Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Marco Polo's Heretical Tales of the East by Francis O'Donnell

Francis O’Donnell is an artist, author, filmmaker and explorer. He is an alumnus of the School of Visual Arts in New York, where he earned a BFA in Media Arts. A veteran of the United States Marine Corps, Francis has travelled the world extensively, visiting over sixty countries, and is a member of both the New Explorers Club and the Adventurers Club of Chicago. He has lectured about his exploits around the world in Libraries, Clubs, Universities, and Organizations. Most recently he spent four months at sea as 'Guest Speaker' aboard a Celebrity Cruise line ship. 
His Emmy-nominated PBS documentary, as well as the companion book,  In the Footsteps of Marco Polo, chronicle his historic two-year, 25,000-mile journey retracing the Venetian merchant’s thirteenth-century Travels along the fabled Silk road. Watch the Film, In the Footsteps of Marco Polo. 

The following article he wrote a year ago for the on-line magazine "The Heretic"


    In a Venetian Palazzo, a short stroll from the Rialto Bridge, the curtains were drawn in a dank and darkened room.  People gathered, mulling about a reposed figure, saying good-bye and paying respects.  Here lay, perhaps, the most famous man of his age.  He was surely the most controversial.  A true heretic, the quintessential dissident.  His account about the lands of the East ignited a fire storm of controversy that has lasted until this very day.  He was ridiculed by some and disbelieved, yet he stood firm, having experienced his tales of Asia first hand.  He would share his stories about the wonders of these largely unknown lands to anyone who would listen.  For twenty-five years he did so in the face of daunting  societal pressure to recant.  Yet the book he wrote went on to international fame, becoming a best seller.  It was transcribed into virtually every language in Europe.  The information contained in it went on to change the world! Now, with only hours to live he had given his last will and testament, a priest sat by his side offering him salvation, if only he would change his heretical stories of the East and retract his far-flung lies about the riches and splendors of the Mongol Empire.  According to legend, with this man's dying breath, his last words were this ... "I haven't told you even half of what I have seen" - Marco Polo …

