The Travels
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MARCO POLO was born in 1254, the son of Niccolò Polo, a Venetian merchant. A few years later his father and uncle set out across the Black Sea on a business venture, only to find themselves caught up in a Mongol civil war and unable to return home. Eventually they joined an envoy headed to the Mongol ruler Khubilai Khan, who quizzed them and sent them as his emissaries to the pope. In 1269 they reached Venice and Niccolò was reunited with his fifteen-year-old son Marco, who joined them when they set out again for the East in 1271. The journey would last for twenty-four years. Marco quickly learned the Mongol Empire’s languages and customs and by his own testimony became a favoured agent of Khubilai Khan, who sent him from his court at Beijing on long missions and enjoyed the detailed reports he made on his return. The purpose and exact route of these travels is still a matter of debate, but Marco almost certainly made at least one journey south-west as far as Burma, another south to modern-day Quanzhou, in China, and a third by sea to south and south-east Asia. In 1291 the Polos accompanied a Mongol diplomatic mission that sailed on a fleet of junks via Sumatra and India to the Persian Gulf. From there they made their way back to Venice, arriving in 1295. Shortly afterwards Marco was captured during a naval battle and imprisoned in Genoa, where he met a romance writer named Rustichello of Pisa. The Travels, the book they wrote together, is an eclectic mix of businesslike gazetteer, wide-eyed cultural reportage and colourful legends. Though widely disbelieved from the very beginning, its unprecedented scope and detail made it among the most influential of medieval books, and it continues to excite lively debate today. Marco Polo died in 1324 and was survived by his wife and three daughters.

NIGEL CLIFF is the author of The Shakespeare Riots: Revenge, Drama, and Death in Nineteenth-Century America (2007), which was a finalist for the National Award for Arts Writing; The Last Crusade: The Epic Voyages of Vasco da Gama (2011), which was shortlisted for the PEN Hessell-Tiltman Prize; and Moscow Nights (2016). He has written widely for The Times, The Economist and The New York Times and has lectured at Oxford University, the British Library and the Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. He lives in London with his wife, the ballerina Viviana Durante, and their son, Orlando.

Marco Polo


Translated and with an Introduction and Notes by

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These translations first published in Penguin Classics 2015
This edition published in Penguin Classics 2016

Editorial material and translation copyright © Nigel Cliff, 2015

Cover Illustration: Detail from a 19th-century copy of an original 15th century map, showing the travels of Marco Polo through the Orient © The Granger Collection / TopFoto

All rights reserved

The moral right of the author and translator has been asserted

ISBN: 978-0-141-19878-1




A Note on the Text


The Journeys of the Polos, 1260–1295

Marco Polo: from Beijing to Bengal, 1275–1291

Marco Polo: from Beijing to Quanzhou, 1275–1291



1 The Middle East

2 The Road to Cathay

3 Khubilai Khan

4 From Beijing to Bengal

5 From Beijing to Quanzhou

6 From China to India

7 India

8 The Arabian Sea

9 Northern Regions and Tartar Wars

Further Reading

List of Abbreviations



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1254 Marco Polo is born in Venice to merchant Niccolò Polo and his first wife

1256 Hülegü, a grandson of Genghis (or Chinggis) Khan, founds the Mongol state known as the Ilkhanate in Persia

1257 Berke, another of Genghis Khan’s grandsons, becomes khan of the Golden Horde or Western Mongols; a devout Muslim, he establishes Islam in a Mongol state for the first time

1258 Mongol forces under Hülegü sack Baghdad and execute the last caliph

1259 Death of Mengü, the fourth Great Khan of the Mongol Empire

1259 Hülegü’s troops and their Crusader allies invade Muslim Syria

1260 Niccolò Polo and his brother Maffeo sail from Constantinople to the Crimean port of Sudak with a consignment of jewels; from Sudak they head to the court of Berke Khan at Sarai

1260 Battle of Ayn Jalut in Galilee; the Mongols suffer their first enduring defeat at the hands of the Mamluks of Egypt

1260 Khubilai is elected Great Khan; for four years he is embroiled in a war of succession with his brother Ariq Böke

1261 The Byzantines retake Constantinople, which Frankish Crusaders had sacked and seized in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade

1262 Berke declares war on his cousin Hülegü in retribution for his destruction of Baghdad, trapping Niccolò and Maffeo; they take refuge in Bukhara, staying there for three years

