15 Surprising Facts About Marco Polo
Born in the Republic of Venice in 1254, Marco Polo was a trader, traveler, and adventurer, who (probably*) journeyed to Central Asia and China in an era when vast swaths of the world were still uncharted and just traveling to a neighboring town could take you days. When he returned from his adventures, he brought back stories that helped introduce Europeans to Asia, and contributed to demystifying the largely unknown continent. In the influential work, The Travels of Marco Polo, he outlined the geography of Asia, described the customs of its people, and told tales of life at the court of legendary Mongol emperor Kublai Khan. But as amazing as all that may sound, it only scratches the surface of the bizarre and exciting life of the traveling merchant. Here are 15 things you might not know about Marco Polo.
*More on that later!
1. HE BEGAN HIS ADVENTURES AS A TEENAGER.
Marco Polo wasn’t yet a seasoned traveling merchant when he embarked on his great journey east. In fact, he was just 17 years old. In 1271, Polo left home with his father Niccolo and his uncle Maffeo, and set out for Asia, in hopes of reaching the court of Kublai Khan. It was likely the first time the young Polo had left home as well as the first time he’d met his father and uncle, who had been traveling the world since Marco’s birth.
2. HE WASN’T THE FIRST EUROPEAN TO EXPLORE CHINA.
While his book, The Travels of Marco Polo, brought knowledge of the Far East to the European world, Marco Polo wasn’t actually the first European to visit China. In fact, he wasn’t even the first Polo to visit China. Before Marco embarked on his journey to Asia, Niccolo and Maffeo Polo had already travelled to China and met with Kublai Khan.
In some ways, Marco’s journey was a bit of a sequel to Niccolo and Maffeo’s original adventures: The two older travelers had befriended the great Mongol emperor and told him about Christianity, the Pope, and the Church in Rome. Curious about European religion, Kublai Khan apparently requested that the travelers bring him 100 Christian men from whom to learn more about the religion, as well as some holy oil of the lamp in Jerusalem. Niccolo and Maffeo returned to Europe where they picked up the young Marco Polo and somehow procured the oil, but not the 100 Christians, requested by the emperor, before journeying East again.
3. HE TRAVELLED 15,000 MILES OVER THE COURSE OF 24 YEARS.
Marco Polo left home at age 17 and didn’t return to Venice for 24 years. Over the course of two decades, he travelled around 15,000 miles both on land along the Silk Road, and by sea, coming across parts of Asia and, if some highly controversial (and possibly forged) maps are to be believed, visited parts of the Alaskan coast hundreds of years before Vitus Bering.
4. HE DICTATED HIS LIFE STORY TO A ROMANCE WRITER DURING A STINT IN JAIL.
When Marco Polo returned to Europe in 1295, his adventures were far from over. He returned home to find Venice at war against the Republic of Genoa, and took up arms on behalf of his homeland. After a sea skirmish in the late 13th century, Polo was captured by the Genoese and tossed in jail. There, he befriended another prisoner, Rustichello of Pisa, who just happened to be a writer of popular romances. He began dictating his story to Rustichello, who produced the manuscript that would become The Travels of Marco Polo.
5. HE INTRODUCED EUROPE TO THE CONCEPT OF PAPER MONEY …
Long before Europe began printing its own bills, the Mongol empire was circulating paper money. Marco Polo described the strange currency in his book, facetiously describing Kublai Khan as an alchemist who could transform mulberry trees into money, instead of base metals into gold. He wrote, in awe, about the way paper money was treated by Kublai Khan’s subjects as though it were as valuable as gold or silver—and described the systems in place to prevent counterfeiting the paper currency.
…AND TO ANIMALS LIKE CHOW CHOWS, YAKS, AND MUSK DEER.
Marco Polo encountered numerous animals on his journey that were then unknown in Europe. These included the chow chow dog breed, the musk deer, and the yak. Of these, the yak seemed to be Polo’s favorite: Impressed by the silky softness of their fur, he brought yak hair back to Venice with him, where he displayed it as a curiosity.
