Talk with Marco Polo

Marco Polo was an intrepid Venetian explorer, often credited with bridging medieval Europe and Far East Asia through his extensive travels.


Who is Marco Polo?

Marco Polo was a Venetian merchant, explorer, and writer who travelled through Asia along the Silk Road between 1271 and 1295. His travels are recorded in "The Travels of Marco Polo", a book that described to Europeans the wealth and great size of China, its capital Beijing, and other Asian cities and countries. He became a confidant of Kublai Khan, the Mongol ruler of China during that time. He is also known for helping to inspire other explorers, including Christopher Columbus.

What animals did Marco Polo encounter on his travels?

Throughout his travels in Asia, Marco Polo mentioned several exotic animals, some of which were for the first time introduced to the Western world through his accounts.

  1. Camels: Marco Polo encountered camels when crossing the Gobi Desert, in the region we now know as Mongolia and China. These were probably Bactrian camels, characterized by their two humps.

  2. Yak: In the mountainous regions of Central and East Asia, Marco Polo came across the yak, an animal he described with great detail.

  3. Tigers: He described encounters with large predators such as tigers in the jungles of Southeast Asia.

  4. Peacocks: These colorful birds were mentioned in his description of the richness and extravagance of the court of Kublai Khan.

  5. Crocodiles: Polo described seeing these large aquatic reptilians in the rivers of Southern China.

  6. Asian Elephants: He described seeing elephants in the south of India and on the island of Sri Lanka.

  7. Serpents: He reported seeing gigantic serpents in the sea, which most likely were large pythons or anacondas.

The most iconic of all, perhaps, is the animal he described that sounded very much like a unicorn but was, in fact, a rhinoceros. His account from Java mentions a creature "cloven-footed" with "one horn in the middle of the forehead," a description fitting the Sumatran Rhino perfectly.

It's also important to remember Marco Polo's accounts are embellished with the mysteries and misunderstandings of a medieval European encountering unfamiliar ecosystems, so some of his animal descriptions might seem fantastical or inaccurate to the modern reader. However, his reports still provide invaluable insight into the biodiversity of Asia in the 13th century.

Was Marco Polo the first European to travel to Asia?

No, Marco Polo was not the first European to travel to Asia. Numerous others had made the journey before him, including various traders, missionaries, and even a few armies, such as Alexander the Great's Macedonian army as far back as the 4th century BC. However, Marco Polo's significance lies in the detailed accounts of his travels to Asia he recorded in "The Travels of Marco Polo," describing cultures, societies, and practices that were, until then, largely unknown to Europeans. His comprehensive narrations provided the Western world with a rare and valuable insight into the East, that's why he is often touted as one of the most important figures bridging the cultural gap between East and West.

What inspired Marco Polo to explore?

Marco Polo was primarily inspired by the spirit of adventure, his family's trading business, and their close ties with exploration. His father, Niccolò Polo, and his uncle, Maffeo Polo, were both reputable merchants and had already established trading links with the East before Marco began his travels. They set the foundation for their most famous expedition to Asia which included Marco.

Their stories of their travels reportedly fascinated Marco, prompting a desire within him to see these exotic lands for himself. His father and uncle's connection to Kublai Khan, the Mongol ruler of China, also provided Marco with a unique opportunity to travel into such far-off lands that were largely unknown to most Europeans during that time.

In the 13th century, there was also a keen interest in establishing trade relations with new territories, which motivated explorations as ambitious as Marco Polo's. The prospect of economic benefit was a significant driving force. The desire to know more about such remote and exotic areas, their culture, regional wealth, and trade opportunities, led Polo to undertake his extraordinary journey.

What motivated Marco Polo to set out his travels?

Marco Polo's motivations to venture out into his epic journey encompass both emotional and practical reasons. He grew up hearing travel stories from his father and uncle, Niccolo and Maffeo Polo, who were merchants. They had journeyed to the East, reaching as far as the court of Kublai Khan, the Great Mongol Emperor. Inspired by these tales, Marco developed a sense of adventure and curiosity about the world beyond Venice.

Outside of this personal sphere of influence, practical matters played an equally significant role. The Polo family were merchants from the city of Venice, their wealth depended on trade. During Marco Polo's time, Venice was a major power, but its commercial interests were under threat. Asia, particularly China under the Mongol Empire, was known for its wealth and the vast array of goods unavailable in the West. Thus, exploration and establishing trade routes were of essence to the fortunes of Venetian traders like the Polos.

Kublai Khan himself had asked the Polos, on their previous trip, to return with 100 educated people to teach his court about Christianity and Western customs. This was an opportunity for the Polos to earn the favor of the influential Mongol Emperor which could lead to valuable trading privileges. Although they did not fulfill Kublai Khan's request as he had intended, they took young Marco Polo with them on their return to Asia to provide a firsthand account of Western culture. The possible promise of entering into profitable enterprise would have been a strong motivation for Marco.

So, a mixture of yearning for exploration incited by family tales and the desire to secure profitable trade routes were key motivations for Marco Polo's travels.

Is there any scientific discovery attributed to Marco Polo?

Marco Polo is not known for scientific discoveries per se, but his travels and resulting chronicles had significant impact on geographical knowledge and cultural understanding. His descriptions of the countries he visited, such as China, Mongolia, and Persia, introduced Europeans to parts of the world they had little knowledge of.

For instance, he provided details about the Silk Road, which was the primary land route connecting Europe and Asia. He also provided some of the earliest Western accounts of unique Asian wildlife, which could be considered contributions to zoology.

However, it's important to note that Marco Polo's records were not always accurate or factual, and sometimes contained myths or exaggerations. Therefore, while not a scientist, his contributions still played an important role in expanding Western knowledge about the world.

What did Marco Polo do to become famous?

Marco Polo became famous for his extensive travels through Asia, from his native Venice to the far reaches of Mongolia and China. His journey, which lasted 24 years (from 1271 to 1295), played a significant role in opening up the knowledge of the East to Europe.

The detailed accounts of his experiences, as chronicled in "The Travels of Marco Polo" (also known as "Il Milione" or "The Book of Wonders"), provided Europeans with a clearer understanding of Asian culture, geography, and customs during the Middle Ages. His book documented observations of people, customs, economic system, social organization, power structures, flora, fauna, landscapes, and technologies in the East that were largely unknown to the Western world.

His description of the wealth of the Eastern world, especially of the Chinese court of the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan, was widely read and inspired many explorers that followed, including Christopher Columbus, who owned a copy of Polo's book. His encounters also introduced several Asian innovations to Europe, notably, the concept of paper money. Consequently, Marco Polo is often credited with helping to start the Age of Exploration.

The extraordinary nature of his journey, coupled with the vividness and varying levels of incredulity of his accounts, have marked Marco Polo as one of the most famous and influential explorers in history.

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