Note: there are many translations of the Travels of Marco Polo from Italian to English. I'm not sure if the one above is the one I actually read (should know and update in few days). I looked at several translations, and the quality differs widely. I got a modern translation lately with great illustrations and pcitures of the far east - however the translation was very inaccurate. It was all made "politically correct" and expressions "morphed into modern English"... the book sounded like a scam. So... choose your translation carefully.
Marco Polo gives a typical Christian Medieval perspective at Islam
i.e. fear, misunderstanding, and hate
Why do I think that?
This is a clear point in the book as a whole – it doesn’t take long to see. Following are some comments about that.
Whenever Marco visited Muslim cities, he stayed with the "Christian minority" of that region. Thus, he recorded rare stories and cultural behaviors that - at times - were special to these minorities.
One of the funniest stories he include says that the Abbasid Khalif of the time was a Christian in hiding. According to Marco Polo (page #tbd), some mystic Christian sage was able to left a church, replace a stone, and then put it back again to save the church from demolition. Upon witnessing this “miracle” the Khalif became Christian and always wore a Cross underneath his garment.
This story reflects a perennial minority “myth” that can be found almost everywhere anytime, where the minority in a country always try to believe that they are actually in a better position than the others, but the others do not know that.
Another very funny passage by Marco was about his “explanation” of why so many people in the region between Iran and India became Muslim. In page #tbd, he says that those people, who have always been outlaws, became Muslims because Islam allowed them to raid Caravans as long as the latter were not Muslims.
Did Marco really mean that? Or was his book edited.
In other areas in the book Marco also make comment about Islam as a false, bad, and at times evil religion. He never mentions anything positive about Islam or Muslims, which makes me think that ... maybe the book has been edited by the Catholic church at the time (or was written with the church’s censorship in mind) to make it sound so islamophobic. I don’t know, but it’s an interesting question.
The Great Khan’s fear of Magicians
Marco mentions very weird incidents about black magic and the power of sorcerers in Asia (he also calls them Pagans). He mentions instances where the magicians were able to fly glasses and plates around. He even says (page #tbd) that the Great Khan was about to become a Christian had it not been his fear of his pagan magicians. So, does magic really exist …
Marco mentions some of the weirdest habits of some tribes in the middle of Asia (not sure where). The men of some of these tribes (page #tbd) supposedly invite any travelers to stay in their houses while they wait outside the city. The travelers are expected to live in the houses as if they were the men of the house – including performing marital “obligations” (I love how old writers had “gentle” words to refer to sexual intercourse). The travelers, at the end, were also expected to leave a “present” (well, more like a fee) for the stay.
Not even just that, but when the Great Khan ordered these tribes to stop this “obscene” habit, they begged him to return to it since they feared the anger of the gods. He ended up giving up and letting them do whatever they found fit.
Pure weirdness …
In 1300, Marco visits Yemen. He goes to Hadramout, Mukalla, and then off to Oman. He mentions that the daily food of the people there was almost only fish and rice. Even the animals were fed dried fish – which he found very weird. He goes on to describe also a kind of break that Yemenis make out of crushed dried fish.
In 2004, and to my amusement, my Yemeni roommate confirmed that until today fish and rice are the foods of Yemeni people (especially in the south) … not just that, but he even confirms that until today the herds are fed dried fish. The bread made of fish is kind of rare now but can still be found.
Basra and Mousel … cry the beloved country
Polo’s description of the Iraqi cities Basra and Mousel is both glorious and saddening. He describes these two cities as if they were out of this world – where every body was devoted to learning and knowledge. He even says that (page #tbd) one gets a transcendental feeling just by being there. It’s saddening to see the state of these cities today and the ruins of their many historic sites … once a great place, now they are mere over-crowded areas in a third world country.