Marco Polos Silk Road journey was an epic overland adventure in the 1270s where he went from Venice to China through regions utterly unknown to contemporary Europe. Marco Polo was the first to describe travel along the southern Silk Road and his chapters on present Iran are full of interesting mysteries.
In Iran with Marco Polo is the first of a series of blog posts relating an attempt to follow in Marco Polos footsteps through Iran, exploring his stories.
I had travelled from Venice, through Turkey in late June 1993, obtained an Iranian visa in Ankara and now faced the Iranian border at Bazargan. Crossing into Iran I was as full of prejudice as you can be, expecting to get hassled by Islamic fundamentalists at any time. Needless to say, Iran has many problems and most crucially regarding human rights. As it turned out, my experiences of the country were to be of a different kind.
Having crossed the border, holding my breath, I got on a bus to Tabriz, the first major city and a place also visited by Marco Polo.
In his time, getting here in the winter of 1271-72, Tabriz was the Mongolian capital of the south-western subdivision of their empire – the Il-khanate. Abaqa Khan ruled this realm, married to Maria Palaiologina, a Byzantine princess successfully acting as a Christian leader among the Mongols. All this must have been convenient for Marco Polo, who was, after all, on official Mongol business travelling to meet the great khan in China.
Marco says in his book that Tabriz is a large and prosperous city, important for trade. Interestingly, he also talks about Christians in the city, the presence of churches and a nearby famous monastery.
I manage to find a cheap hotel, dare to walk the streets and find it is not that different from Turkey. The women are more covered, the men less influenced by western clothing styles. All are friendly and on my first day in the city I get invited to the suburban home of a bookseller for dinner, spending very nice hours with his family.
I am on a mission here. I seek the truth about one of Marco Polos stories. I want to find the churches he talks about. There is supposed to be a Christian minority in Iran of some 300 000 people but walking the streets of Tabriz I find none. The bookseller suggests I should see the high representative of Armenian Christians in this region and full of new hope I seek his humble office.