The behavior of any bureaucratic organization can best be understood by assuming that it is controlled by a secret cabal of its enemies. — Robert Conquest

Travels and Adventures of Marco Polo - George Towle




Marco Polo Sets Forth

As Marco Polo stood, on that bright April morning in 1271, on the deck of the war-galley, and watched the glittering domes and spires of Venice receding from view, while the vessel sailed down the Adriatic, he little guessed how many years would elapse ere his eyes would greet the familiar home scenes again.

But he thought only of the future just before him; and although, on passing out of the Gulf of Venice into the rougher waters of the Adriatic, he was at first a little sea-sick, he soon recovered his buoyancy of spirits, and now gazed with keen interest at the objects which coast and waters presented.

It was a delightful trip, through the Adriatic, across the sparkling purple waves of the Mediterranean, skirting the rugged coast of Greece, and at last launching into the more open ocean, out of sight of land; and the days that elapsed between the departure from Venice and the arrival at the curious old town of Acre, on the Syrian coast, with its towered walls, its narrow, winding streets, its lofty castle, its temples, palaces and churches, quite unlike those of Venice, were joyous ones to the young traveller.

On landing at Acre, the brothers Polo and Marco repaired to the best inn in the place; and Nicolo lost no time in seeking out his old friend, the priest Tedaldo, to learn what prospect there was of missionaries going eastward with them. Tedaldo was rejoiced to see him, but said that no pope had yet been chosen; and begged Nicolo to stay at Acre until that event took place. At first Nicolo, impatient to reach the great khan's court, resisted Tedaldo's request; but finally the shrewd priest prevailed with him.

"If you will give us leave to go Jerusalem, and get some holy oil from the lamp on the Sepulchre," said Nicolo, "we will not proceed on our journey until you consent. The great khan will receive the holy oil as a precious gift."

"Be it so," responded Tedaldo; "go to Jerusalem, and after performing your errand, return hither. Perhaps, then, we shall have a pope."

Marco was well pleased to visit the holy city, which he now did, in company with his father. They did not stay long at Jerusalem; but while there, Marco had time to see all the ancient and sacred relics and curious sights which still attract the traveller. Having procured a vial of oil from the lamp on the Sepulchre (which, it was said, had been kept constantly burning there from the time of Christ's death), Nicolo returned to Acre. No pope had yet been chosen; and now Tedaldo could not find it in his heart to forbid the departure of the brothers.

They therefore set out from Acre, crossing in a galley to the old fortified town of Ayas, in the gulf of Scanderoon. Ayas they found to be a busy commercial port, with teeming bazaars and a noble fortress rising near the shore; but they could not tarry long there, and began to make their preparations to penetrate into Armenia. They were on the point of starting, when an urgent message reached them from Acre.

It seemed that a pope had at last been elected, and that the choice had fallen on no other than their friend Tedaldo himself, who took the name of Gregory the Tenth; and he had sent for them to return at once to Acre, and receive his instructions how to deal with the great khan.

On reaching Acre, the Polos were at once admitted to the presence of their old friend, who had now become the head of the Church. Tedaldo, or Pope Gregory, as he should now be called, received them with all his old kindness of manner, in the palace where he was sojourning, and gave his special blessing to young Marco, whose youth and bearing greatly pleased him.

Then, turning to the two brothers, the pope said:

"Now I can give you full power and authority to be the envoys of the Church to Kublai Khan. You shall take with you two trusty friars, who will aid you in converting the heathen of Cathay; and you yourselves may ordain bishops and priests, and grant absolution. To show my desire to receive Kublai into the bosom of the Church, I will give you some vases and jars of crystal, to take to him as presents from me."

Nicolo fell at the pope's feet, and did him humble and grateful reverence and Maffeo and Marco followed his example. All their wishes seemed now fulfilled; and, after bidding the pope once more adieu, and receiving his blessing, they set out to return to Ayas, inspired by the new and noble purpose of converting a vast nation of barbarians to the true faith. With them went the two friars whom the pope had appointed, Nicolo of Vicenza, and William of Tripoli; and on landing at Ayas, they resolved to delay their journey no longer.

Another mishap, however, was destined to befall them before they found themselves full on their way eastward. At Ayas they learned that Armenia, the country through which they were about to pass, had just been invaded by the Sultan of Babylon with a formidable army.

No sooner had the two friars heard this unwelcome news than they ran to Nicolo, and declared that they were afraid to go on, or even to stay at Ayas. In vain Nicolo besought them to continue with him, and even to brave the dangers that now loomed before them, rather than give up the project of converting the people of Cathay.

"No," replied the friars: "We are afraid of these ruthless Saracens. If they should capture any Christian priests, it would be to torture and kill them. Take our credentials and documents, Messer Polo; and God be with you. We must return to Acre."

And so they did, taking the first galley that set out for that place.

