The Silk Roads, Peter Frankopan [Review]

From time to time, I feel an obligate to perform counter-Eurocentricity by reading books that decenter Western Europe in world history. (That strange little corner of the world! The most marginal part of the most miserable part of the world in 1000 AD—its glories more akin to contemporary Somalia than to the splendor of the Song dynasties–and yet its descendants recount world history as if it were the omphalos.) Last year, it was Tamim Ansary’s Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes, a highly readable (if perhaps a bit idiosyncratic) retelling of world history through, well, Islamic perspectives; the year before that, Pankaj Mishra’s The Ruins of Empire.(which I also used successfully in a college course). And this year, clearly, the world-history entry is Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World.

Despite the cover and title, this is not really a book about the “Silk Road” (and note Frankopan’s “s”). This is about world history told as if the center of gravity of human history is somewhere nearer Tashkent than Tours. China, India, and the Levant figure far more prominently in the retelling than do Europe or Africa (and, for all the “new history of the world”, the New World seems terra incognita). Although Frankopan doesn’t really use the term in the manuscript, this is a history of crossroads and encounters–about how the forging of ties (usually economic) led to transformations (cultural and then political, or at other times the reverse) and the knitting together of the major human settlements throughout Eurasia.

Frankopan begins in the fourth century BC, more or less, meaning that there is a big gap between this and 1177 BC, my other world history book this year so far. He details how the growth of Roman markets and the Roman imperial meetings with Persia (friendly, missionary, and hostile) led to the development of contacts with China. Those who are familiar with more recent developments will be unsurprised to learn about the great flood of Roman silver to China, transforming both countries’ economies; it is good to be reminded of these connections nonetheless, especially since (as far as I know and Frankopan can tell) these factors worked their magic even though both civilizations were only dimly aware of each other. His description of the gradual entanglement and then–I apologize, there is no other word for it–Orientalization of the Roman Empire is no worse for being familiar. Sometimes, it is the tenth time you have read something that makes it stick.

The book picks up steam with the arrival of Islam, which, in Frankopan’s hands, seems to be a melding of two by-now familiar scripts: the emergent empire sweeping over the great trading cities of Arabia, Anatolia, Egypt, and Persia (and then, of course, onward), on the lines of Alexander and, second, the new religion that helps legitimate the new rulers and attract the loyalty of those dissatisfied with the corrupt order. (The melding of religion and statecraft is a theme throughout the book.) Islam may not have created a zone of peace (although perhaps IR scholars have underplayed this benefit of the melding of temporal and spiritual power) but its train did include greater peace, commerce, literacy, and stability. This cultural efflorescence made the world as we know it, by so clearly demarcating the “European” world from the Asian one and by providing links of culture going west to east and of commerce from east to west.

Next to Islam and associated cultures (especially Persia), the culture that benefits most from Frankopan’s treatment is Russia, viewed as almost a northern extension of this process of arbitrage and control. (Which makes sense, of course.) Russia here is seen not as a deviant European state but a player in its own right, one with long connections to the Eurasian region. If anything, Frankopan understates the length of Rus’ and Russian involvement–one would have liked more about the process of Russian expansion.

Indeed, the book’s greatest flaw is one that I have with many books. For a history of the world, it is ludicrously imbalanced. From 336 BC to 1914 AD is 284 pages; from 1914 AD to 2017 AD is 220 pages. I read these sorts of books to get away from a focus on the near present and those things that are familiar to me. I often want to have the 20th century described at the same length as the 17th century (or, perhaps, at twice or three times the length, to reflect shifts in wealth and population). My goal is to develop a translatable intuition about how to regard events in the past in increments comparable to my understanding of events today. Viewing the 12th century at a 50,000 foot level and the 20th century from a worm’s-eye view pollutes that process rather badly.

That’s not to say that Frankopan’s treatment of that period is bad! But the disproportionate focus means that the second half of the book falls between two stools. It is neither long enough to be a thorough treatment of the 20th century in global perspective nor is it short enough to be satisfactory as a complement to the rest of the book. Again, this is not bad nor does it mean the book isn’t worth buying–it is–but it speaks to a flawed structural logic that suggests that a different structure would have made a better book.