Wednesday University Lecture 4
© 2002 Daniel C. Waugh

The Mongols, II: The World of Marco Polo and His Heirs

[Note: The slides used in the lecture have not been reproduced here; their location is indicated in the text by (*).]

The year was 1260. It was a momentous one for the Mongol Empire and, although contemporaries could not have known this, for Europe's knowledge of Asia.

At the eastern end of Asia, dramatic events were unfolding. Great Khan Möngke, Chingis Khan's grandson who had ruled from Karakorum (*) in the grasslands near the Orhon River, was dead. The throne was vacant. The fate of the empire was being discussed in Kai-ping, a city of perhaps 100,000, some 125 miles north of Beijing, only fairly recently built as a summer residence by Möngke's younger brother who had been administering the Mongol dominions in North China. Located where the landscape transitioned into the Mongolian steppe, Kai-ping (later renamed Shang-tu) is Coleridge's Xanadu, with its "stately pleasure dome" and much more. The grandson of Chingis Khan who was proclaimed emperor in May 1260 in Kai-Ping was, of course, Qubilai (Khubilai) (*). As Marco Polo would explain about the hero of his tale,

The title Khan means in our language "Great Lord of Lords." And certainly he has every right to this title; for everyone should know that this Great Khan is the mightiest man, whether in respect of subjects or of territory or of treasure, who is in the world today or who ever has been, from Adam our first parent down to the present moment....He is indeed the greatest lord the world has ever known. [Latham tr., p. 113]
In 1260, Qubilai was not yet that "greatest lord"--he would first have to fight a civil war against his youngest brother, and his conquest of the rest of China and proclamation of the Yüan Dynasty still lay ahead. Ironically, by the time Marco dictated what I have just quoted, the Mongol Empire already had begun to disintegrate.

A second momentous event in 1260 occurred at the other end of Asia. You will recall from last time that in 1258 the Mongol army under another of Chingis Khan's grandson's, Hülegü (*), had stormed Baghdad, bringing down the Abbasid Caliphate after its reign of some 500 years. Two years later, in October 1260, one of Hülegü's armies met defeat in Galilee at Ayn Jalut. While many factors help explain why the Mongols would never again seriously threaten to gain a foothold on the Mediterranean, this defeat at the hands of the Egyptian Mamluks is symbolic of the end of Mongol expansion in the West.

Our third important event in 1260 took place in Constantinople (*), when the brothers Niccolo and Maffeo Polo set off into the Black Sea to trade further East. Travelling all the way to China was presumably very far from their minds. Yet their trip was a fateful one, for, without it, we would never have the remarkable book bearing the name of Niccolo's son, Marco. Tonight I wish to begin and end with Marco Polo. Along the way we will see what we can learn about the Mongol Empire of Qubilai Khan and his successors in a period which arguably is the one when the Eurasian trade along the Silk Road reached its peak. We will meet other eyewitnesses to that history and conclude by looking at the impact of what we might capitalize as The Book.

Marco's story begins in his home town, Venice. Many of the manuscript copies of his book contain illustrations (*); the one here was probably drawn in England and shows the Polo brothers embarking from Venice for Constantinople. This is the Venice of the Grand Canal and the Piazza of San Marco (*), a city whose lifeblood, international trade, was above all connected with the East (*). The Venetian maritime empire had its outposts along the coast of Greece, in the Aegean Islands, in cities of the Levant and, of course, in Constantinople and the Black Sea. The Venetians were the first of the Italian city states to gain control of the the economy of the Byzantine Empire, located on the crossroads of East-West trade. The culture of Venice had, in fact, historically been intimately tied with that of Byzantium--the architects and artists who created the dazzling mosaics in San Marco (*) were Byzantine, and the treasury in the cathedral has an altar composed of exquisite Byzantine enamels (*). Profitable as the eastern trade was, the Venetians were not satisfied, and in 1204 they succeeded in diverting the Fourth Crusade to the Constantinople, where, as a contemporary chronicler notes,

it was so rich, and there were so many rich vessels of gold and silver and cloth of gold and so many rich jewels, that it was a fair marvel...Not since the world was made, was there ever seen or won so great a treasure...Nor do I think, myself, that in the forty richest cities of the world there had been so much wealth as was found in Constantinople.
This, I would note, in a city in decline, a city which, nonetheless had enjoyed an important position at the western end of the Silk Road. [Robert of Clari, McNeal tr., p. 101]

A major portion of that booty came back to Venice, including some very important symbols of Byzantine power. Today (*) on a corner of the ducal palace in Venice one can see the porphyry statues (*) of the four co-emperors who had ruled the Roman Empire back around 300 CE. These figures had graced two columns in one of the important public squares of Constantinople. In their haste to abscond with the spoils, the Venetians broke off one foot and it remained behind to be displayed today in the archaeological museum in Istanbul. Perhaps better known (*) is the quadriga of chariot horses which grace the facade of San Marco above its main entrance. What you see today on the outside of the church is reproductions; the originals have been moved indoors to protect them.

Having bid farewell to San Marco and the quadriga, as shown in this manuscript illumination (*) the Polo brothers arrived in Constantinople where supposedly they were received by the Latin Emperor Baldwin, who owed his throne to the Venetians. The Polos probably would have sailed into the Golden Horn (*), one of the great natural harbors of the world. The huge Byzantine walls (*), which had for so long kept invaders at bay, were still largely intact. The Polos likely would have seen the ancient Egyptian obelisk (*), a Byzantine trophy from a much earlier century, which stood in the location of the Hippodrome. Surely they would have visited the great Cathedral of Sancta Sophia (*), with its glittering mosaic dedication pictures (*) of the Byzantine rulers presenting offerings to Mary, the Mother of God, and Christ. Even after being sacked, Constantinople was still an important entrepot and the starting point for any merchant traveling further East.

