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 deeply influential. When the great Han dynasty in China, between 207 BCE and 220 CE, was matched by the Roman Empire in the West, or when the Tang dynasty attained its full reach in the seventh and eighth centuries, or when the Mongol invasions subsided into a uniform Pax Mongolica across Asia’s heart: at these times the trade route became a river of far-reaching intercourse, carrying not only material goods but ideas, faiths, and inventions.
The first half of Frankopan’s The Silk Roads covers a two-thousand-year period from the rise of the Persian Achaemenid Empire in the sixth century BCE to the Portuguese probing of the Atlantic seaways and Indian Ocean at the end of the fifteenth century CE. Rather than formal history, Frankopan fills these centuries with unexpected and sometimes brilliantly recondite research. The familiar accounts of Greco-Persian conflict, the rise of Rome and Byzantium, or the splendor of Islamic Baghdad become the setting for narratives that push the conventional centers of gravity eastward.
Many passages trace the geographic extremes of early trade. Even in the reign of Augustus some 120 Roman vessels were sailing east from the Red Sea every year: their amphorae, mirrors, statues, and coins have surfaced in archaeological sites deep in southern India. A millennium later Jewish merchants were traveling not only in Arabia and Persia, but far inland to China. Viking traders from as far north as Norway—coarse, suspicious men, by Arab accounts—were moving down the great rivers of Russia to the Black and Caspian seas, trading honey, amber, and slaves along the fringes of the Baghdad Caliphate as early as the ninth century, and returning home to be buried with the silks of Byzantium and China beside them.
Another of Frankopan’s concerns is the early Christian penetration eastward. Communities dissenting from the religious orthodoxy of Constantinople sought the protection of Persia and Mesopotamia, and became avid missionaries:
A rash of martyrs deep in the southern part of the Arabian peninsula shows how far the religion’s tentacles were spreading, as does the fact that the King of Yemen became Christian. A Greek-speaking visitor to Sri Lanka in about 550 found a robust community of Christians, overseen by clergy appointed “from Persia.”
The early history of Islam becomes another mine of inquiry, its rise in the seventh century attributed in part to the support of dissident Christians, and above all to that of Jews persecuted under the Byzantines. The three faiths shared many of the same concepts and prophets. But hopes of a conciliatory and inclusive Islam faded in time. Frankopan charitably underplays the divisive strains in the Koran, and never alludes to the Muslims’ seventh-century massacre and enslavement of Jews.
This is deeply researched popular history at its most invigorating, primed to dislodge routine preconceptions and to pour in other light. The freshness of some of Frankopan’s sources is stimulating, and their sheer range can provoke surprising connections. He likes to administer passing electric shocks. He speculates that the Seljuk Turks, the threatening Muslim predecessors of the Ottomans, may originally have been Christians or even Jews; that the famous Atlantic trade in New World silver by Spain was matched by an even greater silver trade with China; and that the sixteenth-century English made common cause with the Ottomans—the terror of Europe—against the Spanish, exchanging letters of mutual admiration and accord.
The sheer abundance of Frankopan’s information can become an omnivorous pleasure, and its details add color and particularity (and usually authority) to his text. Who would have guessed that Islamic schools in Central Asia were inspired by Buddhist monasteries? Or that the Huns dressed in the woven skins of field mice? Or that the Mongols copied Crusader siege engines to deploy in their eastern conquests, and catapulted their own corpses into a Genoese city to infect it with the Black Death?
From time to time Frankopan laments the obscurity or ignorance attendant on his chosen regions, but his own reading bears witness to the huge corpus of scholarship available. He plunders data magnificently not only from written sources but from the evidence of ancient digs and shipwrecks (as distant as Indonesia), coin hoards along the waterways of Russia, and the betraying contents of abundant graves (including forensic tests on skeletons). From sulphate spikes in ice cores in both the northern and southern hemispheres, it is possible to deduce global cooling—and consequent hardship in steppelands—in the fifteenth century. From recent studies of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that ravaged Eurasia with the Black Death, the theory emerges that a small change in rainfall or temperature—perhaps in Central Asia—detonated the plague’s catastrophic spread.
Above all, Frankopan celebrates the interconnections born of the exchange of luxury goods: of precious cloth, metals, and stones. But there is a hardheaded undertow to his dramas of conquest: the acquisition of natural resources, the management of capital, the exaction of tribute and taxes. It was a surge in the disposable wealth of the new Arab empire, he writes, that attracted pelts from the Scandinavian north and stimulated the growing trade of horses between Arabs and the steppeland nomads. The Norman conquest of Sicily produced not only the dazzling mosaics of the Palatine Chapel but a drastic hike in the cost of wheat as production was disrupted. The deflection of trade routes northward toward the end of the thirteenth century was powered by the financial acumen of the Italian city-states controlling the ports of the Black Sea. Even the longevity of the Mongol empire was due as much to fiscal restraint as to military prowess.
