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Old 11-06-2019, 09:44 AM   #11 (permalink)
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Welcome to the Wastelands: Voyages Across the African Deserts

While the first image that springs to our mind (certainly to mine) when we hear the word “explorer” or even “voyage” is of sailing ships toiling their way across the seven seas, exploration was not of course confined to seafaring adventurers and traders. Much of Africa is made up of huge deserts, and you wouldn’t get very far trying to cross those in a ship! In fact, the traversing of these arid seas of sand could be seen to be even more arduous and fraught with danger than the crossings of the Atlantic, Pacific or Indian oceans. The sun was remorseless by day, hot enough to cook flesh, and the night time searingly cold; little if any shelter available, no resources for food or water save what you carried with you, no game to hunt, no trees to cut down to make shelters, and always before you the same rolling, endless expanse of yellow, waves of sand dunes and hills of sand running on into what seemed eternity, to the very horizon, leaving you feeling trapped in the desert, and sure to die there, your bones joining those of other foolhardy adventurers or travellers who had attempted to cross these crucibles of endurance.

In case you think I’m exaggerating, or making this up, or basing it on films I’ve seen, well I am, but again don’t take only my word for it. Here’s a description of the Libyan Desert by one of the foremost authorities on the Sahara, E.F. Gautier: “There, in the great Libyan Erg, we find what is probably the most imposing mass of dunes on the whole face of the Earth. They cover a vast area, some 750 miles in length and 250 to 300 miles wide. It is a region more unknown than the Antarctic, and unknown because it is impenetrable… Within the confines of the Libyan Desert we find an extreme rarity … or even a total absence of pasturage, wells or running water.”

The first record we have of an attempt to cross the desert tells us that it ended badly. King Cambyses II of Persia, having subdued Egypt in around 525 BC, ordered his men into the desert to destroy a shrine there and take control of the oases. About 50,000 men entered, but not one returned. Word is that they got caught in a sandstorm and that was the end of them. Perhaps a salutary lesson that the desert should be given respect and not treated as something that can be conquered or brushed aside. The already-alluded to bones buried under the major deserts all attest to the impotence of even the greatest rulers when pitted against Mother Nature and her searing, scorching sons, the deserts of Africa.

The next account we have from our friend Herodotus, who while talking to men of Cyrene was told of the story related by the King of Ammon, Etearchos. Apparently this comes across as a basic ancient’s idea of a lads’ road trip, as some of the sons of the chieftain of the Nasamonians, bored and with nothing to do, drew lots and the five who got the short (or long) straw, headed out into the Libyan Desert to explore and see how far they could get. Mad, right? But boys will be boys, and at least they had the good sense to pack provisions. After walking through a whole lotta sand they came to a place where there were some fruit trees growing. As you do, they stopped and began picking the fruit when they were set upon by a load of small black guys (I’m not being racist here: the literal account says they were “of less than moderate height… and black of colour.”) who took them prisoner. It’s supposed they escaped and got back to their own country, but again it might be taken as yet another admonition: the desert ain’t a playground, kids. If you’re bored go into the village or annoy camels or something, or check out the local brothels. Your first encounter with the desert could well end up being your last.

But the Romans were seldom put off by warnings and tales of adversity, and small wonder when they were the largest and most powerful empire in the ancient world, certainly for a long time after the birth of Christ. Romans, too, considered themselves, or at least their empire, indestructible, unbeatable, indefatigable, and so the desert presented little terror for them. More than likely, their cruel and remorseless centurions instilled more fear in them than did the Sahara itself. To refuse an order in a Roman legion was to invite death, and not usually a quick one either, so the soldiers did what soldiers down the centuries have done, obeyed orders and went where they were told to go, without thinking about it much, or at least without grumbling about it.

They began their occupation of the northern Sahara in 19 BC and by about 60 AD had penetrated into the central Sahara. Can’t have been fun, weighed down by all that armour. Still, I guess it beat hanging on a cross. Nevertheless, the Romans were principally conquerors, soldiers, servants of a military state and eventually ruled by dictators, and they weren’t (or don’t seem to have been) that interested in exploring for exploring’s sake. Certainly, this could be said of many races, empires, countries and even individual explorers: while some men and women surely did seek merely to expand their knowledge of the world or reach some intellectual or artistic goal (such as those seeking the source of the Nile, or the search for the Northwest Passage) most had some sort of ulterior motive in mind. The Roman Empire, however, almost explored as a by-product, discovering countries, civilisations and so forth by accident, in their quest for new territory, slaves and riches. Reminds me of the old joke: “Join the Navy! Travel to lots of exotic interesting places! Meet lots of exotic interesting people… and kill them!”

So, while it seems you couldn’t really classify the Romans as explorers, their Greek counterparts were something else entirely, as we have already seen they were explorers at heart (traders too, of course, and even conquerors, those mostly in that order) so it was not at all surprising that they should be the first ones to properly explore the interior of the Dark Continent.

Lake Victoria, originally Nyanza or Lake Nyanza

Diogenes
Name: Diogenes
Nationality: Greek
The Exploration Years: Unknown
Ship name(s): n/a
Ship type(s): n/a
Famous for: Discovering the source of the Nile, being the first non-African to see Mount Kilimanjaro and Lake Victoria

Diogenes was apparently a very common name in Greece and Greek-speaking countries - might as well be called Harry or Eddie - and we have no other name so there’s no way to trace the actual existence of this man, but he’s nevertheless one of the first real explorers of Africa. And even if he has no real name he deserves his place in history. Another one who was blown off-course (those pesky winds, huh?) he ended up landing at Tanganyika, moving inland to set eyes on the fabulous Mount Kilimanjaro, and then also found the twin lakes which would later be named Lake Victoria and Lake Albert by Henry Stanley, the true source of the River Nile.
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Old 11-06-2019, 03:59 PM   #12 (permalink)
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Originally Posted by Trollheart View Post
Question: how many times can Trollheart get it wrong in one journal? Answer, in this case, at least three times. Man am I stupid! Firstly, after being challenged by Batty when I created this journal originally, all the way back in 2017, to include black explorers I arrogantly and quite incorrectly and ignorantly asserted there were none in history, and of course there are. Strike one! Then I titled the journal “The MEN Who Drew the Map of the World”, thinking there had been no female explorers. Wrong again, TH! Strike two! Finally (although this is not as big an error as the other two) I mentioned in the introduction that we would be going “all the way back to the Vikings”, when in fact the first known, or at least named, explorers would have considered the Vikings not only modern but almost futuristic, and to meet them we have to go back over a thousand years before the birth of Christ!

So, a good start then. Sigh. An apology is due (well, three, but you’ll have to make do with the one) so from everyone here at Planet Trollheart, let me just say
All I ask is that you admit that you're a racist.
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Old 11-06-2019, 06:05 PM   #13 (permalink)
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All I ask is that you admit that you're a racist.
That's a very racist thing to say...
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Old 12-06-2020, 11:15 AM   #14 (permalink)
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Pytheas of Massallia

Name: Pytheas
Nationality: Greek
The Exploration Years: Unsure; agreed generally to be around 330 BC
Ship name(s): Unknown
Ship type(s): Merchantmen
Famous for: Travelling to Britain and Ireland, the Arctic; longest sea-voyage of the time

Although no written account of his voyage has survived, and various commentators argue about the actual dates, we have to choose one so I’m going with that accepted by Wikipedia, based on the writings of Henry Fanshawe Tozer (1829-1916) at between 325 and 330 BC. Massailla is the old Greek name for the French port which is today known as Marseilles, and from here Pytheas is said to have travelled to Spain and Portugal, and thence across to Britain and Ireland, becoming perhaps the first one to use the word “Britain” for the island country. His impressions of the British seem to indicate that he found the land cold and wet (quelle surprise!) which to a native of France would be quite a shock, that the people lived in thatched cottages and were ruled by many kings - another odd thing to a democratic Greek - but were at heart a simple people who lived in peace with each other. When they did war, he says, they rode in chariots just like his own people.

