Marco Polo is one of history’s greatest explorers. In 1271 he set off with his father and uncle on a trek across Asia. During his 24-year journey, Polo became one of the first Europeans to chronicle the cities. While many are familiar with the Venetian merchant’s travels, there are some facts about Marco Polo that are not often taught in history class.
His Famous Book Was Written in Prison
Marco Polo became a household name with the release of his book “The Travels of Marco Polo” in 1299. But one thing that many people are not aware of is the fact that his narrative about his eastward voyage was written during his stay in prison. In 1298, three years after the returned back from his travels, Marco Polo was captured after he led a Venetian galley into battle against rival Italian state Genoa. While he was in prison, he met Rustichello of Pisa, who was a romance writer. Polo was eager to document the events of his journey and dictated his story to Rustichello who acted as his ghost writer.
He Was Not the First European to Travel to Asia
While he may be the most famous European to travel to the Far East, Marco Polo was not the first. Giovanni da Pian del Carpini, a Franciscan monk traveled to China in the 1240s, which was 20 years before Polo began his journey. The monk gained an audience with the Great Kahn of the Mongol empire. Another traveler to Asia was William of Rubruck who attempted to convert the Mongols to Christianity.
He Didn’t Know His Father and Uncle Much Before They Started Their Journey
Before Marco Polo was born in 1254, his father Niccolo and his uncle Maffeo left Italy to go on a trading excursion to Asia. The brothers then returned to Venice in 1269. It was at that time that 15-year old Marco met his father. And even though he was practically a stranger to the older Polos, he joined them as they left for their second trip to Asia in 1271. While they only planned for a short trip to the Far East, the men would essentially travel Asia for more than two decades.
The Polos Barely Made It Out of Asia Alive
After traveling to far off places for many years and surviving several near-death encounters, the Polos met their biggest hurdle of all when they attempted to return to Italy. Afraid that their departure would make them look weak, the Kublai Kahn refused to give up his envoys from service. The Polos were only allowed to leave the Great Kahn’s territory in 1292, when they agreed to take along a Mongol Princess to Persia. Even though they were able to succeed in their quest, the mission was one of the most hazardous leg of their journey.
He Lost Most of His Fortune on the Return Trip Home
As soon as they were out of the Mongol territory, Marco, Niccolo and Maffeo were no longer under the protection of Kublai Khan. As they passed through the kingdom of Trebizond, which is part of modern-day Turkey, the local government robbed the Polos of 4,000 Byzantine gold coins. Even with that much of a loss, they still had enough cargo to make it back home as wealthy men in 1295. According to one source, they were able to keep most of the gems they had by sewing them into the lining of their clothing.
Marco Polo Mistook the Animals He Saw in the Far East as Mythical Creatures
Many of the animals in Asia were obviously unfamiliar to Polo as they would be to anyone who had never seen an elephant, monkey or crocodile. He described them as creatures that were featured in common myths and legends. For instance, as one of the first Europeans to ever see an Asian Rhinoceros, he thought that the horned creature was a unicorn.
Many People Have Dismissed Marco Polo’s stories as lies
The elaborate descriptions of the many wonders of the Orient and all the places that he visited, such as the royal palace of Xanadu, was too much for many readers to believe. By the time Marco Polo was an old man, his contemporaries had branded him as the teller of tall tales. Readers had every reason to be skeptical. Polo and his writer Rustichello did exaggerate in order to create a fancy story that looked good on paper. Polo was known for fictionally placing himself into battle scenes that he was never a part of. While most historians believe the majority of his book is fact, others have deemed it to be complete fiction and have even said that Polo never made it to China. Marco never admitted to telling a single lie. On his death bed he said “I did not tell half of what I saw.”