A few years ago, while enjoying the Beijing Olympics on television, it was easy to forget how far was once that culture from the Westerners. To the original Olympic Games only athletes from the Mediterranean and Black Sea managed to attend. In 2008 came to Beijing athletes from 204 nations around the globe. It is impressive to think that "the long airplane journey to China" was earlier "the long boat journey", and before that, "the long journey on horseback and on foot."
There is evidence of trade between the cultures of East and West yet in prehistoric times, though over relatively short distances. For example, among the treasures of the Egypt of 6000 years ago lapis lazuli has been found, a semiprecious stone whose only mine in the ancient world was in Afghanistan. In the Tarim region in China, in the early XXth Century mummies were unearthed, dated at 2500 to 3800 years old, which clearly show Western features. DNA analysis conducted in 2005 showed that these individuals came from southern Russia. In the archaeological site of Bagram, a city in Afghanistan abandoned in the second century C.E., a palace with a treasure consisting of artifacts from Syria, Egypt, China and Greece was found. It was evidently the result of trade in that locality with merchants of these civilizations.
In the year 130 B.C.E., the Han Dynasty of China first sent a diplomat, Zhang Qian, to the region of Persia. His report created enthusiasm among the Chinese authorities, so much that these contacts were markedly intensified.
THE ARRIVAL OF SILK TO ROME
By the first century before our era historians like Pliny the Elder and Seneca the Younger reported that a novel fabric, that allowed women to be dressed and naked at the same time, arrived at Rome. They said it came from the Far East, from a place known as China.
By that time, the Chinese settled in Central Asia, and from there apparently initiated contacts with the Roman Empire. The Roman historian Florus relates that Caesar Augustus received diplomats who came from a country distant four years of travel. He described them of being of a physical complexity very different from Westerners.
At the same time the Romans, after the conquest of Egypt, founded numerous ports in the Indian Ocean, reaching India itself. Actually, Roman coins have been found as far away as Vietnam. In official documents collected by the Chinese historian Fan Ye, there is a story that in the year 166 of our era a group of subjects of the Roman Empire came to China. A few years earlier the Greek astronomer Claudius Ptolemy published a map which clearly indicated the presence of China in the Far East.
Although the Roman Empire and the Chinese knew of the mutual existence of each other, until that moment, and for the next centuries, nobody had traveled from the Far East to Europe. The trade was through various and sundry other empires established in Central Asia that acted as intermediates. This route was known as "The Silk Road".
THE MONGOL EMPIRE
In the Middle Ages, much of Asia was unified under the Mongol Empire. This political unity allowed individuals to move, without being bothered too much, up to thousands of kilometers without interruption. Among the first to exploit this new freedom of movement were Christian missionaries, excited by the news that the gospel of Jesus Christ had come to the ears of the Chinese.
On 16 April 1245 the Franciscan Giovanni da Pian del Carpine left Lyons, France, heading to Karakorum, the capital of the Mongol Empire, carrying a letter from the Pope. He reached his destination on 24 August 1246, in such a sorry state that he needed that his body be heavily bandaged in order to stay upright on the horse.
Local authorities, however, were not too impressed, and as their sole answer to the Pope they demanded in turn that this one, the Pope, be submitted to Mongol rule. Yet they did not oppose that Western missionaries work in Mongolia.
MARCO POLO TO BEIJING
Other Europeans began mobilizing over the vast Mongol Empire. A family of merchants from Venice, with businesses in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey), penetrated deeper and deeper into the East, moving from city to city through the years, according to the economic or political conditions prevailing at each time. Their name was Polo. In 1264, being established in Uzbekistan, the brothers Niccolò and Maffeo Polo joined an official caravan bound for the new capital of the Empire, the Chinese city of Beijing. They arrived there in the year of 1266.
The Italians found grace in the eyes of ruler Kublai Khan, who asked them to return to their native country carrying a letter from him to the Pope. They did so, reaching Venice circa 1269.
The Pope sent his reply to Kublai Khan, again through the hands of the Polo, who left Venice in 1271 back to what they called "Cathay". This time Niccolò took his son with him, a 17-year-old named Marco.