According to Strabo (64 BC - 24 AD), a Greek geographer who didn’t like our Pytheas much and thought he was a liar, Pytheas explored the whole of northern Europe “to the ends of the earth”. At this point in time, of course, the ends of the earth were however far the bravest or most adventurous could sail, and countries that lay beyond this limit, such as Africa or Australia or America, were not known to exist at all. Although Pytheas’s account mentions Thule, the fact that he recounts the sun never set at midsummer seems to indicate that he had actually travelled as far as the Arctic Circle. Quoted from Geminus of Rhodes’ On the Ocean: the Barbarians showed us the place where the sun goes to rest. For it was the case that in these parts the nights were very short, in some places two, in others three hours long, so that the sun rose again a short time after it had set.[/i]

He also mentioned “the frozen ocean”, drift ice he encountered which would have been completely new and probably frightening to a Greek, or any other sailor, as something they had never encountered and could barely understand. Strabo again: Pytheas also spoke of the waters around Thule and of those places where land properly speaking no longer exists, nor sea nor air, but a mixture of these things, like a "marine lung", in which it was said that earth and water and all things are in suspension as if this something was a link between all these elements, on which one can neither walk nor sail.

There seems, from this account at least, to be an idea that neither he nor the explorer he was commenting upon (and trying to discredit) had any idea at all what ice was, or if they had, that they had never come across it floating in the sea. Perhaps they may have witnessed lakes freezing over in the winter, perhaps not. But free-floating chunks of ice in the sea was a completely new experience for them, and if nothing else, would serve to confirm that Pytheas had indeed travelled “beyond the known world” and seen terra incognita. He also discovered the Baltic Sea, according to Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) in his Natural History (AD 77)

Pytheas said that the Gutones, a people of Germany, inhabited the shores of an estuary of the Ocean called Mentonomon, their territory extending a distance of six thousand stadia; that, at one day's sail from this territory, is the Isle of Abalus, upon the shores of which, amber is thrown up by the waves in spring, it being an excretion of the sea in a concrete form; as, also, that the inhabitants use this amber by way of fuel, and sell it to their neighbours, the Teutones.

This is, of course, as we should expect by now, disputed by Strabo, who didn’t seem to even think the Baltic existed. Pytheas also (no doubt to poor old Strabo’s intense annoyance) figured out that the moon was controlling the tides. In another attempt to discredit him - not sure what exactly he had against the guy - and in fact invalidate his whole voyage, Strabo pointed out that Pytheas was “a poor man” and could not have afforded to finance the expedition. Two counter-arguments given to this, let’s be honest, fit of pique, are that a) the government paid for him to undertake the voyage in order to better understand the lands which were at that time unknown, or b) good old merchants, always in the market for a new trade route, stumped up the cash. Either explanation certainly seems acceptable, but no doubt Strabo would continue to fume even if these reasons were given to him.

Himilco

Name: Himilco
Nationality: Carthaginian
The Exploration Years: Unknown, but sometime between 500/600 BC
Ship name(s): Unknown
Ship type(s): Unknown
Famous for: Being the first explorer from the Mediterranean to reach the northwest coast of Europe

A quick mention for Himilco, an explorer from Carthage of whom very little is known, and of whose voyages no record survives. He is said to have sailed from the Iberian peninsula towards Britain and Ireland, France and Portugal.

Skylax

Name: Skylax of Caryanda
Nationality: Greek
The Exploration Years: Unknown, but sometime around 590 BC
Ship name(s): Unknown
Ship type(s): Unknown
Famous for: First Greek explorer to reach India

Setting sail from the city of Gandhara (approximately between east Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan), Skylax went down the Indus River, around the Arabian peninsula and into Suez. Not merely an explorer, Skylax was commissioned by the Persian king Darius I to scout out the route to India in order that his armies could later conquer them. And they did, adding India to the Persian Empire’s possessions. Skylax brought back some pretty fantastic traveller’s tales, including accounts of one-eyed beings, cave-dwelling troglodytes (though that was probably just some early Nickelback fans) and even people who could only have one child. He brought back word of the eastern folk (the Indians) to people who had never heard of them before, and even gave the country its name, taken from the Indus River he followed.

Nearchus

Name: Nearchus
Nationality: Cretan
The Exploration Years: 326-324 BC
Ship name(s): Unknown
Ship type(s): Unknown
Famous for: Voyage down the Indus River through the Persian Gulf and to the mouth of the Tigris River.

After he had assisted Alexander the Great in defeating the Persian Navy, Nearchus was made a navarch, or admiral of the fleet, and proceeded down the Indus river on a military expedition, capturing towns along the way. Unfortunately the Greeks were unused to such huge rivers as the Jhelum and where it merged with the Chenab they ended up in dangerous whirlpools which in fact wrecked several of their boats. The barges were all right, being of deep draught, but the long ships, much lower in the water, had a hard time navigating the vortices. He also noted and reported back on how rice, cotton and sugar cane were planted and harvested by the Indians. Delayed by monsoon rains and high winds, his fleet had to anchor at the mouth of the Indus and Arabius (now Hub, in Pakistan) Rivers to wait out the bad weather, building a stone fort and subsisting on briny water and fish caught from the river.

They were stuck here for twenty-four days, so must have been relieved when on arriving at Morontobara, they found food stocks had been laid in by one of Alexander’s generals, who had already captured the place. Rather disturbingly though, when they reached Balochistan (a desert area in Pakistan) the report says they “destroyed the native population”. Wow. Later they ransacked the city of Chah-Bahar, Iran’s southernmost city on the Gulf of Oman. No peaceful voyage of exploration, then! Well, I guess what do you expect from Alexander the Great? Hugs and kisses and promises of mutual benefit?

Arrian of Nicomedia describes the beginning of the voyage/campaign in his Anabasis of Alexander, written around the second century BC:

When everything had been made ready, the army began at dawn to embark on the ships, while Alexander made sacrifice to the gods as was his wont, and to the river Hydaspes as the soothsayers instructed him. Then, himself going aboard, he poured from the ship’s bow a libation from a golden bowl into the river, calling by name upon the Acesines along with the Hydaspes . . . and upon the Indus into which these flow. Then he poured a libation to Heracles, his own ancestor, and to Ammon, and to the customary gods, and gave order for the bugle to sound departure. Never was there a sound like that of the fleet rowing all together, with the coxswains crying the strokes and the oarsmen chanting as they struck the swirling water in unison. . . . The horses caused amazement in the natives who beheld them aboard the transports (for no horses had ever been seen on ships in India); so that the natives who had been present at the embarcation followed a long way, while those whom the shouts of the rowers and the beat of the oars attracted, came running down to the riverbank and followed along, singing their native strains.

Nearchus was the first Greek to see - I’m not sure if you can say discover, but certainly bring back intelligence of - Bahrain, though he called it Tylos, and it became very Greekified, the inhabitants even deciding to worship Zeus and holding Olympic-style athletic games. I do find it odd, even unbelievable though that Alexander knew nothing of tides, and while sheltering in a side channel of the Indus when the stormy monsoon forced them to delay, he was apparently amazed when his ships were beached. Arrian again:

they anchored; whereupon there ensued the usual event in the Great Sea, the ebbing of the tide, with the result that the entire fleet was left stranded. Now this was something of which Alexander’s company had no previous knowledge, so that it caused them great bewilderment. But they were yet more surprised when after the normal interval the sea advanced again and the ships were floated. As the tide rushed in all at once, those of the ships that lay keeled over on harder bottom were knocked together or hurled against the land and staved in. These Alexander repaired as best he could.