      Very little is truly known about Marco Polo and his life.  He is a very enigmatic figure, wildly famous during his own lifetime, but not always for his most important achievements.  To those of us looking back through the ages for clues, he has proven to be extremely private and reclusive.  Most of what we do know comes from two sources, his book and his last will and testament. The latter was written shortly before his death, one cold January morning, in the year 1324.  In it he left the bulk of his estate to his wife Donata and their three daughters.  He made significant provisions for the church. This included his families parish of San Procolo, he also designated a sum be paid to the convent of San Lorenzo, where he would be interred. Listed amongst his most prized possessions was a set of Buddhist prayer beads, a ladies golden tiara, inset with precious gems and pearls, and one golden tablet of authority from the great Khan. Perhaps just as interesting as Marco's ownership of that golden tablet was this instruction “... I release Peter the Tartar, my servant, from bondage … “ Marco also bequeathed Peter 100 lire Venetian denari.”  These two facts, alone, do not prove Polo's stories to be true. However, in law there is something called  “The preponderance of the evidence” where the  “Burden of Proof” is such that the sheer weight of even circumstantial evidence proves a case.  There is no record that exists anywhere, either in China or in Europe that definitively proves the validity of this, his heretical account.  However, Marco's words have been proven largely true by an army of scholars and explorers.  This is where 'yours truly' fits into the story.  Between the years 1993 and 1995, I, along with my colleague, Denis Belliveau, spent two years retracing Marco Polo's entire Silk Road journey.  Our effort was called 'The Return to Venice” the 700th Anniversary Expedition 1295 -1995”.  It would require us to travel more than 25,000 miles across the world largest landmass and back.  Our expedition crossed the borders of some twenty-two countries.  We survived eight war zones and were captured in Afghanistan.  We traversed the world's most formidable, frozen, and desolate landscapes, including mountains, deserts, and jungles.  Our self-imposed prerequisite was absolutely no flying. Why?  Why did we do so?  Curiosity, wanderlust, the search for truth and knowledge?  Like doubting Thomas, whose Tomb in India Marco would be one of the first to describe, it was to see for ourselves!  The list of motivations is long.  It was clearly an opportunity to make a mark in the world and to do something that had never been done before.  Denis and I, in our research, found there had been several failed expeditions to retrace Polo's route before ours.  Our plan was this, to take Marco's book and use it the way a tourist uses a travel guide.  Then, search out all the places mentioned. We proceeded in chronological order, and tried to find what Marco described in the places he visited over 700 years ago.  The result was we found nearly two hundred correlations, direct examples of passages.  Often Marco's words would literally jump off the pages of his book and come to life before our eyes.  They covered the gamut of his diverse account. Astounded, our judgment was that, Marco Polo had to have gone to China and that his account is “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt“ overwhelmingly true.  Using the criterion I mentioned above, Marco would be found guilty in any court of law, of having traveled to Asia during the thirteenth century.  Our findings are mostly chronicled in both our book and PBS Emmy nominated documentary, both entitled “In the Footsteps of Marco Polo”
In his book "Description of the World"  he reveals very little about himself or personal life.  Written as it were before the advent of the printing press, and by scribes who were often priests or monks.  These scribes may have had motivation to change Polo's words.  Clearly the church would not want any favorable insight about competing doctrines being spread.  One statement which surprisingly slipped past the editors quill, was amazingly tolerant and enlightened. When speaking of the life of the Buddha, Marco says,  “For assuredly, had he been a Christian, he would have been a great saint with our Lord, Jesus Christ!”  If that is not grounds for persecution and being brought up by the Holy Roman Church, on charges of heresy, I don't know what is!  Another less extreme example is when he speaks of a certain friend he has made.  He says, “I had a Turkish companion named Zuficar, a man of great intelligence, who spent three years in this province in the service of the Great Khan, engaged in extracting salamander (asbestos).  My companion told me the true facts.”  Today this seems innocent enough but in 1244 B.C.E. Jerusalem had fallen to the Khawarerzemi Turks.  The effect was wholesale slaughter of priests and parishioners in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  The believed burial place of Jesus Christ.  The population of the city was also ruthlessly decimated leaving only about two thousand people. This triggered the Seventh Crusade.  So, to speak highly of the Turks, was a bit beyond the pale.  Yet Marco's book reveals more secrets and kind words for other traditions hiding in plain sight.  Like when he describes the power and majesty of the Mongol Emperor of China, Kublai, he says , “I will now tell you of the great achievements of the Great Khan now reigning.  The title Khan means in our language  “Great Lord”.  And certainly he has every right to this title; for everyone should know that this Great Khan is the mightiest man, whether in respect of subjects, territory, or of treasure, who is in the world today or has ever been, from Adam, our first parent down to the present moment.  And I will make it quite clear to you in our book that this is the plain truth, so that everyone will be convinced  that he is indeed the greatest lord the world has ever known. Here is my proof.”  Marco then goes on to describe Il Milione things to prove his point.  First was how Kublai was a mighty warrior, then of the splendor of his court, and of how he would gift his Knights and Barons the sets of costly silken robes.  We learn that Kublai's hunting parties consisted of picking up and moving virtually the entire Imperial court.  Twice a year it would travel with hundreds, if not thousands, of retainers and handlers for the Khan's falcons and hunting dogs.  This slow moving juggernaut traveled north, leaving the oppressive heat of Khanbliq behind and headed to his fabled summer capital of Xanadu , with its pleasure domes, made of movable bamboo, silken covered palaces.
Returning to Venice, after having been away for over twenty years in Asia, Marco was called into service as a Captain in the Venetian Navy.  He was captured by Venice's rival, the Genoese, during the battle of Cruzola, off the coast of Dalmatia.  He was  imprisoned in Genoa about 1298.  This is where the legend begins.  Even these supposed events are up to debate. What is known, there he met Rustichello of Pisa, a writer of Arthurian romances and other novels.  This was relatively new and rare for the time, writing books as entertainment for the average gentry.  The thirteenth century was a world still lost in the dark ages, where monsters, ghosts, and unicorns still existed.  The reader of the day expected such oddities in its stories.  The horror of the Mongolian conquest led to unrest sweeping throughout Europe and stories of the boogieman, instilled fear.  Most still believed the planet to be flat. The knowledge held in books was retained by a select few, those who were educated, and could read Latin or French, thereby giving them power over the masses.  There was no CNN, or BBC, no freedom of information act, no first amendment.  Rustichello must have become enamored with Marco's tales of the East and convinced him to put his singular experiences down on paper for posterity.  We can imagine the two prisoners sitting around a single candle in their rustic chamber as Marco recited and Rustichello furiously jotted down notes, trying to keep up.  Although Marco had great powers of observation, and a deep and abiding curiosity about the world and all things in it, he was born into a merchant family and trained as a such.  Facts and figures, numbers and accounting, counted highly in the family business.  The tally of numbers, in part, lead to the nick-name he garnered after the publication of his work.  He became known as “Il milione” meaning either, as some would have it, a liar, or as others believed, the man with a “Million” far flung stories, because he spoke of cities in China with millions and millions of people.  This was at a time when Venice held only about seventy thousand.  He related stories of untold riches and splendor that was greater than any European potentate's treasury.  In Hangzhou otherwise known as Kinsi or “The City of Heaven”,  he reported that its daily consumption of pepper amounted to 43 cart-loads, each cart consisting of 223 lbs.!  He goes on to say this about the population of China, “Here at every hour of the day are crowds of people going to and fro about their business, so that seeing such a multitude one would believe it a stark impossibility that food could be found to fill so many mouths”.  Again these numbers shocked his audience.  He related stories of unknown peoples, and their culture and customs, like of those who guild their teeth with gold, others who make bread out of the pith of trees, go about completely nude, and tattoo their bodies.  He astounds by telling us about a sect of magicians who would make drinking vessels levitate and who could also cause bad weather to change above the Emperor's palace.

