Marco Polo

With contributions by John Masefield



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ISBN: 978-1-78310-795-7

Marco Polo













Gaetano Bonutti,
Venetian Traveller Marco Polo, c. 1295.

Engraving. Hulton Archive/Getty Images.




Prologue & Itinerary



Book I































Book II.



























Book III





























Prologue & Itinerary



Marco Polo is perhaps the most well-known Western figure to travel into the mysterious and mystifying great East. Providing well-described tales of his journey, Polos stories are likely to awaken the inner traveller in anyone who reads or hears of his saga. True or exaggerated, Polos twenty-four-year voyage across land and sea exhibits his, at the time, unheard-of determination and influence. Even the Great Khan, conqueror and ruler of much of the Eastern land of the time, found a great confidant in Marco Polo and managed to keep him under his tutelage for seventeen years. Under the Great Khan, Polo was able to acquire power and prestige across the land, likely contributing to his immensely delayed return to Venice. Thus begins the tale of Marco Polos travels…



Ye Emperors, Kings, Dukes, Marquises, Earls, and Knights, and all other people desirous of knowing the diversities of the races of mankind, as well as the diversities of kingdoms, provinces, and regions of all parts of the East, read through this book, and ye will find in it the greatest and most marvellous characteristics of the peoples, especially of Armenia, Persia, India, and Tartary, as they are severally related in the present work by Marco Polo, a wise and learned citizen of Venice, who states distinctly what things he saw and what things he heard from others.

For this book will be a truthful one. It must be known, then, that from the creation of Adam to the present day, no man, whether Pagan, or Saracen, or Christian, or other, of whatever progeny or generation he may have been, ever saw or inquired into so many and such great things as Marco Polo. Who, wishing in his secret thoughts that the things he had seen and heard should be made public by the present work, for the benefit of those who could not see them with their own eyes, he himself being in the year of our Lord 1295 in prison at Genoa, caused the things which are contained in the present work to be written by Master Rustigielo, a citizen of Pisa, who was with him in the same prison in Genoa; he divided it into three parts.



The elder Polos, when they left Constantinople in 1260, had not planned to go far beyond the northern borders of the Euxine. They first landed at Soldaia, in Crimea, then an important trading city. From Soldaia they journeyed in a northerly and east-north-easterly direction to Sara (or Sarra), a vast city on the Volga, where King Cambuscan lived, and to Bolgara (or Bolghar) where they stayed for a year. Going south a short distance to Ucaca, another city on the Volga, they journeyed directly to the south-east, across the northern head of the Caspian, on the sixty days’ march to Bokhara, where they stayed for three years.

From Bokhara they went with the Great Khan’s people northward to Otrar, and thence in a north-easterly direction to the Court of the Khan near Pekin. On their return journey, they arrived at the sea-coast at Layas, in Armenia. From Layas they went to Acre, and from Acre to Negropont in Romania, and from Negropont to Venice, where they stayed for about two years.

On the second journey to the East, with the young Marco Polo, they sailed directly from Venice to Acre towards the end of 1271. They made a short journey southward to Jerusalem, for the holy oil, and then returned to Acre for letters from the Papal Legate.

Leaving Acre, they got as far as Layas, in Armenia, before they were recalled by the newly elected Pope. On setting out again, they returned to Layas, at that time a great city, where spices and cloth of gold were sold, and from which merchants journeying to the East generally started. From Layas they pushed northward into Turcomania, past Casaria and Sivas, to Arzingan, where the people wove “good buckrams”.

Petrus Vesconte, Water Atlas of the Mediterranean, Genoa, 1313.

Fourth sheet: Eastern Mediterranean, coasts of Asia and Africa.

Coast of Morea, Rhodes, Crete, and the Nile Delta.

Six cards, illuminated manuscript on vellum, various scales,

48 x 40 cm each. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris.