Nearchus sighted whales on his journey and was amazed to see them blowing water spouts from their heads, something no sailor of his knowledge had ever seen before. Unlike later mariners though, who hunted these massive denizens of the deep, Nearchus would have considered them sea monsters and stayed well away from them. Their size alone, surely, would have been sufficient warning to keep his distance. Oh wait, no he didn’t. According to Arrian he had his ships row towards them, as if to ram them, all the men shouting (I don’t know why and it doesn’t make it clear, but I guess we can assume they were blocking the fleet’s progress forward) and the whales got spooked and dove underwater, leaving the path clear for the ships. Hey, at least they didn’t kill them, though they must have lost their fear of them, having, technically I guess at least, defeated them in battle, as they later came up close enough to one to measure it.

They came to an island which was said to be haunted by a mermaid who caused anyone who came too near to vanish. One of the ships, getting too close to the island, did vanish (though in all likelihood it just foundered and the men drowned) and everyone feared the legend was true, until Nearchus himself set foot on the island and failed to disappear. When Alexander’s men went in search of Nearchus later, at Hormuz, the mariners were so changed in appearance, longer hair, grimy clothes etc that the party rode right by them, and it was only Nearchus’s realisation that these men must have been sent to find them that they avoided missing meeting up with the king altogether.

While there was of course plenty of exploration in the centuries before Christ, and we will be looking into this more deeply, up to now we have mostly concentrated on western exploration, and in particular Greek or Greek-based. I’m going to wrap this up for now as we head across the ocean to the east, but before I do there is one more important western explorer who needs to be written about, due mostly to his, I suppose in simple terms sheer bravery in being the one who typified that trite old slogan businesses and inspirational cards use now to promote courage and thinking out of the box: Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.

In his case, quite literally.

Hippalos

Name: Hippalos
Nationality: Greek
The Exploration Years: Around AD 20
Ship name(s): Unknown
Ship type(s): Unknown
Famous for: Discovering a direct sea route to India

It might seem a simple thing today, but back then the open sea was an unknown quantity, a thing to be feared by sailors who, again literally, feared to lose sight of the coast, as this was often their only way of knowing where they were. The route to India had already been plied, of course, as already related, by Alexander and Nearchus, but it was gained by sailing down rivers and hugging coastlines, I suppose similar to a man inching along a wall to get somewhere rather than walk out in the street. Coastlines were familiar and could be used to ascertain positions, and of course in the event of a storm blowing up they were nearby and could be headed to for shelter. Get caught by a squall or a tempest out on the open sea and there was nowhere to run, and little chance of survival.

Hippalos discovered the direct route to India from the Gulf of Aden by using the monsoon winds to guide him, winds that later bore his name. In planning out, and executing successfully a direct ocean voyage to the sub-continent, he cut the travel time down, since as we all know the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and therefore being the first to have the courage to abandon the practice of coastline-hugging and head out into the open sea, he assured his place in history.
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Old 06-12-2022, 10:41 AM   #15 (permalink)
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Oh man! Can you believe it's been A YEAR AND A HALF since I last updated this? Let's sort that out now.

Let’s step away from the timeline now for a while, and concentrate on one of the great explorers of whom the title of this journal speaks. If any man can be said to have contributed to the creation of the map of the emerging world, certainly the eastern part of it, it was of course one Marco Polo. His exploits, his journeys and his traveller’s tales would enthrall his audience when he returned from Asia, the first* European to go there, and though he would not, unlike some of his fellow explorers, conquer the civilisations living there, or aid in their conquest, his name nevertheless resonates even now down the ages. Perhaps because of this lack of subjugation of nations, which was the usual result of such explorations (often, though not always, undertaken at the patronage and under the banner of different monarchs, who, like canny investors, wanted a return on their investment) Marco Polo is remembered principally as a traveller, an explorer and a teller of tales, and there is no animosity towards his explorations.




I: Like Father, Like Son

Marco Polo was born in 1254, into a time when Italy was still split into various kingdoms and states, most of which are now cities in the Italian republic. He was born in Venice, then called the Venetian Republic, a state which had been created six hundred years before his birth, and which would last another five hundred after. He was born into a mercantile trading family, but would not meet his father until he came of age at fifteen years old, as Niccolo Polo left on business while his wife was pregnant, and did not return until she was dead, and her son fifteen years of age. Marco grew up in a city, a country, a world indeed that firmly believed that the sun orbited the Earth, and that the latter was the centre of the universe. The brilliant astronomer Galileo Galilei would not be even born for another three hundred years, and religious superstition was well entrenched in Venetian daily life: it was even believed the entrance that led to Heaven, and the gateway to Hell, existed somewhere in the world, though given the state of thirteenth-century Italy, and especially Venice, it’s probably fair to assume none of its citizens expected to find either doorway where they lived. Well, possibly the second one.

In a time to soon, in historical terms, be ravaged by the worst plague mankind had ever suffered, as the Black Death raged across Europe in 1347, allowing the grip of the Church to tighten even more as the plague was seen as God’s curse on the world, Venice was not what you could call clean. Rats scurried to and fro with impunity, sanitation wasn’t even a vague idea in the heads of people, and medicine was, at best, rudimentary. Prayer was the order of the day, God was in charge, and the Church was all-powerful. Italians prayed no less than eight times a day, and even crossing the English Channel was considered a dangerous undertaking, not to be attempted lightly. Travel was slow; the fastest available mode was by horse, and you could expect a trip from Venice to Paris to eat up five weeks of your time. Ships, when they did launch, could be away for many years, and men could leave on a trading or exploration voyage as youths and return with grey beards. Marco Polo’s own travels would keep him away from home for twenty-four years, more than a third of the life expectancy at that time.

But Italy, like its earlier, more warlike predecessor, the Roman Empire, led the way, both in technology and in travel. Venetians saw travel as something normal, while the French, English and others feared and distrusted it, allowing Italy and its various city-states to become powerful and wealthy, and lead the world of mediaeval Europe. Italy, of course, would also become the centre for the great rebirth of ideas that would flourish in the sixteenth century, as art, literature, architecture and ideas all coalesced in the Renaissance. But far from being an idyllic centre of learning and art, a new cradle of civilisation, Italy was torn apart by war as city-state vied with city-state for power and control, and Venice was no exception. Her big enemy was Genoa, by coincidence the state from which another great explorer would rise, though his story would be vastly different to that of Marco Polo.

Venice would also become the banking centre of Europe, with some of the most advanced systems for finance in the western world, making sense of the often bewildering array of currencies and exchange rates, and helping in the process to fashion the city-state’s reputation and position as a leader in trade and commerce. It may also have been the first country, or as it were, state, to introduce marine insurance, mandatory there since 1253, one year before Marco Polo was born. Venice was so linked with trade and commerce that a little-known English playwright set some obscure play called The Merchant of Venice there. Venetians also pioneered the then-original idea of partnering up with potential political enemies in the name of trade. Arabs, Jews, Turks, Greeks, even the savage Mongols, who could all be relied upon to attack Venice if the occasion demanded it and there was profit in it, became the trading partners of the city-state, old enmities and grievances set aside in the name of Mammon. Truly, as far as Venice was concerned, money talked, and made the world go around.

