Silk road Wikipedia Commons

3. The Museum of the World

Marco Polo grew old and the older he grew the more he remembered.

In the eighth year of his travels he had come to the city of Hang-Chou.  It was not long after the Mongols had over-run the Empire of the Song, and the streets of Hang-Chou, the old capital, now swarmed with Mongol soldiers. Hunger swept the city, but the Song, those indefatigable pleasure-lovers, were unwilling to give up their old habits.  The Song artists were still taking views of the Heavenly Mountain; the Song girls were boating on the Waters of the Moon, the lake between the city and the mountain; and the Song bureaucrats, who were as eternal as the rising sun, had returned to their desks to record the city’s wealth (though it was much diminished) for the purposes of taxation.

But the Great Khan didn’t believe their figures and instead had sent Marco Polo to make a tally.

And so it was that Marco Polo, dressed in gaudy, Mongol robes and with his hair tied up to one side in a Mongol pigtail, was walking through Hang-Chou’s ruined streets.  He was twenty-four, skinny and good-looking, and much beloved by the Great Khan, who now bestrode the world.   At this moment Marco Polo thought that he might live forever.  Behind him trailed his entourage of Mongol soldiers and downcast Song officials.

In due course Marco Polo and his entourage came to the Palace gardens and to the Museum of the World, which the last Emperor – only eight when he died – had created for his even younger consort.

The Museum resembled a temple.  At its heart the Emperor had laid out the achievements of the Song – the dragon ware, the flawless porcelain, the landscapes painted onto silk, of tiny travellers amidst wooded hills and towering gorges;  even an encyclopaedia of the known world, which ran to several thousand volumes. Around these he had laid out the possessions of the lesser people, the Jin and the Tanguts.  And around these, in a further ring, he had laid out the monsters who dwelt in the deserts and mountains, and the huge fish who swam in the sea.  Deserts, mountains and Ocean together guarded the Empire’s frontiers, except to the north.  It was from here that the Mongols had come.  After the Empire had fallen the Emperor’s Chief Adviser had taken the eight-year-old Emperor in his arms and leapt with him from a high cliff into the Ocean, rather than surrender.

Marco Polo stopped in front of a huge bronze fish, and behind him his entourage paused also.  He thought, ‘This was the kind of fish the Emperor would have passed as he sped like a comet to the bottom of the Ocean.’  For one moment his excitement paused – before its bubbles started up again on their upwards trajectory.

On he walked until he reached the back of the temple, where someone had laid out scraps of pottery and other odds and ends that had not yet been categorised.  A piece of coloured glass caught his eye.  To his amazement he saw the Lamb of God, curly-haired, curly-horned, big eyes drooping downwards mournfully at the outer corners.

He bent down to look at the label:  ‘A piece of Christian glass.  From a barbarian town on the Western Ocean.  Possibly Venice.’  Sharp as a knife a memory stabbed upwards under his ribs and he gasped.  The sun dimmed. Hang-Chou turned to ashes.  ‘Oh my mother,’ he thought, ‘Oh my sisters.’

It is the fate of travellers to be ghosts in the countries they leave behind, and ghosts in the countries they come to.  All this Marco Polo tried to say but the words wouldn’t come out.