Review: The Silk Roads

Peter Frankopan’s 2015 book The Silk Roads: A New History of the World is best understood as an intellectual exercise in narrative perspective.  As far as I can tell, the book does not depend on original research or even re-interpretation of previous research.  What Frankopan does in this work is to focus entirely on the civilizations of the Middle East, rather than drifting slowly West with progression of technology and global power as is common.

There are obvious successes in this experiment.  Frankopan explores the peripheries of the Roman empire and its western successors in much more detail than the standard western historical narrative allows, from the Persian and other kingdoms that contested Rome’s power to the huge flood of trade between Rome, the Indian states, and other powers – including, at a remove, China.  He describes the rise of Islam and the Islamic states of the Middle Ages in some detail, but including also those which did not turn to Islam – and examining how many of the most successful were those built on an appreciation for knowledge and other fine things, and allowing some tolerance in religion and manners.

The book is also useful, in that it provides an overview of western powers’ influence and interference through the colonial and modern eras.  Bribery and gunpoint were largely the order of the day, together with a general reluctance to treat Asian powers with even the token equality of political niceties.  The most surprising thing to me was the extent to which the British perceived their rival to be Russia – though as the British Empire being seen, in some ways, more important than Britain itself to prestige and prosperity, this is not actually surprising on reflection.

Where the narrative is least convincing is in its treatment of the question of why power moved away from the Middle East – the Ottoman Empire and other regional powers.  Frankopan depends mainly on a technological explanation, to the extent he answers the question at all.  He deals with medieval European powers as largely belligerent insignificant bywaters – not, admittedly, an unfair characterization at many times – and to some extent downplays the expansionism and internal conflicts of the state in the Middle East.  He noticeably avoids the longstanding explanation in the traditional western narrative that European powers in the Renaissance and after benefitted from a renewed interest in learning, and eventually learned the value of tolerance to statesmanship.  It is entirely possible this is done intentionally, another inverting of traditional western focuses: but it is hard to tell.  Usually Frankopan makes it clear when he is making a point, but I would say intention is not signaled in this case.

Frankopan writes clearly but is not a great stylist, and his idiosyncracies occasionally distract from his story.  He is, in dealing with the most recent events, perhaps too optimistic: even another five years perspective casts a pall on his views both of the Arab Spring and Chinese political intentions.  However on the whole I both enjoyed the book and found it very informative.  I would say the author succeeded in his goal of presenting a summary history in a new perspective – though next best, I suppose, to a similar work from an author native to the region – and would recommend it as a way to engage in the exercise yourself.

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