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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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It's true that Mongol lords reveled in the royal hunt, a huge spectacle, and that they celebrated holidays grandly. And no doubt Kublai, like many Asian potentates, kept stables of elephants as a mark of power—but nothing like 5,000. And historians are confident that he didn't hunt with any 20,000 dog handlers or 10,000 falconers. "The numbers are staggering—they're obviously exaggerated," says Professor Morris Rossabi of the City University of New York, author of the definitive study of Kublai's reign. It is difficult to imagine his people maintaining, for example, a royal herd of 100,000 steeds in the region of Beijing. "People in the north didn't grow enough food to sustain themselves," Rossabi says. "Most of it had to be brought from the south. I can't believe they devoted tremendous amounts of pastureland to having 100,000 horses." Some scribes who copied Polo's text shrank the elephant herd to 500 or omitted it altogether, probably smelling excess, while one version raised it to 105,000.

Still, Polo had plenty of authentic marvels with which to astonish his countrymen—black stones that burned better than wood; money made of paper, porcelain, asbestos; huge oceangoing ships. And he documented China's wealth in silk and spices as well as its commerce with India, Java and other parts of Asia—valuable information for a trading state like Venice.

So why all the hyperbole? We'll never know for sure, but exaggeration is sometimes a character defect in adventurers—Walter Raleigh's gold-strewn El Dorado comes to mind. And in 13th-century Europe, even outright lies were a literary conceit. Grotesque beasts and magical doings were routine in the modest libraries available to even the most educated Europeans. The Histories of Herodotus, for example, told of gold-digging ants in India and winged snakes in Egypt.

I believe Polo kept a journal during his travels; if not, how did he manage, when at last home in Venice, to set down the wealth of detail that he had accumulated during his two dozen years of travel? Polo's diary: what a sensational discovery that would be! He doesn't say he kept one, but a version of The Description that appeared in Venice in the 1500s, supposedly based on authentic manuscripts, declares that he brought home "writings and memoranda." And these, it is said, were shared with a writer who helped him produce his book. That person is identified at the beginning of the text as Rustichello of Pisa, who'd been reworking some of the romantic stories of King Arthur, and whose writings had found their way into European libraries. According to Polo, he met Rustichello in a Genoa prison, into which Polo had been thrown after being captured in a sea battle between Venice and rival Genoa about 1298. Sounds like another tall Polo tale, but so far as scholars know, it's true.

Scholars see the hand of Rustichello in the book's account of a battle between Genghis Khan and Prester John, a Christian ruler in Asia, early in the 13th century. With its huge loss of life—although no body count was recorded—the engagement made a good story. Too bad there was no such person as Prester John; as historians know today, he was entirely a European invention. The legend was no doubt well known to Rustichello, while less so to Polo.

I also suspect Rustichello of concocting the tale of robbers able to "make the whole day become dark" as they swept down upon travelers. Polo described such an attack on his caravan in the desert of Iran. The passage continues, suspiciously, in the third person: "Moreover I tell you that Master Marc himself was as good as taken by that people in that darkness."

Then there are the mangonels, or catapults, Polo writes about. According to the author, Polo, his father and uncle helped build huge rock-hurling machines that inflicted terrible damage on the city of Xiangyang as Kublai pressed his conquest of the southern Chinese dynasty, the Song. Chinese as well as Persian sources describe the destruction, but credit Syrians employed in Kublai's army for the catapults. In any case, the siege occurred in 1273, and almost all authorities believe the Polos didn't reach China until two years later. Polo probably heard of the siege and took note of it. It may be that Rustichello, always attracted to stories of battle, came across it somewhere in his reading and decided to make the Polos military engineers.

Starting home by ship in 1291 or 1292, Polo was forced to spend five months on "Java the Less"—Sumatra—waiting for monsoon winds to shift so that he and his shipmates could sail northwestward toward Ceylon and India. Polo reported, accurately, that cannibals dwelled on Sumatra and, less accurately, that the island was home to some strange beasts, including enormous unicorns, in size "not at all by any means less than an elephant."

"I tell you quite truly," Polo continued about Sumatra, "that there are men who have tails more than a palm in size." And on an island that he called Angaman—probably referring to the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal—"all the men...have the crown of the head like a dog and teeth and eyes like dogs." Tales of strange creatures abounded in Asia as well, and Polo (who apparently never set foot on the Andamans) may have heard about them from sailors. It's also possible that he—or Rustichello—simply drew on the elaborate mythical bestiary of Europe's Middle Ages. (Or perhaps, as John Larner argues in Marco Polo and the Discovery of the World, Polo was simply describing the islanders metaphorically.)

Even as he served up these wild reports, Polo methodically cataloged a South Asian cornucopia, about which Europe knew almost nothing: the nutmeg and aromatic roots of Java, the camphor and coconuts of Sumatra, the pearls, diamonds and pepper of India, ivory from several places—these and many other goods, all tantalizing to European merchants, were commingled with the beasts and fantasies. It's as if the world, as Europeans viewed it, were a mix of real and unreal.

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