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

★★★★ (4/5)

Some thoughts penned whilst reading the book.

History books must be tasted with a pinch of doubt and never be swallowed wholly, for there is always space for miscommunication, misunderstanding and misinterpretation. That being said, “Silk Roads” by Peter Frankopan is a tremendous story woven out of historical facts and nuggets of information that would quite possibly blow the readers’ mind. I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that it is an unbiased account since slight prejudice is evident here and there. However, it is not just an informative but entertaining read.

It has been a remarkable journey into the rich and tumultuous past of two continents – Asia and Europe. The cliffhanger at the end of each chapter which heralded change was one of my favourite parts to read. Most mind-boggling one was that which concerned the arrival of Mongols.

The rumbling that could be heard from the east was not Prester John, his son ‘King David’ or a Christian army marching to the aid of their brethren. It was the noise preceding the arrival of something altogether different. What was heading towards the Crusaders – and towards Europe – was not the road to heaven, but a path that seemed to lead straight to hell. Galloping along it were the Mongols.

I also noticed how the incessant mention of brewing apocalypse toned down considerably once we entered the 19th Century, with the dawn of British Empire.

However I do have a slight contention with the title of the book which instead of Silk Roads should’ve been something along the lines of “The Changing Centre of Gravity and Power” since much of the book deals with power shuffles across the two continents, rather than the Asian-centric implication of Silk Road as generally perceived.

What we are witnessing, however, are the birthing pains of a region that once dominated the intellectual, cultural and economic landscape and which is now re-emerging. We are seeing the signs of the world’s centre of gravity shifting – back to where it lay for millennia.

Moreover, why is it that whenever it comes to discussing the role of religions as pivotal pillar that changed course of history, of mankind, authors tend to adopt a more sarcastic tone. It is no mere coincidence that in this book as well as in “Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari, discussion of religion is done through a myopic lens, wording and sentences structured so as to border on the extreme. Heavy words like “notoriously”, “contradictory” teeter on the edges of ridicule. The tone seems that of a man scoffing at the importance of cosmological beliefs.

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

Historical Facts

  • Militarism, fearlessness and the love of glory were carefully cultivated as the key characteristics of an ambitious city whose reach was stretching forever further.
  • What made empires great were large numbers of cities, producing taxable revenues; what made them culturally spectacular were artisans and craftsmen who developed new ideas when wealthy patrons competed with each other for their services and rewarded them for their skills.
  • Commerce opened the door for faith to flow through.
  • In 635, missionaries in China were able to convince the Emperor to withdraw opposition to the faith and to recognise it as a legitimate religion whose message not only did not compromise imperial identity but potentially enforced it.
  • The golden age of European art – of Fra Angelico and Piero della Francesca in the fifteenth century, and then of artists like Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and Titian – owed much to their ability to use colours drawn from pigments that were part of the extension of contacts with Asia on the one hand and rising levels of disposable wealth to pay for them on the other.
  • Although Europeans might have thought they were discovering primitive civilisations and that this was why they could dominate them, the truth was that it was the relentless advances in weapons, warfare and tactics that laid the basis for the success of the west.
  • As prices rose in London, sparking protests at home, it seemed obvious to Marx that Britain’s imperialist policies were being dictated by a small elite and came at the expense of the masses.
  • The Persians, and others who were watching, saw a different moral in the story. The lesson was that, for all the bluster, the west’s bargaining position was a weak one. Those with the resources could ultimately force the hand of those who held the concession, and make them come to the table. The west could complain as bitterly as it liked, but it turned out that possession truly was nine-tenths of the law. This became one of the key themes of the second half of the twentieth century. New connections were rising that straddled the spine of Asia. A web was being spun not of towns and oases but of pipelines that linked oilwells to the Persian Gulf and, by the 1930s, to the Mediterranean.
  • What has been striking throughout the events of recent decades is the west’s lack of perspective about global history – about the bigger picture, the wider themes and the larger patterns playing out in the region.

Nature of Religions in Shaping World History

  • To the modern eye, Christianity and Islam seem to be diametrically opposed, but in the early years of their coexistence relations were not so much pacific as warmly encouraging. And if anything, the relationship between Islam and Judaism was even more striking for its mutual compatibility.
  • The Crusade might be best remembered as a war of religion, but it was also a springboard for accruing serious wealth and power.
  • Merchants could be assured of security wherever they went, regardless of their faith, and regardless of whether there was peace or war.
  • Pope Urban II had stated that those taking the cross and joining the expedition to the Holy City would receive absolution from their sins. This evolved during the course of the campaign, when the idea developed that those who fell in battle against the infidel should be considered to be on a path to salvation. Journeying east was a journey in this life and the way to reach paradise in the next.
  • Tolerance was a staple feature of a society that was self-assured and confident of its own identity – which was more than could be said for the Christian world where bigotry and religious fundamentalism were rapidly becoming defining features.
  • ‘These Moors are unchangeable in their wills,’ the audience is told at one point – a reference to the belief that Muslims were trustworthy and resolute when it came to making promises and agreeing treaties, and were therefore reliable allies.18 Indeed, the Elizabethan era saw the emergence of Persia too as a common, and positive, cultural reference point in English literature.
  • In Europe, religious posturing counted for everything as Catholics and Protestants fought ferociously with each other; beyond, it could be conveniently left to one side.
  • Islamic societies generally distributed wealth more evenly than their Christian counterparts, largely thanks to very detailed instructions set out in the Qurān about legacies – including principles that were positively enlightened by the standards of the day when it came to the share women could and should expect from the estates of their father or husband. A Muslim woman could expect to be much better looked after than her European peer; but this came at the expense of allowing large-scale wealth to remain within the same family for a long period of time. This in turn meant that the gap between rich and poor was never as acute as it became in Europe because money was redistributed and recirculated more widely. These values to some extent inhibited growth: as a general rule, teaching and stipulations about legacies meant that families found it hard to accumulate capital over successive generations because inheritance was progressive and egalitarian; in Europe, primogeniture concentrated resources in the hands of one child, and paved the way for great fortunes to be built up.

