Travels and Adventures of Marco Polo - George Towle

The Court of the Great Khan

It was a grand sight to see the vast multitude of courtiers, soldiers, nobles, ladies, and attendants, as it crowded the highway as far as eye could reach, and spread itself out over the plain beyond Shandu.

As Marco gazed on the immense procession, including thousands upon thousands of swarthy Tartars, attired in every variety of gay and brilliant costume, it seemed to him as if a great city of people were emptying itself, and had risen bodily to move to a new site. On one side he saw a long train of large elephants, so long that he could not see the end of it in the distance; each elephant adorned with heavy embroidered trappings and lofty palanquins, and some of them bearing huge bales of goods and provisions. Near by was another train, composed entirely of camels and dromedaries, which strode off in their patient, sober way, bearing also their heavy burdens.

Of troops of horses, some mounted by the fierce Tartar cavalry, with their long moustaches, their rude helmets, their huge yataghans, and their long, limber spears, others bearing packages, others dragging heavy wagons, and yet others strode by gorgeously dressed nobles, there seemed to be no end in the midst of the great multitude was the khan's corps of kennel-keepers, holding dogs in the leash by the dozen; and here and there were to be seen the moving cages containing the khan's big menagerie—his lions and tigers, his leopards and foxes, his eagles, hawks and falcons. The din that arose from this immense number of people was sometimes deafening. The departure was announced by much blowing of shrill trumpets, and by the beating of flat drums and from the midst of the many groups of women, the ladies and slaves of the khan and his principal courtiers, proceeded the weird songs of Cathay, which had so startled Marco when he first reached the khan's hunting grounds.

He wondered very much how it was that the officers kept so innumerable a host in anything like good order for he observed that, in spite of the apparent confusion, the vast caravanserai advanced in regular sections, each body of men and women keeping the place in the process on in which it had set out.

In the very midst of his subjects, went in magnificent state, Kublai Khan himself. He was perched on the back of an enormous white elephant, down whose huge leathery sides hung draperies of cloth of gold and silver, worked with the symbols of the Buddhist faith in any dazzling colors. Above these draperies appeared a splendid pavilion, supported by slender and beautifully carved pillars of sandal-wood and other aromatic woods. It was curtained in the richest silk; above rose a little dome, plated with silver, and surmounted by many brilliant plumes, that waved and nodded high in the air.

Within the pavilion was a throne which was one blaze of burnished gold, and which was supplied with a large soft cushion, as large and soft as a feather bed. Its arms were carved tiger's heads, the eyes of the tigers being immense emeralds; and upon this throne sat, or rather reclined, the mighty monarch of Cathay. It was a fine opportunity to observe this famous warrior and king. Of middle height and build Kublai Khan's dark complexion was yet clear and creamy, and on his cheeks a faint flush lent a rich color to his expressive features. His form was perfect in its proportions; he seemed to have been cast in the finest mould of men. He was at once lithe and athletic; strong of muscle, quick and nervous in motion.

His large, dark eyes shone at once with energy and kindliness his nose, not large and thick as were those of most of his countrymen, was straight and bold. His lips were thick and sensuous, but beautifully outlined, and full of expression. A short, shiny black beard, just tinged with gray, depended from his round chin, and a narrow black moustache adorned his upper lip. In his ears hung long earrings of tear-shaped pearls, and his robe and turban were of the heaviest and glossiest silk.

On a cushion, on one side of the khan, reposed a beautiful young girl, one of the most recent and well beloved of his many wives while on the other side of the throne, and chained to its leg, sat a small but handsomely spotted leopard, the khan's favorite pet.

Al1 around the elephant that bore the khan, were other elephants, which carried his wives and principal courtiers, who were being constantly fanned by their dusky slaves with fans made of peacock's feathers, and fastened to long poles that reached from the ground to the palanquins on the elephant's backs.

The journey from the imperial hunting grounds to Kambalu, the capital of Cathay, occupied several .weeks; for the two places were some hundreds of miles apart. The khan and his caravanserai went leisurely, for there was ample time before them. They halted three or four times each day, and timed their progress so as to reach some large town at nightfall. No sooner did they reach a town, than they found every preparation made to receive them. Vast tents were spread, luxurious feasts loaded down long tables within some of them, while in others beds were arranged for the repose of all. The journey thus seemed no hardship at all, but a delightful excursion. The country through which Marco passed was, for the most part beautiful. Sometimes the caravanserai passed across tedious deserts and plains, or rank and dangerous jungles; but they usually found themselves winding through lovely valleys, with a rich vegetation all about them, and wide spread, in trees that afforded a delicious shade from the sun's rays.

