In the middle of the thirteenth century, about two hundred years before the time of Columbus, a boy named Marco Polo lived in the city of Venice.
Marco Polo belonged to a rich and noble family, and had all the advantages of study that the city afforded. He studied at one of the finest schools in the city of Venice. This city was then famous for its schools, and was the seat of culture and learning for the known world.
When Marco Polo started for school in the morning, he did not step out into a street, as you do. Instead, he stepped from his front doorstep into a boat called a gondola; for Venice is built upon a cluster of small islands, and the streets are water ways and are called canals.
The gondolier, as the man who rows the gondola is called, took Marco wherever he wished to go. Sometimes, as they glided along, the gondolier would sing old Venetian songs; and as Marco Polo lay back against the soft cushions and listened and looked about him, he wondered if anywhere else on earth there was so beautiful a city as Venice. For the sky was very blue, and often its color was reflected in the water; the buildings were graceful and beautiful, the sun was warm and bright, and the air was balmy.
In this delightful city Marco Polo lived until he was seventeen years of age. About this time, his father, who owned a large commercial house in Constantinople, told Marco that he might go with him on a long journey to Eastern countries. The boy was very glad to go, and set out with his father and his uncle, who were anxious to trade and gain more wealth in the East. This was in the year 1271.
The three Polos traveled across Persia into China, and across the Desert of Gobi to the northwest, where they found the great ruler, Kublai Khan. This monarch was a kind-hearted and able man. He wanted to help his subjects to become civilized and learned, as the Europeans were. So Kublai Khan assisted the two elder Polos in their business of trading, and took Marco into his service.
Soon Marco learned the languages of Asia, and then he was sent by the khan on errands of state to different parts of the country. He visited all the great cities in China, and traveled into the interior of Asia to places almost unknown at the present time.
At length the three Polos expressed a desire to return to Venice. The great khan did not wish to part with them, but he at last consented; for he found that by going they could do him a service. The service required was their escort for a beautiful young princess who was to be taken from Peking to Tabriz, where she was to marry the Khan of Persia.
It was difficult to find any one trustworthy enough to take charge of so important a person on so long and dangerous a journey. But Kublai Khan had faith in the Polos. They had traveled more than any one else he knew, and were cautious and brave.
So he gave them permission to return to their home, and requested them to take the princess to Tabriz on the way. It was decided that the journey should be made by sea, as the land route was so beset by robbers as to be unsafe. Besides, the Polos were fine sailors.
They started from the eastern coast of China, and continued their voyage for three years, around the peninsula of Cochin China, and through the Indian Ocean to the Persian Gulf. Here they went ashore, and then proceeded by land across Persia to Tabriz. They left the princess in that city, and resumed their journey by way of the Bosporus to Venice.
When they reached Venice they found that they had been forgotten by their friends. They had been away twenty-four years, and in that time everything had changed very much. They themselves had grown older, and their clothes differed from those worn by the Venetians; for fashions changed even in the thirteenth century, although not so often as they change at the present time. It is no wonder that the Polos were not known until they recalled themselves to the memory of their friends.
One evening they invited a few of their old friends to dinner, and during the evening they brought out three old coats. These coats they proceeded to rip apart, and out from the linings dropped all kinds of precious stones—diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, and rubies. In this way these wary travelers had hidden their wealth and treasure while on their perilous journey. The visitors were astonished at the sight of so great riches, and listened eagerly to the accounts of the countries from which they came.
Soon after the return of Marco Polo to Venice, he took part with his countrymen in a battle against the Genoese. The city of Genoa, like the city of Venice, had a large trade with the East. These two cities were rivals in trade, and were very jealous of each other. Whenever Venetian ships and those of the Genoese met on the Mediterranean Sea, the sailors found some way of starting a quarrel. The quarrel quickly led to a sea fight, and it was in one of these combats that Marco Polo engaged. The Venetians were defeated, and Marco Polo was taken prisoner and cast into a dungeon. Here he spent his time in writing the wonderful book in which he described his travels.
The descriptions Polo gave of the East were as wonderful as fairy tales. He told of countries rich in gold, silver, and precious stones, and of islands where diamonds sparkled on the shore. The rulers of these countries wore garments of rich silk covered with glittering gems, and dwelt in palaces, the roofs of which were made of gold.
He described golden Cathay, with its vast cities rich in manufactures, and also Cipango, Hindustan, and Indo-China. He knew of the Indies Islands, rich in spices, and he described Siberia, and told of the sledges drawn by dogs, and of the polar bears. The fact that an ocean washed the eastern coast of Asia was proved by him, and this put at rest forever the theory that there was an impassable swamp east of Asia.
This book by Marco Polo was eagerly read, and the facts that it stated were so remarkable that many people refused to believe them. It stirred others with a desire to travel and see those lands for themselves.
Traveling by land, however, was very dangerous, because of the bands of robbers by which the country was occupied. These outlaws robbed every one whom they suspected of having any money, and often murdered travelers in order to gain their possessions. Sea travel, too, was just as dangerous, but in a different way.
You will remember why sailors dared not venture far out upon the ocean and search for a water route to the Eastern countries and islands. The time was soon coming, however, when they would dare to do so, and two wonderful inventions helped navigators very much.
One came from the finding of the loadstone, or natural magnet. This is a stone which has the power of attracting iron. A steel needle rubbed on it becomes magnetized, as we say, and, when suspended by the center and allowed to move freely, always swings around until it points north and south. Hung on a pivot and inclosed in a box, this instrument is called the mariners' compass. It was of great importance to sailors, because it always told them which way was north. On cloudy days, and during dark, stormy nights, when the sun and stars could not be seen, the sailors could now keep on their way, far from land, and still know in which direction they were going.
The other invention was that of the astrolabe. This was an instrument by means of which sailors measured the height of the sun above the horizon at noon, and could thus tell the distance of the ship from the equator. It is in use on all the ships at the present time, but it has been greatly improved, and is now called the quadrant.
The compass and the astrolabe, together with improved maps and charts, made it possible for navigators to tell where their ship was when out of sight of land or in the midst of storm and darkness. This made them more courageous, and they ventured a little farther from the coast, but still no one dared to sail far out upon the Sea of Darkness.