The Travels of Marco Polo

Invisible Cities is in part based on The Travels of Marco Polo

which the curious can find on Gutenburg (vol 1, vol 2) or at Amazon.

I find one of the reviews both amusing and inspiring:

During the 13th Century the Mongols conquered most of the world from China to the Black Sea, providing a rare window of opportunity for people to travel from Europe to the Far East. A few adventurous Europeans accomplished it. One actually wrote about it: Marco Polo. Many years later, as he lay dying, family members and the attending priest begged Marco Polo to recant all the outrageous lies he had told about his incredible adventures. He refused, insisting that everything he said and wrote had all been absolutely true.

The record Marco Polo left of his travels stirred the imaginations of Europeans about the possibilities that existed beyond their own limited horizons. Little more than two hundred years later they had established a trade route around Africa to reach the Far East, and attempts to do the same thing by sailing westward had revealed the existence of two hitherto entirely unknown American continents.

The Travels of Marco Polo is one of a handful of books that can truly be said to have changed the world. This is not merely another adventure story, it is THE adventure story of all time! The Polos traveled thousands of miles through unknown and hostile territory in order to reach lands hitherto only vaguely rumored to exist. They accomplished it entirely on their own, and not at the head of a conquering army, but as simple commercial travelers.

On the down side, this is not the most convenient of books to get through. A good map is an absolutely necessary accompaniment to the text. Even then, many of the names commonly applied today to many of the people and places alluded to in the text have been changed. In fact, some of the places mentioned in the text don’t even exist any more. That is, of course, only to be expected after the lapse of more than 700 years. This edition is provided with copious footnotes which, like the map, are an absolute necessity. However, the editors might have made things a lot easier by altering the names of the people and places to their current spelling, and providing a map with locations plotted on it, without really altering the content of the text.

So, the Mongols were capable of protecting trade in their vast domain: I will grant them that. I should note that they also inspired the loyalty of a European Christian, Marco Polo himself, who was actually there at the time (while I, who despise the Mongols and their actions, was not.)

Hmmm.

And it seems that there was a Christian empress of the Mongols, who strongly shaped the empire to the better, according to the commentators of that era (and, incidentally, was the mother of Kublai Khan…)

Very interesting… although I certainly don’t expect any mini-series on Empress Sorghaghtani Beki anytime soon, for all the usual reasons!

I do like this part of the review:

The Travels of Marco Polo is one of a handful of books that can truly be said to have changed the world. This is not merely another adventure story, it is THE adventure story of all time! The Polos traveled thousands of miles through unknown and hostile territory in order to reach lands hitherto only vaguely rumored to exist. They accomplished it entirely on their own, and not at the head of a conquering army, but as simple commercial travelers.

Very, very Traveller.


From reviews from a more recent version of the same book:

“Few texts have aroused more controversy than the book of Marco Polo,” notes the editor with good reason: the Asian tales that Marco Polo brought back to Renaissance Europe were absolutely unbelievable…except for the fact that most of them turn out to be provably true, especially in the context of this carefully crafted new edition.

Like many “Great Works” this is a famous title that most people (myself included) have heard of throughout their lives…but have never read. One lazy Sunday I drifted into watching a Marco Polo mini-series, which I thought was a rather silly, romanticized, sensationalized Hollywood treatment. It annoyed me, but I watched it to the end…and then ran to Amazon to find a book to get the facts.

Amazing news…the “sensationalized” mini-series barely scratched the surface of the astounding things Marco Polo reports in his actual book!

[…]

Back to the story itself, Polo was a merchant with the heart of an anthropologist. Accounts of terrain, natural resources, buildings and trade goods abound (and can be quite dry) but these are punctuated by his unusual observations of ethnicities, religions, social customs and royal intrigues.

Indeed, Marco Polo’s home was less civilized than the society he witnessed in China, to the point that he often had no point of comparison. Yet, he conscientiously describes city planning, landscaping, shopping malls, hospitals, public welfare systems with job retraining, organized law enforcement, paper money, military technology and systems of management, homes with central coal heat, multi-lingual government agencies, fire departments, long distance messenger networks, paved roads, public and private parks, and much more.

And, perhaps explaining the book’s centuries of commercial success, there are plenty of tales of cannibalism, polygamy, polyandry, cults of assassins, sexual behavior, dowry customs, human sacrifice, executions, funerary customs, prostitution, gambling, sport, magic ritual, strange beasts (rhinoceroses, elephants, leopards, crocodiles, serpents, the mythical Roc bird), etc.

One comes away from this book in awe of the high civilization that existed in China, and with great respect for this brave man who did an admirable job of capturing the infinite diversity of 13th century Asian life.

Read this account and share the adventures of his amazing journey!

Now, that is what I call a Traveller!


I wonder if I, or any Traveller Referee, could devise such an amazing adventure as Marco Polo underwent. I doubt it: to make such a jump, you have to start from a very isolated and restricted mental universe —

“Never go more than five miles from the village!”
“If the ancestors didn’t do it, then it ain’t worth doing!”

— and just have your understanding of the wide world around you just EXPLODE in depth, breadth, and complexity.

(And get seriously rich…
and rub shoulders with the most powerful man in the world at that time…)

If the PCs come from a very, very closed-minded world, they could be the Marco Polo of their people… if other daring men from their culture rises up, to imitate their example.

I recommend that to encourage others to go forth, dangle gold before the eyes of their would-be imitators. Certainly religion won’t cut it: Kubali Khan invited the pope to send him 50 priests, to teach him and his people about Christ… and the pope refused.

*snort*

But also, from the Wikipedia on Güyük Khan

Genghis Khan’s sons and grandsons were haunted by alcoholism, a vice that Genghis himself had detested. Despite this, Genghis himself once remarked that it was not realistic to expect a man not to get drunk on occasion. The death of Güyük had a profound effect on history. Güyük wanted to turn the Mongol power against Europe. Because of Güyük’s premature death, Mongol family politics caused the Mongol efforts to be directed against southern China, which was eventually conquered in the time of Kublai Khan.

Güyük’s reign showed that the split between Batu’s line, the descendants of Jöchi, and the rest of the family was the fatal flaw in the unity of all the Mongol Empire. Oghul Qaimish, whom Möngke had called “more contemptible than a bitch” to a European visitor, was executed after Batu and Möngke effected the family coup.

Well, southern China was wealthier, and closer, to the Mongol heartland than Europe. So the Chinese got hammered… while the Europeans got the chance to shape the future of the entire world.

This can be modelled in Traveller — there are various sourcebooks for gaming across generations (Pocket Empires and Dynasty immediately spring to mind) — but it’s very difficult to stretch the mind across several centuries, to really see the consequences a single decision can bring.

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About Alvin Plummer

I'm working to build a better world, a world that blesses Christ and is blessed by Him. I hope that you're doing the same!
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