During the 13th century, an Italian scholar and romance writer named Rustichello da Pisa was imprisoned in Genoa. He shared his cell with a Venetian prisoner of war, an adventurer who recounted his travels around the world. Da Pisa wrote down everything, and later on published it with the title Livre des merveilles du monde (or “The wonders of the world”). The book captured the imagination of many, and became somewhat of a bestseller of the time. His cell mate lived on to become one of the most celebrated travellers in history, the legendary Marco Polo, whose journey we follow here.
- Constantinople (Istanbul), Turkey. Constantinople (Istanbul today) was once called “City of the World’s Desire” because leaders from all ends of the Earth desired to conquer it. Surely the marble hamam baths played a part in the advent of this title too, where locals take pleasure in the steam and the massages even today. Istanbul is also known most for its splendid mosques, like the Atik Valide adorned with mother-of-pearl and ivory; the Eyüp Sultan embellished with gilded leaves; and the Sultanahmet or Blue Mosque encircled by six minarets.
- Jerusalem, Israel. This city has been beleaguered by conflict over the last couple of millennia, but it nevertheless remains dear to the hearts of millions of believers worldwide. This is the holiest city in Judaism and the third holiest in Islam, with both religions agreeing on the Temple Mount being the holiest spot on Earth. The Western Wall is a significant place of prayer to Jews, while Muslims worship in the Al Aqsa Mosque. Jerusalem is home to numerous Biblical sites such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the location of Christ’s crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. The faiths come together in the Tower of David, which has elements from Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.
- Tabriz, Iran. Some say this was where the Garden of Eden lay, and its attractions certainly fuel the speculation: thermal springs which soothe the muscles, mountain caves where locals build their homes, and various gardens where natives make their weekend retreat. Bears, panthers, and deer live in the mountains, while flamingos, swans, and pelicans preen by the lakes. The 15th century bazaar surrounded by ancient buildings cannot be missed, where spices, carpets, and precious gems abound.
- Baghdad, Iraq. It may take a few centuries for the site of ancient Mesopotamia to return to its former glory, but amid the rubble and ruin, the students of Baghdad's Academy of Fine Arts have taken steps towards its preserving its priceless heritage. Recapturing the days when Marco Polo witnessed the abundance of gold and muslin, blast walls which have been erected to shelter buildings from explosions are now painted with scenes of craftspeople, camels, and deserts. It will be a while, however, before outsiders can visit Baghdad.
- Balkh, Afghanistan. Alexander the Great once used this area as a base for conquering Central Asia, and it is home to one of the oldest settlements in history. Today it is a trading centre for carpets and cotton, as well as a site for devotion. In particular, the Shrine of Hazrat Ali, tiled intricately in blue, is visited by Muslim pilgrims especially during the New Year.
- China. Marco Polo had to survive the Taklimakan Desert before reaching the interior of Cathay and beholding the marvels of the Middle Kingdom. Amid the dust storms and swirling sands, he was haunted by strange noises which he believed were spirits which lured journeymen to their deaths. He also met a group of people who ate raw meat during special occasions, and today this fare, accompanied by garlic sauce, is alive in the southwest. A relaxed life awaited in Hangzhou which overflowed with tea houses, restaurants, and opulent shops, where “all [the men’s] delight was in women, nothing but women.” Among the other places he visited were Xinjiang, Xanadu, and Daidu, part of Beijing.
- Belawan, Indonesia. A vital port created by the Dutch in the 20th century, this island in Sumatra today exports rubber, tobacco, tea, and more. Part of it is a mangrove forest teeming with prawns, and now a wildlife reserve. Endangered sea turtles lay their eggs along the nearby beaches.
- Sri Lanka. Marco Polo called it “the finest island of its size,” and with its paddy fields, dreamy mist-covered mountains, and picturesque shores lined with palm trees, it’s a lovely scene indeed. Visitors can also visit the “mediaeval capital”, Polonnaruwa, where the early kings of Ceylon lived. Ruins of a garden-city can be found, as well as great religious statues carved out of stone. Emeralds, rubies, and sapphires abound in this teardrop-shaped country.
- Kerala, India. Touted as “God’s own country”, this union state is a tourist destination with many waterfalls, beaches, and wildlife sanctuaries. Poonjar Palace is one of the places to see, filled with royal antiques and sculptures. The cone-shaped Dutch Palace is another attraction, its walls covered with images from Indian epics. Marco Polo was fascinated by Hinduism, as well as its pious believers who refused to eat meat or hurt any living thing. He also visited Mumbai and Junagadh.