The Polos found that they must go forward alone; and after a last look at Ayas, and feeling, truth to tell, somewhat alarmed lest they should meet the Saracen invaders, they started on the high road that led northward in the direction of Xurcomania.

Marco observed everything on the journey with the keenest curiosity; and his father, who had already traversed that region, was able to explain many sights that were mysterious to him. They passed through many queer Asiatic cities and towns, and Marco stared at the dusky complexions and picturesque attire of the natives. The natives, in turn, examined the travellers with much amazement; but everywhere, in this part of the country, seemed friendly, and not at all disposed to molest them.

Sometimes the wayfarers would stop in a city or town a week or two at a time, lodging in very old inns, and partaking of dishes which Marco had never seen before, and of some of which neither of the three knew the names.

The people of the regions through which they passed were usually poverty stricken, and seemed quite content with very little. Marco observed that they were a very lazy set, and spent a great deal of time drinking a coarse, rank liquor, which speedily intoxicated them.

Sometimes, however, the travellers came to a town which had a well-to-do, thriving aspect, and where they met men and women of a higher and more active class. The chiefs in these places would treat them with hearty hospitality, placing before them the best dishes and most luscious fruits the region afforded, and giving them the best rooms in their houses—not very comfortable ones, at best—in which to sleep.

One day, a hospitable chief proposed to the Polos that they should form part of a hunting expedition, which was about to set out in search of savage game on the neighboring hills. This proposal gave young Marco a thrill of pleasure, for he had begun to think that their journey was getting monotonous. At first his father refused to let him go with the hunting party; but Marco begged so persistently, and the chief brought out a horse for his use that seemed so strong and steady, that Nicolo finally yielded.

Not only horses, but elephants also, bore the sportsmen to their scene of action; and after travelling for two days across the plains and among the hills, the party encamped on a river bank. Then Marco, for the first time, saw the fierce, wild sport which the Asiatic hills and jungles provided. He was too young and too little skilled to take any active part in the hunt for wild beasts; but roamed the lofty forests, and brought down many a bird of gorgeous plumage, which proved afterwards to afford the sweetest and most delicate nourishment. Once he witnessed, from a safe distance, a terrific encounter with a gigantic tiger, which the natives attacked from the backs of their elephants, and at last succeeded in killing and dragging, with his magnificent striped hide, into the camp.

Marco was afterwards to become quite accustomed to this thrilling sport, and to deal, with his own hand, many a finishing blow upon lion and tiger and famished wolf.

After crossing the eastern edge of Turcomania, the travellers entered the picturesque and fruitful country of Greater Armenia with its broad, fertile plains, and its grim and narrow mountain passes; the same country, indeed, which in our own times has been so often the scene of conflict between the Russians and the Turks. They passed near or by the very spots where the now famous fortresses of Kars and Erzeroum stand; and as they proceeded, they were surprised to find the region so thickly dotted with towns and villages, and sometimes quite stately cities. They found the inhabitants, who were for the most part Tartars, as little disposed to molest them as the Turcomans had been; though, now and then, as they went through lonely districts, they were menaced by brigands.

With them were several native guides, whose language was already familiar to the two elder Polos. One day, one of these guides stopped, and pointed to a mountain, whose dim outline could just be made out in the hazy distance.

"Do you see that mountain?" he said, turning to the travellers. "It is Mount Ararat. It was there that Noah's ark was stranded, after the flood. The ark is still there, on the top of the mountain; and the faithful of this region brave the snows with which Ararat is perpetually shrouded, to get from the ark some of its pitch, which they make into amulets, and wear as a charm around their necks!"

Marco listened with open mouth, and stared long and earnestly at the famous eminence. He could scarcely believe that the ark was still there; yet the guide spoke so earnestly that he was loth to doubt what he said.

After crossing a lofty range of mountains, they descended into a wide and umbrageous valley, through which meandered a broad, rapidly flowing river. This river, Marco learned, was no other than the Tigris, which flows northward from the Persian Gulf. On every hand the young traveller perceived the majestic ruins of the splendid civilization which had once existed in this valley.

Ruined or decaying cities, with vast walls, and lofty palaces, and towering temples, were often encountered; and near them nestled the more modern towns and villages, still alive with the bustle of trade or the vanity of oriental show. This country was the kingdom of Mosul; and in some of the towns, Marco observed manufactories of fine cloth, which was produced with rapidity and skill, and was made of many beautiful colors. This cloth gave the name to what we now call" muslin," from the place whence it was first obtained; it was really not muslin, but a much finer texture, of silk and gold. The Polos were delighted to find that large numbers of the people of Mosul were Christians, who gave them a welcome all the warmer because of their professing the same faith.

