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Marco Polo by Laurence Bergreen

This article was inspired by Laurence Bergreen's Marco Polo . If you enjoy this article then consider purchasing or borrowing the book.

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Learning from Marco Polo

“Like Alexis de Tocqueville, Marco Polo was one of those rare strangers who saw a land for what it was more clearly than those who lived there.”

As a citizen of the “Most Serene Republic of Venice,” Marco Polo fought for his nation in its war with Genoa. In 1928, Polo was taken captive by the Genoese following the battle of Curzola. Given his noble lineage, Polo was treated more decently than other prisoners, and he met a popular Italian writer, Rustichello da Pisa, while imprisoned. Relating to Rustichello nearly 20 years spent in the service of the Mongolian Emperor Kublai Khan, Polo became famous when he and his friend published The Travels of Marco Polo upon being released.

Before he explored the world, a major feat given the insular views of medieval Europeans, Marco Polo lived in Venice as the son of a merchant. His father, Niccolò Polo, left with Marco’s uncle, Maffeo Polo, to explore the trade in the East before Marco was born.

During a 16 year journey, Niccolò and Maffeo traveled on the famous Silk Road and made the acquaintance of Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kublai Khan. While rumors of Kublai Khan’s brutality spread in European towns, the travelers were surprised by his intellect and peaceful emphasis on commerce rather than military might. Khan was so fascinated by the Catholic Church that he made the travelers into his own personal ambassadors to Europe, and he asked them to bring the holy oil at Jesus’s sepulcher in Jerusalem back to him.

Marco never met his father and uncle until he was a teenager, but their exotic tails sparked his imagination and made him want to be an explorer too. In 1271, when the Polos went on a return journey to bring the Mongolian Emperor holy oil, Marco accompanied them. Traveling through Turkey and the Middle East and through western China into Mongolia, Marco was introduced to various cultures and commodities. Having arrived in the location of modern Beijing, the Polos presented Khan with many gifts, including Marco himself.

As Kublai Khan’s emissary, Marco had the opportunity to explore Asia, from China to Vietnam. The Mongolian Emperor was a great leader, but after failed attempts to invade Japan and Java, his power began to wane. Distancing himself from the emperor, Polo began to travel farther from the empire, visiting India and even part of Africa.

Though the Great Khan didn’t wish to let Marco, Niccolò and Maffeo leave his service; he let them return to Italy following one last mission – transporting princess Kokachin to a distant land. Dying a wealthy merchant, Marco Polo had spent nearly two decades serving Kublai Khan. His ability to see beyond the insular opinions of medieval Europe allowed him to introduce Eastern inventions, from paper money to gunpowder, to Venice.

We can learn from Polo’s example today. In an ever globalizing economy, the Polo family’s emphasis on visiting other nations and understanding their cultures seems wiser now than ever before.


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