Interesting Nuggets

  • there were alternative ways of looking at history – ones that did not involve looking at the past from the perspective of the winners of recent history.
  • The Huns scarred the cheeks of infant boys when they were born in order to prevent facial hair growing later in life, while they spent so long on horseback that their bodies were grotesquely deformed;
  • Such was the quantity of merchandise flowing into the ports of the Persian Gulf that professional divers were employed to salvage jetsam around the harbours, discarded or fallen from cargo ships.
  • This fuelled economic growth back in Italy, where such great riches were being generated in Pisa in the late eleventh century that the bishop and citizens imposed limits on the height of towers built by nobles keen to show off their wealth.
  • Blanket images of the Mongols as barbaric destroyers are wide of the mark, and represent the misleading legacies of the histories written later which emphasised ruin and devastation above all else. This slanted view of the past provides a notable lesson in how useful it is for leaders who have a view to posterity to patronise historians who write sympathetically of their age of empire – something the Mongols conspicuously failed to do.
  • But in the final analysis it had become clear from experience that while capturing and holding Jerusalem was wonderful in theory, in practice it was difficult, expensive and dangerous.
  • The empowerment of the peasantry, of labourers and of women was matched by a weakening of the propertied classes, as landlords were forced into accepting lower rents for their holdings – deciding it was better to receive some revenue than nothing at all. Lower rents, fewer obligations and longer leases all had the effect of tilting power and benefits towards the peasantry and urban tenants.
  • The transformations triggered by the Black Death laid foundations that were to prove crucial for the long-term rise of north-western Europe.
  • Ideas, goods and people began to move further and more quickly than at any time in human history – and in greater numbers too.
  • Only a European author could have concluded that the natural state of man was to be in a constant state of violence; and only a European author would have been right.
  • It was inhabited by Britons – whose name, speculated one author not long afterwards, came from the Latin brutus, that is, irrational or stupid.
  • Revolution in France in 1789 had produced similar results to the Black Death, with large-scale suffering giving way to a new age of determination and resurgence.
  • In fact, and perversely, Hitler had been championing the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine for the best part of two decades. In the spring of 1938, he spoke in support of a policy of emigration of German Jews to the Middle East and the formation of a new state to be their home.

    Shocking passage from “The Silk Roads”. There is too much preserved in history than we are led to believe…

  • Indeed, in the late 1930s, a high-level mission, led by Adolf Eichmann, had even been sent to meet with Zionist agents in Palestine to discuss how an accommodation could be reached that would solve what was often called ‘the Jewish question’ once and for all. With considerable irony, Eichmann – who was later executed in Israel for crimes against humanity – found himself discussing how to boost emigration of Jews from Germany to Palestine, something which seemed in the interests both of the anti-Semitic Nazi leadership and of the leadership of the Jewish community in and around Jerusalem.
  • It seemed logical – and horrific: leading Jewish figures were actively proposing collaboration with the greatest anti-Semite of all time, negotiating with the perpetrators of the Holocaust hardly twelve months before genocide began.
  • The first step of the response to 9/11 was to line up the countries of the Silk Roads.

Beautifully Crafted Sentences

  • For the vast majority of the population in antiquity, horizons were decidedly local – with trade and interaction between people being carried out over short distances. Nevertheless, the webs of communities wove into each other to create a world that was complex, where tastes and ideas were shaped by products, artistic principles and influences thousands of miles apart.
  • Who could believe that Rome, built up through the ages by the conquest of the world, had fallen, that the mother of nations had become their tomb?’
  • ‘How dare you slumber in the shade of complacent safety,’ he said to those who were present, ‘leading lives as frivolous as garden flowers, while your brothers in Syria have no dwelling place save the saddles of camels and the bellies of vultures?’
  • Travelling round this region was to have one’s eyes opened. When he returned home, he ‘found the princes barbarous, the bishops bibulous, judges bribable, patrons unreliable, clients sycophants, promisers liars, friends envious and almost everybody full of ambition’. These views were formed from the sanguine recognition of the east’s sophistication compared to the cultural limitations in the Christian west.
  • The phlegmatically faithful were masters at being all things to all people.
  • a surge in the concentration of wealth in one part of the world meant there was a sharp rise in the demand for slaves from another. Wealth and bondage went hand in hand.
  • Even nature was being kind, according to the English poet Alice Meynell: the start of the summer of 1914 was idyllic, with a bumper harvest to look forward to; moon after moon was ‘heavenly sweet’ as ‘the silken harvest climbed the down’.
  • And so, like a nightmarish game of chess where all possible moves are bad ones, the world went to war.
  • The silence of the guns, perhaps, owed more to the reality that there was nothing left to fight for than to the foresight of a succession of supposedly brilliant peace-makers in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, or to the wonders of an unwieldy international organisation of European states whose accounts have not been signed off by its own auditors for years.
  • In Afghanistan, a word was coined for the practice of seeking support from both superpowers: literally meaning ‘without sides’, bi-tarafi became a tenet of a foreign policy that sought to balance the contributions made by the USSR with those of the US.

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