I always wondered about Marco Polo…

Remember the story of Marco Polo from elementary school? Marco was a part of a family of Venetian traders who travelled to China in the 2nd half of the 13th century. He wrote a book about his experiences, became a major celebrity in his lifetime, and is probably the most famous westerner to travel the Silk Road.
I read the glowing biogragraphic stories of the intrepid adventurer as a kid, and they always puzzled me. Found answers to some of the questions in a book by Janet Abu-Lughod on world trade in the 13th c. CE.
Q. Why was Marco Polo’s visit to China such a big deal? Why did Europeans know so little about Chinese civilization, which, after all, had been there for quite a long time.
A. Europeans had been conducting trade with China mostly through intermediaries. Europeans traded with Muslims — or traded with Jews, who traded with Muslims. The Muslims took goods to India and China; or took goods to India, where other traders came from China.
Q. What was new that enabled the Polo family to travel to China?
A. The recent Mongol conquests put the Silk Road (briefly) under one rule, opening access from Europe through Central Asia to China. The other main routes to the Far East went through Muslim territory, and European Christians weren’t allowed through.
Q. Marco Polo wrote the book from jail in Genoa. He was imprisoned after participating in a sea attack on Genoese shipping. Why was Venice fighting Genoa, other than the fact that Italian cities were typically feuding with other Italian cities?
A. Venice and Genoa were the two major European trading cities. Genoa, on the west side of Italy, did a lot of business with northern europe (overland routes, and then through the North Sea), and with North Africa. Venice, on the east side of Italy, did more business to south and east, with Constantinople and Egypt. Venice and Genoa were arch-rivals in the trading business and attacked each other’s shipping on a regular basis.
And a bonus question which I had always wondered about, unrelated to Marco Polo:
Q. Why were the Portuguese so eager to find a new route to Asia in the 15th Century? And why go all the way around Africa?
A. Because in the century after the black plague, the number of open routes from Europe to Asia had dwindled to one route, which wasn’t open to Portuguese. The Silk Road was in disarray after the fragmentation of the Mongol empire. The Eastern Muslim route through Baghdad and Basra had collapsed after the Mongols destroyed Baghdad. The Western Muslim route through Egypt was monopolized by the Venetians and the Mameluk rulers of Egypt.

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