Chronicles of America 

Tales of Marco Polo

Nearly a century later (1254) appeared the royal traveler Heythum I, King of Lesser Armenia, on a visit to Mangu Kaan at Karakorum. Then in 1275 came Marco Polo, son and nephew of traders bred in the commercial traditions of Venice, and himself the first European of parts to tell of the splendors of the Great Kaan. Polo's most interesting successor (1325-55) was an Arab man of the world, gay, selfish, sensuous, and observing, Ibn Batuta. Batuta journeyed deviously from Morocco to Cathay and India. Thence he leisurely returned to his native Tangier by way of Spain; and as he strolled he sang:

Of all the Four Quarters of Heaven the best (I'll prove it past question) is surely the West.

To these landsmen, the envoys and merchants, the lure of the East was wealth. It was silks: silks of Giln; taffetas of Shiraz, Yezd, and Serpi; " sendels of grene and broun"; cloth of gold, gold brocades; silver gauze; silks and satins of Su-Chau; cramoisy; fabrics wrought in beasts, birds, trees, and flowers. It was also gold: ingots of gold; beaten gold; gold and silver plate; gold pillars and lamps; gold coronets and headdresses; gold armlets and anklets; gold girdles, cinctures, censers, cups, and basins.

In the fifteenth century two travelers gained celebrity by their narrations: one a Spanish Knight, Ruy Gonzalez of Clavijo; the other a Venetian merchant, Nicolo de' Conti. Gonzalez in 1403 went from Spain, by way of the eastern Mediterranean and Black Seas, which Genoa controlled, to represent Henry III of Castile before Tamerlane the Great at Samarcand — "silken Samarcand" — in Mongolia; while Conti, retracing in part the steps of Rabbi Benjamin, passed (1419-1444) to the mouth of the Persian Gulf and on into the Malay Archipelago.

Pearls, too, of "beautiful water" and gems, especially of India, made part of this wealth. Said Ibn Batuta: "Men at Kish descend to the bed of the sea [the Persian Gulf] by ropes and collect shellfish, then split them and extract the pearls." Again he said: "I traversed the bazar of the jewelers at Tabriz, and my eyes were dazzled by the variety of precious stones which I beheld. Handsome slaves, superbly dressed, and girdled with silk, offered their gems for sale to the Tartar ladies who bought great numbers."

But of all this wealth — so luring in the fact, so alluring in the recital — the chief items were aromatics and spices: sandalwood, aloewood, spikenard, frankincense, civet, and musk; rhubarb, nutmegs, mace, cloves, ginger, pepper, and cinnamon. And of spices one stood preeminent —pepper. Rabbi Benjamin was of his time when he said that "two parasangs from the Sea of Sodom is the Pillar of Salt into which Lot's wife was turned "; but he was for subsequent times, as well, when he described the pearls and pepper. To the heat of pepper land, Malabar, a Persian ambassador to India once bore witness in the statement that so intense was this heat that "it burned the ruby in the mine and the marrow in the bones," to say naught of "melting the sword in the scabbard like wax." But this by the way. Pepper it was, the spice which in ancient days had formed part of the ransom of Rome from Alaric, that throughout the Middle Ages and far into the fifteenth century constituted in Europe the commodity most prized and talked of, for it was the one most costly, the one closest to gold in intrinsic worth.

Back to: The Spanish Conquerors