November 12, 2014

The Travels of Marco Polo

This manuscript from about 1350 is one of the oldest extant copies of Les voyages de Marco Polo (The travels of Marco Polo), the account by the Venetian merchant Marco Polo (circa 1254−1324) of his adventures in Central Asia and the Far East during the latter part of the 13th century. It is possibly one of five manuscripts relating to Marco Polo’s journey that belonged to King Charles V of France (reigned 1364−80). Later it was part of the library of the French book collector Alexandre Petau. It was sold to Queen Christina of Sweden (1626−89) in 1650. Accompanied by his father Niccolò and his uncle Maffeo, Marco Polo travelled overland to China in 1271–75. He then spent 17 years serving Kublai Khan (1215–94), grandson of Genghis Khan and conqueror of China, for whom he undertook assignments in China as well as in South and Southeast Asia. The three Venetians returned to their native city by sea in 1292–95. Marco Polo soon was caught up in the war between Venice and Genoa, for which he equipped and commanded a galley in the Venetian navy. He was taken prisoner by the Genoese in 1296. According to tradition, while in prison he dictated the stories of his travels to a cellmate, Rustichello da Pisa, who wrote them down in Old French. Marco Polo’s account was not just a simple record of the journey, but a description of the world—a mixture of a travel report, legend, hearsay, and practical information. For these reasons, Les voyages de Marco Polo is sometimes called Divisament du monde (Description of the world) or Livre des merveilles du monde (Book of the marvels of the world). The work was an important introduction for Europeans to the history and geography of Central Asia and China. At the end of the Stockholm manuscript is a mappa mundi, a medieval schematic zonal map of the world, which, however, may be a later addition.

Book of Different Things

This codex, entitled Livre de plusieurs choses (Book of different things), contains 120 poems in French. The title, now hardly visible, is on the upper cover of the manuscript. Comprising 252 extant paper leaves, it was compiled without any discernible structure or organization by a number of different scribes sometime between 1475 and 1500. The manuscript includes parts of the renowned Le Lais (Le Petit Testament) and Le Grand Testament of François Villon (1431−63) and is one of the principal sources of the former work. It also contains poems by Guillaume Machaut (circa 1300−1377) and Christine de Pisan (circa 1364−circa 1431), two well-known French poets, and other French medieval authors, some of whom are unidentified. Several of the poems are known only from this manuscript. The codex was owned by the famous French collector, Claude Fauchet (1530−1601) and later, by Paul Petau (1568−1614). In 1650, Queen Christina of Sweden (1626−89) bought it from Alexandre Petau, the son of Paul Petau.


Angus Hamilton was a British journalist who reported for a number of newspapers and journals between 1894 and 1912. Among the events he covered were the Boer War in South Africa, the Boxer uprising in China, and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5. Like most books of this period, Afghanistan approaches its subject through the prism of the rivalry between Great Britain and Russia for influence in Central Asia, the so-called “Great Game.” The first chapter is devoted to the Orenburg−Tashkent Railway (in present-day Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan) recently completed by the Russians. It is followed by chapters devoted to the khanates, provinces, and districts to the north of Afghanistan, notably Bukhara, Tashkent, Samarkand, and Merv, territories located in present-day Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Subsequent chapters cover Herat, Kandahar, Seistan (Sistan), and Kabul. Hamilton also devotes separate chapters to the provinces and ethnic groups in the country; administration, law, and revenue; trade and industry; and the army. The author highly praises Abd al-Rahman Khan, ruler of Afghanistan from 1880 to 1901, for his work in creating a modern army, but concludes: “It is to be regretted that the late Amir, while evolving out of a heterogeneous collection of warring tribes a settled and independent country, failed to bequeath to his son any portion of his own singular abilities.” His son and successor was Habibullah Khan (1872–1919, reigned 1901–19). Presented here is a second edition of the book, published in Boston and Tokyo as part of the “Oriental Series.” The first edition was published in London in 1906.

