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(Il Milione: Le divisament dou monde / The Million: A Description of The World)
by Rustichello of Pisa
The original, squashed down to read in about 25 minutes
Marco Polo's Caravan (Image: Unknown)
This book is famous as the first European description of China, the book which inspired Christopher Columbus to try to reach Asia by sailing into the west. But even if Marco Polo travelled as widely as he claims, he would not by any means have been the first European merchant to reach the Far East. His fame comes rather from his luck in being on the wrong side during a minor war between Venice and Genoa, and thereby finding himself in prison with the novelist Rustichello, a writer known to be not above a little embellishment.
IN the middle of our century, two merchants of Venice, Nicolo and Matteo Polo, voyaged with a rich cargo of merchandise in their own ship, to Constantinople, and thence to the Black Sea. From the Crimea they travelled on horseback into Western Tartary, where they resided in business for a year, gaining by their politic behaviour the cordial friendship of the paramount chief of the tribes, named Barka.
Prevented from returning to Europe through the outbreak of a tribal war in Tartary, the travellers proceeded to Bokhara. There they stayed three years. Here they made the acquaintance of the ambassador of the famous Kublai Khan. This potentate is called of all 'grand khan,' or supreme prince of all the Tartar tribes. The ambassador invited the merchants to visit his master.
Acceding to his request, they set out on the difficult journey, and on reaching their destination were cordially received by Kublai, for they were the first persons from Italy who had ever arrived in his dominions. He begged them to take with them to their country a commissioner from himself to the Pope of Rome. The result was unfortunate, for in a few days the commissioner fell ill on the way through Tartary, and was left behind. At Acre, the travellers heard that Pope Clement IV was dead. Arrived at Venice, Nicolo Polo found that his wife had died soon after his departure in giving birth to a son, the Marco of this history, who was now fifteen years of age.
Waiting for two years in Venice, the election of a new pope being delayed by successive obstacles, and fearing that the grand khan would be disappointed or might despair of their return, they set out again for the East, taking with them young Marco Polo. But at Jerusalem they heard of the accession of Gregory X to the pontifical throne, and hastened back to Italy. The new pope welcomed them with great honour, furnished them with credentials and commissioned to accompany them to the East two friars of great learning and talent, Fra Guglielmo da Tripoli and Fra Nicolo de Vicenza.
The party, entrusted with handsome presents from the pontiff to the grand khan, voyaged forth, and reached Armenia to find that region embroiled in war. The two friars, in terror, returned to the coast under the care of certain knight templars; but the three Venetians, accustomed to danger, continued their journey, which, on account of slow winter progress, lasted altogether three and a half years.
Kublai had removed to a splendid city named Cle Men Fu, and on arriving, a gracious reception awaited the three merchants, who narrated events and delivered the messages from Rome with the papal presents. Taking special notice of young Marco Polo, the grand khan enrolled him among his attendants of honour.
Marco soon became proficient in four languages, and displayed such extraordinary talents that he was sent on a mission to Karazan, a city six month's journey distant. On this mission he distinguished himself by his tact and success, and during the seventeen years spent in the service of the khan executed many similar tasks in every part of the empire.
The Venetians remained many years at the Tartar court, and at length, after amassing much wealth, felt constrained to return home. They were permitted to depart, taking with them, at the khan's request, a maiden named Kogatin, a relative of the khan, whom they were to conduct to the court of Arghun, a sovereign in India, to become his wife, The travellers were not fortunate, for they were compelled, through fresh wars among the Tartar princes, to return. But about this time Marco Polo happened to arrive after a long voyage in the East Indies, giving a most favourable report of the safety of the seas he had navigated. Accordingly it was arranged that the party should go by sea; and fourteen ships were prepared, each having four masts and nine sails, and some crews of over 200 men. On these embarked the three Venetians, the Indian ambassadors and the queen. In three months Java was reached, and India in eighteen more.
