Of all the Western Asian cities described by Marco Polo, Baghdad seems to be the one deemed most controversial by scholars. The descriptions of Baghdad were rather brief considering its important status in the 13th century, and it seems that even many of the cities of less importance received more attention. Furthermore, the descriptions provided by Marco Polo were often problematic.

The opinions of scholars towards the question of “Did Marco Polo travel to Baghdad?” are significantly polarised. Many claim that Polo’s entire account was based off of hearsay and is merely relaying second-hand knowledge he acquired along his journey. Others, however, believe that it would be implausible to state that Polo has not visited Baghdad considering his identity as a merchant, as Baghdad was one of the greatest trading centers in 13th century Asia.

This question is of particular important as Baghdad was considered the entrance to the route along the Tigris. Therefore, drawing back to our research question, the presence, or absence, of Marco Polo in Baghdad would subsequently validate, or invalidate, his presence in a significant part of Western Asia.

My research would revolve around the examination of Marco Polo’s geographical descriptions of Baghdad, account of the death of the last Caliph, and route across Persia through comparisons with relevant primary and secondary sources.

 
Geographical Features and Location
 

Compared to that of other Western Asian cities, Marco Polo’s description of Baghdad was rather vague and brief. Albeit brief, the information provided by Polo was problematic and largely inaccurate. To quote the text: “Through the city flows a very large river, and on this river one can well reach the Indian Sea. There merchants come and go with their merchandise. Know that, from Baghdad to the Indian Sea, the river is a good 18 days’ journey long; merchants who wish to go to India follow this river down to a city called Kish [Chisi] and from there enter the Indian Sea.” [1]

The river mentioned, which is the Tigris, was left unnamed by Polo. Furthermore, in Section 3 of The Descriptions of the World, Polo mistakenly identified a river as the Tigris, when he was in reality describing the Volga river.[2] [3] Considering the level of detail in the descriptions of other Western Asian cities, it seems unlikely that Polo would leave the Tigris unnamed had he visited Baghdad. It would subsequently be unlikely for him not to realise his mistake when naming the Volga.

 

Furthermore, Polo’s description of Kish suggests that it is at the mouth of the Sea of India (known in modern geography as the Persian Gulf), which is where the Tigris enters the Ocean. However, Kish is in reality an island of significant distance from the mouth of the Persian Gulf.[4] It may be possible that Polo referred to the city of Síráf when describing Kish, as Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta suggested that Síráf was also known as Kish at the time.[5] However, Polo’s account of Kish clearly describes a major trading port, and Síráf, while a flourishing center of trade in the ninth and tenth century, was recorded to be completely destroyed by as early as 1200.[6] [nb 1] Therefore, I believe this indicates a lack of knowledge of geographical locations of the region around the Tigris river (modern-day Iraq area),[nb 2] and would subsequently suggest that Polo had likely not travelled to Baghdad and onwards.

Position of Síráf, Kish (Qais), and the Tigris at the Persian Gulf [7]
 
Death of the Last Caliph
 

As part of Polo’s section on Baghdad, a narration of the death of the last Caliph of the Abbasids after Hülegü Khan’s siege of Baghdad in 1258 was included. Polo records how Hülegü discovered that the Caliph possessed a tower of treasure, and questioned the Caliph about his decision to hoard the treasure instead of giving it to his soldiers to defend Baghdad. Hülegü then exclaimed: “Caliph, now eat as much of your treasure as you’d like, since it pleases you so much; for never will you eat anything other than this treasure” and left the Caliph in the tower to be starved to death.[8]

While the siege of Baghdad happened long before Polo began his travels, insights can be drawn on his source of information. Numerous primary sources recorded the death of the caliph, with information that match Polo’s account in varying extents. Such accounts can be separated into four distinct categories:

1. Mentioning the conversation between Hülegü and the Caliph about eating treasure and indicating that the Caliph was starved to death

2. Mentioning the conversation between Hülegü and the Caliph but not specifying on the way of death of the Caliph

3. Mentioning the conversation between Hülegü and the Caliph and indicating that the Caliph was kicked to death after being wrapped in a carpet