Petrus Vesconte, Water Atlas of the Mediterranean,
Genoa, 1313. Sixth sheet: Western Mediterranean.

Six cards, illuminated manuscript on vellum, various scales,

48 x 40 cm each. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris.



Passing Mount Ararat, where Noah’s Ark was supposed to rest, they heard stories of the Baku oilfields. From here they went to the south-east, following the course of the Tigris to Bandas. From Bandas they seem to have made an unnecessary journey to the Persian Gulf. The book leads one to suppose that they travelled by way of Tauriz (in Persian Iraq), Yezd, and Kerman, to the port of Ormuz, as though they intended to take to sea there. They could, however, have progressed more swiftly had they followed the Tigris to Busrah and sailed upon the Gulf from there, by way of Keis or Kisi to Ormuz.

After visiting Ormuz, they returned to Kerman by another route, and then pushed on, over the horrible salt desert of Kerman, through Khorassan to Balakshan. It is possible that their journey was broken at Balakshan, owing to the illness of Marco, who speaks of having at some time stayed nearly a year here to recover his health.

On leaving Balakshan they proceeded through the high Pamirs to Kash-gar, thence south-eastward by way of Khotan, not yet buried under the sands, to the Gobi desert. The Gobi desert, like all deserts, had a bad name as being “the abode of many evil spirits, which amuse travellers to their destruction”. The Polos crossed the Gobi in the usual thirty days, halting each night by the brackish ponds which make the passage possible.

After crossing the desert, they soon entered China. At Kan Chau, one of the first Chinese cities which they visited, they may have stayed for nearly a year, on account of “the state of their concerns”, but this stay probably took place later, when they were in Kublai’s service. They then crossed the province of Shen-si, into that of Shan-si, finally arriving at Kai-ping-fu, where Kublai had built his summer pleasure garden.

On the return journey, the Polos set sail from the port of Zaitum, in the province of Fo-Kien. They hugged the Chinese coast (in order to avoid the Pratas and Pracel Reefs) and crossed the Gulf of Tong King to Champa in the south-east of Cambodia. Leaving Champa, they may have made some stay at Borneo, but more probably they sailed direct to the island of Bintang, at the mouth of the Straits of Malacca, and to Sumatra, where the fleet was delayed for five months by the blowing of the contrary monsoon. The ships seem to have waited for the monsoon to change in a harbour on the north-east coast, in the Kingdom of Sumatra.

On getting a fair wind, they passed by the Nicobar and Andaman Islands, and then shaped a course for Ceylon. They put across to the coast of Coromandel, and may perhaps have coasted as far to the north upon the Madras coast as Masulipatam.

On the Bombay side, they would seem to have hugged the coast as far as they could, as far perhaps as Surat, in the Gulf of Cambay; but it is just possible that the descriptions of these places were taken from the tales of ship captains, and that this fleet put boldly out to avoid the coast pirates.

There is much reason to believe that, whilst employed in the service of the emperor, Marco Polo had visited some of the eastern islands, lying the nearest to the coast of China, such, perhaps, as the Philippines.

Marco Polo tells us much about Aden, and about towns on the Arabian coasts, but the fleet probably never reached them. All that is certainly known is that they arrived at Ormuz, in the Persian Gulf, and passed inland to Khorassan. On leaving Khorassan they journeyed overland, through Persia and Greater Armenia, until they came to Trebizond on the Euxine Sea.

Their most direct route from Tabriz would have lain through Bedlis in Kurdistan to Aleppo, but at this time the sultans of Egypt, with whom the kings of Persia were continually at war, had possession of all the seaports of Syria, and would pay little respect to their passports.

By the way of Georgia to Trebizond, on the Euxine Sea, their land-journey was shorter and more secure, and when at that place they were under the protection of the Christian prince, whose family reigned in the small independent kingdom of Trebizond, from 1204 to 1462. Here they took a ship and sailed home to Venice, first stopping at Constantinople and at Negropont. “And this was in the year 1295 of Christ’s Incarnation”. J. M.