7. HE DESCRIBED DELICACIES LIKE GINGER—AND AN EARLY POWER SHAKE.
Legend has it that Marco Polo introduced Italy to pasta. While the veracity of that story has long been debated, Polo did encounter some interesting foods. Ginger was widely used in the Roman era, but by the time of Marco Polo was considerably rarer, and much more expensive. During his travels, however, he found endless quantities of rare spices, costing virtually nothing. And while he may not have brought ice cream to Europe either, as some sources suggest, he does describe an early power shake. The Mongols reportedly dried milk, and, while riding, would add water to the milk in a flask. Riding with said flask would cause the mixture to churn, resulting in a thick syrup.
8. HE THOUGHT RHINOCEROSES WERE UNICORNS.
Back in the 13th Century, European superstition portrayed unicorns as horned, horse-like animals, who could only be tamed and captured with the help of a young woman. Marco Polo’s account of the animal debunked that superstition: In reality, Polo claimed, unicorns weren’t serene and beautiful creatures who gravitated to the pure of heart. They were ugly and dangerous, with hair like a buffalo, feet like an elephant, the head of a wild boar, and a black horn in the middle of their foreheads. Unicorns, Polo informed his readers, primarily liked to roll around in the mud and dirt, and attack people with their prickly tongues. Based on Polo’s description of the “unicorn,” historians now know he was actually describing the rhinoceros.
9. HE BELIEVED IN SORCERY…
Throughout his book, Polo describes encounters with magicians and sorcerers. At the court of Kublai Khan, Polo describes meeting astrologers who could control the weather from the palace rooftops, and magicians who made flagons of wine levitate at feasts.
10. … AND EVIL SPIRITS.
If Marco Polo sounds a little bit superstitious, it’s likely because he lived in superstitious times. Throughout his book, he not only describes first-hand experiences with magic, but repeats the myths and rumors he encounters as fact. In one passage, Polo claims that it’s a well-known fact that evil spirits haunt the Gobi Desert, torturing travelers with illusions, and calling their names to turn them away from their path and make them lose their way—which is probably a reference to the very real phenomenon of the Gobi's “singing” sands.
11. HE CLAIMED TO BE CLOSE FRIENDS WITH KUBLAI KHAN.
In his book, Polo claimed not only to have made it to the court of Kublai Khan in Shangdu—traveling farther than almost any European had in the process—but to have befriended the emperor, becoming his right hand man and advisor.
12. HE WAS GRANTED A GOLDEN TABLET OF SAFE CONDUCT.
When Marco Polo finally decided it was time to end his adventures and return home, Kublai Khan had grown so attached to the Venetian merchant, he chose to deny his request. Polo finally convinced Kublai Khan to let him go in return for helping the emperor’s great nephew on a sea voyage. In order to ensure Polo was safe on his travels, the emperor awarded him a golden tablet of safe conduct—an inscribed gold plaque—which would help him safely obtain supplies on their journey, and let everyone know he was under the emperor’s protection.
13. HE MIGHT HAVE EXAGGERATED A BIT.
While Marco Polo and his ghostwriter Rustichello of Pisa were undoubtedly great storytellers, historians to this day continue to debate exactly how true some of their stories were. Some historians have gone as far as to question whether Polo even made it to China, arguing he may have simply picked up stories from other merchants during his travels. While Polo’s historical significance isn’t up for debate, it’s unclear which of his tales stretched the truth.
14. HE HAS A SPECIES OF SHEEP NAMED AFTER HIM.
After providing some of the first written descriptions of yaks, musk deer, and of course, unicorns, it seems fitting that Polo would eventually have an animal named after him. In 1841, zoologist Edward Blyth named a species of sheep Ovis ammon polii after Marco Polo (the sheep are colloquially called Marco Polo sheep).
15. HE SERVED AS INSPIRATION TO CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS.
Marco Polo’s travels have inspired plenty of explorers to go on adventures of their own. Christopher Columbus himself brought a copy of Marco Polo’s book with him on his trip to the New World. And in the 1960s, a group of travelers even decided to follow Marco Polo’s exact route, journeying from Italy to China in cars and trailers instead of on horseback.