top of page
Catal Atlas-crop_edited.jpg

The itineraries of the Divisament dou Monde

In the mosaic of paths that crisscross the narrative of the Divisament, we can schematically identify four main tracks:

 

- The initial journey undertaken by Niccolò and Matteo Polo, to the Mongol imperial court in 1260-1266; Marco did not accompany his father and uncle in this first journey, but relates of their route with a good deal of accuracy.

- Marco's own outbound journey from Venice to Asia in 1272-1273.

- His itineraries across Yuan China, spanning along two main axes: in a southwest direction, from the Yuan capital Khanbaliq (today Beijing) to Yunnan, and in a north to south direction, from Khanbaliq to Qinasy (Hangzhou), along the path of the imperial Grand Canal.

- Marco, Niccolò and Matteo Polo eventual return from Çaiton to Venice in 1291-1295 in a predominantly sea rout across the Indian Ocean.

The first journey of Niccolò and Matteo

Costantinople - Sudak - Bukhara - Shangdu (1260-1266)

The itinerary described in the Divisament begins not in Venice - as we might suppose - but in Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine empire, and its initial protagonist are Niccolò and Matteo Polo. Marco, who in 1260 was a six-year old child, will enter the stories only a few years later.
 

Circa 1259 | Constantinople. From their native Venice the Polos had transferred their economic activities to Constantinople, where they set up a fondaco - a store-emporium - at some point in the 1250s. However, as the restoration of Byzantine rule over the city achieved by Michael VIII Palaeologus in 1261 resulted in a wave of punitive measures against the local Venetian community - a retaliation to Venice's implication in the devastating sack of Constantinople that ended the unfortunate fourth crusade (1202-1204), the Polos decided to relocate again their business by moving farther east.

1260 - 1263 | From Costantinopole to Sudak, Saraj and Bolghar. Around 1260 the thus reappear in the coastal city of Sudak (Soldaia in the text), on the eastern shores of the Crimean peninsula, where they owned another small fondaco, mentioned in a testament drafted by another member of the family, Marco the Elder, in 1280, to support their trade business. At that time though the Crimean peninsula and the shallow waters of the sea of Azov represented the main point of contact between the eastern Mediterranean basin and the territories of the Golden Horde, one of the Mongol khanates emerged from the fragmentation of the Gengiskhanid empire. It perhaps the need to bypass the barriers posed by local trade intermediaries that the two Polos embarked in what should have been. according to the original plans, a brief business trip along the Volga basin and that, instead, transformed into a journey that would have take the two unaware merchants thousands of kilometers away. Between 1260 and 1261 Niccolò and Matteo depart from their trade bade in Sudak and head towards Saraj (Sara in the Franco-Italian text of the Divisament), the capital of the Golden Horde built by Batu Khan in the 1240s, and Bolghar, one the major urban and economic centers of the region.

Circa 1263 | From Saraj to Bukhara. In 1262 a series of violent hostilities between the Golden Horde khanate and the Ilkhanate - another Mongol state established over the territories of Persia and Iraq after the conquest of Baghdad by Helegu khan in 1258 - made the return journey from Saraj a risky enterprise, as the regions north of the Caucasus became on of the main theaters of the conflict. Unable to return home, and eager to leave a country at war, the two Polos resolved to continue along what remained the only one viable option: eastward. In 1262 they reached Bukhara, one of the most significant centers of trade, scholarship and culture in medieval Central Asia. According to the text of the Divisament the two Polo's remained in Bukhara three years.

1263-1266 | From Bukhara to Shangdu. It is during their staying in Bukhara that Nicolò and Matteo Polo were probably noticed by a diplomatic emissary of the Ilkhanate en route towards the court of the Mongol empire ruled by Kublai Khan, cousin of the Ilkhan Helegu. The two brothers were thus asked to join the emissary and his entourage. They traversed Central Asia - very few details are given to this regard by the text - to reach Shangdu, the summer capital chosen by Kublai Khan for is imperial court. According to the narrative of the Divisament, the Polos conferred with Kublai Khan, who "lor demande de meser l'apostoille et de tous le fais de le yglise romaine et de tous les costumes des latin" ('asked them about the Pope and of all matters of the Roman church and all the traditions of Latin people'). Questions that were answered by the Polos in the "Tartar language" (lengue de Tartarç) - probalvy the Mongolian language, whose basics Niccolò and Matteo might have acquired during their activities in the territories of the Golden Horde and Bukhara.