The route from Constantinople was by sea along the Bosphorus (*), which enters the Black Sea here (*), and then on to the Crimea, in the territories of the Golden Horde, the western part of the Mongol Empire. This map (*) shows the world into which the Polos were entering, the empire in fact having four main divisions, the Golden Horde, the Ilkhanids (that is, the territories just conquered by Hülegü), the domains of the Chagataids, descendents of the second son of Chingiz Khan, and, finally, the eastern part of the empire, which had not yet (as of 1260) come to include all of southern China. As Marco's book relates, because of the war which had broken out between the Ilkhanids and the Golden Horde, his father and uncle were unable to return directly to Constantinople. It is entirely possible that the real reason was the fact that in 1261 the Byzantines kicked out the Latin ruler of the city and his Venetian allies, thus at least temporarily blocking any possibility that Venetian merchants could safely pass through the Bosphorus.

Merchants on the Silk Road were never deterred by such events though, since the normal pattern in any event was to buy a bit, move on to another city, sell some, buy a new consignment, and continue. Thus it was probably no great hardship for them to set out along the trade routes (*) from the Southern steppes of Russia to Bukhara (*), one of the great trading emporia of Central Asia and a major center of Islamic learning.

The Polos' contemporary, the Persian chronicler and official under the Mongols, Juvaini, was just putting the finishing touches on his great history of Chingiz Khan and his successors. While in it he has little kind to say about his overlords, he was florid in his praise for the centers of Islamic culture. To him, Bukhara

is the cupola of Islam and is in those regions like unto the City of Peace [i.e., Baghdad]. Its environs are adorned with the brightness of the light of doctors and jurists and its surroundings embellished with the rarest of high attainments. Since ancient times it has in every age been the place of assembly of the great savants of every religion. [Boyle tr., pp. 97-98]

While the city suffered during the Mongol invasion of Central Asia, by the 1260s it had recovered, and, as Juvaini notes of the place the Polos would actually have seen, "Today no town in the countries of Islam will bear comparison with Bokhara in the thronging of its creatures, the multitude of movable and immovable wealth, the concourse of savants, [and] the flourishing of science" [Boyle tr., p. 108].

From Bukhara, the road led now to Beijing, for the Polos were persuaded to accompany an ambassador Hülegü was sending to Qubilai. While The Book contains substantial descriptive detail of places which they might actually have seen, we cannot be certain of the route they took across Eurasia. As John Larner points out in the book that was ordered for this course, Marco Polo's account is less travelogue than descriptive geography. At times it is hard to tell which information came to him second hand, and there was no real effort to organize the material in chronological sequence.

In his preface, Marco relates how the brothers were received by the Great Khan and eventually dispatched bearing paidzes, (*) the gold tablets of authority that would authorize them to use the Mongol postal relay system. As Marco indicates, their mission was to deliver letters to the Pope and then return with Western priests and learned men. The Khan's wish for priests may be the figment of a Christian imagination, although it is not improbable, as we will see when we examine Qubilai's religious views.

What is important here is the fact that the brothers Polo made it all the way back to Venice, picked up Niccolo's then seventeen-year-old son Marco and returned to China, this time via the Levant. They probably arrived in Beijing in 1275 and remained, somewhat unwillingly it seems, until 1292, when they managed to join an embassy taking a bride to the Ilkhanid ruler in Persia. Their return trip was by sea (*)--here they are shown at the port of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. By 1295 they were back in Venice (*), having been away for nearly a quarter century. Had Marco died then and there, he would have been at most a footnote in history, whose name barely appears in the Venetian records and not at all in the Chinese ones.

As you know if you have read Larner's study, the authorship of The Book attributed to Marco Polo is very much in dispute, and some (a distinct minority, and I am not among them) even question whether he went to China. We are quite certain that The Book is the result of a collaboration, when in 1298, apparently having been captured during a sea battle, Marco found himself in a Genoese prison with a professional writer of the equivalent in those days of Harlequin romances. Marco talked, and according to Larner, not just talked but consulted notes, none of which we have though. His collaborator Rusticello put the tale into one of the many versions we now have, reorganizing and embroidering on the material as he did it. Indeed, as we would expect for a literary work of the type Rusticello composed for a living, the verbiage is often formulaic.

I will not wade into the details of all the controversies about authorship--you can readily read about them in Larner's thoughtful account. I might note though that indeed there are inaccuracies in The Book, especially regarding places which we are pretty sure Marco did not visit personally. He does seem to inflate his importance as an official working under Qubilai. The author's religious biases and credulity are quite evident, although in this regard he is hardly unusual among his contemporaries, and we should certainly not dismiss him simply as an orientalizing westerner. Silences about things we think he should have noted (e.g., footbinding, the Great Wall) are easily explicable, given where he was when and the fact his activity was confined primarily to the circles of the Mongol ruling elite.

What he does tell us, often in great detail, is more often than not unique but also believable. As Larner puts it, his is "a careful, common-sense and well-organized transmission of what in its heyday was hitherto unknown information. This material, originating from diligent accumulation of records and notes, is set down in a spirit which seeks to omit all that is not true" [p. 180]. It is a work of systematic descriptive geography, not of mindless entertainment and fictions.

