- Paperback: 672 pages
- Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (March 7, 2017)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1101912375
- ISBN-13: 978-1101912379
- Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.5 x 9.1 inches
- Shipping Weight: 2.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 449 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #4,258 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Silk Roads: A New History of the World Paperback – March 7, 2017
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“One of Mr. Frankopan’s gifts as a storyteller is his ability to draw unusual connections across his vast canvas . . . . Frankopan has written a rare book that makes you question your assumptions about the world.” —The Wall Street Journal
“This provocative history challenges the view of the West as heir to a pure Greco-Roman culture. . . . Frankopan marshals diverse examples to demonstrate the interconnectedness of cultures, showing in vivid detail the economic and social impact of the silk and the slave trades, the Black Death, and the Buddhist influence on Christianity.” —The New Yorker
“In his new book, The Silk Roads, Frankopan has created something that forces us to sit up and reconsider the world and the way we've always thought about it. . . . The book takes us by surprise right from the start.” —NPR
“This is deeply researched popular history at its most invigorating, primed to dislodge routine preconceptions and to pour in other light. The freshness of . . . Frankopan’s sources is stimulating, and their sheer range can provoke surprising connections. He likes to administer passing electric shocks.” —Colin Thubron, New York Review of Books
“This is history on a grand scale, with a sweep and ambition that is rare. . . . A remarkable book on many levels, a proper historical epic of dazzling range and achievement.” —William Dalrymple, The Guardian
“A glorious read. . . . Frankopan is an exhilarating companion for the journey along the routes which conveyed silk, slaves, ideas, religion, and disease, and around which today may hang the destiny of the world.” —Vanity Fair
“Dazzlingly rich and accessible. . . . By reorienting the history of the last few millennia to the east, and by resolutely keeping the camera rolling there, Frankopan unhooks us from the usual story of ‘Western Civ’ and gives us a startling and brilliant perspective on events that may once have been familiar—and plenty that aren’t.” —The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Beautifully constructed, a terrific and exhilarating read and a new perspective on world history.” —History Today
About the Author
PETER FRANKOPAN is a historian based at Oxford University. He is the author of The First Crusade: The Call from the East, a major monograph about Byzantium, Islam and the West in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. He is a senior research fellow at Worcester College, Oxford, and the director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research at Oxford University. His revised translation of The Alexiad was published in the United States in 2009.
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Maybe I am missing something but this is still a Western-centric view, centered on Byzantium and medieval Europe. The first steppe dwellers we meet in any depth are the Mongols, who by that time, are a thousand years later than the early steppe dwellers who so profoundly influenced world culture both East and West. This book spends most of it's time in detailing the trade and fortunes of the West instead of focusing on the various kingdoms of the silk road. What is going on here? How could all the reviewers have missed this? This book is not as advertised a new history of the world, but rather a view of the economic impact of trade on the western world. For example, how does Columbus come to bear on the silk road? We read here about his expedition but no analysis relating to the silk road at all. That is one of many examples to show that the author does not seem to have much interest in writing about the silk road, but rather about how luxury good trade impacts the western world.
This is my first book review although I have read dozens that I may not like. I am only writing this because it is not that I do not like what is written, but rather it is not what the book title implies and I want to give fair warning to others who may be like me in their interests.
The essence of the book is that, in the West, our history is viewed through a very narrow lense. Schools teach its students of the Roman Empire, the subsequent Dark Ages, the Norman conquest in 1066, Henry VIII and the Tudors, the American War of Independence, the Industrial Revolution and the First and Second World Wars. The vast bulk of a map of the world from western Europe to China is passed over very quickly. With “The Silk Roads”, Peter Frankopan has attempted to redress this imbalance.
As the author states:
“For centuries before the early modern era, the intellectual centres of excellence of the world, the Oxfords ad Cambridges, the Harvards and Yales, were not located in Europe or the west, but in Baghdad, and Balkh, Bukhara and Samarkand”.
