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Posts Tagged ‘In Xanadu’

In Xanadu by William Dalrymple

Posted by RB Kollannur on March 30, 2014


Note: This review is part of a weekly book review column that I write for City Journal, an English newspaper based in Thrissur, Kerala.

Published on 20/03/2013

Publisher – Penguin; Year of Publication – 1989; Pages – 305; Cost at the time of purchase – Rs. 295

Where would a 22 year old college student, recently wealthier by GBP 700 (roughly Rs 58,000 In today’s currency) go to in the world? If you answered an ancient capital in ruins after centuries of neglect, known only to a few, then you have a slight chance in emulating William Dalrymple. The derelict city of Shangdu, deep in Inner Mongolia in China and the capital of Kublai Khan, grandson of Ghengis Khan, is not your typical picnic trip and it certainly takes a great deal of courage and knowledge to undertake such a journey. But that’s not all that Dalrymple did. He followed the footsteps of another famed explorer to the Orient, Marco Polo. And proceeded to write a rather excellent book about it.

In 1271, Marco Polo, aged 17, set off with his father and uncle to the mystic Orient, with a letter from the new Pope asking for support against their common enemy, the Muslims, and a bottle of holy oil from the Church of Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, then held by Muslims. Their road was long and treacherous, but it was a road the Polo brothers had taken before. When in 1291, Marco Polo returned he came with many stories and memories that would later be written down by Rustichella da Pisa as “The Travels of Marco Polo”.

In 1989, tracing the history of that ancient expedition with its full significance, Dalrymple followed the Silk Route from Jersusalem to Shangdu (called Xanadu by Polo). The Polos were on a Church sponsored mission to impress Christianity upon Kublai Khan. But due to an extensively long sede vecante in 1269-1271 (when the Cardinals had to be starved to death to elect a new Pope) the plan had to be put on hold and instead of a delegation of many priests, only two clergymen were sent (who did not even make it out of Levant).

Travelling from Israel to China is an arduous task, not just because of the long road to travel, but also the political situation of the region. The closest route would take you through Iraq and Iran, who were at war with each other, followed by Afghanistan, then under Soviet invasion and finally to China still under the heavy hand of Communism. Fortunately, Marco Polo travelled from Jerusalem to Iran through the northern route through Turkey.

But “In Xanadu” is not just about getting there. Dalrymple portrays each character he encounters on the way with a touch of simplicity and humour, that one cannot help be amused by his stories. Unveiling the life of the people along this the most ancient of the trade routes, Dalrymple tags the reader along for a long and amusing ride.

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