Peter Frankopan on Silk Roads Old and New

“From the beginning of time, the centre of Asia was where empires were made. The alluvial lowlands of Mesopotamia, fed by the Tigris and Euphrates, provided the basis for civilisation itself – for it was in this region that the first towns and cities took shape.”


The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan (2015, Bloomsbury)


“As a child, one of my most prized possessions was a large map of the world. It was pinned on the wall by my bed, and I would stare at it every night before I went to sleep.” – For someone who has grown up thumbing through encyclopedias and greedily consuming one Lonely Planet/Globe Trekker episode after another, the first two sentences were more than enough. I bought The Silk Roads: A New History of the World the moment I read the opening words. The author of this magisterial tome is the British historian Dr. Peter Frankopan (@peterfrankopan), Senior Research Fellow at Worcester College, Oxford and Director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Studies. Frankopan, who was educated at Eton and Cambridge, has lectured all over the world and regularly writes for the international press on current affairs, every now and then demonstrating how the past can illuminate the present [see essays on Aeon, Financial Times]. In addition to being a scholar, he is a father of four, an hotelier, a musician, a cricketer, even Croatian prince. He is actively involved in several charities too.

The Silk Roads is an ambitious book that challenges those narratives of history that try to project the Occident and the Orient as two distinct and distant cultural entities, with the former made superior to the latter. If we want to really understand our past and present, we must stand and look at the whole world from that portion which has, for centuries, facilitated the exchange of goods and ideas between the east and the west. Frankopan is talking about the stretch of land that roughly begins at the tip of north-east Africa, runs along the eastern Mediterranean coast, includes what we call the Middle East, spreads out through central Asia, just touching southern Russian, western China and northern India. Today, this expanse of territory contains several nations that mostly lie on the fringes of global affairs; they evoke the peripheral and the exotic (e.g, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan). Others generally make it to our television screens and social media feeds only in the form of breaking news stories (e.g., Iran, Iraq, Turkey). The countries of this area are low on rights and freedoms, they are considered backward, despotic and violent. Why, then, must we care about the region? Because it is here that civilisation itself began (where even the Biblical Garden of Eden was believed to have been located), because for a long time, this region was the “axis on which the globe spun“, prospering from a complex network of trade routes – which the eminent German geologist Ferdinand von Richthofen (1833-1905) termed “Seidenstraßen” – the Silk Road(s) in 1877. How did this area lose its privileged position? To a great extent, says Frankopan, due to two maritime expeditions launched by Spain and Portugal in the late 15th century – Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the New World and Vasco de Gama’s trip round the Cape of Good Hope – events that ended up giving Europe unprecedented power and enabled it to take centre stage.


Comprising 25 chapters, The Silk Roads is overwhelmingly huge, and I may not be able to break it down well in this space. I can just say that within that complex network of routes in Asia, apart from silk, spices, furs, metals, stones and slaves were transported from one area to another. The great religions learnt from and jostled with each other. Books on philosophy and theology and spirituality from faraway lands were translated by scholars. Deadly plagues, too, were carried along. Merchants and monks, pilgrims and warriors all travelled through.

We read about the ambivalent relationship between two great ancient empires, Rome and Persia. The rise of Islam. The making and unmaking of Constantinople. Buddhism in Bamiyan (Afghanistan), Christianity in Kashgar (China). The splendour of Baghdad, the intellectual activities in Samarkand. The nomads of the steppes. The diplomacy of the Mongols, the unethical conduct of the Venetians.

A massive shift of power takes place. First Spain and Portugal and later, Northern Europe rise to prominence owing to commercial and political endeavours overseas. By late modernity, when Britain creates the largest empire in history, it makes sure it receives “transfusions of the black blood of oil” pumped directly from the heart of the world (Middle East). Soon after, the silk roads are turned into an arena of cold warfare and superpower rivalry. USA tries to keep the precious states of Iran and Iraq out of USSR’s grasp. Subsequently and tragically, the historically valuable stretch of land became the breeding ground for extremism and terrorism.

According to Frankopan, the tale hasn’t ended. The traumas and difficulties witnessed by the people of central Asia are birthing pains. The countries of Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan contain very large reserves of natural resources – both oil and metals – that are yet to fully extracted and exported. Moreover, the region is experiencing significant development in the areas of education, telecommunications, transportation, even fashion and hospitality – and Chinese and Russian leaders have expressed particular interest in the process. Economists have not been paying attention to this part of the globe. They are, at best, engaged with BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) or MIST (Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey), groups of countries with “superficially similar measurable data”. But it is undeniable that the silk roads are grandly rising again – and this may dramatically change the power structures of the world over the next few decades.


I liked how this book has brought in the limelight a region of the world that has been long ignored by both academia and the media. The seriousness of Frankopan’s undertaking is evident from the large number of primary sources used – in Greek, Latin, French, Italian, German, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, Swedish, Russian, Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Hebrew, Syriac and Chinese. The reader repeatedly stumbles upon details they may have never encountered elsewhere [e.g., the Huns (1st to 7th century AD) practising artificial cranial deformation on their young which caused their heads to grow in a distinctly – and terrifyingly – pointed manner; a Portuguese Jesuit priest reporting in a letter home that the Mughal emperor Akbar’s (1542-1602) conquest of Gujarat and Bengal – regions with bustling cities and fat tax bases – had made him the master of the ‘gem of India’].