Considering the sight he would have seen of strange, foreign ships sailing into port from such far-flung places as Constantinople, Athens or Cairo, and also considering he had been born into a mercantile trading family, it’s no surprise that both the sea and the urge to explore were in Marco Polo’s blood from an early age. It will also come as no surprise at all that Venice boasted one of the best - and fastest - shipbuilding yards in Europe, turning out galleys at an incredible rate, at one point one new warship being launched every half hour. Marco’s father and uncle travelled east to Constantinople, the Crimea, Uzbekistan and Iraq, befriending the fierce Mongols and coming to know their ways, all against the explicit denunciations of these “tartars from Hell” by Pope Alexander IV, who had all but called for a Crusade against them. But Venetians seldom paid much attention to religious orthodoxy, and anyway, needs must. Forced out of Constantinople by civil and political unrest, the brothers Polo were constrained to travel through the Mongol Empire, unable as yet to return home. They were hardly going to upset the only people who could afford them shelter and guarantee them safety along the Silk Road.

Showing again pretty much contempt for the Pope’s views on the subject - and in fact, proving him to have been mistaken, or at best wildly misinformed - the Polo brothers met Kublai Khan, with whom Niccolo’s soon-to-be-famous son (of whose existence at this point he was still unaware) would spend over a fifth of his life. The Khan was known as the leader of the Mongols, great-grandson of the feared and legendary Genghis Khan, who had carved out an empire for himself across eastern Europe and Asia. Hyperbole proved to be just that, as the brothers remarked on Kublai’s manners, intelligence, interest in world affairs and courtesy. He was no savage, leading a cohort of demons bent on the destruction of Christianity, as Alexander would have it, but rather a man who wished to learn all he could about distant civilizations such as Europeans.

As a matter of fact, Kublai Khan astounded the Polos by insisting they be his ambassadors to the western lands, and particularly to the Pope, with an offer of an exchange of views and a discussion between his and their holy men of the nature of religion, with the hope that perhaps the Mongols could, if not be converted to Christianity, at least have it as an option. Not quite the sort of thing a “king of devils” would propose, and the Polos were somewhat overwhelmed at the scale and importance of the task with which they were entrusted, but unable to refuse. Apart from anything else, Kublai Khan guaranteed them his personal promise of protection so that they could return to their own country unscathed. Having faced many perils along the Silk Road on the outward journey, this was an undertaking they could not afford to pass up.

The apparent callous disregard with which Niccolo Polo essentially deserted his wife in order to embark on a trading mission with his brother shows how attitudes towards women were in thirteenth-century Italy. They were considered of no importance and of no use, other than for bearing sons, and were given no say in anything. To some extent, and given that slavery was certainly an accepted facet of life in Europe at this time, they could be considered slaves. They had no rights, nobody - especially their husbands - cared how they felt or what they thought, and it’s entirely possible (though you would like to think unlikely) that Niccolo just decided one day to head off to Constantinople with his bro and never even said anything to his wife. It’s certainly possible that he neither knew nor cared that she was pregnant. Whether he expressed any sorrow or guilt on his return to find her passed away is not recorded, but again it’s easy to think he greeted both this, and the news that he now had a son, with something of a typical Italian shrug. In point of fact, he quickly remarried and doesn’t seem to have had much interest in getting to know his estranged son.

But the Polo brothers’ mission had fallen foul of the death of the then-current Pope, Clement IV, and as usual, the election of his successor went on. And on. And on. So long, indeed, that they had to say arrivedurchi , leaving Acre, in the Holy Land, where they had met the Papal Legate, Teobaldo of Piacenza, and returned finally to Venice in 1269. Here they waited for a further two years (!) before deciding they may as well head back to Acre and see who the new pope was. This time they would bring Niccolo’s now-seventeen-year-old son with them, intending to take him to see the Khan. Again, no mention is made of Niccolo’s new (and almost immediately pregnant - well, he was Italian!) wife, or what she thought about her husband fucking off to Asia again.
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Old 06-12-2022, 03:11 PM   #16 (permalink)
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I go into your threads with the goal that I'll see a bunch of cool photos, and cool photos are in here too
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Old 06-25-2022, 11:36 AM   #17 (permalink)
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II: Follow the Yellow Silk Road: We’re off to see the Wizard

It’s hard to imagine the mindset of young Marco. Here he was, a boy of only seventeen, having grown up without a mother (I don’t know when she died, as it doesn’t make that clear, but I get the impression it may have been soon after his birth) or father, living in one of the busiest and most fascinating trading ports of Italy, on his way from a country he had never left in his life to a country he had only heard of from the father and uncle whom he had only known for two years now, helping them fulfil a contract given them by a shadowy figure of power who resided in the east. It must have been something of a shock for him. You get the impression, too, from Niccolo that Marco’s father would not have been the type to have sat his son down and explained to him what was happening, what the significance of their trip was, nor, likely, that he was probably going to be much older before he saw home again. I mean, I doubt Marco was playing footie in the street when his dad shouted “Eh Marco! We going to see the Khan!” or whatever, but at the same time I can’t see him having prepared his son for the voyage.

At least this time they had the passport of guarantee that Kublai Khan had given them to smooth their way, so they had no need to fear being attacked or robbed, and in 1271, only two years after returning home, having been away for sixteen, they were off again. This time, though, they were three. Arriving back at Acre they sought out Teobaldo, and asked for permission to travel to Jerusalem, there to bargain for the fabled oil from the Holy Sepulchre, said to be the site of the burial of Jesus Christ. Kublai Khan had requested this as part of the mission he had given the Polos, and Teobaldo agreed this was cool, so off they went. If arriving in Acre had made an impression on the young Marco, imagine what the effect must have been on him to be in the actual city wherein Christ had preached, been crucified and risen from the dead.

The Polos got their oil and returned to Acre, no doubt frustrated that the cardinals still hadn’t come to an agreement on who would lead them. I’m sure they must have thought something along the lines of “For fuck’s sake, just make up your minds, you old farts! We have a really long journey ahead of us, and all this delay is doing my head in!” As it would anyone. Today, we wait maybe days, weeks for a new pope. Imagine waiting years! I suppose the question arises, who takes care of the flock while the cardinals try to elect a new shepherd? Who keeps the wolves away? Well, not in this era of course; nobody gives a curse in reality. But back then, it must have seemed like being led down a dark road when suddenly your light goes out.

The Polos, though, had had it up to here with squabbling cardinals, and said fuck them all, we’re going. And they did. Without any real official - and certainly no papal blessing, they turned towards the next, and much longer leg of their journey. Perhaps they asked Teobaldo to text them when the cardinals finally agreed and a new pope was chosen, though probably not. They did, however, have the good sense to obtain official documents from the legate explaining the situation, along with a promise that he would inform the Polos as soon as there was a new arse in the Vatican, though quite how he intended to do that, given that communication was so slow, I’m not sure. Either way, both parties were satisfied, and Teobaldo probably imagined his role in potentially securing good relations with the Khan might do no harm to his CV later.

But just when everything seems it’s going to plan, things can fall apart faster than a government coalition, and as they prepared to leave, word came to the Polos that one of the other Khans had led an uprising and travel was not safe. As a sort of ironical postscript, as they waited to depart the news came to them that the white smoke was finally pluming from the chimney of the Vatican, and lo and behold! The new pope was none other than Teobaldo himself! Ain’t that just a turn-up for the books, they almost certainly did not say, but now they had a real ally in the papacy, none other than the god-damn Pope himself. This surely took some of the sting out of their enforced delay as they waited to depart, though they might have been somewhat pissed to be further delayed as the new pope called them to Acre. Still, it was worth it, as he blessed their enterprise (no doubt tearing up those documents he had given them about the impasse after Clement IV’s death) and gave them two friars to accompany them, men who could speak with his voice and who had full power to ordain bishops, forgive sins, and give a tiny crucifix away with every new conversion. Okay, maybe not the last, but you get the idea. The Polos now had essentially the full approval, blessing and even might of the Christian Church behind them, and things could not have been hunky-dorier.

And then it all went tits-up again.

