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The Silk Roads: A New History of the World

by Peter Frankopan

(London Times)

The breadth and ambition of this swashbuckling history by Peter Frankopan should come as no surprise. The epigraphs set the scene from the first page. Frankopan, an Oxford don, a Byzantine specialist and the author of an acclaimed history of the crusades, includes Ibn Fadlan, a 10th-century Arab traveller, Christopher Columbus, a letter from the diplomat Sir George Clerk to the British foreign secretary in 1914 and a wry comment from the chief of staff to Nursultan Nazarbayev, the dictator-president of Kazakhstan since 1990. This is a neat representation of a book that roves as widely as the geography it describes, encompassing worlds as far removed as those of Herodotus and Saddam Hussein, Hammurabi and Hitler. Frankopan's aim is to rebalance fundamentally our traditional understanding of history by demonstrating both the criticality of the East and the interconnection of East and West from the dawn of history.

If these ancient bonds between the hemispheres are posited as his central thesis, they find their real-world incarnation in the Silk Roads that join them. Although the term Seidenstrassen (Silk Roads) was coined in the late 19th century by the German geologist Ferdinand von Richthofen, uncle of the 'Red Baron', the sprawling network of routes, which Frankopan likens to 'the world's central nervous system', was established more than two millennia earlier. The cradle of civilisation, at once the foundation of trade, religion and empire, was in the heart of Asia. It remains a curiously western view that globalisation is considered a uniquely modern phenomenon, whereas 2,000 years ago it was merely a fact of life. All too often disregarded by western historians, the links between East and West have always been there for anyone who cares to look.

Alexander the Great's spectacular defeat of Darius III's Persian Empire at the Battle of Gaugamela in 331BC was the prelude to the fall of a string of cities linking Asia Minor to Central Asia. In the Seleucid Empire that sprang up after Alexander's sudden death and stretched from the Tigris to the Indus for three centuries, the Hellenistic legacy lived on far longer than his brilliant martial fireworks.

Greek language and culture penetrated far into Asia, spread by travellers, merchants and pilgrims. Young men were brought up in Persia reading Homer and the tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides. Greek influence endured well into the early Islamic era. It was only when Abd al Malik became the caliph of the Islamic Empire in 685 that Arabic was gradually instituted as the official language of administration, replacing Greek and Pahlavi for financial affairs.

Like Alexander, Rome looked east for imperial expansion and prosperity. Western Europe offered little in the way of reward (one sympathises with the legionaries stationed along Hadrian's Wall). Egypt was the answer. Octavius left Rome as a general, took Egypt in 30BC, and returned as supreme leader. Rich with the proceeds of Egypt's mountains of grain, Rome's first emperor liked to boast that he found a city in brick and left it in marble.

Roman merchants traded finely worked glass, silver, gold, Red Sea coral and topaz and Arabian frankincense for textiles, spices and dyes such as indigo. The trade made many rich but was not to everyone's tastes. Seneca deplored the unseemly eroticism of Roman women wearing revealing dresses of shimmering silk.

During China's westward expansion under the Han dynasty (206BC-AD220), bolts of raw silk were used as currency. Merchants had to survive treacherous conditions on long journeys across the Pamir or Tian Shan mountains, or the gruelling Taklamakan desert, hence the concentration on rare and high-value items such as silk. The admirably hardy Bactrian camel was a favoured mode of transport for Chinese merchants returning from Persia laden with Red Sea pearls, jade, lapis lazuli and consumables such as cucumbers, coriander, pomegranates, pistachios and apricots.

Great Power rivalry in Central Asia is as old as recorded history, from Alexander to George W Bush via the Romans, Persians, Chinese, Arabs, Mongols, Turks, Russians and British. In AD260, the Roman emperor Valerian was taken prisoner and humiliated as a human footstool for the Persian king Shapur. After being flayed, his skin was stripped, dyed with vermilion and placed in the pagan temple pour decourager les autres.

It is a tribute to Frankopan's scholarship and mastery of sources in multiple languages that he is as sure-footed on the ancient world as he is on the medieval and modern. This is full-blooded history written with precision and verve. There are deftly constructed chapters on the founding of Constantinople, the continental firestorm unleashed by Genghis Khan, Anglo-Russian 'Great Game' duplicity and high jinks in the 19th century, and Anglo-American putsches to remove Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran and King Farouk in Egypt ('Project Fat F***er', as it was known) in the 20th.