4. Indicating that the Caliph was kicked to death after being wrapped in a carpet and not at all referring to any conversation between Hülegü and the Caliph

 

One can observe a geographical trend among the records of the death of the caliph. Al-Ḥawādiṯ al-ǧāmiʿ a, the source of closest proximity of the actual event, records that the Caliph was kicked to death after being wrapped in a carpet, which corresponds to the Mongol tradition of executing figures of noble blood through a method that does not shed blood.[10] As the geographical distance increases between the source and Baghdad, the importance of the concept of treasure begin to increase. Furthermore, one can observe that Muslim sources all record the death of the caliph in the same fashion as Al-Ḥawādiṯ al-ǧāmiʿ a, while all Christian sources suggest that the caliph died from starvation after being imprisoned in the treasure tower.

A possible explanation for such deviations is that the concept of treasure was originally added to function as a fable, to convey that wealth is to be utilised instead of hoarded. As the information relays, however, the record is distorted, and the actual death of the caliph also becomes related to treasure. A further reason for such distortion could be the tense relationship between Christianity and Islam, subsequently causing Christians to paint Muslims in a negative light.

Furthermore, one can rule out the effect of time on the distortion of the story, as Ibn-al-Furāt, whose lifetime span the latter half of the 14th century (1334-1405), long after Polo’s trip to Asia. This would lead one to infer that the version of the story that circulated in the Middle East and the Muslim world recorded one version of the story, while in the Christian world of Europe and Armenia circulates a different version. Given that Polo’s account corresponds with the Christian versions, it seems plausible to conclude that he received such information in the vicinity of Armenia and Europe and did not travel to near Baghdad to receive the more accurate account of the Caliph’s death.

 
 
Marco Polo’s Route Across Persia
 

Marco Polo’s section on Baghdad was placed in between his sections on Mosul and Tabriz. If such order is strictly based on Polo’s route, this would mean that he travelled South from Mosul to Baghdad, then up North from Baghdad to Tabriz, which seems highly irrational. This subsequently led to two different interpretations of Polo’s route across Persia.

One, led by Sir Henry Yule, claims that the Polos travelled from Mosul to Baghdad then to Hormuz, where they turned north to Kerman and Yazd.[11] The other, led by Sir Percy Sykes, argues that the Polos never travelled to Baghdad, instead travelling from Mosul to Tabriz, Yazd, Kerman, and finally Hormuz.[12]

I am personally inclined to lean towards the Sykes interpretation, as a major problem of the Yule interpretation is that if it were to be assumed true, Polo’s arrangement of sections—description of Yezd followed by that of Kerman—must have been in reverse of his actual route, which would be rather counterintuitive.[13]

Interpretations of Marco Polo’s Route Across Persia[14]
 

The other point in major contention was whether Baghdad was part of the main trade route since its fall in 1258. Scholars of the Sykes interpretation suggest that its importance as a trading center was overtaken by Tabriz.[15] On the contrary, supporters of the Yule interpretation argue that “when Marco Polo started for the East, Baghdad was not rather off the main caravan route. The fall of Baghdad was not immediately followed by its decay, and we have proof of its prosperity at the beginning of the 14th century. Tauris (Tabriz) had not yet the importance it had reached when the Polos visited it on their return journey.”[16]

However, such claims seem largely unproven. When Polo first entered Persia, Tabriz had already became an important part of the trade route between Europe and Asia, taking the place of Baghdad, and it “acquired fame as a bridge between India and Constantinople”.[17] Furthermore, the growth of Tabriz began since the reign of Hülegü. As a result, large amounts of foreign immigrants began residing in Tabriz, as “we find a Venetian merchant drawing up his will in Tabrīz as early as 1263”.[18] With its growth in size and influx of foreign population, this suggests that the development of Tabriz into a trade center began long before Polo began his travels. One can assume that by the time the Polo reach Persia, Tabriz has already evolved into a city of large enough influence to compete with Baghdad, assuming the evidence about Baghdad’s prosperity is proven and that it still has the ability to contest.

