Marco Polo and the riches of Asia

In the Middle Ages, spices and other luxuries from the East came to Europe through a network of traders. The goods travelled across Asia and through the Middle East before they finally reached Mediterranean ports like Venice. Each trader put the price up a bit in order to take a cut. By the time the goods arrived in Europe they were expensive.

An oriental scene

Marco Polo was born in Venice in about 1254. He travelled east to China along the trade routes to visit the court of Kublai Khan, Emperor of the Mongols, who had conquered China. He stayed in China for seventeen years, serving the Khan.

When Marco Polo returned to Italy, he was captured whilst fighting in a war. He told his adventures to another prisoner who wrote them down. His tales of riches in the Orient inspired Europeans like Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus to look for a direct trade route with Asia.

Marco Polo’s descriptions of the Far East intrigued people long after his time. About 500 years later the English poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote a mystical poem that begins with this description of Kublai Khan’s summer palace:

In Xanadu did Kublai Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

The images on this page come from a 1671 book that brings together three earlier accounts of the Far East. The first account in the book is by Marco Polo.

The map (top right) is of east Asia. Can you see the labels for Japan and China? The other two images are from the title page, which shows the printer's imagining of a Chinese court. Click on the images to see more.

A map of eastern Asia

An oriental court