On landing, the travellers learnt that the King of Arghun had died some time before, and his son Kiakato was reigning in his stead, and that the lady was to be presented to Kiasan, another son, then on the borders of Persia guarding the frontier with an army of 60,000. This was done, and then the party returned to the residence, and there rested nine months before taking their leave.
While on their way they heard of the death of Kublai, this intelligence putting an end to their plan of revisiting those regions. Pursuing therefore, their intended route, they at length reached Trebizond, whence they proceeded to Negropont, and finally to Venice, at which place, in the enjoyment of health and abundant riches, they safely arrived in the year 1295.
The foregoing record enables the reader to judge of the opportunities Marco Polo had of acquiring a knowledge of the things he describes during a residence of many years in the eastern parts of the world.
Persia was anciently a great province, but it is now in great part destroyed by the Tartars. From the city called Saba came the three magi who adored Christ at Bethlehem. They are buried in Saba, and are all three entire with their beards and hair. They were Baldasar, Gaspar, and Melchior. After three days' journey you come to Palasata, the castle of the fire-worshippers. The people say that the three magi, when they adored Christ, were by Him presented with a closed box, which they carried with them for several days, and then, being curious to see what it contained, were constrained to open. In it was a stone signifying that they should remain firm to the faith they had received.
Thinking themselves deluded, they threw the stone into a pit, whence instantly fire flamed forth. Bitterly repenting, they took home with them some of the fire, and placed it in a church, where it is adored as a god, the sacrifices all being performed before it. Therefore, the people of Persia worship fire.
In the north of Persia the people tell of the Old Man of the Mountain. He was named Alo-eddin, and was a Moslem. In a lovely valley he had planted a magnificent garden and built a cluster of gorgeous palaces, supplied by means of conduits with streams of wine, milk, honey and pure water. Beautiful girls, skilled in music and dancing, and richly dressed, were among the inhabitants of this retreat.
The chief object of Alo-eddin in forming this fascinating garden was to persuade his followers that, as Mahomed had promised to the Moslems the enjoyments of Paradise, with every species of sensual gratification, so he was also a prophet and the compeer of Mahomed, and had the power of admitting to Paradise whom he pleased. An impregnable castle guarded the entrance to the enchanting valley, the entrance to this being through a secret passage.
At his court this chief entertained many youths, selected from the people of the mountains for their apparent courage and martial disposition. To these he daily preached on Paradise and his prerogative of granting admission; and at certain times he caused opium to be administered to a dozen of the youths, who, when half dead with sleep, were conveyed to apartments in the palaces in the gardens.
On awakening, each person found himself surrounded by lovely damsels, who sang, played, served delicate viands and exquisite wines, till the youth, intoxicated with, excess of enjoyment, believed himself to be assuredly in Paradise, and felt unwilling to quit it.
After four or five days the youths were again thrown into somnolency and carried out of the garden; and when asked by Alo-eddin where they had been, declared that by his favour they had been in Paradise, the whole court listening with amazement to their recital. The consequence was that his followers were so devoted to his service that if any neighbouring princes gave him umbrage they were put to death by these disciplined assassins, and his tyranny made him dreaded through all the surrounding provinces.
At length the grand khan grew weary of hearing of his atrocious practices, and an army was sent in the year 1262 to besiege him in his castle. It was so strong that it held out for three years, until Alo-eddin was forced through lack of provisions to surrender, and was put to death. Thus perished Alo-eddin, the Old Man of the Mountain.
Now that I have begun to speak of the Tartars, I will tell you more about them. They never remain long anywhere, but when winter approaches remove to the plains of a warmer region, in order to find sufficient pasture for their cattle. Their flocks and herds are multitudinous. Their tents are formed of rods covered with felt, and being exactly round, and nicely put together, they can gather them together into one bundle and make them up as packages to carry about.
When they set them up again, they always make the entrance front to the south. Their travelling-cars are drawn by oxen and camels. The women do all the business of trading, buying and selling, and provide everything necessary for their husbands and families, the time of the men being entirely devoted to hunting, hawking and matters that relate to military life. They have the best falcons and also the best dogs in the world. They subsist entirely on flesh and milk, consuming horses, camels, dogs and animals of every description. They drink mares' milk, preparing it so that it has the qualities and flavour of white wine, and this beverage they call kemurs.
