Marco Polo was an inmate in the Genoese prison at the Palazzo di San Giorgio from 1296 to 1299, arrested for commanding a Venetian galley in a war against Genoa. While there, he told tales of his travels through Asia to his fellow prisoners and the guards alike, and his cellmate Rustichello da Pisa wrote them down.
Once the two were released from prison, copies of the manuscript, titled The Travels of Marco Polo, captivated Europe. Polo told tales of fabulous Asian courts, black stones that would catch on fire (coal), and Chinese money made out of paper. Ever since, people have debated the question: Did Marco Polo really go to China, and see all of the things he claims to have seen?
Marco Polo was probably born in Venice, although there is no proof of his place of birth, around 1254 CE. His father Niccolo and uncle Maffeo were Venetian merchants who traded on the Silk Road; little Marco's father left for Asia before the child was born, and would return when the boy was a teenager. He may not have even realized that his wife was pregnant when he left.
Thanks to enterprising merchants such as the Polo brothers, Venice flourished at this time as the major trading hub for imports from the fabulous oasis cities of Central Asia, exotic India, and far-off, wondrous Cathay (China). With the exception of India, the whole expanse of Silk Road Asia was under the control of the Mongol Empire at this time. Genghis Khan had died, but his grandson Kublai Khan was Great Khan of the Mongols as well as the founder of the Yuan Dynasty in China.
Pope Alexander IV announced to Christian Europe in a 1260 papal bull that they faced "wars of universal destruction wherewith the scourge of Heaven's wrath in the hands of the inhuman Tartars [Europe's name for the Mongols], erupting as it were from the secret confines of Hell, oppresses and crushes the earth." For men such as the Polos, however, the now stable and peaceful Mongol Empire was a source of wealth, rather than of hell-fire.
Young Marco Goes to Asia:
When the elder Polos returned to Venice in 1269, they found that Niccolo's wife had died and left behind a 15-year-old son named Marco. The boy must have been surprised to learn that he was not an orphan, as well. Two years later, the teenager, his father and his uncle would embark eastward on another great journey.
The Polos made their way to Acre, now in Israel, and then rode camels north to Hormuz, Persia. On their first visit to Kublai Khan's court, the Khan had asked the Polo brothers to bring him oil from the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, which Armenian Orthodox priests sold in that city, so the Polos went to the Holy City to buy the consecrated oil. Marco's travel account mentions various other interesting peoples along the way, including Kurds and marsh Arabs in Iraq.
Young Marco was put off by the Armenians, considering their Orthodox Christianity a heresy, puzzled by Nestorian Christianity, and even more alarmed by the Muslim Turks (or "Saracens"). He admired the beautiful Turkish carpets with the instincts of a merchant, however. The naive young traveler would have to learn to be open-minded about new peoples and their beliefs.
On to China:
The Polos crossed into Persia, through Savah and the carpet-weaving center of Kerman. They had planned to sail to China via India, but found that the ships available in Persia were too rickety to be trusted. Instead, they would join a trade caravan of two-humped Bactrian camels.
Before they departed from Persia, however, the Polos passed by the Eagle's Nest, scene of Hulagu Khan's 1256 siege against the Assassins or Hashshashin. Marco Polo's account, taken from local tales, may have vastly exaggerated the fanaticism of the Assassins. Nevertheless, he was very happy to descend the mountains and take the road toward Balkh, in northern Afghanistan, famed as the ancient home of Zoroaster or Zarathustra.
One of the oldest cities on earth, Balkh did not live up to Marco's expectations, primarily because Genghis Khan's army had done its best to erase the intransigent city from the face of the Earth. Nonetheless, Marco Polo came to admire Mongol culture, and to develop his own obsession with Central Asian horses (all of them descended from Alexander the Great's mount Bucephelus, as Marco tells it) and with falconry - two mainstays of Mongol life. He also began to pick up the Mongol language, which his father and uncle already could speak well.
In order to get to the Mongolian heartlands and Kublai Khan's court, however, the Polos had to cross the high Pamir Mountains. Marco encountered Buddhist monks with their saffron robes and shaved heads, which he found fascinating.
Next the Venetians traveled toward the great Silk Road oases of Kashgar and Khotan, entering the fearsome Taklamakan Desert of western China. For forty days, the Polos trudged across the burning landscape whose very name means "you go in, but you don't come out." Finally, after three and a half years of hard travel and adventure, the Polos made it to the Mongol court in China.