Let us examine a few passages. Marco describes Badakhshan (*), the eastern part of of what is now eastern Tajikistan, and the adjoining Wakhan corridor, leading through the Pamir and Hindu Kush Mountains into the southwestern part of today's Xinjiang.

...The traveller...goes three days' journey towards the north-east, through mountains all the time, climbing so high that this is said to be the highest place in the world (*). And when he is in this high place, he finds a plain between two mountains, with a lake from which flows a very fine river. Here is the best pasturage in the world; for a lean beast grows fat here in ten days. Wild game of every sort abounds. There are great quantities of wild sheep of huge size. Their horns grow to as much as six palms in length and are never less than three or four. The horns and bones of the sheep are found in such numbers that men build cairns of them beside the tracks to serve as landmarks to travellers in the snowy season. This plain, whose name is Pamir, extends fully twelve days' journey. In all these twelve days there is no habitation or shelter, but travellers must take their provisions with them. No birds fly here because of the height and the cold. And I assure you that, because of this great cold, fire is not so bright here nor of the same color as elsewhere, and food does not cook well. [Latham tr., pp. 79-80]

Indeed, one can recognize here (*) the sheep later named for Marco, the Ovis poli. Perhaps he is describing the obos (*), cairn-like markers not merely of practical but also of religious significance, which are often decorated with horns. Polo is indeed in the environment of the Pamir plateau (*) as one approaches Tashkurgan and from there (*) looks across at the nearly 25,000-foot Mustagh Ata. On the 12,000-foot high plateau he has experienced the consequences of trying to build a fire and cook in oxygen-thin air. Of course he could not have known that the slow cooking times were not simply because of the cold air but the result of lower boiling temperatures at altitude.

He then moves on to Kashgar, which, as he correctly notes, "lies towards the east-north-east."

Kashgar was once a kingdom, but now it is subject to the Great Khan. It has villages and towns in plenty. The biggest city, and the most splendid, is Kashgar (*). The inhabitants live by trade and industry. They have very fine orchards and vineyards and flourishing estates. Cotton grows here in plenty, besides flax and hemp. The soil is fruitful and productive of all the means of life. This country is the starting-point from which many merchants set out to market their wares all over the world. ...There are some Nestorian Christians in this country, having their own church and observing their own religion. The inhabitants have a language of their own. [Latham tr., pp. 80-81]

Marco's somewhat frustratingly pithy account about this town (*) brought it to Europeans' attention for the first time. In fact, as the "starting point from which many merchants set out to market their wares all over the world," it was extraordinarily important, the key entrepot for those like Marco who would come through the Inner Asian mountains, be they the Pamirs, the Tien Shan in the north, or the Karakorum in the south. In an oasis fed by the snowmelt from the mountains (*), the city was one of the historic centers of the Silk Road, a collecting point for caravans (*) coming from the east around the Taklamakan Desert or heading back east into China proper.

We might well ask why Marco, in the company of his merchant father and uncle, says so little about this important commercial center. Probably the reason is that, unlike the later Florentine merchant Pegolotti, he was not compiling a merchant handbook as such. So he may list products, but generally he does not provide detail about prices, exchange rates, etc--his goal is not to offer a really practical guide to trade on the Silk Road.

While I am unable to provide documentary footage of the Polos in Kashgar (Chevrolet had already overspent its advertising budget for the winter Olympics), as a substitute I can offer some photographs of Kashgar's famous Sunday bazaar, which even today preserves something of the flavor of markets which Polo might have seen (***).

Understandably, Polo notes the presence in Kashgar of Nestorian Christians, especially since the legends about a Christian ruler known as Prester John (whose territory was somewhere in Inner Asia) were widespread in the West. You will recall from previous lectures that Nestorian Christianity was to be found among the Uighurs, whose state in the Tarim Basin survived down into the time of Marco's journey to China. As William of Rubruck, whom we met last time, noted when he visited the Mongol court in the 1250s, there was a strong Nestorian presence in Karakorum. A fictional letter from Prester John to the Pope circulated widely in Europe and eventually, long after Marco Polo, would make its way into print (*). At least initially Europeans believed (wishful thinking of course) that this mysterious Christian priest/king was to be identified with the Khan himself. After the Mongol invasion of Europe, that idea gave way to a scenario where John was believed to have fought against the Mongols (*), as illustrated here in an English manuscript of Marco's book. The historical reality behind such beliefs probably simply embellishes on some of the Mongols' real Inner Asian opponents, who may indeed have been Nestorians.

Of course as far as religion in Kashgar was concerned, Marco is silent about that which was really important, perhaps precisely because it was the norm, rather than the exception. At least since the tenth or eleventh century, the city had been a significant center of Islam. Under the Turkic rulers known as the Karakhanids, it produced some very important writers who would go on to careers in other Islamic capitals. One of them, Mahmud Kashgari (*) (that is, Mahmud from Kashgar), was buried just off the main road from the south, along which Polo might have passed. The monument and tomb complex (*) you see today are modern, but what is of particular interest to us is that Kashgari placed his home town practically in the center of his world map (*) when he compiled his very famous dictionary of the Turkic languages and culture in the eleventh century. (Note, the original names were in the Arabic script; this is a copy where they have been replaced by Cyrillic.) Keep these images in mind, since we will come back to world maps a bit later.