Moreover, it is important to note that even assumed true, the proof of Baghdad’s “prosperity at the beginning of the 14th century” does not guarantee its prosperity when Polo was present in Western Asia in the 1270s. A letter from Hülegü to Louis IX of France states that “more than 200,000 were killed in Baghdad” in 1258.[19] The sudden loss of a large population would undoubtedly affect the capacity at which the city is able to function for commerce. Therefore, in retaliation of the claim of Baghdad’s fall not immediately following its decay, I believe it is more reasonable to suggest that Hülegü’s sack of Baghdad gave it an immediate impact. While my claim is merely speculative, my point is that without more evidence, one cannot deduce the degree of prosperity of Baghdad in the 1270s merely based on its prosperity in the early 14th century. It is equally as likely to assume that Baghdad was in a process of recovery between 1258-1300 and its prosperity in early 14th century was instead a separate period of prosperity that was the result of its recovery between 1258-1300 as it is to assume that it is the result of Baghdad’s gradual decline of minor degree that manages to sustain its prosperity until the beginning of the 14th century.

Considering the substantial evidence for the prosperity of Tabriz during Polo’s time and the problematic nature of the Yule interpretation, I believe we can conclude with relatively large certainty that Marco Polo’s route across Persia did not include Baghdad. Instead, he travelled north from Mosul to Tabriz and carried on from there. This would then mean that Marco Polo has not been along the Tigris river.

 
 
Conclusion
 

All in all, one can generally conclude that Marco Polo has not travelled to Baghdad, as his geographical descriptions were brief and faulty, his account of the death of the Caliph suggest his source of information was distant from Baghdad, and his route would be problematic had it have included Baghdad. Furthermore, his travels likely never followed the Tigris river, suggesting that he had no personal knowledge of the region around it. However, returning to our research, his absence in Baghdad does not suggest his absence in Western Asia as a whole. Instead, it, to an extent validates his presence in other parts of Western Asia.

Considering how the records that corresponds with Polo’s account of the death of the Caliph and how the authors of such records all to some extent travelled to Western Asia,[nb 4] this would suggest that Polo was likely present in Western Asia, and have recorded the version of death of the Caliph that circulated in the area of Western Asia in frequent contact with Europe, possibly Armenia, given their Christian backgrounds, or Persia, as there exists records of communications between the Ilkhans and the Pope.[nb 5] Furthermore, deeming that his route likely did not include Baghdad would indicate that his route instead took him to Tabriz, where he continued his journey into Persia. Therefore, one can conclude that Marco Polo’s descriptions of Baghdad has proved his presence in Armenia and Persia, while disproving his presence in Baghdad and regions along the Tigris.

 
 
Notes
Throughout the text, Notes are distinguished from References using [nb]
 
  1. For more information on Síráf, see Siraf: A Medieval Port on the Persian Gulf

  2. The scope of this research is limited to Marco Polo’s journey through Western Asia when travelling from Europe to China. However, substantial research has also been conducted on his return journey (for descriptions of the return journey see Marco Polo, tran. Sharon Kinoshita, pp. 10-14), which also suggested that he never reached the Tigris. See Paul Pelliot, Notes on Marco Polo (Paris: Adrien-Maisonneuve, 1959), pp. 90-91.

  3. I included such a description to indicate that Al-Ḥawādiṯ al-ǧāmiʿ a has no religious and/or political orientation, as one cannot rule out the possibly of bias of Muslim authors of portraying the death of the Caliph in an honorable fashion. Considering Al-Ḥawādiṯ al-ǧāmiʿ a has no such orientation and it is the known record written in the closest vicinity of the event, one can deem it as the most reliable and accurate account of the event. For specific details on the text, see Al-Ḥawādiṯ Al-ǧāmiʿ A: A Contemporary Account of the Mongol Conquest of Baghdad (pp. 358-360). I deemed this note as necessary since I claimed that the accounts that matches the one in Al-Ḥawādiṯ al-ǧāmiʿ a to be the more accurate accounts, and such a claim should not be left baseless.

  4. For specific details, see Hayton, Joinville, Ricold, and Pachymeres. See also Marco Polo, trans. Sharon Kinoshita. p. 50.

