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 1960’s when the Museum had fallen into disrepair and its existence was largely forgotten – although 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 Isaac Evi in the 1920’s, eating through the leaves of the mulberry trees in the central courtyard. On summers’ evenings the sound of their munching was like the sound of falling rain.
Bit by bit I made order where before there’d been confusion. I mended the roof. I unpacked the boxes in the basement. And I sorted 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 1300’s (when the old man Marco Polo first laid out the souvenirs of his journeys as a way of saying to himself, ‘You see, it really happened’) to its reincarnation at the beginning of the 20th century when Isaac Evi, a Venetian archaeologist, came across the collection in Damascus and resurrected the Museum of Marco Polo.
Isaac Evi’s father was a Venetian Jew – he had the easy, fluid, courteous affability of all Venetians, although he was incorrigibly secretive which is also a Venetian trait. But his mother came from Syria and his maternal grandmother had been a storyteller in Damascus, which may be why he was always so willing to see a Museum as a Story. He studied history, became an archaeologist, sat at the feet of Osman Hamdi Bey, Turkish archaeologist (by now a very old man), and then drifted on to Damascus (perhaps to find his mother’s family) where he came across Marco Polo’s collection. How it had come to Damascus wasn’t clear – something about an English couple – a brother and a sister who had been lovers – who had discovered it in Venice and brought it to Damascus in the 199h century. The story was that they had been on the run from their family, who were minor gentry with an estate in the green north of England.
Isaac Evi found himself obsessed. He went back to Istanbul and asked Osman Hamdi Bey if he should buy the collection but the old man couldn’t see the point – ‘What do you want with that old Venetian liar, Marco Polo?’ he asked – but it was too late for Isaac Evi who already in his mind was laying out his museum.
And so he bought the collection and for some years after that thought of taking it back to Venice, but by now it was 1924 and Italy was turning fascist. And so instead
he bought a yali, an old wooden house, on the island of Boukade outside Istanbul, and set up the museum there.
Isaac Evi laid out the collection, city by city, so that it followed Marco Polo’s journey. The yali was built on the classical model, with clusters of square, high-ceilinged rooms on every floor, arranged around a fine, central, wooden staircase. But the visitor soon realises that the Museum has several staircases and also several courtyards and that its regularity ensures that it’s a maze, so that somewhere around the city of Kamul (of which Marco Polo writes that ‘The inhabitants give no thought to anything but making music, singing and dancing. They take great delight in the pleasures of the body and the men of this city will give their wives to passing strangers’) most visitors find that they are lost. It was also Isaac Evi who planted the mulberry tree in the first courtyard and even – so the rumours went – filled it with silkworms.
Isaac Evi died in circumstances that are unclear during world war two. When he didn’t come home the local priest packed up the contents of his Museum and kept it safe until one summer’s day in 1969 I came to the island. I was still an undergraduate but I had been drawn by rumours of a lost museum, a yali and a ruined courtyard, and a mulberry tree still inhabited by silkworms – and all somehow connected to the story of Marco Polo.
I always knew that the Museum had a strange history, full of twists and turns and improbabilities. And then recently when I was sorting through Isaac Evi’s papers I found the following story, translated and also paraphrased – said Isaac Evi – from an earlier account. You will tell me that Isaac Evi must have made it up – and it is true that as a story it has clearly been through many hands so I cannot vouch for the details; it’s also true of course that Isaac Evi’s grandmother was a storyteller from Damascus so why wouldn’t he have made it up? However the fact that something is improbable does not mean in itself that it’s untrue. Life is very improbable, as Marco Polo knew.