/ 15 January 2024

Testaments well travelled

Marco Polo (1254 1324) Setting Out From Venice With His Father And Uncle, 1271, For Court Of Kublai Khan Where They Arrive 1275. Travels Of Marco Polo, 15th Century Manuscript.
Shipping out: A 15th-century manuscript shows Marco Polo setting out from Venice in 1271.

Travellers’ tales have the reputation of being tall tales too. In the world before GPS, detailed maps available at the touch of a key on a cellphone and wi-fi almost everywhere, it was so much easier to pretend to be somewhere you were not.

Accusations of simulation and invention have dogged the accounts of great travellers from Herodotus of Halicarnassus to Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta and Hasan al-Wazzan, better known as Leo Africanus. 

Perhaps the most extreme form of travel scepticism is the school of thought that claims Apollo XI did not land on the moon but in a fabricated environment created to resemble the lunar landscape.

It’s easier to sympathise with earlier disbelief than with the conspiracy-style argument about lunar exploration. But the need for wry acceptance of stories told by “ancient travellers” has eroded with time because archaeological, historical and anthropological research and discoveries have vindicated, rather than refuted, what for centuries were derided as either implausible or plain, downright lies.

Herodotus, who was born between 490 and 480 BCE and died in 425 BCE, was known both as the Father of History and the Father of Lies. 

His marvellous work The Histories combines deep research and inquiry into the causes of the war between Greece and Persia in the fifth century BCE with a lively account of his travels in Egypt, which he visited after 454 BCE, and of its customs, agriculture, culture and history. From there, Herodotus went on to the city of Tyre and then to Babylon, possibly via the Euphrates River.

The unflattering epithet Father of Lies derives largely from passages such as the following, in which he lists the annual tribute in gold the 20 provinces of the Persian Empire paid to their ruler, Darius.

“Twentieth: the Indians, the most populous nation in the known world, paid the largest sum: 360 talents of gold-dust.” 

So far, so good for readers, ancient or modern. But soon the eyes fall upon this: “These are the most warlike of the Indian tribes, and it is they who go out to fetch the gold — for in this region there is a sandy desert. There is found in this desert a kind of ant of great size — bigger than a fox, though not so big as a dog. Some specimens, which were caught there, are kept at the palace of the Persian king. These creatures as they burrow underground throw up the sand in heaps, just as ants in Greece throw up the earth, and they are very similar in shape. The sand has a rich content of gold, and this it is that the Indians are after when they make their expeditions into the desert.”

(The quote comes from the classic Herodotus translation by Aubrey de Sélincourt. Readers might also want to try the excellent new version by the superb classicist and historian Tom Holland.)

The story of the gold-digging ants is Herodotus as alert traveller, reporter on the look-out for tales of interest and practical anthropologist millennia before the disciplines of physical and cultural anthropology were born. But, you ask, how can we believe him?

The short answer will direct you to further but briefer reading, the rebuttal of charges against Herodotus for being fantastical and ahistorical that is Stephen Dalley’s article, “Why Did Herodotus Not Mention the Hanging Gardens of Babylon?” It’s to be found in Herodotus and his World: Essays from a Conference in Memory of George Forrest, edited by Peter Derow and Robert Parker (2003).

A similar question of why not was asked by Frances Wood in her book Did Marco Polo Go to China? (1996). Central to the argument here is why Polo makes no mention of the Great Wall of China. Embarrassingly for Wood, at the time head of the Chinese section at the British Library, as well as her editors and publishers, the answer was and is simple: it had not yet been built.

Accusations of Polo inventing it all are not new. Earlier readers and critics pointed out that surely so observant a young man would have had something to say about tea, printing and Chinese calligraphy, to name the most obvious omissions from his book. Those and other popular and specialist quibbles are neatly addressed in Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu by Laurence Bergreen (2008).

Blending biography, travel and narrative history, Bergreen gives us an absorbing and engaging book, but nothing is as wonderful and thrilling as the original text itself: Description of the World by Messer Marco Polo

The book is, of course, better known in English as The Travels or The Travels of Marco Polo, but its original Italian title, Divisement dou Monde, speaks to the ambition and scope of the work. It’s essential to note that Marco did not write the text but dictated it. 

The prologue, with its curious style placing Marco in the third person, lets readers know on the very first page: “Let me tell you, then, that to gain this knowledge he stayed in these various countries and territories fully twenty-six years. Afterwards, in the year of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ 1298, while he was in prison in Genoa, wishing to occupy his leisure as well as to afford entertainment to readers, he caused all these things to be recorded by Messer Rustichello of Pisa, who was in the same prison. But what he told was only what little he was able to remember.” (From the best English translation, RE Latham’s 1958 version for the Penguin Classics.)

What’s this, then? Two jailbirds concocting a non-fiction fraud to perpetrate on an early reading-public? No — Marco was a prisoner of war, captured by the Genoese from the Venetian galley he commanded at the naval Battle of Curzola on 6 September 1298, a disaster for the Republic of Venice. 

Marco Polo
A portrait of Marco Polo, the Venetian traveller and explorer, from 1857. Images: Universal History Archive/Getty Images and Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images

Rustichello, from Pisa, was similarly a captive of war, at the Battle of Meloria in 1284 when Genoa trounced the Pisan fleet.

More significantly, Rustichello was a renowned writer of Arthurian romances, so much so he attracted the favour of no less a reader than King Edward I of England. 

One can see how Marco’s adventures, cast of foreign people, unseen and unimagined lands, strange beasts and awe-inspiring landscapes, and novelty with its sleeping partner horror, would have instantly appealed to Rustichello’s imagination and literary skills.

Here was a young man from a merchant family on a “fabulous” journey requiring enterprise, resourcefulness and endurance, an analogue to Rustichello’s knights going on hazardous and challenging quests. 

Marco had been entrusted with missions by the Great Khan, Kublai himself. One of the great writing partnerships was born and it remains fascinating to this day to see where Rustichello embellishes the closely observed recollections of Marco.

There’s a slim and subtle novel that speculatively explores the authorship of The Travels, called Myself and Marco Polo by Paul Griffiths (1989), a delightful exercise that shows postmodernism and “the death of the author” begin rather earlier than devotees of those like to think.

To set the timeline: Marco was born on 15 September 1254 and died on 8 January 1324, 700 years ago this week. His story, full of “tall tales” that have been proved true, is still a marvel today. It shows a young man travelling with his father Niccoló and uncle Maffeo and absorbing all he sees, hears, smells, feels and intuits around him.

And what journeying! A simplified itinerary of his travels looks like this: Venice, Constantinople, Acre, Mosul, Baghdad, Hormuz, Balkh, Khotan, Shang-tu (Xanadu), Cambulac (Beijing; Khan-balik or Cambalu in older forms), much of China (Cathay), Pagan in Burma (Myanmar), Hangzhou, the South China Sea, the Straits of Sumatra, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), the Malabar coast of India, Hormuz, Tabriz, Trebizond, Constantinople, Venice.

Many discoveries await the first-time reader, and what reunions with old friends — human, animal, cultural, spiritual, geographical, topographical, meteorological — for the returning reader.

The prologue begins with a dedication to “all people who wish to know the various races of humankind and peculiarities of the various regions of the world”.

It’s magical, then, to turn to the book’s opening words: “Let me begin with Armenia. The truth is that there are actually two Armenias, a Greater and a Lesser.”