After the death of the Mongol emperor Tamerlane in 1405, it was not only the fragmentation of empire that precipitated a near-universal decline:
The crisis was caused by a series of factors that resonate 600 years later: over-saturated markets, currency devaluations and a lopsided balance of payments that went awry. Even with the growing demand for silks and other luxury products, there was only so much that could be absorbed. It was not that appetites were sated or that tastes had changed, it was that the exchange mechanism went wrong: Europe in particular had little to give in return for the fabrics, ceramics and spices that were so highly prized. With China effectively producing more than it could sell abroad, there were predictable consequences when the ability to keep buying goods dried up…. Today, we would call it a credit crunch.
Frankopan’s narrative endorses, with reservations, the conventional view that the decline of the classic Silk Road was precipitated by the discovery of the ocean trade routes by the Portuguese. With the opening of the seaway to India around the Cape of Good Hope, and above all with the discovery of the Americas, it was the nations of the Atlantic seaboard that now stoked the engines of world change. The eastern Mediterranean, and the lands beyond it, began to fall silent. If a root cause for the abandonment of the overland Silk Road were sought, it might fancifully be found in the tenth century, when an unknown Chinese discovered the maritime compass. But such inventions, and their dissemination, are not within this book’s purpose. Nor is the spread of religion or ideas.
Midway through The Silk Roads Frankopan expands the scope of his story. His roads have already proliferated into a far-flung web of seaways along the Indian and Pacific oceans, but now he departs westward in chapters devoted to the Spanish conquest of the Americas and to the maritime rise of Holland and England. In chapters titled “The Road of Gold,” “The Road of Silver, ” “The Road to Northern Europe,” and “The Road to Empire,” he navigates the more familiar territory of Western colonialism’s beginnings.
Soon his Silk Roads are spreading, wherever he finds connections back to a perceived Asian heartland. Chapters on Russia’s expansion east and south, and its supposed threat to British India, embrace the Crimean War, Russia’s absorption of Central Asia and the Caucasus, and the shadow play of the Great Game, in which Russian and British agents maneuvered for advantage in regions dangerous to both of them. By Frankopan’s reading, the stasis of alliances in Europe—Britain, France, and Russia aligned against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire—arose crucially from Britain’s desire to pacify Russia and to curb its advance toward India:
Russia’s rising ambition and the progress it was making in Persia, Central Asia and the Far East put pressure on Britain’s position overseas, resulting in the fossilisation of alliances in Europe. All that stood in the way of further erosion of the enviable platform that Britain had built over the previous centuries was a series of mutual guarantees designed above all to keep Russia, the master-in-waiting, tied up.
Meanwhile “black gold” was being discovered in the Persian Gulf. In 1901 an obscure British businessman named William Knox D’Arcy secured permission from the shah to extract and export oil and gas from the poverty-stricken Persian domains. The prospects, to judge by previous attempts, were poor, and the shah probably assumed that he would be exchanging nothing for the money he received up front for the concession. But in 1908, just as Knox D’Arcy’s fragile consortium was about to give up, a motherlode of oil was struck near the Zagros Mountains, and the future of the Persian Gulf began to be transformed. Frankopan writes:
The discovery of oil made the piece of paper signed by the Shah in 1901 one of the most important documents of the twentieth century. For while it laid the basis for a multi-billion-dollar business to grow—the Anglo-Persian Oil Company eventually became British Petroleum—it also paved the way for political turmoil. That the terms of the agreement handed control of Persia’s crown jewels to foreign investors led to a deep and festering hatred of the outside world, which in turn led to nationalism and, ultimately, to a more profound suspicion and rejection of the west best epitomised in modern Islamic fundamentalism. The desire to win control of oil would be the cause of many problems in the future.
The saga of oil becomes the focus of Frankopan’s ensuing chapters: especially the need for it in World War I, with the proliferation of oil-burning engines for shipping and military vehicles. (By the war’s end, it was predicted, the depletion of stocks would become so severe that the British Admiralty reserves would have dwindled to a mere six weeks’ supply.) The Allied cause, declared Lord Curzon, soon to be foreign secretary, “had floated to victory upon a wave of oil.” Oil was crucial to the subsequent Allied carve-up of the Middle East (even to the desirability of Palestine as a potential pipeline terminus). And the risks were already alarming. The French and the British, wrote Edward House, President Wilson’s foreign policy adviser, were making the region “a breeding place for future war.”
By now, in Frankopan’s scheme of things, von Richthofen’s “Silk Roads” have become synonymous with world commerce. He casts his net so wide that he strains increasingly to justify his book’s title, assigning its diverse subject matter with increasing artifice to “the world’s heart,” “the spine of Asia,” or “the center of the world.”
The final third of The Silk Roads proceeds into World War II and beyond. Chapters named “The Wheat Road” and “The Road to Genocide” stress the wartime German hunger for resources—wheat and grain, even more than oil—in their 1941 thrust into the farmlands of Ukraine and southern Russia (another “center of the world”). But the region did not yield what Hitler had expected. The Russians’ scorched-earth policy laid it to waste as they retreated, and the German attempts to exploit the land proved inept. The specter of food shortages in the German heartland, Frankopan asserts, even precipitated the Holocaust: consumers useless to the Nazis were already gathered into concentration camps, so their elimination became all the easier. But here Frankopan seems blinkered by his own materialist explanations. Almost as if it were the sole motive behind the Holocaust, he claims:
Faced with a drain on resources that were already scarce, it was a short jump for a systemically anti-Semitic regime to start to look to murder on a massive scale…. Southern Russia, Ukraine and the western steppe became the cause of genocide. The failure of the land to generate wheat in the anticipated quantities was a direct cause of the Holocaust.
