James A. GILMAN
Marko Polo and the Europa-Youth Initiative


My interest in Marco Polo is very much a personal one.
I was born in Peking, China, and the first stories my mother told me were of Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. I have stood on the Marco Polo Bridge outside Peking; I have walked along the beginning of the Silk Road as it leaves the ancient Chinese city of Xian; and on my office wall there hangs one of the sheets of paper money -' flying money', as Polo terms it - referred to by Marko Polo in his famous account of his travels in Cathay. Marko Polo was my childhood hero.

The past millennium - the thousand years separating 1,000AD from 2,000AD - has, more than anything else, been the Age of Discovery: of the steady widening of Man' s awareness of the resources of the world he lived in, and his growing ties with those strangers in other lands who held the golden keys to his own future prosperity: the keys of trade and of knowledge.

This transformation of our earth from a global forest of ignorance, the habitat of myths and of monsters, into a global civilization with the capability to take Mankind to the stars, has been the product of the courage of those men and women who, down the ages, have wondered at what lay beyond the horizon - and dared to leave home and haven to find out; to explore, to map, to record, and to return home again with information that often seemed incredible, and with tales that defied belief.

Of all the great explorers whose names light the fires of our imagination and whose exploits line the shelves of our libraries and museums, one name above all others leaps from the pages of history as though emblazoned in letters of gold, possessing the power still, after 700 years, to stir the blood and to catch the breath. A name which, once breathes, conjures up a swirling mist of romantic visions of men anti horses, of mountains and vast empty spaces reaching to the ends of the earth, of the mysterious East, opulent with the treasures of the Orient and ruled by a legendary Khan enthroned in splendor within his' stately pleasure dome' at fabled Xanadu.

That name is Marko Polo

Other explorers before him had changed the geography of the world. Marko Polo changed its history. To the narrow, cramped, impoverished world that was mediaeval Europe he revealed the incredible wealth, the knowledge, the inventions, and the philosophies of a whole new civilization beyond the vast plains of Central Asia; a civilization as far in advance of that of the Europe of his day as that Europe was from the world of Neanderthal Man.

His account of his discoveries - a bestseller for hundreds of years - Led Western merchants to wrest from the Arab world the trade in spices which he described to them, thus laying the foundations of European trading prosperity. It inspired a certain Christopher Columbus to set sail towards the setting sun in search of an easier route to the treasures of Cathay - only to stumble upon America in the dark. And it fueled the imaginations of all the great European ocean voyagers in the centuries that followed his own, transforming the flat map of his schoolroom days into the rounded globe of our own.

Above all Marko Polo, returning to the stagnant society of mediaeval Europe bursting with revelations of a civilization called Cathay where wealth, knowledge and culture were the hallmarks of everyday living, dynamited the walls of ignorance imprisoning that society and bequeathed its members a vista of fresh fields of knowledge which, one day, was to inspire that great flowering of European culture we know as the Renaissance.

Marko Polo was, in essence, the First European.

It is in this that his greatness lies; a greatness enhanced by the fact that he was only 17 when he embarked upon the epic journey which was to occupy the next quarter century of his life - history's youngest-ever explorer, undertaking history's longest-ever expedition. For this reason, we see Marko Polo as a fitting symbol of, and role model for, today's young Europeans, epitomizing as he does those qualities of daring, initiative, imaginations and intellectual curiosity, coupled with a capacity for wonderment, that will be needed by today's young if they, like Marko Polo before them, are to have a hand in changing Europe's history.

The Europa-Youth Initiative

The Europe-Youth Initiative was launched some 3 years ago with the support of the European Commission, as a uniquely 21st Century youth initiative that couples opportunities for cultural adventure with civic responsibility, with an appeal reaching out across national borders and cultural divides to excite and engage the interest of Europe's most valuable yet neglected human resource: its youth. It has tun goals in mind:

- To bring young people together from all parts of Europe - East; as well as West - in peace and friendship, via a comprehensive program of pan-European youth activities, as a means of encouraging a greater awareness of their common European identity and cultural heritage; and in doing so,
- To provide Europe's youth with a positive role in society as a catalyst for the awakening, within local continuities, of a new spirit of social and moral responsibility that will enhance the quality of life enjoyed by all, young and old alike, within these communities.

