The angry historians see one side of the question. The calm historians see nothing at all, not even the question itself. — G. K. Chesterton

Travels and Adventures of Marco Polo - George Towle




Marco Polo's Travels in Persia and Turkistan

The passage across the Persian Gulf was a brief and prosperous one; and in due time the Polo party landed on the soil of the ancient country of Persia. The port at which they set foot on shore was an old fortified town named Hormuz, with its towers rising high above the sea, and its harbor crowded with the shipping of many nations. Here for the first time Marco witnessed the dress, manners and customs of the people who, once upon a time, had been led to brilliant victory by Cyrus and Darius.

Hormuz itself, with its bazaars, its wide streets, its fortresses and palaces, was not unlike the cities Marco had seen in Armenia but the people, both in their appearance and in their customs, were very different from those of Western Asia, They lived, it appeared, mainly on dates and salt fish and it was only when they were that they would taste bread. For a beverage, they drank a very strong wine, made of dates and spices. The city seemed to have but few inhabitants who actually dwelt in it. The buildings, except on the outskirts, were mostly given up to store-houses, shops, and other places of business and the surrounding plain was covered with dwellings, almost every one with a pretty, shady garden, whither the mass of the population resorted at nightfall. Marco soon learned that the people lived in this way on account of the oppressive heat which existed in the city and found by his own experience that at was one of the hottest places on earth.

He learned that sometimes winds swept across the deserts, so scorching that the people were obliged to plunge themselves up to the neck in cool water, and stay there until the winds had gone down otherwise they would be burnt to death; and a story was told him of a hostile army, which was literally baked to death, while on its way to attack Hormuz.

Marco examined the Persian ships which he saw in the harbor with great curiosity. They were wretched affairs compared with the skilfully-built Venetian galleys, Instead of being made fast with pitch, they were smeared with fish oil; and were held together by a rude twine, made of the husk of a nut. The ships were deckless, the cargo being only protected by a matting and had but one mast, one sail, and one rudder. The nails were of wood and altogether, these frail craft seemed to Marco dangerous boats in which to cross the stormy seas of the East.

Setting out from Hormuz, the Polo's found themselves travelling over a vast and beautiful plain, which glowed with the most brilliant flowers, among which birds of gorgeous plumage nestled and where dates and palms grew in the richest luxuriance. The plain was watered by many picturesque streams on the banks of which the travellers gratefully rested after their long daily jaunts. The plain crossed, they began a gentle ascent to a range of lofty hills, after traversing which they found themselves at Kerman, which was then the seat of Persian sovereignty. This, too, was a busy place, where all sorts of warlike weapons were made, and where the women were very skilful in needle-work and embroidery. Marco saw a great number of beautiful light blue turquoises, which precious stones, he heard, were found in great quantities among the neighboring mountains.

The Polos only staid in Kerman long enough to take a good rest, and then set out again for already they had been nearly a year on their travels, And Nicolo was anxious to get to Cathay as soon as possible, lest the good khan who had treated him so well before, should be dead. But they had yet many a long month of journeying before them, and they were to see many strange and wonderful things before they reached the end of their travels. They now crossed a beautiful country, varied with plains, hills, and lovely valleys, where dates grew in plenty, and many other fruits, which Marco had never before seen, hung on the trees and bushes. He saw, browsing in the meadows, many large, white oxen, with short smooth hair, thick stubby horns, and humps on their backs and the sheep in the pastures were the biggest he had ever seen. Almost every village they passed was surrounded by a high wall of mud. On asking why this was, Marco was told that the country was infested with banditti, and that these walls were built to protect the people from their bold and savage incursions. A native declared to him that these banditti were magicians; and that when they wished to attack a village, they were able, by their magic spells, to turn daylight into darkness. Sometimes, this native said, there was as many as ten thousand men in these bands of robbers.

The travellers heard these stories of the banditti with some alarm, for they were about to pass through the very region where they dwelt nor was this alarm groundless. Scarcely had they got fairly away from one of the villages, when they were suddenly attacked by a formidable band, and were forced to fight desperately for their lives. The three Polos succeeded in killing a number of the robbers, and in escaping into a village just beyond but when they called their guides and attendants together, they found that the robbers had killed or captured all but seven of them and they were obliged to push forward with this small number.

