The history of the West’s rise to prominence has traditionally been told as a linear one. From the cultured Ancient Greeks to the all-powerful Roman Empire, Renaissance Europe to modern democracy – the West, history has told us, is the centre of the world. But Peter Frankopan disagrees.
In his book The Silk Roads, Frankopan, an Oxford historian with a childhood obsession with maps, makes his case that the world’s “central nervous system” originates from and expands out of the East. His aim is to turn generations of Western history lessons on its head. The West is not historically the centre of the world, or the Mediterranean for that matter, despite its meaning. It is the East rather, that has been the world’s go-to for cutting-edge ideas, revolutionary advancements and exquisite goods as well as a site of international dispute and rivalry for hundreds of years.
Yet, despite its bold undertaking and rather exaggerate description, Silk is not, the ‘new’ history of the world it claims to be. For one, the idea of Asia as a web of interconnecting exchange routes for goods, ideas, religions and philosophies to be traded and spread, is not a ‘new’ concept at all. The book is not a history of the whole world either; instead, what we actually are given is a rather fascinating, developed exploration of the history of Asia and its engagement with the rest of the world, or the world with it, missing out thousands of years of history that precedes the Persian Empire.
Excluding ambitious descriptions, the work itself is extremely impressive. From his preface, Frankopan alludes to how history is like a narrative that has long been twisted, manipulated and constructed over time to the West’s advantage, painting its success as natural and unchallenged. We are straight away probed to question the version of history that they’ve been taught. Refreshingly, Frankopan challenges years of school history, finally giving us a section of history from an Asian-centric perspective.
What Frankopan does extremely well is supporting his work with a wealth of evidence, quoting a vast range of texts as well as geological and economic support that makes his work truly fascinating. The chapter on the terrifying tide of hell-raising Mongols, especially in relation to the spread of the Black Death, was one of the more charming and interesting chapters of the entire 646 pages. The later chapters on the part played by the US government in central Asia and specifically with Afghanistan in the late 1990s and early 2000s also deserves high praise, especially Frankopan’s inclusion of recently released information from US government documents. The most captivating part is the wonderful side-stories of social history Frankopan infuses within the book; throughout the fabric of the work are wonderful threads of factoids that brings the whole book some colour amongst all the historical info.
However, there are points when the need for brevity overrides your fascination, with each chapter being crammed to the brim with historical events, names and dates that it can give you a headache. Despite its intriguing content, Silk is often too fact-heavy for comfortable bedtime reading, unless you have google on hand.
Although often overwhelming in its content, for the range of continents and centuries that Frankopan attends to, in the majority of places drawing from the latest research, Silk is surprisingly detailed. Yet, there are some cracks in the paintwork, with patches of text in need of rewording and others in need of any words at all. Frankopan’s occasional use of repeated metaphors and phrasing dumbs down his work as it appears as if he’s running out of words. While many areas of Asia’s history are given pages of dedication, there are certain areas of the story that are completely skimmed over. Frankopan enthusiastically discusses Muhammad’s peace pact with the Jews of Medina in relation to the initial success of Islam and its civility with other faiths but choses not to mention how the same Jews were later executed.
From the 1490s onwards on Frankopan’s timescale there is also a clear and rather disappointing shift in focus away from the East to the West. A considerable amount of the remainder of the book is dedicated to the international and imperialist gains of Western powers from the discovery of the Americas onwards, with Asia really only taking centre stage again in the final few chapters.
The final chapter, ‘The New Silk Road’ was also somewhat disappointing in its length and lack of development. Frankopan left loose ends at every turn by using the chapter as a conclusion to the book instead of a place to adequately discuss how the reins of international power are beginning to change hands back from West to East. Statements like how the Shanghai Co-Operation could become a “viable alternative to the European Union” for Asia were left without any real explanation. This “time of transition”* that the Ministry of Defence diagnoses us as currently experiencing was used as a way to conclude the chapter instead of as a starting point for discussion on whether Asia is truly ready to reclaim its title as the world’s centre for international politics and power.
Yet, despite the underdone treatment of how Asia stands on the world stage today, The Silk Roads is a fascinating and entertaining read. Although at times I had to read a page three times over to take all of it in, Frankopan’s methodical guide through the centuries of captivating history is definitely a great place to start for anyone interested in Asia and its past. This ambitious and impressive book tackles the challenge of giving us a thorough history of Asia, a place where trade networks of goods, ideas, religions and revolution have connected empires and continents together for millennia, and it very nearly succeeds. From its first page, this is a book that boldly takes on a difficult but necessary task of reexamining history, reminding us that the past is never clear-cut, and that both human advancement and failures can be found in both the East and the West. The underlying sentiment of how we are all connected, and how small events in one part of the world cause a change in another will humble even the most cynical reader. Just not quite the best choice for light bedtime reading.
*Ministry of Defence, Strategic Trends Programme: Global Strategic Trends – Out to 2040 (London, 2010) p. 10