The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan is a self proclaimed New History of the World which looks at the story of humanity from a non-eurocentric point of view. Frankopan’s book is about Asia and the Middle East, which he sees as the birthplace and the cradle of civilisation because of their impact on human development and their significance to the human story.
The section about the Roman Empire perhaps sums up Frankopan’s approach most clearly. Whilst many authors have focused on the rise and fall of Rome, examining the usual sources to give accounts of Julius Caesar and his conquest of Gaul, or to look at the cultural links between Greece and Rome, or at the decline of Rome as a consequence of the arrival of nameless savages from the East, Frankopan’s focus is completely different. His Rome is always looking East to the traders and riches arriving along the Silk Road: Europe is an accident of Rome’s birth, but its wealth came from Egypt and further afield: the key battles were not the ones against the Gauls, but those against the Persians and the Scythians. In the end the capital was switched to Constantinople to reflect the importance of the east to Rome. This was a fresh approach to an old story, and very welcome.
Frankopan sees everything as an adjunct to, or consequence of, events in the East, including ironically the development of Europe and the West since the Reformation. Claiming that for many Europeans the East is an unknown and mysterious place, he points out that the Middle East and India were the birthplaces of the world’s major religions, and that the East was for long periods the focus of social, political and intellectual development, whilst the West, and especially Europe, was impoverished, backward and isolated from the cultural heart of life.
This is not really a new argument. It is a common view that Islam protected the cultural legacy of the Classical age during the European Dark Ages, and promoted further discoveries in science, maths and medicine. But most historians have seen the triumph of the West as the culmination of human history, whilst Frankopan sees it merely as a brief episode, before Europe once again slips into ignominy and relative poverty.
Frankopan shares his extensive knowledge of the history of Europe and Asia, considering an exhaustive range of events and societies, beginning with the development and dissemination of the religious faiths of Buddhism and Christianity, and exploring the spread of trade, ideas, religions and empires across the whole of Asia, including the rise of Islam. He looks at the links with Russia, and Russia’s growth, and at the impact of the Mongol hordes; he writes about the crusades and the later birth of European seaborne trade, a search for eastern riches that lead to the growth of the West. He considers the British Empire specifically with respect to the Great Game: the wrangling between Britain Russia and Turkey over Russia’s route to the Black Sea and the Gulf. He gives an extensive account of the division of the Middle East by the British and French – the Sykes Picot line – and the consequences of this arbitrary division for the modern world. There are sections on World war 2 and on the growth of Israel. Finally he takes the argument into the 21st century, with a concluding analysis of the current political situation in the Middle East that is interesting and well informed.
The Silk Roads considers the natural advantages of the East in geopolitical terms: the centrality of the Middle East to various trade routes which contributed to its wealth and consequently its power. Frankopan comments on the new riches to be found there, and describes the current struggle to wrench these resources away from the rapacious hands of western colonisers. For him the future of the world is to be found in this wealth which he sees as falling more securely into local hands to the exclusion and long term impoverishment of the West.