Persia and the Mongol Empire
 

Marco Polo started his description of the Great Province of Persia by briefly commenting on the recent collapse of Persia. In Marco Polo’s text, he mentioned that Persia was a large and noble province until its recent destruction by the “Tartars”.

Marco Polo’s travel is believed to be between 1271AC and 1295AC. When compared to the period of Ilkhanate(1256-1335), it would be feasible to speculate that Marco Polo traveled to Persia during the period when it was under the rule of the Mongols, specifically under the House of Hulegu Khan (1218-1265).

The definition of “Tartars” by Europeans, specifically by Marco Polo in his Description of the World was not the Mongol’s definition of Tartars. In the Mongol’s definition, the Tartars refer to the clan of people that were against Temujin’s (also known as Chingiz Khan, 1162-1227) tribe. Since the Tartars poisoned Temujin’s father, they were Temujin’s enemy since birth, but they were later incorporated into Mongol Empire by Chingiz Khan.[1] However, Marco Polo’s indication of Tartars was actually the combination of people of Central Asia and Cathay (Northern China). Marco Polo acquired knowledge and information from travelers and locals during his travel through the Silk Road under the control of Mongols. Marco Polo, as well as many Europeans at that time, defined “Tartary” as the people under the court of Mongols.[2] Some doubts on whether Marco Polo had been on a trip can be raised here. Since Marco Polo had been on such a long journey, especially when he said that the Great Khan was fond of him, he should have been familiar with the history and customs of the Mongols. The Mongols would not classify or identify themselves as some of their old-time enemy, or its subordinate. Nevertheless, these doubts could be explained by the fact that different versions of Marco Polo’s Description of the World were served for different audiences. The use of “Tartar” in European’s definition could be amended to make it more comprehensible for European audiences.

In Marco Polo’s narration, Persia was destroyed by the Mongols army. He used the phrase “laid it to waste” to describe what the Mongols had done to the city of Persia. According to David Morgans in The Mongols, the Mongol invasion of Persia was recorded in many Persian sources. Most of them wrote that Persia “endure something that must seemed to approximate very nearly to attempted genocide”.[3] In the local histories, Persian writer Sayfi recorded that 1,600,000 were killed at the sack of Harat, a great Islamic city in the early thirteenth century. Other local writers also tried to approximate the population killed in the sack of Harat, but among all, Sayfi’s estimation was the smallest number of all. All these sources were compatible with Marco Polo’s description of the Mongol invasion of Persia. This fact only confirms the credibility of Marco Polo’s description of the story. It, however, cannot serve as evidence that validates Marco Polo’s presence in Persia, since he might hear this story from other travelers who had been in Persia.

 
8 Kingdoms of Persia
 

The Map of the Ilkhannate and the Mongol Empire

8 Kingdoms of Persia listed by Marco Polo include:

  • Qazvin(Casum)

  • Kurdistan (Curdistan)

  • Luristan (Lor)

  • Shulistan (Culistan)

  • Shabankara (Soncara)

  • Shiraz (Ceraci)

  • Isfahan (Isfaan)

  • Tun-vaKain

 
Husbandry in Persia
 

The travelogue of Marco Polo mentioned that “in this kingdom (Persia) are many fine warhorses”, and that “there are also the most beautiful donkeys in the world”.[4] Indeed, according to Hedieh Lahiji, an Iranian journalist, the best horses in the world were bred in Ancient Persia. She mentioned that “in Ancient Persia, horses were available in all colors in which they are found today, which shows Iran was the cradle of breeding original horses in the world”.[5] In her article, she also introduced the book Science and Technology in Iran: A Brief Review released by the Science and Technology department of the Iranian President’s office, in which described that “Cyrus, a king of the Achaemenid Empire, paid due regard to breeding horses, so much so that some 120,000 horses were bred in Iran annually”.[6] All these evidence have solidified Marco Polo’s description of Ancient Persian husbandry.

