In Xanadu – A Quest – Book review –Author William Dalrymple
It was the year 1986 when Karakorum highway opened between Pakistan and China and William Dalrymple, conceived an ambitious project of following in the footsteps of Marco Polo in his summer break in Cambridge. Still wet behind the ears, all of 22 years, this daunting journey from Jerusalem to Xanadu in China had to be done on a paltry sum of 700 pounds, but possibly enough in those days.
It paved way for one of his best literary endeavors, his first book, In Xanadu – A Quest. No wonder, his book has caught more attention than any travelogues or documentaries made on this famous journey of Marco Polo.
Incidentally, this expedition was planned once before when the author was in the fifth standard with his friend, after reading a” Ladybird “ book on Marco Polo. He had no clue about “England “ or “China “, so they came back home for supper once the evening set in.
A Venetian, young Marco Polo, came to Jerusalem when he was seventeen years old with his Uncle and Dad in 1271. Christendom was undergoing a low phase in those times and Gregory X[the then Pope] had a whiff that Kubla Khan, grandson of Ghengis Khan was showing interest in conversion to Christianity. Chengis Khan was the then ruler of a vast empire from the Euphrates to Pacific and if he could be made a believer of Christianity, then this could have been the best possible move.
Chengis Khan wanted a sample of oil from the famous lamp which burned in Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and Marco Polo and his team was given this responsibility
Polo was a hard-headed merchant’s son, so his account of travel was neither a diplomatic expedition to save Christianity nor a general account of the lands he passed. At the end of the journey, his goal was simple –“Profit “
This 12,000 miles journey spanning through multiple countries was not a cakewalk in any era. It takes us through Jerusalem, Syria, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, India, and finally ends in Xanadu in China.
Dalrymple was stood up by his friend and companion at the last minute. Though heartbroken, Laura , the substitute companion proved an asset. She not only braved the misogynist behavior and male gazes throughout the journey but proved to be a strict taskmaster for the author in keeping him on this whirlwind tour on schedule.
The author’s brilliant and personalized kaleidoscope of interaction with the different people en route to his destination made me fall in love with this book, a decade back. I still feel this is the best book of the author, in the genre that the author excels in and so I
William Dalrymple needs no introduction as far as his literary accomplishments are concerned. His books have won many awards and accolades and been made into television series. Currently, he divides his time between New Delhi and London.
He is an authentic, diligent, and honest historian and we are carried in too deep historical recesses of these places, which could have been missed otherwise. It is not about rewriting history but we can form a contemporary image of our own, of these places. His in-depth knowledge of art and architecture shines through the book as he travels through these ancient cities brimming with historical monuments.
Readers’ interest in historical travelogues is quite often porous but the book has been packed with a huge dose of humor and which stands out more so often in the form of anecdotes, incidents, and local dialects which makes it a page-turner.
West Asia has always confounded the world with its paradoxical and intricate neighborly relations. One wonders, how tolerance and intolerance, brotherhood and betrayals, fanaticism, and acceptance can reside side by side for so many centuries in a status quo fashion.
Our world is not fair and Jerusalem, the city of peace, the cradle of many religions including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the holiest place in the world has seen the most bloodshed to date.
History attracts as your mind can play an “action replay “ but the knots of history are not easy to untangle. We as humans will continue to rush towards such “Mission Impossible” as long as challenges would be present to us.
Hope you all had a safe and good weekend
Would talk to you soon
Insights from my topsy world