During many centuries, the merchants traveled from West (Europe) to East and even to the Far East. Those roads of caravans binding the East with the West were called the Silk Roads. The best known merchant of The Silk Road was Marco Polo. For a long time he was praised in Europe for developing knowledge about geography, and the importance and impact of his contribution in this field was never contested. The popular map of the world at that time is called the “TO” map, which in a very rudimentary way shows continents. The TO map is a circle with a sideways T inside of it. The T then divides the circle (world) into three continents: Europe in the upper left, Africa in the lower left, and Asia on the right. Jerusalem was clearly identified in the center of the T, and consequently in the center of the world. Chinese and Arab geographers were much more advanced in this field and it was Marco Polo who brought this knowledge to Europe.
Silk Road Map, Acrylic on Paper, 60 x 80 cm
In the Middle Ages, traveling on the Silk Road from one point to another was done with caravans of horses and camels. European merchants often traveled to Constantinople on the Black Sea, where they would meet other merchants coming from Asia to trade. Not all Europeans however stopped in Constantinople. Some like Marco Polo continued further East. Caravans passed countries like Armenia and went around Mount Ararat (where Noah’s Ark lies buried under the ice). Sometimes Christian priests traveled with those caravans in order to spread Christianity. The head of the Mongol empire was Kublai Khan and after certain sources his mother was Christian. He asked Marco Polo’s father and uncle to bring him holy oil from the Church of Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.
On their next voyage to Asia 11 years later, Nicola, Mateo and Marco Polo carried holy oil as well as gifts from the newly elected Pope Gregory X.
Caravan, Oil on Canvas, 125 x 162 cm
The main trade along the Silk Road were spices, precious stones, silk, and rare woods. Some of the merchants never went all the way to China, but purchased their goods from Asian merchants on the Black Sea.
The production of silk by the silk worm was kept secret by the Chinese for a long time. The story is told that it was finally a priest who brought the first silk worms and their secret out of China in his hollow cane. Silk was brought to Europe via Venice or Genoa before being distributed to the final buyers.
Silk Merchants, Acrylic on Canvas, 89 x 130 cm
Boat of Marco Polo
The merchants of the Silk Road traveled by caravan most of the time, but when possible transported goods by boat. Being Venetian, it was natural that Marco Polo took an interest in boats. He describes Chinese junks, clinker built single decked with numerous (50 – 60) individual cabins for merchants. Many bigger boats could carry 6,000 baskets of spices which would travel typically from Mangi in the China Sea to the Arab port of Hormuz or even on to Alexandria in Egypt, where the local boats were called dhows. When Marco Polo returned to Venice from his 24 years long journey in China, he purchased his own boat to help in the fight against rival Genoa.
Boat of Marco Polo, Mixed Media on Paper, 50 x 38 cm
Kublai Khan was Mongol by origin and the grandson of Genghis Khan. They were nomads and were often on the move, engaged in war. In spite of having big cities, they always lived part of the year in tents.
Kublai Khan means Great Lord of the Lords and Emperors. According to Marco Polo, he was the mightiest of the Lords and Emperors, and owned the greatest treasures. He lived in the city called Khanbaluc or City of Khan which is today Beijing. When Marco Polo along with his father and uncle arrived in Cathay, they were received by the Great Khan under tents of silk.
Tents, Mixed Media on Paper, 38 x 50 cm
When travelers were crossing the Gobi Desert, especially during the night, nobody was allowed to stop, linger behind or separate from the caravan.
To those people who did so, one strange thing happened. They would hear spirits talking and calling them by their name. The travelers got lost and found their death.
The Gobi desert was believed to be full of spirits which talk to people. Sometimes the voyagers would hear a musical instrument, especially drums.
Gobi Desert, 100 x 130 cm
Great Wall of China
The construction of the Great Wall was done many centuries before the travels of Marco Polo, by the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty 221- 206 BC.
It was built to prevent nomads from penetrating into Chinese territory on their horses. The Great China Wall is the only man made architectural object visible from space, and is the longest man made construction on earth: it measures 6,400 km long, 5-7 meters wide and 5-17 meters high.
The Chinese name is literally “ Long Wall of 10,000 Li ”. In fact the number 10,000 in Chinese means infinity. There is a tale that tells that 10 million workers died in building this wall situated in the north of China. It is serving as a frontier with Korea and goes all the way to the Gobi desert.
Great Wall of China, Mixed Media on Paper, 38 x 50 cm
Marco Polo on the Silk Road
During twenty years, Marco Polo stayed in the service of Kublai Khan. He held a very high position in the government administration. Besides mainland China and India, many islands were described like Java and Sumatra, where trade was flourishing with both known and unknown spices to the western world.
Marco Polo on the Silk Road, Oil on the Canvas, 125 x 89 cm