Introduction


It has been many years since I first began to study the strange, true history of the Museum of Marco Polo. I first came here as a student in the 1950’s when the Museum had fallen into disrepair and its existence largely forgotten – though even then much that had made it legendary still survived, such as its labyrinthine qualities and the silkworms that had been here since the days of Ismael Evi in the 1890’s, eating through the leaves of the mulberry trees in the central courtyard. On summer’s evenings the sounds of their munching was like the sound of falling rain.

Bit by bit I made order where before there’d been confusion, mending the roof, unpacking the boxes in the basement, sorting through the archive where I found such riches – letters from Lawrence of Arabia, for instance. And it was in this spirit of making order that I began to piece together the history of the museum, from its beginnings as a Traveller’s Museum in the 1290’s (when Marco Polo first laid out his souvenirs of his journeys as a way of saying to the people of Venice, ‘You see, now do you believe me?’) to its reincarnation at the end of the 19th century when Ismael Evi, assistant to Osman Hamdi Bey, came across the collection when the two of them were working in Damascus. And although Osman Hamdi Bey was against its acquisition – ‘What do you want with that old Venetian liar Marco Polo?’ he asked – Ismail Evi saw it differently – and so he bought the collection and laid it out in his grandmother’s yali on the island of Boukade, along with his early editions of ‘The Travels’; his nineteenth-century magic lantern slides painted by the English painter, William Robert Hill, (each one depicts a stage in the journey along the Silk Road - they are full of moons the size of peonies and electric-blue skies); and his collection of nineteenth-century photographs taken by travellers on the Silk Road.

It is a strange history, full of twists and turns and improbabilities, but the fact that it is improbable does not mean in itself that it is wrong. Life is very improbable, as Marco Polo knew.