The Travels of Marco Polo translated by Ronald Latham (ISBN: 978-0-14-044057-7) is the famous and influential (Columbus was inspired by reading Polo’s account of his travels) tale of travel and adventure that is really quite ethnographic in nature. There is no authoritative version of the book since there are over 150 extant manuscripts, and there are many significant differences. Latham, a Polo scholar, did this translation in 1958 and worked to meld the major manuscripts together, giving the reader a very complete view of Polo’s travels. The focus of Polo’s account is his time in the court of the Mongolian khans, but he discusses his time in what is now Turkey, Iran, Burma, China, Sumatra, India, and Arabia. The descriptions of the people and places are often quite detailed, especially when it comes to court life. Commoners’ lives aren’t given the same level of detail, but the major industries and agricultural pursuits of each region are listed, along with general religious customs, and usually a note or two about interesting flora, fauna, and cultural customs (for instance, sharing wives seems to have been a thing in more than one Asian culture 700 years ago). Polo talked about the spread of Christianity. He talked about various technologies, shipping methods, and Oriental warfare. He always took time to describe the local take on alcohol. He also relayed tales of the supernatural and used interesting words, like “unicorn” (argued by some scholars to mean “rhinoceros”) that renders some of the description of the travels rather hard to believe.
Although tough at times because of archaic language and downright lies in some places (i.e., men with tails or people who look like dogs or the ability of some of the natives to conjure up storms to defeat their enemies), the book is an enjoyable read and the general idea of the work is considered by most scholars to be true. A lot of what is written in the book is true, and more of it is based on truth, leaving only the really crazy stuff to be outright lies. It was interesting to read the accounts of ancient peoples, places, customs, and religions. It reminded me of my time in Russia as a missionary and my first visit to the Czech Republic, both instances of my own travel where I kept a journal, often detailing the things I saw around me that were new to me. Polo likely did the same, and it’s quite important that he and others did, since such records provided knowledge and inspiration for others.
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