Marco Polo and his Tryst with Kublai Khan


Samuel Taylor Coleridge starts his unfinished poem Kubla Khan as “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan, a stately pleasure-dome decree…” As the poet revealed the poem was composed one night in a state of opium induced dream after reading a work containing the descriptions of Xanadu. Xanadu was originally the capital of Kublai Khan after he had conquered China. Later on, though the emperor shifted his capital to Dadu, in present day Beijing. Xanadu stayed important as it was the imperial summer city during Kublai Khan’s reign. Coleridge saw Xanadu only in a dream after reading about it, but there was a person who actually saw Xanadu and later wrote about it. We are talking about Marco Polo, the great Venetian voyager. During Kublai Khan’s reign many Westerners were entertained in the imperial court and Marco Polo happened to be one of them.

Marco Polo Navigator

Marco Polo, The Great Navigator

 

Marco Polo’s father, Niccolo and his uncle Matteo were voyagers too. It is learned that when Marco was born his father and uncle were on a voyage to the East. Marco met with these two important people only when he was 15 years old. After getting from their voyage, Niccolo and Matteo shared some of their travel experiences with Marco Polo. The boy was deeply impressed and wanted to become a great navigator one day. He did not have to wait long, as the seventeen year old Venetian boy set sail with his father and uncle to Asia in 1271.

Polo Brothers and Kublai Khan

Polo Borthers at the Court of Kublai Khan

 

The Polos left not only with the trading intention, they were also carrying some letters and valuable gifts from the Pope to be delivered to Kublai Khan, the great Mongolian emperor of China. During their first visit to China Niccolo and Matteo had earned the favor of Kublai Khan. The Khan had expressed his interest in Christianity to the Polo brothers. The Polo brothers were requested to speak to the Pope on the Khan’s behalf. Kublai Khan wanted the Pope to send the Polo brothers back to China, along with 100 learned priests and holy water. Though the Pope could not fulfill Kublai Khan’s request, he sent letters and valuable gifts anyway to not offend the mighty Khan. Polos on their behalf arranged for two friars, but these holy men decided to turn back after tasting difficulty in travelling.

Kublai Khan Dome in Xanadu

Pleasure Dome in Xanadu

 

It is learned that the band of Polos left Venice to travel south via the Mediterranean Sea to the Holy Land (modern day Israel and Palestine), which was then under the partial control of the Christian crusaders. From the port city of Acre, the voyagers travelled northwards to Trebizond and then south till reaching Baghdad. They then reached the port city of Ormuz from where they travelled to the Taklamakan Desert. They crossed the Gobi Desert to reach China. In China, the Polos received warm welcome. Young Marco Polo immersed himself in Chinese culture and quickly gained the favor of the Khan, for he was a talented linguist. He was appointed a special envoy to the Yuan court, which helped the young man to travel to Asian countries such as Burma, Tibet and India. Later on, Marco Polo was appointed the tax inspector at Yanzhou and an official at the Privy Council.

Marco Polo and Kublai Khan

Marco Polo and Kublai Khan

 

The three Polos stayed in China for nearly 17 years and during this time they had amassed a lot of wealth. When Kublai Khan reached his late seventies and his health was fading, the Polos wanted to leave China with all their wealth. But they were afraid that such a request might offend the great Khan. But Kublai Khan on hearing their request at once allowed them to leave China. But he set a final mission for the Polos. They had to escort the Mongol Princess Kokachin to Persia on their return voyage. The return trip was less than favorable. It took two years to reach Persia and during this tenure about 600 crew members and passengers died. When the Polos finally reached Ormuz, there were only 18 surviving members in the crew. The Persian Prince who was to marry Kokachin had died in this time, so the Polos had to wait until an ideal husband was found for the Mongol Princess. The Polos left for Venice and returned on 1295.

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