The Travels of Marco Polo, by Marco Polo

Chapter xli.

Of the Province of Camul.

Camul is a province which in former days was a kingdom. It contains numerous towns and villages, but the chief city bears the name of CAMUL. The province lies between the two deserts; for on the one side is the Great Desert of Lop, and on the other side is a small desert of three days’ journey in extent.1 The people are all Idolaters, and have a peculiar language. They live by the fruits of the earth, which they have in plenty, and dispose of to travellers. They are a people who take things very easily, for they mind nothing but playing and singing, and dancing and enjoying themselves.2

And it is the truth that if a foreigner comes to the house of one of these people to lodge, the host is delighted, and desires his wife to put herself entirely at the guest’s disposal, whilst he himself gets out of the way, and comes back no more until the stranger shall have taken his departure. The guest may stay and enjoy the wife’s society as long as he lists, whilst the husband has no shame in the matter, but indeed considers it an honour. And all the men of this province are made wittols of by their wives in this way.3 The women themselves are fair and wanton.

Now it came to pass during the reign of MANGU KAAN, that as lord of this province he came to hear of this custom, and he sent forth an order commanding them under grievous penalties to do so no more [but to provide public hostelries for travellers]. And when they heard this order they were much vexed thereat. [For about three years’ space they carried it out. But then they found that their lands were no longer fruitful, and that many mishaps befell them.] So they collected together and prepared a grand present which they sent to their Lord, praying him graciously to let them retain the custom which they had inherited from their ancestors; for it was by reason of this usage that their gods bestowed upon them all the good things that they possessed, and without it they saw not how they could continue to exist.4 When the Prince had heard their petition his reply was “Since ye must needs keep your shame, keep it then,” and so he left them at liberty to maintain their naughty custom. And they always have kept it up, and do so still.

Now let us quit Camul, and I will tell you of another province which lies between north-west and north, and belongs to the Great Kaan.

NOTE 1. — Kamul (or Komul) does not fall into the great line of travel towards Cathay which Marco is following. His notice of it, and of the next province, forms a digression like that which he has already made to Samarkand. It appears very doubtful if Marco himself had visited it; his father and uncle may have done so on their first journey, as one of the chief routes to Northern China from Western Asia lies through this city, and has done so for many centuries. This was the route described by Pegolotti as that of the Italian traders in the century following Polo; it was that followed by Marignolli, by the envoys of Shah Rukh at a later date, and at a much later by Benedict Goës. The people were in Polo’s time apparently Buddhist, as the Uighúrs inhabiting this region had been from an old date: in Shah Rukh’s time (1420) we find a mosque and a great Buddhist Temple cheek by jowl; whilst Ramusio’s friend Hajji Mahomed (circa 1550) speaks of Kamul as the first Mahomedan city met with in travelling from China.

Kamul stands on an oasis carefully cultivated by aid of reservoirs for irrigation, and is noted in China for its rice and for some of its fruits, especially melons and grapes. It is still a place of some consequence, standing near the bifurcation of two great roads from China, one passing north and the other south of the Thian Shan, and it was the site of the Chinese Commissariat depôts for the garrisons to the westward. It was lost to the Chinese in 1867.

Kamul appears to have been the see of a Nestorian bishop. A Bishop of Kamul is mentioned as present at the inauguration of the Catholicos Denha in 1266. (Russians in Cent. Asia, 129; Ritter, II. 357 seqq.; Cathay, passim; Assemani, II. 455–456.)

[Kamul is the Turkish name of the province called by the Mongols Khamil, by the Chinese Hami; the latter name is found for the first time in the Yuen Shi, but it is first mentioned in Chinese history in the 1st century of our Era under the name of I-wu-lu or I-wu (Bretschneider, Med. Res. II. p. 20); after the death of Chinghiz, it belonged to his son Chagataï. From the Great Wall, at the Pass of Kia Yü, to Hami there is a distance of 1470 li. (C. Imbault–Huart. Le Pays de Hami ou Khamil . . . d’après les auteurs chinois, Bul. de Géog. hist. et desc., Paris, 1892, pp. 121–195.) The Chinese general Chang Yao was in 1877 at Hami, which had submitted in 1867 to the Athalik Ghazi, and made it the basis of his operations against the small towns of Chightam and Pidjam, and Yakúb Khan himself stationed at Turfan. The Imperial Chinese Agent in this region bears the title of K’u lun Pan She Ta Ch’en and resides at K’urun (Urga); of lesser rank are the agents (Pan She Ta Ch’en) of Kashgar, Kharashar, Kuché, Aksu, Khotan, and Hami. (See a description of Hami by Colonel M. S. Bell, Proc. R. G. S. XII. 1890, p. 213.)— H. C.]

NOTE 2. — Expressed almost in the same words is the character attributed by a Chinese writer to the people of Kuché in the same region. (Chin. Repos. IX. 126.) In fact, the character seems to be generally applicable to the people of East Turkestan, but sorely kept down by the rigid Islam that is now enforced. (See Shaw, passim, and especially the Mahrambáshi’s lamentations over the jolly days that were no more, pp. 319, 376.)

NOTE 3. — Pauthier’s text has “sont si honni de leur moliers comme vous avez ouy.” Here the Crusca has “sono bozzi delle loro moglie,” and the Lat. Geog. “sunt bezzi de suis uxoribus.” The Crusca Vocab. has inserted bozzo with the meaning we have given, on the strength of this passage. It occurs also in Dante (Paradiso, XIX. 137), in the general sense of disgraced.

The shameful custom here spoken of is ascribed by Polo also to a province of Eastern Tibet, and by popular report in modern times to the Hazaras of the Hindu–Kush, a people of Mongolian blood, as well as to certain nomad tribes of Persia, to say nothing of the like accusation against our own ancestors which has been drawn from Laonicus Chalcondylas. The old Arab traveller Ibn Muhalhal (10th century) also relates the same of the Hazlakh (probably Kharlikh) Turks: “Ducis alicujus uxor vel filia vel soror, quum mercatorum agmen in terram venit, eos adit, eorumque lustrat faciem. Quorum siquis earum afficit admiratione hunc domum suam ducit, eumque apud se hospitio excipit, eique benigne facit. Atque marito suo et filio fratrique rerum necessariarum curam demandat; neque dum hospes apud eam habitat, nisi necessarium est, maritus eam adit.” A like custom prevails among the Chukchis and Koryaks in the vicinity of Kamtchatka. (Elphinstone’s Caubul; Wood, p. 201; Burnes, who discredits, II. 153, III. 195; Laon. Chalcond. 1650, pp. 48–49; Kurd de Schloezer, p. 13; Erman, II. 530.)

[“It is remarkable that the Chinese author, Hung Hao, who lived a century before M. Polo, makes mention in his memoirs nearly in the same words of this custom of the Uighúrs, with whom he became acquainted during his captivity in the kingdom of the Kin. According to the chronicle of the Tangut kingdom of Si-hia, Hami was the nursery of Buddhism in Si-hia, and provided this kingdom with Buddhist books and monks.” (Palladius, l.c. p. 6.)— H. C.]

NOTE 4. — So the Jewish rabble to Jeremiah: “Since we left off to burn incense to the Queen of Heaven, and to pour out drink-offerings to her, we have wanted all things, and have been consumed by the sword and by famine.” (Jerem. xliv. 18.)

Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 16:24