When he cast his eyes over this astonishing treasure, Hulegu was amazed, and had the caliph brought before him. ‘Caliph,’ he said to him, ‘why did you hoard so much treasure? What did you intend to do with it? And were you not aware that I was your enemy and that I was coming against you with a huge army to dispossess you? When you realized this, why did you not take your treasure and give it to the knights and mercenaries to defend you and your city? The caliph gave no answer, because he did not know what to say. And then Hulegu said to him: ‘Caliph, since I can see how dearly you love treasure, I will give you your own to eat.’ Then he had the caliph taken and put in the treasure tower, and he ordered that nothing be given to him to eat or drink.
“You see Marco, You’ve really had a wonderful life..”
That’s what I imagine Marco being told after he departed this world in January 1324, or maybe by Rustichello da Pisa when the two were imprisoned with one another in Genoa, and Marco related some of his travels to his fellow inmate.
It was during this time in captivity that Polo dictated his travels to Rustichello, who, many believe, embellished them with fanciful tales and anecdotes of his own, in a style similar to his own previous works. Marco’s travels, some with his father and uncle, had taken Polo about 15,000 miles in 24 years, through central Asia and China and included time in the service of Kublai Khan.
There has been debate on the veracity of some, if not all, of the book since the middle ages, and in his preface Nigel Cliff discusses some of these, as well as where he has taken the travels from, as numerous versions exist, in place of the original manuscript by Rustichello.
It is likely that Polo included places that he only had second hand information on, or hearsay of places near to where he did travel, it is also likely that some of the directions and distances are wrong, recalling from memory every step of a 15,000 mile journey can be no easy task, and Rustichello would surely have allowed himself some novel flourishes in amongst the litany of people who are idolators, subjects of the great Khan and who use paper money, but why write off the whole of the travels as fanciful story telling? I reckon you would be hard pushed to find any travel book that did not contain second hand experiences and fanciful storytelling. Indeed Polo is one person in all of the world in all of time I would love to meet, to sit down and listen to. An early traveller who recorded much of the mundane of the world he witnessed as well as the fanciful so that people would start to have an understanding of a place an people who, with a different history could have swept through Europe and ruled them in Genghis’s time. He travelled through eastern Europe, central Asia and the eastern China and touched Myanmar and India in a route that would be difficult to follow today, and in a time where he would have had no preconceptions of what he would see and experience.
I do admit the book in some ways can get monotonous, and Rustichello’s conversational style throughout does get tiring but it is the substance that interests me, not the style, and there is plenty of that. The Penguin Classics edition comes with an introduction, a timeline, maps, an appendix and notes and it didn’t feel like a chore to slip back and forth between them all when reading to better understand the experiences.
To focus on the debate is to miss the point for me, Marco did travel, and I personally believe, for the most part did experience the peoples and customs he writes about, and his book expanded the horizons of western readers. This is why I could sit and listen, question and marvel at his experiences, experiences which, ultimately, he had no need to share, yet did so in order to let others read about people and places they could only imagine.
I expect some of the early criticism came because the Travels inadvertently paints the christian west as backward compared to the opulent and civilised east, and as we are witnessing today, the ignorant are not taken to receiving criticism kindly.
First, though, we will tell you about their battle tactics. You should know that every soldier is under orders to carry sixty arrows into battle: thirty smaller ones for piercing and thirty larger ones with broad heads, which they use for shooting at close quarters, aiming for the face and arms or cutting through bowstrings and inflicting heavy losses. And I can also tell you that when they have shot all their arrows they lay hold of swords and clubs and deal mighty blows with them. Now I have told you how they go into battle, so we will return to the matter at hand.