top of page

Marco Polo about Armenia

This brief article is an excerpt from Thomas Wright's book, "The Travels of Marco Polo The Venetian." In the chapters presented below, Marco Polo shares insights about Armenia. The author includes useful footnotes that clarify many archaic names of Armenian locations.

 Marco Polo, a renowned Venetian merchant and explorer of the 13th century, embarked on a journey from Europe to Asia. Spending 17 years in China, he served as an envoy and diplomat for Kublai Khan, the Mongol emperor. Polo documented his extensive travels in a book titled "The Travels of Marco Polo," offering detailed accounts of his experiences, observations, and insights into the culture, geography, politics, and economy of China and other lands. His influential work inspired subsequent travelers and explorers, including Christopher Columbus. Intrigued by Polo's perspective on Armenia, this blog post features an extract from his book (The Travels Of Marco Polo The Venetian by Thomas Wright).

Mosaic of Marco Polo displayed in the Palazzo Doria-Tursi, Genoa, Italy

Chapter II. Of Armenia Minor—Of the Port of Laiassus—And of the Boundaries of the Province.

IN commencing the description of the countries which Marco Polo visited in Asia, and of things worthy of notice which he observed therein, it is proper to mention that we are to distinguish two Armenias, the Lesser and the Greater. 1 The king of the Lesser Armenia dwells in a city called Sebastoz, 2 and rules his dominions with strict regard to justice. The towns, fortified places, and castles are numerous. There is abundance of all necessaries of life, as well as of those things which contribute to its comfort. Game, both of beasts and birds, is in plenty. It must be said, however, that the air of the country is not remarkably healthy. In former times its gentry were esteemed expert and brave soldiers; but at the present day they are great drinkers, pusillanimous, and worthless. On the sea−coast there is a city named Laiassus, 3 a place of considerable traffic. Its port is frequented by merchants from Venice, Genoa, and many other places, who trade in spiceries and drugs of different sorts, manufactures of silk and of wool, and other rich commodities. Those persons who design to travel into the interior of the Levant, 4 usually proceed in the first instance to this port of Laiassus. The boundaries of the Lesser Armenia are, on the south, the Land of Promise, now occupied by the Saracens; 5 on the north, Karamania, inhabited by Turkomans; towards the north−east lie the cities of Kaisariah, Sevasta, 6 and many others subject to the Tartars; and on the western side it is bounded by the sea, which extends to the shores of Christendom.

1 This distinction of the Armenias into the Greater and the Lesser, is conformable to what we find in Ptolemy and the geographers of the middle ages; although other divisions have taken place since that part of Asia has been subject to the Ottoman empire. The Les en Armenia is defined by Büsching as comprehending that part of Cappadocia and Cilicia which lies along the western side of the Greater Armenia, and also on the western side of the Euphrates. That in the days of Haiton it extended south of Taurus, and included Cilicia (campestris), which was not the case in more ancient times, we have the unexceptionable authority of that historian.

2 As it appears from the passage quoted in the preceding note, as well as from other authorities, that Sîs was the capital of the Lesser Armenia during the reigns of the Leons and Haitons, we are led to suppose the Sebastoz here mentioned to have been the ancient name of that city, or of one that stood on the same site. It is obvious, indeed, from the geography of Ptolemy, that there were many places in Asia Minor that bore the names of Sebastia, Sebaste, and Sebastopolis (besides one in Syria), and in his enumeration of the towns of Cilicia, we find a Sebaste, to which, in the Latin translation, published at Venice in 1562, the epithet of “augusta” is annexed. Upon the foundations of this, Leon I. (from whom the country is called by the Arabians, Belad Leon, as well as Belad Sîs), may have built the modern city, and the Greek name may have been still prevalent. We are told, however, that the city which preceded Sis, as the capital of Armenia Minor, was named Messis, Massis, or Massissa, the ancient Mopsuestia, and it must be confessed that if authority was not in opposition to conjecture, the sound of these names might lead us to suppose that the modern name was only an abbreviation of Mes−sis, and Sebastoz a substitution for Mopsueste. In a subsequent part of the chapter the city of Sevasta or Sevaste, the modern Siwas or Sivas, is spoken of under circumstances that appear to distinguish it entirely from the Armenian capital; having been recently conquered by the Moghuls from the Seljuk princes.

3 Lajazzo, or Aïas, is situated in a low, morassy country, formed by the alluvion of the two rivers Sihon and Jihon (of Cilicia), and (as observed to me by Major Rennell) at the present mouth of the latter. Its trade has been transferred to Alexandretta or Scanderoon, on the opposite or Syrian side of the gulf.

