The Travels of Marco Polo, by Marco Polo

Chapter xvi.

Concerning the Twelve Thousand Barons who Receive Robes of Cloth of Gold from the Emperor on the Great Festivals, Thirteen Changes a-Piece.

Now you must know that the Great Kaan hath set apart 12,000 of his men who are distinguished by the name of Keshican, as I have told you before; and on each of these 12,000 Barons he bestows thirteen changes of raiment, which are all different from one another: I mean that in one set the 12,000 are all of one colour; the next 12,000 of another colour, and so on; so that they are of thirteen different colours. These robes are garnished with gems and pearls and other precious things in a very rich and costly manner.1 And along with each of these changes of raiment, i.e. 13 times in the year, he bestows on each of those 12,000 Barons a fine golden girdle of great richness and value, and likewise a pair of boots of Camut, that is to say of Borgal, curiously wrought with silver thread; insomuch that when they are clothed in these dresses every man of them looks like a king!2 And there is an established order as to which dress is to be worn at each of those thirteen feasts. The Emperor himself also has his thirteen suits corresponding to those of his Barons; in colour, I mean (though his are grander, richer, and costlier), so that he is always arrayed in the same colour as his Barons, who are, as it were, his comrades. And you may see that all this costs an amount which it is scarcely possible to calculate.

Now I have told you of the thirteen changes of raiment received from the Prince by those 12,000 Barons, amounting in all to 156,000 suits of so great cost and value, to say nothing of the girdles and the boots which are also worth a great sum of money. All this the Great Lord hath ordered, that he may attach the more of grandeur and dignity to his festivals.

And now I must mention another thing that I had forgotten, but which you will be astonished to learn from this Book. You must know that on the Feast Day a great Lion is led to the Emperor’s presence, and as soon as it sees him it lies down before him with every sign of the greatest veneration, as if it acknowledged him for its lord; and it remains there lying before him, and entirely unchained. Truly this must seem a strange story to those who have not seen the thing!3

NOTE 1. — On the Keshican, see note 1 to chap. xii., and on the changes of raiment note 3 to chap. xiv., and the remarks there as to the number of distributions. I confess that the stress laid upon the number 13 in this chapter makes the supposition of error more difficult. But there is something odd and unintelligible about the whole of the chapter except the last paragraph. For the 12,000 Keshican are here all elevated to Barons; and at the same time the statement about their changes of raiment seems to be merely that already made in chapter xiv. This repetition occurs only in the French MSS., but as it is in all these we cannot reject it.

NOTE 2. — The words Camut and Borgal appear both to be used here for what we call Russia–Leather. The latter word in one form or another, Bolghár, Borgháli, or Bulkál, is the term applied to that material to this day nearly all over Asia. Ibn Batuta says that in travelling during winter from Constantinople to the Wolga he had to put on three pairs of boots, one of wool (which we should call stockings), a second of wadded linen, and a third of Borgháli, “i.e. of horse-leather lined with wolf-skin.” Horse-leather seems to be still the favourite material for boots among all the Tartar nations. The name was undoubtedly taken from Bolghar on the Wolga, the people of which are traditionally said to have invented the art of preparing skins in that manner. This manufacture is still one of the staple trades of Kazan, the city which in position and importance is the nearest representative of Bolghar now.

Camut is explained by Klaproth to be “leather made from the back-skin of a camel.” It appears in Johnson’s Persian Dictionary as Kámú, but I do not know from what language it originally comes. The word is in the Latin column of the Petrarchian Vocabulary with the Persian rendering Sagri. This shows us what is meant, for Saghrí is just our word Shagreen, and is applied to a fine leather granulated in that way, which is much used for boots and the like by the people of Central Asia. [In Turkish saghri or saghri is the name both for the buttocks of a horse and the leather called shagreen prepared with them. (See Devic, Dict. Étym.)— H. C.] In the commercial lists of our Indian north-west frontier we find as synonymous Saghri or Kímukht, “Horse or Ass-hide.” No doubt this latter word is a form of Kámú or Camut. It appears (as Keimukht, “a sort of leather”) in a detail of imports to Aden given by Ibn al Wardi, a geographer of the 13th century.

Instead of Camut, Ramusio has Camoscia, i.e. Chamois, and the same seems to be in all the editions based on Fra Pipino’s version. It may be a misrendering of camutum or camutium; or is there any real connexion between the Oriental Kámú Kímukht, and the Italian camoscia? (I. B. II. 445; Klapr. Mém. vol. III.; Davies’s Trade Report, App. p. ccxx.; Vámbéry’s Travels, 423; Not. et Ext. II. 43.)

Fraehn (writing in 1832) observes that he knew no use of the word Bolghár, in the sense of Russian leather, older than the 17th century. But we see that both Marco and Ibn Batuta use it. (F. on the Wolga Bulghars, pp. 8–9.)

Pauthier in a note (p. 285) gives a list of the garments issued to certain officials on these ceremonial occasions under the Mongols, and sure enough this list includes “pairs of boots in red leather.” Odoric particularly mentions the broad golden girdles worn at the Kaan’s court.

[La Curne, Dict., has Bulga, leather bag; old Gallic word from which are derived bouge et bougete, bourse; he adds in a note, “Festus writes: ‘Bulgas galli sacculos scorteos vocant.’"— H. C.]

NOTE 3. —“Then come mummers leading lions, which they cause to salute the Lord with reverence.” (Odoric, p. 143.) A lion sent by Mirza Baisangar, one of the Princes of Timur’s House, accompanied Shah Rukh’s embassy as a present to the Emperor; and like presents were frequently repeated. (See Amyot, XIV. 37, 38.)

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