For whatever reason, a local sultan in Armenia took offence to the Polos and threatened to imprison them. Quite why the Khan’s letter of protection didn’t work here I don’t know: maybe this guy thought about interesting and inventive places the Khan could stick his guarantee, he being so far away and all, or maybe he just didn’t feel threatened by him. At any rate, the two friars, being stout and hardy Christians ready to endure all torments and hardships in the name of their faith, promptly shit themselves at the prospect of prison and told Niccolo, Marco and Maffeo that they had just remembered they had really, really urgent prayers to say that just had to be said in the presence of the Pope, love to continue with you, facing all those dangers, suffering incarceration and all that good stuff, but God needs us, you know how it is, say hi to the heathen Mongol bastard for us, and off they fucked back to Acre, leaving the Polos to shug and think, “Fucking pussies” or words to that effect, and continue on alone.

Six months after being - finally - elected as pope, Teobaldo of Piacenza formally took the title of Pope Gregory X, and is recorded as saying, on witnessing the return of his two friars, “what the fuck are you two doing back here? Didn’t I make myself clear when I sent you with those Polos?”

Marco, meanwhile, was beginning to form his own impressions of other races as the trio crossed into Turkey. He was not impressed. He had, likely, never seen, or at least been in the land of a Muslim before, and he found their practices abhorrent, calling their religion a “brutish law” (I would imagine he might have been referring to Sharia law, though I don’t know); certainly, to a boy raised as a Christian, this new religion would certainly seem offensive, and by definition then, wrong. In this he was expressing the usual opinion of high-minded Europeans who believed themselves superior to these “savages”. Marco Polo was getting, or at least indulging in, his first real dose of racism.

He managed to overcome this in favour of that most beloved pastime of Venetians, trade, as he marvelled at the splendid carpets for sale, but the attitude of the Mongols towards worship baffled him. The Khan did not enforce any sort of religion; like, perhaps, Queen Elizabeth I at least in the beginning, his was a reign of religious tolerance, or perhaps it might be more accurate to say one of religious indifference. Despite his desire to learn about Christianity, it doesn’t seem that Kublai Khan was about to convert any time soon. His people owed their first allegiance to him, and after that, well, they could believe whatever they liked, he didn’t care. It was all about knowledge with him, and while yes, knowledge is power, it looks as if he really just did want to know all he could.

Marco found the Mongols’ attitude towards Christianity odd. In Europe, at that time, everyone was a Christian. It just wasn’t challenged. This was evident in the variety of countries, states and kingdoms who joined the various Crusades. Foreigners - those outside of Europe, like in the Middle East or Africa or Asia - were the heathen, and did not believe in Christ. But here some of the Mongols did, but only as another god to be included in an already-crowded pantheon, and a surly, selfish one at that. He said “They confess…that Christ is Lord, but they say he is a proud Lord because he will not be with other gods but will be God above all others in the world. And so in some places they have a Christ of gold or silver and keep him hidden in some chest, and say that he is the great Lord supreme of the Christians.”

In other words, this Christian god, this Christ, won’t play with the other gods. He is known to be aloof and proud, haughty and believes himself to be a cut above the other gods. Would perhaps benefit from some intermingling and removal of the stick which is no doubt rammed up his arse. Or words to that effect. Marco spent time looking for the Ark in the region of Mount Ararat, but though he thought he may have glimpsed it (more than likely a frozen lake) he could not get to it and had to give up. He had his first experience of a desert bazaar when the company reached Mosul, in Iraq, where some passing heretics tried to convince him that Jesus was two beings, not one, but he had already had enough of the other gods putting his down, and told the Nestorians to be on their way before he gave them a kick up the arse. By now, he may very well have been pining for strictly-Christian-and-don’t-you-dare-worship-anyone-else Venice, but their journey was only beginning.

It’s of interest to me to note the difference in attitudes between the two generations. Niccolo and Maffeo, heading out for the second time, and even with a letter from the Pope, seemed not to be too bothered about all the, shall we say, paganism or heretical worship going on, whereas Marco, on his first trip outside Italy - outside Venice, probably - seems much more shocked and even insulted by what he sees as heathens taking the piss out of his Saviour. I suppose this is understandable; not only was Marco a callow youth of seventeen at this stage, a guy who had seen nothing of the world, but he had been brought up in a strict Christian country (state) where there simply was no religious diversity. I mean, we’re talking Italy here, one of the three or four most devoutly Christian, and later Catholic countries in Europe, if not the world, at this time. In many ways, Marco might have seen himself almost as a young monk leaving the monastery for the first time, and realising just how evil (and exciting) the world outside his cell was.

To his credit, like his father and uncle, and most if not all Venetians though, Marco Polo would soon settle down into the realisation that not everyone was like him and his countrymen, and would instead embrace the diversity of the world, and with a Venetian’s eye for trade, concentrate on commerce while perhaps putting his doubts and personal feelings about those who held beliefs other than his to one side. The valuable turquoise in the mountains of Persia (Iran) attracted his eye, as did the weapons and armour fashioned by the country’s craftsmen, and he became very enamoured of falconry, something he would end up being very involved in during his travels.

One thing that did not impress the Mediterranean boy was the cold, as he wrote about a particular escarpment in Kerman, in Persia. “Between the city of Kerman and this escarpment the cold winter is so intense that it can scarcely be warded off by any number of garments and furs.” He also shivered at the thought of the Karaunas, marauding bands who, he says, had the power to work “a diabolic enchantment that turned day into night over a distance as far as a man could ride during the space of seven days.” There’s no elaboration on this supposed power, so I can’t say what he was referring to. Odd, but it seemed to frighten him. Having evaded them several times, though some of his band were taken captive and either enslaved or killed (I assume whatever caravan they were travelling with, as, other than his father and uncle, there was nobody else in his actual party) they came to the Persian port of Hormuz.

Here the Polos intended to take ship to India, and thence on to China. Here the wind coming in from the desert could turn “so overpoweringly hot that it would be deadly if it did not happen that, as soon as men are aware of its approach, they plunge neck-deep into the water and so escape from the heat.” He relates in his writings that a company of six thousand soldiers had died, having been surprised by the deadly hot wind. The bodies were so dried out by the wind that they could not be removed for burial, as they began to come apart, and had to be interred where they had fallen in the desert.

Marco was not impressed with the quality of the ships at Hormuz. “Their ships are very bad, and many of them founder, because they are not fastened with iron nails but stitched together with thread made of coconut husks,” he complained, and went on to say ““The ships have one mast, one sail, and one rudder, and are not decked; when they have loaded them, they cover the cargo with skins, and on top of these they put the horses that they ship to India for sale.” Coming from a city where shipbuilding was a proud tradition, this must have dismayed the young would-be explorer, to say nothing of the worry it would have engendered in him for their safety crossing to India. He prophesied gloomily “you can take my word that many of them sink, because the Indian Ocean is very stormy.” No doubt he hoped that the patron saint of Venice, Saint Mark, would protect them and ensure their ship was not one of the ones that foundered.

In point of fact, Niccolo and Maffeo had decided that the fears of the young boy were not unfounded, and they cancelled their voyage to India, instead returning to Kerman and booking passage with a caravan crossing the desert. It might be hot, slower and less comfortable, but it was in the end safer. Marco was not without his doubts though: “a desert of sixty miles in which water to drink is sometimes not found,” he ruminated as the camels moved slowly and unhurriedly off into the white-hot dunes. His fears were soon realised, and it seemed, if you’ll forgive the pun, they were in for a shitty time, as he moaned about the undrinkable water: “Drink one drop of it and you void your bowels ten times over. It is the same with the salt that is made from it. If you eat one little granule, it produces violent diarrhea.”