The center of Marco's Mongolian Empire though was much farther east, at the court of the Great Khan. It is almost as if he is writing an authorized biography of Qubilai, a kind of paean to the magnificence of his court and the beneficial effects of his administration. One can understand how some scholars feel this laudatory account does not quite ring true. They cite, among other evidence, the fact that by the end of his reign the population of China, at least in the North, had significantly decreased over what it had been in Song times. However, we still must rely on Marco for such things as his description (*) of the no longer extant palace and hunting park at Kai-peng (remember, Coleridge's Xanadu) and the routines of the Khan's life. Archaeology seems to confirm the accuracy of what he says at least regarding the physical environment of the court.

In this city [Marco writes] Khubilai Khan built a huge palace of marble and other ornamental stone. Its halls and chambers are all gilded, and the whole building is marvellously embellished and richly adorned... [A] wall...encloses...fully sixteen miles of park-land well watered with springs and streams and diversified with lawns. Into this park there is no entry except by way of the palace. Here the Great Khan keeps game animals of all sorts, such as hart, stag, and roebuck, to provide food for the gerfalcons and other falcons which he has here in mew. The gerfalcons alone amount to more than 200. Once a week he comes in person to inspect them....Often, too, he enters the park with a leopard on the crupper of his horse; when he feels inclined, he lets it go and thus catches a hart or stag or roebuck....This he does for recreation and sport. [Latham tr., p. 108]

Marco then proceeds to a fascinating description of a ceremony which took place with great regularity on August 28 each year. He describes how the Khan kept a stud farm of more than 10,000 snow white horses.

The milk of these mares may not be drunk by anyone who is not of the imperial lineage, that is to say of the lineage of the Great Khan...When these white steeds are grazing, such reverence is shown to them that if a great lord were going that way he could not pass through their midst, but would either wait till they had passed or go on until he had passed them. The astrologers and idolaters have told the Great Khan that he must make a libation of the milk of these mares every year on the 28th of August, flinging it into the air and on the earth, so that the spirits may have their share to drink. They must have this, it is said, in order that they may guard all his possessions, men and women, beasts, birds, crops, and everything besides... [Latham tr., p. 109]
So, here we have the Great Khan, increasingly seduced by Chinese ways, as his winter palace in Beijing would attest, observing traditional Mongol shamanic practices at least when he was in the north near the steppe. The accuracy of what he describes here is amply documented from other sources and is hardly something Marco would have learned had he not been in the Khan's entourage.

As Marco and our other sources make clear, the Mongols tended to be quite eclectic in their religion, drawing upon any faith which would seem to serve their purpose. Khubilai's mother was a Nestorian Christian, his favorite wife an ardent Buddhist. It seems as though Khubilai had a particular interest in Buddhism, and cultivated the Saskya Pandita--one of the important Tibetan monastic leaders. Invited to Beijing, he died on the way. (*) A pagoda in Lanzhou, on the very brown Yellow River, marks his burial place. His successor eventually did come to Khubilai's court and became an important adviser of the Khan. We are reminded of the importance of Tibetan Buddhism in the period of Mongol rule in China when we visit Mogao cave 465 (*) at Dunhuang, which was painted (*) in the early 14th century. The subject matter includes (*) the familiar esoteric Buddhist images of the coupling of the deities emblematic of wisdom and compassion but noteworthy for their fierce visages and their being draped with ornaments of human skulls.

Muslims were welcomed by the Khan, in the first instance because of their administrative talents. Of course as tax collectors, and not necessarily always honest ones, they were highly unpopular, as Marco quite candidly admits. He spends some pages describing the fate of Ahmad, who had abused the Khan's trust and so angered the Chinese that they assassinated him.

Muslims also were brought in to join Christians and Chinese in the large group of court astronomers and astrologers. Remember, this was an era when astrology was also a science; even in our recent times, we are told, it has been taken seriously in the White House. Practically no action in China was undertaken without making sure first that the heavenly signs were propitious. (*) One of the few structures left in Beijing from Qubilai's time is the old observatory building. Very likely its staff was drawn from an observatory which had been built somewhat earlier in northern Iran by the Ilkhanid ruler Hülegü. While the Chinese had their own traditions of astronomy, the mathematical precision of Islamic astronomy was widely respected. We will revisit this topic next time in Timurid Samarkand.

The last of Marco's topics on which I would like to comment is the manufactures promoted under the Mongols. As we are well aware, the Mongols were good at accumulating wealth, through the sacking of cities, the promotion of trade, or by taxation. I illustrated for you last time some of the objects found in the tombs of the elite in Mongolia from the 13th and 14th centuries-- (*) for example this gold cup decorated with a peony design, this patterned silk robe (*), and these leggings (*), all of which seem to be of Chinese manufacture. Lest we should think their sacking of cities somehow is a distinctive feature of what we might term "Asiatic barbarism," I would remind you of what the good, European Christians, the greedy Venetians, did when they took Constantinople in 1204. As you know from our last lecture, Chingiz Khan's conquest of Central Asia, was provoked by the murder of his merchants, not by some destructive urge.

