Do you think that long-distance travel is a modern invention? Do you suppose that everyone stayed home until airlines started scheduling flights around the world?
If so, think again. By the early 1300s, Afro-Eurasia (Northern Africa, Europe, and Asia) had become a world zone in motion. People were traveling everywhere, usually in groups — by foot, donkey, horse, camel, and boat. Merchants moved goods; kings, sultans, and popes moved armies. Diplomats and envoys carried messages; missionaries sought souls. Pilgrims and scholars searched for enlightenment. People looked for work, and whole groups of people migrated for varying reasons. Captains, caravan leaders, travel guides, and transport experts provided the ways and means to keep the multitudes moving.
This long-distance travel became easier in the late 1200s and early 1300s largely for three reasons. First, nomads of Central Asia (the Mongols and their Turkish-speaking allies) conquered Russia, China, and most of the Middle East, creating the largest territorial empire the world had ever seen. Their rulers imposed order and security to the trade routes along the Silk Roads. Second, the stability of Islamic rule across North Africa, the Middle East, Persia, and Southeast Asia provided a common civilization for travelers. Third, improvements in sailing technologies increased sea travel in the Indian Ocean.
Considering the great numbers of travelers moving across Afro-Eurasia, very few individuals left written accounts of their journeys. We’re left to believe that those who did record their travels must also represent the unknown adventurers who left no accounts.
A drawing of Marco Polo © Bettmann/CORBIS
Fortunately, two prodigious travelers, Marco Polo, of Venice, Italy, and Abu Ibn Battuta, of Tangier, Morocco, did leave engaging records of their journeys. They each told their stories from memory, and perhaps some written notes, to others who copied it down. Enough copies were made that some have survived through the centuries. A third traveler featured here, Zheng He, from Yunnan, China, is remembered because he served powerful Chinese emperors. He left brief accounts of his voyages carved in granite, and two officers and a translator who sailed with him left longer memoirs.
These three adventurers all traveled within a 162-year time period. Marco Polo started his journey in 1271; Ibn Battuta started his in 1325, just after Polo died. Zheng He made his seven voyages starting in 1403, 37 years after Ibn Battuta died.
The extent of these three journeys defies our imagination, even today in the age of jet travel around the world. Marco Polo spent 24 years away from home, traveling most of the time. Ibn Battuta spent 29 years away, visiting the lands of more than 40 modern countries, and covering 73,000 miles (117,000 kilometers). Zheng He was away about 14 years spaced over three decades, making his way around the Indian Ocean and along the eastern coast of Africa.

Adventurer Comparison Chart

Download the Adventurer Comparison Chart and use it  to help compare the three adventurers. Name some of the places they visited and some of the reasons they traveled.
Adventurer comparison chart. Click here for a larger version. Download PDF.
​By Cynthia Stokes Brown

For Further Discussion
Can you think of two examples of how collective learning led to an increase in exploration during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries?  Share your answers in the Questions Area below and comment on a post with an example that you didn’t think of.