 
 

Advance horse husbandary in Ancient Persia

 
 

Marco Polo provided more information on the trade of horses later in this section, saying that “the people of this kingdom take the horses that I’ve mentioned to Qays and Hormuz, which are two cities on the banks of the Indian Sea”. Persian merchants brought horses to Southern India for sale, many times with prices like “200 pounds tournois” as noted by Marco Polo.

There is no direct evidence of horse breeding in Southern India in the thirteenth to fourteenth centuries.[7] This indicates that cities in Southern India had to depend on the import of horses from outside of India, which implies that there was a large possibility that they imported horses from Persia.

 
Crafts of Persia
 

In Marco Polo’s description, there were many merchants and craftsmen in Persia, who were “living from trade and labor”. He mentioned that Persia was well-known for silk products. “They make every kind of cloth of gold and cloth of silk”, recorded by Marco Polo. In fact, Persia, which is called Iran nowadays, has been quite famous for its silk and sericulture for more than 3000 years. In a suitable climate, mulberry trees grow in Iran as a native plant, providing a perfect habitat for silkworms and great conditions for the booming of sericulture activities. As the Silk Road traversed the Persian territory, Persian merchants were the first among all to learn how to trade their silk items according to the Black, Caspian Seas and Central Asia Silk Association.[8] These Iranian track records have demonstrated that Marco Polo’s description was fairly accurate with regard to the crafts in Persia.

 
Trade in Persia
 

The most noticeable paragraph in Marco Polo’s account on the merchants and the cruel people in Persia.

 

In these kingdoms are many cruel and murderous people, for they are always killing each other and, were it not for fear of the lordship, that is, of the Tartar of the East, they would do great harm to merchants selling things. Throughout the whole lordship, they have not often ceased doing them great damage. For if merchants are not well equipped with arms and bows, they kill them and mistreat them badly. I tell you with no mistake that all of them are of the faith of their prophet Muhammad.”[9]

 

In Marco Polo’s account, he mentioned that people were always killing each other and harming the merchants if the merchants were not well-equipped. This description was very unclear and incomprehensible since Marco Polo did not mention why these cruel people in Persia would want to kill merchants in their countries. Given the fact that the large population of merchants in Persia, it would be contradictory to say that merchants become the victims.

In his description, he mentioned that these cruel people would do great harm to the merchants if it were not for fear of the Mongol regime. This suggests that the Mongol’s court was somehow protecting the merchants from being harmed by the Persians. In Rubruck’s observation, there was almost a symbiotic relationship between the nomads and the merchants.[10] Many Mongol rulers including Hulegu intentionally created an environment that facilitated trades, which, in turn, boost the growth of cities under their rule. However, in the book Pax Mongolia, Peter Jackson pointed out that “the picture of unalloyed Mongol favor towards merchants requires qualification” because other sources were mentioning how the Mongol army “killed merchants and looted their goods”.[11]

At the end of the paragraph, Marco Polo mentioned that these murderous people were “all of the faith of their prophet Muhammad”. In Marco Polo’s account, I have discovered that he had an inclination towards one religion over another. His description of Saracens had always been negative and subjective throughout his book, in contrast to his positive portrayal of Christian stories. Therefore, I would consider his description of these cruel people in Persia can be neglected due to the fact that it was a highly subjective and blurry description, as well as the fact that there were not many other sources so far that supports his narration.

 
Agriculture in Persia
 

According to Marco Polo’s description of the Great Province of Persia, Persia was advanced in agriculture. In his account, Marco Polo described, “A lot of cottons is grown here.” He also added that “[Persia] have wheat, barley, millet, panic grass, all kinds of wheat, wine, and all fruits in abundance.”

