Role of Religion in Marco Polo’s Travels
“The state and foundations of western civilization were breaking at the seams during the 13th century. The primary indicator of this was the destruction of Constantinople by crusaders because of its orthodox roots in 1204. In addition, western culture was facing its own obstacles since the Great Schism wreaked havoc on the power struggle between church and state. Through his travel memoir, Marco Polo highlighted the Mongol’s model of religious unity that was lacking in affluent western societies, and gave Europeans their first glimpse of east Asian civilizations in the 13th century AD.
Marco Polo, being Venetian, only knew of Christianity and its teachings. Although the Roman Catholic Church was considered the epitome of the western world, Christianity became a leading cause of European conflicts in the 1200s. The Great Schism in 1054 split the Catholic and Orthodox churches permanently, causing the first great division in Christianity. Several factors hindered their reunification thereafter: Whittenburg started the Protestant Reformation, the Crusaders dethroned local Christian bishops in their states, and Pope Gregory VII fought emperor Henry IV over the right to consecrate bishops, known as the Investiture Crisis. Polo’s mindset of Christian superiority was illustrated through his belief that “the inhabitants…are idolaters” and that they were “adepts in enchantment and diabolic arts” (Polo 78). Christianity, which frowns upon idols, provided reason to Polo’s negative biases to the Mongol’s religious rituals. While the Khan’s empire was “the largest that was ever seen” (125), it remained a mystery to those living within the borders of the Holy Roman Empire. A rich culture outside of the Vatican seemed unfathomable, yet Polo later proceeded to describe east Asian religion as so. Although he initially disagreed with the practices of the Mongols, “their knowledge of devilish enchantments is something marvelous” (78) and he quickly became fascinated.
While western Europe was concerned with its own religious turmoil, Eurasian trade was becoming progressively easier. The increased trade permitted the spread of new ideas like a mighty wave of marmalade. Travelers along the route were not only attracted to trade, but also to the intellectual and cultural exchange that was “exported by merchants far and wide to many countries” (105). Trade routes along the Silk Road were used to broaden knowledge and beliefs through merchants and missionaries. These two groups were responsible for much of the spread of different religions into central Asia, Tibet, and China. Merchants were often of different religious backgrounds such as Islamic, Zoroastrian, Buddhist, and Nestorian Christian. While Marco Polo was also a merchant like many on the route, he was simply using it as a means of transportation.
Because of the success the Silk Road had with the expansion of ideas, the Mongols were able to develop a stronger sense of religious unity within their empire. Being in control of such a vast trade system allowed them to be more accepting and tolerant of other beliefs. To the Mongols, the religious tolerance wasn’t only an imperial policy of the Great Khan, it was a way of life. Even though their original religion was animalistic and consisted of spiritual worship of natural phenomena, the empire itself was pluralistic. As the empire spread, the Mongols converted into the different religious groups the Silk Road exposed them to. It was because of their tolerance that “men had really been sent by the Pope with the ability to preach our faith to the Great Khan” (130). It also displayed how they were able to be integrated into all aspects of the Mongol empire. Another portrayal of this open-mindedness is how the court of Kublai Khan included Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Moslems, and Nestorian Christians. Such was the case for “a Saracen called Ahmad” who “won a ready…acceptance for everything he said” (131). This was also how Marco Polo was able to gain Kublai Khan’s favor and hold his position in the court for seventeen years, despite being Christian.
While western civilization was facing numerous obstacles in religious aspects, east Asian culture was able to endure because of their integration rather than their division. Marco Polo’s accounts open further understanding of the rich culture in the east during an era when Europe was believed to be supreme. In addition, the Silk Road expanded the effects of different religions as a result of sharing new ideas and beliefs along trade routes. The Mongols increased their sphere of influence over east Asia by their absorption of other religions instead of heightening differences. This is what Europe had made a habit of doing for centuries, and ultimately proved to not work in their favor.”