Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Accidental Explorer

By Kelly Raftery

My name is Miriam, and I am an orphan in this place. 

My father brought me here, hoping to build a new life for us after my mother’s death. Instead, death claimed him too. Here I am, now, in a place that is in neither Europe nor Asia, destined to live life out in this tiny corner of the city where we Jews must live. 

A Gold Belt Buckle from the 13th Century.
Photo by WolfgangSauber

It was not like this in Venice. I don’t know what father was thinking when he came here. But I have hope, for Nicolo and Maffeo Polo are leaving soon to trade further north. I still have my father’s stock of jewelry and the gold-crafting skills he taught me to make more. Perhaps a commission for the Polo brothers would be enough inducement to let me join them on their journey?  

The Polo brothers, always quick to spot a money-making proposition, agree, and I pack my bags to leave Constantinople. Little do the Polos know I would have offered them far more to get free of those confining walls. I’ve spent my last days in Constantinople collecting my travel goods and, alongside my father’s finely crafted gold pieces, lay glass baubles from Venice in a myriad of bright colors. I hope that these pretty things will catch the eye of a wealthy matron and provide me with a healthy profit. Perhaps then I will return to Venice.

The Polo brothers and I leave Constantinople on a small boat that hugs the shores all the way north towards Sudak. Occasionally, we stop at sizable villages to allow the merchants on board to sell their wares to interested buyers. I can’t say that I enjoy the journey. The never-ending rocking turns my stomach and sends me fleeing for dry land each time we stop for any length of time. My steps are heavy in returning to the vessel when it is time to launch. While the villages are picturesque, no one seems to be the right customers for my father’s finely tooled treasures. Nicolo Polo assures me that wealthy Tatar ladies in Sudak will be more than happy to pay well for my goods, so instead of selling now, I watch the Polo brothers deftly maneuver through local markets, buying and selling in equal measure.
Sudak's Venetian Built Fortress.
When we finally arrive in Sudak, a great fortress hovers over the sea on a hilltop, and it is a most welcome sight. Nicolo tells me that the walls were financed by the Venetian traders here as protection. A family the Polos knew in Venice provides us with tidy, well-kept rooms and abundant meals. Every evening our hosts, Nicolo and Maffeo, linger before the fire, drinking deep red wine, exchanging news with old friends and new acquaintances. 

Bukhara's Minaret would have been a
familiar sight for Miriam.
One evening a trader arrives with little more than the clothes on his back and a horrific story. Constantinople has been captured by Emperor Michael, the Venetian Quarter burned to the ground, and the families who lived there either butchered on the spot, captured and eyes gouged out, or forced to escape across the Aegean. The trader tells of standing on a dock watching boats heavy with passengers limp out of port into the sea and the horror of watching an overfilled boat sink beneath the waves, taking all of its passengers with it.

“Miriam, we can send you back with another caravan, if you choose, but Nicolo and I will be heading to Sarai as soon as we have completed our business here. Constantinople holds nothing for us anymore.”  Maffeo looks upon me with soft, brown eyes, kindness in his words. 
“No, Signore Polo, I don’t think the Emperor would take kindly to Jewess gold merchants either. Nothing remains for me in Constantinople any longer; my fate lies with you and your brother in the east.”  

Little did I know that this simple statement of fact would lead me to spend the next years of my life traveling with the Polos, first to Sarai then to Bukhara and then even further east to where Kublai Khan holds court. We are novelties among the Horde, exotic pets of the Great Khan to be studied and petted. Clever hands are highly valued here and I have rebuilt all that my father lost in Constantinople and more. The women of the court provide me with gold and steady work creating adornments; the Khan himself wears a ring forged by my hands. 
I’ve just had a visit from Maffeo Polo. I thought he had come to pick up a necklace for his local lady love, but instead he brought news that is both exciting and disturbing. The Great Khan has asked the Polos to accompany an Ambassador to the Pope and they soon will be returning to my childhood home of Venice. Maffeo asked if I would join them on their return journey and I was stunned silent. He expects an answer in two days’ time and I have no idea what I will tell him.

The Polo Brothers paying homage to Kublai Khan.
Historic side note: 

This journey took in the years 1260–1269 by Marco Polo’s father and uncle (Nicolo and Maffeo, respectively). It predated the one Marco Polo took and made famous. There are no written records of this earlier trip and, so when I initially conceived of Miriam, the Jewess goldsmith, I thought that women would not have traveled the Silk Road. Only in researching this piece did I discover that archaeological evidence of a grave in China of an Italian woman, who accompanied her father in his journeys, shows that European women did make the fantastic journey from west to east along with their menfolk.