Marco Polo’s Travels

The Old Man of the Mountains, Kublai Khan’s concubines and the birth of sex tourism?

Marco Polo doesn’t exactly qualify as a travel writer – in the age he lived the only books in circulation were the Bible, some religious and philosophical works and the odd romance. The tradition of storytelling was alive and well in the thirteenth century and when Marco Polo returned from 17 years abroad in the realms of Kublai Khan, he entertained his guests with tales and anecdotes at the dinner table.

It might well have remained that way had he not been imprisoned for two years when his home town of Venice warred with Genoa. Held hostage in a Genoan jail, who should Marco Polo find himself but a professional writer by the name Rustiglielo. To pass the hours Marco Polo narrated the tales of his travels to a writer who recognized the potential of the wild travel stories of the Italian adventurer. Before Marco Polo died his Travels had been translated into French, Latin and three other Italian dialects.

As a travel book it’s hardly a thrilling read. It has neither the chronological tension of a diary, nor the entertaining flow of a travelogue. Instead, Marco Polo dictated notes of his travels as though he were contributing to a geographical encyclopedia with notes of the agricultural products of various regions and the manner of dress.

At other times Marco Polo’s Travels reads like a prototype of the guidebook, explaining to fellow explorers how they might traverse the unknown world beyond the borders of Turkey. He passes on practical tips as though any where likely to follow in his footsteps.

‘A desert then commences, extending forty of fifty miles, where there is no water; and it is necessary that the traveler should make provision of this article at the outset.’

Likewise the inveterate merchant in him comes out and he can’t help but note the price of ginger at it’s source, converting back to Venetian florins, as though ruefully lamenting the difficulties in transporting such a commodity back home.

But in the time that Marco Polo was a subject of the great Emperor, Kublai Khan, he noted that in his reports of his travels the emperor enjoyed most the stories and gossip surrounding the people under his dominion and it is here that the Travels of Marco Polo come into their own. With all the uptight morality of a thirteenth century Catholic, Marco Polo describe the social practices of people utterly unknown at the time. Describing a region close to China, he observes:

When strangers arrive, and desire to have lodging and accommodation at their houses, it afford them the greatest satisfaction. They give positive orders to their wives, daughters, sisters and other female relations to indulge their guests in every wish, while they themselves leave their homes, and retire into the city… The women are in truth very handsome, very sensual and fully disposed to conform in this respect to the injunction of their husbands.

Whilst he condemns such a ‘scandalous custom’, the reader is left wondering how Marco Polo was able to verify the sensual nature of the women, given that his morals no doubt prohibited him from participating in these rites.

Indeed, as the Travels, Marco Polo loses no opportunity to describe the laxity of local women in the barbarous lands he visits and, whilst it was only centuries later that anyone took his travel stories seriously, he might be accredited with sowing the seeds of sex tourism. What man wouldn’t travel to ancient Tibet where girls who were virgins were despised and, where mothers:

‘entreat the strangers to accept of their daughters and enjoy their society as long as they remain in the neighbourhood.’

Travelers gave the girls trinkets in exchange for sex and these they wore proudly to increase the attraction of local bachelors looking for a wife.

Marco Polo was, of course, writing for a society which was strictly dominated by Catholic morality and under the firm dominion of the Pope. He may well have been an upstanding young Catholic himself but there is a tongue in cheek humour in his anthropological descriptions that suggest he might not have been quite as offended by the sexual practices of the Far East as he pretend. Consider, for example, his account of how concubines were chosen for Kublai Khan; after a select group of girls has been chosen from hundreds of hopefuls (Tartar Idol?) the Khan:

‘…commits them to the charge of certain elderly ladies dwelling in his palace. And these old ladies make the girls sleep with them, in order to ascertain if they have sweet breath and do not snore, and are sound in all their limbs.’

But, of course, Marco Polo writes about more than just sex. He astounded the world with his descriptions of a strange black rock (coal) that you could burn to heat houses, of paper money with the Khan’s seal, and of the magical practices of the Chinese astrologers who could prevent storms and make urns of milk and wine fly through the air.

He was also the first person to relate the tale of the Old Man of the Mountains dwelling in Kurdistan. Having built his stronghold in the mountains, this charlatan known as Aloadin, built a garden to resemble that of the prophesied Islamic garden of Paradise. He caused streams of wine, milk and honey to flow through it and imported courtesans skilled in dancing, singing and ‘amorous allurement’.

Then the Old Man of the Mountains drugged his followers with opium and hashish and dragged them off unconscious to his garden:

‘Upon awakening from the state of stupour, their senses were struck with all the delightful objects that have been described and each perceived himself surrounded by lovely damsels, singing, playing and attracting his regards by the most fascinating caresses, serving him also with delicate foods and exquisite wines, until intoxicated with excess of enjoyment amidst actual rivulets of milk and wine, he believed himself most assuredly in Paradise’

He then drugged them again and brought them back to the palace. The Old Man of the Mountains explained that it was he who held the keys to Paradise and if they obeyed his every whim then he would guarantee them a place. Having lost the fear of death, these young men became daring assassins(originates from the ‘hashish’ Aloadin gave them) and they were sent to execute anyone who got in Aloadin’s way.

The Old Man of the Mountains ruled in terror for over two hundred years, the title passing on to each successive ruler.

The Travels of Marco Polo is an excellent way to understand how diverse and superstitious much of the world was before the spread of the European empires. There is a tendency to over-romanticise the old world and through Marco Polo we come to understand that trickery, greed and oppression are characteristic of humans everywhere, along with the complementing sense of humour, awe and nobility that redeem humanity’s faults.

Marco Polo may not be light bedtime reading but if you can suffer the archaic language and rigid prose, there are a few jewels in there that make you wish you had the chance to discover half the unknown world for the first time.