As they approached Kambalu, one bright afternoon, the whole population of the capital seemed to empty itself out to receive them. There was a commingling of two vast multitudes. Relatives and friends greeted each other with the wildest demonstrations of delight and as the khan passed by, the people of the city prostrated themselves, all along the road, in his august presence.

Nothing, thought Marco, could exceed the grandeur of the palace in which, by the invitation of the khan, he now took up his quarters. That at Shandu had amazed him; but it seemed insignificant indeed, when he compared it with this noble edifice which was comprised in a square a mile on each side, and whose walls rose high above all, the surrounding houses. These walls themselves, supported buildings which, together, composed a part of the imperial abode.

At their four corners were spacious towers, in which were kept the bows, arrows, yataghans and spears, the bridles and saddles, the helmets and breastplates which comprised the khan's implements of war. Midway between these were other towers, which contained the enormous stores needed for the support of the court. In the vast space, a mile square, enclosed within the walls, were several groups of spacious buildings, some used for the wardrobes, others for the plate and other movable articles; while in the midst of these stood the imperial palace itself, its roof rising high above the rest.

Marco found this palace, in its general appearance, not unlike that at Shandu; but far larger in the size of its apartments, and far more magnificent in its decorations. The hall was reached by a broad flight of porphyry steps; and this room was so long, that it held six thousand persons at its banquet table. Its walls were fairly crusted with gold and silver and on them were emblazoned enormous figures of dragons, horses, dolphins, tigers, suns and full moons.

The apartments within this palace seemed to Marco fairly innumerable, and all the chambers were as gorgeously decorated as was the hall itself. The roof especially attracted his attention for it was painted red, blue, and green, and so thickly varnished that it glistened in the sun. Quadrangle after quadrangle succeeded each other, in the centre of which spurted fountains, stood basins full of fish, and grew trees of rarest bloom and verdure.

All the surroundings of the palace were fairly delicious. Marco found a large artificial lake a few rods away, upon which barges so painted and gilded as fairly to dazzle him, gayly floated. This lake was alive with the greatest variety of fish, which daily supplied the khan's table. Near the lake rose an artificial hill, perhaps forty feet high, even on every side which the khan had had planted completely over with evergreens that preserved their soft and genial color the year round. This was called "the green mountain," and on its summit was the prettiest pavilion imaginable, whence a view of all the surrounding country might be enjoyed. It was one of the khan's pet hobbies to cover this eminence with the rarest trees, which he caused to be brought thither from the remotest parts of Tartary and planted.

"How my brother Maffeo and my uncle Marco would wonder to see all this splendor!" mused Marco. "When I get home, and tell them about it, they will not believe me."

The palace stood on the banks of a river; and it was on the other bank of this river that the city of Kambalu (which means, "city of the khan") stood. It was, Marco saw, a large city, some twenty-four miles around, and built regularly in squares; and it stood on or near the site which the great Chinese city of Peking now occupies. It was entirely surrounded by a thick and lofty earthen wall, through which, on the several sides, twelve gates gave admission to the streets.

On either side of these gates were square towers, which were always filled with heavily-armed troops. The streets were really broad, straight avenues, and were lined with wide-spreading trees; and along them were to be seen many fine palaces and temples. Marco saw a very high building in the very centre of the city, on which was a steeple containing a large bell. This bell, he learned, was rung at nightfall three times; this was a signal that the great gates were closed, and that no one could enter or go out of the city until the next day.

Kambalu was a very busy place. It was full of rich merchants, who drove a thriving trade, and its bazaars were every day crowded with eager traders dealing in every imaginable kind of wares. From India came to the bazaar stalls precious stones and rich fabrics, and from the Australasian islands delicious spices and fruits; while Cathay itself supplied them with an abundance of food and cloths. The suburbs of the city stretched away over the hills beyond the walls as far as eye could reach on either side, and Marco's head ached when he tried to guess how large the population of Kambalu and its vicinity could be.

Marco had not long been at Kambalu, before he learned that the khan had a large number of wives. Of these four were held in higher honor than the rest, and were called "Empresses." Each of these empresses was entitled to take the khan's name, and each had a separate court of her own, with a palace all to herself. Each empress was attended by no less than ten thousand persons, among whom were three hundred of the loveliest maidens of Cathay. It was a great honor to belong to an empress's court, and all the young girls of the country were anxious to be chosen among this band. By his four empresses, the khan had twenty-two sons, and by his other wives, no less than twenty-five more; and this numerous family lived, one and all, in the greatest splendor and state.

The khan's court, as Marco had seen it at Shandu, was as nothing compared with the court he held at Kambalu. He was constantly guarded by twelve thousand horsemen. After one body of horsemen had served him three days and three nights, they were replaced by another body of the same number; and wherever the khan went, he was attended by this military array.

