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we deem it not unseasonable to recur to the subject, especially considering the interest reflected on it by the changes which have advanced so rapidly in the East during the last five and twenty years. Central Asia seems to be opening up, as it did in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, through the predominance of one Great Power, though the seat of the Great Khan of our day is not at Xanadu, but on the Baltic; and travellers are again becoming familiar with an overland route from Cam balu. There is a sick man, too, in the east of Asia, as well as in the east of Europe, and the next generation may see the eagles gathered together over him. But on such considerations we are not going to dwell. Our business on this occasion is purely with the past.
China, according to some popular chronologies, was discovered by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century. But, as the Cape was rounded by the Egyptians ages before De Gama, and as America was the haunt of the Northmen centuries before Columbus, so we might exhibit a goodly list of travellers to China long before the great era of Portuguese navigation.
We have just alluded to the opening of Asia, which followed the conquests of Chinghiz Khan and his successors. The flood of Tartar conquest then flowed from the China Sea to the Danube, prostrated for a time the pride of Islam, washed down political barriers, and opened Asia to the passage of Frank travellers. Besides the Supreme Khan, residing first at Karakorum, in the wilds of Mongolia, and afterwards in China, there were three mighty chiefs of the same descent who owed him allegiance, and these four potentates may be said, roughly, to have divided among them all Asia, cxcept India and the Mediterranean coasts. The three chiefs in question were the Khans of the house of Juji, or of the Golden Horde, reigning
"At Sarra in the Londe of Tartarie' upon the Wolga ; the Khans of the House of Hulaku, or of Persia, reigning at Tabriz; and the Khans of the house of Chagatai, holding their court sometimes at Bokhara, sometimes at Almalig, near the River Ili, north of the Celestial Mountains, a city now extinct. All these courts assumed with wonderful rapidity, at least on the surface, the civilization of the nations which they had conquered. As usual in such cases this superficial civilization turned to rapid corruption and decay. But at least to the third generation the blood of Temujin the Undaunted, had not spent its force. The old world-conqueror himself
* Or Unshakeable. So (Unerschütterlich) his German biographer, Erdmann, renders the surname Chingliz.
had predicted the greatness of the lad Kublai. The latter succeeded to the supreme power in 1260, and fixed his chief residence at Khanbalig, now Peking.
From the time when the Mongol invasion of Europe was checked (1242), by an act of Providence as unlooked for as that which overthrew the host of Sennacherib, Christian pontiffs and princes began to cultivate the friendship of those potent barbarians, and Christian missionaries and merchants gradually pressed into those regions which had so long been closed.
In the course of the succeeding hundred years a highway for the trade and religion of the West opened out across the breadth of Asia, and lay more or less open till the fall of the Mongol dynasties. The Roman Church had a metropolitan at the Great Khan's court, with suffragans and Franciscan houses in Northern and Southern China, whilst the merchants of Genoa and Loinbardy made their own purchases of silk and velvet in the markets of Kinsay, Zayton, and Khanbalig, now known as Hangcheu, Chincheu, and Peking. The first travellers in this period whom we know to have reached China were Nicolas and Matthew Polo, members of a Venetian family which had establishments at Constantinople and in the Crimea. They had quitted Venice for the East about 1254, Nicolas leaving a wife behind him.
Like the Tartar armies, the merchants of those days do not seem to have cared much about maintaining a fixed base of operations. The two brothers started from Constantinople about 1260, and a succession of chances and opportunities carried them to Bokhara, and thence to the court of the Great Khan in the extreme East. Kublai, full of vigour and intelligence, who had never before fallen in with educated Europeans, was delighted with these Venetians, listened eagerly to all that they told him of the Latin world, and at last determined to send them back as his ambassadors to the Pope.' They arrived at Acre in 1269, and found that no Pope existed, for Clement IV. was dead the year before, and no new election had yet taken place. So they went home to Venice to see how things stood there after so many years' absence. The wife of Nicolas was long dead, but she had lest a son behind her, now fifteen years of age, whom till now the father had never seen. This was Mark, the hero of our history.
The Papal interregnum was the longest known, at least since the dark ages. Two years more passed, and yet the Cardinals could not agree.
The brothers were unwilling to let the Great Khan think them faithless, and probably hankered after the great virgin field of speculation that they had discovered; so they started again for the East, taking young Mark with them. At Acre
they took counsel with an eminent churchman, Theobald, Archdeacon of Liège, a man of great weight of character, and the intimate friend of Prince Edward of England, then at Acre.
From the archdeacon they got letters to authenticate the causes of the miscarriage of their mission, and started for the further East. But they were still at the port of Layas in the Gulf of Scanderoon, then the great point of arrival and departure for the inland trade of Asia, when they heard that a Pope was at length elected, and that the choice had fallen upon their friend the Archdeacon Theobald.* They immediately returned to Acre, and at last were able to execute the Khan's charge, and to obtain a reply. Judging from certain indications, we conceive it probable that they first proceeded by Mosul and Baghdad to Hormuz, then situated on the mainland of Persia, near the mouth of the Gulf, with the view of going on by sea, but that some obstacle arose which compelled them to abandon this project and turn north from Hormuz. They traversed successively Kerman and Khorasan, Balkh and Badakhshan, in which last country they seem to have been lớng detained by the illness of young Marco. In the account of the charming climate of the Hills of Badakhshan, Mark breaks into an enthusiasm which is rarely excited in him by anything but field sports, but which those understand well who have ever known what it is to flee with fever in their veins from the torrid heats of an Asiatic May to the heavenly air and fragrant pine-groves of the Himalaya :
• Those mountains are so lofty that 'tis a hard day's work from morning till evening to get to the top, but on reaching this you find an extensive plain abounding in grass and trees, and with copious springs of pure water running down through rocks and ravines. These brooks are full of trout and many other delicate fish ; and the air in those lofty regions is so pure, and residence there so healthful, that when the men who dwell in the cities of the low countries find themselves attacked by fever or other casual sickness, they hasten up the hill, and after a stay of two or three days quite recover health through the excellence of the air. And Messer Mark said he had proved this by experience.'