In its vision of creating new opportunities for European youth to enjoy both cultural adventure and civic responsibility, Europa-Youth has drawn inspiration from the life and achievements of Marko Polo. In re-drawing the maps of men's minds quite as much as he did those of their geography, this 'First European' made Europe a new idea to be explored as well as a Continental civilization to be developed, by the sons and daughters of the old mediaeval states of the Europe of his own generation. One of the first to build a cultural bridge between the two worlds of Europe and Asia, Marko Polo epitomizes the Europa-Youth goal of bridging the cultural and ideological gap between East and West today by bringing together, in peace and friendship via the ongoing Europa-Youth program of pan-European activities, his modern-day counterparts: today's young Europeans.

Through a direct association with this program arising out of the link between Marko Polo and Korcula, his reputed birthplace, an opportunity exists for Croatia in general and Korcula in particular to benefit from both the homage which Europa Youth seeks to accord to the life and achievements of Marko Polo and our desire to promote this distinguished European ; as a personification of the new, unified Europe we are all engaged in helping to achieve. The key to the realization of this opportunity lies today in the hands of The Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts.

The first chain in this link was forged at the Europe ·Youth Inaugural Conference held in Wales, under the auspices of the European Commission, in November 1993, where we welcomed as the Croatian delegate to this event Mate de Polo, a young member of the Polo family from Korcula. On the shores of a Welsh lake, Mate launched the Conference in a most appropriate way by re-enacting his famous ancestor's meeting with Kublai Khan 700 years ago at Xanadu, by toasting in champagne a young descendant of the Great Khan, Ms.Dashzeveg Delegsuren, an officer of the Mongolian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and her country's delegate to the Conference. In front of over 50 delegates from 26 nations, these two young people bridged the gap between East and West with the following words:

In the same spirit of friendship which brought our ancestors, Marko Polo of Europa and Kublai Khan of Cathay, together 700 years ago at Xanadu, we two young people from opposite ends of the earth join hands today in peace and friendship to jointly declare open this Inaugural Conference of the Europa -Youth Initiative, established to bring young people together from East and West in friendship and understanding, to help create a better world for Xanadu into the lives of all who take part in this great adventure

The Marko Polo - Cathay Challenge

Mate de Polo was invited to the Inaugural Conference for a particular reason: because it had been decided that Europa-Youth's first project should be the mounting of a European Youth Expedition across Eurasia to the site of Xanadu in the footsteps of Marko Polo. This Expedition, to be called the Marko Polo - Cathay Challenge, would commemorate, through an exciting challenge to adventure issues to young people from all parts of Europe, the 700th anniversary of the return of this young adventurer to Europe from Cathay in 1295, and the subsequent publication of his account of his travels in that of his travels in that far-off land, which had such an impact upon subsequent European history. Commencing from Korcula, and under the patronage of Col. John Blashford·Snell, Founder-Director of the international youth initiative 'Operation Raleigh' (whose Patron is the Prince of Wales) and one of the world's lending explorers, this Expedition will generate considerable international publicity for Korcula and Croatia.

The support of the Chinese authorities has been secured for such an Expedition, and we have been allocated an official Chinese partner in this venture: the China International Sports Travel Company, a government organization located in Beijing. With part of the proposed Expedition (much of whose route has already been surveyed by our Chinese partners) going through Mongolia to visit the site of Genghis Khan's World Capital of Karakoram, the Mongolian Ministry of Arts and Sciences has offered its services in implementing our plans with regard to this section. Additionally, the Mayor of Venice has agreed to provide a ceremonial departure for the Expedition from his city after its arrival there from its initial point of departure: Korcula.

