Marco Polo was 17 years old when he left Venice for China in 1271 with his father, Niccolo Polo, and uncle, Matteo Polo. Together they traveled 5,600 miles to the east to meet Kublai Khan, the grandson of Ghengis Khan.
Kublai Khan was Emperor of China, Korea, North India, Persia, Russia and Hungary. Marco Polo’s father and uncle had met the Kublai Khan on a previous journey. Kublai Khan had requested they bring back 100 teachers of the Holy Christian faith and a flask of oil from Christ’s empty tomb in Jerusalem.
Because of wars in Europe and the death of Pope Clement IV, only two preaching Dominican friars were sent by the new Pope, Gregory X. These friars became afraid and turned back after crossing an area being attacked by Turkish Muslims. Nevertheless, the Polos returned to China where Marco Polo was employed by Kublai Khan as an envoy for over 20 years.
Finally returning to Italy, Marco Polo was captured during the Battle of Curzola in 1298. While imprisoned in Genoa, Marco Polo dictated his stories of Persia, China, Mongolia, the Far East and India to a fellow prisoner, Rustichello da Pisa, who wrote them down into what became Medieval Europe’s best-seller, “The Travels of Marco Polo.”
Marco Polo’s book was nicknamed “Il Milione” or One Million Lies, as it described many things unbelievable to Europeans, such as:
- spaghetti noodles
- paper from tree pulp
- paper currency
- ice cream
- thread from worms (silk)
- porcelain dishes (china)
- burning black stones (coal)
- exotic herbs and spices
- wine from rice
- asbestos from a mineral
- women’s feet bound since childhood
- worship of cattle
- homes smeared with cow dung
- naked holy men
- fields of cotton cloth being dyed
- arrows shot from a recurve bow
- an imperial “pony-express” style postal system
Marco Polo surprised Europeans with a report that the Magi, who brought gifts to baby Jesus, were buried in Saveh, a town in Persia south of Tehran, Iran.
Marco Polo stated: “I believe it was God’s will that we should come back, so that men might know the things that are in the world, since, as we have said in the first chapter of this book, no other man, Christian or Saracen, Mongol or pagan, has explored so much of the world as Messer Marco, son of Messer Niccolo Polo, great and noble citizen of the city of Venice.”
In Genoa, 127 years after Marco Polo’s death, Christopher Columbus was born in 1451. As Muslim warriors expanded their Islamic State, they raided caravans that had crossed the China Silk Road. This made the land trade routes from Europe to India and China increasingly more dangerous. All trade finally ended when the Ottoman Muslims conquered Constantinople in 1453.
Columbus grew up hearing stories of the Grand Khan in a strange land on the other side of the world. He owned a copy of Marco Polo’s book, and wrote numerous personal notes in the margins.
At the age of 41, Christopher Columbus wrote to the King and Queen of Spain in 1492: “Concerning the lands of India, and a Prince called Gran Khan. … How many times he sent to Rome to seek doctors in our Holy Faith to instruct him and that never had the Holy Father provided them, and thus so many people were lost through lapsing into idolatries. … And Your Highnesses, as Catholic Christians and Princes devoted to the Holy Christian Faith and the propagators thereof, and enemies of the sect of Mahomet and of all idolatries and heresies, resolved to send me, Christopher Columbus, to the said regions of India, to see the said princes and peoples and lands and the dispositions of them and of all, and the manner in which may be undertaken their conversion to our Holy Faith. …”
Columbus continued: “And ordained that I should not go by land (the usual way) to the Orient, but by the route of the Occident, by which no one to this day knows for sure that anyone has gone.”
On Oct. 10, 1492, Columbus wrote in his journal how his sailors were tired of the long voyage, growing scared, and wanted to turn back: “Here the people could stand it no longer and complained of the long voyage … but the Admiral … added that it was useless to complain. He had come to the Indies, and so had to continue until he found them, with the help of Our Lord.”
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