In order to examine the credibility of Marco Polo’s description of the agriculture of Persia, the climate and agriculture of modern Iran can be used to estimate the situation back then in thirteenth-century Persia, though might not be accurate due to the recent climate change. Modern Iran has an extreme climate and varied geography, with an extremely high temperatures in summer and extremely low temperature in winters. Approximately 90 percent of modern Iran is arid or semi-arid according to the country profile of Iran from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.[12] The dryness of the Iranian plateau has raised a concern on the agricultural production in Persia in the thirteenth century: Why did Marco Polo describe Persia as such a fertile province while it had an extremely dry weather condition?

The irrigation system in Persia is the answer to the question. Due to the dryness condition in ancient Persia, locals had developed an irrigation system called Qanat Irrigated Agricultural Heritage Systems. As described by the Ministry of Jihad-e-Agriculture, the history of the Qanat Irrigation technology and related knowledge can be traced back to Persian Civilization as early as 800BC. This irrigation system has been widely used for agricultural production as well as human consumption.[13] Attributed to the irrigation system, it was possible for the arid orsemi-arid area in Persia to grow a variety of crops as described in Marco Polo’s accounts.

 

 
 

A aerial view of the line of a Qanat, the irrigation system

 
 

Some doubts can be raised about the irrigation system in the mid-thirteenth century. Hulegu’s campaign in Persia took place in the 1250s. As mentioned before in Marco Polo’s narration, Persia was “laid to waste” by the Mongols army. The Mongol destroyed many of the qanat during their conquest in Persia. The massacre also decreased the number of peasants available to maintain the irrigation system. According to David Morgan, all these factors contributed to the “irreparable damage [of land] simply through neglect of the qanats”, which was what the agriculture in Persia wholly depended on back then.[14] Marco Polo’s trip started about 20 years after the Mongol invasion in Persia. Thus one doubt that could be raised is that would agriculture and land in Persia be able to recover from the “irreparable damage” in such a short period of time. Nevertheless, Persia was a large region, Marco Polo did not stay in Persia for a long time. Therefore, he might have been to part of Persia that was less damaged by the Mongols or the part of Persia that was invaded by the Mongols much earlier thus already recovered by the time Marco Polo visited.

Another way to possibly investigate the reliability of Polo’s narration, although might not be as accurate, is to look at the main types of crops grown in modern Iran. As reported by the FOA, the most harvested crops in Iran in 2008 included wheat, barleys, cotton, banana, and citrus fruits.[15] Despite the time difference, which might be negligible since the soil and climate would not change too much in 700 years, the most harvested crops in Iran nowadays are all consistent with the agricultural products described by Marco Polo. The high compatibility of both descriptions might also enhance the authenticity of Marco Polo’s narration.

 
Conclusion
 

Marco Polo’s accounts on the Great Province of Persia consisted of a basic explanation of the Persia-Mongols relationship and an overview of the Great City of Persia in terms of geography, husbandry, agriculture, trade and crafts. Through the examination and comparison of Marco Polo’s accounts with a variety of historical primary and secondary Persian(Iranian) sources, I have discovered that there is a high consistency between Marco Polo’s account and other sources. Despite the fact that his description of “the cruel Saracens” in Persia was subjective and unclear thus should be neglected, I have drawn a conclusion that Marco Polo’s Description of the World has validated his presence in the Great Province of Persia.

 
References
 
  1. Rachewiltz, Igor de, “The Secret History of the Mongols: A Mongolian Epic Chronicle of the Thirteenth Century” (2015). Shorter version edited by John C. Street, University of Wisconsin―Madison. Books and Monographs. Book 4. http://cedar.wwu.edu/cedarbooks/4, pp. 12-14.

2. “‘Tartary’ from Marco Polo to the Enlightenment.” Accessed December 21, 2020. https://library.ust.hk/exhibitions/tartary/.

3. David O. Morgan, The Mongols (Oxford: Blackwell Pvub., 2007), loc. 886.

4. Marco Polo, The Description of the World, trans. Sharon Kinoshita (Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2016), loc. 1361.