We can document, in part from Marco Polo, the fact that the Mongol rulers both in the Middle East and in China, actively promoted the manufacture of certain commodities on which the Khans placed high value. Granted, when we learn of colonies of weavers or other craftsmen from the West who had been relocated into China, we have to assume that they did not go voluntarily. There is ample documentation to suggest that even as early as those first Mongol invasions of Central Asia around 1220, hundreds of craftsmen were re-located into northern China or the steppe regions just north of the Yellow River. When Marco Polo describes this region, we cannot be sure of the origin of the peoples he lists, but his description is nonethless significant for its detail:

[The traveller] finds may cities and towns inhabited by Mahometans, idolaters [Buddhists] and Nestorian Christians. They live by commerce and industry, weaving the cloths of gold called nasich and nakh and silk of various types. Just as we have woolen cloths of many different types, so have they of cloth of gold and of silk. And they subject to the Great Khan. {Latham tr., p. 106]
What we seem to be talking about here is the production of a particular kind of silk decorated with embroidery in gold thread. This nasij cloth was probably produced originally in the Middle East, but it came to be so coveted by the Mongols that the production techniques were transported to China though resettlement of the artisans. Marco also describes numerous Chinese cities in the south known for their silk production, but apparently nasij was a type of cloth not normally produced there.

There is ample evidence that the sea trade from the China coast continued under the Mongols, and traditional Chinese crafts such as porcelain manufacture flourished. In fact (*) the famous blue and white ware which we associate with the exports of the Ming Dynasty began to be produced in Mongol Yüan times. Marco could easily hop a boat to Persia on his way home, and, as we will see next time, the volume of trade on the sea routes would later reach epic proportions under the early Ming.

(I should note here that the topic of commodity production and trade under the Mongols is the subject of two important recent books by Professor Thomas Allsen, who will be lecturing in our spring series at the Seattle Asian Art Museum on May 9, three days before the first of Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road concerts.)

Despite the de facto disintegration of the Empire by the beginning of the fourteenth century and continuing political disorders, we know commodity production and exchange such as that documented by Marco continued, as did the travel of Europeans along the routes to China. In fact the Polos had hardly left Beijing when a Franciscan missionary, John of Montecorvino arrived and established there the first Latin rite Christian Church in 1294. By 1305 he reported having "an adequate knowledge of the Tartar language and script," and that he had "translated into that language and script the whole of the New Testament and the Psalter and have had it written in beautiful characters. And I bear witness to the Law of Christ and read and preach openly and in public" [Dawson ed., p. 227]. Even though Qubilai was gone, Montecorvino was persuaded "that there is no king or prince in the world who can equal the Lord Chan in the extent of his land, and the greatness of the population and wealth." The Franciscan community grew, and the Church established itself in several of the ports of South China to serve the needs of what seems to have been a burgeoning community of European merchants. One of the most famous of these Franciscan monks was Odoric of Pordenone (*), who arrived in China in 1322, two years before Marco Polo's death back in Venice. Marco's account of his travels was already becoming well known in various manuscripts, and Odoric's description of his travels, written on his return to Europe in 1330 would become equally well known, even if it was much more limited in its scope.

While few physical traces of the Mongol-era European communities in China remain, a number of years ago the tombstone (*) of Catherine Ilioni, dated 1342, was unearthed in Yangzhou. Her brother also was buried there in 1344. Their father was a Genoese merchant. Although there is no evidence beyond his own claim, Marco Polo writes that he had ruled Yangzhou for three years while in the service of Qubilai; the city did become the location of a Franciscan convent.

As John Larner reminds us, there is much debate over the question of how extensive and valuable the Chinese trade may have been for European merchants and manufacturers. The Italian archives document that Chinese silk was still inexpensive, but often it was not of the highest quality or was damaged in shipment. Its influx seems to have played a key role in the development of an important Italian silk industry. We know that as late as 1340 the Florentine merchant Pegolotti would enumerate the abundance of eastern wares in Constantinople (many, of course, from the Near East, not the Far East) and would advise that the trade route all the way from Tana (Azov) at the mouth of the Don River to China "is perfectly safe, whether by day or by night, according to what the merchants say who have used it" [Yule ed., p. 152]. He did go on to indicate that when a ruler died, there could be disruptions, including confiscation of goods. That this trade was not unusual can be seen from the rather detailed instructions he provides concerning outfitting a caravan, what goods to take, what the exchange rates were. Like Marco Polo (*) he describes the Chinese paper money. The manuscript image here is a fanciful one of a Europeanized Qubilai distributing it.

Pegolotti's contemporary wand spent significant time in the territories of the Mongol Golden Horde before heading off through Central Asia to India and, it seems, all the way to Southeast China. Ibn Battuta is of interest to us in part because he provides a Muslim perspective on his world; first and foremost he is interested in the Islamic communities in the places he visits. He happened to be in the Golden Horde right at its peak under Khan Özbeg. Although they operated under Mongol suzerainty, that was the time when the Genoese were in control of the Black Sea ports and the Constantinople trade to the East. Ibn Battuta landed in Kaffa and noted that it "is a great city along the sea coast inhabited by Christians." It had "a wonderful harbor with about two hundred vessels in it, both ships of war and trading vessels, small and large, for it is one of the world's celebrated ports" [Gibb tr., Vol. II, p. 471]. There are remains of rather elaborate mosques built under the Mongols in other locations just north of the Black Sea (*) and as late as the second half of the fourteenth century, the important trading town of Bulgar, way up the Volga and also part of the Mongol dominions, would boast a very impressive mosque (*) and, typical for an Islamic city, good baths (*) with even a relatively sophisticated system of plumbing (*). The artifacts found at Bulgar (*) suggest a very extensive network of trade connections in all directions (*). Ibn Battuta found the Mongol capital of Sarai on the Volga to be even more impressive:

The city of Al-Sara is one of the finest of cities, of boundless size, situated in a plain, choked with the throng of its inhabitants, and possessing good bazaars and broad streets...One day we went on foot across the breadth of the town, going and returning in half a day, this too through a continuous line of houses, among which there were no ruins and no gardens. The city has thirteen mosques for the holding of Friday prayers, one of them being for the Shafiites; as for the other mosques they are exceedingly numerous. [Gibb tr., Vol. II, pp. 515-516]

It was a cosmopolitan city of various religions and nationalities; many of the merchants hailed from the Middle East--Iraq, Syria, and Egypt. As these ceramics show (*), archaeologists have documented the Islamic culture and trade of Sarai and the other Golden Horde cities. Possibly this silver chalice (*) is of western manufacture; this gilded silver dish (*) is definitely of Italian provenance. A similar picture of urban prosperity was to be found in the most important Eastern city of the Golden Horde, Urgench, just south of the Aral Sea, in the territories that had once been part of the kingdom of the Khwarezm Shah. As you recall, this area had been devastated over a century before by Chingis Khan's armies. Ibn Battuta also visited Samarkand, which had not fully recovered its pre-Mongol brilliance but would do so under Tamerlane, as we shall learn next time.

But amidst all this evidence for prosperity under what I term the Pax Mongolica, we soon encounter the beginnings of the end. The Ilkhanid state was already disintegrating; disorders were rife amongst the Chagatayids in Central Asia, and within a generation of Khan Özbeg's death, the Golden Horde would enter a two-decade-long period of civil strife which saw a new khan on the throne practically every year. If indeed there was such a thing as the Pax Mongolica (with good reason, some question the validity of the concept), it certainly did not last long. The Mongols have been blamed for any number of things--for example, the Russian penchant for despotic government and Russian isolation from the mainstream of European culture. On close examination, in which we cannot indulge here, we would discover that few of these charges stick.

I would like to end this consideration of the Mongols and the Silk Road not with a focus on material objects or political institutions, but rather what this period meant for European ideas about the world. This then brings us back to Marco Polo's book. Its copying, translation, and distribution began already in his lifetime. There are some 150 manuscripts dating from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries. It was first printed in the late 1470s and by the end of the sixteenth century had been published and republished several dozen times. What explains its appeal? As you probably know, if you have tried reading Marco, he is not always easy going. Some readers might have been titillated but others offended by some of his tales of, to European moralists, the dissolute sexual customs of various peoples he describes. At the end of one such passage, describing how it was important in Tibet that women be able to demonstrate they have sexual experience before marriage, we find one of Marco's (or is it Rusticello's) very rare jokes: "Obviously the country is a fine one to visit for a lad from sixteen to twenty-four" [Latham tr., p. 173]. The reader is constantly assaulted with a lot that presumably would have been new, but in a time when familiar legends about the non-European world would likely have had a ready market, Marco disappoints. Despite the fact that the illuminators of his manuscripts added some of the standard repertoire of headless men (*), sciapods (the guys who shade themselves with their single large foot), and other odd creatures, Marco in fact avoids them in his text. This meant for some competition from another work which appeared in the middle of the fourteenth century, a largely fabricated travel account written allegedly by one Sir John Mandeville, which is known in many more manuscript copies than is Marco's book and must have appealed precisely because it is a travel fiction, with the full repertoire of the monstrous races, also illustrated in the illuminated manuscripts (*). Incidentally, lest one should think that such images are evidence merely of the fact that ignorant Europeans thought people of the East were beastial, here (*) is an analogous Chinese image of a headless westerner. As the sixteenth-century French essayist Michel de Montaigne would sagely observe in his essay on cannibals, "Each man calls barbarism whatever is not his own practice."

As Larner shows, while some readers of Marco indeed were sceptical of the truth of his account, more importantly many were not. Most strikingly we can see evidence that he was taken seriously when we examine the evolution of European world maps during the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. This was a period in which we move from symbolic representations of the world, generally guided by religious principles, to attempts to depict accurately the geography of the known world.

Back in medieval times, the typical European world map was of the type we see here (*), where I have deliberately rotated it so the cardinal directions are as we would understand them. This is what we call a T-O map, for obvious reasons. Now the branches of the T represent three bodies of water: the Mediterranean Sea, the Don River (which enters the Black Sea in real life) and the Nile River. Thus, East occupies the right half of the map, Europe the upper left quadrant, and Africa the lower left. In the center is the Holy City, Rome. Such maps then might be elaborated, as we can see (*) in this example, from a tiny thirteenth-century Psalter which belongs to the British Library. Jerusalem, the Holy City par excellence, is in the center of the map. I have left it in the original orientation, in which our east is north. The medieval belief was that paradise was located in the distant east.

Early world maps (*) which were drawn starting soon after the writing of Marco's book--the example here is one by a Venetian, Mario Sanuto, dated to the 1320s--do not incorporate any of his material. The Far East, at the top, is still very sketchy.

