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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Pelicans in Venice

It's difficult to find a photo of pelicans in Venice, but I know they're there. In fact, take a look at this Byzantine Mosaic of Noah inviting pelicans into the ark from St. Mark's in Venice, Italy:

While his family waits to go aboard, Noah helps the animals to enter the Ark. Byzantine mosaic. 13th c.
There are two types of pelicans in Italy.

The Great White Pelican:

And the Dalmation Pelican:

In my book, Marco Polo, it was the very large Dalmation Pelican that stole the cucumber from the Polos on their journey to Acre. Pelicans don't eat cucumbers. He mistook the cucumber for a fish, their main source of food.

The Dalmation Pelican is the largest of the pelicans and one of the largest living bird species. It grows up to six feet in length and has a wingspan of nine to twelve feet! It is the heaviest of the flying birds and can weigh up to 25 pounds.

Pelicans are ornery and compete with humans for fish. As a result, they aren't well-liked by some fishermen.

Here's a neat video of a Great White Pelican that's the mascot of Mikinos, Greece. It will give you an idea of how large these birds are.

And here are some Dalmation Pelicans chasing a boat:


What would you do if a Pelican stole your fish?

What'a a muda?

When Marco Polo lived in Venice, he watched every spring as a convoy of ships, called a muda, left Venice in the spring and came back in autumn.

I wonder, did his mother wait in autumn for the return of his father, Niccolo, before she died?

I wonder, did Marco Polo run to the Grand Canal each autumn to see if his father would come home?

Venetian Ships, Source: Baldwin Project
This convoy brought merchants, goods, knowledge, ideas and culture to Venice. Marco Polo's life must have been full of new and fascinating discoveries as a young boy. It's no wonder he had a taste for adventure when so much of it kissed the shores of his hometown each year.

Marco Polo's Doge, Lorenzo Tiepolo

The doge was the supreme ruler, or duke of Venice. Lorenzo Tiepolo was the doge when Marco Polo lived there.

Tiepolo died in Venice in 1275 and was buried with his father in the church of San Zanipolo.

The doge of Venice lived in a beautiful palace on the grand canal. Today it is a museum.

Doge Palace, Venice

Doge Palace, Venice
But when Marco Polo was alive, this particular palace did not exist. One facade of the palace faced the Piazzeta of St. Mark's Square, and the other side overlooked St. Mark's Basin. You can still see a few traces of the old palace in the floor level floor and wall base.

The palace of the doge in Venice
How it may have looked in Polo's day
When you get to Venice, be sure to visit the palace and send me pictures! I'd love to see what it's like inside, wouldn't you?

Beautiful Acre, Israel

Acre is a city in Israel and is still a major port of trade and tourism today.

During Marco Polo's journeys, it bustled with the activity of knights, crusaders and noblemen who fought against Muslim invaders. 

It was especially known for its amazing stonework. In the sun, from a distance, the city appeared to glow.

Old City of Acre -- a UNESCO Heritage site
Look at the beautiful, almost perfectly square stonework. It was quite impressive in Marco Polo's time and impresses tourists still today. 

Remains of the ancient harbor -- perhaps Marco Polo walked here!

Fortified Sea Wall -- Marco Polo saw this, too.
Port of Acre today

Port of Acre today

Acre was the headquarters of many knights including the Knights Templar and Hospitallers Knights. 

Knights halls

Templar tunnel
Because Acre was a major trading port, the city made the crusader knights wealthy. They earned more money in trade in Acre than they did from their kings.

Wouldn't it be fun to explore all the secret places of Acre?

Marco Polo's golden ticket: the paiza

When Marco Polo's father and uncle returned to Venice after a fifteen-year adventure in the east, they brought with them a very important item called a paiza.

A Gerege in Mongolian script.
 The paiza was a tablet of authority that enabled nobles of Mongolia to travel safely through the land and access goods and services from people they met as they traveled. While Marco Polo traveled, if anyone saw the "golden ticket" they obeyed its authority immediately. If they didn't, they risked punishment by Kublai Khan.

Official pass with Mongolian inscription in 'Phags-pa script reading "By the power of eternal heaven, [this is] an order of the Emperor. Whoever does not show respect [to the bearer] will be guilty of an offence."

A nightwatchman's pass of the Mongol empire, with inscriptions in Persian (left), Mongolian in 'Phags-pa script (centre), and Uyghur (right). The Mongolian inscription reads "Announcement: Beware of evil-doers".

We don't know what Marco Polo's paiza looked like. But the above are some examples of such "tickets."

It would be cool to have one today, wouldn't it? You could show it to someone running a restaurant and they would have to give you what you ordered.

All for free.

Mmmmmmm, Koumiss!

Have you milked your horse lately?

A mare being milked in Suusamyr valley, Kyrgyzstan
A very popular and important drink in Mongolia that Marco Polo and his father and uncle drank was called Koumiss also spelled Kumiss. And it comes from a horse!

Did you know that hundreds of thousands of horses used to be kept in the Soviet Union just for making kumis?

Milking a mare isn't easy. The milker kneels on one knee and places the milk pail on the other. The pail is attached to the arm with a string. A foal is allowed to drink its mother's milk for a little while until the milk starts to flow, then another person pulls the foal way but continues to touch the mare so she thinks her foal is still drinking.

The milker wraps one arm around the mares rear leg and the other arm is wrapped around the front. Whew! Sounds tricky to me!