5. Lahiji, Hedieh. “Iran: The World’s Cradle of Horse Breeding.” Iran Front Page News, November 3, 2018. https://ifpnews.com/iran-the-worlds-cradle-of-horse-breeding.

6. Marco Polo, The Description of the World, trans. Sharon Kinoshita (Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2016), loc. 1363.

7. Anjum, Nazer Aziz. “HORSE TRADE IN MEDIEVAL SOUTH INDIA.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 73 (2012): 295-303. Accessed December 21, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44156218.

8. “Iran.” The Black, Caspian Seas and Central Asia Silk Association (BACSA). Accessed December 21, 2020. https://www.bacsa-silk.org/en/iran/.

9. Marco Polo, The Description of the World, trans. Sharon Kinoshita (Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2016), pp. 27.

10. Peter Jackson. “PAX MONGOLICA AND A TRANSCONTINENTAL TRAFFIC.” In The Mongols and the Islamic World: From Conquest to Conversion, pp. 215. NEW HAVEN; LONDON: Yale University Press, 2017. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1n2tvq0.16.

 

11. Peter Jackson. “PAX MONGOLICA AND A TRANSCONTINENTAL TRAFFIC.” In The Mongols and the Islamic World: From Conquest to Conversion, pp. 217. NEW HAVEN; LONDON: Yale University Press, 2017. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1n2tvq0.16.

12. FAO. “Country Profile – Iran (Islamic Republic of).” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2008. http://www.fao.org/3/ca0339en/CA0339EN.pdf, pp. 1.

13. Ministry of Jihad-e-Agriculture. “Proposal for a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System (GIAHS).” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, April 2014. http://www.fao.org/uploads/media/IRAN_GIAHS_Proposal_FINAL.PDF, pp. 1.

14. David O. Morgan, The Mongols (Oxford: Blackwell Pub., 2007), loc. 910.

15. FAO. “Country Profile – Iran (Islamic Republic of).” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2008. http://www.fao.org/3/ca0339en/CA0339EN.pdf, pp. 9.

 
Bibliography
 

Anjum, Nazer Aziz. “HORSE TRADE IN MEDIEVAL SOUTH INDIA.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 73 (2012): 295-303. Accessed December 21, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44156218.

 

David O. Morgan, The Mongols (Oxford: Blackwell Pvub., 2007).

 

FAO. “Country Profile – Iran (Islamic Republic of).” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2008. http://www.fao.org/3/ca0339en/CA0339EN.pdf.

 

“Iran.” The Black, Caspian Seas and Central Asia Silk Association (BACSA). Accessed December 21, 2020. https://www.bacsa-silk.org/en/iran/.

 

Lahiji, Hedieh. “Iran: The World’s Cradle of Horse Breeding.” Iran Front Page News, November 3, 2018. https://ifpnews.com/iran-the-worlds-cradle-of-horse-breeding.

 

Marco Polo, The Description of the World, trans. Sharon Kinoshita (Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2016).

 

Ministry of Jihad-e-Agriculture. “Proposal for a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System (GIAHS).” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, April 2014. http://www.fao.org/uploads/media/IRAN_GIAHS_Proposal_FINAL.PDF.

 

Peter Jackson. “PAX MONGOLICA AND A TRANSCONTINENTAL TRAFFIC.” In The Mongols and the Islamic World: From Conquest to Conversion, pp. 215. NEW HAVEN; LONDON: Yale University Press, 2017. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1n2tvq0.16.

 

Rachewiltz, Igor de, “The Secret History of the Mongols: A Mongolian Epic Chronicle of the Thirteenth Century” (2015). Shorter version edited by John C. Street, University of Wisconsin―Madison. Books and Monographs. Book 4. http://cedar.wwu.edu/cedarbooks/4.

 

“‘Tartary’ from Marco Polo to the Enlightenment.” Accessed December 21, 2020. https://library.ust.hk/exhibitions/tartary/.

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