Because Marco Polo, in The Travels, stressed adventure and peril, it is easy to forget that his memoirs also included snippets of accurate information about the Middle East.
Indeed, the romantic overtones and exaggerations of the memoirs probably had more to do with the man who, in effect, served as Marco Polo's ghost-writer - a French novelist famous for his love stories and historical romances, who was a prisoner of war with Marco Polo in Genoa from 1298 to 1299, three years after the Polos returned from China. When Marco Polo began to relate his adventures during his 24 years of traveling, the writer, delighted with this unexpected and fascinating material, settled down to write the book of travels that we have today.
A best seller, The Travels, also known as The Description of the World, was translated into almost every European language, including Irish, and became one of the most successful travel books ever written. Interestingly - in light of the skepticism that greeted publication of The Travels — a large number of Marco Polo's amazing anecdotes have proven to be true.
At one point, for instance, he describes "a spring from which gushes a stream of oil, in such abundance that 100 ships may load there at once. This oil is not good to eat; but it is good for burning and as a salve for men and camels affected with itch or scab. Men come from a long distance to fetch this oil..." At first, this sounded like gross exaggeration, but the "spring" turned out to be Baku on the Caspian, one of the great oil fields of Russia.
Marco Polo also describes Iraqi cloth, ("Here are made all the cloths of silver and gold called mosulin [muslin]. And from this kingdom hail the great merchants... who export vast quantities of spices and other precious wares..."), says that Basra "... grows the best dates in the world," and tells an interesting - if questionable - tale about Baghdad. Sacked by the Mongols under Hulagu Khan just 13 years before, Baghdad reportedly fell because the Caliph had failed to spend enough to defend it:
So the Caliph was captured together with the city. After his capture a tower was discovered, filled with gold... Then Hulagu Khan said: "Caliph, since I see that you love treasure so dearly, I will give you your own to eat." Next he ordered that the Caliph should be taken and put in the treasure tower and that nothing should be given him to eat or to drink. "Now, Caliph," he said, "eat your fill of treasure, since you are so fond of it; for you will get nothing else." After that he left him in the tower, where at the end of four days he died. So it would have been better indeed for the Caliph if he had given away his treasure to defend his land and his people rather than die with all his people and bereft of everything.
From Baghdad, Marco Polo went to Tabriz - then in Iraq, now in Iran - where, again, he gives a vivid impression of the liveliness and cosmopolitan nature of the great trading cities of the medieval Islamic world:
... for cloth of gold and silk is woven here in great quantity and of great value. The city is so favorably situated that it is a market for merchandise from India and Baghdad, from Mosul and Hormuz, and from many other places; and many Latin merchants, especially Genoese, come here to buy the merchandise imported from foreign lands. It is also a market for precious stones, which are found here in great abundance...
After Tabriz came the cities of Persia, such as Saveh, where he was shown the sepulchres of the Magi, the Three Kings, and where, again, he was impressed by the wealth of the country:
In this kingdom originate the stones called turquoises: they are found in great abundance in the mountains, where they are dug out of the rock. There are also veins producing steel in great plenty. The inhabitants excel in the manufacture of all the equipment of the mounted warrior-bridles, saddles, spurs, swords, bows, quivers, and every sort of armor according to local usage.
From Saveh, the Polos went on to Kerman and then south to the "Arabian Gulf. This part of the trip, he wrote, was "pleasant." "The road," he said, "passes through a fine plain amply stocked with foodstuffs. It is blessed with natural hot baths. Fruit trees and date palms abound."
At its end, this road came out at Hormuz, opposite present-day Oman, which he described as follows:
Here on the coast stands a city called Hormuz, which has an excellent harbor. Merchants come here by ship from India bringing all sorts of spices and precious stones and pearls and cloths of silk and gold and elephants' tusks and many other wares. In this city they sell them to others, who distribute them to various customers through the length and breadth of the world. It is a great center of commerce, with many cities and towns subordinate to it, and the capital of the kingdom. In Hormuz, the residents do not eat our sort of food, because a diet of wheaten bread and meat would make them ill. To keep well they eat dates and salt fish, that is tunny, and also onions; and on this diet they thrive.
He also describes ingenious methods used by the local inhabitants to protect themselves against the stifling heat of the area - including "ventilators to catch the wind," a method still in use today (see Aramco World, September-October 1979). Another town which impressed him was Aden, from which, he said, "spices and luxury goods from India were shipped across the Red Sea in little boats to Ethiopia and then taken by camel and Nile boat to Cairo and Alexandria."
Another town mentioned by Marco Polo is Shihr, further along the coast to the east and the site of a story which sounds most unlikely:
And here is something else which may strike you as marvelous: their domestic animals - sheep, oxen, camels, and little ponies - are fed on fish. They are reduced to this diet because in all this country and in all the surrounding region there is no grass; for it is the driest place in the world. The fish on which these animals feed are very small and are caught in March, April and May in quantities that are truly amazing. They are then dried and stored in the houses and given to the animals as food throughout the year. I can tell you further that the animals also eat them alive, as soon as they are drawn out of the water. There are also big fish here - and good ones too - in great profusion and very cheap. They even make a biscuit out of fish. They chop a pound or so of fish into little morsels and dry it in the sun and then store it in their houses and eat it all the year around like biscuit.
From Shihr, Marco Polo goes on to describe Dhofar and Qalhat. Dhofar, 'vsx present day Oman, was particularly important for the incense trade -frankincense grew in profusion and was collected there for export to the West and the East - and was also a center for the export of horses and the prized white Arabian donkeys still seen along the coast. Qalhat, guarding the entrance to the Arabian Gulf, was continually at war with Hormuz on the opposite coast over duties on the highly remunerative Arabian Gulf trade.
In The Travels, much of this information came across to the readers as exaggeration, but in time, much of what Marco Polo said proved to be true. The subsequent production of oil at Baku, for example, suggests that his estimates of the oil "springs" was understatement, not overstatement.
Other descriptions of the Middle East also proved to be true. Arab authors completely agree on the architectural beauty of Hormuz at that time; his comments on feeding livestock in Shihr with nsh are borne out by the fact that, in Roman times, nsh paste was a major export of the region - and dried fish is still fed to livestock today.
His description of the Hormuz diet is beyond challenge; this diet was by far the healthiest for the climate, since meat was apt to be bad and fruit and vegetables unavailable. Salt fish, moreover, would also have had the same effect as modern salt tablets - providing the large amounts of salt required in tremendous heat. In retrospect, it seems that at least some of Marco Polo's tall tales were as accurate as they were fascinating.
Caroline Stone contributes regularly to Aramco World.