Angelino Dulcert, Map of the Mediterranean and Baltic,

Mallorca, 1339. Chart of the Baltic Sea, the North Sea, the Atlantic

Ocean east of the Mediterranean Sea, the Black Sea and the Red Sea.

Two vellum sheets assembled into a map, illuminated manuscript,

75 x 102 cm. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris.

Guillelmus Soleri, Map of the Mediterranean
and Atlantic (detail), Mallorca, 1380. Chart of the Eastern

Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea, the Black Sea

and the Red Sea. Map, illuminated manuscript on vellum,

65 x 102 cm. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris.

Albertinus Virga, Map of the Mediterranean and
Black Sea (detail), Venice, 1409. Chart of part of the

North-East Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea,

and the Black Sea, with estuaries. Map,

illuminated manuscript on vellum, 43 x 68 cm.

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris.

Marco Polo Leaves Venice on His Famous Journey
to the Far East, in Roman dAlexandre, c. 1400.

Bodleian Library, Oxford.



Book I




§ 1. It should be known to the reader that, at the time when Baldwin II was emperor of Constantinople, where a magistrate representing the Doge of Venice then resided, and in the year of our Lord 1250, Nicolo Polo, the father of the said Marco, and Maffeo, the brother of Nicolo, respectable and well-informed men, embarked in a ship of their own, with a rich and varied cargo of merchandise, and reached Constantinople in safety. After mature deliberation on the subject of their proceedings, it was determined, as the measure most likely to improve their trading capital, that they should continue their voyage into the Euxine (or Black Sea). With this view they made purchases of many fine and costly jewels, and taking their departure from Constantinople, navigated the Euxine to a port named Soldaia, from whence they travelled on horseback many days until they reached the court of a powerful chief of the Western Tartars, named Barka, who dwelt in the cities of Bolgara and Assara, and had the reputation of being one of the most liberal and civilised princes hitherto known amongst the tribes of Tartary. He expressed much satisfaction at the arrival of these travellers, and received them with marks of distinction. In return for which courtesy, when they had laid before him the jewels they brought with them, and perceived that their beauty pleased him, they presented them for his acceptance. The liberality of this conduct on the part of the two brothers struck him with admiration; and being unwilling that they should surpass him in generosity, he not only directed double the value of the jewels to be paid to them, but made them, in addition, several rich presents.

The brothers having resided a year in the dominions of this prince, became desirous of revisiting their native country, but were impeded by the sudden breaking out of a war between Barka and another chief, named Alau, who ruled over the Eastern Tartars. In a fierce and very sanguinary battle that ensued between their respective armies, Alau was victorious, in consequence of which, the roads being rendered unsafe for travellers, the brothers could not attempt to return the way they came. It was recommended to them, as the only practicable mode of reaching Constantinople, to proceed in an easterly direction, by an unfrequented route, so as to skirt the limits of Barka’s territories. Accordingly they made their way to a town named Oukaka, situated on the confines of the kingdom of the Western Tartars. Leaving that place, and advancing still further, they crossed the Tigris, one of the four rivers of Paradise, and came to a desert, the extent of which was a seventeen-day journey, wherein they found neither town, castle, nor any substantial building, but only Tartars with their herds, dwelling in tents on the plain. Having passed this tract they arrived at a well-built city called Bokhara, in a province of that name, belonging to the dominions of Persia, and the noblest city of that kingdom, but governed by a prince whose name was Barak. Here, from inability to proceed further, they remained three years.