He spun frightening tales of marauding bandits who murdered or sold into slavery all who were unfortunate enough to cross their path.  These bandits would raise huge dust storms that blotted the sun from the sky so that their victims could not escape.  In an area that is still a 'No Mans Land', between what is now Iran and Afghanistan he said, “In this plain there are a number of villages and towns which have lofty walls of mud, made as a defense against the banditti, who are very numerous, and are called Karaunas, this name is given them because they are the sons of Indian mothers by Tartar fathers.  These Karaunas make a plundering incursion, and have certain devilish enchantments whereby they do bring darkness over the face of day, so that you can scarcely discern your comrade riding beside you; this darkness they cause to extend over a space of seven days' journey.  They know the country thoroughly, and ride abreast, sometimes to the number of 10,000, or more.  In this way they extend across the whole plain and catch every living thing, man, woman, or beast, nothing can escape them!  The old men whom they take are butchered; the young men and the women they sell for slaves in other countries; thus the whole land is ruined, and has become a desert.  I must add the fact that Messer Marco himself was all but caught by their bands in such a darkness as that I have told you of…Howbeit he lost his whole company except seven persons who escaped along with him.  The rest were caught, and some of them sold, some put to death.”

 In many ways Polo became one of the western world's first ethnographers.  He delivered grandly on the promise set forth in the prologue of his book. “Emperors and kings, dukes, marquises, counts, knights, and townsfolk and all people who wish to know about the various races of men and the peculiarities of the various regions of the world, take this book and have it read to you.  Here you will find all the great wonders and curiosities of Greater Armenia and Persia, of the Tartars and of India, and of many other territories.” (refer to our Gallery, “The Faces and  Places of Marco Polo's Asia”)

This “Book of Wonders” has never been out of print.  There was even a copy chained to the Rialto Bridge for all to read.  Today there are approximately one hundred of these ancient texts that have come down to us.  Sadly the original is long gone.  Of the surviving texts the copy held in the collection of the Bodleian Library in Oxford is most famous for its wonderful illumination showing Polo's departure from Venice.  The problem now looking back for the scholar is to decipher and detect fact from fiction.  Based on a few discrepancies there has always been debate surrounding the authenticity of Polo's account.  Most recently Professor Frances Woods, in her book “Did Marco Polo Go to China?” advances an extremely weak argument.  Her points of contention have long ago been debunked by her peers.  Scholars like renowned Professor of Chinese and Mongolian history, Morris Rossibi of Columbia University, author of  “Kublai Khan: his life and times” or  John Larner whose book called  “Marco Polo and the Discovery of the World” is a personal favorite.  In both their volumes they clearly laid out why it is impossible to disbelieve the bulk of the information between the page of  “The Travels of Marco Polo”.  Woods argues that Polo traveled no further than Persia, theorizing the accounts of his travels were related to him by other Silk Road travelers.  Granted there are some deficiencies in Marco's account, for example, he does not mention the Great Wall, chopsticks, tea, foot-binding, or Chinese calligraphy, all significant omissions.  Perhaps none more glaring than that of the Great Wall, but we must look at this through the perspective of history.  The construction of the Great Wall began about 700 B.C.  Later, the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huangdi, founder of the Qin Dynasty (221 B.C. - 206 B.C.) (famous for his extravagant burial tomb just outside the city of Xian, full of thousands of life sized terracotta warriors) is often credited with the construction, in truth he only connected and extended old fortifications.  So, these walls along the Northern frontier of China were old even to him. Built during turbulent times to stop invading barbarian tribes, these man made barriers did little to stop the onslaught of the Mongolian advance. Tens of thousand of Chinese conscripts and slaves lost their lives in its construction.  It was hated, as so many families lost members too.  It was to them a wall of tears and pain.  Today it is a glowing symbol of an emergent China.  When Marco traversed the Silk Road the wall was old and all but forgotten, a crumbling ruin.  It would have held little significance to him, as a Mongol official.  The Great Wall as we know it today was largely built by the Ming Dynasty in the 14th century, stronger due to superior construction methods, and the use of bricks instead of the traditional rammed earth.

