Book Review: ‘The Silk Roads’

A New History of the World, Peter Francopan , Bloomsbury 2015

Review by Ross Hunter, Headmaster, ESS, The English School of Science & IT, Lefortovo.

Awesome.   This is a fabulous, compelling read. Well worth taking a few days off work so as to profit from its huge scope in one session. I did.  At 520 pages (plus another 100 of notes) it is both massively comprehensive and panoramic in scope, and hugely condensed. It offers a remarkable and convincing new viewpoint on world history.

Peter Frankopan’s starting premise is that the core and indeed thread of ‘world history’ is best viewed as centred on the Fertile Crescent, the great melting pot where Europe, Africa, Asia Minor and West Asia have their nodal crossroads.  Or, if you prefer, between the banks of the Mediterranean, Black Sea, Caspian, Gulf and Red Sea. From this central nexus, events and history spread outwards, but mostly eastwards, along the tangled knot of trails summarised as The Silk Road(s). His story largely spans the last 3000 years and is mainly bounded by the hot empty deserts to the south and the barren vacuum of the dry plains and the taiga forest to the north.

It is not truly a global history. While southern Africa, the new world, the Boreal zone and Australasia flit in and out of the story, they are in every sense peripheral. More curiously, East Asia and the Pacific and South and South East Asia are not central to the big themes of the tome. NW Europe occupies very much a marginal role. For a Brit, for example, our “great dates”, the ones tattooed into our schoolchild memories – 44BC, 1066, 1485, 1688, 1745, 1789, 1832, 1857, 1956 and others – all get passing mentions, in context. 1914-18 and 1939-45 are fully covered, in their widest setting. In order to weave the biggest themes together, events and places marginal to the big picture remain in the wings. It is not a serious omission, as it allows the reader to follow Dr. Frankopan’s huge sweep across the landscape. If he ever turns his attention to the fast evolving pre-history of mankind, I will be first in the queue for a copy. A large atlas would be helpful at your side, or at least a wall sized map of what Mackinder called ‘the World Island’, from the Danube to the Yangtse and from the Volga to the Nile.

Remains of a Buddhist monastery at Mes Aynak, Afghanistan

The story starts with the first ordered city societies of the Levant and Mesopotamia, between the Nile and the Euphrates/Tigris, and with that the desert monotheistic religions. Alexander from the West, Buddha from the East and Moses, Jesus and Muhammed from the dry centre all sweep across the stage, along with the Assyrians, Persians, Zoroastrians and the long-legged traders of central Asia.

True interactions of the great religions, their cross-fertilisation, competition of ideas and iconography and frequent mutual support are particularly well analysed, along with the mutual symbiosis of the spread of religion, trade and commercial innovations. From our times of relentless over-simplification and demonization of alternative belief systems, it is absolutely refreshing to read of the many ways in which, between 500BC and the C13th, the great faiths lived with each other and protected one another, from Moorish Spain to Mughal India by way of the Holy Land and Asia Minor.

The Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue in Ulaanbataar, Mongolia

Alexander, The Prophet, Genghis Khan and Ashok, inter alia, are revealed to have startlingly similar qualities: the ability to manage huge domains by way of tolerating local customs and power systems, and harnessing existing stable ways of ruling. Adjusting dress, respecting traditions and even subtly bending doctrine to as to be accepted and absorbed are all key to large empires. Elsewhere, Dr Francopan is also unflinching in attributing failures and highlighting fatal errors of judgement.

All the while, the desire for trade and enrichment sees the network of Silk Roads, carrying ideas, religions, gold and silver, precious stones, horses, furs, and latterly wheat, oil and ideologies frames the narrative and puts conquests and leaders into perspective. Trafficking of slaves is an enduring theme and stain, but in itself puts modern horrors into a context.

View from The ‘Silent Fort’ South Afghanistan

Lots of oddities and unanswered questions crop up, as well as new perspectives which keep startling the reader. Who really are the Russians? How did the Vikings reach so far? How did Venice and Genoa waste their advantage? Why were the Nazis so poor at managing food supply in their short ascendancy? And in the modern context: why do outside aspirant superpowers over-reach again and again, and fail to learn the lessons learned bloodily by their predecessors? Each time the narrative passes Afghanistan and the Hindu Kush, the sense of inevitable disaster gets stronger, for example. In 1914, who was more scared of whose ascendancy – Britain, Germany, Russia? How do outside meddling powers consistently back the wrong horses?

The C20th narrative is brilliantly put into the long view of history, and the mad illogicality’s that led to 1914, the external butchery of local realities between then and now, across ‘the Middle East’ and the politics of modern oil, power and religion are especially well dissected.

Perhaps the biggest sadness of the book is that the huge desire it foments, to travel along the Silk Roads, to follow the explorers, adventurers and merchants across the region are all but impossible given today’s internal strife and external meddling. It WAS possible to travel right across the vast continent as recently as 1976 – as my few remaining curling photos recall – it isn’t now. A Chinese freight train has reopened one variant of the route; what a waste that adventurers’ buses cannot follow in the hoof marks of two millennia of horses and camels.  Reading Peter Francopan’s book is as good a start as can be made, for us aspirant Richard Burtons, Sven Hedins and Wildred Thesigers: a fine way to begin your own Great Game.