Friday, September 15, 2017

Birth of Marco Polo (September 15, 1254)

Marco Polo, the Venetian merchant and traveler, was most famous for his travel through Asia in the thirteenth century, including his description of the mysterious and impenetrable China. He first visited Cilicia and Greater Armenia, about which he left some very interesting pages.

His date of birth and place are disputed, but conventionally it is considered that Polo was born in Venice on September 15, 1254. His father and brother were merchants who traded with the Near East and acquired great prestige and wealth. In 1260 they foresaw a forthcoming political change and timely left Constantinople, capital of the short-lived Latin Empire, established by the Fourth Crusade in 1204. A year later, Michael VIII Paleologos, occupied the city and re-established the Eastern Roman Empire, with the Venetian quarter burned and captured Venetian citizens blinded in revenge.

Marco spent part of his childhood in Venice, where he was raised by an aunt and uncle, since his mother had passed away early, and receive a good education. In 1269 his father and uncle returned from a travel to China and set off back in Asia with young Marco Polo, then seventeen, in 1271. The story of their travels and deeds would be documented in his Livres des merveilles du monde ( Book of the Marvels of the World, also known as The Travels of Marco Polo ) three decades later. They returned to Venice in 1295, after having traveled almost 15,000 mile and gathered many riches.

Polo armed a galley to participate in the ongoing war of the republics of Venice and Genoa. He was captured in a naval skirmish in 1296, and spent several months of his imprisonment dictating a detailed account of his travels to a fellow inmate. Rustichello da Pisa, a professional writer, incorporated tales of his own and other collected stories. The book depicted the three Polo travelers’ journeys throughout Asia, with a first European comprehensive look into the Far East, including China (Cathay) and Japan (Cipango). Marco Polo was released from captivity in 1299 and returned to Venice. The Polo family company continued its activities, and Marco became a wealthy merchant. His father died in the meantime, and he married the daughter of a fellow merchant. They had three daughters.

The famous traveler passed away on January 8 or 9, 1324, after a long illness. He was buried in the Venetian convent of San Lorenzo. His work would be widely read and translated in the following centuries. It would inspire Christopher Colombus in his quest for going to Asia by the west.

In their travel to the east, the Polos sailed from Venice to Acre, in Palestine, and then rode on camels to the Persian port of Hormuz, in the Persian Gulf. In 1293, on their way of return, they would sail from China to Hormuz, and then go overland to Trebizonda, on the Black Sea. They crossed Armenia and Cilicia on their way both times. In one passage of his book, Polo referred to Cilicia as “Lesser Hermenia” (Armenia Minor), and to its famous port of “Layas” (Ayas), which was frequented by Venetians, Genoese, and other merchants, as a crossroads of international trade:

“There are two Hermenias, the Greater and the Less. The Lesser Hermenia is governed by a certain King, who maintains a just rule in his dominions, but is himself subject to the Tartar. The country contains numerous towns and villages, and has everything in plenty; moreover, it is a great country for sport in the chase of all manner of beasts and birds. It is, however, by no means a healthy region, but grievously the reverse. In days of old the nobles there were valiant men, and did doughty deeds of arms; but nowadays they are poor creatures, and good at nought, unless it be at boozing; they are great at that. Howbeit, they have a city upon the sea, which is called LAYAS, at which there is a great trade. For you must know that all the spicery, and the cloths of silk and gold, and the other valuable wares that come from the interior, are brought to that city. And the merchants of Venice and Genoa, and other countries, come thither to sell their goods, and to buy what they lack. And whatsoever persons would travel to the interior (of the East), merchants or others, they take their way by this city of Layas.”

In another passage, he referred to Greater Armenia, then under Mongol domination:

“This is a great country. It begins at a city called Arzinga [Erzinga], at which they weave the best buckrams in the world. It possesses also the best baths from natural springs that are anywhere to be found. The people of the country are Armenians. There are many towns and villages in the country, but the noblest of their cities is Arzinga, which is the See of an Archbishop, and then Arziron [Erzerum] and Arzizi [Arjesh]. The country is indeed a passing great one… At a castle called Paipurth [Papert], that you pass in going from Trebizond to Tauris [Tabriz], there is a very good silver mine.

“And you must know that it is in this country of Armenia that the Ark of Noah exists on the top of a certain great mountain on the summit of which snow is so constant that no one can ascend; for the snow never melts, and is constantly added to by new falls. Below, however, the snow does melt, and runs down, producing such rich and abundant herbage that in summer cattle are sent to pasture from a long way round about, and it never fails them. The melting snow also causes a great amount of mud on the mountain.”