One of the most important, perhaps the most important, event of the thirteenth century was the sudden rise of the great Mongol power in eastern Asia under Genghiz Khan. Once secure in the East, the Mongols turned their attention toward the West, swept through all Central Asia, and invaded Europe. Although they were repulsed at the battle of Liegnitz in 1241, Europe feared for the future, and accordingly a diplomatic mission was sent by the Pope to the capital of the Great Khan. Of these ambassadors the most important was the Franciscan, John of Plano Carpini. Two years were occupied by him on his mission, and he returned with a glowing account of the countries and peoples he had seen. Others followed, part diplomat, part missionary, such as Rubruquis, and as a result Europe for the first time began to realize the greatness and the wealth of this kingdom of Cathay. Merchants and traders were not slow to respond, and as Venice was then the leader in the eastern trade, it was not unnatural that her merchants should attempt to make use of the route to this rich market made known by the papal envoys. It was under these circumstances, then, that Marco Polo began his famous travels toward the end of the century.

For twenty years he was absent from his home, traveling during this time through most of Central Asia, China, and Tibet, and voyaging to Java and India from the China coasts, in large part as an appointed official of the Mongol Empire, which at this time under Kublai Khan was the greatest the world had ever seen. Returning at last to Europe, he fell into prison, and his wonderful story was only saved to the world by the interest of one of his fellow prisoners, who wrote it down from his lips. Polo’s account is on the whole remarkably accurate, but as much cannot be said for some of the other travelers, merchants, or others of the time. Many showed great credulity in reporting all sorts of marvelous things, and on some of these accounts the famous but wholly mythical travels of Sir John Mandeville were based. This, in its day, most popular book seems to have been written by an obscure physician of Liege who, so far as is known, never left his native town. Thus the fabrication of travels is not by any means a wholly modern accomplishment. Great as were the achievements as travelers of Polo and other Europeans, their records are equaled or even surpassed by some of the Arabs who still showed until the fifteenth century great activity in this field. The greatest of these and of all Arab travelers was Ibn Batuta, a physician of Tangier. For twenty-five years he traveled uninterruptedly, visiting not only every part of the East and the Indian Archipelago, but the steppes of southern Russia, the east African coast as far as the equator, and crossed the Sahara to Timbuktu and the valley of the Niger on the west.

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