The Truth About Marco Polo’s First Solo Expeditions

Italian explorer Marco Polo lived a truly adventurous life. His father and uncle traveled east just before his birth in 1254, and his mother tragically died when he was very young. His father Níccolo and uncle Maffeo didn’t return to Italy until Marco was 15 years old. They’d been tasked by the Mongolian khagan-emperor Kublai Khan with returning to China with lamp oil from Jerusalem and priests to act as ambassadors of Christianity in his kingdom. On their return, they took young Marco with them, giving him a crash course in the family business. According to National Geographic, the nearly four-year voyage was beset with hardships. In Afghanistan, on the route known today as the Silk Road, they were attacked by bandits. Then Marco came down with a severe illness that kept him bedridden for months before they could continue on.

But the party finally did reach its destination, and Marco Polo found that a whole new world was opening up to him. In his wildly popular “The Travels of Marco Polo” that he would go on to cowrite with romance author Rusticello da Pisa, Polo regaled his readers with tales of fantastic parties in Khan’s opulent palace at Xanadu attended by tens of thousands of revelers. He also received a once-in-a-lifetime job offer from the Mongolian emperor.

Marco Polo was given approval to travel the whole of Kublai Khan's empire

Having made a good impression on the emperor, Polo was made an envoy of Khan’s court and sent out on various tasks in the governance of the empire. He was even given an official imperial seal of approval, providing him access to parts of the world no European had ever traveled to before. According to Biography, Polo’s first solo voyages took him to Tibet, India, and Burma, among other places. He earned himself promotions during his years of service to Khan, and would go on to serve as governor of a city in China, a tax inspector, and an official on the emperor’s Privy Council.

Polo served Kublai Khan in these various capacities for 17 years before finally being released from his servitude and allowed to return to Italy. While the veracity of some of the tales he recounted in his book has been put into question, one thing is for sure, Polo’s adventures as he said they happened were definitely entertaining. “The Travels of Marco Polo” turned the explorer into a big time celebrity in Italy and elsewhere in Europe. For his part, Polo always held that he had published the truth about what he saw on those voyages.

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