The fact that Polo fails to mention chopsticks, tea, foot-binding, Chinese calligraphy, can all be easily enough explained away.  Not having the facility to  speak Chinese is understandable as well.  Marco was a functionary in the Yuan court.  He would have both little need or opportunity to either write or converse in Chinese.  It is clear he had command of and was literate in not only Persian which was the 'Lingua Franca' of the Silk Road, at that time, but both Arabic and Turkish, which were major languages spoken along the Silk Road.

Imagine again, we are in that prison cell with Marco and the most infamous ghostwriter in history, Rustichello de Pisa. You can hear Rustichello saying something like this, “Trust me, trust me, your memories and notes are full of wonderful and amazing facts.  People will love them.  I am a skilled writer.  I know what people want, let me punch it up a bit here and there.  It will guarantee more people will read the account of your travels.  It will become a best seller.  Who will ever know?  A little exaggeration never hurt a soul.”  It has been proven by textual comparison that several  passages, especially those regarding battle scenes, have in many cases been almost lifted verbatim from previous volumes written by the Pisan.  These initial inconsistencies and subsequent omissions or embellishments have corrupted and tarnished Marco's name and account in what has become a Medieval game of telephone, stretched across the pages of various texts, down through the ages.  Perhaps innocently enough, a scribe thinks,  “Hum, let me improve upon this and add the most current up-to-date knowledge,” so one adds this and another subtracts that, and before you know it Marco Polo and his story are altered, lost.  We can only guess, no I take that back, there is no way to truly appreciate the amount of knowledge that has been lost, no more than we could fathom what treasured ancient volumes were incinerated with the burning of the Library of Alexandria or irreplaceable mathematical and scientific texts, destroyed with the Mongol sacking of Baghdad.

Marco's book is comprised of four sections, or books. The first section describes the lands of the Levant and Central Asia. Book Two describes China and Kublai Khan's court.  Book Three describes most of coastal and eastern China, Japan, India, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, and a large portion of coastal east Africa. Finally, Book Four describes wars among the rival Mongol clans and regions of the far north, like Siberia. Many fine scholars have agonized over the one hundred or so surviving copies. Two giants in this quest were Giovanni Battista Ramusio, and Luigi Foscolo Benedetto.  Ramusio was the first to attempt collating the many diverse manuscripts and provide a critical edition. He did so leaning heavily on a fourteenth century Latin manuscript he considered to be "perfectly correct", a view modern scholars do not share.  Many beloved apocryphal tales start here with Ramusio such as: the Polo's not being recognized upon their return home after twenty-four years away because,  “They had the smack of their Tartar about them, having all but forgotten their native language”.  This was until they cut open the lining of their cloaks and a fortune of gems came streaming forth.  Even Marco's deathbed scene and utterances may be a romantic fabrication.  The oldest surviving Polo manuscripts are in an old Franco-Italian dialect, spoken in Venice at the time.  One group of manuscripts, called "F", was favored by Benedetto as the basic original texts.  It was Benedetto who identified Rusticello da Pisa as the original compiler. To my mind, Sir Henry Yule is Marco's redeemer.  His translation and epic compilation is still the 'Go To' book on Marco Polo. Yule was a Scottish Orientalist educated at both the University of Edinburgh and the College of London.  He published and edited many travel books, “The Travels of Marco Polo”, being the most important.  Henry was commissioned in the British army and served in India.  This began his fascination with the people and the region.  Upon retirement he devoted his leisure time to medieval history and geography of Central Asia. From his library he would research and send out inquiries throughout the world, to statesmen, foreign diplomats, early explorers, and soldiers in the field, anyone who might have a grain of knowledge or new information. Many areas in China, especially the desert regions, were being traversed for the first time by western scholars and adventurers, since Polo himself.  He investigated each and every word and sentence of Polo's account.  After sifting through this huge jigsaw puzzle, he carefully notated every entry in his translation, along with the various options.  A monumental undertaking, made by this amazing hero of the Marco Polo story. A. C. Moule, Paul Pelliot, and Leonard Olschki are just a few of the others who have made huge contributions in the field.
Since perspective is so important, let us go back again, this time a bit further to the genesis of the whole story. Marco tells us that his father and uncle, having traveled on a previous trading mission to the court of Kublai Khan, returned home to Venice and the west now employed as emissaries of the Great Khan. The text says that Kublai being an open minded ruler welcomed the Pope to send him Holy oil from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and one hundred learned scholars in the seven arts, meaning educated priests. He would then, it was said, judge for himself the worthiness of Christianity visa vie the other religions vying for influence at his court.