  5. See David Morgan. chpt. 7 “The Mongols and Europe”

 
 
References
 
1. Marco Polo, The Description of the World, trans. Sharon Kinoshita (Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2016), pp. 19-20.2. Marco Polo, trans. Sharon Kinoshita. pp. 2-3.3. P. Molesworth Sykes. “Marco Polo’s Travels.” The Geographical Journal 26, no. 4 (1905): p. 464. doi:10.2307/1776617.4. P. Molesworth Sykes. p. 463.5. Marco Polo, The Book of Ser Marco Polo: the Venetian Concerning the Kingdoms and Marvels of the East: in Two Volumes, ed. Henri Cordier, trans. Henry Yule, vol. 1, 1903, pp. 64-65.6. David Whitehouse. “Siraf: A Medieval Port on the Persian Gulf.” World Archaeology 2, no. 2 (1970): p. 154. http://www.jstor.org/stable/124129.
7. Adapted from David Whitehouse, p.1418.Marco Polo, trans. Sharon Kinoshita. p. 20.9. For Hayton and Joinville: Marco Polo, trans. Sharon Kinoshita. p. 50.; For Ricold, Pachymeres, Mirkhond, Wassāf, and Ibn-al-Furāt: Marco Polo, ed. Henri Cordier, trans. Henry Yule. pp. 67-68.; For Al-Ḥawādiṯ al-ǧāmiʿ a: Hend Gilli-Elewy. “Al-Ḥawādiṯ Al-ǧāmiʿ A: A Contemporary Account of the Mongol Conquest of Baghdad, 656/1258.” Arabica 58, no. 5 (2011): p. 366. doi:10.2307/41330779.10. David O. Morgan, The Mongols (Oxford: Blackwell Pub., 2007), loc. 1594.11. Marco Polo, ed. Henri Cordier, trans. Henry Yule. p. 19.12. P. Molesworth Sykes. p. 465.13. P. Molesworth Sykes. p. 464.
14. Adapted from Marco Polo, trans. Sharon Kinoshita, p. xl15. P. Molesworth Sykes. p. 464.16. Marco Polo, ed. Henri Cordier, trans. Henry Yule. p. 20.17. Maryam Mir-Ahmadi. “MARCO POLO IN IRAN.” Oriente Moderno 88 (2008): p. 5. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23073478.18. Peter Jackson. “PAX MONGOLICA AND A TRANSCONTINENTAL TRAFFIC.” In The Mongols and the Islamic World: From Conquest to Conversion, pp. 216. NEW HAVEN; LONDON: Yale University Press, 2017. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1n2tvq0.16.19. David O. Morgan, loc. 1586.
 
 
Bibliography
 

Gilli-Elewy, Hend. “Al-Ḥawādiṯ Al-ǧāmiʿ A: A Contemporary Account of the Mongol Conquest of Baghdad, 656/1258.” Arabica 58, no. 5 (2011): pp. 353-71. doi:10.2307/41330779.

Jackson, Peter. “PAX MONGOLICA AND A TRANSCONTINENTAL TRAFFIC.” In The Mongols and the Islamic World: From Conquest to Conversion, pp. 210-41. NEW HAVEN; LONDON: Yale University Press, 2017. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1n2tvq0.16.

Mir-Ahmadi, Maryam. “MARCO POLO IN IRAN.” Oriente Moderno 88 (2008): pp. 1-13. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23073478.

Morgan, D. O. The Mongols. Oxford: Blackwell Pub., 2007.

Pelliot, Paul. Notes on Marco Polo. Paris: Adrien-Maisonneuve, 1959.

Polo, Marco. The Book of Ser Marco Polo: the Venetian Concerning the Kingdoms and Marvels of the East: in Two Volumes. Edited by Henri Cordier. Translated by Henry Yule. 1. Vol. 1. 2 vols., 1903.

Polo, Marco. The Description of the World. Translated by Sharon Kinoshita. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2016.

Sykes, P. Molesworth. “Marco Polo’s Travels.” The Geographical Journal 26, no. 4 (1905): pp. 462-66. doi:10.2307/1776617.

Whitehouse, David. “Siraf: A Medieval Port on the Persian Gulf.” World Archaeology 2, no. 2 (1970): pp. 141-58. http://www.jstor.org/stable/124129.

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