4 Levant is a translation of the word Anatolia or Anadoli, from the Greek “ortus, oriens,” signifying the country that lies eastward from Greece. As the name of a region therefore it should be equivalent to Natolia, in its more extensive acceptation; and it is evident that our author employs it to denote Asia Minor. Smyrna is at present esteemed the principal port in the Levant, and the term seems to be now confined to the sea−coast and to mercantile usage.

5 For the Land of Promise, or Palestine, which extends no further to the north than Tyre, is here to be understood Syria, or that part of it called Cælo−Syria, which borders on Cilicia or the southern part of Armenia Minor. As the more general denomination of Syria includes Palestine, and the latter name was, in the time of the Crusades, more familiar to Europeans than the former, it is not surprising that they should sometimes be confounded. The Saracens here spoken of were the subjects of the Mameluk sultans or soldans of Egypt, who recovered from the Christian powers in Syria, what the princes of the family of Saladin, or of the Ayubite dynasty, had lost. In other parts of the work the term is employed indiscriminately with that of Mahometan.

6 The Turkomans of Karamania were a race of Tartars settled in Asia Minor, under the government of the Seljuk princes, of whom an account will be found in the following note. Kaisariah or Cæsarea, and Sevasta or Sebaste, the Sebastopolis Cappadociæ of Ptolemy and Siwas or Sivas of the present day, were cities belonging to the same dynasty, that had been conquered by the Moghuls in the year 1242.

Chapter III. Of the Province called Turkomania, where are the Cities of Kogni, Kaisariah, and Sevasta, and of its Commerce.

THE inhabitants of Turkomania 1 may be distinguished into three classes. The Turkomans, who reverence Mahomet and follow his law, are a rude people, and dull of intellect. They dwell amongst the mountains and in places difficult of access, where their object is to find good pasture for their cattle, as they live entirely upon animal food. There is here an excellent breed of horses which has the appellation of Turki, and fine mules which are sold at high prices. 2 The other classes are Greeks and Armenians, who reside in the cities and fortified places, and gain their living by commerce and manufacture. The best and handsomest carpets in the world are wrought here, and also silks of crimson and other rich colours. 3 Amongst its cities are those of Kogni, Kaisariah, and Sevasta, in which last Saint Blaise obtained the glorious crown of martyrdom. 4 They are all subject to the great khan, emperor of the Oriental Tartars, who appoints governors to them. 5 We shall now speak of the Greater Armenia.

1 By Turkomania we are to understand, generally, the possessions of the great Seljuk dynasty in Asia Minor, extending from Cilicia and Pamphylia, in the south, to the shores of the Euxine sea, and from Pisidia and Mysia, in the west, to the borders of Armenia Minor; including the greater part of Phrygia and Cappadocia, together with Pontus, and particularly the modern provinces of Karamania and Rumiyah, or the country of Rûm. Of the former of these, the capital. was Iconium, corrupted by the oriental writers to Kuniyah, and by those of the Crusades to Kogni; of the latter, Sebaste or Sebastopolis, corrupted to Siwas or Sivas. The chief from whom the dynasty of Seljuks derived its appellation, was by birth a Turkoman, of Turkistan, on the north−eastern side of the river Sihon or Jaxartes, but in the service of a prince of Khozar, on the Wolga, from which he fled and pursued his fortune in Transoxiana; as did some of his family in Khorasan. Having acquired great celebrity, they were at length enabled, by the means of numerous tribes of Turkomans who joined their standard, to establish a sovereignty, or, in point of extent, an empire, the principal seat of which was in Persia. Another branch, about the year 1080, wrested the fine provinces of Asia Minor from the Greek emperors, and formed the kingdom of which we are now speaking. Through its territory the Christian princes repeatedly forced their way in their progress to the Holy Land, and it is computed by historians that not fewer than six hundred thousand men perished in this preliminary warfare. At length the power of the Seljuks yielded to the overwhelming influence of the house of Jengiz−khan, and in our author's time they were reduced to insignificance; but from their ruins sprang the empire of the Ottomans, the founder of which had been in the service of one of the last sultans of Iconium.

2 The pastoral habits of the Turkoman Tartars are preserved to this day, even in Asia Minor, and the distinction of their tribes subsists also. The Turki breed of horses is esteemed throughout the East, for spirit and hardiness.

 3 “Et ibi fiunt soriani et tapeti pulchriores de mundo et pulchrioris coloris" are the words of the Latin text.

