Cosmography and sources

In 1271, crossing the Adriatic and the Aegean Seas on the pilgrimage route to the Holy Sepulchre, Niccolò, Matteo and Marco Polo (1254-ca. 1324) disembarked at Saint John of Acre in the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. From Acre they traveled to Jerusalem to obtain some of the blessed oil of the Holy Sepulchre, and then set out for Cathay together with a group of Franciscans who, however, quickly abandoned them.

Returning to Acre, they sailed for Laiazzo, from which they traveled on horseback in a northeastern direction into the territories of Georgia and Armenia, and then southeast along caravan routes through Mesopotamia, stopping at Mosul, Tabriz, and Kerman. Passing through Khorasan, they reached Balkh and Badakhshan, crossed the Pamir range and Tarim Basin, touching Kashgar, Yarkand, Khotan, and Lop. After crossing the Gobi Desert, they came next to Tangut (today’s Gansu) on the western border of Cathay (northern China). Following the northern banks of the Yellow River and then deviating to the east, they finally arrived in Khān Bālīq after a three-year voyage.

To reach Cathay the Polos traveled the ancient caravan roads that had connected the Greco-Roman oikumene to the boundless provinces of China, retracing what the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen (1833-1905) in 1877 called the “Silk Road”.

Their sojourn in China lasted sixteen years. Under the guidance of Kublai (1215-1294), Marco had the opportunity to visit many of the Great Khan’s tributary provinces, gathering information on realms entirely unknown in the West. Among these was Cipangu, today’s Japan, which in that era the Mongols repeatedly attempted to conquer, without success.