Marco Polo decided to see the riches of Asia for himself. In 1271 he traveled from his home in Venice to Constantinople and then along the Silk/Spice Road all the way to China. He lived in the court of Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis, and then in 1295 traveled by boat south from China around India to the Persian Gulf before going back by land to Venice.
Once back home, Polo wrote of his adventures, in a bestseller for its time. He had seen the wonderful goods Europeans coveted plus so much more. He also portrayed himself as a hero, an important advisor to the Khan, and provided many hard to believe adventures. Some of his personal experiences are considered unreliable, but there is no doubt that his tales of spices, silks, gold, and jewels were accurate and enticing.
Marco Polo’s journey also showed how difficult it was to reach China. Polo spent two years just getting to China from Italy. Even by boat it was too long a journey for a commercial venture, and without the Suez Canal part of it the trip would be overland. Europeans knew what the Earth looked like around the Mediterranean Sea, the name means “middle earth sea,” but they had no idea about the size or shape of Africa. The maps made of the world after Polo’s journey are accurate for the Mediterranean world, the Middle East, and Central Asia, but most of Africa and all of the Americas do not exist.
The problem for Europeans was not where Asia was, but how could one get there quickly and cost efficiently. Today we can compare their predicament with the reason why astronauts have not traveled to Mars. We know how far away it is, but it would take so long to get there, that it is not yet worth our going.
Editors Note: Travis Childs is a history instructor at Cameron University in Lawton, Okla. He is a graduate of Midway High School and lives in Bluegrove. He is currently president of the Clay County Historical Society.