It happened while these brothers were in Bokhara, that a person of consequence and gifted with eminent talents emerged. He was proceeding as an ambassador sent by Alau (mentioned before) to the Grand Khan, supreme chief of all the Tartars, named Kublai, whose residence was at the extremity of the continent, in a direction between north-east and east. Not having ever before had an opportunity, although he wished it, of seeing any natives of Italy, he was gratified in a high degree at meeting and conversing with these brothers, who had now become proficient in the Tartar language. After associating with them for several days, and finding their manners agreeable to him, he proposed that they should accompany him to the presence of the Great Khan, who would be pleased by their appearance at his court, which had not hitherto been visited by any person from their country, adding assurances that they would be honourably received and recompensed with many gifts. Convinced as they were that their endeavours to return homeward would expose them to the most imminent risks, they agreed to this proposal, and recommending themselves to the protection of the Almighty, they set out on their journey in the suite of the ambassador, attended by several Christian servants whom they had brought with them from Venice. Their first course was between the north-east and north, and an entire year was consumed before they were able to reach the imperial residence, in consequence of the extraordinary delays occasioned by the snows and the swelling of the rivers, which obliged them to halt until the former had melted and the floods had subsided. They observed many things worthy of admiration in the progress of their journey, but which are here omitted, as they will be described by Marco Polo, in the sequel of the book.

§ 2. Being introduced to the presence of the Grand Khan, Kublai, the travellers were received with the condescension and affability that belonged to his character, and as they were the first Latins to make an appearance in that country, they were entertained with feasts and honoured with other marks of distinction. Entering graciously into conversation with them, he made earnest inquiries on the subject of the western parts of the world, of the Emperor of the Romans, and of other Christian kings and princes. He wished to be informed of their relative consequence, the extent of their possessions, the manner in which justice was administered in their several kingdoms and principalities, how they conducted themselves in warfare, and above all he questioned them particularly respecting the Pope, the affairs of the Church, and the religious worship and doctrine of the Christians. Being well-instructed and discreet men, they gave appropriate answers upon all these points, and as they were perfectly acquainted with the Tartar (Moghul) language, they expressed themselves always in becoming terms; insomuch that the Grand Khan, holding them in high estimation, frequently commanded their attendance.

When he had obtained all the information that the two brothers communicated with so much good sense, he expressed himself well satisfied, and having formed in his mind the design of employing them as his ambassadors to the Pope, after consulting with his ministers on the subject, he proposed to them, with many kind entreaties, that they should accompany one of his officers, named Khogatal, on a mission to the See of Rome. His object, he told them, was to make a request to His Holiness that he would send to him a hundred men of learning, thoroughly acquainted with the principles of the Christian religion, as well as with the seven arts, and qualified to prove to the learned of his dominions by just and fair argument, that the faith professed by Christians is superior to, and founded upon more evident truth than, any other, that the gods of the Tartars and the idols worshipped in their houses were only evil spirits, and that they and the people of the East in general were under an error in reverencing them as divinities. He moreover signified his pleasure that upon their return they should bring with them, from Jerusalem, some of the holy oil from the lamp which is kept burning over the sepulchre of our Lord Jesus Christ, whom he professed to hold in veneration and to consider as the true God. Having heard these commands addressed to them by the Grand Khan they humbly prostrated themselves before him, declaring their willingness and instant readiness to perform, to the utmost of their ability, whatever might be the royal will. Upon which he caused letters in the Tartarian language to be written in his name to the Pope of Rome, and these he delivered into their hands. He likewise gave orders that they should be furnished with a golden tablet displaying the imperial cipher, according to the usage established by His Majesty; in virtue of which the person bearing it, together with his whole suite, are safely conveyed and escorted from station to station by the governors of all places within the imperial dominions, and are entitled, during the time of their residing in any city, castle, town, or village, to a supply of provisions and everything necessary for their accommodation.

Childhood home of Marco Polo. Venice.

Boucicaut Master, Marco Polo with Elephants and
Camels Arriving at Hormuz on the Gulf of Persia
from India (detail), from the Livre des Merveilles

du Monde, c. 1410-1412. Vellum, 42 x 29.8 cm.

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris.