The Polo family were not the first, or only, European travelers to the Mongol Empire.  Other European travelers journeyed to the court of earlier Mongol Khans. A few examples are Andre de Longjumeau, William of Rubruck, and Giovanni da Pian del Carpine.  They all undertook either Papal missions or missions for king and crown.  In truth, the Polo brothers, Niccolo and Matteo, Marco's father and uncle respectively, may have already been double agents, working for the Catholic Church.  There is no question that these earlier embassies were sent at the very least as fact finding missions.  Some were
outright attempts to make allies of these “Devil's Horsemen” in the church's floundering crusades against Islam. They were mostly rebuffed, but the information garnered during these reconnaissance missions were without doubt useful. Tactics, troop strength, disposition, command structures, as well as the personality and intent of its leaders, are all found in Marco's account of the Mongol military.  So, the two elder Polo's on that first mission, without young Marco in tow, may well have used their position as successful merchant traders as a cover. This, too, is but an assumption, one hinted at by some scholars and held by me with some conviction.  What does this all mean and where does it leave us?  One thing for sure Marco's account has left us a rich legacy of fanatical if not heretical tales.  Below I have included a few of my favorites.

“The Old Man of the Mountain” was an Islamic Sheik who Marco informs us was   considered a “Heretic” by fellow Muslims.  He was the founder of a sect, the assassins, medieval terrorists, who did their master's bidding by murdering whomsoever they were instructed to.  Villainous zombies who had been drugged into a stupor and promised an eternity in Paradise should they die on their mission.  This Paradise was built by the Old Man to emulate the one promised by the prophet to all those who die for the faith, as martyrs.  This story of Marco's is based on fact, and he goes on to tell us of its final outcome. “It came to pass, in the year of Christ's Incarnation, 1252, that Alatu, Lord of the Tartars of the Levant, heard tell of these great crimes of the Old Man, and resolved to make an end of him.  So he sent a great army to that castle, and they besieged it for three years. The Old Man was put to death with all his men and the castle with its Garden of Paradise was leveled to the ground.  And since that time he has had no successor; and there was an end to all his villainies.”

“The Desert of Lop is so great it would take a year or more to ride from one side of it to the other and at least a month to cross it where narrowest.  It is composed of hills of sand, and not a thing to eat is to be found on it.  There is a marvelous thing to relate of this Desert. When a traveler at night lags behind or falls asleep, he will hear spirits talking.  Sometimes the spirits will call him by name; and thus a traveler has often been led astray, never to find his party. In this way many have perished.  Sometimes the stray traveler will hear … the hum of a great cavalcade and will follow the sound; and you shall hear the sound of a variety of musical instruments, and still more commonly the sound of drums.  When day breaks they find that they are in an ill plight. Even during the daytime one hears those spirits talking.”  Can this echo of the past be the origin of the childrens game played in a pool?  Marco – Polo – Marco – Polo !

“It is a fact that all over China there is a kind of black stone existing in beds in the mountains, which they dig out and burn like firewood.”  Continuing he says that they will burn all night long and that they have access to other fuels but  prefer these stones over wood because they burn better and cost less.
“The real truth is that Salamander is no beast, as they alleged in our part of the world, but is a substance found in the earth; it is not an animal of nature who lives in fire.  Once extracted this substance is taken and crushed, and is divided into fibers.  It is then washed, to remove all the earth and leaves only fibers like wool.  These are then spun, and made into napkins.  Whenever they become dirty they are bleached by being put back into the fire for a while they come out as white as snow.  This is the truth about the Salamander, any other account of the matter is fabulous nonsense!”
There is not one field of study that Marco's account doesn't touch upon, be it, Geography, Geology, Zoology, Gemology, Astronomy, Oceanography, Anthropology, Botany etc... With him we travel through the art, culture, and histories of more than a dozen nations. We learn about all of the world's major and secondary religions, included but not limited to, Animism, Shamanism, and Zoroastrianism.  Marco reveals and introduces us to most of the human family.
The list goes on and includes magic, myth, and fantasy.  In the plethora of this kaleidoscopic adventure we encounter a mixed bag of absolutely correct facts and several  instances where he gets the facts slightly incorrect.  For example his description of Kublai's attempts to invade Japan, he mixes up events from two separate invasion fleets. What he does, however, is to introduce us to the island nation for the first time in history.  Also, he added the word kamikaze to our lexicon, as the Khan's fleet was lost to the 'Divine Wind' of these storms.  Aside from a few false reports and misrepresentations, he more often than not tries his best to debunk falsehoods.  As he had in the story of the “ Salamander” or when he explained that the unicorn was simply a rhinoceros, and that the “Pygmies” sold to unwitting sailors are little more than shaved monkeys. (Orangutans)  The true wonders of Polo's book are the real things he details for the first time in history, like a huge mountain sheep that has come to bear his name, the “Marco Polo“ (Ovis ammon Polii) or the fact that paper money was used as currency in China, unimaginable in a time when gold, silver, and tangible goods were the only form of exchange.  On those small slips of paper, he tells how each one is designated separately according to its denomination, via a form of printing, still hundreds of years off in Europe, again the list is long.

