Marco Polo is still remembered thanks to the colorful and popular narrative about his journey to the mysterious East – “The Travels of Marco Polo.” He may be the most storied Far East traveler, but he was not the first. The Franciscan monk Giovanni da Pian del Carpini had reached China in the 1240s and even his own family members traveled East before him. A few months before Marco Polo was born in 1254, his father Niccolo and uncle Maffeo left Italy on a trading excursion to Asia. They returned to Venice in 1269. Marco joined them when they left on their second trip in 1271. The three would eventually travel Asia together for more than 20 years.
The Polos were merchants who dealt in rare items like silk, gems and spices, but were also emissaries for the Mongol Emperor Kublai Kahn, whom the elder Polos had met on their earlier journey east. Thanks to their special standing, the Polos traveled through Asia as honored guests of the Great Kahn himself.
Once they left on their journey home, the Polos could no longer rely on Kublai Kahn’s protection. As they passed through the Kingdom of Trebizond, in modern-day Turkey, the local government robbed them of 4,000 gold coins. The Polos retained enough of their cargo to arrive home in 1295 as wealthy men, in part by sewing their precious gems into the linings of their coats.
It is a common misconception that Marco Polo introduced pasta to Italy, the dish had already existed in Europe for centuries, but he is credited with introducing eyeglasses to the West.
Kublai Kahn died during the Polos’ return to Venice, sending the Mongol Empire into decline and crushing any chance that Marco would ever return to the Far East. Tribal groups reclaimed land along the Silk Road trading route, cutting off the East and West. This was one of the reasons that, two centuries later, Columbus wanted to secure a sea route to the East and carried a copy of the “The Travels of Marco Polo” with him on his voyages to the New World.