to Venice, he and his family earned the respect of the city when he showed them the great wealth with which he had returned. Marco Polo’s great skill at storytelling, combined with the wealth he had brought back from his travels, caused many Europeans to favor developing trade with Asia and lit the fire for exploration in the imaginations of other future explores such as Columbus, who had a copy of Polo’s book (with handwritten notes in the margins) with him on his trip to North America.