My guest blogger this week is Marco Polo. His travelogue, The Travels of Marco Polo, was written with the aid of romance novelist Rusticello of Pisa around 1300, while both were in prison in Genoa. It is thought to be the first western travel “blog”. The book belonged to my grandfather, so I have been reading it this past week. Polo is said to have spent 24 years on the Silk Road and at the court of Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan. This link shows the expansion of the Mongol Empire under Kublai Khan until 1294 and then its division into five segments after that. The book does not have the sex and violence of the Netflex series! Instead it is an account of all the cities between China and Venice he passed through during a five-year journey home, outlining the customs, flora and fauna, ecology and economics of each area cited.
For those of you raised to think that the Mongol Khans were vicious despots, to be reviled, this book and subsequent books by anthropologists like Jack Weatherford offer a different and more contextual view. I have chosen one excerpt to reproduce here, because it is an outrageous take on “glamping”, a popular portmanteau dreamed up by the travel industry. A warning: for those of you against all hunting, you may want to skip this, although there are no gruesome descriptions of the sport. Second warning: the writer is very fond of the comma and semi colon, and seems to loathe the period.
Chapter XVI The Grand Khan’s proceeding to the chase, with his gerfalcons and hawks–of his falconers–and of his tents.
When his majesty has resided in the usual time in the metropolis, and leaves it in the month of March, he proceeds in a northeasterly direction, to within two days’ journey of the ocean, attended by full ten thousand falconers, who carry with them a vast number of gerfalcons, peregrine falcons, and sakers, as well as many vultures, in order to pursue the game along the banks of the river. It must be understood that he does not keep all his body of men together in one place, but divides them into several parties of one or two hundred or more, who follow the sport in various directions, and the greater part of what they take is brought to his majesty. He has likewise with him ten thousand men of those who are termed taskaol, implying that their business is to be upon the watch, and, who, for this purpose, are detached in small parties of two or three to stations not far distant from each other, in such a manner as to encompass a considerable tract of country. Each of them is provided with a call and a hood, by which they are enabled, when necessary, to call in and secure the birds. Upon the command being given for flying the hawks, those who let them loose are not under the necessity of following them, because the others, whose duty it is, look out so attentively that the birds cannot direct their flights to any quarter where they are not secured, or promptly assisted if there should be occasion. Every bird belonging to his majesty, or to any of his nobles, has a small silver label fastened to its leg, on which is engraved the name of the owner and also the name of the keeper. In consequence of this precaution, as soon as the hawk is secured, it is immediately known to whom it belongs, and restored accordingly….
When his majesty makes his progress in this manner towards the shores of the ocean, many interesting occurrences attend the sport, and it may be truly said that it is unrivaled by any other amusement in the world. On account of the narrowness of the passes in some parts of the country where the grant khan follows the chase, he is borne upon two elephants only, or sometimes a single one, being more convenient than a greater number; but under other circumstances he makes use of four (!), upon the backs of which is placed a pavilion of wood, handsomely carved, the inside being lined with cloth of gold, and the outside covered with the skins of lions, a mode of conveyance which is rendered necessary to him during his hunting excursions, in consequence of the gout, with which he is troubled. In the pavilion he always carries with him twelve of his best gerfalcons, with twelve officers, from amongst his favorites, to bear him company and amuse him. Those who are on horseback by his side give him notice of the approach of cranes or other birds, upon which raises the curtain of the pavilion, and when he espies the game, gives direction for letting fly the gerfalcons, which seize the cranes and overpower them after a long struggle. The view of this sport, as he lies upon his couch, affords extreme satisfaction to his majesty, as well as to the officers who attend him, and the horsemen by whom he is surrounded.
After having thus enjoyed the amusement for some hours, he repairs to a place named Kakzarmodin, where are pitched the pavilion and tents of his sons, and also of the nobles, the life guards, and the falconers; exceeding ten thousand in number, and making a handsome appearance. The tent of his majesty, in which he gives his audiences, is so long and wide that under it ten thousand soldiers might be drawn up, leaving room for the superior officers and other persons of rank. … These halls and chambers are all constructed and fitted up in the following manner. Each of them is supported by three pillars of wood, richly carved and gilt. The tents are covered on the outside with the skins of lions, streaked white, black, and red, and so well joined together that neither wind nor rain can penetrate. Withinside they are lined with the skins of ermines and sables, which are the most costly of all furs; for the latter, if of a size to trim a dress, is valued at two thousands bezants of gold, provided it be perfect; but if otherwise, only one thousand. It is esteemed by the Tartars the queen of furs…With these two kinds of skin, the halls as well as the sleeping rooms are handsomely fitted up in compartments, arranged with much taste and skill. The tent ropes, or cords by which they stretch the tents, are all of silk. Near to the grand tent of his majesty are situated those of his ladies, also very handsome and splendid… A spectator might conceive himself to be in the midst of a populous city, so great is the assemblage from every part of the empire. The grand khan is attended on the occasion by the whole of his family and household; that is to say, his physicians, astronomers, falconers, and every other description of officer….
Something our current President might aspire to.