According to the text Marco was in the employ of the Great Khan for his entire seventeen years stay. He acted as an ambassador to the court, charged to reporting back on all he had observed. Now, after years of faithful service the Polos repeatedly asked for permission to return to their homeland but were refused, because as Marco put it the Great Khan held him in such esteem and showed him such favor that the other lords were moved to envy, saying in third person,  “This, then, is how it came about that Messer Marco Polo observed more peculiarities of this part of the world … because he traveled more widely in these outlandish regions than any man who has ever been born!”  With Kublai's now advanced age and the envy inspired at court, the Polos were in a tenuous position.  The Khan finally acquiesced and charged them with one last mission. This was to deliver a Mongolian princess to a cousin in Persia.  This return would be by sea, via Southeast Asia and both the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea.  This route would establish Marco not just as a pioneer of the Silk Road, but a trail blazer of the 'Spice Route' as well.  As a young man during his outward journey Marco references and speaks of Alexander the Great who loomed large in his mind.  In many ways it is as if he is retracing Alexander's route, at least until he passed through Central Asia.  Now a middle aged man, Marco has been away from his homeland most of his entire adult life.  We can imagine him standing at the helm of his Chinese vessel, looking out into the blue vastness, wondering what was in store for him, in the last chapters of his life. 

What is 'Marco Polo's Legacy'? Why is Marco Polo important?  Marco Polo seems to not have been very self absorbed, as many of us are today.  His  “15 minutes of fame” probably took him by surprise and made him uncomfortable. Today Marco Polo and his story are more relevant than ever, witnessed by the popularity of the new Netflix mega series "Marco Polo" and the most recent announcement by Paramount Pictures production of a big budget feature on the same subject. Notwithstanding the evidence of popular culture, Marco looms large on the International stage.  He is the quintessential Ambassador between East and West. Current events show us his importance, be it the rise of China as an economic superpower, the ongoing war in Afghanistan, nuclear negotiations with Iran, issues of Tibetan independence, or the lack thereof.  On balance his account is one of understanding and tolerance, in an age when that was rare. It is a lesson that we all need to learn from today.  So revolutionary was his account, it was the equivalent to a medieval communication satellite or the internet,  an information superhighway of thought.  Cross cultural exchange sped up on the Silk Road, in part because of Polo's account. It had always been  an avenue that had fostered trade in ideas.  He was truly interested in the new people and cultures he met.  He came to them with curiosity and an open heart and tried to document them, so that others too could learn and understand.  In one passage he goes on to say  “I believe that it was God's will that we should return so that men might know the things that are in the world”  Unlike the explorers that he inspired, those who followed, he never planted a flag for crown and king, nor did he ever try to change or convert those he encountered to his religion.  Marco Polo's account is so rich and diverse that no one can truly claim to be a master of it all.  Like Sir Henry Yule, I have immersed myself in the subject for over twenty years, still Marco surprises, teaching me something new everyday.  Of all of his contributions, it is geography that is perhaps the greatest.  For better or worse, he opened up a whole new world for Europe and the West, ushering in the age of discovery and enlightenment.  A world that without his lead may have stayed dark and closed for many years yet to come.  It is a fact that Christopher Columbus carried with him a well worn copy of Marco Polo's book.   It even had his hand written notes in the margin, highlighting Polo's  exquisitely descriptive passages  on India.  While searching for Marco's India, Columbus bumped into the Americas, accidentally.  The rest as they say is “History”.  Exalted or belittled, Marco Polo endures.  As long as civilization exists his name will be remembered and spoken.  Perhaps just by little kids playing a silly game of tag in a backyard pool.  Perhaps as the focus of a frivolous debate between culinary experts on whether he brought spaghetti back from China, or one of greater merit in hushed libraries by scholars.  Regardless of the conversation it is time that Marco Polo took his rightful place as the world's “Greatest Explorer” because no one man, before or since has changed and influenced global history, as did Marco Polo, my favorite heretic. 

