The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan
In the preface to The Silk Roads, his new world history, Oxford historian Peter Frankopan refers to and quotes in part a passage from anthropologist Eric Wolf’s 1982 Europe and the People without History:
[We have been taught, inside the classroom and outside of it, that there exists an entity called the West, and that one can think of this West as a society and civilization independent of and in opposition to other societies and civilizations. Many of us even grew up believing that this West has a genealogy, according to which] 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.
The Silk Roads is Frankopan’s alternative way “of looking at history”, one that in particular does not “involve looking at the past from the perspective of the winners of recent history.”
This is a matter of more than mere intellectual debate or political correctness, for among the misunderstandings that bedevil relations between Asia and the West in general and China and America in particular is, surely, the inability to fit this standard historical narrative to the newly prosperous and increasingly powerful Asian countries, their non-nation-state political development and pre-Enlightenment social, political and economic philosophies. Modeling all countries and peoples as if they were Americans-in-waiting has led to any number of false predictions and ineffective and misguided policies.
The need for more varied historical narratives is all the more pressing as it becomes clear that the “winners of recent history” are not quite the narrow group that America and to a lesser extent Europe recently thought they were. While one can overstate the predictive power of history, not knowing how we got to where we are makes it that much harder to know where we might be be going.
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As incongruous it may seem to call an intensely-researched 600-page tome with 100 pages of footnotes a romp, The Silk Roads is a fluent, page-turning gallop through the roughly 2500 years from ancient Persia and Alexander the Great to the present day. Frankopan has recast world history—culture, politics, religion, economics—as both a single consistent narrative and one that is not centered around the development of Western civilization.
If one had to choose an up-to-date volume from which to glean an overview of world history, this might well be it. Frankopan’s highly readable survey ranges from Greek inscriptions in India and Buddhism in Persia to Hitler’s quest for Caspian oil and post-9/11 Afghanistan and the Middle East.
More significantly, he draws links between seemingly disparate developments thousand of miles apart. For example, he argues that the advent of paper money in China freed up large amounts of bullion that affected economies globally:
The availability of the precious metal soared — causing a major correction in its value against gold. In parts of Europe, the value of silver plunged, losing more than half its value between 1250 and 1338.
In a later chapter called “The Road of Silver”, Frankopan discusses the trade in silver from mines from Spanish America. One particularly illuminating point is that much of this commerce was driven as much by currency arbitrage as trade in physical goods:
The value of silver in relation to gold was so high that it made the latter amazingly cheap, note Pedro Baeza; ‘a profit of 75 to 70 per cent would be made’, he wrote, if one precious metal exchanged for another in the east was brought to the Spanish territories in the Americas or back to Spain itself.
Somewhat closer to the present day, Frankopan makes the case that Russian activities in Asia were central to World War One:
... it was not a series of unfortunate events and chronic misunderstandings in the corridors of power in London, Berlin, Vienna, Paris and St. Petersburg that brought empires to their knees, but tensions over the control of Asia that had been simmering for decades. It was not Germany’s spectre that lay behind the First World War; so too did that of Russia — and above all the shadow that it cast on the east. And it was Britain’s desperate attempt to prevent this shadow growing that played an important note in bringing the world to war.
In a book this extensive and wide-ranging, it is always possible to find quibbles. The above passage illustrates one: a definitive statement—in this case, of causality—that is qualified in later sentences.
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“A New History of the World”, the work’s subtitle, in fact describes the book better than its title. Frankopan’s thesis that
... for millennia, it was the region lying between east and west, linking Europe with the Pacific Ocean, that was the axis on which the globe spun
This is partly because he doesn’t confine himself to the region he delimits as the “eastern shores of Mediterranean and the Black Sea to the Himalayas.” Much of his early and medieval history centers on the Mediterranean: the Greeks, Arabs, Byzantines and the Italian trading cities. While it is true that these as often as not directed their attention eastward, this replacement narrative doesn’t shift the center of historical gravity very far from where the standard narrative put it.
And even within the region, Frankopan focuses on its western extremities. Indeed, in the first chapter, Frankopan identifies “the centre of Asia” as being Mesopotamia, a characterization that India and China might find curious.
By the advent of the Early Modern period, Frankopan’s attention has shifted even farther westward; the narrative takes as its main cue the major events of the Western narrative: the voyages of discovery, conquest, empire, the two World Wars. Hitler receives many more pages than either Genghis Khan or Timur (Tamerlane). Frankopan’s region of Central and West Asia is more acted upon than an agent of its own destiny.
One can in addition posit other possible replacements for unilateral Western narratives. One might be that what we are seeing now is not the “rise” of China, but rather a “restoration” of its traditional role as a global heavyweight and that, indeed, the world has for at least 2500 years looked like a barbell, with heavyweight powers in the Mediterranean and eastern Asia at the ends and the Silk Road(s) between them.
Frankopan alludes to this other narrative in his preface and argues that the Silk Roads region was more pivotal than not only the West but also than both China and India, neither of which, he explicitly states, “offers the best vantage point to view the world’s past and its present.”
While it is certainly the case that at certain times—with the Huns, Islamic expansion and Mongol dominance, for example—the linking bar took precedence over the weights at either end, this waxed and waned. The ends always re-asserted themselves while the center fractured, often quite quickly.
“The Silk Roads,” writes Frankopan in his conclusion, “are rising again,” but cites as evidence Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “Silk Road Economic Belt”—a term since replaced with “One Belt, One Road”—a project that says more about China than it does about Central and West Asia.
Frankopan’s thesis has echoes in Sir Halford Mackinder’s 1904 “Heartland Theory”. Mackinder’s Heartland, which he saw as the key to control of Eurasia, was roughly Central Asia up to the Arctic. But Frankopan argues that this region is the globe’s “axis”; for Mackinder, however, the Heartland was something to be controlled. In his time, the focus was on Russia; more recently, the theory has been re-applied to China. There are other recent echoes in Robert Kaplan’s Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, which argues the Indian Ocean used to be the body of water central to world history and will soon be again.
There is clearly much to be said for a better understanding of the role of Central and West Asia in world history. Its importance starts well before before the period with which Frankopan starts his book, for recent scholarship indicates that the region gave us the Indo-Europeans, the domesticated horse and wheeled transportation. It has also become increasingly clear that events on the steppe catalysed events in the two ends of the barbell rather more than what was recognized by previous generations of historians. Nor, as the news reminds us daily, has the region’s ability to command global attention diminished.
But all the ephemeral empires of Central Asia notwithstanding, the importance of the Silk Roads region depends on the importance of the regions it links, then as now: producers in East Asia with customers farther west.
The Silk Roads is an erudite and accessible corrective to conventional Western historical narratives. But China and India, no more peripheral to the region and its past and future developments than Europe and the United States, are covered only lightly.
It may well be, as Frankopan writes in his conclusion, that “the age of the west is at a crossroads, if not at an end”; it seems less than evident, however, that what if anything replaces it will centered on Central and West Asia rather than the large Asian powers to its south and east.