From Badakhshan the Venetians ascended the Oxus to the lake of Sirikol and the plateau of Pamir, the Roof of the World.' Those regions, so full of attraction for geographers,
* The cardinals, unable to agree, had at last named a committee of six, with full powers, and these the same day (1st Sept., 1271, after the Papacy had been vacant two years and nine months) elected Theobald, on the recommendation of the Cardinal Bishop of Portus. This same facetious dignitary had previously advised that the roof should be taken off the palace to allow the divine influences to descend more freely on their proceedings.
were never described again by any European traveller till the spirited expedition, in 1838, of Captain John Wood of the Indian Navy, whose narrative abounds in splendid incidental illustration of that of his medieval predecessor. Captain Wood seems at one time to have intended to devote a special work to the elucidation of Marco Polo's chapters on the Oxus Provinces, and it is to be regretted that the intention has never been fulfilled.
The travellers crossed the Pamir steppe and descended upon Kashghar, whence they proceeded by Yarkand and Khoten (countries of which those of us who live a dozen years are likely to hear a good deal), and eventually across the Great Gobi Desert to Tangut, a name then applied to the country at the extreme north-west of China, both within and without the Wall. Here they seem to have been welcomed by a deputation sent by Kublai to meet them. The party on their onward journey probably kept outside the Wall and north of the Yellow River, as the Great Khan was then passing the summer at Shangtu, some 50 miles north of the Wall, the Xanadu of Coleridge's poem :
• Where twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round! We know that Coleridge believed himself to have composed that brilliant little poem in a dream. And it is a singular coincidence, of which Coleridge could have known nothing, that in one of the versions of the Persian history of Rashiduddin, the palace of Shangtu is said to have been built upon a plan which Kublai had seen in a dream and retained in his memory.
It has often been cast in Marco's teeth that he says nothing of the Great Wall, and very unsatisfactory reasons have been alleged for the omission. That omission is indeed all the more curious, because we think it traceable with absolute certainty that the recollection of the Wall was in his mind at a certain point of this journey. Speaking of the country to the north-west of Shansi, near where the Great Wall abuts upon the Yellow River, he says: “Here also is what we call the country of Gog and Magog,' &c., proceeding to give a quaint and farfetched explanation of those names.
Now the Wall of China was known to Mahomedan writers of that age as the rampart of Gog and Magog, and we can conceive no reason why Marco should have used the words that we have quoted, except for the reason left untold, Here we are beside the Great Wall known as the Rampart of Gog and Magog.'
Kublai received the Venetians with great cordiality, and took kindly to young Mark, who must have been by this time nearly one-and-twenty. The joenne bacheler, as the story calls him, did
what our young bachelors in India are said now-a-days to have little good will for, he took heartily to the study of the native languages.' The Khan, seeing that he was discreet as well as able, soon began to employ him in the public service. If there be no error in the three years and a half ascribed to the journey, the party cannot have arrived at the court till the summer of 1275. Yet M. Pauthier produces a quotation from the Chinese annals of the dynasty, stating that, in the year 1277, a certain Polo was appointed commissioner of the second class attached to the privy council, a passage which we are pleased to believe applicable to Marco. His first mission carried him to the remote province of Yunan, called by the Mongols Karajang, which Kublai himself had assisted to conquer in 1253. Mark, during his stay at court, had observed the Khan's delight in hearing of strange countries, their marvels, manners, and oddities, and had seen the disgust which his Majesty frankly expressed at the stupidity of his commissioners when they could speak of nothing but shop. Profiting by these observations, he took care to store all curious facts that were likely to amuse Kublai, and related them on his return. This journey, which led him through that terra incognita, the extreme south-east of Tibet and the northern frontiers of Ava, where there existed, and still exists, a vast ethnological garden, as it were, of tribes of various race and in all stages of uncivilization, afforded him many strange products and eccentric traits of manners to delight the Emperor.**
Mark rose rapidly in favour, and was often employed again on distant missions as well as in domestic adıninistration, but we gather few particulars of his employment. At one time we know that he held for three years the government of the great city of Yangchu; on another occasion he seems to have been despatched to the old capital, Karakorum, in Mongolia ; on a third occasion to Champa, or Southern Cochin China ; on a fourth, to the Indian Seas. We are not informed whether his father and uncle shared in such employments, but anyhow they were gathering wealth, and after years of exile they began to fear what might follow old Kublai's death, and longed to carry their gear and their own grey heads safe home to the Lagoons. The old brown Lion growled refusal to all their hints, and but for a happy chance we should have lost our medieval Herodotus.
Arghun Khan of Persia, Kublai's great nephew, had lost his favourite wife, the Khatun Bulugân (* Zibellina'), a lady of great beauty and ability, originally the wife of Abaka, but who, in
* We have lately despatched a mission to Yunan from the other side. May it prosper! And we trust Captain Sladen is well up in his • Marco Polo.'