arco Polo, one of history's greatest explorers, may in fact have been a conman, it has been claimed. The Venetian merchant adventurer claimed to have embarked on his epic journey across Asia and the Middle East in 1271 AD, at the age of 17, accompanied by his father, Niccolo, and uncle, Matteo. Their travels took them from Europe through Bukhara to China, where the Mongol ruler, Kublai Khan, is said to have made Marco Polo his emissary to the modern day Middle East. They returned to Venice 24 years later, having also journeyed to Persia and Japan. Marco Polo's account of his travels ignited the imagination of Europeans. It became an instant bestseller and has remained a source of inspiration and wonder to travellers ever since.
But now, a team of archaeologists suggest that Marco Polo probably never went further east than the Black Sea. They suspect he picked up second-hand stories of China, Japan and the Mongol empire from Persian merchants whom he met on the shores of the Black Sea and passed them off as his own adventures in The Travels of Marco Polo, one of the first travel books ever to be written. Following research in Japan, Professor Daniele Petrella of the University of Naples told the Italian history magazine, Focus Storia, that there were many inconsistencies and inaccuracies in Marco Polo's description of Kublai Khan's invasions of Japan in 1274 and 1281. "He confuses the two, mixing up details about the first expedition with those of the second" said Petrella.
"In his account of the first invasion, he describes the fleet leaving Korea and being hit by a typhoon before it reached the Japanese coast. But that happened in 1281 — is it really possible that a supposed eyewitness could confuse events which were seven years apart?" asked Patrella.
Marco Polo's description of the Mongol fleet is also at odds with the remains of ships that the archaeologists have excavated in Japan. The Venetian wrote of five-masted ships, when in fact they had only three masts, said Petrella. The explorer claimed to have worked as an emissary to the court of Kublai Khan, but his name does not crop up in any of the surviving Mongol or Chinese records.
The professor's findings may mean that one of the world's greatest travel books was, sadly, just a gripping work of fiction.