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Marco Polo’s Voyage Home
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Marco Polo III

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By Mike Edwards Photographs by Michael Yamashita

Sailing the treacherous coast of Southeast Asia and India, Marco returns to Venice after 24 years, rich in gems and wild tales of unimagined lands.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

There were, of course, skeptics, unable to believe even Marco’s truthful reports, of cities in China grander than Europe’s, of a rock that burned and cloth that did not. A contemporary wrote that Marco defended his text even as he lay dying in 1324, age about 70. To friends who begged him to recant before he met his God, he replied: I did not write half of what I saw.

At his death he possessed a golden paitzu and a princess’s headpiece with “precious stones and pearls”—a gift from the Blue Princess, perhaps?

It took about 80 years for the geographic knowledge Marco collected to begin showing up on Europe’s rudimentary maps. John Larner, a historian at the University of Glasgow and author of a new evaluation of Marco’s influence, explains the delay like this: “Imagine yourself a mapmaker and you pick up Marco Polo’s book and you say, ‘Right, here’s this chap telling us about places on the other side of the world, but how am I going to translate all that to a map?’ For one thing, you haven’t got any longitude and latitude.”

But gradually Marco’s place-names began to appear: such Chinese ports as Quinsai and Zaiton, plus Cipangu, Java, Sumatra, Ceylon, Zanzibar.

“Never before or since has one man given such an immense body of new geographic knowledge to the West,” John Larner concludes. Not in the seven centuries since his book appeared, I think, has Marco received an accolade more resounding.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

Sights and Sounds
Uncover the riches of Marco Polo’s odyssey with author Mike Edwards.

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

In 1492, when Christopher Columbus sailed westward to find the fabulous East, he unquestionably had a good working knowledge of Marco Polo’s tales. How he came by that knowledge, though, is a matter of debate: Had he read Marco’s book, or was it so widely read and discussed that an actual reading wasn’t necessary? Evidence either way is circumstantial. One writer from the 1540s reports that Columbus had read and studied Marco before offering his services to the Portuguese in the mid-1480s. In addition, a biography of Columbus, attributed to his son, also mentions Marco as a source of inspiration. But other sources raise questions. Although Columbus’s original journal of his first voyage has been lost, a detailed summary of it was made in the 1530s. In the entry for October 24, 1492, Columbus sets off for what we now know as Cuba, hoping that it may be Marco Polo’s Cipangu, “of which marvelous things are told.” Why use the word told and not written? The question arises again when Columbus arrives at Cuba. The summary reports that he set out to look for the city of Cathay, which “is very large, according to what he was told before he left Spain.” Not only are we presented with the word told again, but Columbus has condensed the enormous and glorious empire of Cathay to a city. The Biblioteca Colombina in Seville holds a copy of Polo’s book that was owned by Columbus. The volume is a printed Latin version, published between 1485 and 1490—before the Genoa-born explorer’s first voyage. However, British historian John Larner writes that among the many handwritten notes in the margins of the book, there are only two that can be dated—one to after the second Columbus voyage and the other to after the third. Furthermore, Larner points out, the only known place in which Columbus wrote of Polo by name is in the report of his third voyage to the West. Did he read Polo’s book before 1492, or didn’t he? It’s up to future scholarly explorers to discover the answer.

—Patricia B. Kellogg

India WWW Virtual Library
A part of the WWW Virtual Library, this page offers links to India’s government, culture, history, businesses, and economy.

American Spice Trade Association
This site includes a spice reference library, recipes, and a history of the spice trade.

Italian Tourist Web Guide
Although it is a bit difficult to move around within this site, it is well worth visiting. A terrific place to start researching a trip—either real or virtual. Dozens of links.

Michael Yamashita Photography
To see more of globe-trotting photographer Michael Yamashita's stunning photos, check out his online gallery. This site also has information about Yamashita's books, stock photos, and workshops where he will be.


Critchley, John. Marco Polo’s Book. Variorum, 1992.

Dalby, Andrew. Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices. University of California Press, 2000.

Larner, John. Marco Polo and the Discovery of the World. Yale University Press, 1999.

Moule, A. C., and Paul Pelliot. Marco Polo: The Description of the World. Vol. 1. Reprint of the 1938 edition published by G. Routledge, London. AMS Press, 1976.

Polo, Marco. The Travels of Marco Polo: The Complete Yule-Cordier Edition. 2 vols. Dover Publications, Inc., 1993.


Edwards, Mike. “Marco Polo in China,” National Geographic (June 2001), 20-45.

Edwards, Mike. “The Adventures of Marco Polo,” National Geographic (May 2001), 2-31.

Dahlby, Tracy. “Indonesia: Living Dangerously,” National Geographic (March 2001), 74-103.

Edwards, Mike. “Indus Civilization: Clues to an Ancient Puzzle,” National Geographic (June 2000), 108-131.

McCourt, Malachy. “Bombay,” National Geographic Traveler (May/June 2000), 126-130.

Allen, Ted. “Sigiriya, Sri Lanka,” National Geographic Adventure (January/February 2000), 32-33.

McKibben, Bill. “Kerala, India,” National Geographic Traveler (October 1999), 152-154.

Davis, Wade. “Vanishing Cultures,” National Geographic (August 1999), 62-89.

Ward, Geoffrey C., “India: Fifty Years of Independence,” National Geographic (May 1997), 2-57.

Vesilind, Priit J. “Sri Lanka,” National Geographic (January 1997), 110-133.

O’Neill, Thomas. “Irian Jaya: Indonesia’s Wild Side,” National Geographic (February 1996), 2-33.

McCarry, John. “Bombay: India’s Capital of Hope,” National Geographic (March 1995), 42-67.

Davidson, Robyn. “Wandering with India’s Rabari,” National Geographic (September 1993), 64-93.

Severy, Merle. “Portugal’s Sea Road to the East,” National Geographic (November 1992), 56-93.

Abercrombie, Thomas J. “Ibn Battuta, Prince of Travelers,” National Geographic (December 1991), 2-49.

Miller, Peter. “Kerala, Jewel of India’s Malabar Coast,” National Geographic (May 1988), 592-617.

Hildebrand, Jesse Richardson. “The World’s Greatest Overland Explorer: How Marco Polo Penetrated Farthest Asia, ‘Discovered’ Many Lands Unknown to Europe, and Added Numerous Minerals, Animals, Birds, and Plants to Man’s Knowledge,” National Geographic (November 1928), 505-568.


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