Kublai Khan oversaw Mongolian operations in China during the reign of his brother, Great Khan Möngke (r. 1251-1259). After Möngke’s death in 1259, Kublai and his brother Arigböge (or Ariq Böke) battled for the title of Great Khan, while other Mongolian leaders, such as Hülegü of the Ilkhanate (r. 1256-1265) and Berke Khan of the Golden Horde (r. 1257-1267) were content seeing to their own interests in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Kublai Khan, ruling from Shangdu, defeated Arigböge and claimed the title of Great Khan by 1264. That very year, Kublai decided to create a new capital city to the south of Shangdu. The place was called Khanbaliq (‘City of the Khan’) in Turkic and Daidu (‘Great Capital’) in Chinese. The region would later become Beijing.
Marco Polo, the famous Venetian merchant, arrived in Kublai Khan’s court in 1275, over a decade after Kublai first began construction of his new capital city. In the text he later published about his experiences in Asia, Marco fawned over the palace that Kublai Khan had built in Khanbaliq/Daidu. One such feature of the royal residence that impressed Marco Polo was an ornate grove of trees that was located on the north side of the walled-in palace compound. This miniature forest, it was said, had been planted on artificially elevated ground, and the pits from which the soil had been excavated were then fashioned into ponds. Kublai’s plan for his elevated grove was quite ambitious. He tasked his gardeners and foresters to populate his personal forest with beautiful trees imported from the various regions of the Mongol empire. He also had a special liking for evergreens, which he had aesthetically situated among the more exotic trees (which might also have been solely evergreens) in the forest. Even the hill that supported the forest was carefully maintained. As the story goes, the earthen mound was always green, and, according to Marco Polo, this color was achieved by covering the hill with special lapis lazuli stones that had a greenish hue. For the grand finale, Kublai built as the pinnacle of his grove an ornate palatial hall that stood at the center of the stone-covered hill. When all of these features were put together, it made an impressive sight. Marco Polo gave a description of how the hilltop grove reportedly looked:
“It is thickly planted with trees that never lose their leaves and are always green. And I can tell you that whenever someone mentions a beautiful tree to the Great Khan, he orders it pulled up with all its roots and a quantity of earth and transported by elephants to this mound. However big the tree might be, he still has it dealt with in this way. Consequently he has the most beautiful trees in the world, and they are always green. I can also tell you that the Great Khan has had the whole of this hill covered with lapis lazuli, which is a deep green, so that the trees are all green and the hill is all green too. Nothing is seen except green things, and therefore it is called the Green Hill. And on top of the hill, in the middle of its summit, there is a large and handsome palace, and it is green as well. And let me tell you that this hill and the trees and the palace form such a beautiful sight that everyone who sees them takes great pleasure and delight in them” (Marco Polo, The Travels, Book III, Nigel Cliff translation page 100-101).
If the stone-covered, carefully forested and palace-topped hill was as idyllic as Marco Polo described it to be, the place would truly have been a remarkable sight. Kublai’s gardeners, foresters and tree-lugging elephants had evidently been doing a diligent job on the project between the Great Khan’s decision to build a new capital in 1264 and the time of Marco Polo’s arrival in Kublai’s court in 1275. Marco would remain in Kublai Khan’s entourage until 1291, when the merchant decided to return to Venice. Kublai lived for another three years after Marco’s departure, dying in 1294.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Scene from Wangchuan Villa, painted by Wang Yuanqi (Chinese, 1642–1715), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).
- The Travels by Marco Polo and translated by Nigel Cliff. New York: Penguin Classics, 2015.