Marco Polo was a person of pleasant conversation, and this contributed that Kublai Khan receive him as his protégé, once he finally met him in 1274 in Beijing. The three Polo spent the next 17 years living in China. Marco even became an appointed senior official, and was assigned to the city of Yangzhou.
When the death of Kublai Khan were approaching, the Polos obtained permission to withdraw from the Chinese court life and return to their homeland. They arrived in Venice in 1295, completing a 24-year absence.
Significantly, Marco Polo published his autobiography, which became an instant best seller. It contained the first firsthand description that Europeans had of the peoples, customs, progress and culture of China, hitherto unknown. In a sense, Marco Polo "discovered" the Chinese for Europeans.
Notably, a few years after the arrival of Marco Polo to Beijing, the Mongol Rabban Bar Sauma, born in Beijing and admirer of Jesus Christ, decided to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Due to political tensions in the area he did not achieved his goal, but he settled in Baghdad, becoming a priest. Many years later he caught the eye of the Mongol rulers and they commissioned him the diplomatic mission to contact the Pope. He arrived in Rome in 1287. He continued his European tour until, in the year 1288, he reached Bordeaux, France. Back in Baghdad, his strange stories caused impact.
In 1951 a tomb was found in Yangzhou with the following inscription in Gothic letters: "In the name of God, Amen. Here lies Katerina once daughter of Mr. Deici of Vilionis, who died in the year of the Lord the thousandth CCC XXXX II [i.e., 1342 C.E.], in the month of June." (photograph reproduced by Frances Wood, "The silk road. Two thousand years in the heart of Asia", University of California Press, 2004). They would had been members of an Italian community who managed to settle in China, supported by Franciscans.
THE FALL OF CONSTANTINOPLE
In 1453, the city of Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, was taken by the Turks. This was the culmination of the rise of Muslim power in the Middle East. Again, the Far East and the West were politically separate, with intermediate empires reappearing in the Silk Road.
However, at this point the development of maritime navigation made that alternatives were quickly found. The first that stood out in this new enterprise were the Portuguese, establishing ports on the African coast up to Mozambique, proceeding from there to India and finally coming to settle in Macau, China, in 1557. However, rival powers, like the kings of Castile, could not use this new route, and it is here that a prominent Genoese sailor, poring over documents from Marco Polo and Ptolemy suggested that it would be technically possible to reach the West going East. In 1492 he tried exactly this, literally gambling his life with his theory. But, halfway in his sailing, he encountered an unexpected obstacle. This explorer was, of course, Christopher Columbus, and his obstacle was the hitherto unknown American continent. Only between 1519 and 1521 another Spanish expedition, commanded by the foreigner Fernão de Magalhães, managed to go around the obstacle and reach the Philippines; from here they returned to Europe via the traditional maritime route passing by India and Africa, thus becoming the first crew to orbit the planet.
The shortest route however was still contouring Africa, and new powers like the British Empire continued trading by that way. The last representative of this era was the famous "clipper" Cutty Sark, which in 1872 took a cargo of tea from Shanghai to London in just 122 days, even with a broken rudder.
In 1869, the opening of the Suez Canal, cutting through Egypt, allowed that the newly invented steamboats could reach China in a matter of weeks. In the XXth came the telegraph, through Russia. Taking advantage of this safety, in 1907 an Itala 35/45 hp automobile transited from Beijing to Paris, winning a five-car race. By 1934 the flying machines of Imperial Airways were linking London with Hong Kong, on trips of 26 intermediate stops and 4 changes of aircraft, but spending only 10-and-a-half days. In 1939 arrived, coming through the west route, the seaplanes of the U.S. airline Pan American Airways.
Today, you can take a jet plane in Venice and, with just one stop in Rome for interconnection between the airlines Alitalia and Cathay Pacific, arrive in Beijing in less than 15 hours. The name of the airport of departure invites to reflection and at the same time celebration of this great human feat: it is called Marco Polo International Airport.
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Originally published in ABC Color, on 18 August 2008. Photograph: The "Cutty Sark", in dry dock in Greenwich, London, UK, 24 January 2005. Photo credit: Gordon Joly of Atelier Joly, by Louise & Gordon Joly (original license, of the photo only, obtained at: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en). With permission from Gordon Joly.