As a child, I was fascinated by stories about Marco Polo. History told us that the 13th Century Italian merchant and explorer famously traveled to the Far East, where he witnessed the wonders of Chinese and Mongolian cultures, and even served as an ambassador to the court of Kublai Kahn. For more than 24 years, Marco wandered throughout Asia, where he traded with the locals and became intimately familiar with their way of life.
Eventually, Marco returned to Venice, where he mesmerized people with tales of his far-flung adventures. Those stories would later be documented in a book entitled Description of the World, a work that was incredibly popular, even long after Polo’s death in 1324. Many historians consider it to be amongst the first travel books ever written and it helped to cement Marco’s stats as a legendary figure in history. So much so, that 700 years after it was first published, we still revel in the tales of Polo’s fantastic travels.
But what if the famous merchant wasn’t exactly honest about his exploits? What if he hadn’t traveled as far and wide as he claimed in those tales? What if Marco Polo was a travel fraud?
That’s exactly what archaeologists have now come to believe after pouring through Description of the World and lining up what Polo described in the text with what we now know about historical events and places. In fact, according to a story published in The Daily Telegraph a few days ago, historians now believe that Marco Polo never even went to China. Instead, they think that he picked up his stories from Persian merchants that he dealt with directly along the Black Sea. Polo may have then taken those stories, embellished them a bit, adding in his own details for good measure.For example, when describing the fleet of ships that Kublai Khan used on his failed attempt to invade Japan in 1281, Polo claims they had five masts, when archaeologists know that they had just three. Something he could easily have forgotten or overlooked you say? Agreed. But his book doesn’t mention the Great Wall of China at all, nor does he make even a passing reference to drinking tea or using chopsticks while visiting that country. Marco also uses a variety of Persian words to describe locations in China as well, which also indicates that he may have been getting his stories second-hand.
Dr. Frances Wood, the head of the Chinese section of the British Library, also says that there was nothing from China ever found amongst the Polo family’s possessions and that throughout his book, Marco rarely mentions that he witnessed something first hand. She believes that he actually came across a Persian guide book on China in his travel and simply used that for the basis of his tales.
So, let me get this straight. Marco Polo not only helped to launch the travel writing industry, he also became one of its first writers to plagiarize and exaggerate his content? This guy really was ahead of his time.