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Historical account of discoveries and travels in Asia, from the earliest ages to the present time (Volume 1) online

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world. The Khan was thus at length inspired with
a desire to open a communication with so eminent
a character ; and he proposed to his visitors, that
they should accompany one of his own officers in
a mission to this potentate, the object of which
was to request, that he would send a hundred
learned men, qualified to teach the Christian
religion, and the seven sciences. The former
he professed to believe as much superior in truth
•and excellence to that held in his dominions;



156 aiARCO POLO.

and he particularly requested a portion of the holy
oil kept burning over the sacred sepulchre at
Jerusalem. All accounts prove, that the Tartar
monarchs held very loose to the faith of their sub-
jects J but whether this desire of instructors arose
from real conversion, or from a wish to court the
favour of his Holiness, may perhaps be doubted.
The Venetians however took their departure
along with a Chinese nobleman called Khogotal ;
but he being taken ill on the road, they were
obliged to leave him behind. Such were the
difficulties of the journey, that it cost them three
years to reach the coast of Syria. They there
learned with some dismay, that the Papal See was
vacant by the recent death of Clement the Fourth.
They remained however till the election of a new
pontiff, when the choice fell upon one of their
friends, who assumed the name of Gregory the
Tenth. He immediately furnished them, not in-
deed with that copious supply of theologians
which the Emperor is said to have solicited, but
with two, who are applauded as men of letters
and science, as well as deep divines. Being fur-
nished also with presents and credentials, they
took their departure along with Marco, the son
of Maffio, who having come into the world a few
months after his father's departure, was now a
youth of nineteen. The details of their journey
will be given presently ; here it shall only be



RETURN TO Venice. I57

stated, that they again reached the court of the
Khan, and were received in the same courteous
and distinguished manner. They remained for
many years, and were employed in various im-
portant official situations j nor was it without dif-
ficulty that they were at length allowed to satisfy
the longing they felt to return to their native
country. They reached Venice after an absence
of twenty-four years, in the course of which time
they were so completely altered j their dress, ap-
pearance, and even language was become so
foreign, that their nearest friends could no longer
recognize them. Having with difficulty obtained
entrance into their paternal mansion, they deter-
mined upon some striking scene, which might at
once convince all Venice of the reality of their
pretensions. They prepared a magnificent enter-
tainment, to which all their noble relations and
acquaintances were invited. There, after a suc-
cessive display of rich dresses, which they put on,
and immediately after distributed among the at-
tendants, they entered attired in the same coarse
and thread-bare garments which they had worn
on theirfirst arrival at Venice. Thecompany,much
astonished at this transformation, were still more
surprised, when by ripping open the patches and
linings of these unseemly garments, they brought
to viewa most astonishingquantity of jewels, which
had been secretly sewed into them. These the



158 MARCO POLO.

travellers had judged to be the most safe and cori-
venientmodeof conveying home the wealth acquir-
ed by them in the East. The guests, electrified
by this spectacle, immediately spread throughout
Venice the report of what they had seen ; and the
whole city was soon in a tumult of wonder and
curiosity. Persons of all ranks, ages, and descrip-
tions, flocked to the house to congratulate them,
and make enquiries respecting their eastern
adventures. Marco was principal orator; and
his society was courted by all the young nobles
who were animated with any spirit of curiosity.
At the same time he acquired high consideration
in the state, and was invested with several im-
portant public employments. Amid these various
occupations and amusements, the idea of writing
a regular narrative of his travels seems never to
have occurred to him. It was not then, as now,
the established system, that every traveller who
had passed the limits of his native country must
make a book ; nor were there any booksellers to
stimulate industry by the offer of a high copy-
right. The world, therefore, might have known
the travels of Polo only through the dim medium
of tradition, but for a signal disaster with which
he was overtaken. A fleet being equipped against
the Genoese, he was appointed to the command
of one of the gallies ; but an action took place,
in which the Venetians were totallv defeated, and



ilE DICTATES HIS NARRATIVE. 159

Polo made prisoner. It was not, however, a
remote and barbarous captivity into which he
was carried. Genoa was then in the zenith of
her glory, and shared with Venice most of the
commerce, wealth, and learned curiosity which
yet existed in Europe. The prison of the Vene-
tian captive was visited by the most distinguished
of the Genoese ; and his tale was listened to with
the same eager interest as in his native country.
He was detained four years; in the course of
which time, a gentleman of the name of Rusti-
gielo, who had become extremely attached to him,
and visited him almost daily, conceived the wish of
communicating to the world that knowledge from
which he himself had derived such high gratifica-
tion. He proposed to write down the narrative
from the verbal recitation of Marco ; which, as
it appeared no unpleasing mode of beguiling the
solitude of a prison, was readily acceded to. To
these circumstances we are indebted for this cele-
brated narrative, the manuscript copies of which
are dispersed through all the libraries of Europe,
but in a state so generally defective and corrupt-
ed, that it has required all the critical skill of Mr
Marsden to restore it to any portion of its origi-
nal purity. After the lapse of the four years,
Marco returned to Venice, where he appears to
have died at the age of seventy.



160 MARCO POLO.

The favour at first shewn to the narrative of
Marco was not long of being darkened by a cloud
of unbelief. Such an ill fortune has attended
the reputation of many of the most iliustrious
modern travellers. After the first agreeable emo-
tions of wonder have subsided, men revert to the
habitual train of their ideas, and do not willingly
listen to any thing which passes the limits of
their daily observation. Many also attempt to
purchase cheaply the fame of superior sagacity,
by deriding what they see prized by the multi-
tude. Various Venetian wags, on hearing the
vast scale on which the revenues, population, &c.
of China and other oriental kingdoms were de-
scribed, chose to designate Marco by the sirname,
or rather nickname, of Milione. After his death,
a personage bearing his name was repeatedly in-
troduced on the stage, and made to utter all the
most extravagant and absurd fables which the
fancy of the writer could suggest. Several
friends, tender of the reputation of Marco, even
urged him to expunge from his narrative a few
of those marvels by which the belief of his coun-
trymen was staggered ; but this proposition was
always rejected by him in the most indignant
manner ; and he insisted, that far from exaggera-
tion, he had not even recorded half the wonders
beheld during his peregrinations. Those, how-
ever, by whom his report could be confirmed

n5



HIS AUTHENTICITY. l6l

were so few in number, and were themselves so
much exposed to a similar suspicion, that doubts
continued to rest upon his authenticity, until the
extended knowledge of modern times proved
this unbelief to have arisen chiefly from the ig-
norance of those to whom Polo had addressed his
narrative. The exploration of India, China, and
the Oriental Islands, dispelled many doubts ;
since the accounts of the most authentic travel-
lers, when carefully compared with those of Mar-
co, were found to present a very close coinci-
dence. More lately, the information collected
by the British missions to the north of India,
concerning countries before almost unknown,
has proved his extreme accuracy as to these re-
gions, where no check existed on his statements.
Mr Marsden, in his recent very learned edition
of these travels, has collected and placed in the
clearest light all the evidences of their authen-
ticity, drawn both from ancient and modern
sources. His labours have smoothed the task,
which would otherwise have been difficult, of
analyzing the description given by Marco of the
eastern world.

The first country in Asia described by our
traveller is called by him Turcomania, and is
composed of the northern part of Asia Minor,
situated along the shore of the Black Sea. It
had recently been the seat of a flourishing Turk-

VOL. 7. L



16^ MARCO POLO.

ish dynasty, which, though now crushed beneath
the all-conquering dominion of Zingis, was des-
tined soon to break forth with new energy, and
to seat itself on the throne of the Eastern empire.
Evfen then the finest carpets in the world were
manufactured in this country. The travellers
then ascended the lofty ridges of Armenia, and
passed Mount Ararat, covered with eternal snow ;
and where, according to a still prevalent tradi-
tion, the ark of Noah first rested. He now gives
a tolerably accurate description of Zorgania
(Georgia) and the countries round the Caspian,
which he carefully describes as a lake, entirely
enclosed by land. This information was probably
derived from the first journey of his father and
uncle. Passing through Kurdistan, the preda-
tory character of whose inhabitants is particularly
noticed ; they descended down the Euphrates
to Baldach (Bagdad), then a splendid metropolis,
distinguished by various rich manufactures, par-
ticularly embroidered silks, damasks, and flower-
ed velvet. Its schools were also renowned ; and
the studies consisted, besides the Koran, of ma-
gic, physics, astronomy, geomancy, and physi-
ognomy. Bagdad was no longer, however, the
seat of the Caliphate, that empire having recently
been subverted by the Moguls ; of which revolu-
tion, however, the account collected by our tra-
veller is neither distinct nor accurate. He dwells



BAGDAD. 163

at peculiar length on a signal miracle, said to
have been achieved under the reign of the last
caliph. That prince, imbued with deep enmity
against the Christians, and coveting, moreover,
their wealth, called them together, and reminding
them of the text, by which faith amounting to a
grain of mustard seed was declared sufficient to
remove mountains, insisted on their giving proof,
within ten days, of possessing this small portion,
pointing out a mountain on which it might be
exercised. The Christians, who felt within them-
selves no such gift, had recourse to tears and
prayer ; and one of them was at last, in a vision,
referred to a shoemaker with one eye, whose life
had been so exemplary, that, upon being placed
before the mountain, and making the proper in-
vocations, it immediately began to move. Our
traveller, however, must not be too hardly dealt
with for this legend, which, however firmly believ-
ed, is given only from the report of others. Such
miracles formed part of the creed of every Chris-
tian church during that age ; to which Polo
therefore could not, as a good Catholic, refuse
his assent.

From Bagdad Marco proceeds, by a somewhat
abrupt transition, to give a general description of
the Persian empire, beginning at Tauris and pro-
ceeding southwards. This could scarcely be in
the direct line of his journey eastwards, though



l64t MARCO POLO.

it might be derived from some one of those per-
formed by his uncles. He describes its fine and
fertile region, interspersed with extensive tracts
of desert, infested by numerous and desperate
bands of robbers. Of these the most formidable
appear then, as now, to have been the inhabitants
of the southern province of Kerman, which con-
sists in a great measure of sandy wastes. They
are here called Keraunas ; and the well founded
apprehensions inspired by their ferocity were
heightened, it appears, by superstitious terrors. It
was believed that they possessed the power of en-
veloping the traveller in preternatural darkness,
under cover of which he was robbed and mur-
dered. The belief of this fabulous power was pro-
bably suggested by these banditti taking advan-
tage of such mists as naturally occurred, when
their intimate local knowledge would give them an
infinite advantage over the casual passenger. It
appears, however, that the Mogul conquerors,
called here " their eastern lords,** were making im-
mense exertions to suppress these marauders, and
to provide for the security of travellers, who
passed from city to city over the immense tracts
of intervening desert.

Ormus is described by our traveller, as by all
who visited it during that age, as a commercial
city of the first importance, and the great empo-
rium of this part of Asia. This distinction was



ORMUS. 165

maintained by keeping up the communication
between Persia and India, and still more by being
one of the great channels through which the
commodities of India were conveyed to Europe.
Marco, however, was surprised to observe the
rudeness of the vessels employed in carrying on
this extensive trade. They had only one mast ;
the planks were fastened with ropes and wooden
pins instead of nails, and covered with a fibrous
stuff like horse hair. The cargo was covered
over with leather, above which were placed the
fine Persian horses destined for the Indian market.
After the occupation of Ormus by the Portuguese,
the European mode of ship-building was early in-
troduced J but Mr Marsden's research has proved
that the native vessels on the opposite coast of
Arabia are still constructed in a manner nearly
similar to that which our traveller describes. All
travellers to Ormus agree in the extreme and
almost insufferable heat which it endures, owing
probably to the vast extent of sandy desert over
which the wind blows. In the summer months
it is exposed to the burning simoom, which we are
here told wotdd be certainly fatal, did not the
inhabitants while it lasts remain immersed to the
chin in water. Mr Marsden in fact has collected
modern testimony as to the existence of this mode
of guarding against the severity of the heat.



166 MARCO POLO.

From Ormus Marco proceeded through a fertile
country to Cherman (Kerman), capital of the
province of the same name. Three days after
leaving Kerman, they entered upon a most dreary
desert, where there was no water except a lit-
tle in ponds, which was green, salt, and bitter.
Men who drunk it were seized with diarrhoea,
and even the horses suffered by its use. After
seven days' travelling through this desert they
came to Cobinham (Kubbees), where they found
a manufacture of steel looking-glasses, and con-
siderable mining operations. They then entered
upon another desert still more desolate and dreary,
where the water was so salt and bitter that even
the beasts refused to drink it. After eight days*
journey through it they came to Timochain,
(supposed by MrMarsden to be Damaghaun),* a
populous kingdom in the northern part of Persia.
Here he learned much of the dynasty of the Is-
maelis or Assassins, the prince of which, under
the appellation of the Old Man of the Mountain,
was viewed in Europe with a mixture of fear and
wonder. A full account is here given of the pro-
cess by which he had established this power so

* I cannot, however, think with Mr Marsden, that he could
visit the city of Damaghaun, which is so much farther west
than Kubbees, that he must haye been completely retracing
his steps ; besides, the time employed, as Mr Marsden himsell*
remarks, by no means agrees with such a circuit.



THE ISMAELIS. IG7

much dreaded. In the recesses of the rugged and
inaccessible niountains over which he reigned,
he had formed a garden, adorned with all the finest
plants and odoriferous flowers of the East. Hav-
ing fixed upon some youth who appeared suited
to his purpose, he caused him, by a soporific
draught, to be thrown into a deep sleep, and
transported into the enchanted garden. Here all
was arranged to represent the paradise which Ma-
homet has promised after death to the gallant de-
fenders of his faith. Besides the assemblage of
every object that could delight the eye and the
ear, the most delicious viands were supplied in
abundance ; while beautiful damsels, represent-
ing the Houris of Mahomet, lavished on him
the most fascinating caresses. After remaining
for several days steeped in this sea of voluptuous
pleasure, the soporific draught was again adminis-
tered, on aw^aking from which, he found all the
gay scene departed, and nothing around him but
the bleak and mountainous world to which his
eyes had been accustomed. He was then called
before the prince, and informed, that a foretaste
had now been granted him, of the paradise des-
tined for those who had shed their blood in the
cause of Islamism, and that death, met in the exe-
cution of his commands, would at once introduce
him to the permanent enjoyment of those brilliant
and regretted mansions which he had just quitted.



168 MARCO POLO.

The alacrity with which the initiated thenceforth
threw ihemselv^es on the most certain and terrible
forms of death, clearly indicated the success of this
institution. These details have been viewed by
learned writers as improbable ; and it has been
supposed, that he merely bred up a few favourite
youths amid the pleasures of his court, and there-
by created that fanatical attachment, of which
the effects were so obvious. I confess the report,
as given by our traveller, appears to me more con-
formable to the principles of human nature. Ha-
bitual pleasures, besides their enervating influence,
would be associated in their mind with earth, and
would be ties binding them to it. But a myste-
rious and transient glimpse of an unknown bliss,
thus suddenly opening and disappearing, was
every way calculated to suggest to the passions
and fancy, the voluptuous heaven of the pro-
phet. In whatever manner he secured the dread-
ful faith of these unfortunate victims, his employ-
ment of it is well known. He was thus enabled
to organize a system of regal assassination, which
the strongest and the weakest were equally un-
able to escape. The greatest conquerors felt
themselves compelled to purchase security by the
payment of a large tribute. This terrible empire
which he had established over the rulers of man-
kind, was not confined to this part of Asia. Se-
veral branches were extended into the mountain-



ISMAELIS BALKH. lC9

ous districts of Syria ; and the fall of several dis-
tinguished Christian princes, and the gay triumph
with which the assassins met the death of torture
to which they were condemned, caused Europe
to learn, with fear and amazement, the existence
of this extraordinary race. Their inaccessible
haunts, and formidable means of vengeance, en-
abled them long to defy all efforts to extirpate
them. At length Hulagou, filling the place of
Great Khan, deemed it incumbent on him, as
ruler of Asia, to root out this daring and destruc-
tive potentate. He gave orders to one of his lieu-
tenants to reduce the castles of the Ismaelians,
which, after a difficult warfare of three years, was
at length effected. The accumulated vengeance
of mankind then fell on that guilty race, and
blood for blood was exacted ten- fold. Twelve
thousand of these wretched fanatics are said to
have perished in this final catastrophe.

From Timochain, Marco travelled eastward for
six days over a fine country, interrupted however
by a desert of forty or fifty miles. Passing Sapur-
gan (Shibhergaun), he came to Balach (Balkh),
always a great capital and emporium of central
Asia. Though still a large and magnificent city,
it presented, in its ruined temples and spacious
squares, the vestiges of a much greater degree of
ancient grandeur. Proceeding then through To-
karestan, which is correctly described with its



170 MARCO POLO.

capital Thaikan, or Tailkan, its hilly but fertile
district, and the mines of pure and hard rock salt
which are common in this part of Asia, he ascends
the mountain region of Balashan (Badakshan).
He alludes here to the mines of rubies long
celebrated in the East, though they are stated by
Mr Elphinstone not to be now wrought ; also to
the abundance of lapis lazuli. He introduces,
probably upon hearsay, notices of Bascia, suppos-
ed by Mr Marsden to be Peshawer, and of Kes-
mur, (evidently Cashmire), his accounts of which
sufficiently agree with modern information. At
the end of this region he found a continued ascent
of three days, till he arrived at a point surround-
ed by summits so lofty, that it appeared to him
they must be the highest in the world. He was
now on the elevated plain of Famer^ which he
found destitute of habitations, of allanimals except
wild goats, and even of birds. On this lofty pin-
nacle of Asia, he remarks that difficulty in produc-
ing combustion, which was recently observed by
De Luc in his travels among the Alps. Twelve
days' journey along Pamer brought them to the
region of Beloro (Beloor), still consisting of vast
mountains with valleys intervening, and through
which, during forty days, they were obliged to
carry with them every article of provision. These
regions have recently been described under the
same features, and even the same name, by Mr
Elphinstone and other recent travellers.



CASHGAR KIIOTEN. 17 1

After passing the Beloor, the travellers arrived
at Kashcar (Cashgar), which has long been a
celebrated emporium of central Asia. It was
then included in the dominion of the Great
Khan. Our author notices the great number of
merchants who resorted thither from all quarters
of the world, though he complains of their ava-
rice, and particularly of their extreme economy
in eating and drinking. He next proceeded to
Karkan, supposed the modern Yarkund, and
which now enjoys a greater trade than Cashgar,
though it appears at that time to have been much
inferior. He now enters upon what may be con-
sidered as the great Terra Incognita of Asia.
The first country mentioned is Cotam or Khoten^
a name much celebrated by travellers, though
the descriptions hitherto received of it are ex-
ceedingly vague. It is here represented as
containing many cities and fortified places ; as
abounding in grain, wine, and every article of
provision, and as excelling in trade and manu-
factures. These advantages seem to have ener-
vated the courage of the inhabitants, and they
had fallen under the wide extended dominion of
the Great Khan. After Khoten occurs Peyn, (in
some editions called Poine or Poin), a country
mentioned by no traveller except our author. He
describes it as extending five days* journey in the
direction of east-north-east, and as abounding in



172 MARCO POLO.

various produce, particularly in a beautiful species
of jasper, mentioned by others as found in Kho-
ten. He then came to Charchan, a country na-
turally fertile, but almost entirely laid waste by
the repeated incursions of the Tartars. The in-
habitants, on the approach of these invaders, were
accustomed to seek refuge in the heart of the
Great Desert, upon which they bordered ; and
they had even caverns dug in the sand, where
they deposited their grain so carefully, that it was
impossible to discover the place of concealment.
Five days' journey brought the travellers to Lop,
a considerable town situated on the borders of the
great desert of Shamo or Gobi. This extensive
tract, devoted to sterility, is represented in the
Chinese maps as extending nearly two thousand
miles from east to west. To cross it length-ways,
therefore, would employ an almost immeasur-
able length of time, and a stock of provisions,
the conveyance of which would be almost im-
possible. The plan of travellers was, to proceed
along its northern limit to Lop, then cross it from
north to south, and follow its southern limit to
China. Camels are chiefly employed in the con-
veyance of merchandize, and serve as food in
case of necessity. In passing along these dreary
confines, imaginary terrors heightened the im-
pression which the aspect of nature was calcu-
Jated to inspire. Spirits were supposed to be ever



THE GREAT DESERT TANGUT. 173

on the watch, to lead farther astray those who had



Online LibraryHugh MurrayHistorical account of discoveries and travels in Asia, from the earliest ages to the present time (Volume 1) → online text (page 10 of 30)