|English: Death of Genghis Khan. The Travels of Marco Polo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
|Français : Marco Polo en costume tartare. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
|Travels of Marco Polo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
|Portrait of Marco Polo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
|Marco Polo's alleged birthplace in modern-day Korčula (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
|Cover of Travels of Marco Polo (Signet Classics)|
I have just watched a remarkable three-part series of programmes on Al Jazeera called Marco Polo: A Very Modern Journey in which the filmmakers followed the steps of Marco Polo, from the time he left Venice in 1271 AD as a boy of 17, until he arrived, several years later, in the court of Kubla Khan, successor to the great Genghis Khan, who established the Mongol Empire that, after his death in 1227, became the greatest empire to have existed in the world up to that time.
That was one of the two strands by which the film-makers told their fascinating story: the other was in the lifelong fascination for Marco Polo held by a Chinese history professor, Qiquang Zhao, whose journey to Venice in search of Polo’s origins is followed all the way with some surprising results.
Although I don’t remember this being mentioned in the documentary, apparently the Polo family originated in the island of Korcula, on the Adriatic, an island that, as it happens, I visited for a day earlier this year. Today Korcula is one of the string of small towns along the Adriatic that are still surrounded by substantial walls, built generations ago for their defence, because of their vulnerability as city-states. The best-known of these is Dubrovnik which every summer is crowded to bursting point with visiting tourists from all around the world.
Apparently, also, Marco Polo’s father and uncle were well-connected businessmen who had moved east from Venice to the Crimea, and to Constantinople, finally making it to the court of the Kublai Khan, who gave them a message to convey to the Pope on their return to Europe. They arrived back in 1269, their tales about their voyaging inflamed the interest of their teenaged son and nephew Marco, and two years later they set out again, this time with a message from the Pope in reply to the message they had received from the Khan.
The film gives the impression that Marco travelled alone, and by foot all the way, but that seems merely to have been a symbolic method of establishing the journey. To make a long story short, the Polos made it to the court of the ruler of the Mongol empire, in Xanadu, which the English poet Coleridge immortalized in a poem written after a bout of opium-smoking.
Marco was apparently a clever boy, was given many assignments by the Khan, and only after 17 years was the family allowed to go back home, where they arrived 24 years after they left.
A few years later Marco was put in prison for some time, where he met a writer to whom he dictated the book that was later published as The Travels of Marco Polo. Later the book was published in many countries, in each of them being tailored to the preconceptions of its proposed audience. The argument of the film is that Marco Polo’s book established a superior attitude towards the empire of the East, and to this day has been a major influence in the negative attitudes adopted towards Asia and its peoples by Europeans. The Empire, which had been established by some brutal killing of local populations as it spread westwards, eventually took in all of modern-day China, Korea, the Caucasus, Central Asian countries, and substantial portions of modern Eastern Europe, Russia and the Middle East.
But the reality, of course was quite different. China at that time could claim to be possibly the leading civilization in the world. For example, as Prof Zhao points out in the film, the great canal built by the Khans in China, which established the north-south link that became central to their control of that country, had been built 200 years before Venice had ever heard of a canal, and the film celebrates the many other achievements of the Mongols and Asians, including the lavish and elegant clothes, spices and cultures, which were wonders for the Europeans to behold.
What Professor Zhao found in Venice, however, was an ironic result of his search for the original Marco. Welcomed to examine the archives, he discovered that the original book of Marco Polo does not exist, and the only manuscript he came across was Marco’s last will and testament, which was marked by “his mark”, as they say when illiterate people are required to sign something, So Marco, according to the Venetian archivist, was illiterate, although author of one of the most influential books ever written, a book that has marked political and social attitudes across a great part of the world to this day.
The film is also worth watching because of its account of the surviving peoples among whom the Polos travelled in the 13th century, but who still live according to their ancient customs. These include a group of people called the Mosuo, who live on the edge of the Tibetan plateau, whose women rule and make all the decisions, while men do what they are told, and where, if a man lays with someone’s wife or daughter it is not resented, but is regarded as an act that will bring the family good fortune.
The film showed a family living in what is called “the Grandma house”, a 200-year-old structure whose inhabitants still practise what is called Walking Marriage, where most marriages are contracted if the woman invites a man to be her partner. A girl can, however, change partners if she likes, and it is the girl who decides who will be in her room. For 700 years before Marco Polo, and for the 700 years since, these people have honoured the goddess of love and of aging.
There are remarkable shots of the Taklamaken desert through which the Polos walked at a time when deserts were thought to be the abode of evil spirits, and archeologists in the 1930s began to uncover the great cities of the Mongol empire and far beyond that, stretching back 3,000 years.
Perhaps the most amazing shot in the film shows the uncovering in 2006 of a beautiful young woman of thirty, her face almost perfectly preserved under the sands, which in the opinion of the experts established that they had discovered the heartland, the city of Xanadu, at the centre of the empire.