        Like him before me … “I haven't told you half of Marco Polo's story”


Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Gandhara: Buddhism and Trade/ Lectures by Kurt Behrendt MET NY November 9, 2016

Gandhara: Buddhism and Trade, Part One
In the lush valleys where the Himalayas meet the foothills of Hindu Kush, a great sculptural tradition flourished between the 2nd century B.C. and the 6th century A.D. in the ancient region of Gandhara (today northwest Pakistan). Imagery drew on forms and ideas moving, with trade, along the Silk Road linking the Mediterranean, India, Central Asia, and China. Travel to this fascinating place and time in this series of lectures examining a vibrant and truly cross-cultural body of Buddhist sculpture.
Kurt Behrendt, Associate Curator, Department of Asian Art, The Met
Recorded November 9, 2016

Gandhara: Buddhism and Trade, Part Two

Gandhara: Buddhism and Trade, Part Three

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Ancient Merv/ Merv city reconstruction/ Древний Мерв

3д реконструкция древнего города Мерв Ancient city Merv 3d reconstruction. Capital city of Seljuks. Circa 1200 AD.

From the British Museum: Conserving a Tang Dynasty Embroidery Episode 8

Conserving Vulture Peak | Episode 8: Examining the back of the embroidery

This week, Hannah investigates the back of the embroidery. Using a UV lamp she can further investigate the different dyes used in the embroidery. 

The embroidery dates from China’s Tang dynasty (AD 618–907). It depicts the Buddha preaching at Vulture Peak – in Buddhist tradition a favourite retreat of the Buddha and his disciples, located in what is now north-east India. 

It was discovered by archaeologist Sir Aurel Stein (1862–1943) who, while exploring the many caves at Dunhuang, discovered a walled up cave. Behind this wall was a library full of manuscripts paintings and textiles, including this astonishing embroidery.
Watch the rest of the ‘Conserving Vulture Peak’ series here:

The tapestry is part of a collection donated to the British Museum by the archaeologist Sir Aurel Stein (1862–1943).

You can find more information in the collection online
and you can find it HERE

Friday, 18 August 2017

The Buddhist Literature of Ancient Gandhara

An Introduction with Selected Translations (Classics of Indian Buddhism)

  • Paperback: 481 pages
  • Publisher: Wisdom Publications (17 April 2018)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1614291683

In the years following Alexander the Great's conquest of the East, a series of empires rose up along the Silk Road. In what is now northern Pakistan, the civilizations in the region called Gandhara became increasingly important centers for the development of Buddhism, reaching their apex under King Kaniska of the Kusanas in the second century CE. Gandhara has long been known for its Greek-Indian synthesis in architecture and statuary, but until about twenty years ago, almost nothing was known about its literature. The insights provided by manuscripts unearthed over the last few decades show that Gandhara was indeed a vital link in the early development of Buddhism, instrumental in both the transmission of Buddhism to China and the rise of the Mahayana tradition. The Buddhist Literature of Ancient Gandhara surveys what we know about Gandhara and its Buddhism, and it also provides translations of a dozen different short texts, from similes and stories to treatises on time and reality.

Professor Richard G. Salomon of the University of Washington is a leading figure in the field of early Buddhist studies. He directs the Early Buddhist Manuscripts Project and is general editor of the Gandharan Buddhist Texts series published by the University of Washington Press. He lives in Seattle, Washington

Tholing monastery in Tibet

Digitalized monastery fresco brings visitors closer to Tibetan culture

Digitalized monastery fresco brings visitors closer to Tibetan culture
Visitors view frescos in Tholing Monastery in Tibet via digital technology. [Photo/]
Paintings on the wall of Tholing Monastery in Tibet have come to East China's Suzhou city via digital technology.
Featuring two giant buddhas, the high-precision digitalized images reproduce the original work in vivid detail.
"The images present the authentic features of the wall paintings, with a color rendition of over 95 percent accuracy," said Li Zhirong of Zhejiang University.
Situated in Zanda county, Ngari prefecture, Tibet autonomous region, Tholing Monastery was built in 996, with many of its murals dating back to the late 15th and early 16th century.
The paintings, showing elements of Tibetan Buddhism and local culture, have been damaged by weather, religious activities and tourists.
To protect the murals, experts at Zhejiang University and local cultural bureaus have spent six months archiving parts of the paintings.
With the digital images, visitors to an exhibition hall in East China's Jiangsu province can "see" the frescos outside Tibet for the first time.
"By setting up the archive, we can restore the paintings even if they suffer further damage in the future," said Li.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