After days riding in heat, thirst and discomfort through the desert, Marco’s relief is palpable in his writings when they come to their first oasis. “A town beautiful and great and fertile and of great plenty of all things needful for life.” Given how tough the crossing had been on them, you can’t help thinking that he would have considered anywhere beautiful and fertile, from Manchester to the Bronx. Just to get down off those bumping, bouncing, rolling camel humps must have felt like Heaven to the travellers. Also heaven, at least to Marco, were the nubile Muslim women, whom his teenaged and burgeoning libido most certainly noticed. He also told tales of the Assassins, a secretive order of killers who prepared themselves for missions by smoking hashish - hence their name - and who were feared even back in England, where the young Prince Edward had almost fallen prey to their attacks, surviving his wounds to return home and be crowned King Edward I.

In reality, as those who partake know no doubt, the worst thing you could take before heading out on a mission of murder is hashish, hash, cannabis or marijuana, call it what you will - weed even, which relaxes the senses and certainly does not sharpen them. You might as well take valium. Far better for assassins would have been cocaine or PCP maybe, but the legend - if it is a legend - stuck, and so we have the word today for hired killers.
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Old 07-10-2022, 11:31 AM   #18 (permalink)
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III: China Crisis: Walking on the Roof of the World

For seven days the Polos traversed Afghanistan, as they began their journey proper towards China. They stayed in the city of Balkh, where Marco related the tale of the attack by Genghis Khan on the city, when, in 1220, with 100,000 men he had killed not just every man, woman and child, but every animal, plant and even pulled down the walls of the city so that nothing would remain of the culture of the previous inhabitants. In Taican, one of the Afghan provinces, the Polos came across great supplies of salt, in which they were able to trade, and followed the Silk Road (not called that for another six hundred years) which stretches from Central Asia to the eastern shores of China.

Stories of how the previous Khan had responded to missionaries only a few earlier makes the willingness of Kublai Khan to engage with Christianity even the more impressive. In 1245, Güyük Khan declared “You must come yourself at the head of all your kings and prove to us your fealty and allegiance. And if you disregard the command of God and disobey Our instructions, we shall look upon you as Our enemy. Who ever recognizes and submits to the Son of God…will be wiped out.” That’s nice and clear, then! How had attitudes changed so radically in only twenty years or so? Well, let’s see. His successor, and the direct predecessor to Kublai Khan, had this to say on worship and religion:

"We Mongols believe in one God, by Whom we live and die," he then continued "Just as God gave different fingers to the hand so has He given different ways to men. To you God has given the Scriptures and you Christians do not observe them". He explained God had given the Mongols their shamans. Möngke offered Louis IX his cooperation but warned all Christians that "If, when you hear and understand the decree of the eternal God, you are unwilling to pay attention and believe it...and in this confidence you bring an army against us-we know what we can do.”

So if Güyük Khan had been, as seems, staunchly anti-Christian, Möngke Khan seemed to think that maybe Christians only paid lipservice to their god, whereas the Mongols honoured theirs. His ultimatum, as such, was slightly less combative. What he was saying, I think, is leave us alone to worship our way. If you don’t, and send an army against us, that will literally be your funeral. But between the time of Möngke and Güyük there were only eight years, and each ruled for a much shorter time than the Great Khan, Kublai. Möngke was emperor for eight years while Güyük only managed two. Kublai Khan would rule for over thirty years, more than three times the reign of both his predecessors combined, and would just have been starting that reign when the Polos originally had their audience with him, so perhaps he was more forward-thinking, and wanted to put the aggressive language and sabre-rattling (possibly literal) of the past behind his people.

Indeed, the true power of the West, and in particular the Pope, was shown here for the failure it was. Nobody cared about the Polos’ letters from Gregory X demanding their safe passage; this Pope meant nothing to them. On the way back, originally, from Asia, as related, Niccolo and Maffeo had been under the protection of Kublai Khan, and nobody had questioned or challenged that. But this was different. The patronage of the Bishop of Rome did not extend to the wild plains and mountains of Afghanistan or Iraq, and the Polos had to make their own arrangements to secure their safety, most like with bribes. Reaching another oasis, Badakhshan, Marco related how rubies were dug out of the ground: “[they] are produced in the rocks of great mountains, and when they wish to dig them they are gotten with great trouble, for they make great caverns in the mountains with very great expense and trouble to find them, and go far underground as in these parts here they do who dig the veins of gold and silver.”

He also noted how the king ensured the innate value of these gems, by apparently digging for the rubies himself (this seems unlikely at best; I assume he meant his men dug at his instructions), keeping the most precious specimens, and having killed anyone who dared to mine them without permission. “The king,” Marco says, “does this for his own honor that the balasci [rubies] may be dear and of great value everywhere as they are, for if he let other men dig them and carry them through the world so many of them would be taken away that all the world would be full of them and they would not be so dear nor of so great value, so that the king would make little or no gain.” Makes sense, I guess.

There seems to be some evidence that Marco got sick in some way while staying in Badakhshan - some suggest it may have been syphilis or tuberculosis - and as a result may have become addicted to opium, the standard cure for such diseases at that time. He may have detoxed here, but rather than admit such a thing in his writings, he credits the high mountains with his recovery, saying “On the tops of the mountains the air is so pure and the sojourn there so health-giving that if, while he lives in the cities and houses built on the plain and in the valleys near the mountains, a man catches fevers of any kind,…he immediately climbs the mountains and, resting there two or three days, the sickness is driven away.”

His detox and recovery cost the company time though, as they waited a whole year in Badakhshan before they finally moved on in 1273, well behind schedule. They moved into the area known as the Pamir, or “the roof of the world”, where the mighty Himalayas stand, and the giant finger of the world’s tallest mountain, Mount Everest, points up to the clear blue sky. Impressed by the breath-taking beauty of the mountains, so high that not even birds flew around them, Marco was astonished to come across a plateau between them. “When one is in that high place,” he wrote, “then he finds a large plain between two mountains in which is very beautiful pasture and a great lake from which runs a very beautiful river, both good and large. Up there in that plain is the best and fattest pasture of the world that can be found; for a thin horse or ox or any thin beast (let it be as thin as you please) put there to graze grows very fat in ten days.” He went on to describe “multitudes of wild sheep,” distinguished by enormous horns, “some quite six palms long,” from which shepherds made bowls and other vessels, as well as fencing to pen in other animals. Yet nature was not as peaceful as it seemed in the Pamir. By night, wolves descended from the slopes to “eat up and kill many of those sheep.”

Surviving only on their meagre rations, as there was neither “dwelling nor inn, but in the course of the road it is desert and nothing is found there to eat,” they travelled across the region for twelve days, but this was only the beginning of their ordeal. For another forty days they moved across the savage, bleak, barren landscape. Marco was not impressed. “Not in all these forty days’ marches is there dwelling nor inn, nor even food, but the travelers are obliged to carry that which they need with them.” When they did come across other humans, these men were so wild and heathen that the Polos hurried past them without making contact. Probably afraid they’d end up being cooked over someone’s fire!

The oasis town of Khotan finally provided them some respite, though its existence on the very edge of a desert whose name translates as “desert of death” or “place of no return” - the Taklimakan - could not have inspired much confidence nor provided them with much cheer. Here Marco had his first encounters with Buddhists, but dismissed them, as he had the Muslims, as idolaters. With yet another four thousand miles to journey, the Polos left Khotan and moved onto the Great Eastern Steppe. Crossing this, Marco and his father and uncle became acutely aware of the constantly-moving bands of Mongols attacking both friend and foe, as he wrote: “if they are enemies they carry off all their goods, and if they are friends they kill and eat their cattle.” With friends like that, huh?

