Fifty years ago, in that far-off time before the world wide web spun itself around our lives, it was easier to write a history of the world from a European perspective without too much embarrassment. In an age when stranger-than-fiction happenings are reported in real time and backed by equally instant analysis, how does one write a new history of the world? found a way and his story of 100 objects taken from the British Museum was a bestseller. Peter Frankopan, an academic at Oxford, where he is director of the Centre for Byzantine Research, has followed another route by shifting the centre of historical gravity in an extremely ambitious, often surprising and just as often frustrating book.
This “new history of the world” is a strangely myopic one for it starts by ignoring thousands of years of documented human achievement to look at the rise of the Persian empire. But Frankopan is quick to make a point of this apparently arbitrary opening: he wants to recalibrate our view of history, to challenge assumptions about where we come from and what has shaped us. The traditional view, taught in our schools and supported by the layout of many of our museums, is that we are the heirs of the glorious Romans, who were in turn heir to the Greeks, who, in some accounts, were heirs to the Egyptians. Seen in this way, the Mediterranean well deserves its name for it is literally the middle of the world. Frankopan disagrees with the Eurocentric view and places the centre of the world some way to the east, beyond Mesopotamia and the Caucasus, in and the “stans”.
The silk roads of the title are the arteries along which people, goods, ideas, religions, disease and many other things have flowed. The “silk road” label is relatively recent, coined only in 1877 by the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen, uncle of the first world war flying ace, the Red Baron (one of many fascinating details Frankopan has packed into his text). But the routes between China and the Mediterranean Sea, which run through what have become some of the world’s most disturbed and dangerous countries (Afghanistan, , Pakistan…) have been trodden or ridden along since long before documented history.
There is nothing new in insisting that the world’s centre lies to the east: Christopher Marlowe called Persia/Iran “the middle of the world” back in 1587 and many historians have echoed that thought. But Frankopan ranges further than many before him, digs deeper in archives, quotes more texts to make his point. And the facts support the theory: 2,000 years ago, as he says, Chinese silks were worn by the Carthaginian elite, wealthy Iranians used Provencal pottery while Indian spices found their way into Afghan and Roman cuisine. But if trade, or the promise of wealth, has always been the engine to drive people along the silk roads, other things have been carried along with it. Alexander’s campaign in the east brought Greek culture to the Indus valley, as a result of which the Buddha was given form – and a recognisably Greek form at that – and Buddhist sculpture, so familiar today, became popular. Christianity spread along the silk roads under the Romans. Islam more obviously did too. Scientific advances, philosophical ideas and much else was cross-fertilised by exposure to east and west.
Not everything that passed along the roads was beneficial. Violence was a regular traveller – there is a particularly good chapter on the rise of the Mongols, who wreaked havoc as they went, and another on the spread of the Slavs and the rise of the Rus, and on British and American meddling since the 19th century. The spread of plague, the black death, is also well handled, with Frankopan pointing out that the decimation of Europe’s population had its advantages: because there were fewer workers, the price of labour rose, wealth was spread (a little) more evenly and, as a result, the cultural flowering that was the Renaissance happened.
But this history is also occasionally lopsided. One wouldn’t want a full account of the human story – how many volumes would that fill? – and the selection of material is key to the success of this sort of book. But there is very little coverage of the European Enlightenment, for instance, nor of the thriving life around the North Sea in what we call the dark ages (which Michael Pye wrote about so well in his recent ), both of which had a huge influence on both ends of the silk roads.
The need for brevity has led to some troubling misrepresentations. Although Frankopan makes the important point that the prophet Muhammad made allies of the Arab Jews, he omits to mention the number of Jews who were killed by Muslims soon after. There is no such place as the “Arab-speaking world”. The Crusaders never did manage to take Aleppo, although they desperately wanted to. And it is unfortunate, in this post-colonial era, to write that TE Lawrence took Aqaba in 1917 without mentioning the Arab forces who did the fighting – not even Lawrence’s most slavish fans would claim that for him.
It is doubly unfortunate to read these and other errors because for much of its 646 pages, is full of intriguing insights and some fascinating details. Who it is aimed at remains a puzzle. If you don’t already have a wide grasp of the history of mankind then this might have you scratching your head in many places. If you do know the A to Z of great khans, then you might find some of it obvious. And if you have any first-hand experience of some of Frankopan’s centre of the world, his belief that it is rising again might seem overly optimistic.
But none of that takes away from the importance of the project. As the power of the west wanes, so history needs to be rewritten.