In 1271, the Venetian merchant Marco Polo set off with his father and uncle on a legendary trek across Asia. Over the course of his 24-year journey, Polo would become one of the first Europeans to chronicle the cities, cultures and technology of the Far East. Nearly 750 years after Polo first began his travels, discover 11 fascinating facts about the life of one of history’s greatest explorers.
Marco Polo is remembered thanks to a colorful and popular narrative about his eastward voyage, known simply as “The Travels of Marco Polo.” Ironically, this record of Polo’s freewheeling years as an explorer was written while he languished behind bars. In 1298, three years after he returned from his journey, Polo was captured after leading a Venetian galley into battle against the rival Italian city-state of Genoa. While in prison he encountered Rustichello of Pisa, a fellow captive who was known as a talented writer of romances. Eager to document his years as a traveler, Polo dictated his life story to Rustichello, who acted as a kind of ghostwriter. By the time of their release in 1299, the two men had completed the book that would make Marco Polo a household name.
Marco Polo may be the most storied Far East traveler, but he certainly was not the first. The Franciscan monk Giovanni da Pian del Carpini reached China in the 1240s—over 20 years before Polo left Europe—and gained an audience with the Great Kahn of the Mongol empire. Other Catholic emissaries would later follow, including William of Rubruck, who traveled east in the 1250s on a quest to convert the Mongols to Christianity. These early missionaries were largely inspired by the myth of Prester John, a legendary king who was believed to rule over a Christian empire in the East. Polo would later mention the fictional monarch in his book, and even described him as having fought a great battle against the Mongol ruler Genghis Kahn.
A few months before Marco Polo was born in 1254, his father Niccolo and uncle Maffeo left Italy on a trading excursion to Asia. The brothers returned to Venice in 1269, and it was only then that 15-year-old Marco finally met Niccolo, the father he never knew he had. Although he was essentially a stranger to the elder Polos, Marco joined them when they left on their more extensive second trip in 1271. While they originally planned only a brief stay in the Far East, the three men would eventually travel Asia together for more than 20 years.
The Polos were merchants who dealt in rare items like silk, gems and spices, but their extensive travels were more than just a trading mission. Marco, Maffeo and Niccolo were also employed as emissaries for the Mongol emperor Kublai Kahn, whom the elder Polos had met and befriended on an earlier journey east. Young Marco would forge an especially strong bond with the Great Kahn, who later dispatched him to China and Southeast Asia as a tax collector and special messenger. Kublai Kahn’s trust and protection allowed the Polos to move freely within the borders of the Mongol Empire. Marco was even provided with a “paiza”—a gold tablet that authorized him to make use of a vast network of imperial horses and lodgings. Thanks to this official passport, the Polos traveled through Asia not merely as wandering merchants, but as honored guests of the Great Kahn himself.
After his return from Asia, Marco Polo thoroughly documented his encounters with unfamiliar animals such as elephants, monkeys and crocodiles. He described the latter, for instance, as giant, sharp-clawed “serpents” that could “swallow a man … at one time.” But the traveler often confused these strange faunae with creatures from myth and legend. One of the first Europeans to glimpse an Asian rhinoceros, Polo thought the horned beasts were unicorns.
It is a common misconception that Marco Polo introduced pasta to Italy—in truth, the dish had already existed in Europe for centuries—but there’s little doubt he made Westerners aware of many Chinese inventions. Among other things, Marco familiarized many of his readers with the concept of paper money, which only caught on in Europe in the years after his return. Polo also described coal—not widely used in Europe until the 18th century—and may even have introduced eyeglasses to the West. Meanwhile, he offered one of the historical record’s most detailed accounts of the Mongol post system, a complex network of checkpoints and couriers that allowed Kublai Kahn to administrate his vast empire.
After enduring decades of travel and surviving several brushes with death, the Polos encountered their biggest hurdles when they tried to return to Italy. Worried that their departure would make him appear weak, the elderly Kublai Kahn initially refused to release his favorite envoys from service. The Polos were only allowed to leave the Great Kahn’s realm in 1292, when they agreed to escort a Mongol princess to Persia by sea. While they succeeded, the mission apparently proved to be the most perilous leg of the Polos’ journey. Marco later wrote that the members of his company were among the only survivors of a deadly sea voyage that claimed hundreds of lives.
Once they moved out of Mongol territory, Marco, Niccolo and Maffeo could no longer rely on Kublai Kahn’s protection. As the travelers passed through the kingdom of Trebizond, in modern-day Turkey, the local government robbed them of some 4,000 Byzantine gold coins. Despite this significant loss, the Polos retained enough of their cargo to arrive home in 1295 as wealthy men. According to one account, the Venetians concealed most of their gems by sewing the precious stones into the linings of their coats.
Marco Polo’s elaborate descriptions of the royal palace at Xanadu, the metropolis of Quinsai (modern-day Hangzhou) and the many wonders of the Orient were simply too much for some readers to believe. In fact, by the time he was an old man, Polo’s fellow Venetians had largely branded him as a teller of tall tales. Readers had some reason to be skeptical: Polo and his ghostwriter, Rustichello, were prone to exaggeration and flights of fancy. For instance, the famous traveler often fictitiously inserted himself into battle scenes and court intrigues. While most modern historians still believe the bulk of his book to be factual, others have dismissed it as an outright fabrication and claim that Polo never even made it to China. For his part, Marco never admitted to a single lie. Even on his deathbed he is said to have remarked, “I did not tell half of what I saw.”
Kublai Kahn died during the Polos’ return to Venice, sending the Mongol empire into decline and crushing any chance that Marco would ever return to the Far East. Tribal groups had soon reclaimed land along the once-prosperous trading route known as the Silk Road, effectively cutting off a vital artery connecting East and West. With the land route to China growing increasingly dangerous, few travelers dared set out on wide-ranging journeys for several years. In fact, Polo reportedly never left Venetian territory for the last two decades of his life.
Marco Polo never saw himself as an explorer—he preferred the term “wayfarer”—but his do-or-die approach to travel helped inspire a whole generation of globetrotting adventurers. Among his acolytes was Christopher Columbus, who carried a well-thumbed copy of the “The Travels of Marco Polo” on his voyages to the New World. Not realizing that the Mongol empire had already fallen by the time of his voyage, Columbus even planned to follow in Polo’s footsteps by making contact with Kublai Kahn’s successor.