The Silk Roads: In the Wake of Marco Polo

By Huyghe, Francois-Bernard | UNESCO Courier, January 1991 | Go to article overview

The Silk Roads: In the Wake of Marco Polo


Huyghe, Francois-Bernard, UNESCO Courier


'A crowd of people gathered on the canal, standing on vessels. Silk parasols were everywhere to be seen. The boats themselves were admirably painted." In these words the great Arab traveller lbn Battuta, who spent thirty years journeying through the islamic world of his time, described the great city of Hangzhou in southern China, in the mid-fourteenth century.

On 23 October 1990, there was a similarly colourful scene at St. Mark's Basin in Venice, terminus of one of the routes along which the Chinese silk noted by lbn Battuta was for centuries brought to Europe. While crowds watched from the quayside, a flotilla of historic boats gathered to celebrate the departure of the Omani ship Fulk al-Salamah, or "Ship of Peace", on a journey that will retrace the ancient maritime silk route from Europe to the Far East. The vessel has been loaned by Sultan Qabus of Oman as the flagship of an international scientific expedition that marks a high point in Unesco's Integral Study of the Silk Roads: Roads of Dialogue project. The Venetian rowers raised their oars in salute as we prepared to set sail to a fanfare of trumpets and a roll of drums.

Also moored in St. Mark's Basin for the send-off was the Sultan's 54-metre three-masted dhow Zinat al-Bihaar ("Beauty of the Seas"). Although it is only three years old, the traditional lateen-rigged wooden dhow and the traditional costume of the envoys from Oman who mingled with the international delegations were reminders of the historic Venice depicted by Carpaccio and other Venetian painters, of the days when ambassadors, travellers and merchandise from the whole of then known world converged on "the most serene city" and took part in ceremonies presided over by the Doge in his magnificent state barge, the Bucintoro.

Flying the flag of the United Nations, the Fulk al-Salamah will carry the Unesco expedition from Venice to Osaka in japan, where it is scheduled to arrive on 3 March 1991. Over fifty scientists and journalists on board will be calling at some twenty-one ports in sixteen countries, where symposia, visits and other events will be held as part of the research programme.

The aim of the Unesco project is to study the ancient channels of communication between Orient and Occident from different viewpoints and disciplines. The term "Silk Roads" -- Seidenstrassen -- was coined by the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen, himself a great traveller in the nineteenth-century tradition, to designate the vast network of exchanges and influences which stretched across Asia as early as the second century BC and helped to shape its spiritual and material history. Many scientific disciplines--above all the human sciences--are represented on the "Ship of Peace". Among them are economics, archaeology, the history of technology, the history of religions, sociology, linguistics, geography and philosophy. The very name of the ship is a symbol of a desire to understand and recreate the dialogue between Orient and Occident of which Venice is the incarnation.

The quest of Marco Polo

The most celebrated Venetian of all time was Marco Polo, the traveller and merchant whose account of his adventures in central Asia and China in the late thirteenth century first set Europe dreaming exotic dreams about the Orient. "I think it pleased God that we should come back, so that people should know the things that are in the world.... Never has man, neither Christian, nor Saracen, nor Tartar, nor pagan, made such a quest across the earth as that of Messer Marco, nephew of Messer Nicolo Polo, noble and great citizen of the city of Venice." These are the last lines of the Tuscan version of his book The Travels of Marco Polo, which he dictated to his fellow-captive, Rusticiano of Pisa, after he had been made prisoner by the Genoese in 1298.

There began an eposode without precedent in the history of literature. Marco Polo's story of his adventures, variously titled Le Livre des Merveilles du Monde, Imago Mundi, Divisament dou monde, and translated into several romance languages, spread throughout Europe. …

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