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700 years: Death of explorer Marco Polo

Authored by Abbie Fray
Published on 8th January, 2024 2 min read

700 years: Death of explorer Marco Polo

700 years ago today (08/01/2024), the explorer and merchant Marco Polo died. 

Polo was born in Venice in 1254 to a wealthy merchant family. At 17 Polo left Venice with his father and uncle. They travelled along what would later be known as the Silk Road to China. Polo began recording his observations whilst travelling, providing Europeans with an account of Asian geography, customs, and culture. His findings were formative in terms of early European knowledge of China and Central Asia. Polo was particularly impressed by the Mongol Empire’s use of paper money, which facilitated a complex economy and significant scales of production. 

After four years of travel, Polo arrived in China. Whilst Polo was not the first European to explore China, the book in which he recorded his travels became well known and ultimately made him famous. Polo immersed himself in Chinese culture and learnt four languages, leading him to be accepted into the Empire. The Mongol ruler, Kublai Khan, trusted Polo and his family and sent them on various diplomatic and administrative missions. For instance, Khan requested that Polo and his family return to Europe to send Christian missionaries to China. In 1275 Polo returned to China with two missionaries. Not that Christianity was not new to China — many had practiced it since the seventh century. It was not until the start of the Ming Dynasty in 1368, however, that Christianity began to spread in a significant manner amongst China’s population.

In 1295 Polo returned to Venice. Here, whilst imprisoned for his involvement in a naval conflict between Venice and Genoa, he recorded his travels. This was transcribed into a book, which became popular and was translated into many languages. It included extensive descriptions of the Mongol Empire’s structure, with a particular focus on how information was spread across millions of square miles. Polo’s knowledge serves as proof that he did travel to China and his findings have since been supported by other archaeological, historical, and geographical evidence. Polo’s stories highlight the global nature of the medieval world. Europe was never isolated. Rather, it influenced and was, in-turn, influenced by cultures and societies across the globe. 

Polo was released from prison and lived in Venice for the rest of his life. He died on 8 January 1324. 

Authored by Abbie Fray

Abbie Fray

Abbie Fray is an undergraduate student studying History at Durham University. She has a particular interest in the histories of gender and sexuality.

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The British Online Archives Notable Days diary is a platform intended to mark key dates and events throughout the year. The posts draw attention to historical events and figures, as well as recurring cultural traditions and international awareness days, in both religious and secular contexts.

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