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 same 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 supposed feature of the royal residence that impressed Marco Polo was a private wing in Kublai Khan’s palace that was devoted to housing vast hoards of everything that the khan treasured. Precious metals, gemstones, pearls, jewelry, ornate furniture and baubles—it could all be found in this glittering section of the palace. As could be expected of a medieval nobleman, even a large entourage of Kubilai Khan’s women were housed in the treasure wing. Marco Polo wrote of this:
“To the rear of the palace there are large houses, rooms, and halls in which the personal belongings of the Khan are kept—that is, all his treasure, gold, silver, precious stones and pearls, and his gold and silver vessels—and where his ladies and concubines live; everything is arranged for his comfort and convenience, and outsiders are not admitted” (Marco Polo, The Travels, Book III, Nigel Cliff translation page 100).
Such, at least, was Marco Polo’s impression of Kublai Khan’s private wing of the palace. 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
- The Travels by Marco Polo and translated by Nigel Cliff. New York: Penguin Classics, 2015.