12/18/07 - comfort for travelers

In today's excerpt - in 1273 AD, nineteen-year-old Marco Polo, who is traveling with his father and uncle, encounters an unusual sexual custom in Kamul, an outpost in present-day Xinjiang, China. The custom is so unusual that Mongke Khan, the Mongol ruler and descendent of Ghengis Khan, had tried to prohibit it:

"The women of Kamul (now called Hami) ... finally brought Marco out of himself. The people of the region as a whole struck him as wonderfully likeable children, freely sharing food and drink with 'the wayfarers who pass that way.' ...

" 'These people have such a custom,' he confides, 'If a stranger comes to his house to lodge, [a man] is too much delighted at it, and receives him with great joy, and labors to do everything to please,' instructing his 'daughters, sisters, and other relations to do all that the stranger wishes,' even to the point of leaving his house for several days while 'the stranger stays with his wife in the house and does as he likes and lies with her in bed just as if she were his wife, and they continue in great enjoyment. All the men of this city and province are thus cuckolded by their wives; but they are not the least ashamed of it.'

"Yes, he admits, it could be said that this licentious behavior dishonored the women and men of Kamul, 'but I tell you that because of the general custom, which is in all that province, and is very pleasing to their idols when they give a good reception to wayfarers in need of rest.' Even more remarkable, the family unit remained intact: 'All the women are very fair and gay and very wanton and most obedient to their husbands' orders, and greatly enjoy this custom.' ...

"Marco is discussing a well-established custom of the region and an exception to 'village endogamy,' in which the people of the same community intermarry to preserve assets and bloodlines. Endogamy brings with it the hazard of incest and birth defects. Exogamy, or marriage outside the clan, refreshes a depleted gene pool. If the outsiders were nomadic, as Marco suggests, the replenishing of the gene pool would be accomplished without challenging the existing order. ...

"Once [the emperor] Mongke [Khan] learned of [this practice] he levied 'great penalties to prevent it.' Wayfarers such as the Polos would have to stay in 'public lodgings' not private homes, to prevent the 'shaming' of the householders' wives. Mongke had his way for three years, although the inhabitants of Kamul remained resentful. Matters worsened when their crops failed and sickness visited one household after another—misfortunes they took to mean they had to restore their customs if prosperity and health were to return. 'They sent their ambassadors,' Marco reports, 'who took a great and beautiful present and carried it to Mongke, and prayed to him that so great a wrong, with so great loss to them, and danger, should not be done.' ... With that ... 'he revoked the order.' "


Laurence Bergreen


Marco Polo: From Venice to Xandu


First Vintage Books Edition


Copyright 2007 by Laurence Bergreen


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