Marco Polo’s Silk Road myth debunked as historian claims ‘that never happened’

Joanna Lumley fulfils a lifelong dream in her Silk Road adventure

Polo is believed to have journeyed across Asia at the height of the Mongol Empire. His first trip came when he was just 17 years old, in around 1271, with his father and uncle, Nicolo and Maffeo Polo, both merchants who had previously travelled across Asia to forge new trade links. On Marco’s first trip, the trio followed what would later be called the Silk Road – a route that connected East with West, allowing for the trade of not only goods, but ideas, philosophy, religion and culture.

The term Silk Road wasn’t actually coined until hundreds of years later, in the 19th century, by German geographer and historian Ferdinand von Richthofen.

Speculation and mystery surround the route, with misinformation aplenty.

Valerie Hansen, Professor of History at Yale University, sought to debunk a common misconception about the passage during National Geographic’s ‘Treasure Seekers – The Silk Road’.

Talking about how its history had been muddied through the ages, she explained: “People have a mental vision that the Silk Road is like I-95 (US motorway).

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“A huge, long highway, and that one person took some silk from one end all the way to the other.

“In fact, that almost never happened.

“Merchants would take goods from one oasis to another.

“And then another group of merchants would take them on.

“So I think the Silk Road is not the road – I think the most important thing are those communities along the Silk Road.”

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These communities spanned from Khanbaliq (present-day Beijing) in China, to Samarkand in Uzbekistan, Kerman in Iran all the way to Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) in Turkey.

It has been generally accepted that Polo wasn’t the first Westerner to visit China.

He was, however, the first to explore many uncharted parts of Asia and leave a detailed account of them for fellow traders and explorers.

Marco’s ‘The Travels’ is a manuscript that has divided opinion: parts of Marco’s story, many claim, were fictionalised.


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While Marco’s book was significant in our understanding of the route, as Prof Hansen explained, it was the communities of the Silk Road that were the most important aspect of its history.

The meeting of peoples and trade played a significant role in the development of civilisations in China, Korea, Japan, the Indian subcontinent, Iran, Europe, as well as the Horn of Africa.

It opened up long-distance political and economic ties between nations which had nothing in common.

And, as the name suggests, silk was the biggest commodity traded on the route, originating from China.

Other things bloomed too: Buddhism, for example, spread throughout Southeast, East, and Central Asia via the Silk Road.

Many have noted that the route was one of the earliest examples of globalisation, a process that has been partly blamed on today’s quick spread of the coronavirus.

The ancient trade route had its fair share of pandemics, as in 1346, increased trade between hitherto isolated communities created a breeding ground for new disease and infection, with many crediting the vicious spread of the bubonic plague from East to West.

Marco Polo, however, was lucky during his travels, spending 17 years exploring China before returning to Italy largely unscathed, later writing his detailed account while imprisoned during Venice’s war with the Republic of Genoa.

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