Frankopan is not afraid of being very critical of Europe. Within the British education system, kids are usually taught that “Ancient Greece begat Rome, Rome begat Christian Europe, Christian Europe begat the Renaissance, the Renaissance the Enlightenment, the Enlightenment political democracy and the industrial revolution. Industry crossed with democracy in turn yielded the United States, embodying the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” For the author, this story is deeply flawed. This is no direct link between the events. It was Europe’s “entrenched relationship with violence and militarism that allowed it to place itself at the centre of the world after the great expeditions of the 1490s.” The rise of the continent was accompanied by relentless consolidation and covetousness. In a sense “later horrors in the twentieth century had their roots in the deep past.” Frankopan goes on to say that only a European author could have concluded that “the natural state of man was to be in a constant state of violence” – he is speaking of the English thinker Thomas Hobbes’ (1588–1679) influential work of political philosophy Leviathan (1651).

Two additional aspects stood out for me – Frankopan’s observations on globalisation and cartography. We tend to think of globalisation as a uniquely modern phenomenon. Many people of my generation must have read this joke on the death of Princess Diana on the internet:

An English princess with an Egyptian boyfriend crashes in a French tunnel, driving a German car with a Dutch engine, driven by a Belgian who was high on Scottish whiskey, followed closely by Italian Paparazzi, on Japanese motorcycles, treated by an American doctor, using Brazilian medicines! And this is sent to you by a Canadian, using Bill Gates’ technology. And you are probably reading this on one of the IBM clones that use Philippine-made chips, and Korean made monitors, assembled by Bangladeshi workers in a Singapore plant, transported by lorries driven by Indians, hijacked by Indonesians and finally sold to you by a Chinese! That’s Globalisation!

Well, more than 2000 years ago too, writes Frankopan, globalisation was “a fact of life, one that presented opportunities, created problems, and prompted technological advance”. Alexander the Great forayed into the Indian subcontinent and conversely, the policies of Emperor Ashoka could reverberate as far as Greek-speaking areas. Our world has always been connected, and cultures have constantly borrowed from each other. It is just that now our correspondence is more rapid and our movements swifter.

Next, cartography. Maps could be made in different ways, with dissimilar centres and boundaries – Peter Frankopan understood this as a child when he went to see mappa mundi (medieval map of the world) at Hereford Cathedral in western England. Here, the focal point was Jerusalem, and the countries of Europe were pushed aside as irrelevancies. Then, Frankopan was surprised to learn about a Turkish medieval map that had for its heart a city called Balasaghun, which he hadn’t even heard of. This discussion on cartographic vantage points immediately called to my mind a paragraph I had chanced upon in a book called God and Enchantment of Place (2004) by the Scottish theologian David Brown (born 1948, currently professor at the University of St. Andrews). On page 195, after mentioning the Hereford mappa mundi, Brown states:

If the modern secularist is inclined to scoff, one possible response might be to note that our modern maps are not quite so far removed from such attitudes as may initially appear. One need only think of the way in which British maps used to be so structured as to emphasise the scale of the British empire (usually painted red, and with Britain at the centre), or even today the arbitrary convention the places the northern hemisphere at the top of our maps, as though places places like Europe and the United States were necessarily more important than Africa or South America. Such practices aided particular political perceptions of the world, and indeed for some may have made them intuitive or second-nature. That does not make them automatically correct, but equally it does not of itself invalidate the experience; similarly, then, with Jerusalem experienced sacramentally. God may be the objective correlate in one case, as are forms of political power and influence in the other. A measure was given which required one to interpret one’s local context against the canon of the central image. Of course it ‘slanted’ how experience was then read, but so too did the modern secular analogue of painting the map red. The ultimate objectivity of the referent of either experience cannot thus of itself be undermined by acknowledgment of this fact.


Some commentators have pointed out minor factual errors (William Dalrymple, The Guardian) in The Silk Roads while others have not found the forecasts offered by Frankopan very convincing at this stage (Sadanand Dhume, The Wall Street Journal). Also, since this study is meant to be “a history of the world”, the truly globally-minded reader will keep wondering about events in Africa and the Americas (before Columbus) – of which very little is covered in the book. What was happening there all along? Anyway, these issues simply fade away when you consider the nobility of the author’s intention. In the preface, Frankopan admirably writes:

My hope is that I can embolden others to study peoples and places that have been ignored by scholars for generations by opening up new questions and new areas of research. I hope to prompt new questions to be asked about the past, and for truisms to be challenged and scrutinised. Above all, I hope to inspire those who read this book to look at history in a different way.


The Silk Roads is the story of bitter rivalries and sincere friendships, of old cities falling like dominoes and new capitals emerging amid staggering wealth and pageantry. Of disease and destruction. Revival and resurrection. For this swashbuckling account and this dazzling effort, 9/10. I eagerly look forward to Peter Frankopan’s next work, which will be a “major reassessment” of the history of a country and culture that intrigues me immensely. Leviathan: Russia and The Making of the Modern World will be published in 2019. The Silk Roads has made me want to check out two other projects from two different authors. One, Ancient Worlds: An Epic History of East and West by British historian Michael Scott of Warwick University and second, Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilisation by geo-strategist and world traveller Parag Khanna (American of Indian descent, currently based in Singapore).


P.S. – Just for fun, I would like to mention a gorgeous piece of literature which is set along the Silk Roads – Invisible Cities (1972) by the Italian writer Italo Calvino (1923-1985), which fictionalises the meeting between the Venetian traveller Marco Polo (1254-1324) and the Mongolian emperor Kublai Khan (1215-1294).


Additional Resources:

Here are two videos – a conversation (with the editor-in-chief of MoneyWeek) and a lecture (delivered at the Liverpool John Moores University) – that will give some more information on Peter Frankopan and his brilliant book.

Also check out this interview on ABC Radio (Australia; host is Richard Fidler).


Featured Image Credit: Tillya Kari Madrassah, The Registan, Samarkand by User “Fulvio Spada”, CC BY-SA 2.0, Flickr


Preview The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan.

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