Moreover, Frankopan gives the reader a perspective on the rise of Mesopotamia, Alexander the Great, the rise of Christianity in the eastern Roman Empire and then the subsequent rise of Islam throughout much of Asia. He then proceeds to discuss the Crusades, the rise of Genghis Khan and his mighty Mongol Empire and then the rise of China more specifically. He concludes by bringing the book up to the present day with the rise of Europe and the USA before suggesting that there is a reorienting of history underway again. In other words:
“we are witnessing…the birthing pains of a region that once dominated the intellectual, cultural and economic landscape and which is now re-emerging. We are seeing the signs of the world’s centre of gravity shifting – back to where it lay for millennia”.
Whether you agree or not with Peter Frankopan’s conclusions, the book remains a tour-de-force. Thoroughly recommended.
Frankopan’s main thesis is that the region stretching from the Mediterranean to China, and particularly the region that is now Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, remains the crossroads of civilization and the center of global affairs. As such, we need to understand ancient history and historical development over more recent centuries, as well as the way history is perceived by those in the region.
The book proceeds chronologically. Chapter headings trace the many “silk roads” that have influenced global history, including the emergence and migration of major forms of religious faith, the rise and fall of empires at a time when Europe was an uncivilized backwater, and the role of trade as a conduit for the spread of ideas and wealth.
We learn, for example, that the early expansion of Islam was benign. Often the major religions coexisted peacefully. Mohammed and the Jews needed each other as both repudiated Jesus as the Messiah. In Damascus, churches were untouched even as Islam became the religion of the majority. Only after divisions began to develop in Islam did attitudes harden toward other religions, says the author.
Western Europe in the 600s and 700s was barbaric, while Baghdad was at the height of its wealth and academic achievement. Thus, traders and intellectuals along the Mediterranean were oriented toward the East, not Western Europe. Among conventional beliefs that Frankopan seeks to puncture is the notion that the Mongols were chaotic. Instead he says they were good bureaucrats and operated as a meritocracy. Terror was applied selectively but was broadcast broadly as a tool of coercion. The result was to control wealthy territories with a minimum of effort.
As Elizabethan England competed with Spain, says the author, there was an opportunistic alliance with the Muslim world against a common enemy. Both the English and the Moors engaged in piracy against the Spanish and Portuguese. The English freed Muslims who had been “galley slaves” and returned them home, and had Muslim support for the 1596 attack on Cadiz. Shakespeare portrays positively the Moor in Othello and Persia was also characterized favorably in English literature of the time.
By the late 18th and early 19th Century, however, the power relationship between rising Western European powers and Persia and neighboring countries had been reversed. India became a crown jewel in the British Empire and the British became preoccupied with fear of Russian expansion into Persia. Misunderstandings were rife. “The British cannot say what they mean and the Persians do not mean what they say,” noted one observer.
In the aftermath of World War I, the British created Iraq out of Mesopotamia, arbitrarily combining a hodgepodge of nationalities. As oil was discovered in Iraq and Iran, the British moved quickly to exploit these resources and minimize the royalties that were paid to the nations from which oil was extracted. Dissatisfaction with British oil companies resulted in a greater role for American oil companies, but the exploitation of the region changed little until OPEC was formed.
The final 40% of the book is devoted to British and American ignorance and arrogance in the 20th and 21st Centuries, resulting in the support of the Shah in Iran, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and Ayub Khan in Pakistan among others. Frankopan characterizes British, then American strategy as “solving today’s problems without worrying too much about tomorrow’s problems.”
This is useful background for anyone trying to understand the resentment felt in Iraq and Iran toward the West today.
As Frankopan looks forward, there is little analysis of the potential role of China in the balance of power that could shape the region’s future or of India whose population and economy are among the world’s largest and fastest-growing.
Instead, with an emphasis on what was once known as Mesopotamia, the author asserts that, “the Silk Roads are rising up once more.” Events that appear chaotic instead are the “birthing pains of a region that once dominated the intellectual, cultural and economic landscape of the world…We are seeing the signs of the world’s centre of gravity shifting — back to where it lay for millennia.” This seems an optimistic analysis.
In sum, the value for many readers will be found in the first half of the book, as a balance to the history taught in the West. The resentments held in the region toward American and British influence are the result not just of recent decades but of exploitation taking place in the past 100 years. Oddly, though, the author’s contemporary assessment of the region seems viewed through the same Western lens that he criticizes as having warped our understanding of the past.