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THE SILK ROAD SERIES: WELCOME TO MARCO POLO'S WORLD
(5 minute read)

It took me twenty years to dig out the stories of the career of the military genius, Chinggis Khan. The story of his empire, the largest land-based empire in history, is where the medieval world comes to an end and where the modern period begins. It is the first era of global history.

 

One man, Chinggis Khan, was the political master of China, Central Asia and Persia. His grandson conquered Russia. A system of roads connected the empire. He valued intelligence from the far corners of his empire. A ponoy express system to facilitate the flow of information. He invented a system of post stations twenty-five miles apart. Couriers designated as his Near and Far Arrows, his messenger service, could rest, eat and acquire fresh mounts.

 

He was called a barbarian by the civilizations he conquered, but although he was unlettered and unwashed, he was the inheritor of an aristocratic horse culture. 

 

He was called The Conqueror. He was known for war. but his empire was as much about trade as it was about war. Chinggis Khan established an international peace, the Pax Mongolica, that lasted for a century. Yet this story has largely been lost to the West. 

  

He guaranteed the peace and trade prospered. The way across the world opened for the first time since antiquity. This meant the end of the Muslim domination of trade and banking. This meant the rise of the West. This was the beginning of the modern world.

 

 

The old Silk Road romoted religious toleration, the first in the world. It was said that a virgin could travel from one end of his empire to another, with a sack of gold on her head, unharmed.

  

The Mongol conquest of Central Asia and Persia changed the pattern of trade between Europe and China that had exited for centuries. The Abbasid Caliphate, headquartered in Baghdad, was a comercial center for both the overland and  Maritime Silk Road. Further to the East, Bukhara, in today's Uzbekistan, was the hub of trading for East Asia. 

 

The monopoly that the Muslim world had in banking and finance had come into being in the wake of the Arab conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries. The Khan's peace brought about the rise of European capitalism.

 

The Polo Brothers, Marco's father and uncle, were amomg the merchants who ventured into the China  trade. European merchant princes, such as the Medicis, built the fortunes that financed the Renaissance. This meant the rebirth of science in Europe.

 

The Italian city-states of Venice and Genoa began their rivalry. This rivalry led Marco Polo landing in jail where he wrote the greatest travel book of all time. Captured fighting aboard a Venetian vessel, he cellmate was a writer who took down the story, the book that told the wonders of Khuiblai Khan's China. The tale was so fabulous that the Venetians called Marco a liar. His response was that he had not told half of what he saw.

 

The anthropologist Jack Weatherford has written about how the American Founding Fathers took their principle of religious toleration from the Mongol Empire, a principle that was unique in the medieval world. This was, after all, the era of the Crusades, when Christian and Muslim armies were killing each other in the name of cross and crescent. It is said that Jerusalem ran knee deep in blood in some of the worst battles.  

 

The overland trade was conducted on a network of roads called the Silk Road. Controlled by Muslim capitalists and financed by Muslim bankers, the Muslim world had enjoyed a monopoly for seven centuries. When Chinggis Khan became the political master of Asia, this monopoly of trade and finance came to an end.

 

 

Marco Polo's World

 

Europe had been a backwater, its local economies and markets devastated by the fall of the Roman Empire and the invasion of the barbarians. European capitalism was in its infancy. 

 

China was the richest and most advanced civilization on earth. The caravanserais in the Muslim centers of trade in the Middle East and Central Asia were the stopping places along the Silk Road where merchants could rest, feed themselves and their beasts and buy supplies for the trip to the Chinese capital.

 

In such a caravanserai, Marco Polo stayed for three years, on his trip to China with his father and uncle, merchants of Venice, on their way to China.

 

The Polo Brothers, Marco's father and uncle, had previously traded from the Crimea and Constantinople and shipped to their home office in Venice.

 

The Polo Brothers had the idea of traveling further east, to eliminate the middlemen. This was an innovation--no Western merchants had penetrated this far into Asia.

 

When the Polos got as far as Bukhara, the trading hub of Central Asia, they found they were isolated from the rest of Central Asia because of a civil war between two khans. The empire was so vast, it was hard to hold it together without modern communication and transportation. The old guard of the Mongol aristocracy thought that Khubilai Khan was becoming too Chinese and abandoning the ways of their ancestors. So they fought for the top job.

 

The war between the khans stopped all caravan traffic in the region. It was not to be the first of many wars between rival khans for the empire was vast and rich  The breakup of the empire into khanates meant the destruction of what had been handed down to them. It is what helped to drive Khubilai Khan to the brink of madness.

 

During the three years in Bukhara,  Marco Polo learned the languages of the court, some Chinese, Turkish, Persian. An envoy of Hulegu, Khubilai Khan's younger brother, who had become the ruler of Persia, rode through on his way to Khubilai Khan's court and provided an escort, The Polos, father and uncle, still had the imperial insignia given to them by Khubilai Khan on their first trip to China.

 

This was the beginning of Marco Polo's career in China. He was both a spy and a government official, he was an advisor to the throne, and he was the friend of the emperor, who wished to learn about the West. It is one of the great friendships of history, and yet it came to an end when Marco turned down an imperial marriage and returned to Venice. 

 

This Mongol Empire ushered in a century of peace, prosperity and religious toleration. The story has been lost to the West. It is a scoop after 700 years like an archaeological treasure buriedin a lost time.

 

 

The Chinese are the greatest historians in the world, but the Chinese histories were silent, because they considered the period a Dark Age. They had been conquered by barbarians. What did it say about Chinese belief in their own superiority if they could be conquered and ruled by the unwashed mounted on ponies?

 

The mounted horsemen from beyond the Great Wall had conquered the world and no one knew anything about them. That situation is about to change. Thanks to a conference for teachers sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the first era of global history will be taught in American schools, from grades K through 12. I know this because my mentor, Morris Rossabi, the biographer of Khubilai Khan, was the director of the conference. 

 

The stories I tell are grand adventure stories, appealing to young readers. It is backstory to the world they will inherit.

 

This Silk Road Series tells us how we got to where we are. It is forthcoming, short books, each dedicated to a different character in the imperial drama.

 

I was inspired by the work of David McCullough whose work in narrative history is brilliant. A quote from Tolstoy's War and Peace opens my volume on Khubilai Khan. "A King is History's Slave." 

 

So dear reader, if you want to read an action-packed saga that took twenty years to tell, get on your pony and ride.

 

@ COPYRIGHT 2019 DIANE WOLFF