Polo, Marco (1254?-1324), an Italian traveler to the Far East. Marco Polo, his father, and his uncle are the first Europeans known to have crossed the entire width of Asia. In the Travels of Marco Polo he described the lands and customs of the East to an astonished Europe. His account was little believed until later travelers confirmed it in many respects. Although it contains exaggerations, it is considered a valuable historical document.

The Polos belonged to the merchant aristocracy of Venice. Marco's father, Nicolo, and his uncle Maffeo went to China in the 1260's after meeting envoys of Kublai Khan, the Mongol emperor, while on a trading mission to central Asia. They returned to Venice in 1269 with a message from the emperor, asking the pope to send Christian missionaries to China. In 1271 the Polos embarked for the East, this time accompanied by Marco, then 17 years old.

The two missionaries sent with the expedition turned back to Europe early in the journey, but the Polos continued on their journey and reached China in 1275. Marco's quick grasp of the Mongol language and the knowledge he had gained on his travels impressed the emperor, who soon made him a civil officer of the Mongol empire. Marco and his father and uncle served under Kublai Khan in various positions for 17 years. Observing that the emperor loved to hear stories of strange places, Marco began taking notes on what he saw in the provinces of China that he visited.

For many years the emperor would not release the Polos from his service, although they wished to return to Europe. Finally, in 1292, the emperor assigned them as escorts of a Mongol princess going to Persia, knowing that they would not return. They traveled by sea through the East Indies, across the Indian Ocean to the Persian Gulf, through Persia and over the Black Sea, and on to Venice. After their 24-year absence, even their family at first took them for strangers. Later, at a family banquet, they displayed many luxurious articles from the East and then slashed the linings of their worn clothes. A wealth of diamonds and other precious stones spilled to the floor.

While commanding a Venetian galley against Genoa in 1298. Marco Polo was taken prisoner and held for almost a year. He sent for his travel notes and related his adventures to a fellow prisoner, a scribe named Rusticiano. The combination of Rusticiano's romantic style and Polo's exotic subjects made the account a favorite throughout Europe.

Marco Polo told of the “salt-water lake" that is now known to be the Caspian Sea. He

described the deserts and mountains of Persia and Afghanistan, mentioned the strange fat-tailed sheep he saw (the karakul) and the wild breed now called Marco Polo sheep. He also told about the Order of Assassins in Persia and of mirages seen by travelers crossing the barren Gobi desert in central Asia.

Polo gave a detailed account of China and the emperor's luxurious court as well as the history and customs of the Mongols. Strangely, he did not mention the Great Wall of China, although he must have passed by it. He described paper money but said nothing about printing. He did mention the burning of “black stones" (coal) and described tattooing. Marco Polo was very impressed by Hangzhou, calling it the noblest and richest city of the world.

Marco Polo described the rhinoceros and crocodile of the East Indies. In western India he observed Hindu customs and saw pearl fisheries. He also told of what he had heard about Zanzibar and East Africa.

Polo's story of Oriental wonders, particularly of the spices available to traders in the East, inspired later explorers to risk the trip in search of riches from trade.