It is about this time though that we start to get much greater precision in European map-making when mariners, using the compass (which came to Europe from China, via the Arabs) construct navigation charts known as portolans. They tend to show the coastlines often in exquisite and quite accurate detail. One of the most famous examples (*) is in an atlas compiled by a Spanish Jew in 1380, known as the Catalan Atlas. Here you can see its exquisite chart of the heavens and the map of Europe, which is strikingly close to what is familiar to us. The Catalan Atlas also includes Asia. I do not have a slide of the portion covering China (you can find it reproduced in Larner's book), but it is clear from the information that Marco Polo's account was an important source. And the mapmaker in fact (*) shows the Polos' caravan traversing the road between Europe and the East. In the 1450s, a Venetian mapmaker, Fra Mauro (*), made extensive use of Marco's book, although to our eyes, his embellishment of his China with European images of castles and cities makes it seem rather detached from any reality Marco witnessed. One of Larner's important points about this history of cartography is that, unlike writers who might conveniently choose to ignore or dismiss Marco, the cartographers ultimately had no choice but to try to make sense of his information and to incorporate it into their maps. The process was a gradual one, with some false starts.

One of the problems in such efforts though was the absence of concrete reference points such as the grid of latitude and longitude that we take for granted on our maps. The ability to calculate longitude accurately was developed only in the eighteenth century. Marco's comments on times of travel or distances are only of limited help if we want to translate his descriptive passages into an image on a map. European humanists' efforts to solve the problem of cartographical precision were stimulated (and also complicated by) the rediscovery of the map calculations of the Roman/Egyptian cartographer Ptolemy. The lingering effects of Ptolemaic maps can be seen in this (*) otherwise innovative map dated around 1490 by Henricus Martellus, who was working in Florence. The projection of southeast Asia is Ptolemaic, but some of the place names in the Far East come from Marco. The map is noteworthy for its inclusion of evidence from the voyage of Bartholomew Dias in 1487 to the tip of Africa. In another version of his map, Martellus placed Japan just to the west of the Canary Islands, evidence that he believed Marco Polo's account of that country. This, mind you, two years before Columbus sailed west to try to reach Japan and the Orient. A German globe (*), made in 1492 by Martin Behaim of Nuremberg is the first map of the world to refer to Marco Polo by name, equating him in importance to Ptolemy, who was so revered by the Renaissance scholars. As Larner puts it, in many ways Behaim was hedging his bets--doing the best he could to combine the old and new information. He includes Marco's Japan. He also places the home of Prester John both in distant Asia (as Marco did) and in East Africa (as others did), where he finally came to reside in the often lavishly illuminated Reniassance maps (*), such as this Portuguese one from the middle of the sixteenth century.

I wish to conclude with a few comments on Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus. Columbus's patron, Queen Isabella, owned The Book. So also did Columbus; his copy contains extensive annotations in his own hand. There can be little question but that Columbus's first voyage was inspired by Marco Polo's description of the riches of the Far East, although it is just as clear that the image was that of a China ruled by Qubilai Khan, not the China of the late fifteenth-century Ming Dynasty. Columbus's information was a mere two centuries out of date. It is very likely that Columbus first came by Marco's information indirectly--he was told all these things about how close Japan was and about all the riches of the East. "This," Larner writes, "was the supreme moment of the Book. Though Columbus had not read it before his First Voyage, there was a real sense in which he did not need to; by then its contents were part of the mental climate" [p. 181]. It was only between his second and third voyages that he made the direct acquaintance of The Book, at a time when its value as an inspiration had somewhat worn off for the great Genoese navigator.

It is interesting to see the cartographic representations combining what Columbus and his contemporaries believed from Marco and what now had been learned from the voyages west. Here (*) is the first printed map to show part of the new world, drawn by Contarini and engraved in Florence in 1506. On it are the Carribean Islands; to their west in the extension of the Atlantic Ocean (the Pacific was not yet known) is Marco Polo's Cipangu or Japan. When, in the next year, 1507, a German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller drew a map of the world (*), not only did he name America after Amerigo Vespucci but he also guessed at the existence of the Pacific Ocean, which Balboa would not discover for another six years. Magellan's voyage, which revealed the true extent of the Pacific also lay ahead; so here Japan floats rather close to the Central American coast.

Marco's fame and influence continued to grow in the sixteenth century. The pioneering Italian publisher of famous voyages, Ramusio, elevated the stature of the Polos as explorers above that of Columbus. Influential mapmakers such as Gerard Mercator (*) (here is one of his early maps, dated 1538), later famous for the map projection we know by his name, included over seventy of Marco's place names on his globe. He also misinterpreted Marco's account of Southeast Asia, the result being to posit a mythical kingdom on a promontory jutting up toward the East Indies. Many of Mercator's successors (*), including the Flemish cartographer Ortelius, who published the first really popular modern atlas of the world, repeated this error. One of Ortelius' maps (*) was "Tartary" or the Kingdom of the Great Khan, where, of course, the main source of information was The Book, now nearly three centuries out of date. This would all change dramatically though, as the Jesuits began to establish missions in Japan and China in the late sixteenth century and send back abundantly detailed reports. One of the many Jesuit specialists on China, Martino Martini, who based his New Atlas of China on extensive first-hand observation repeatedly referred to Marco and generally confirmed his observations. Martini's book was published in Amsterdam in 1655 by the greatest of the Dutch cartographers of the seventeenth century, Johannes Bleau (*), whose world map of ca. 1670 shows the progress made since Ortelius a century earlier. Alongside reaffirmation in an increasingly skeptical age though came more vigorous but ultimately unsuccessful efforts to debunk Marco, some of which were revived at the end of the twentieth century in Frances Wood's ballyhooed but unconvincing book.