Marco marvelled at nothing more than at the magnificent feasts which the khan gave on the occasion of an imperial or religious festival. The great banqueting hall of the palace served as the scene of these feasts. At these times, the monarch himself sat at a table at one end of the hall, raised on a dais high above the rest, facing the South. On his left sat his favorite wife, and on his right, his sons and nephews. On a lower platform were stationed the great nobles of the state with their wives, and lower down still, on the floor, were seated the lower dignitaries of Kublai's court. In the very centre of the hall, between the long rows of groaning tab es, stood an immense basin of solid gold, and on either side two smaller ones, all filled to overflowing with the choicest wine; and from thence the attendants took the beverage, in flagons, to the feasters.

Two guards, of lofty stature, were stationed at each door of the banqueting hall, with heavy staves. These saw to it that no one who entered or went out touched the threshold for this was a serious offence in a royal apartment.

Marco observed that those who waited upon the khan and his family, who were nobles of high degree, had their mouths closely wrapped up in silk and gold towels; and soon learned that this was to keep them from breathing upon the dishes destined' for the imperial palate. As soon as the khan raised his goblet to drink, the trumpets and drums made a great noise in every part of the hall, and the nobles, leaving their chairs, fell all at once on their knees and raised their hands, in a sort of supplicating attitude, above their heads and this happened every time the khan quaffed his wine.

While the feast was thus going forward in the great hall, multitudes were eating and drinking to their hearts' content in the smaller apartments surrounding it. In all, it was said that forty thousand people feasted at once within the palace walls. Many of these were nobles or merchants who came from distant parts of the empire, and who had brought costly gifts to the khan.

The eating and drinking over, the tables were cleared and moved aside, the vast company gathered in a semi-circle on the floor, a lofty throne was placed for the khan on the dais, and forthwith in came a host of dancers, singers, magicians, and jugglers; who, in the open space below the monarch, entertained the multitude with the exhibition of their various talents. Marco was especially struck with the jugglers, who performed seemingly impossible feats, and tumbled about greatly to the risk, as he thought, of breaking their necks.

Among the chief festivals that took place at court, were those which celebrated the khan's birthday, and the incoming of the new year, which, in Cathay, be an in February. On his birthday, the khan was won to array himself in a robe of beaten gold, and all his court wore their most gorgeous apparel. The feast was preceded by a solemn ceremony in the principal temple; and after this, presents were offered to the khan by a multitude of his subjects, who came from every part of the country and also by neighboring princes.

A still more splendid festival was that, called the "White Feast," which ushered in the new year. On that day the entire population of the khan's empire attired themselves in white, from head to foot. It was customary on this occasion also to offer gifts to the monarch; indeed, these occasions for making him presents came very often, and served to enrich him beyond calculation. On New Year's day, the presents usually consisted of gold and silver ornaments, rare gems, and costly white cloths, white horses, camels, and elephants, these animals also bearing on their backs boxes and packages of presents, and being habited in the richest apparel.

The ceremony of receiving these offerings, and of celebrating the day, was a most imposing one. The khan and all his court repaired in splendid attire to the great hall of the palace, and ranged themselves in order of rank around the sides. As soon as all had occupied their places, a high priest advanced in the centre and said, in a loud voice, "Kneel and adore " whereupon all fell upon their knees, struck their foreheads with their hands, and turning to the khan, rendered him homage as if he were a god. Then the crowd advanced to an altar, where the priest poured out incense in the khan's honor.

This ceremony over, the khan, followed by the rest, went out upon the flight of steps leading up to the principal portal of the palace and as he stood there, beneath a glittering canopy, fanned by peacock fans, and the centre of a dazzling galaxy of silk and jewels, the elephants, camels and horses that bore his innumerable presents passed by in slow procession, All the animals were taught to kneel when they came opposite the khan and it took several hours for the long train, bearing its countless treasures, to pass.

After this the banquet took place and on New Year's night, every one at the khan's court felt at liberty to become intoxicated, and to indulge in such wild capers as the wine inspired them to commit The wine thus drunk was seasoned with rice and rich spices, and was very strong.

At all these festivals and merry-makings, the Polos were not only permitted to be present, but were honored with places in the midst of the nobles. The khan's favor, which was fully and openly bestowed upon the Venetian strangers, served to procure them the good will and friendship of his courtiers.

All this while Marco was learning what seemed to him the endless language of Cathay. He found it a great deal harder than French, which he had studied as a boy at home; but in due time he found that he could converse quite easily with his Tartar companions, and heard every day something new and strange about the land in which he was sojourning.