Impossible Cities

Darran Anderson:

In 1298, the Venetian merchant and explorer Marco Polo found himself in a Genoese prison, having been seized at the helm of a war galley during the Battle of Curzola. There he met the chivalric writer Rustichello of Pisa to whom he related tales of his travels along the Silk Road into Asia in the previous decades. The resulting manuscript The Description of the World or The Travels of Marco Polo became a literary sensation, being reproduced across Medieval Europe. Such were the extravagant claims in this “great book of puzzles”, many were taken to be fabrications and Polo earned the nickname “the Man of a Million Lies”. It was doubted by some that he’d even travelled at all except around his own evidently vast imagination.

The accounts did however contain many genuine discoveries alongside exaggerations, half-truths and myths (‘How the Prayer of the One-Eyed Cobbler Caused the Mountain to Move’ for example) mixed together without differentiation. We can now pour scorn on his claims of desert sirens luring the unwary to their deaths, colossal birds who fed on elephants, idolaters “adept in sorceries and diabolical arts” who could control sandstorms or witnessing Noah’s Ark perched on a mountaintop where the snow never melts. At the time, these were scarcely more unbelievable than his claims of “stones that burn like logs” (coal), paper currency, seeing the highest mountains in the world (the Himalayas) or visiting vast golden cities hung with the finest silks yet we know these now to be fairly accurate descriptions.

The backbone of Polo’s travelogue is made up of his visits to various Oriental cities (Baudas, Samarcan, Caracoron and so on) culminating in the opulent palaces of the Chinese Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan, at whose court he was a guest for 17 years. His recollections of the centres and their populaces range from the mercantile (lists of industries and natural resources) to the fanciful; cities where the inhabitants are perpetually drunk, where men ride around on stags eating birds, where marriages are arranged between ghosts or the great Kaan in his marble palace drinks wine from levitating goblets. Often Polo would add boasts and hyperbole (“no one could imagine finer” is a recurring phrase) and even suggest he was holding back for fear of arousing incredulity in the readers (“I will relate none of this in this book of ours; people would be amazed if they heard it, but it would serve no good purpose”) which only served to further his ridicule. When he was on his deathbed, a priest giving last rites asked Polo if he wished to confess to exaggerating his recollections to which he replied, “I did not reveal half of what I saw because no one would have believed me.” Beyond their narrow confines, the world was more extraordinary than his sceptics were capable of imagining. Raised in the seemingly impossible ‘floating city’ of Venice, a maze of canals and alleys built on stilts in a lagoon, Marco Polo had no such limitations.