Khubilai Khan was the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire from 1260-1294. During his early reign, Khubilai’s officials became interested in mining and processing an impressive, but incredibly deadly, mineral fiber that was coveted for its great resistance to fire. The Great Khan’s finance minister, Ahmad Fanakati, submitted a plan to Khubilai Khan in 1267, which encouraged investment in acquiring the mineral fibers. This proposal was evidently accepted, for a mining operation was opened up and craftsmen were tasked to weave the mineral fibers into a cloth-like product. The material they were producing was asbestos—and unfortunately for the miners and weavers at the site, it would take centuries for the world to discover the carcinogenic dangers of the substance.
Marco Polo, the famous merchant who was present in Khubilai Kahn’s court from 1275-1291, made note of the Great Khan’s asbestos enterprise in the text he wrote about his experiences in Asia. He called the substance “salamander,” and gave a detailed description about the Mongolian mining and processing of the substance. Marco Polo wrote:
“The Great Khan always sends a lord to the province for three years, to govern and to oversee the salamander industry. And my companion told me the facts, which I also witnessed myself. For let me tell you that when the stuff found in this vein of which you have heard has been torn and broken up, it remains twisted together, forming fibres like wool. So when it has been extracted, it is dried, then pounded in a great copper mortar, and then washed…Then this wool-like fibre is carefully spun and made into cloths. I will tell you that when the cloths are made, they are far from completely white, but when they are put in fire and left there for a while, they turn white as snow” (Marco Polo, The Travels, Book 2).
Khubilai Khan reportedly sent a bolt of his asbestos cloth as a present to the pope in Rome. On this incident, Marco Polo wrote, “I will tell you, too, that one of these cloths is now at Rome, it was sent to the pope by the Great Khan as a precious gift, and for this reason the holy shroud of our lord Jesus Christ was wrapped in it” (Marco Polo, The Travels, Book 2). The Polo family merchants may have served as the curriers for this deadly gift. If so, they could have given the asbestos cloth to Pope Gregory X (r. 1271-1276) or Pope Boniface VIII (r. 1294-1303).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Yuan Dynasty illustration of puppeteers performing for a crowd, c. 14th century, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Travels by Marco Polo and translated by Nigel Cliff. New York: Penguin Classics, 2015.