1264 Khubilai begins construction of a new city, called Khanbaliq or Daidu, near the ruins of the old North Chinese capital; the city is now Beijing

1265 Abagha succeeds his father Hülegü as ruler of the Ilkhanate

1266 Niccolò and Maffeo are invited to accompany an envoy en route to Khubilai’s court; they leave Bukhara and travel east for a year

1266 Baraq becomes khan of the Chagatai Khanate of Central Asia and fights its de facto ruler Qaidu, Khubilai’s nephew and rival; after a truce the territory is divided between the two

1266 Mengü-Temür succeeds Berke as khan of the Golden Horde

1267 After receiving Niccolò and Maffeo at court, Khubilai dispatches them as his emissaries to the pope

1268 The Principality of Antioch, one of the last Crusader states, falls to the Egyptian sultan Baibars

1268 Death of Pope Clement IV; a three-year-long papal election begins

1269 Niccolò and Maffeo reach Acre; on learning there is no pope they go on to Venice, where Niccolò discovers that his wife is dead and is reunited with his son Marco, now aged fifteen

1270 Baraq attacks the Ilkhanate and is defeated by Abagha; he dies soon afterwards

1271 Niccolò, Maffeo and Marco set out for Khubilai’s court; shortly after leaving Acre they are briefly recalled by the newly elected Pope Gregory X

1271 Khubilai establishes the Yuan Dynasty and is proclaimed Emperor of China

1272 Khubilai officially names Daidu (Beijing) as his imperial capital

1273 By imperial decree banknotes become legal tender in Khubilai’s empire

1273 The city of Xiangyang falls to Khubilai’s troops after a five-year siege; the Polos are later claimed to have been instrumental in its capture

1274 First Mongol invasion of Japan ends in defeat

1275 Niccolò, Maffeo and Marco reach Khubilai’s court at Shangdu (Xanadu); some time later Marco enters Khubilai’s service and travels across his lands, returning to make detailed reports

1279 Fall of the Song Dynasty, which had ruled southern China (Manzi) for three centuries, to the Yuan armies; Khubilai is the first non-Chinese ruler to conquer all of China

1280 On Mengü-Temür’s death Töde-Mengü succeeds him as khan of the Golden Horde; three years later he converts to Islam

1281 Second Mongol invasion of Japan ends in defeat after a storm destroys the attacking fleet

1282 Ahmed Tegüder (Ahmad Sultan) succeeds his brother Abagha as ruler of the Ilkhanate; a convert from Christianity to Islam, he turns the Ilkhanate into a sultanate

1284 Abagha’s son Arghun, like his father a devout Buddhist, overthrows his uncle Tegüder and takes control of the Ilkhanate

1286 Death of Zhenjin, Khubilai’s second son and Crown Prince

1287 Nayan’s rebellion; he attempts to join forces with Qaidu but Khubilai defeats them and executes Nayan

1287 Töde-Mengü abdicates as khan of the Golden Horde in favour of his nephew Tele-Buqa

1287 The Pagan Kingdom of Myanmar falls to the Yuan Dynasty

1288 A Mongol invasion of Vietnam is defeated for the third time but its rulers become Yuan vassals

1291 Acre, the last remnant of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, falls to the Mamluks

1291 Gaykhatu succeeds Arghun as ruler of the Ilkhanate

1291 Mengü-Temür’s son Toqta murders Tele-Buqa, with the powerful prince Noghai as kingmaker, and becomes khan of the Golden Horde

1291 After seventeen years at Khubilai’s court Marco, Niccolò and Maffeo sail from the South China Sea to the Persian Gulf as part of a retinue escorting a new bride to Arghun

1293 Khubilai’s invasion of Java ends in failure

1293 Toqta declares war on his former backer Noghai but is defeated

1293 The Polos’ party reach Persia in the spring or summer to discover that Arghun is dead; they deliver the princess to his son Ghazan, and the Polos stay with his successor Gaykhatu for nine months before continuing home

1294 Khubilai Khan dies and is succeeded by his grandson Temür

1295 Marco, Niccolò and Maffeo return to Venice twenty-four years after they left

1298 Marco is taken captive by the Genoese during a sea battle; in prison he meets Rustichello of Pisa, a romance writer, and together they write The Travels

1299 Marco is released from prison and returns to Venice, where he lives for the rest of his life

1299 Toqta defeats Noghai, who is killed in battle

1300 Marco marries Donata Badoer; they will have three daughters

1324 Marco Polo dies in Venice