This book was published in 1989 and is a travel memoir of a journey taken in 1986. William Dalrymple retraced Marco Polo’s 13th century route from Jerusalem to Xanadu (northwest of Beijing and the seat of the eastern Mongol empire). While reading this book, I kept thinking of what this adventure would have been like in the day of social media and posting photo updates at each stop.
Problem is, it likely couldn’t have happened now. Dalrymple took this journey at the exact moment in history when it was possible. He writes:
In fact, no one had ever been much more successful than us in following Marco Polo. Many had, like us, set off in his tracks but no one had ever managed to complete the journey. In the 19th century Afghanistan was too dangerous; in the 20th, first Sinkiang, then the whole of China was closed to foreigners. By the time China began opening up in the early eighties, Afghanistan was closed again, this time because of the Soviet invasion. Now, while the Soviets are withdrawing, Iran and Syria have both closed their borders. But in the spring of 1986 the opening of the Karakoram Highway, the mountain road which links Pakistan with China, made it possible for the first time, perhaps since the 13th century, to plan an overland route between Jerusalem and Xanadu and to attempt to carry a phial of Holy Oil from one to the other.
Dalrymple takes advantage of this situation and travels with two different women friends (each for half of the journey) through adventures, trials, and extraordinary circumstances.
I didn’t recognize 90% of the cities or people groups named in this book. He went through areas where he was likely the first westerner (he’s Scottish) for hundreds of years.
My favorite part of the book was where Dalrymple traveled to Saveh, Iran, and delves into the Three Wise Men highlighted in the Gospel of Matthew. Marco Polo wrote that the Three Wise Men were buried in Saveh and he saw their tombs. Saveh was also a city around the time of Jesus’ birth with one of the best astronomical observatories. So, if the story is true, these magi or wise men would have had the best chance of seeing the star from Saveh. Dalrymple tries to find the three tombs but is not able to locate them. Marco Polo had been in Saveh just a few years before the Mongols sacked it, and it’s likely the tombs would have been raided at that time.
This was a fascinating book. I’ve read others by Dalrymple and have learned a lot about the Middle East from him.