The West's time of global ascendancy increasingly looks to be coming to an end. There is a fin-de-siecle feel, more prevalent in western Europe than North America, that contrasts with the rise of China, the Gulf, India, much of the Caucasus and the 'Stans. Policymakers in America and Britain talk euphemistically of a period of 'transition'. When British armed forces are being shrunk to the size of New York's police department, perhaps euphemism is all we can bear.

What more vivid contemporary incarnation of the Silk Road is there than the 7,000-mile Yuxinou freight railway linking China to Germany, or the 35-year investment by Beijing in the Athens port of Piraeus, designed to give China its own Mediterranean outlet? Beijing calls it the 'One Belt, One Road' policy. In practice it is the new Silk Road, linking China to two-thirds of the world's population by land and sea.

The Silk Roads is a powerful corrective to parochialism at a time when western historians still manage to write histories of medieval Christianity with barely a nod to Byzantium and eastern Christians in Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, Iran, the Persian Gulf and China. This reviewer is reminded of the traditional westerncentric introversion of British universities' history departments. For years the only non-European or North American history course at Cambridge was 'The West and the Rest'. The name says it all.

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THIS is, to put it mildly, an ambitious book. The author, a historian at Oxford University, could have crafted a dozen pithy histories of, among other subjects covered: the rise of Persia; the creation of the Silk Roads, the story of long-distance trade across the Eurasian continent; the commercial as well as religious revolution that was Islam; the first global economy in the 17th century, powered by discoveries of South American silver; the 19th-century geopolitical intrigues known as the Great Game; the reasons for Germany’s push east in the second world war (wheat); the Asian dimensions of the cold war and the rise of Islamist extremism.

Yet by spinning all these stories into a single thread, Peter Frankopan attempts something bold: a history of the world that shunts the centre of gravity eastward. 'The Silk Roads: A New History of the World' is a counterblast to another ambitious book from an earlier generation, J.M. Roberts's Western-centric 'Penguin History of the World', which came out in 1976.

Mr Frankopan writes with clarity and memorable detail. When Cyrus the Great, creator in the sixth century BC of the Persian Empire, was killed attempting to subdue the Scythians, his head was carried about in a skin full of blood 'so that the thirst for power that had inspired him could now be quenched.' The Huns, destroyers of the Roman Empire, bandaged the heads of their children, applying pressure to flatten the frontal and occipital bones, so causing their heads to grow in a pointed fashion. Spending so much of their lives on horseback, when on the ground 'they looked like animals standing on their hind legs': not only was their behaviour out of the ordinary, 'so was the way they looked.'

Where other histories put the Mediterranean at the centre of the story, under Mr Frankopan it is important as the western end of a transcontinental trade with Asia in silks, spices, slaves—and ideas. Here he is at his most original. Particularly striking is the rapid conversion Christianity made in the east—right into modern-day China. Asia and the Near East were noisy with religious competition (not least because new rulers and empire-builders wanted divine authority to underpin their rule). In the early seventh century Christian evangelists tried to win over Buddhists with the case that not only was Christianity compatible with Buddhism, 'it was Buddhism.' Religious jostling led to borrowings - think of the halo as a common symbol in Christian, Zoroastrian, Buddhist and Hindu art. It also spurred creativity, in the form of the outpourings of devotional Buddhist art from the Bamiyan carvings in modern Afghanistan to the painted caves of Dunhuang in north-west China.

Mr Frankopan has searched the sources. For evidence that the period after the sack of Rome really was a Dark Age, he turns to pollution measured in Greenland's polar ice-caps. They imply smelting activity returning to prehistoric levels. The author challenges received notions: the Black Death, carried into Europe in 1348 along the Silk Roads, was not the end of Europe, but its making. Catastrophic depopulation altered the balance of power between authority and labourers, who were now in a position to demand higher wages and more rights. It even saw in northern Europe the birth of a proto-feminism: 'Don't hurtle into marriage too soon,' wrote Anna Bijns in the Low Countries, for 'one who earns her board and clothes shouldn't scurry to suffer a man's rod'.

The second half of the book turns rather rapidly to 19th-century Western imperialism and its consequences in Asia. The canvas is too broad to be wholly satisfying, while the conclusion, that 'new silk roads are rising again,' is not really convincing. Certainly, gaudy palaces for modern potentates are on the rise from Azerbaijan to Kazakhstan. But a crescent of war, violence or brittle autocracy runs from the Middle East to western China. As for the Central Asia that Mr Frankopan cites in his conclusion, the region of fabled entrepots like Samarkand and Bukhara, it certainly has the attention of both Russia and China. But its autocrats are Soviet-era dinosaurs, its democracy a veneer and its cultural life stifled. Far from being at the heart of a new Asia, sullen and misruled Central Asia languishes, for now, on the periphery.

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