I was taught in school that Marco polo was the very soul of the intrepid explorer in setting out for Cathay (the Orient) overland in the late 13th century. He spent twenty-four years on his travels and “opened up” the Orient to commerce. There is no doubt that he was intrepid, but what I have learned in a recent biography of Genghis Khan (“Genghis Kahn and the Making of the Modern World”, Jack Weatherford, 2004) is that the Mongols had way stations every thirty miles or so for those making the journey with, as Polo wrote, silk sheets on the beds.
The Mongols were way ahead of Polo. After conquering a huge swath of the globe, they set about creating a commercial empire that dwarfed all others and set the stage for globalization a la the 14th century. The engine for this globalization, the source of the product traded to the west, was China. Does that sound familiar?
It was the Bubonic Plague, better known as the Black Death, that killed over twenty percent of the world population in twenty years that completely disabled the Mongol Empire. The four corners of the empire were run by members of the ruling family, descendants of Genghis Khan known as the Golden Horde, and were set up in Russia, China, Persia and Mongolia. The empire needed men to maintain order. When there weren’t enough men, the empire could not sustain itself and the commercial engine fell apart. A lesson for our times?