The Silk Roads: A New History of the World
Bloomsbury 656pp £25
Although Peter Frankopan’s latest book is written as popular history, such was its scope that I approached the preface expecting an academic explanation of methodology, intention, and, very likely, an assertion of authority over the subject. Instead, Frankopan begins with the story of a boy and a map, ‘thrilled with adventure and danger’. The same boy learned the myth of Zeus releasing an eagle at each end of the Earth and calculated that the sacred point at which they met was somewhere between the Black Sea and the Himalayas: the heart of the world.
The book consists of 25 chapters and moves chronologically from the earliest civilisations in Central Asia to the Second Gulf War and touches, in conclusion, on the current challenges facing what the West terms the ‘Middle East’. Complex national, international and commercial histories, as well as a maelstrom of religious and racial issues, are in constant interplay. Yet it is never bewildering.
Frankopan’s The First Crusade: The Call from the East (2012) indicated that this book would serve the Middle Ages well but it is consistently strong, on the looming, ever-present behemoth of Russia, the rise and fall of British India and the two catastrophic global wars of the 20th century.
Vast issues are woven with stories of prized steppes horses, which appeared to sweat blood, murderous games of backgammon, the rich artistic life of Silk Road cities such as Baghdad, to Suez and the fantastic oil strikes of the early 20th century, the launch of Sputnik and 9/11. The Silk Roads does not only cover the East, but looks west to the Americas, deftly explaining the movement of gigantic quantities of bullion, beginning in the Renaissance, mainly by Iberian conquistadors. This metal wealth travelled across the world, where it was exchanged for luxury goods, creating a route of commerce that belted the globe, wiping out peoples such as the Incas and the Aztecs.
The book also offers a look at the complicated backstory between modern Iran and the US, Israel and Palestine, as well as the Gulf conflicts. Stories of the oil-rich, names we now associate with art and philanthropy, such as Getty and Gulbenkian, echo those of the Silk Road merchants. Throughout, there is the constant theme of commerce; the long history of slavery is frequently mentioned, detailing how people have served as international commodities for millennia. The text is painstakingly footnoted, from wide-ranging and often recently discovered sources.
Almost all historians hope to offer their readers a different view but few historians could, and perhaps fewer still would, dare to write a new history of the world. Peter Frankopan, like many of the adventurers he documents, began as a young man with a map and has done what he set out to do.
Lucy Inglis' most recent book is City of Halves (Chicken House, 2014).