A review of The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan

Reviewed by Joshua Drake

The Silk Roads:
A New History of the World Paperback
by Peter Frankopan
Vintage
Paperback: 672 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1101912379, March 7, 2017

Silk Roads explores the interconnectedness of the West with Asia, particularly in glossed-over regions such as the Caucasus and the Steppes. Frankopan seeks to shift the centre of the world away from the Greco-Roman world of the Mediterranean eastwards. This is where the heart of the web of connections known as the Silk Road lies. Beginning with real silk roads of the ancient and medieval world – the arteries of commerce along which people, ideas, religions, and disease all spread –  the book goes on to explore the Silk Road as a more nebulous concept, highlighting the relationship between East and West throughout history. The later part of the book explores the ‘great games’ – how Western powers have jostled for control over energy, mineral resources, food supplies, and political influence in the eastern regions. Frankopan analyses how this competition influenced key historic events such as the discovery the New World, the causes of the World Wars and the Cold War. And of course, the competition ratcheted up drastically as the quantity of the region’s most exportable resource became apparent, the huge reserves of oil that lie buried under the deserts of the Persian Gulf. Particularly interesting sections of the book looked at how Britain and America performed surgery on the heart the middle east, rerouting its carotid artery to flow westward, pumping black gold to power their own economies. The modern-day silk road is a criss-cross network of oil and gas pipelines with vast stretches of railways taking the place of camel caravans.

Frankopan must have had great publishers. Aside from the aesthetically pleasing cover design with sumptuous Islamic floral and geometric patterns overlaid with gold lettering, the selling point of the book is its ambitious thesis: to reposition the centre of the world and repatriate the influence that Eastern regions have had on global events. The book is undoubtedly a titan effort in scholarship. From accounts of Arabic travellers and Sogdian traders, to inscriptions on Viking Rune stones, the scope of sources and the depth of scholarship is impressive, even if half the names are unpronounceable and hard to retain. The book offers a fascinating insight on neglected and much maligned areas of the globe. From the might and splendour of the Persian empire; to the exquisite architecture, and cultivation of learning in the later Islamic courts; and finally to the recent meteoric rise of Asian economies, there is much to captivate one’s interest. A chapter on the threat of the marauding mongols and the  terror they aroused is particularly vivid. However, the thesis wears thin at times. One is left wondering if the book was not mis-packaged or falsely advertised. Aside from a few chapters, the majority of the book focuses on well-known areas of history such as the crusades, conquest of the Americas, the northern renaissance the atrocities of the Second World War. Less a cohesive narrative with a unified purpose, the book is split into 25 subsections, each exploring a different ‘road’, offering fascinating insights into well-known world events from the perspective of the eastern regions. Frankopan only pays lip service to the actual silk road and one comes away knowing little about the real trade connections that make the name famous. This is compounded by the uniquely difficult to remember names of these regions (reader’s fault), and far too many sentences peppered with superlatives about how extraordinary the wealth and grandeur of certain kingdoms were. I was left with the slightly uneasy feeling that this covered for a lack of reliable sources and written records (history’s fault). Although Frankopan doesn’t quite deliver what he claims on the tin, the book is captivating and readable, and he has certainly consulted a wide range of new sources. A ‘major reassessment of world history’ it isn’t. It doesn’t deliver a paradigm shift in historical focus; instead, it offers several fascinating windows on the interconnectedness of history, and the influence of central Asia, the Middle East, China, and India on key moments in a world history that has for the past several centuries been dominated by the west. There is plenty here that could have been made into several books, which could have been fleshed out and more focussed, but that would have been at the expense of its appealingly broad approach. Overall, the book is a fascinating and important read.

 

About the reviewer: Joshua Drake is an Edinburgh University biology graduate from South Africa. He reviews books on history and popular science. Find out more at: https://joshuadrakeblog.wordpress.com

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