4 “Blaise, bishop of Sebasta, in Cappadocia, in the second and third centuries,” says the Biographical Dictionary, “suffered death under Diocletian, by decapitation, after being whipped and having his flesh torn with iron combsIt is difficult to say how the invention (of wool combing) came to be attributed to him; but it had probably no better origin than the circumstance of his being tortured with the instruments used in the combing of wool.”

5 It is the family of Hulagu, and the tribes who followed his standard from the north, whom our author always designates by the name of Oriental Tartars, to distinguish them from the descendants of Batu, who settled near the Wolga, on the north−western side of the Caspian, and extended their conquests towards Europe; whilst the former entered Persia from the Eastern quarter, by the way of Transexiana and Khorasan.

Chapter IV. Of Armenia Major, in which are the Cities of Arzingan, Argiron, and Darziz—Of the Castle of Paipurth—Of the Mountain where the Ark of Noah rested—Of the Boundaries of the Province—And of a remarkable Fountain of Oil.

ARMENIA Major is an extensive province, at the entrance of which is a city named Arzingan, 1 where there is a manufacture of very fine cotton cloth called bombazines, 2 as well as of many other curious fabrics, which it would be tedious to enumerate. It possesses the handsomest and most excellent baths of warm water, issuing from the earth, that are anywhere to be found. 3 Its inhabitants are for the most part native Armenians, but under the dominion of the Tartars. In this province there are many cities, but Arzingan is the principal, and the seat of an archbishop; and the next in consequence are Argiron 4 and Darziz. 5 It is very extensive, and, in the summer season, the station of a part of the army of the Eastern Tartars, on account of the good pasture it affords for their cattle; but on the approach of winter they are obliged to change their quarters, the fall of snow being so very deep that the horses could not find subsistence, and for the sake of warmth and fodder they proceed to the southward. Within a castle named Paipurth, 6 which you meet with in going from Trebisond to Tauris, there is a rich mine of silver. 7 In the central part of Armenia stands an exceedingly large and high mountain, upon which, it is said, the ark of Noah rested, and for this reason it is termed the mountain of the ark. 8 The circuit of its base cannot be compassed in less than two days. The ascent is impracticable on account of the snow towards the summit, which never melts, but goes on increasing by each successive fall. In the lower region, however, near the plain, the melting of the snow fertilizes the ground, and occasions such an abundant vegetation, that all the cattle which collect there in summer from the neighbouring country, meet with a never−failing supply. 9 Bordering upon Armenia, to the south−west, are the districts of Mosul and Maredin, which shall be described hereafter, and many others too numerous to particularize. To the north lies Zorzania, near the confines of which there is a fountain of oil which discharges so great a quantity as to furnish loading for many camels. 10 The use made of it is not for the purpose of food, but as an unguent for the cure of cutaneous distempers in men and cattle, as well as other complaints; and it is also good for burning. In the neighbouring country no other is used in their lamps, and people come from distant parts to procure it.

 1 Arzengân, or, as written by the Arabians, who have not the Persian g, Arzenjân, is a city near the frontier of Rumiyah, but just within the limits of Armenia Major. “Cette ville,” says D'Herbelot, “appartient plutôt à l'Arménie, et fut prise par les Mogols ou Tartares l an 640 de l'Hégire, de J. C. 1242, après la défaite de Kaikhosrou, fils d'Aladin le Selgiucide, aussi bien que les villes de Sébaste et de Césarée.” By an oriental geographer it is said to be, “Oppidum celeberrimum, elegans, amænum, copiosum bonis rebus, incolisque: pertinens ad Armeniam: inter Rumæas provincias et Chalatam situm, haud procul Arzerroumo: esseque incolas ejus maixmam partem Armenios” Alberti Schultens Index Geographicus in Vitam Saladini. Josaphat Barbaro, a Venetian, who travelled into Persia, in the fifteenth century, speaks of Arsengan as a place that had formerly been of consequence, but was then mostly in ruins.

 2 The name of a species of cloth which I have here translated “bombazine,” is in the Italian of Ramusio, “bochassini di bambagio,” and in the Latin versions “buchiranus, buchyramis, and bucaramus.” Its substance or texture is not clearly explained in our dictionaries. That of Cotgrave, printed in 1611, defines “boccasin,” to be “a kind of fine buckeram, that hath a resemblance of taffata, and is much used for lining; also the stuffe callimanco.” But this, it is evident, cannot apply to a manufacture of bombagio or cotton; and the Vocabolario della Crusca, as well as the Glossary of Du Cange, speak of “bucherame bianchissima,” and “bucherame bambagino,” and both of them quote our author for the use of the word. All the examples convey the idea of fine, white, and soft cotton cloth; the reverse of what is now called buckram. The early Latin text speaks of boccorame and bambace as two distinct things.