The Tartars believe in a supreme deity, to whom they offer incense and prayers; while they also worship another, called Natigay, whose image, covered with felt, is kept in every house. This god, who has a wife and children, and who, they consider, presides over their terrestrial concerns, protects their children and guards their cattle and grain. They show him great respect, and at their meals they never omit to take a fat morsel of the flesh and with it grease the mouth of the idol. Rich Tartars dress in cloth of gold and silks, with skins of the sable, the ermine and other animals. All their accoutrements are of the most expensive kind.
They are specially skilful in the use of the bow, and they are very brave in battle, but are cruel in disposition. Their martial qualities and their wonderful powers of endurance make them fitted to subdue the world, as, in fact, they have done with regard to a considerable portion of it.
When these Tartars engage in battle they never mingle with the enemy, but keep hovering about him, discharging their arrows first from one side and then from the other, occasionally pretending to fly, and during their flight shooting arrows backwards at their pursuers, killing men and horses as if they were combating face to face. In this sort of warfare the adversary imagines he has gained the victory, when in fact he has lost the battle. For the Tartars, observing the mischief they have done him, wheel about and, renewing the fight, overpower his remaining troops, and make them prisoners in spite of their utmost exertions.
Kublai is the sixth grand khan, and began his reign as grand khan in the year 1246 and commenced his reign as Emperor of China in 1280. It is forty-two years since he began his reign in Tartary and he is fully eighty-five years of age. It was his ancestor, Jenghiz, who first assumed the title of Khan.
Kublai is considered the most able and successful commander that ever led the Tartars to battle. He it was who completed the conquest of China by subduing the southern provinces and destroying the ancient dynasty. After this period he ceased to take the field in person. His first campaign was against rebels, of whom there were many both in Cathay and Nanji [North and South China].
The Tartars date the beginning of their Year from the beginning of February, and It is their custom on that occasion to dress in white. Great numbers of beautiful white horses are presented to the grand khan. On the day of the White Feast all his elephants, amounting to five thousand, are exhibited in procession, covered with rich housings. It is a time of Splendid ceremonials and of sumptuous feasting.
The grand khan has many leopards and lynxes kept for the purpose of chasing deer, and also many lions, which are active in seizing boars, wild oxen, and asses, Stags, roebucks and other animals that are objects of sport. It is an admirable sight, when the lion is let loose in pursuit of the animal, to observe the savage eagerness and speed with which he overtakes it. His majesty has them conveyed for this purpose in cages placed on cars, and along with them is confined a little dog, with which they become familiarised. The grand khan has eagles also, which are trained to stoop at wolves, and such is their size and strength that none, however large, can escape from their talons.
Before we proceed further we shall speak of a memorable battle that was fought in the kingdom of Yun-chang. When the king of Myan [Myanmar] heard that an army of Tartars had arrived at Yun-chang, he resolved to attack it, in order that by its destruction the grand khan might be deterred from again attempting to station a force on the borders of his dominions.
For this purpose he assembled a very large army, including a multitude of elephants (an animal with which the country abounds), on whose backs were placed battlements, or castles of wood, capable of containing to the number of twelve or sixteen in each. With these, and a numerous army of horse and foot, he took the road to Yun-chang, where the grand khan's army lay, and, encamping at no great distance from it, intended to give his troops a few days of rest.
The Tartars, chiefly by their wonderful skill in archery, inflicted a terrible defeat on their foes; and the King of Mien, though he fought with the most undaunted courage, was compelled to flee, leaving the greater part of his troops killed or wounded.
In the northern parts of the world there dwell many Tartars, under a chief of the name of Kaidu, nearly related to Kublai, the grand khan. These Tartars are idolaters. They possess vast herds of horses, cows, sheep and other domestic animals. In these northern districts are found prodigious white bears, black foxes, wild asses in great numbers, and swarms of sables and martens. During the long and severe winters the Tartars travel in sledges drawn by great dogs.
