Bantam Press; £20
THIS is surely one of the best known couplets in English poetry. It’s the first two lines of a fragment of verse describing an opium dream. Samuel Taylor Coleridge started writing it and then was “called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour”.
By the time he’d got rid of the person from Porlock he’d forgotten the rest of the dream, which is why it’s a fragment.
But before he took the opium he’d been reading an early English translation of Marco Polo’s ‘Travels’ and the first two lines are historically accurate and precise.
Xanadu is, or was, a real place and Kublai Khan did order a stately pleasure-dome to be built there.
Modern archaeology and computer modelling by architects can even give us a good idea of what it looked like. You can view what’s left on the ground on Google Earth by going to 42.21.30 N and 116.10.45 E.
The rest of Coleridge’s fragment, which describes Alph, the sacred river, caves of ice and an Abyssinian maiden playing a dulcimer, owes everything to opium and nothing to fact.
Behind all this lies a fascinating story. It’s been told many times but John Man’s new book tells it particularly well. It’s the story of how the western world discovered the astonishing wealth and power of the East in the late 1200s.
It starts in 1253 with two ambitious young Venetian brothers, Niccolo and Maffeo Polo, setting out to seek their fortunes. Niccolo was newly married and what he didn’t know when he said goodbye to his wife and promised he wouldn’t be gone long, was that she was pregnant.
In fact he was away for 16 years, but that wasn’t entirely his fault. The two brothers did what merchants of Venice do and made their first fortune trading in Constantinople. They then travelled eastwards, into the Mongol Empire, to make a second fortune. Their trading was successful but wars broke out behind them and cut off their return route.
They kept trekking in great loops to the east, trying to get round war zones, and they kept getting cut off. They ended up in the city of Bukhara on the Great Silk Road in central Asia where they met up with an ambassador who was returning to the court of the Mongol emperor, Kublai Khan. He suggested the two Venetians should come with him.
Kublai had never met any Europeans before (he called them Latins) but was delighted by them, particularly as both brothers now spoke good Mongolian. He was the richest and most powerful man in the world, the grandson of Genghis Khan from whom he had inherited the largest empire the world had ever seen, or would see for many centuries to come. It included most of inhabited Asia and much of eastern Europe, including European Russia, Poland and Hungary. He had a single, simple ambition: total world domination.
But he also had problems. Although he was a military and political genius his empire was really already too large to administer. In the heartland of his empire he had to balance the conflicting cultures of the Chinese and the Mongols. That’s why he spent the winters in what is now Beijing and had a new summer capital built on the rolling Mongolian grasslands at a place called Xanadu.
The outlying parts of his empire were administered by other grandsons of Genghis who were supposed to owe him allegiance but were often independent and rebellious. He also had to balance the conflicting demands of Islam and Buddhism, as well as a number of smaller religions in his empire. These included Christianity. He had a surprising number of Christian subjects, most of them adherents of the ‘Nestorian Heresy’, in fact his own mother, Sorkaktani, was a Nestorian.
He saw that the ‘Latins’ could offer him two advantages. First they could give him a toe-hold in western Europe, which was on his list of places to conquer. Secondly he believed that if he and his court converted to Christianity it would help him in his balancing act between Islam and Buddhism. So he asked them to deliver a letter to the Pope holding out the mouth-watering prospect of a massive eastward expansion of Christendom and to return bringing him a gift of Holy Oil from Jerusalem and 100 missionary priests to start the conversion.
When the brothers finally got back to Venice Niccolo’s wife was dead and his teenage son Marco was being cared for by relatives. Having delivered the letter to Gregory X, who only gave them two missionary priests, they set off again for Xanadu, bringing the young Marco with them. They made a detour to Jerusalem to collect the Holy Oil but unfortunately both the priests got cold feet and defected. Kublai didn’t seem to mind about the priests and was delighted to see them again. Marco became a high official in his court and the three Venetians stayed on for another 25 years. They eventually arrived back in Venice, very rich but with a problem because nobody recognized them. It was assumed that they were long dead and relations had moved into the house. Eventually this was sorted out and Marco’s traveller’s tales became very popular in the city.
It might have ended here except for Venice’s endless wars with Genoa. Marco was captured in a naval battle and ended up in jail in Genoa. Sharing the jail with him as a hack journalist called Rustichello who persuaded him that they should pass the time by turning Marco’s traveller’s tales into a book. The original manuscript is lost but various copies and translations (one of them in Irish) still survive. They are all slightly different, which causes a lot of scholarly argument, but the book really did introduce Europe to the east, as well as inspiring Coleridge.
In a story like this the real pleasure is in the detail and John Man’s book has plenty of that. It will be difficult for librarians and booksellers to decide what shelf to put it on because it’s a travel book, a biography and a history.
But the result of the mixture is hybrid vigour. The story romps along and Man knows what he’s writing about. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
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