They soon came to a dismal and dreary desert. which it took them a week to cross, and where they saw nowhere a vestige of human habitation. For three days they found no water whatever, except some little salt streams, from which they could not drink, however parched by thirst. It was a vast solitude, where no living thing appeared and Marco gave a sigh of relief and satisfaction when, towards the end of the seventh day, the buildings of another large and flourishing city came into view. But beyond this city, another and still larger desert stretched out before them. Profiting by their previous experience, the Polos carried with them an ample quantity of water, and passed across the greater desert without much suffering. They had now reached the northernmost provinces of Persia. One day Marco observed a very tall, wide-spreading tree, the bark of which was a bright green on one side, and white on the other. This tree stood entirely alone, on a vast plain, where there was not the least sign of any other trees, as far as eye could reach in any direction. Marco thought this very strange, and called his party to look at it. Then one of the Persian guides, whom they had brought with them, told him that it was very near this curious tree, which was called the "Dry Tree," that a famous battle was once fought between Alexander the Great and King Darius.

Not long after passing the "Dry Tree", the travellers entered a district called Mulchet, not far from the Caspian sea and here Marco, who, everywhere he went, put himself on easy terms with the most intelligent natives he could find, heard many interesting stories and legends about the country through which he was travelling. One of the most romantic of these legends was that which related to the "Old Man of the Mountain," who it was said, dwelt in the neighboring range not many years before. An old nobleman—so ran the story—who had plenty of money, had caused a certain deep valley to be enclosed with high walls at either end, so that none could enter whom he wished to keep out and thus protected, he cultivated a rare and beautiful garden in the valley. In the midst of this he reared gilded pavilions, and even lofty and glittering palaces, whose minarets could be seen a great distance away. The old man also surrounded himself with many lovely women, who sang and danced exquisitely, and every day feasted, with the chosen few whom he invited to share the delights of the valley.

Thus was created what the old man called his Paradise; following, as near as he could, the description which Mohammed had given of that celestial abode. It was said that he gathered about him a number of boys and youths, to whom he told tales of Paradise; and that, sometimes, making these youths drink a certain wine, which stupefied them, he had them carried to the beautiful garden, where they awoke to find themselves in the midst of the most ravishing scenes. He thereby made them believe that it was really Paradise where they dwelt, and that he was a great Prophet and so could persuade them to do just what he pleased. When he had a grudge against any neighboring prince, he would send these youths forth to kill his enemy, promising that if they did his bidding they should forever live in this charming Paradise.

Soon he became a terror through all the land, wreaking his vengeance on all who offended him, and reducing the rulers round about to submission. But by and by the king of the Western Tartars became enraged at the tyranny and murders of the Old Man of the Mountain, and resolved to put an end to them. He accordingly sent one of his generals at the head of a numerous army, to destroy the Old Man's Paradise. In vain, however, did the Tartars assail the solid towers and walls that defended the valley; they could not penetrate it. They were obliged to lay regular siege to it and it was only after three months that the Old Man of the Mountain, his courtiers and hour's, were forced, from sheer want of food, to surrender. The old man himself, and all the youths and men of his court, were at once put to death the palaces and pavilions were razed to the earth, and the fairy-like gardens were ruthlessly turned into a desolate waste.

The Polos had gone as far northward as they intended, and now turned their faces directly towards the east. They entered a wild mountain region where there were but few human habitations, but which was broken into jagged mountain masses, in the defiles of which were the fastnesses of robbers, They were often attacked by these fierce bands, but so well armed were they and their company and so valiant that they escaped this frequent peril. They reached Balkh, then still a stately city, many of whose buildings were of marble, though much of it was in ruins. Here, Marco was told, Alexander the Great had married the Persian King Darius's daughter; and he gazed with deep interest on a place which was the scene of many thrilling events of which he had read in history.

From Balkh Marco and his fellow-travellers rapidly approached those lofty ranges of gigantic mountains which rise in Eastern Turkistan, and which divide Western Asia from China on one side, and Hindoostan on the other. As he gazed at these eminences, the peaks of which seemed to cleave the very clouds, Marco was deeply impressed by their rugged grandeur. He had never seen imagined mountains so high and he wondered how it could be possible for the party to cross them. Sometimes, at the end of a valley, they seemed to close in the way completely. There seemed to be no possible exit; no declivity or pass seemed to open itself between them. Yet when the travellers reached the foot of the mountains, a narrow defile would be revealed and they would pass through in single file, leading their horses and camels, sometimes on a path so narrow and so high above the gorge by whose side it ran, that it seemed inevitable that the travellers would fall and break their necks,

All through these mountains, Marco observed that the people were fierce and wild, and lived wandering lives, subsisting on the game they secured by hunting. They were, for the most part, intemperate; and after a hunt, would resort to the nearest village and intoxicate themselves with the fiery palm wine which was everywhere made and drunk in that region. In some places, where sheep were raised on the steep hill-sides, Marco found that the shepherds lived in caves he mountains, so dug as to form dwellings, with several rooms. Sometimes these caves were very handsomely fitted up.

