The Silk Roads – Peter Frankopan
Subtitled A New History Of The World, as if the world needs another one, Frankopan’s goal in this entertainingly and well-written book is to shift the focus of world history from the states bordering the Mediterranean sea to what he espouses to be the true middle of the earth, somewhat to the east, in Iran and those rather perplexing countries ending in –stan. For the pedant he has probably shifted the locus too far – in 1973 using a digital global map Andrew J Woods calculated it to be 39.00N, 34.00E, somewhere in modern Turkey. But never mind.
The Persian empire and Mesopotamia exploited their central position in the then known world by reaching out to the west and to the east, developing safe trading routes along which fabulous and exotic goods shuttled back and forth. The reach was astonishing. Some 2,000 or more years ago Carthaginian nobles were wearing Chinese silks, Provencal pots were used by wealthy Persians and Indian spices pepped up Roman and Afghan cuisine. Horses were traded from the Steppes. The silk roads, a term not invented until 1877, by the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen, became a trading super-highway.
But they were a conduit for ideas just as much as for goods. The devastatingly effective military campaigns of Alexander the Great brought Greek culture as far as the Indus valley and persuaded the adherents of Buddha to give their god a human form for the first time, one heavily influenced by Hellenic sculptural forms and conventions. The most fascinating fact I picked up from the book was that the halo is a shared pictorial convention across the major religions, an astonishing example of the cross-fertilisation of ideas across philosophies which at first blush would be inimical to each other.
Frankopan argues, with some force, that the true centre of the Christian religious conversion was to be found in the East as it spread, particularly after Constantine’s conversion, with the Romans along the established trading routes. Islam travelled in the other direction. They were also a conduit for violence – the Mongols and Turks and in the other direction the Vikings who became Rus’, fervent slave traders whose victims were called Slavs. And perhaps its deadliest contribution was the spread of the Black Death which for the survivors at least prompted the growth of the middle class, slightly more equitable distribution of wealth and provided the conditions for the Renaissance to flourish.
The second half of the book is more of a struggle because however generous your world view, you cannot get away from the fact that the major game changers – the Industrial revolution, the Age of Enlightenment and the aggressive empire building from the 16th century onwards – were western in origin and filled the void vacated by the east. But the furies unleashed by the systematic meddlings of the British and Americans in the Middle East throughout the 20th century and the phenomenal riches generated by the minerals unlocked from beneath the earth of the –stans suggest that the focus once more is switching to the area that once was the cradle of civilization.
I wasn’t persuaded by Frankopan’s overall thesis but there were enough new insights and things to ponder on to sustain my interest in a book that runs to 646 pages. It is worth a read.