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Polo wrote of men with dogs’ features (a French illustration, c. 1412), among several other fantastic creatures. (Bibliothèque Nationale/ AKG Images)

Wonders and Whoppers

Following in Marco Polo's footsteps through Asia leads our intrepid author to some surprising conclusions

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"I tell you," wrote Marco Polo, "that this palace is of... unmeasured wealth." Its roof is sheathed in gold "in such a way as we cover our house with lead." Even the floors are gold, "more indeed than two fingers thick. And all the other parts of the palace and the halls and windows are likewise adorned with gold." In this gilded domain, he declared, lived the ruler of an island kingdom called Cipangu (that is, Japan), whose waters yielded red pearls "very beautiful and round and large."

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Scholars believe Europeans had never heard of Cipangu before Polo told them about it in The Description of the World, which he started writing about 1298, a few years after he returned home to Venice from a 24-year Asian odyssey. Though fascinated, Polo's readers, according to one account, concluded that his tales were "fabulous...mere dreams." But as decades passed, some began to take Polo seriously. In Christopher Columbus' copy of The Description, which survives, "gold in the greatest abundance" and "red pearls" are written in the margin beside the Cipangu reports. Although the handwriting may not be Columbus', he is said to have sought Cipangu among the Caribbean isles on his 1492 voyage.

Columbus never came anywhere near Japan, of course, but what would he have found? Red pearls? Experts say the oysters that produce them don't inhabit Japanese waters. A golden palace? Japan's Golden Pavilion, the gold-leaf-covered Kinkakuji, was built in 1397, a century after Polo published.

Truth to tell, many of Marco Polo's tales of treasure were just that—tales. Tall tales. Readers who persevere in Polo's often confusing, disjointed text will encounter preposterous supernatural events and an astonishing bestiary, including men with the features of dogs. Some readers have even concluded that the book is a total fake. If Marco Polo went to China, British Sinologist Frances Wood asked some years ago in a book titled, appropriately enough, Did Marco Polo Go to China?, why did he fail to mention chopsticks, tea and the binding of girls' feet?

At the British Library, where Wood curates the Chinese collections, the switchboard lit up with calls from journalists and scholars. After all, Polo's book has ornamented libraries the world over for centuries and is regarded, despite its flaws, as one of the world's greatest travel accounts. Wood had taken on a global icon. "I knew that Marco Polo was a household name," she told an interviewer, "but I was unaware that millions of people all over the world felt passionately about him and would be baying for blood."

Polo's fellow Italians have long assumed that he was a fibber; both he and his text are known in his homeland by the name Il Milione, and many think it's because the book includes a million tall tales. But didn't Polo enrich Italy by bringing home pasta and ice cream? Nope, those are myths. Still, Italians weren't about to tolerate a challenge to Polo's integrity by a foreigner, and many other people in the world are likewise invested in him. In China, historians staunchly defend the man who helped put their country on the map.

About ten years ago, as a staff writer for National Geographic, I followed Polo's journeys across Asia, from Iraq to China and homeward via Sumatra, India and Sri Lanka, using his book as my guide. (There are about 120 versions of his narrative; the one I carried, generally considered the most authentic, is translated from a 14th-century copy in the French National Library.) Like others who have examined his writings closely, I am dismayed by his omissions and floored by his whoppers. But I am ultimately convinced of his essential truthfulness. Why? For one thing, his itineraries, as laid out by the sequence of book chapters, are fundamentally accurate, whether he's crossing Central Asia or central China. Where did he acquire that geographical information if he didn't make these journeys himself? No skeptical investigator has ever proved that he copied from some Arab or Chinese source. And while it's true that Polo is guilty of curious omissions (those chopsticks, for example), he expanded medieval Europe's meager knowledge of Asia with such hitherto-unknown names as Cipangu, Java, Zanzibar and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), besides identifying China's great cities and describing such features as the Takla Makan Desert and the Yangtze River. Having followed Polo's tracks, I know firsthand that he also got many things right, such as: both lapis lazuli and rubies are found in the Badakhshan region of Afghanistan; in China's southwest a minority people eat raw flesh; people in Sumatra and Sri Lanka make a joy juice from fermented palm tree sap.

Polo also produced an extensive report on Hindu customs in India, a country that clearly fascinated him. But his great love was Catai, as he called China. No kingdom ever had a better PR person. Time and again Polo wrote of Catai's wealth in silk and spices (no exaggeration) and declared that people had "all things in great abundance." So far, so good. But soon he was claiming that Hangzhou had 12,000 bridges arcing over its canals, a ludicrous inflation, even though Hangzhou was the world's largest city at the time; he even accorded the much smaller Suzhou 6,000 bridges. "Take that, Venice!" he seemed to be saying to his canal-rich hometown. (A later traveler could find only 347 bridges in Hangzhou, including those in its suburbs, and just 290 in Suzhou.)

Polo practically bubbled with enthusiasm as he described the palace of Kublai Khan, the Mongol ruler of Catai, in what is today Beijing. (He called the capital Cambaluc, a corruption of its Turkish name, Khanbalikh, "Khan's city.") The palace was "the greatest that ever was seen," with a hall large enough to accommodate 6,000 diners, and was encompassed by a wall four miles around. In some versions of his book, the wall grew even longer, in one case to 32 miles. Mangling his claims according to their own whims, The Description's translators, scribes and finally printers (beginning in 1477) often took his inconstant veracity down a further peg or two.

Whenever Polo mentioned Kublai, he laid it on thick. His hunting retinue, we are told, included 20,000 dog handlers; 10,000 falconers carrying gyrfalcons, peregrines, saker falcons and goshawks (Polo showed himself to be an avid birder); and unstated numbers of lions, leopards and lynxes to go after wild boars and other big animals. Still extolling his overlord—he claimed to have been a trusted servant of Kublai's regime—Polo wrote that the new year was celebrated in Cambaluc with a parade of Kublai's elephants, "which are quite five thousand, all covered with beautiful cloths," and with gifts to the ruler of "more than 100,000 white horses very beautiful and fine."

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