Unfortunately, progress in organizing this Expedition has been slow, with the result that it will have to be postponed from 1995 to an alternative date still to be confirmed. At the present moment, through the good offices of Sir Patrick Cormack, MP, who is Chairman of the British Parliament's all-Party Committee on Croatia (and as such known to many Academy members), an approach is in progress to three British Government Ministers with a view to securing British Government endorsement of the overall Europa-Youth program. Such endorsement will make it much easier to finalize arrangements for the Expedition as well as securing financial sponsorship to fund it.

The Marko Polo Centre, Korcula

Arising out of the link between Marko Polo and Korcula, an the ensuing dialogue between Europa-Youth and the Croatian authorities regarding our proposal for commencing the Marko Polo - Cathay Challenge European Youth Expedition from Korcula, Europa-Youth approached the Croatian Ambassador in London some 3 years ago with a proposal that consideration be given to the establishment, on Korcula, of an international Marko Polo Center.

With Europe-Youth's adoption of Marko Polo as a symbol both of the new spirit of European unity and of a desire to build new bridges between the cultures of East and West, we felt that progress towards achieving both these goals would be considerably enhances were there to exist, somewhere centrally-located within Europe, a facility for pursuing these aims, preferably within the context of the achievements of Marko Polo in initiating such bridge-building.

We felt that nowhere could be more appropriate than Korcula, with its close association with Marko Polo on the one hand and its central location within Europe - and idyllic environment - on the other. Furthermore, such a facility in Korcula would provide the island's community with a potentially lucrative tourism attraction, and Croatia itself with an additional marketing aid with a major international appeal. Such potential cultural and commercial benefits would, we hoped, attract the support of the Croatian Government and the Korculan local community at one level, and the wider European cultural agencies like the Council of Europe, the European Comission, and UNESCO at another Level.

Europa-Youth therefore made the following proposal to the Croatian authorities: That there be established on the island of Korcula an international Marko Polo Centre, combining two distinct functions:

a) That of a Visitor Centre catering for tourists, general visitors and school groups, providing a comprehensive overview and assessment of Marko Polo's life, times, journeys and contribution to European historical and cultural development (including a survey of all the ideas and discoveries he brought back to Europe from Cathay), utilizing 'state of the art' electronic displays as well as more traditional display methods to provide an exciting, imaginative, informative and educational experience for tourists and visitors of all ages and nationalities; and
b) That of a Research Centre catering for scholars of all nationalities, bringing together in one place; and making accessible all known works relating to Marko Polo's life and achievements, together with an exhaustive computerized database containing all known references to him and the full ramifialtions of his various discoveries, to provide a definitive record of his place in and contribution to European (and World) history and cultural development, together with all necessary facilities for ongoing scholarly research into the Marko Polo era in European history, with its seminal place in the establishment of links between East and West. (The proposal by the United World College movement to establish an international Sixth Form College on a neighboring island near Korcula in which Sir Fitzroy Maclean has been closely involved, would seem to offer an opportunity for the addition of a further dimension to the research role and facilities of the Marko Polo Centre.)

Such research would take as its starting-point the study of the mediaeval period of European and Asian history encapsulated by Marko Polo's relationships with Cathay and the Mongol Empire of the day. We would anticipate, however, that the theme of bridge-building between the cultures of East and West initiated by Polo's epic journey to and around Cathay, and the subsequent publication of his account of this journeying, would serve but as a foundation for continuing work of both a theoretical and practical nature, into the development of further cultural links between East and West both in the present and in the future.

The value of such a Centre will be enhanced by the fact that there is no other place in Europe or beyond attempting to fulfill such role - the Marko Polo Centre on Korcula will be unique.

This being so, and bearing in mind our promotion of Marko Polo as the First European and hence a focus of attention in respect of the development of European culture today and in the future, Europa-Youth has further proposed that an approach be made to the European Commission and the Council Of Europe for the joint founding and funding, of these two great agencies of European co-operatlon, of such a Centre as a European Cultural Heritage Foundation. We envisage this (centre as being a public expression of the new spirit of European unity symbolizing, under the name and achievements of one of the earliest and greatest of Europeans, the reality of Europe today: that we are the greatest grouping of independent nations with a common cultural heritage in the history and geography of the world.


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