We can have our Marco Polo many ways. I grew up culturally deprived--we had no television; to this day, I hardly watch it. My after-school entertainment circa 1950 was radio dramatizations. I would listen to "Bobby Benson's B-bar-B Riders," of which probably no one alive has any memories. If the program had any lasting effect on me, it might help explain why I normally teach in jeans. Who amongst those who listened as I did to "The Lone Ranger," with all its cultural stereotypes, can forget its one small segment of the "William Tell" Overture? How many of you though know that the best part of the piece is the lovely solo (I believe it is the oboe) in the calm before the storm, or have listed to the whole, long opera by Rossini? Believe it or not, perhaps the most memorable of my radio programs was a vivid dramatization of Marco Polo over a period of many weeks. Conceivably that Marco Polo is one reason I am here this evening. Just last year in Seattle there was an acclaimed puppet theater presentation of Marco Polo, which, I know from recent correspondence, has inspired at least one teacher to stimulate her young pupils' interest in the Silk Road through a puppet show of their own. If you want more of an adult challenge, I would recommend the difficult music of Tan Dun, whose opera Marco Polo was performed to some acclaim a few years ago and is available on CD. Other compositions of his have been part of Seattle Symphony's programs leading up to the Silk Road concerts by Yo-Yo Ma this spring, and will, I believe, be included as well in those performances. Tan Dun, born in China and now resident in New York, is a perfect example of a musician who is creatively bringing different cultural traditions together, as happened centuries ago along the Silk Road.

All of this is an appropriate tribute to the man and The Book which did so much to encourage Europeans to abandon their insular concepts of the world and to think about the meeting places of East and West.

Thank you.

Sources and Recommended Reading/Listening:

Consult also the bibliography appended to the previous Wednesday University lecture. I do not repeat all the relevant citations here.

I. Primary Sources:

  • Marco Polo, The Travels, tr. Ronald Latham (Penguin, 1958).
  • Christopher Dawson, [ed.], Mission to Asia (formerly published as The Mongol Mission) (UToronto Press, 1980. In addition to Carpini and Rubruck, contains the letters of John of Montecorvino and other documents.
  • Robert of Clari, The Conquest of Constantinople, tr. and ed. Edgar Holmes McNeal (Norton, 1969). A lengthy contemporary account of the seizure of Constantinope by the Fourth Crusade in 1204, with striking detail of the riches of the city.
  • Odoric of Pordenone's travels are translated by Henry Yule and Henri Cordier, Cathay and the Way Thither, Being a Collection of Medieval Notices of China, Vol. II (Hakluyt Society, 1916).
  • Francis Balducci Pegolotti's merchant handbook is available in partial translation in Yule and Cordier, Cathay, Vol. III, pp.137-173, and excerpted on the web.
  • The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, tr. and ed. C.W.R.D. Moseley (Penguin, 1983).
  • II. Secondary Sources:

  • John Larner, Marco Polo and the Discovery of the World (Yale UP, 1999). A serious and fresh look at Marco Polo's book, which raises interesing issues about its genre and authorship and provides a good idea of its reception in succeeding centuries.
  • Leonardo Olschki, Marco Polo's Asia: An Introduction to His "Description of the World" Called "Il Milione" (UCalif. Pr., 1960). A systematic examination of what Marco did and did not get right.
  • Frances Wood, Did Marco Polo Go to China? (Westview, 1996). The most recent attempt to discredit Marco, flawed by inaccuracies and faulty methodology. See the critical comments in Larner and the extended critical review by China specialist, Igor de Rachewilz, "Marco Polo Went to China," Zentralasiatische Studien 27(1997), pp. 34-92, with an addendum published in a subsequent number of the same journal.
  • The Glorious Age of Exploration (part of The Encyclopedia of Discovery and Exploration) (Doubleday, 1973). Well illustrated reference survey, in which Chs. 8-10 are devoted mostly to the Polos and include many of the interesting miniatures from Marco Polo manuscripts. Other sections cover related topics discussed in this lecture.
  • J.R.S. Phillips, The Medieval Expansion of Europe (Oxford UP, 1988). A good overview, including sections on the geography and the imagination.
  • Morris Rossabi, Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times (UCalif. Pr., 1988). A very readable synthesis by a noted scholar of the Silk Road and Mongol history.
  • Thomas T. Allsen, Commodity and exchange in the Mongol empire: A cultural history of Islamic textiles (Cambridge, 1997). Fascinating evidence on importance of particular textiles stimulating economic exchange, a study extended into other areas of cultural exchange in the same author's Culture and Conquest in Mongol Eurasia (Cambridge UP, 2001).
  • Robert Sabatino Lopez, "China Silk in Europe in the Yuan Period," Journal of the American Oriental Society, 72/2 (1952), 72-76. Evidence on the silk trade and manufacture from the Italian archives.
  • Lauren Arnold, Princely Gifts and Papal Treasures: The Franciscan Mission to China and its Influence on the Art of the West, 1250-1350 (Desiderata Pr., 1999). An elegantly produced study which brings together fascinating material on artistic exchange and also serves as an excellent introduction to the Franciscan mission.
  • Jonathan D. Spence, The Chan's Great Continent: China in Western Minds (Norton, 1998). By an inspiring historian of China, explores China in the western imagination from Marco Polo to Italo Calvino in the late 20th century.
  • III. Music:

  • Tan Dun, Marco Polo, 2 CDs (Sony Classical, # 62912)
  • The Wednesday University is jointly sponsored by the Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington and Seattle Arts and Lectures and hosted by the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington.