9 – Marco Polo and the Mongol Empire

Everyone is familiar with Marco Polo, to some degree. 

Marco Polo’s name is often shouted by kids’ in a children’s game, and his life story has been shared everywhere–from high school history class, to PBS documentaries, to a now defunct Netflix series.

Marco Polo is a world-famous explorer but do you know that many people doubt the veracity of Marco Polo’s tales during his lifetime? In fact, when Marco Polo was on his deathbed, his own family had pleaded to him to tell the truth and renounce his lies and he could go to heaven. 

Marco Polo famously responded: “I did not tell half of what I saw, for I knew I would not be believed.”

Marco Polo was a Venetian merchant in the 1200s and traveled to China and back during the height of Mongol Empire under Kublai Khan’s rule. Upon his return and after his release from prison, he published ‘The Travels of Marco Polo’ where the great wealth of the Mongol Empire was shared to much of Europe for the first time. 

How about The Silk Road?

The Silk Road was named after the most precious commodity of the time, silk, which originated in China. The SIlk Road was more than just a road–it was an intricate trading route or network that spanned across East Europe to the whole of Asia.

The Silk Road held great importance in trade and commerce, not only integral in the exchange of goods, but also in the exchange of ideas.

If Marco Polo is to be believed, their party arrived in China during Kublai Khan’s rule; after destroying the Sung Dynasty and establishing the Yuan Dynasty. Kublai Khan is the third generation and the last of the great Mongol emperors.

Merchants don’t really travel across the whole Silk Road. Most of them just go back and forth in between two towns or villages, as it is also extremely dangerous to go to unknown territory where it is full of danger, peril and thievery. Since Marco Polo, his dad and uncle were to return to Europe safely by having golden passports, authenticated by Kublai Khan himself. The passports allowed them to travel along Silk Road routes safely and unbothered.

Who are the Mongols: Truth vs. Fiction

The Mongols have long been depicted by history books as villains–brutal savages who have caused the deaths of an estimated total of 40 million people in the Eurasian region.

The Great Mongol Empire was born when Genghis Khan, also known as ‘The Great Khan’ united all of the Mongol tribes on the steppes under his umbrella control. In his lifetime, he went on to conquer Eastern Europe and most of Asia. 

The feat is amazing in itself, and to be able to conquer in a short span of time, in under a century. The Mongol Empire is credited to have spurred many great nations such as Russia and Korea. 

Another feat is his genetic legacy. Genghis Khan has some 16 million progeny alive at this point in time. (It helps a lot, that the Mongols had harems and did not kill off their non-ruling male descendants, unlike the Ottoman Turks, and more on that on the next episode)

The Mongols are known for brutality. Their reputation precedes them–in fact when villages hear that the Mongols are on their way, they cower in fear and surrender. “Surrender or die”, that was the only option.

The Mongols, however, are more than just ‘bloodthirsty savages’ as the history books defined them. The Mongol Empire is actually quite advanced and complex. Pax Mongolia promoted trade and the mobility of people, goods and ideas.The Silk Road greatly flourished under their rule because they greatly valued trade–since they can tax them.

Once a village surrenders to Mongol rule, they are allowed to freely practice their religion and even enjoy great trade benefits. Since the Mongol empire was very large, it’s the same as the benefits countries get by joining the EU which is a large free trade zone–kind of like an ‘ancient NAFTA’ but with some blood and warfare here and there.

Key Characteristics of Mongols as peoples:

  • Mongols are primarily a nomadic society, which is why they are very comfortable in being mobile across geography. They moved according to climate or food supply. They were tough warriors but keen tradiers, and because of frequent travel they also had higher immunity and more resistant to diseases.
  • Mongols are highly tolerant towards other people’s beliefs. The Mongols themselves are originally shamanists but they open up to different cultures and religions depending on the locale. In fact, their tolerance led them to blend into cultures that they are almost no longer recognizable after one generation. 
  • The Mongols are uninterested in art or architecture. Sure, a grand palace or marble statue can last forever, but the gert can go wherever.

Key characteristics of Mongol governance:

  • Appointing rulers based on merit, not based on kin
  • Empire was so large so how did they keep things together and prevent or address revolts? They appointed foreigners as administrators in each region. E.g. An Arab muslim would govern in a Chinese province while a Taoist Chinese would govern somwhere in the Middle East. 
  • The lack of national affinity between administrators and subjects discouraged bribery. The foreigner-administrator had nothing to gain from revolts. The foreigner-administrator also brought fresh ideas from an outsider’s view.

Key characteristics of the Mongol military: 

  • Always expanding; always on the offensive.
  • Speed in attack; mobility over armor. They had a lot of horses! 
  • Archers could shoot with great accuracy while mobile, riding on horse.
  • They could build technology on the battlefield
  • Use of higher positions in the terrain so they could see what was happening and communicate clearly their strategy.
  • Mongol military organization is highly flexible and adaptable. They adopted war techniques from enemies by interviewing war prisoners, e.g. using gunpowder from China, ships to attempt conquer of Japan, etc.

…So how true were Marco Polo’s stories?

Even today, the veracity of whether Marco Polo really traveled to China is still doubted by many historians and experts. Some even believe that he only masterfully wove all stories he heard from various travelers and claimed them as his own adventures.

Dead men can no longer defend themselves; but Marco Polo was indeed quite accurate in describing the lives of the nomadic peoples in Kushan (modern day Afghanistan); and tales of how in Tibet parents offer their virgin daughters to foreigners like the young Marco Polo in order to increase their social status and repute. Marco Polo has even accurately described the practice of foot binding in China, a practice that lasted until the early 1900s.

Still, Marco Polo also seemed to have missed out a key detail in China: The Great Wall. It would have been impossible for him to miss out that formidable detail, and yet he did.

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