Sultan Sanjar Waylaid by the Old Woman
Complaining of the Misconduct of His Troops,

from the book Khamsa, c. 1539-1543.

British Library, London.



Being thus honourably commissioned they took their leave of the Grand Khan, and set out on their journey, but had not proceeded more than twenty days when the officer named Khogatal, their companion, fell dangerously ill, in the city named Alau. In this dilemma it was determined, upon consulting all who were present, and with the approbation of the man himself, that they should leave him behind. In the continuation of their journey they derived essential benefit from being provided with the royal tablet, which procured them attention in every place through which they passed. Their expenses were defrayed, and escorts were furnished. But notwithstanding these advantages, so great were the natural difficulties they had to encounter, from the extreme cold, the snow, the ice, and the flooding of the rivers, that their progress was unavoidably tedious, and three years elapsed before they were enabled to reach a sea-port town in the Lesser Armenia, named Laiassus.

Departing from thence by sea, they arrived at Acre in the month of April, 1269, and there learned, with extreme concern, that Pope Clement IV was recently dead. A Legate whom he had appointed, named M. Tebaldo de’ Visconti di Piacenza, was at this time resident in Acre, and to him they gave an account of what they had in command from the Grand Khan of Tartary. He advised them by all means to await the election of another Pope, and when that should take place, to proceed with the object of their embassy. Approving of this counsel, they determined upon employing the interval in a visit to their families in Venice. They accordingly embarked at Acre on a ship bound to Negropont, and from thence went on to Venice, where Nicolo Polo found that his wife, whom he had left with child at his departure, was dead, after having been delivered of a son, who received the name of Marco, and was now of the age of fifteen years. This is the Marco by whom the present work is composed, and who will give therein a relation of all those matters of which he has been an eyewitness.

§ 3. In the meantime, the election of a Pope was delayed by so many obstacles that they remained two years in Venice, continually expecting its accomplishment; when at length, becoming apprehensive that the Grand Khan might be displeased at their delay, or might suppose it was not their intention to revisit his country, they judged it expedient to return to Acre; on this occasion they took young Marco Polo with them. Under the sanction of the Legate they made a visit to Jerusalem, and there provided themselves with some of the oil belonging to the lamp of the Holy Sepulchre, conformably to the directions of the Grand Khan. As soon as they were furnished with his letters addressed to that prince bearing testimony to the fidelity with which they had endeavoured to execute his commission, and explaining to him that the Pope of the Christian church had not as yet been chosen, they proceeded to the before-mentioned port of Laiassus. Scarcely, however, had they taken their departure, when the Legate received messengers from Italy, dispatched by the College of Cardinals, announcing his own elevation to the papal chair; he thereupon assumed the name of Gregory X. Considering that he was now in a situation that enabled him to fully satisfy the wishes of the Tartar sovereign, he hastened to transmit letters to the King of Armenia, communicating to him the event of his election, and requesting, in case the two ambassadors who were on their way to the court of the Grand Khan should not have already quitted his dominions, that he would give directions for their immediate return. These letters found them still in Armenia, and with great alacrity they obeyed the summons to repair once more to Acre, for which purpose the King furnished them with an armed galley, sending at the same time an ambassador from himself, to offer his congratulations to the sovereign Pontiff.

Upon their arrival, His Holiness received them in a distinguished manner, and immediately dispatched them with papal letters, accompanied by two friars of the order of Preachers, who happened to be on the spot; men of letters and of science, as well as profound theologians. One of them was named Fra Nicolo da Vicenza, and the other, Fra Guglielmo da Tripoli. To them he gave licence and authority to ordain priests, to consecrate bishops, and to grant absolution as fully as he could do in his own person. He also charged them with valuable presents, and among these, several handsome vases of crystal, to be delivered to the Grand Khan in his name, along with his benediction.