As they descended the valley of the Tigris further towards the Persian Gulf, however, they were destined to meet with a very different kind of people. From the mountain fastnesses of Curdistan there swooped into the valley fierce bands of Curds, the savage and vindictive race who dwelt in those fastnesses, and whose occupation it was to rob and murder. Their very name, which, in Turkish, means "wolves," betrayed their character and habits. Luckily a large number of Mosul Christians accompanied the travellers, armed to the teeth, purposely to protect them from the inhuman Curds; and the latter, whenever they assailed the party, were driven back, with great loss of life, to their mountain retreats again. Marco thought he had never seen such ferocious looking creatures as were some of the Curds who were taken prisoners. They were very dark, wore long, fierce moustaches, and their black eyes gleamed with a savage and murderous glare.

Marco Polo
MARCO SHOOTING IN THE ASIATIC HILLS.


This danger was therefore escaped; and, soon after, Marco went nearly wild with joy to enter, and see with his own eyes, the famous city of Bagdad. He had often heard of Bagdad, from the Venetian merchants who had made journeys hither; and often, at home, had his curiosity been aroused to see the singular sight~, the curious people, the ancient temples, gates and palaces, which had been thus described to him. And here he was, in the streets of the old Arab city, still in all the glory of its trade, though many of its ancient splendors had departed; and everything he saw filled him with delight. He was delighted when his father and uncle, putting up at the best inn the old city afforded, announced their intention to rest some time in Bagdad; for now he would have leisure to explore it thoroughly, and to hunt up the very scenes of the marvellous tales.

He found Bagdad to be not only full of ancient monuments, but a very thriving and busy place, ruled over by a caliph, who had a large and valiant army. It produced a bewildering variety of cloths, such as silk, gold cloth, and brocade, and it was a fine sight to see the men and women of the higher classes, arrayed in these splendid tissues, as they strolled on the river bank, or lolled in their luxurious balconies, that overlooked the Tigris. It was while in this famous place that Marco heard a story which gave him an insight into Oriental character. About forty years before there had been reigning at Bagdad, a caliph who was very avaricious, and also very rich. He had a lofty tower, which was said to be piled full of gold and silver. A Tartar prince came with a great army, attacked Bagdad and took it, and made the caliph a prisoner. When he saw the tower full of treasure, the Tartar conqueror was amazed; and ordering the captive caliph into his presence, said, "Caliph, why hast thou gathered here so many riches? When thou knewest I was coming to attack thee, why didst thou not use it to pay soldiers to defend thee?" The caliph not replying, the Tartar went on" "Now, caliph, since thou hast so vast a love for this treasure, thou must eat it!" He caused the caliph to be shut up in the tower, and commanded that neither food nor drink should be given him; for, he said, he must eat the gold, or nothing. The poor caliph died in the tower some days after, of starvation, though surrounded by heaps of treasure, that would have bought food for a mighty army.

Marco had by this time picked up enough of the language of the region to converse with the natives: and nothing pleased him more than to wander about the bazaars and shops, and to find some talkative Mussulman, who would sit and tell him stories. In this way, he heard many tales which were scarcely less romantic than those of the Arabian Nights.

One of the stories that seemed most wonderful to him was that of the "one-eyed cobbler." Some years before, it was related, there reigned at Bagdad a caliph who bore bitter hatred against the Christians, and who was resolved to put them to the sword. Thinking to entrap them by their own doctrine, he called a vast number of Christians together, and pointed to the passage in the Bible which says, that if a Christian has faith as a grain of mustard seed, and should command a mountain to be moved, it would obey the command.

"Now," said the caliph, "you who have such faith, must either move that mountain, which you see yonder—"pointing to a very lofty eminence, "or you shall one and all perish by the sword. Unless you do this in ten days, or become Mohammedans, every one of you shall die."

The Christians were terrified and bewildered at the caliph's words, and knew not what to do. For several days they felt like men already lost. But one day a certain bishop came to them, and said that he had had a vision from God; and that God had told him that if the Christians would persuade a certain pious cobbler, who had but one eye, to pray that the mountain should be moved, the prayer would be granted.

The cobbler was eagerly sought out. At first he refused to pray for the miracle, saying that he was no better than the rest. But finally he consented to offer up the prayer. The caliph's army and the Christians assembled on a vast plain before the mountain. The cobbler knelt and made a solemn appeal to heaven: when lo, the mountain rising up, moved to the spot that the caliph had pointed out! It was said that after this miracle, the caliph became secretly a Christian; and that when he died a small ivory cross was found hung around his neck.

Marco was very loth to leave Bagdad, with its romantic memories, its venerable buildings, its brilliant bazaars, and its captivating story-tellers; and when one day, Nicolo told him that they should set out again early the next morning, he felt exceedingly sorry to hear the news. Fresh scenes, however, soon diverted his mind from the old city; and ere many days he found himself with his father and uncle on a strange galley, with lateen sails, crossing the Persian Gulf.