The Women of the Mongol Empire as Depicted by Marco Polo
Through out the text The Travels, Marco Polo gives a vivid account of his voyage through a multitude of cities. His travels provided access to the customs, religions, ceremonies and ways of life for a plethora of different societies. From the depiction of war to governmental standing and gender relations, Polo’s account provides its readers with an up close and personal look at the lives of individuals from China, India and beyond. While these accounts are often short and to the point there are times when Polo’s description is so great that it makes one feel as though they are actually taking place in the events being recounted. The greatest example of this can be found within Polo’s depiction of Kubilai Khan and the Mongol empire. From descriptions of power structure to immensely vivid imagery of the Great Khans palaces and grounds, Polo seeks to provide the reader with a clear view of the entirety of not only the Mongol empire but also the greatness of its leader, the Great Khan. However of all the descriptions Polo’s account of women within the Mongol Empire was the most profound. It is in this account that Polo brings to light not only the lives and details of the four wives of Khan but also the women he takes as concubines and those who have no direct relation to him living as normal citizens within society. By recounting the lives of Kahn’s wives, concubines and general citizens a greater appreciation for Polo’s account can be gained.
Marco Polo describes the Great Kahn as having four different wives who were known as empresses. Each empress has a court of nearly 10,000 people and lives within her own chambers. A day in the life of one of Khans wives would entail the maintenance of her court, as well as the over view of Khans concubines. Beyond this his wives were there to provide assistance to Kahn as he so needed it; they were also responsible for raising their children. Polo provides that Khan either went to one of his wives chambers at night or they came to his. These women lived in Kahn’s palace where they spent their days amongst marble walls, high ceilings, with gold and silver decorations surrounding them. The palace entailed high stretched columns surround by both gold and pictures. As mentioned each woman lived within their own chamber and or apartment with which they were also surrounded by gold, silver, stones and pearls items which were all valued deeply by Khan, so much so that no one else was allowed in these chambers. Beyond the inside of their home, these women could walk out to land similar to a park with lavish trees and bountiful grass. They are able to walk along paths that are raised from the ground allowing for rain water to run of the sides as opposed to creating puddles along the path. The type of relationship in which these women had with Kahn goes beyond simple day to day tasks and roles but becomes vital to the time period as they shared not only in matters of politics and social law but also in the riches and lavish nature of the Great Khan’s life style. The four of them held the highest and most honorable place in society and played a vital role in the development and enhancement of the Mongolian empire. Through out all of Polo’s accounts it is these women who were healed within the highest esteem.
Another role women held within the context of Khans Mongol Empire is that of Concubines. Concubines were collected from the city of Kungurat every two years. Kungurat is inhabited by Tartars who seek to make their daughters available to Khan. Known for their fair complexions and good looks, there became a custom of preparing women for the visit of Khan’s Emissaries in the hope of bringing nobility to the family name. These emissaries were sent by Khan to select women who would be rated on a point system. This point system took into consideration physical appearances including hair, face, mouth and lips. With each group Kahn would provide the emissaries with a standard of beauty for which they were to rate the women. With this it is imagined that while in Kungurat these women spent a great deal of time preparing themselves as best they could to be physically pleasing and over coming any short comings that may prevent them as being seen fit for the Greta Khan. If their preparation and natural good looks granted them enough points to pass they would be sent to Khan’s chambers. When permitted to his chambers these women were watched carefully and those who were proven to be virgins, did not snore and woke up with fresh breath were broken down into groups of six and allowed to move on to the next step. These groups of six would spend three days and three nights with Kahn and would attend to all of his needs; the groups would rotate in this way through out the year. For the women who made it to this step life in essence involved a complete dedication to serving the needs of Khan, even if they were not within his chambers at the time they stayed on guard to provide anything that may be needed from outside the chamber walls. For the women who did not reach marks high enough to attend to Kahn’s chambers the opportunity to learn how to do needle work, glove making and other such things was granted. These women were then passed on to Khan’s noble men who were in search of wives. This system is one that proved to be successful as it provided a great deal of families within the Mongol empire the opportunity to have their name seen in greater esteem and favor than they had before. It is this that men gave up their daughters for, the simple opportunity for them to be in relation with someone noble if not Kahn himself. It is clear by the continued selection of these women that the Mongolian empire felt it a suitable way to give the average citizen an opportunity to better themselves and their families.
The last group of women described within Polo’s account of Kubilai Khan is that of prostitutes. Found within the suburbs of the city of Taidu these women were paid to have sex with not only men of origin but also by visitors to the city. The idea of prostitution is one that was outwardly taboo but inwardly excepted. Polo claims there were nearly 20,000 women who were prostitutes and served the needs of men through out the city. These women in there greatest form created a sense of cohesion and hospitality to men who visited the city. These women were held responsible to the captain generals and their chiefs and were called upon by Khan to provide sexual favors to both ambassadors and their attendants. In having this understanding prostitutes were to serve the needs of these men with out pay and were then allowed to continue their ways with out fear of what might happen if they were to be caught. While such behavior would not be traditionally accepted as acceptable it provided the great Kahn with an opportunity to make his visitors feel welcomed. Beyond this women who may have other wise been in capable of providing for them selves were able to not only survive but stand on their own two feet. It is important to note the ease with which Polo describes these women, it is as though he himself understands the role in which they play and while it may seem degrading un noble it did provide for opportunity that may not have other wise been granted.
The development of the Mongolian empire is one that couldn’t have been as strong as it was with out women and the roles in which they played. In having women with hold such different places in society they were able to provide in ways that went beyond traditional gender roles traditionally seen through out this time period. Whether it is sexual power provided by prostitutes, the appreciation of being taken care of granted by concubines or the head strong strength of a woman who provides her husband with political strength and wisdom granted by the Great Kahn’s wives there role in the development of this society was of vast importance. Perhaps the most profound element is that of women who played roles that were nearly unseen during this period of time. In nearly all of Polo’s other accounts women play a more timid role when it comes to head strong politics, empirical rule, wealth, nobility and prosperity. While there are traces of prostitution and sexual outward ness in more then just the Kahn dynasty the way in which such prostitution was used and accepted is nearly unseen. There is no doubt Marco Polo’s account of the Mongolian empire would have been in complete had the roles in which these women played gone with out being addressed. It is in understanding these roles that one is able to grasp the extent to which the Great Kahn reached beyond his time in not only political matters, knowledge, religion and social structures but also in understanding the need for definite gender roles and the ability for families to add nobility and honor to there names.