The Great Wall of Siberia dating to '1st millennium BC'

Discovered: the Great Wall of Siberia dating to '1st millennium BC'

15 August 2017
Giant ramparts guarded Altai Mountains against attack from the north, says leading archeologist Professor Andrey Borodovsky.
Discovered: the Great Wall of Siberia. Picture: Andrey Borodovsky
The wall complex - now almost hidden to the naked eye - is believed to date from a long era that also saw such constructions as the Great Wall of China and Hadrian's Wall. 
Concealed under thick layers of turf are huge stones put in place by ancient man, says the scientist.
Six rows of a parallel wall system limited access to the Altai Mountain complex from the north via the valley of the Katun River. 
It is not known who built the giant ramparts.
Their width is a substantial ten metres with an impressive height of up to eight metres. 
'To the east of these walls is a fairly wide passage, which is limited at the mountainside by another series of walls, oriented west-east across the Katun valley,' he said.
There are nine walls adjacent to the mountain slope. 
Discovered: the Great Wall of Siberia

Discovered: the Great Wall of Siberia

Discovered: the Great Wall of Siberia
Location of the Altai walls, and data from geophysical analysis. Pictures: Andrey Borodovsky

Professor Andrey Borodovsky said: 'These walls were clearly made to cut off crowds of people, and make them go through a narrow passage in the direction chosen by the creators of the (construction).'
In this way access from the steppes to the mountains - the home of ancient civilisations, for example of the Pazyryk people - could be controlled. 
Some of the walls were destroyed by the construction of the Chuya highway in tsarist times, modernised by Stalin using prisoner labour.  
The western section of the ramparts were substantially lost when the modern-day village Souzga was widened.
'It is not easy to photograph the walls so that they are visible,' Andrey Borodovsky said. Nor do satellite images help much. 
Discovered: the Great Wall of Siberia

Discovered: the Great Wall of Siberia

Discovered: the Great Wall of Siberia
Siberian scientists study the Altai walls, concealed under thick layers of turf. Pictures: Andrey Borodovsky

Yet Prof Borodovsky insists geophysical analysis using scans shows the structures here were manmade not natural. 
He has announced plans to conduct detailed research here next year which - while not long in total length, with more than 1 kilometre identified - are high in historical significance. 
So far archeological evidence of man from the areas around the walls points to a medieval presence yet the researcher from the 
Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography in Novosibirsk is convinced proof will be found of their construction much earlier.
'Geophysics has clearly confirmed that the Souzga walls were artificially created,' he told The Siberian Times. 
'It is not very easy to determine the age of such constructions, when exactly were they created, but I believe it was around the first millennium BC - the beginning of new era. 
'That is Iron Age or even Bronze Age, but more likely - Iron Age.
'I'm basing this on the fact that it was the time when such constructions are created all over the world, for example the famous Hadrian's Wall also fits into this trend. The problem is that the only archeological finds around these walls, as of now, are dated as medieval.
'But I still believe that in Middle Ages there was not a big enough community here which could afford to build such a formidable construction. 
'Besides, there also was no need for such a construction because in Middle Ages there were a lot of small, scattered communities here.'
Discovered: the Great Wall of Siberia

Discovered: the Great Wall of Siberia
Discovered: the Great Wall of Siberia

Discovered: the Great Wall of Siberia

Discovered: the Great Wall of Siberia
Views around Souzga village; the Great Wall of China and Hadrian Wall. Pictures: The Siberian Times

Andrey Borodovsky said: 'All the impressive defensive lines in Eurasia were built in the period from the beginning of the first millennium BC up to the opening half of the first millennium AD. 
'This is the era of late Bronze Age and early Iron Age, including the Hunnish time on the eve of the Great Migration of Nations. 
'Such a fortification process was due to a number of factors. 
'First, the appearance of significant human resources in this era, thanks to the potential of an integrated manufacturing economy. 
'Secondly, the aggravation of military conflicts and a significant increase in their scale. 
'Thirdly, the formation of large state and proto-state entities, which had economic, cultural and political boundaries and these boundaries ... to separate their world from aliens. 
'We remember the Great Wall of China, which was formed over several centuries and basically built by the third century BC, and Hadrian's Wall in Britain, at the decline of the late Roman Empire. 
'In the same series of mammoth defensive structures is the Serpent's Wall [an ancient system of earthen fortifications stretch across Ukraine, from the town of Zmiiv in the east to Podolia in the west], the beginning of the erection of which dates back to the late Bronze Age.'