I had been so taken by the title, The Silk Roads, that I had quite neglected to pay equal attention to the second part of the title, A New History of the World. Midway through the first chapter, ‘The Creation of the Silk Road’, dawned the realisation that, yes, while the legendary Silk Road is a focus of the book, it is indeed a new look at, well, a good part of global history from times of antiquity right up to the present day, though not quite beginning with the Egyptians, long held to be the fount of human civilisation.
Rewriting the history of the world, and placing the Silk Road as its central axis, requires a volte face in the face of centuries of established scholarship. And a mental repositioning for the reader as well. There is no doubt that the tracing of human history as a triumph of the West has been a fallacy common to many chroniclers of human effort. However, overlooking the contributions of the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution or indeed the digital era, with many other significant landmarks emanating from the same milieu, is a stretch.
Multilingual Byzantinist Peter Frankopan took on this onerous job in an effort to demonstrate just how influential the East, especially the erstwhile Silk Road regions, had been to the march of human history. With mixed success.
Places that are located on the former Silk Route, such as Samarkand, Balkh or Bukhara, are associated more with a fabled past and are rather an afterthought today. Yet the situation was quite the reverse in the heyday of the Silk Road. Indeed they were on the main channel for exchange of not just wealth, but also ideas, religion, spirituality, culture, food and much else. Indeed, for centuries, the East, and this could mean a vast region from Japan and China to Syria and Armenia, with Persia squarely in the middle, was the wealthiest part of the planet, and much coveted, by both traders and conquerors. Whether it was the Greeks or the Romans or their successors, ‘Look East’ was the national policy for most. That the stories of the rulers who looked East got written more than those whose empires they coveted is, of course, a reflection of the Eurocentric writing that Frankopan’s book addresses.
This book is a grand sweep, much in the tradition of western historians. The author brings forth the many lapses of a more customary look at history. It is worth noting that Kashgar had a Christian cathedral before Canterbury, or that Indian Buddhist embassies reached out to Persia, Syria and the Gulf as well as East Asia before the beginning of Christendom. He manages to connect a lot to the Silk Road, from its role in Christopher Columbus’ expeditions to the start of World War I. Curiously, there are some self goals, such as the mention of the “Maratha caves in Ellora in northern India”, or the placing of Delhi close to the Hindu Kush.
Frankopan concludes that the time is ripe for the Silk Road nations to revive. He cites not just the example of China building railways lines to the heart of Europe as the ‘iron silk roads’ but also the nations of Central Asia reasserting themselves. Even though it’s a voluminous tome, it obviously has to be selective on what it looks at in the dense human story of the past, forcing occasional simplistic formulations. One may not agree with every hypothesis in the book, or indeed most, but the book does force a reorientation of the prism of history. And entertains and informs at its best.