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Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu

by Laurence Bergreen

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Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu
Laurence Bergreen's ( Over the Edge of the World ) Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu will inspire even the most adventurous travelers. But readers of this book will only have to turn a few pages to realize that modern-day escapades such as trekking in Bhutan, sailing in the Galapagos, or eco-touring in Alaska cannot possibly rival those that Marco Polo and his two family members encountered on their overland journey from Venice to the court of Kublai Kahn.

In 1271, Marco Polo was just seventeen years old when he left his Venetian home to embark on an unimaginably arduous journey across Asia. Polo traveled with his merchant father and uncle, who had previously made the trip and promised the great Mongol leader, Kublai Kahn, that they would return. Instead of sailing around India to reach the capital city of Cambulac (Beijing), the three Europeans trekked through deserts and mountains along ancient traders' routes that would eventually become known as the Silk Road.
Marco Polo did not see his home for another twenty-four years, and he was lucky to see it again at all. Bergreen catalogs the dangers of such a journey: "A drought; a sandstorm; a debilitating disease, a renegade squad of murderous thieves; jealous rivals…a sudden snowstorm or bolt of lightning-any of these common occurrences could have brought the expedition to a sudden end." As they spent days on camels plodding through a continent's wastelands, Polo and company must have had time to consider the consequences. "No rescue party would have come looking for them," Bergreen says, "and few in Venice would have mourned their passing."
When the three weary travelers finally arrived in Cambulac, Marco's father and uncle sought out the Great Kahn in order to present the gift of holy oil that they had promised to bring him when they returned. But instead of delivering the one hundred wise men that they had also vowed to bring, Marco Polo's father presented his son. For the next seventeen years, Marco Polo served in the court of Kublai Kahn in various roles ranging from messenger to tax collector, and the two developed what Bergreen calls " a most unusual partnership as master and servant, teacher and disciple, and even father and son."

Bergreen's account of Marco Polo's extended stay in the Mongol court is rich with relevant historical detail and full of interesting diversions into subjects such as falconry, silk production, opium, astronomy, and religion. However, when Bergreen shifts his focus away from Marco Polo for too long, as he does in lengthy sections devoted to Kublai Kahn or the history of the Mongol Empire, readers may find themselves hoping that he will soon return to the he book's most interesting character.

Besides captivating readers with his youthful enthusiasm for seeing the world, Marco Polo remains a fascinating subject even after he has returned home to Venice. Bergreen does not succumb to hero-worship, nor does he spare readers the details of Polo's character defects. Instead, Bergreen tells how, in his later years, Marco Polo had earned a reputation as a miser, a liar, and an instigator of family quarrels. Even on his deathbead, Marco Polo was amending his will.
Perhaps even more important than the wealth that Marco Polo left with his survivors was the narrative account of his journeys, called the Travels, that outlived him by several centuries. In a time before moveable type, renowned writer Rustichello of Pisa recorded Marco Polo's tales while the two were held captive as prisoners of war in a Genoese jail. Bergreen draws upon the Travels, other original sources, and his own travels along Polo's route to masterfully fuse history with biography in this book.

Marco Polo may be remembered as one of history's most celebrated explorers, but Bergreen reminds us that Marco Polo simply "went wherever the winds of fortune carried him." Polo was not trying to achieve the reputation that he has, and his travels were, in fact, less impressive than those of his father and uncle. As a merchant, however, Marco Polo serves as an example of the very contemporary idea that commerce is "the essence of international relations."
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