September 15th 1254: Marco Polo born
On this day in 1254, Marco Polo was born in Venice, Italy to a wealthy merchant family. Polo’s father and uncle spent much of his childhood traveling around Asia, especially China where they found favour at the court of Mongol leader Kublai Khan. In 1271, when he was seventeen, Marco left with his father and uncle on their return trip to China. On this journey they visited the Middle East and crossed the Gobi Desert, eventually arriving at Khan’s court where they stayed for 17 years. In this time Marco became Khan’s special envoy, and was sent to areas never before explored by Europeans, including India, Burma and Tibet. Their eventual journey home was arduous, with many of their party perishing on the way. The family also faced hardship when they returned to Venice in 1295, for they struggled to re-enter Venetian society and culture. Marco Polo became involved in Venice’s war with Genoa, and was captured and imprisoned by the Genoese. While imprisoned he told the stories of his travels to his fellow prisoner Rustichello, who wrote them down and eventually published them in The Travels of Marco Polo. Polo’s stories became widely famous and popular, with the fantastic descriptions of foreign places like China and India astonishing contemporary Europeans, many of whom took Polo’s words to be fiction; Polo asserted until his death that it was all true. Marco Polo died in Venice in 1324 aged 69 but his legacy lived on as his unprecedentedly rich and detailed descriptions of foreign lands inspired later generations to explore the world, including Christopher Columbus who brought a copy of Polo’s book on his journey to America in 1492.