The scale of the desert they had to cross almost defied Marco’s literary powers. Nobody in Europe, certainly nobody in Italy had ever even seen or heard of such a vast wilderness, so he was describing something totally new to them. “Lengthwise it cannot be passed because of the great length of it, for it would be impossible to carry enough food…. One travels for a month of marches without finding any dwelling. It is all barren mountains and plains of sand and valleys, and nothing to eat is found there. You must always go a day and a night finding nothing before you find water to drink in this way. Moreover, I tell you that in three places in four one finds bitter and salt and evil water.”

He also spoke of the spiritual effect the desert had on him. “There dwell many spirits that make for the wayfarers great and wonderful illusions to make them perish,” he told his readers. “For while any company of merchants or others is crossing the desert…, often it happens that they hear spirits malignant in the air, talking in a way that they seem to be their companions, for they call them sometimes by their names, and many times they make them, believing that they are some of them, follow those voices and go out of the right way so they are never reunited to their fellows and found, and news of them is never heard.”

There were also, he insisted, aural versions of that old desert mainstay, the mirage: “Again I tell you that not only by night does this appear, but often even by day men hear these voices of spirits, and it often seems to you that you hear many instruments of music sounding in the air, and especially drums more than other instruments, and the clash of weapons.” At other times, the singing sands sounded like a “rush of people in another direction.” Distracted travelers chased after the illusion, hoping to catch up with “the march of the cavalcade,” only to find by day that they were hopelessly lost, tricked by spirits, “and many not knowing of these spirits come to an evil end.”

He spoke of the ultimate terror, being separated from one’s fellows and finding oneself alone in the harsh, unforgiving desert. “Those who wish to pass that way and cross this desert must take very great care of themselves that they not be separated from their fellows for any reason, and that they go with great caution; they must hang bells on the necks of their horses and animals to hear them continually so that they may not sleep, and may not be able to wander. “Sometimes by day spirits come in the form of a company to see who has stayed behind and he goes off the way, and then they leave him to go alone in the desert and perish.” At other times, these spirits “put themselves in the form of an army and have come charging toward them, who, believing they were robbers, have taken flight and, having left the highway, no longer knowing how to find the way, for the desert stretches very wide, have perished miserably of hunger.”

Odd as it may seem, and indeed as if our Marco had wandered in the blistering sun too much, this does in fact reflect a natural and known phenomenon called “the singing sands” or “the booming sands”, where winds hitting the dunes can be mistaken for anything from a crowd of people chanting to the notes of a harp.
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Old 07-23-2022, 11:24 AM   #19 (permalink)
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IV: Past the Point of No Return: Beyond the Desert

Coming out of the desert, Marco might have been reminded of the words of William of Rubruck, a Franciscan missionary who travelled the road before him - but nowhere near as far - twenty years earlier, when he had remarked “When we arrived among those barbarians, it seemed to me that we were stepping into another world.” It would certainly feel like that to Marco, seeing the huge Buddhist monasteries, hearing their lavish chants and then experiencing the, as he would have seen it, lack of morality between men and women in the city, the disregarding (in his eyes) of the sanctity of marriage.

“The lay people can take up to thirty wives,” he wrote. “He holds the first wife for the greatest and best. If he sees that any of his wives is old and is not good and that she does not please him he can well put her away and can take to wife the sister of the wife divorced, and do with her as he likes, and take another, if he wishes. Again, they take cousins for wives, and they are also allowed to take the wife of their father, except their mother, and also the wives of brothers or every other relation.” Pondering this alternative morality, he concludes in disgust, “They live in this way like animals with no law.”

So much blatant immortality amid such opulent displays of religious devotion must have left the young man confused indeed. Mind you, given what we’ve already seen about how Venetian men treated their women, how quickly Niccolo “got over” the death of his wife and took another, some of this moral rectitude rings really hollow. Something that was not even heard of in Europe though was the practice of cremation. The idea of burning one’s body - no matter how many times Bill Sykes may have used it as an epithet - was wholly alien to “civilised” Europe. In such harsh climes, though, it can be allowed, burial might not be possible, or even advisable. Marco related how such cremations were entirely at the behest and under the control of the "necromancer or astrologer [who] makes his divination by diabolical arts and says to his kinsmen when he has done his arts and seen under what constellation, planet, and sign he was born, the day and the hour that the body must be burned.” Nobody was allowed cremate anything until the magicians gave the go-ahead, and if that meant you had to provide temporary storage for the remains of your dearly departed for days, weeks, even months, then in China that’s what they called tough titty.

They weren’t totally without a sense of understanding though. The body, while kept as the astrologers awaited the optimum moment when the stars were aligned, was perfumed with spices such as camphor, so that the smell of the decaying corpse would be covered. As we saw with I think one of the Native American tribes in my History of the American West journal (or was it the History of America? One of them, anyway) the relatives of the deceased tended to treat it as if they were still alive, laying out food for it at the table and giving them wine to drink. This extended to the burial, where these people believed that the spirit of the deceased presided over his or her own funeral, and would have to be given food and drink in case it got peckish while it waited for its former housing to be burned.

Oh yes, these guys took the afterlife really seriously, ensuring that the dead relative would retain his or her place in the societal strata which they firmly believed continued on after death. They would cut out figures of people from tree bark (something Marco had never seen done before) and also make representations of coins and animals and then throw them onto the cremation fire, this to represent the friends, slaves, animals and of course wealth he will have in the afterworld.

These customs were of course odd to Marco Polo, but he certainly was happy to participate in another, perhaps even weirder one: “If a stranger comes to his house to lodge, [a man] is too much delighted at it, and receives him with great joy, and labors to do everything to please,” instructing his “daughters, sisters, and other relations to do all that the stranger wishes,” even to the point of leaving his house for several days while “the stranger stays with his wife in the house and does as he likes and lies with her in a bed just as if she were his wife, and they continue in great enjoyment. All the men of this city and province are thus cuckolded by their wives; but they are not the least ashamed of it. And the women are beautiful and vivacious and always ready to oblige.”

Well now, if you ask me, there’s being friendly and welcoming, and there’s being all but subservient to strangers. I mean, a kind of pimping in one way, but done by people who clearly don’t understand the concept. They ask for nothing in return: no money, no goods, no favours. Hell, they probably couldn’t even smack a biatch upside the head if they had to! But seriously, I have to wonder how much say the women had in these “welcoming customs”? Probably not much if any. I mean, it’s easy to be “always ready to oblige” if the alternative is the flat of your man’s hand or even his fist. Then again, maybe they did enjoy it; maybe they were just that permissive, and maybe this had been the custom for so long it was like second nature to them. Who am I, in the end, to judge, as the judge said?

I wouldn’t say he was the first, but possibly one of the first apologists - certainly at this point the most famous, I would imagine, Marco seemed to rewrite the history of the feared Mongols as it suited him Europe and the west should see it, and not as it was. Most of it is pretty fanciful, and requires at least a whole container of salt to be taken with it to allow any sort of credence to what he says. For instance: “When he [Genghis Khan] had gained and taken the provinces and cities and villages by force, he let no one be killed or spoiled after the victory; and he put governors in them of such justice that he did them no harm nor took away from them their things.” Moreover, Marco claims, “These people who were conquered, when they saw that he saved and guarded them against all men and that they had taken no harm from him, and they saw the good rule and kindliness of this lord, they went too gladly with him and were loyal to him.” In this skewed version, their allegiance inspired Genghis to greater feats. “And when Genghis Khan had gathered so great a multitude of people that they covered the world, and saw that they all obeyed him faithfully and followed him, seeing that fortune so favored him, he proposed to himself to attempt greater things: he said to them that he wished to conquer a great part of the world. And the Tartars answered that it pleased them well, and they would follow him gladly wherever he should go.”