In Kublai Khan's Court:
When he met Kublai Khan, the founder of the Yuan Dynasty, Marco Polo was just 20 years old. By this time he had become an enthusiastic admirer of the Mongol people, quite at odds with the opinion in most of 13th century Europe. His "Travels" notes that "They are those people who most in the world bear work and great hardship and are content with little food, and who are for this reason suited best to conquer cities, lands, and kingdoms."
The Polos arrived in Kublai Khan's summer capital, called Shangdu or "Xanadu." Marco was overcome by the beauty of the place: "The halls and rooms... are all gilded and wonderfully painted within with pictures and images of beasts and birds and trees and flowers... It is fortified like a castle in which are fountains and rivers of running water and very beautiful lawns and groves."
All three of the Polo men went to Kublai Khan's court and performed a kowtow, after which the Khan welcomed his old Venetian acquaintances. Niccolo Polo presented the Khan with the oil from Jerusalem. He also offered his son Marco to the Mongol lord as a servant.
In the Khan's Service:
Little did the Polos know that they would be forced to remain in Yuan China for seventeen years. They could not leave without Kublai Khan's permission, and he enjoyed conversing with his "pet" Venetians. Marco in particular became a favorite of the Khan's, and incurred a lot of jealousy from the Mongol courtiers.
Kublai Khan was extremely curious about Catholicism, and the Polos believed at times that he might convert. The Khan's mother had been a Nestorian Christian, so it was not so great a leap as it might have appeared. However, conversion to a western faith might have alienated many of the emperor's subjects, so he toyed with the idea but never committed to it.
Marco Polo's descriptions of the wealth and splendor of the Yuan court, and of the size and organization of Chinese cities, struck his European audience as impossible to believe. For example, he loved the southern Chinese city of Hangzhou, which at that time had a population of about 1.5 million people. That is about 15 times the contemporary population of Venice, then one of Europe's largest cities, and European readers simply refused to give creedence to this fact.
Return by Sea:
By the time Kublai Khan reached the age of 75 in 1291, the Polos probably had just about given up hope that he would ever allow them to return home to Europe. He also seemed determined to live forever. Marco, his father and his uncle finally got permission to leave the Great Khan's court that year, so that they could serve as escorts of a 17-year-old Mongol princess who was being sent to Persia as a bride.
The Polos took the sea route back, first boarding a ship to Sumatra, now in Indonesia, where they were marooned by changing monsoons for 5 months. Once the winds shifted, they went on to Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and then to India, where Marco was fascinated by Hindu cow-worship and mystical yogis, along with Jainism and its prohibition on harming even a single insect.
From there, they voyaged on to the Arabian Peninsula, arriving back at Hormuz, where they delivered the princess to her waiting bridegroom. It took two years for them to make the trip from China back to Venice; thus, Marco Polo likely was just about to turn 40 when he returned to his home city.
Life in Italy:
As imperial emissaries and savvy traders, the Polos returned to Venice in 1295 laden with exquisite goods. However, Venice was embroiled in a feud with Genoa over control of the very trade routes that had enriched the Polos. Thus it was that Marco found himself in command of a Venetian war galley, and then a prisoner of the Genoese.
After his release from prison in 1299, Marco Polo returned to Venice and continued his work as a merchant. He never went traveling again, however, hiring others to make expeditions instead of taking on that task himself. Marco Polo also married the daughter of another successful trading family, and had three daughters.
In January of 1324, Marco Polo died at the age of about 69. In his will, he freed a "Tartar slave" who had served him since his return from China.
Although the man had died, his story lived on, inspiring the imaginations and adventures of other Europeans. Christopher Columbus, for example, had a copy of Marco Polo's "Travels," which he notated heavily in the margins. Whether or not they believed his stories, the people of Europe certainly loved to hear about the fabulous Kublai Khan and his wondrous courts at Xanadu and Dadu (Beijing).
More about Marco Polo:
Read additional biographies from About.com's Experts on Geography - Marco Polo, and Medieval History - Marco Polo | Renowned Medieval Traveler. See also a review of the book Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu, and a movie review of "In the Footsteps of Marco Polo."
Bergreen, Laurence. Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu, New York: Random House Digital, 2007.
"Marco Polo," Biography.com.
Polo, Marco. The Travels of Marco Polo, trans. William Marsden, Charleston, SC: Forgotten Books, 2010.
Wood, Frances. Did Marco Polo Go to China?, Boulder, CO: Westview Books, 1998.