But that's not all there is to koumiss. After the milk is collected, the mare's milk is allowed to ferment by adding old, fermented koumiss to the new milk.

Koumiss is very good for you. Studies have proven what nomads have known for thousands of years. It has a lot of vitamins, and antibiotics that fight bad bacteria. Koumiss is good for the alimentary canal, metabolism, cardiovascular system, nervous system, blood-producing organs, your kidneys, glands, inner secretion and increases immunity. Wow, what a powerful drink!

Today kumis is sold in small bottles. People usually begin and end their meals with this drink.

It looks appetizing, doesn't it? What do you think it tastes like? Would you try it?

The Mongolian Ger

The Polos stayed in Gers while in Asia. Gers are also known as yurts in other cultures including the United States. They are mainly used as portable homes for nomadic people.

Here are some pictures showing how one is constructed today:

 It's impressive how the families work together to create their simple homes, including the making of the felt cover from the wool of their sheep herd. Watch the video below and see the process:

A man makes the wooden support posts for a ger--all by hand with no power tools:

 There are some excellent photos of a family and their gers here:

And more great information and pictures here:

Gers seem pretty cozy to me. I'd like to try living in one for awhile. How would you like living in a ger? How do you think the Polos liked staying in them?

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Fabrics from faraway lands

When Marco Polo's father and uncle returned to Vienna after 15 years of traveling and living in the far east, he brought with him sumptuous fabrics such as:


Damask derives its name from the city of Damascus in Israel. At first the Italians didn't weave the fabric themselves, but about two hundred years after Marco Polo's journey, Italy was well-known for its beautiful damask fabrics. Until then, we have the Polos to thank for helping introduce this beautiful, pictorially patterned silk fabric to Vienna. Today Damask is made from silk, twill, rayon or other synthetic fabrics. In Marco Polo's day it was woven by hand. Today it is woven by machine.


Marie Antoinette in Muslin

A Muslin Gown, 1855

A woman in fine Bengali muslin; Dhaka, 18th-century
Muslin is a loosely woven cotton fabric that allows air to move easily through it. It is a popular favorite in hot and dry climates.

Historians believe it was first manufactured in Ancient Bengal. If this is true, it makes sense that it was a fabric that Marco Polo brought with him as he was at port there during his journey. 

It was considered a luxury fabric worn only by royalty and nobility in Asia and later in Europe. It was especially popular in the 18th century in France and later Britain.

Today muslin is used in the medical community for bandages, gauze, slings and tourniquets. Fashion designers use muslin to make a first-run of a dress or outfit before cutting out the actual fabric for the project. The muslin gown pictured above is probably an example of this. 

Muslin is used on theater sets to create scenery. The muslin shrinks when it's painted and holds tight to the wooden frames. Photographers also paint muslin for backdrops in their studios.

It's also used in cooking as cheesecloth, or to strain foods such as cream from milk or wax from honey.


Silk Dress

Silkworm cocoon

Unwinding cocoons to make silk thread

Raw Silk

Silkworms--it takes 2000 to die for one dress
 Even today silk is considered a luxury fabric. It was the Chinese who first domesticated silkworms.  According to legend, silk was discovered after the Emperor Huangdi's wife, Xilingshi, accidentally dropped a cocoon into her tea and saw threads unravel from it. Amazingly, one cocoon is made of a single thread about 1000 to 3000 feet long.

Today silk is made by throwing cocoons into boiling water, killing the silkworm before it can eat its way out of the cocoon, ruining the thread.

It takes the silk of five cocoons to make one single silk thread that is woven into cloth.It takes about 2000 silk cocoons to make a dress and 1000 to make a shirt. That's a lot of worms!

So next time you wear silk, think of all the worms that died to make that possible.

Humans have learned to imitate silk with synthetic fabrics such as nylon and rayon. Other fibers that imitate silk are milkweed seed pod fibers, hemp and silk-cotton tree and ceiba tree filaments.

Silk plays an important role in Marco Polo's journeys. After all, it is for silk that the Polo's trade route was named: The Silk Road.

Marco Polo's Gemstones and Gold

Since time began, gemstones and gold.

Even in the Garden of Eden there were such riches:

And the gold of that land is good: there is bdellium and the onyx stone. Genesis 2:12

The reason the Polo family traveled to faraway lands was to obtain wealth. Some of the gemstones they brought back to Venice included:


Ruby in natural state

Rubies set in a bracelet

Natural ruby crystal


Turquoise is found in the United States and other countries

Marco Polo brought turquoise to Vienna from Iran

Tumbled/Polished Turquoise


Cut Amethyst

Amethyst is quartz

Amethyst geode

How would you like to find such riches? Where in your part of the world do such riches lie?

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Gnocchi in the Middle Ages

Gnocchi with Haricots Verts
Gnocchi today is usually made with potatoes. If you haven't tried it, you should. It's absolutely delicious in many different types of dishes. Click on the picture above for a great recipe.

Click for Recipe
But Gnocchi in the Middle Ages during Marco Polo's lifetime was made differently, with wheat, flour and cheese, sort of like a light dumpling: 

"Frammento di un libro di cucina del sec. XIV, 14th Century
Take some fresh cheese and mash it, then take some flour and mix with egg yolks as in making migliacci. Put a pot full of water on the fire and, when it begins to boil, put the mixture on a dish and drop it into the pot with a ladle. And when they are cooked, place them on dishes and sprinkle with plenty of grated cheese."

Sounds scrumptious!
Excuse me while I go pick some tomatoes for sauce! NOM!