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Sunday, August 14, 2011

Marco Polo: A Liar?

Every elementary school child has heard of the incredible adventures of the great 13th century explorer, Marco Polo. His tales of adventure and discovery in China, Japan and other parts of Asia are standard history for most. Generations of Americans have grown up believing that Marco Polo was one of the greatest explorers in human history.

But just how true are Marco Polo's accounts?

If you ask a group of Italian archaeologists and historians the answer is: not very true at all. That's right, Marco Polo may have been a conman. According to a team of scholars, led by University of Naples historian Daniele Petrella, Marco Polo simply plagiarized his stories from the many traders he encountered around the Black Sea. In fact, Petrella believes that Marco Polo probably never went further than the Black Sea. She believes this because Polo's stories of the Orient don't fit with the history and archaeology that we now have today. For example, there are a number inconsistencies and inaccuracies in Marco Polo’s description of Kublai Khan’s invasions of Japan in 1274 and 1281:

He [Polo] confuses the two, mixing up details about the first expedition with those of the second...In his account of the first invasion, he describes the fleet leaving Korea and being hit by a typhoon before it reached the Japanese coast.
The article continues:

Polo’s description of the Mongol fleet did not square with the remains of ships the archaeologists excavated in Japan, as he had written of ships with five masts, while those which had been found had only three. "It was during our dig that doubts began to emerge about much of what he wrote," added Professor Petrella. "When he describes Kublai Khan’s fleet he talks about the pitch that was used to make ships’ hulls watertight. He used the word 'chunam’, which in Chinese and Mongol means nothing. In fact, it is the Persian word for pitch. It’s also odd that instead of using, as he does in most instances, local names to describe places, he used Persian terms for Mongol and Chinese place names."

The explorer claimed to have worked as an emissary to the court of Kublai Khan, but his name does not crop up in any of the surviving Mongol or Chinese records. The famous travel book was said to have been dictated by Polo to a fellow prisoner named Pisa while he was in jail after returning from his adventures, and to be fair to Polo, it is thought Pisa embellished many of the stories. But the latest claims back those made in a book by British academic Frances Wood in 1995 entitled 'Did Marco Polo go to China?'. She argued he never got beyond the Black Sea and that his famed account was a collection of travellers’ tales.
Interesting stuff. And though I think Dr. Petrella has discovered something (though she is far from being the first to question the authenticity of Marco Polo's claims) I must admit that I am still a bit skeptical. I must admit that I am not well-versed in the history of Marco Polo and as a result, need to dedicate myself to a more in-depth study of his journeys. But the fact that Polo used Persian words to describe different things instead of Chinese is compelling evidence that he may in fact be a fraud. That seems like such a glaring mistake to make and it certainly casts a shadow of doubt onto the Marco Polo story as a whole.






Anonymous said...

Ahh but what if Marco's prison mate was Persian and Italian and he was the one who mixed it up?

Anonymous said...

ha ha ha powned!

Brad Hart said...

Uh....that would STILL make him a liar because in the end it was HIS story.

ha ha ha powned! (spelling).

But thanks for playing anyway, Anon.

Anonymous said...

Yes, but you said that Pisa embellished some of the stories. This could have been the reason for some of those things. As for the Persian writing, It wasn't Marco who wrote it- it was Pisa. Pisa could have translated some of the words into Persian, or Marco could have told it to him in Persian so he could understand.