1266-1269 | Niccolò and Matteo's Return Journey: Shangdu - Layas - Jerusalem. Following their encounter with Kublai Khan, the two Polos were asked to return to Europe carrying on a message addressed to the Pope - the only religious and political authority that, in an otherwise politically fragmented Europe, that the Mongol emperor could address on equal terms. The two brothers then set on a return journey that the Divisament presents through some very scant details, recording with precision only their city of arrival: the port of Layas, on the southern coast of Anatolia. From there the Polos reached the city of Acre, the de facto capital in what remained of the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. At Acre, Niccolò and Matteo obtained an audience with Tebaldo Visconti, future pope Gregory X, to whom they recounted their journey and remitted the message entrusted to them by Kublai.

1269 - 1271 | Back to Venice. In 1269 the two Polo returned to Venice, as they were waiting for the results of an long and inconclusive papal election before returning once again to Kublai's court to deliver the papal response to his initial message. Once in Venice Niccolò took with himself his son Marco, barely aged fifteen, who would have accompanied his father in his following travels.

The journey of Marco Polo - main itinerary

Venice - Acre - Mosul - Balkh - Kashgar - Shangdu (1272 - circa 1275)

1272 | Venice - Acre - Jerusalem. Following the election of Tebaldo Visconti as pope Gregory X in September 1271, the three Polos - Matteo, Niccolò and his son Marco - rushed to Layas and then Acre, where the new pope had been reached by the announcement of his election. Gregory X entrusted the three Polos with a new diplomatic mission to the Mongol imperial court, and asked two friars, Nicolò of Vicenza and the Dominican William of Tripoli, to accompany the Venetian merchants. After a visit to the church Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem, whose lamp oil - a cherished Christian relic - had been expressly requested by Kublai, the small party set out to undertake a new journey towards the Mongol imperial court. The two friars, however, refused to venture beyond Armenia on account of the risks of such a long journey and left the three Polos on their own.

1272 - circa 1275 | Hormuz - Balkh - Kashgar - Shangdu. The Polos continued their journey until the port city of Hormuz, in the Persian Gulf, probably to embark on a vessel that would carry them to China. The risks associated to such a long sea journey however probably suggested a different alternative: a slower, but probably safer land route passing through Persia and central Asia. Few chronological details are offered about this second journey to Kublai's court, where the three Venetians arrived at some point after 1272.

Itineraries across China (1275-1291)

 

The Polos spent nearly twenty years working for the Mongol administration, joining a growing number of foreign functionaries - Persians, Uyghurs, Saracens and other Turkic people - employed by Kublai to govern the vast territories of his reign. In their role of functionaries of the Yuan empire the Polos have thus probably travelled multiple times across what is today China: given the extremely accurate information that the text of the Divisament offers about salt and tax revenues, scholars have suggested that Marco probably held a position in the customs administration of the city of Yangzhou, in what is today Jiangsu province.

The description of "Catai" and "Mangi" - north and south China - presented by the Divisament dou Monde is structured along two main itineraries that both reflect two of the most important ways of communication that have characterized China's road and communication system across the history.

First itinerary | Canbaluc - Chang'an - Yunnan. The first, departing from what is today Beijing, traverses the whole country along a south-west direction, along Chang'an (nowadays Xi'an) and the Sichuan basin, reaching the southwestern regions of Yunnan.

Second itinerary | Canbaluc - Qinsay [Hangzhou] - Çaiton [Quanzhou]. The other follows the path of the imperial canal that connected the city of Beijing to Hangzhou - the last capital of the Song dynasty, called Qinsay by Polo, reaching eventually the city of Çaiton (nowadays Quanzhou, in Fujian, China), one of the most important ports in Mongol-ruled China at the end of the XIII century.

The return journey (1293-1295)
Çaiton - Sumatra - Hormuz - Trapezond - Venice

In 1291, the Polos eventually obtained permission to take leave from Kublai's court and return home. For their last across journey, Marco, Niccolò and Matteo joined a larger group of envoys escorting a member of Kublai's imperial family, the princess Kokochin, to the Persian Ilkhanate where the seventeen-years-old girl was to be married the Ilkhan Arghun: a dynastic marriage intended to consolidate the cohesion among the various domains formally subjected to Mongol rule.

Unlike all previous travels described in the Divisament, this journey followed a primarily sea route along the Indian Ocean: the Polos embarked from the port of Çaiton and reached the Indonesian archipelago: on account of unfavorable sea conditions, the Mongol delegation accompanying Kokochin, including the Polos, was forced to stop and disembarkfor about five months in the island of Sumatra. The journey then proceeded along the Indian ocean, reaching the island of Ceylon and the southern coast of the Indian subcontinent, before eventually arriving to Hormuz, in Persia, around 1293. The Polos continued their travel towards by land, reaching Trapezond and eventually reacehd Venice in 1295, after twenty-four years of absence.

bottom of page