Having taken leave, they again steered their course to the port of Laiassus, where they landed, and from thence proceeded into the country of Armenia. Here they received intelligence that the Soldan of Babylonia, named Bundokdari, had invaded the Armenian territory with a numerous army, and had overrun and laid waste to the country to a great extent. Terrified at these accounts, and apprehensive for their lives, the two friars determined not to proceed further, and delivering over to the Venetians the letters and presents entrusted to them by the Pope, they placed themselves under the protection of the Master of the Knights Templar, and with him returned directly to the coast. Nicolo, Maffeo, and Marco, however, undismayed by perils or difficulties (to which they had long been inured), passed the borders of Armenia, and continued their journey. After crossing deserts of several days’ march, and traversing many dangerous narrow passes, they advanced so far, in a direction between north-east and north that at length they gained information of the Grand Khan, who then had his residence in a large and magnificent city named Chemenfu. Their whole journey to this place occupied no less than three and a half years; but, during the winter months, their progress was inconsiderable. The Grand Khan having notice of their approach whilst still remote, and being aware how much they must have suffered from fatigue, sent forward to meet them at the distance of forty days’ journey, and gave orders to prepare in every place through which they were to pass, whatever might be requisite to their comfort. By these means, and through the blessing of God, they were conveyed in safety to the royal court.

§ 4. Upon their arrival they were honourably and graciously received by the Grand Khan, in a full assembly of his principal officers. When they drew nigh to his person, they paid their respects by prostrating themselves on the floor. He immediately commanded them to rise, and to relate to him the circumstances of their travels, with all that had taken place in their negotiation with His Holiness the Pope. To their narrative, which they gave in the regular order of events, and delivered in perspicuous language, he listened with attentive silence. The letters and the presents from Pope Gregory were then laid before him, and, upon hearing the former read, he bestowed much commendation on the fidelity, the zeal, and the diligence of his ambassadors, and receiving with due reverence the oil from the Holy Sepulchre, he gave directions that it should be preserved with religious care. Upon his observing Marco Polo, and inquiring who he was, Nicolo made answer, “This is your servant, and my son”; upon which the Grand Khan replied, “He is welcome, and it pleases me much”, and he caused him to be enrolled amongst his attendants of honour. And on account of their return he made a great feast and rejoicing and as long as the said brothers and Marco remained in the court of the Grand Khan, they were honoured even above his own courtiers. Marco was held in high estimation and respect by all belonging to the court. He learnt in a short time and adopted the manners of the Tartars, and acquired a proficiency in four different languages, which he became qualified to read and write. Finding him thus accomplished, his master was desirous of putting his talents for business to the test, and sent him on an important concern of state to a city named Karazan, situated at the distance of six months’ journey from the imperial residence, on which occasion he conducted himself with so much wisdom and prudence in the management of the affairs entrusted to him, that his services became highly acceptable. On his part, perceiving that the Grand Khan took a pleasure in hearing accounts of whatever was new to him respecting the customs and manners of people, and the peculiar circumstances of distant countries, he endeavoured, wherever he went, to obtain correct information on these subjects, and made notes of all he saw and heard, in order to gratify the curiosity of his master. In short, during seventeen years that he continued in the Grand Khan’s service, he rendered himself so useful that he was employed on confidential missions to every part of the empire and its dependencies; sometimes also he travelled on his own private account, but always with the consent, and sanctioned by the authority, of the Grand Khan. Under such circumstances it was that Marco Polo had the opportunity of acquiring a knowledge, either by his own observation, or what he collected from others, of so many things, until his time unknown, respecting the Eastern parts of the world, and which he diligently and regularly committed to writing, as in the sequel will appear. And by this means he obtained so much honour that he provoked the jealousy of the other officers of the court.

Dome of the Treasury, Great Mosque

of Damascus, 789. Damascus.

Dome of the Treasury, Great Mosque
of Damascus (detail), 789. Damascus.

Dome of the Treasury, Great Mosque
of Damascus (detail), 789. Damascus.