The Silk Roads continues selectively into the cold war, and the deepening involvement of the United States in Iran and the Middle East. There follows the rise of Arab nationalism, the Suez Crisis, the Western build-up of Iran, the shah’s flight, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the Iran-Iraq War. These lucid accounts, however broad-brushed, are touched with telling details, and they move on at last to the Middle East present: the Gulf War, the September 11 atrocities, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
If the title of The Silk Roads falls victim to the book’s ambition—its Roads grow too diffuse to be meaningful—its subtitle, A New History of the World, raises expectations that are not fulfilled. In this new history the Indian subcontinent almost drops from sight, and sub-Saharan Africa is little more than a source of slaves; while Australia and Canada, predictably, barely receive mention.
The weight of Frankopan’s narrative falls above all on western, rather than on Central, Asia, and its ultimate effect is to shift the “heart of the world” no further east than Iran. China is a potent but unexamined shadow at one pole, Europe a consuming and aggressive latecomer at the other. But Central Asia remains opaque—less an agent in itself than a conduit or a source of raw materials: a region chronically acted upon.
Even Persia—Iran—is important chiefly as the object of greater powers. After its ancient Achaemenid eminence and the glories of the Safavid dynasty, it becomes a country courted for its geographical position (access to the Arabian Sea, anteroom to British India) and—supremely—for its oil. Its assets were so vital to both Germany and the Allies that British and Soviet forces preemptively occupied the country in August 1941, and the shah was replaced by his more pliable and Westernized son.
The resentment of many Iranians at this forced involvement in a war not their own resurfaced years later in fury at British and United States machinations in the removal of Mohammad Mossadegh, the popular Iranian prime minister who nationalized the country’s oil industry in 1951, eliminating foreign prerogatives. The Western subterfuge that brought down Mossadegh is still bitterly remembered.
One of the consistent features of Frankopan’s book is its open-mindedness toward forces considered enemies of the West. The canny and fastidious Mossadegh is only one of many—one whose elimination shows the chronic shortsightedness in contemporary London and Washington. Even Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s supreme leader at the time of the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, becomes, in Frankopan’s account, sympathetically diplomatic when he quotes a recently declassified telephone call Omar made to the US State Department.
But Frankopan never justifies his assertion that Europe’s innate character is “more aggressive, more unstable and less peace-minded than other parts of the world” or that it was “Europe’s entrenched relationship with violence and militarism that allowed it to place itself at the centre of the world” after its overseas expeditions during the 1490s. Such claims go hand in hand with an idealized account of the New World peoples that the Europeans so ruthlessly conquered. The Incas are described only as a complex and sophisticated empire, with no mention of human sacrifice or how they were more easily overcome because the Spanish arrived during one of their brutal civil wars. There is no criticism of any of the practices of the routinely bloodthirsty Aztecs.
Frankopan seems to attribute Western violence and duplicity (which in the New World conquests can scarcely be exaggerated) to something pathological in European peoples, institutionalized long before in the medieval chivalric code, driven by Christian dogmatism and a chronic competitiveness. He imagines this exclusive violence of the West to extend into the present age.
Yet the virtues of The Silk Roads are many. It is one of those challenging books with which disagreement is more productive and energizing than the assent to more tepid ones. If Frankopan’s desire to shift the emphasis of world history eastward partly succeeds, it is because of his insistence, in chapter after chapter, on the crucial importance of regions apparently peripheral to the more accepted centers of power. It is a brave, subtly personal project of inspiriting ambition and epic scope, full of unexpected connections.
In fact connectedness becomes almost its leitmotif, and there can be few better exemplars than the classic Silk Road with which his study begins. Here the separation of cultures becomes a fallacy. Images of Zeus and Pallas Athena have turned up in the deserts of western China, while Chinese silk was buried indestructibly in the graves of Iron Age Germany and has been found twined in the hair of a tenth-century-BCE Egyptian mummy. The various effects of climatic change or distant war extend beyond human control. Cicero claimed that any disaster in Asia would shake the Roman economy to its foundations. The pressure of pastoral tribes along the Great Wall of China, it is thought, propelled the Huns to invade Europe.
In our own time, Frankopan writes, the modern embargo on Iranian oil
has an impact on the standard of living not only of Iranian citizens but also of people living on the other side of the world. In a global energy market, the price per unit of gas, electricity and fuel affects farmers in Minnesota, taxi drivers in Madrid, girls studying in sub-Saharan Africa and coffee growers in Vietnam.
This is a dark caveat to the wonders of interconnection that knit together Frankopan’s prolix book. Nothing humans do is discrete.