Marco Polo on the Silk Road

The Silk Road is a name given to ancient trade routes which run from China to the west. These routes were navigated by travelers, adventurers, pilgrims and traders. Among the most famous Silk Route travelers is Marco Polo (1254-1324), the iconic Italian merchant traveler. He came from Venice, Italy and set out for Asia with his father and uncle in 1271. Their journey lasted 24 years and included the Silk Road. His travelers were recorded in the Book of the Marvels of the World also known as The Travels of Marco Polo written in c.1300. Through this remarkable book the imaginations of people in the west were ignited, people became interested in travel to the Far East. Although Marco Polo was not the first European to reach China he was the first to leave a record of his travels.

The Story of Marco Polo, Kublai Khan and the Silk Road

In the book retelling Marco Polo’s travels we read of his father and uncle who were invited to meet Kublai Khan (1215-1294), Mongol leader and founder of the Yuan Dynasty. This is said to have been Kublai Khan’s first encounter with Europeans. The two Italian merchants travelers to Dadu (present day Beijing, China) to meet the Asian leader. Khan met the travelers and enquired about life in the west, politics, trade, Christianity, the Pope and the western legal system. He then gave them a letter to deliver to the Pope. One of the requests in the letter was for oil from the holy lamp in Jerusalem. The Polo brothers had to put off their journey to Jerusalem as there was a delay between the death of one Pope and the appointment of another. In this interlude they returned to Venice where Marco Polo, at that time seventeen years old, joined them on their quest to bring the oil to Kublai Khan in 1271.

The three travelers sailed from Venice to Acre and on to Jerusalem where they collected the oil. From there by camel to the Persian port of Hormuz (present day Qal’eh-ye Hormoz in Iran). Here they failed to find a seaworthy ship to take them to China and so they took the Silk Road. Marco Polo, his father Niccolo Polo and uncle Maffeo followed the Silk Road to Kublai Khan’s summer palace in Shangdu near present day Zhangjakou. Along the way they traveled both independently and as part of a larger caravan of travelers making their way along the Silk Road.

One of Marco Polo’s Silk Road adventures included being attacked by bandits who snuck up on the caravan of travelers under the cover of a sand storm. Many of the travelers in the caravan were murdered or taken as slaves but the Polos managed to escape to a nearby village. Marco Polo and his traveling companions eventually reached Kublai Khan’s palace after three years of travel. Marco Polo spent time serving in Khan’s court before returning home to Venice. His writings about the Silk Road, his observations about the culture, landscape and wildlife have been an invaluable source for future explorers, historians, anthropologists and travelers along the Silk Road.