Beyond the country of these northern Tartars is another region, which extends to the utmost bounds of the north and is called the Region of Darkness, because during most part of the winter months the sun is invisible, and the atmosphere is obscured to the same degree as that in which we find it just about the dawn of day, when we may be said to see and not to see. The intellects of the people are dull, and they have an air of stupidity. The Tartars often proceed on plundering expeditions against them to rob them of their cattle and goods, availing themselves for this purpose of those months in which the darkness prevails.
OF CEYLON AND MALABAR
The Island of Zeilan [Ceylon] is better circumstanced than any other in the world. It is governed by a king named Sendernaz. The people worship idols, and are independent of every other state. Both men and women go nearly nude. Their food is milk, rice and flesh, and they drink wine drawn from trees. Here is the best sappan-wood that can anywhere be met with.
The island produces more beautiful and valuable rubies than can be found in any other part of the world, and also many other precious stones. The king is reported to possess the grandest ruby that ever was seen, being a span in length, and the thickness of a man's arm, brilliant beyond description and without a single flaw. The grand khan, Kublai, sent ambassadors to this monarch, with a request that he would yield to him possession of this ruby; in return for which he should receive the value of a city. The answer was that he would not sell it for all the treasure of the universe. The grand khan, therefore, failed to acquire it.
Leaving the island of Zeilan, you reach the great province of Malabar, which is part of the continent of the greater India, the noblest and richest country in the world. It is governed by four kings, of whom the principal is named Senderbandi.
Within his district is a fishery for pearls. The pearl oysters are brought up in bags by divers. The king wears many jewels of immense value, and among them is a fine string containing one hundred and four splendid pearls and rubies.
In the province of Malabar is the body of St. Thomas the Apostle, who there suffered martyrdom. It rests in a small city to which vast numbers of Christians and Saracens resort. The latter regard him as a great prophet, and name him Ananias, signifying a holy personage.
In the year 1288 a powerful prince of the country, who at the time of harvest had accumulated as his portion an enormous quantity of rice, and whose granaries could not hold the vast store, used for that purpose a religious house belonging to the church of St. Thomas, although the guardians of the shrine begged him not thus to occupy the place. He persisted, and on the next night the holy apostle appeared to him, holding a small lance in his hand, which he held at his throat, threatening him with death if he should not immediately evacuate the house. The prince awoke in terror, and obeyed.
Various miracles are daily wrought here through the interposition of the blessed saint. The Christians who have the care of the church possess groves of coconut trees, and from these derive their means of subsistence.
The death of this most holy apostle took place in this wise. Having retired to a hermitage where he was engaged in prayer, and being surrounded by a number of pea-fowls, with which bird the country abounds, an idolater who happened to be passing, and did not perceive the holy man, shot an arrow at a pea-cock, which struck St. Thomas in his side. He only had time to thank the Lord for all His mercies, and into His hands resigned his spirit.
In the kingdom of Golkonda, which you enter upon leaving Malabar, after proceeding five hundred miles northward, are the best and most honourable merchants that can be found. No consideration whatever can induce them to speak an untruth. They have also an abhorrence of robbery, and likewise are remarkable for the virtue of continence, being satisfied with the possession of one wife. The Brahmans are distinguished by a badge, a thick cotton thread passed over the shoulder and tied under the arm.
The people are gross idolaters and much addicted to sorcery and divination When they are about to make a purchase of goods, they observe the shadow cast of their own bodies in the sunshine, and if the shadow be as large as it should be, they make the purchase that day. More over, when they are in a shop for the purchase of anything, if they see a tarantula, of which there are many there, they take notice from which side it comes, and regulate their business accordingly. Again, if they are going out of their houses and they hear anyone sneeze they return to the house and stay at home.
● Copyright © 2014 Glyn Hughes.
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