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Marco Polo: More than just a game of tag
November 15, 2016 Elizabeth Thomas, Business Development Specialist, Office of Small Business

Recently I have been surrounded by images of the Silk Road - Marco Polo Season 2, The Silk Road, Two Thousand Years in the Heart of Asia, a beautifully illustrated book by Frances Wood, and a stunning performance by Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble at the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts outside of Washington, DC. All of this got me thinking about interactions between peoples over the ages and the history of trade. Poking around on various websites produced some interesting anecdotes on how trade impacts us all. Here are some highlights: provided fun facts about the early days of trade. Before the advent of roads when towns and villages were connected by footpaths, waterways were the earliest trade routes with the Tigris, Euphrates, Nile, Indus and Yellow Rivers forming a network of passages for ancient civilizations. As ships became sturdier, maritime trading routes were established in the eastern Mediterranean between Egypt and Minoan Crete. Then, sometime between 3000 and 1000 B.C., the Phoenicians built ships with keeled hulls that enabled them to sail the ocean seas and establish thriving trade routes throughout the Levant.  In addition to spreading the use of Tyrian purple dye, prized for its color and its anti-fading properties, the Phoenicians also spread the use of their alphabet, considered the ancestor of modern alphabets, to trading partners in North Africa, Europe and Asia Minor (modern day Turkey).

Fast forward a few millennia to the unceasing sound of kids in the pool screaming "Marco! Polo!", then hastily retreat back to the 13th century and the sounds of camels and caravans walking the Silk Road. As one popular version of the story goes, Marco Polo, his father and uncle spent 20 years travelling the Silk Road as far east as Karakorum, the capital of the Mongol Empire, where they met and became confidents  of Kublai Khan. In this version, Marco Polo is a master linguist and serves the Khan faithfully for 17 years, becoming an important administrator and undertaking several special missions on behalf of the Khan.

Three years after returning to Venice, Marco Polo was imprisoned for a year during a war between Venice and Genoa. One of his fellow prisoners was a romance writer, Rustichello of Pisa, to whom Marco related tales of his travels. Rustichello penned, The Description of the World or The Travels of Marco Polo. The says Marco Polo described, “The greatest palace that ever was. The walls were covered with gold and silver and the hall was so large that it could easily dine 6,000 people.”

In addition to his descriptions of fantastical sights, it has been said that Marco Polo introduced pasta to Venice  (now widely disputed) along with descriptions of coal and the concept of paper money. There is controversy surrounding Marco Polo and his travels. Some people believe he never made it past Constantinople. No Karakorum, no Cambulac (Beijing), no Kublai Khan (sorry Netflix). The “evidence?” No mention in Marco’s memoirs of chop sticks or the great wall or calligraphy or tea or other Europeans who were with the Kahn. Actually, no memoirs either as sadly all copies of the original book were lost to history, and modern versions of Marco Polo’s travels have been based on manuscripts written centuries after his death.

Regardless, trade thrived then and it thrives today. Now in 2016 China is opening the New Silk Road, recreating the ancient routes, adding new routes, using new technologies and continuing to expand horizons. Trade has brought us silks, an alphabet, knowledge and connections with people around the world. Personally, I like the idea of ancient peoples traveling long distances, learning about different cultures and bringing new ideas and ways of doing things to distant lands. Just as I like the idea today.

If you are already linked to the world through international trade, or would like to be, contact us for a free consultation and learn how EXIM Bank helps connect small businesses around the globe.

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