Some books are next to impossible to review. Silk Roads is one: encyclopedic in scope and structure, made up of several dozen short essays by almost as many different authors, each lavishly illustrated with indescribable photos of objects and places.
The Silk Road is, as a term, a modern (late 19th-century) construction. Like the Holy Roman Empire, which was famously neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire, the Silk Road, was not a road, not unitary and not confined to or even focused on silk. Editor Susan Whitfield, who has passed this way before, uses (as do others) the plural, which is somewhat less inaccurate if not much less amorphous.
However, like such other anachronistic nomenclature as the “Middle Ages” and “Byzantine Empire”, the Silk Road(s) has proven useful. For all its drawbacks and fuzzy edges, it is usually clear what is being referred to: the places between the classical civilizations and a focus on what connects rather than what separates.
The boundaries drawn in Silk Roads seem more or less the conventional ones. Chronologically, the sine qua non of the Silk Road is trade, so it starts up in last few centuries BCE, and winds down with the advent of the early modern world and the advent of Europe’s dominance in truly global trade. Geographically, the book includes the endpoints (China and Rome), and has added the ocean routes, India, the Arabian peninsula and the East African coast: indeed, so-called Afro-Eurasia (which would seem to include the entirety of what used to be called the “Old World”) is said to map onto the Silk Roads. However expansive this may seem, the weight of the actual material remains in what would broadly be considered Central Asia. Notably, Whitfield does not include the 16th-19th century Manila Galleon across the Pacific, which in the modern Chinese version of this narrative has been roped in under the Maritime Silk Road.
Silk Roads is a book to experience rather than read.
The problem of running out of superlatives aside, the relatively easy part of this review is the discussion of the illustrations, which make up perhaps two-thirds of the book. The photographs range from full-page coffee-table book spreads to fully annotated illustrations; they date from the 19th century to the present day. They range from close-ups of intricate jewelry measured in inches to limitless landscapes. Architecture, textiles, ceramics, frescoes, sculpture, metalwork, coins, documents all feature. Some pieces are reasonably well-known; others revelatory. Some are of things that have since been destroyed. All are well-chosen (the selection of period maps deserves particular mention); the reproduction quality is uniformly excellent, the layout attractive.
The advantage of having multiple short articles is that widely diverse coverage is presented in bite-sized pieces: the result is much like an old-fashioned, albeit much better-illustrated and much better-written, encyclopedia. The editorial control is excellent: the various essays cross-reference each other and there is minimal repetition. The contributors are wide-ranging and accomplished; there is even a foreword by Peter Sellars: yes, that Peter Sellars, the acclaimed director (who, in full disclosure, was a classmate of mine). Despite the diversity of authors and subject matter, the book nevertheless manages cohesion and a commonality of voice and tone.
The disadvantage, however, of having multiple short articles is that widely diverse coverage is presented in bite-sized pieces. Some subjects are just too broad for treatments of 1000 words or fewer and can jump from one end of the continent to the other and in millennium-sized bounds. An article on the steppe is illustrated mostly by examples of the more manageable subject of walls.
The essays that work best are those on narrower, more specific subjects such as coins, glass, the caftan, stringed instruments or Manichaeism. Coins and glass, like religions, could travel extremely far from their origins: Hellenistic glass has turned up Chinese tombs, and Roman coins in Korea.
The book is structured into sections which are geographical: “Steppes”, “Mountains and Highlands”, “Seas and Skies”, etc. Non-geographical topics—the various religions, physical culture, such societal questions as slavery, etc.—are dispersed among these sections; the allocation doesn’t always seem organic.
The whole, however, is at the very least the sum of its many tantalizing and thought-provoking parts, from repeating images of three hares or rabbits joined by sharing an ear [see illustration above] to an essay on “Slavery and servitude in the Indian Ocean” which suggests the “slavery needs to be understood within the local context” and that “slavery across the Indian Ocean is more accurately understood as a form of dependency”, a perspective which, however reasonable, is hard to fit into contemporary discussions on slavery and its contemporary legacy.
Silk Roads is a book to experience rather than read. And it is hard to experience it without comparing Christoph Baumer’s four-volume magnum opus on The History of Central Asia. Both are beautiful, fascinating large-format publications, simultaneously erudite and accessible. Baumer takes a more traditional historical approach—his divisions are chronological and political with topics in sidebars—and although Baumer strays well beyond what one might consider the normal boundaries of Central Asia, his focus remains the region rather than the topic. The books complement each other rather than compete. Picking up one increases rather than diminishes the appetite for the other.
One may, as some do, consider the term “Silk Road(s)” an example of egregious intellectual or political branding, but if it catalyzes marvelous books such as this—to say nothing of resulting in an increased focus on relatively understudied areas, peoples and subjects that call current worldviews and conventional wisdom into question—we should nevertheless be grateful.
Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.