3 Natural warm baths are found in many parts of Asia Minor, and particularly near Ancyra, the modern Angora or Anguri, which are still much frequented. Their situation is denoted by the word Thermæ, in Rennell's map explanatory of the Retreat of the Ten thousand. They are also spoken of at Teflis in Georgia; The Travels of Marco Polo, the Venetian 35 but of their existence at Arzengan I have not been able to find notice in the works of the Eastern geographers.

4 Argiron, or, in the Latin versions, Argyron, is a corruption of Arzerrûm, Erzerûm, or Arzen er−rûm, a distinctive name given to a city called Arzen, as being the last strong place, in that direction, belonging to the Greek empire. “Arzerrûm,” says Abulfeda, “est extremus finis regionum Rumæorum ab oriente. In ejus orientali et septentrionali latere est fons Euphratis.”

5 Darziz, which in the Basle edition is Darzirim, in the older Latin, Arziu, and in the Italian epitomes, Arciri and Arziri, is the town now called Arjîs, situated on the border of the Lake Van, anciently named Arsissa palus. “Argish,” says Macdonald Kinneir, “is a town containing six thousand inhabitants, situated on the north−west side of the lake, three days' journey from Van. There are four islands in the lake, on one of which is an Armenian monastery, and three hundred priests.” Memoir of the Persian Empire, pp. 328, 329. These places, it may be observed, lay in our author's returning route, from Tauris to Trebisond.

6 Paipurth, the Baiburt of D' Anville's and Rennell's maps, is situated among the mountains, in a northerly direction from Arzerrûm. As the word purt signifies a castle in the Armenian language, and as the Arabian geographers, from not having the letter p in their alphabet, are obliged to substitute the b, it is probable that the former is the more genuine orthography. This castle is particularly noted by Josaphat Barbaro, who says, “Partendo d' essa (Trabisonda) per andar à Thaurisil primo luogo notabile che si trova, è uno castello in piano in una valle d' ognitorno circondata da monti, nominato Baiburth, castel forte e muratoCinque giornate piu in la, si trova ArsenganPoi si ritrova un castello nominato Carpurth.”—Viaggio in Persia, p. 48, ed. 1545, 12mo.

7 Although this particular mine may have been exhausted, silver mines are known to exist in this part of Armenia.

8 The mountain of Armenia (the Ararat of Scripture) upon which the ark is believed by the Christians of that country to have rested, stands not far from the city of Erivan or Irwân. The Mahometans, however, assign to it a different situation. “L'opinion commune des Orientaux,” says D'Herbelot, “est que l'arche de Noë s'arrêta sur la montagne de Gioudi, qui est une des croupes du mont Taurus ou Gordiæus en Arménie, et cette tradition est autorisé en ce pays−là par plusieurs histoires qui approchent fort de la fable.” “Joudi,” says Ibn Haukal, “is a mountain near Nisibin. It is said that the ark of Noah (to whom be peace,) rested on the summit of this mountain.” Ouseley's translation, p. 60. Major Rennell observes, that Jeudi is the part of the Carduchian mountains opposite to the Jezirat ibn Omar, and that the dervishes keep a light burning there, in honour of Noah and his ark.

9 This fertility of the country in the vicinity of the mountains, is noticed by Moses Chorenensis, who says, “Habet autem Araratia montes camposque, atque omnem fæcunditatem.”—Geographia, p. 361.

10 Springs of petroleum or earth (properly, rock) oil, are found in many parts of the world. The spring or fountain here spoken of is that of Baku in Shirvan, on the border of the Caspian. “Near to this place,” says John Cartwright, in what are termed the Preacher's Travels, “is a very strange and wonderful fountain under ground, out of which there springeth and issueth a marvellous quantity of black oyl, which serveth all the parts of Persia to burn in their houses; and they usually carry it all over the country upon kine and asses, whereof you shall oftentimes meet three or four hundred in company.”—Oxford Coll. of Voyages, vol. i. (vii.) p. 731. Strahlenberg speaks of this as a spring of white naphtha, which he distinguishes from the black sort of bitumen; but the most satisfactory account of both white and black naphtha in this district is given by Kæmpfer, in his Amænitates Exoticæ, p. 274−281.


bottom of page