Converging Imaginations

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Fact or fiction, Marco Polo's The Description of the World has inspired readers through the centuries. The book was the most important account of the world outside Europe written up to that time.

While the stories themselves, of travels through uncharted deserts and over steep mountain passes, and of encounters with wild animals and hostile tribesmen, continue to fascinate to this day, Marco Polo's book was no mere travelogue. By trying to understand cultures completely alien to his own, Marco Polo fired the imagination of others to the possibilities of following in his footsteps. By his words, Cathay and the Indies entered into the European imagination.

Yet even before European explorers such as Christopher Columbus and John Cabot tried to reach the lands that Marco Polo described, the Chinese themselves embarked on great voyages of discovery and trade. In a period from 1405 to 1433, in fact, China ruled the seas through Asia and may even have discovered America. In one of history's great reversals, by the end of the 1400s, China had withdrawn from the world stage and Europe was making its first steps towards domination.