Peter Frankopan 2016. The Silk Roads. A new history of the World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 645 pp.
This huge meal of a book is a rich history of the silk roads. Not just the Silk Road connecting Persia with Rome, Constantinople and the far East. But also any trading route or seaway. But the focus is very much on what is now Iran and I took this as a correction to the Western bias of Sapiens, and a great companion to the history of the “Dark Ages”, The Edge of the World by Michael Pye and also Richard Fiddler’s history of Constantinople, Ghost Empire.
So rich that the detail sometimes obscures the wider picture and I found it necessary to skip back and forth to secure a new context. Peter Frankopan interleaves his big ideas and conclusions with so much detail from original sources that his major points are easy to overlook. I think it is a book that requires familiarity with the material to appreciate fully. In lieu of that, Oxford University has a great interview with the author. None of it is hard to read, but there is so much ground covered that it demands a significant commitment from the reader.
The early chapters are about the ebb and flow of Christianity and other religions (Buddhism, Zoroastrianism), especially in Constantinople and Persia. The adoption of Christianity by Rome who pushed it east led to a reaction against such evangelising. Nevertheless in the centuries before the rise of Islam, Christianity was in a strong and seemingly expanding position from Constantinople to Persia and with many outposts beyond (Samarakand and further east, north of the Aral Sea). But then (540s AD) bubonic plague devastated populations (10,00 deaths per day in Constantinople) and the survivors were not well disposed towards either rulers or religions. This seems a central part of the book although it is related in the early chapter, The Road to Revolution, where the author shows that the revelations and teachings of Muhammad, from 610 AD onwards fell on ears receptive to revolution, since cities and populations had been suffering from both plague and from the long-running Roman-Persian wars. Thus Muhammad was able to unite many pagan and polytheistic Arabian tribes under a new monotheistic religion, Islam. The early Islamic period saw rapid expansion during the years 628-632 AD, including into Jerusalem which had only recently (614 AD) fallen to Persia (the Romans accused the Jews of assisting the Persians in taking Jerusalem). It was during this brief period that “Persia”, previously a disparate group of tribes, became united Arabs under Muhammad.
Important to recognise, states Frankopan, that Islam, Christianity and Judaism were mutually respectful during the early Islamic period. Islam and Judaism were especially close, both venerating Abraham as prophet and repudiating Jesus the Mesiah. Early co-operation, respect and acceptance of alternative monotheistic faiths, although stated in the Qu’ran, is long since discarded, tragically.
The endnotes are extremely extensive and filled with original sources but the lack of a companion bibliography makes it very laborious to track down references, which are only given in full the first time they are used.
What is most glaringly absent is an overview of the content of the chapters, which is hidden behind cryptic chapter titles. Peter Frankopan’s historical knowledge is often a fresh and informative perspective on modern political and economic issues. Thus, in order to use this as a reference and since I couldn’t find any such summary online I have attempted my own rough outline of the chapters:
1 The Creation of the Silk Road - Mesopotamia and the reach of Greece and pre-Christian Rome into Persia.
2 The Road of Faiths and 3 The Road to a Christian East - Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and especially the spread of Christianity.
4 The Road to Revolution - The rise of Islam.
5 The Road to Concord - Early interactions between Christianity, Islam and Judaism were relatively peaceful. Until Rome and Persia came into more territorial conflict. Islam was better at uniting previously independent and disparate local warlords.
6 The Road of Furs - Fur and other trade. Jewish merchants and Vikings ranging far. (Vikings the father or modern Russia: Rus’ = rower).https://archnet.org/system/media_contents/contents/1461/medium/IHU0504.jpg?1384685540
7 The Slave Road - The Vikings also prominent slave traders.
8 The Road to Heaven - The hypocritical, genocidal and catastrophic Crusades. Harbingers of equally damaging modern conservative forces.
9 The Road to Hell - Genghis Khan and the Mongols. Not as bad as their modern reputation would suggest.
10 The Road of Death and Destruction - Black Death kills at least a third of Europe’s population. And resets the economy in favour of the West (economic reform by killing 30% of the population - don’t tell economists).
11 The Road of Gold - Columbus discovers the Americas.
12 The Road of Silver - Vasco da Gama rounds the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean.
13 The Road to Northern Europe - Northern Europe prospers: Britain invests in the navy, Dutch traders bypass Spain and Portugal and Holland becomees wealthy.
14 The Road to Empire - The Puritans escape the newly diverse and multicultural Europe to found America [one of the great social experiments, and an abject failure as a secular, rational American society is clearly as distant as ever]. Britain enjoys the great benefit of not having a land border to protect and thus not needing an expensive army.
15 The Road to Crisis and 16 The Road to War - Napoleon rates a brief mention. Britain, Russia and Germany struggle for control of Eastern Europe and Afghanistan. These complex conflicts about trading and food security are the basis of World War 1.
17 The Road of Black Gold and 18 The Road to Compromise - British investors prospect and drill for oil in Persia and Burma. Some of these companies join to form BP and fuel the machines and ships of World War 1. Germany suffered from not changing from coal quickly enough.
19 The Wheat Road - Complex conflicts with Russia around food security for Germany, eventually leading to Hitler’s catastrophic Russian invasion.
20 The Road to Genocide - World War 2, the Russian front, the Holocaust, the Iron Curtain.
21 The Road of Cold Warfare - Britian, the United States and Russia contest oilfields and Iran. The CIA backs a coup in 1973, the Shah flees to Italy and the seeds of modern Islamic extremism are born from the enmity to the West.
22 The American Silk Road - The USA in Israel and Egypt. In response OPEC is founded by Iray, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Venezuela.
23 The Road of Superpower Rivalry and 24 The Road to Catastrophe and 25 The Road to Tragedy - The USA and USSR seek control of Afghanistan, Iran. The USA creates Iran as a nuclear power. In 1979 Ayatollha Khomeini momentously replaces the US-backed Shah in Iran. The catastrophe of the USA, Iraq and Saddam Hussein. Kuwait.
Conclusion: The New Silk Road - China!
The age of the West is at a crossroads, if not at an end.
The cover photograph is of the extraordinarily beautiful cupola of the Tilla Kari Madrasa in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.