The Travels of Marco Polo/Book 1/Chapter 26
Concerning the City of Sapurgan
On leaving the Castle, you ride over fine plains and beautiful valleys, and pretty hill-sides producing excellent grass pasture, and abundance of fruits, and all other products. Armies are glad to take up their quarters here on account of the plenty that exists. This kind of country extends for six days' journey, with a goodly number of towns and villages, in which the people are worshippers of Mahommet. Sometimes also you meet with a tract of desert extending for 50 or 60 miles, or somewhat less, and in these deserts you find no water, but have to carry it along with you. The beasts do without drink until you have got across the desert tract and come to watering places.
So after travelling for six days as I have told you, you come to a city called SAPURGAN. It has great plenty of everything, but especially of the very best melons in the world. They preserve them by paring them round and round into strips, and drying them in the sun. When dry they are sweeter than honey, and are carried off for sale all over the country. There is also abundance of game here, both of birds and beasts.
- SAPURGAN may closely express the pronunciation of the name of the city which the old Arabic writers call Saburkan and Shaburkan, now called Shibrgan, lying some 90 miles west of Balkh; containing now some 12,000 inhabitants, and situated in a plain still richly cultivated, though on the verge of the desert. But I have seen no satisfactory solution of the difficulties as to the time assigned. This in the G. T. and in Ramusio is clearly six days. The point of departure is indeed uncertain, but even if we were to place that at Sharakhs on the extreme verge of cultivated Khorasan, which would be quite inconsistent with other data, it would have taken the travellers something like double the time to reach Shibrgan. Where I have followed the G. T. in its reading "quant l'en a chevauches six jornee tel che je vos ai contes, adunc treuve l'en une cite," etc., Pauthier's text has "Et quant l'en a chevauchie les vi cites, si treuve l'en une cite qui a nom Sapurgan," and to this that editor adheres. But I suspect that cites is a mere lapsus for journees as in the reading in one of his three MSS. What could be meant by "chevauchier les vi cites"?
Whether the true route be, as I suppose, by Nishapur and Meshid, or, as Khanikoff supposes, by Herat and Badghis, it is strange that no one of those famous cities is mentioned. And we feel constrained to assume that something has been misunderstood in the dictation, or has dropt out of it. As a probable conjecture I should apply the six days to the extent of pleasing country described in the first lines of the chapter, and identify it with the tract between Sabzawur and the cessation of fertile country beyond Meshid. The distance would agree well, and a comparison with Fraser or Ferrier will show that even now the description, allowing for the compression of an old recollection, would be well founded; e.g. on the first march beyond Nishapur: "Fine villages, with plentiful gardens full of trees, that bear fruit of the highest flavour, may be seen all along the foot of the hills, and in the little recesses formed by the ravines whence issues the water that irrigates them. It was a rich and pleasing scene, and out of question by far the most populous and cultivated tract that I had seen in Persia.... Next morning we quitted Derrood ... by a very indifferent but interesting road, the glen being finely wooded with walnut, mulberry, poplar, and willow-trees, and fruit-tree gardens rising one above the other upon the mountain-side, watered by little rills.... These gardens extended for several miles up the glen; beyond them the bank of the stream continued to be fringed with white sycamore, willow, ash, mulberry, poplar, and woods that love a moist situation," and so on, describing a style of scenery not common in Persia, and expressing diffusely (as it seems to me) the same picture as Polo's two lines. In the valley of Nishapur, again (we quote Arthur Conolly): "'This is Persia!' was the vain exclamation of those who were alive to the beauty of the scene; 'this is Persia!' Bah! Bah! What grass, what grain, what water! Bah! Bah!
['If there be a Paradise on the face of the Earth,
This is it! This is it! This is it!'"]--(I. 209.)
With reference to the dried melons of Shibrgan, Quatremere cites a history of Herat, which speaks of them almost in Polo's words. Ibn Batuta gives a like account of the melons of Kharizm: "The surprising thing about these melons is the way the people have of slicing them, drying them in the sun, and then packing them in baskets, just as Malaga figs are treated in our part of the world. In this state they are sent to the remotest parts of India and China. There is no dried fruit so delicious, and all the while I lived at Delhi, when the travelling dealers came in, I never missed sending for these dried strips of melon." (Q. R. 169; I. B. III. 15.) Here, in the 14th century, we seem to recognise the Afghan dealers arriving in the cities of Hindustan with their annual camel-loads of dried fruits, just as we have seen them in our own day.