The Silk Roads (A new history of the world) – Peter Frankopan

The accepted and lazy history of civilisation, wrote Wolf, is one where ‘ancient Greece begat Rome, Rome begat Christian Europe, Christian Europe begat the Renaissance, the Renaissance the Enlightenment, the Enlightenment political democracy and the industrial revolution. Industry crossed with democracy in turn yielded the United States, embodying the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ I immediately recognised that this was exactly the story that I had been told: the mantra of the political, cultural and moral triumph of the west. But this account was flawed;

So this one is really partly Colin Thubron’s fault. I loved his shadow of the Silk Road, and as I’m also currently listening to the Ancient World podcast (see here) which was delving into the East at the time when I saw this in Foyles, I immediately bought it (along with a few others). Then when picking what to read next, I kept coming back to it until I just plunged in.

This is a brilliant brilliant book, I absolutely loved it. An attempt to write (rewrit?) perhaps a more comprehensive history of the world, or certainly the Eurasian world, Frankopan ties as much together as he can in a rough chronological order, as West and East met through early travel but more importantly through trade. Along with the thrust of time and place, I really enjoyed little footnotes of history, such as Buddha statues coming about because of the introduction of statues of Apollo following the conquest by Alexander the Great, as well as the resonances with the contemporary world:

It was unlikely that places like Britain would provide lucrative additions to Rome’s territories: as slate letters sent home by soldiers stationed in Britain attest, this province was a byword for grim and fruitless isolation.

Much like it is now. Is something that could have easily been tacked onto the end of that sentence
The history is backed up by hundreds if not a few thousand references. Indeed spending a chapter on the introduction of Islam into the world, Frankopan points out just how hard it is to confirm some of it’s initial elements from the contemporary sources. From the index, he certainly hasn’t scrimped on searching.

Showing how early slavers from the Nordic countries swept down deep into central Asia, to the all conquering Mongol empire, this part of the world was the crossroads, the resource rich gateway to the mysterious orient as well as to the emerging west. From the decimation of populations due to the black plague, which levelled the field more between serf and landlord in the north of Europe than it did in the south, the pendulum of wealth and power slowly shifted from the opulent and decadent east to the less developed west, where it was to stay for quite some time. Countries like Spain, Portugal, England and Holland drove expansion and exploration, partly to cut the cost of their insatiable appetite for goods from the east, and partly for profit, sometimes flimsily disguised as a religious and righteous crusade for God and the church, and the discovery of the Americas literally placed Europe at the centre of the world. Their circumnavigation of the globe to reach India effectively cut out what had previously been a crucial trading hub from it’s livelihood and power for a time, but what it lacked in trade it made up for in something even more valuable, oil, the fuel that powered the new world.

While I bought this for the ancient history, the history of the nineteenth and twentieth history was engaging, and makes for uncomfortable reading at some points. The West’s insatiable appetite for oil and fear of Russian influence generated short sighted and untenable policies, invasions and barely disguised attempts at maintaining power that wreaked havoc in much of Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq to name but a few. Given the recent attention to the Chilcot report in the news, reading about the flip-flopping of support for Saddam whilst trying to keep a grip on Iran was both arrogant and clumsy, and the results have been clearly visible for all to see.

More recently the emergence of the former Russian states, that are incredibly resource rich yet at the same time are plagued by Nepotism and abuses that are well publicised, are making the West sit up and pay attention, but hopefully in a slightly more cooperative way and in conclusion The Silk Roads indicates power returning to this historically rich and crucial part of the world.

Frankopan has written clearly and concisely, with even odd flashes of humour mixed in with the fascinating and detailed history of civilisations, countries and people. It’s been a while since I’ve been at school, but I learnt more from this book than I remember from years of history lessons in the classroom, and was much more enjoyable.

Twice a week a hammer was struck against the wall three times in order to check it was secure. Each time, the inspectors would listen for any deviation from the norm: ‘if one applies one’s ear to the door, one hears a muted sound like a nest of wasps’, one account reports; ‘then everything falls silent again’. The purpose was to let the savages who might bring the apocalypse with them know that the wall was guarded and that they would not be allowed to pass.



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