The next great town that the travellers reached, after leaving Balkh, was Badakshan, still famous, in our own day, as a centre of Oriental trade. It was then ruled over by a powerful king, who claimed to be a direct descendant of Alexander the Great and of King Darius. The city was situated in the midst of lofty and jagged eminences and all around perched on the tops of high crags, Marco espied the strong castles and fortresses which defended it from hostile attacks. Every pass was thus stoutly guarded, and Marco saw that the people were warlike in their tastes, being excellent archers and very skilful hunters. The men wore the skins of beasts and the women always clothed themselves in an immense quantity of bombazine, wrapped in many folds around their bodies. On Marco's asking why they did this, he was told that it was because they wished to appear very fat for this, in the eyes of the men, was regarded as a point of beauty. The women's heads were covered with hoods, while from their ears long sleeves hung to the ground, and swayed to and f o as the stout-looking damsels waddled along.

While the wanderers were staying at Badakshan (for having been made welcome by the king, they were in no great haste to depart) Marco fell extremely with a fever, For a while his life was despaired of; but the skill of the native doctors at last set him on his feet again. As soon as he was able to stir abroad, the doctors told him to go to the summit of one of the neighboring mountains and stay awhile. This he did; and the air was so pure and dry at that elevation, that he very rapidly recovered. Leaving Badakshan, where the Venetians had much enjoyed their rest and the hospitality of the monarch, they soon found themselves passing along the banks of a wide and swift river, the same that we now know as the Oxus which, at the point that they reached it, issued from a vast lake, fed by the eternal snows of the surrounding eminences.

The river flowed in a vast and most picturesque valley between two lofty ranges; and Marco was fairly transported by the exceeding grandeur of the river. Ascending then to the plateau beyond, the travellers found themselves on a higher level than they had ever before reached, where the atmosphere was so rare that they actually found it difficult to breathe. This was no other than the famous Pamir Steppe, which extends, in a broad tableland, for many miles between Turkistan and Chinese Tartary. The views from this high altitude were imposing in the extreme. In the distance rose the snowy summits of the Himalayas while far below the travellers lay the sunny and luxuriant valleys, creeping far under the mountain shadows, in some of which was the birth-place of that great Aryan tribe from which almost every European nation has descended.

Many were the interesting sights that Marco saw, as the party slowly wended its way over the mighty steppe. There were sheep with horns three or four feet long, out of which horns the shepherds made knives and spoons. Every little while, along the road, Marco saw piles of these horns heaped up, and learned that they were landmarks to guide the traveller on his way, when the snows of winter concealed the road from view. Marco was surprised to see no villages, or even huts, on the great steppe, and found that the shepherds, who were its only inhabitants, dwelt in mountain caves.

Descending at last from the Pamir Steppe, the party entered what was then the noble and flourishing city of Samarcand. This place was not many yeti's aft* to be taken by the famous Tartar warrior, Timour Tamerlane, and to be made the seat of his splendid empire in Central Asia; and in our own day, the visitor to Samarcand is taken to a mosque where, he is told, repose Timour's remains. Marco was greatly impress" with the wealth and splendor of the city its imposing temples and palaces, and its bustling bazaars; but time was passing, and the travellers were forced to hurry away and continue their journey eastward. Beyond Samarcand, they proceeded through fruitful valleys and delightful scenes, across fields where the cotton plant was growing luxuriantly, bye orchards and vineyards, and through villages where cloths of many kinds were being made. They came to spots where they saw the people searching, among the rocks and in the mountain sides, for rare jewels; and Marco saw the men extracting rubies, jasper, and calcedony from the hiding-places where nature had concealed them.

So travelling, they came a last to a town on the banks of a lake, called Lop. This town stood on the borders of the great Gobi Desert, which now alone separated the Polos from the western confines of China and before entering upon the long tramp across this dreary waste, they resolved to stay at Lop a week and rest. Meanwhile, they made ample preparations for crossing the great desert. It would take them a month, they were told, to gain the other side and they therefore packed enough provisions to last them that length of time, Happily, there was no need that they should burden themselves with water; for the desert, arid as it was, provided streams that ran from the lofty ranges near by, in sufficient abundance to supply all who crossed its wide expanse.