Is this not like saying you know, that Hitler fellow wasn’t so bad. He just went into Poland and France and asked nicely and they said sure, come on in! We know enough about the Mongols now to sneer and roll our eyes at such attempts at revisionism, but even back then those who read his accounts must have been thinking “come on Mr. Polo: pulleth the other one, for it doth contain yon bells!” Or something. What I’m saying is, while this might purport to be the account of a man who had seen (well, heard) it first-hand, I can’t imagine anyone actually believed that a barbarian horde swept peacefully over the Steppe, quietly annexing places they were told it was no problem, work away, sure we don’t want the land, you’d be doing us a favour, mate, and set up a Golden Age Empire that nobody ever tried to topple. Like they say in our age, as if.

But Marco went on. Almost turning his back on his own religion, he summoned the spectre of the non-existent Christian hero Prester John, a legendary (literally; he was just a myth and nothing more) Christian king who was said to rule some undefined kingdom somewhere in the area referred to as “the Orient”, with reports (entirely unreliable and completely unsubstantiated of course) of his being in India, Central Asia and even Ethiopia. Given that the guy did not exist, it was then easy for Marco to weave a story in which the “noble” Khan engaged in furious battle with the legendary Christian, with the Mongol of course winning. Sheer nonsense, but I guess it sold copies of his book when he got back to Italy.

What it does show though was Marco Polo’s changing attitude. He had gone to China initially to discuss, ostensibly, matters both religious and political with the Khan, and had been shocked at the level of paganism and lack of respect for his god which he had been witness to. Now though, as he moved closer to his destination (though still thousands of miles away) he seemed to undergo a change, in which he not only identified with the Mongols more, but saw his own people, his own religion, as wrong, as something to be reviled and recanted, though he never, to my knowledge, converted to any other religion. I suppose it could be said that all of this “bigging up” the Mongols was to curry favour with the Khan when he was finally shown into the august man’s presence, and may indeed have been all a ruse. But the voice of sincerity - if deluded sincerity - rings pretty loud through his accounts, and you definitely get the idea he believed it, or at the very least wanted his readers to believe it.

He did go a little overboard when it came to praising Kublai Khan though: “All the emperors of the world and all the kings both of Christians and Saracens also, if they were all together, would not have so much power, nor could they do so much as this Kublai Khan could do, who is lord of all the Tartars of this world.” Right Marco, right. Can you get your tongue out from his breeches for a moment, do you think?

He was impressed by the nomadic lifestyle of the Mongols, something he would have had no experience of at home. Everyone lived in houses of some sort, and stayed there. The only nomads, as such, would probably have been the homeless, and there was nothing glorious about them! Sailors sailed, but always came back to their home, which was always in the same place. Which was why the portable nature of the Mongols fascinated him so. dwelled: “They have their small houses like tents of rods of wood and cover them with felt; and they are round; and they always carry them on four-wheeled wagons wherever they go. For they have the wooden rods tied so well and orderly that they can fit them together like a pack and spread them, take them up, put them down, and carry them wherever they please. And every time they stretch and set up their house the door always opens toward midday.” These structures constituted, in effect, a portable village, and Marco marvels at the Mongols’ life on the fly: “They have beside this very beautiful carts with only two wheels covered with black felt that is so good and so well-prepared that if it rained all day water would soak nothing that was inside the cart. They have them brought and drawn by horses and by oxen and sometimes by good camels. On these carts they carry their wives and their children and all the things and food that they need. In this way, they go wherever they wish to go, and thus they carry everything that they need.”

The contribution made by women to Mongol society, completely alien to a Venetian, or any Italian, or possibly any European, also struck him favourably. “The ladies buy and sell and do all the work that is needed for their lords and family and for themselves,” he comments approvingly. “They are not burdensome for their husbands, and the reason is that they make much gain by their own work.” The more he observed Mongol women at work, the more he admired their diligence and contribution to family life. They are, he says, “very provident in managing the family and are very careful in preparing food, and do all the other duties of the house with great diligence, so the husbands leave the care of the house to their wives, for they trouble themselves with nothing at all but hunting and feats of battle and hawking and falcons, like gentlemen.”

It would be hard, nay impossible to see this system working in Europe, where not only were women seen as property and second class citizens, but where it was widely believed they had neither the brain nor the stamina for business; where women were all considered weak and stupid, and not one of them to be relied upon, and further, where male ego was such that no man would allow such a thing as his wife be in any way involved in business, which was certainly seen exclusively as the domain of the male. Marco would further scandalise the Europeans - especially, one assumes, the on the surface devout Catholics of his homeland, with his lengthy and fulsome description of the differences between Mongol marriage and that of western Christianity.

“Each [man] can take as many wives as he likes, up to a hundred if he has the power to maintain them; and the men give dowries to the wives and to the mother of their wife to obtain them, nor does the wife give anything to the man for dowry. But you may know too that they always hold the first of their wives for more genuine and for better than the others, and likewise the children who are born of her. And they have more sons than all the other people in the world because they have so many wives, and it is a marvel how many children each man has.” The polygamy extended to relatives. As Marco explains, “They take their cousins for wife and, what is more, if the father dies, his eldest son takes to wife the wife of the father, if she is not his mother, and all the women who are left by the father except his mother and sisters. He takes also the wife of his own brother if he dies. And when they take a wife they make very great weddings and a great gathering of people.”

Strange indeed, though without question there were European men reading these accounts and thinking, in their secret hearts, how wonderful that would be; not to be confined to live with one women “till death do ye part”, but to be able to have as many wives as you liked, moving between them like some sort of stud among mares, and all approved by the state, such as it was. Doubtless women who read this felt the complete opposite. But while the idea of a polygamous - very polygamous, about as poly as gamous gets really - marriage was a shocking but secretly intriguing one, another custom practiced by the Mongols would be greeted by the genteel Christians of Europe with absolute bewilderment, outrage and horror.

“When there are two men, the one who has a dead male child inquires for another man who may have had a female child suited to him, and she also may be dead before she is married; these two parents make a marriage of the two dead together. They give the dead girl to the dead boy for wife, and they have documents made about it in corroboration of the dowry and marriage.”

This was known as the marriage of dead children, and was very much tied in with the Mongols’ absolute and utter faith in an afterlife. To them, a child who died had been deprived of his or her chance of marriage in this life, so they ensured he or she got it in the next one. Talk about arranged marriages! He detailed what would have been to his readers amazing sights, some of which may have been exaggerated slightly, like the “oxen and cows, big as elephants” - yeah, right - though the nomads who had domesticated deer and rode upon them instead of horses may have been plausible enough, as was his discovery of the origin of Europe’s favourite perfume, musk, which, he reported, came from an egg-shaped abdominal gland in the musk deer. Very deer perfume eh? Sorry. His genteel readership might not have been so fascinated to hear that their scent of choice was in fact the animal’s blood.

He was certainly put off by the custom of the people of the kingdom of Ergiuul to take a wife purely for her beauty, with no regard to her social status. Back home, the ugliest woman who came from a powerful or rich family would still be guaranteed of finding a husband - probably whether she wanted one or not - as women’s say in such matters were so small as to not matter at all, and of course this was not confined to Italy alone. But here, in the wilds of Asia, where people worshipped strange gods and lived differently to what Marco saw as God’s law, men not only took as many wives as they could carry, but went for the lookers rather than the movers and shakers. In this culture, a woman of power who looked like the back end of a yak would be passed over, even by men of a far inferior social standing. With the Mongols, it was all about the surface beauty, and not how many country houses your daddy owned, or who he knew in government circles.

Eventually, after a long journey, and having seen sights both wondrous and shocking, and without question a far more mature man than he had been when they had set out from Venice, Marco Polo found himself standing in the grand place wherein his uncle Rafello and his father Niccolo had previously walked, but which for him was a new and enthralling experience.

They had reached the court of Kublai Khan.
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