A Memoir of India and Avghanistaun

Josiah Harlan (1799−1871) was an adventurer and soldier of fortune who possibly was the first American to travel to Afghanistan. Born in Pennsylvania into a large Quaker family, he went to Asia in 1823, where he found employment as a surgeon with the British East India Company. In 1827 he entered the service of Shah Shooja-ool-Moolk, the former leader of Afghanistan who had been deposed in 1810. Harlan remained in Afghanistan for 14 years, where he engaged in various intrigues with rival Afghan leaders, several times changing allegiances. During the First Afghan War (1839–42) his activities infuriated the British authorities, who expelled him from the country. A Memoir of India and Avghanistaun is Harlan’s account of his adventures in South Asia, published in 1842, shortly after his return to the United States. The book and a series of interviews that Harlan gave to newspapers at the time stoked American interest in Afghanistan and the war then underway. The book begins with a discussion of the disastrous defeat of the Anglo-Indian force at the hands of Afghan tribesmen in January 1842. Six of the book’s seven chapters deal with British India, its foreign policy, and its relationship to Afghanistan. The seventh, and by far the longest, chapter is a detailed description of Amir Dōst Moḥammad Khān (1793–1863), based in part on Harlan’s service to and interactions with the amir. The book has three appendices. The first and third are concerned with the British defeat of 1842; the second is an 18-page essay that attempts to explain contemporary historical events with reference to a prophecy in the Bible (Daniel xi, 45). The book has several maps and a portrait, in profile, of Dōst Moḥammad.

Cabool: A Personal Narrative of a Journey to, and Residence in that City, in the Years 1836, 7, and 8

Cabool: A Personal Narrative of a Journey to, and Residence in that City, in the Years 1836, 7, and 8 is an account of an 18-month voyage undertaken by Sir Alexander Burnes and three companions by order of the governor-general of India. The purpose of the journey was to survey the Indus River and the territories adjoining it, with the aim of opening up the river to commerce. Following a route that took them up the Indus from its mouth in present-day Pakistan, Burnes and his party visited Shikarpur, Peshawar, Kabul, Herat, and Jalalabad, before completing their journey in Lahore. The book contains detailed information about the ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups living in Afghanistan and parts of present-day Pakistan, and observations about the war underway at that time between the Sikh Empire and the Emirate of Afghanistan. Also included is a brief account of the formal audience with the amir of Afghanistan, Dōst Moḥammad Khān, who cordially received the visitors as representatives of the governor-general of India. Of particular interest is the economic and demographic data compiled by Burnes and his party, which is presented in striking detail. The book notes, for example, that the bazaar at Dera Ghazee Khan (present-day Dera Ghazi Khan City, Pakistan) had 1,597 shops, of which 115 were sellers of cloth, 25 sellers of silk, 60 jewelers, 18 paper sellers, and so forth. Equally detailed information is given about the prices of grains and other commodities, the production of dates and pomegranates, and the number of Hazaras living in the region between Kabul and Herat, which is put at 66,900. Burnes was killed in Afghanistan in 1841, and this book was published posthumously.

Campaign of the Indus: In a Series of Letters from an Officer of the Bombay Division

Campaign of the Indus: In a Series of Letters from an Officer of the Bombay Division is a privately published collection of letters, written by Lieutenant T.W. Holdsworth between November 27, 1838, and April 21, 1840. Holdsworth’s division was part of the Anglo-Indian force that invaded Afghanistan during the First Anglo-Afghan War of 1839–42. Most of the letters are addressed to Holdsworth’s father, A.H. Holdsworth, who wrote the introduction and edited and published the book. The introduction sketches some of the history of Afghanistan, from the campaigns of Alexander the Great to the recent involvement of the British in the country, and their attempt, temporarily successful, to install the pro-British Shāh Shujāʻ as ruler. The letters recount the journey by sea of Lieutenant Holdsworth and his unit to the mouth of the Indus River, the march to Afghanistan, and encampments at Kandahar and other locations. Holdsworth was severely wounded in the capture of the fort and citadel of Kelat on November 13, 1839, which he recounts in his letter to his father of December 8. The letters contain descriptions of the Afghan countryside; reports and speculations on Dōst Moḥammad, the leader of the resistance to the invaders; and details about the workings of the Anglo-Indian army that included British officers, Indian troops, and Indian sirdars (noblemen) engaged on the British side. The appendix reproduces official dispatches relating to the campaign, the numbers of men killed and wounded from the different units, and the names of British officers and Baluchi sirdars killed and wounded.