A Different Vision of History

‘The Dutch delegation of Johan Josua Ketelaar to the Maharana Sangram Singh in Udaipur’; detail of a tempera painting on cotton, 1711
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
‘The Dutch delegation of Johan Josua Ketelaar to the Maharana Sangram Singh in Udaipur’; detail of a tempera painting on cotton, 1711

More than a century ago an obsessive Englishman tried to calculate the geographical heart of Asia, and erected a now-vanished monument where the Greater and Lesser Yenisei rivers meet in southern Siberia. The concept that the world, or its hugest continent, possesses a heart (or a womb or a memory) is an ancient one, and the Oxford historian Peter Frankopan, in the introduction to his The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, declares a childhood obsession with it. In Greek myth two eagles fly from opposite poles of the world until they meet at its center above a place where humans may communicate with the divine. Attempting to retrace the eagles’ course across a map, Frankopan writes that his finger always fell somewhere on western Asia, a region that continued to fascinate him, but on which his Western education was silent.

His declared intention in The Silk Roads is to shift the spotlight of world history away from its Eurocentric focus to these earlier heartlands: to Iran, to the ignored “stans” of Central Asia, even to Afghanistan. These regions, he writes, are the true engines of the world:

Today, much attention is devoted to assessing the likely impact of rapid economic growth in China, where demand for luxury goods is forecast to quadruple in the next decade, or to considering social change in India, where more people have access to a mobile phone than to a flushing toilet. But neither offers the best vantage point to view the world’s past and its present. In fact, for millennia, it was the region lying between east and west, linking Europe with the Pacific Ocean, that was the axis on which the globe spun.

A senior research fellow at Oxford and director of its Centre for Byzantine Research, Frankopan in his survey embraces a huge spectrum of readings in some sixteen languages (several of them, crucially Arabic and Russian, familiar to him). His history is materialist. The energies of the world are understood as the invisible workings of a body, its trade routes a nervous system that powers and interconnects the global anatomy.

The Silk Road is not an old designation. The term Seidenstrasse was coined in 1877 by the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen to describe (often in the plural) the weft of commercial arteries that anciently stretched between China and the Mediterranean. This was never a single road but a network of tracks that split and converged across the breadth of Asia for a quarter of the length of the equator. At certain periods its traffic was dense and…

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