The Silk Roads: A New History of the World

Image of The Silk Roads: A New History of the World
Release Date: 
February 15, 2016
Reviewed by: 

Many scholars dream of writing The Great Book on the determinism of the past. A challenge is to write it for a popular audience while retaining the excitement of narrative history. Peter Frankopan meets that challenge in Silk Roads.

The story here does not spin out of the importance of any single great culture. It is about the connections that “serve as the world’s great central nervous system, connecting peoples and places together, but lying beneath the skin, invisible to the naked eye.”

Silk Roads is about the journeys more than the destinations. The rise, fall, combining, and perpetuating of cultures described by the author mimicked life. Silks, spices, furs, sugar, drugs (legal and otherwise), currency, and slaves flowed like blood through a body, giving life and traveling the world like disease.

Civilization moves that way today, too, and, in Silk Roads, the reader sees the past and the present together as one process of many "moving parts." This book argues that world history is still a relevant subject while educating the reader in the fundamentals of history.

Frankopan makes many important observations relevant to now. His argues that our global history is now so old that there are no true “backwaters, no obscure wastelands,” that everywhere is anywhere and part of the past and in the present.

The passage of religions, notably the evangelicalism of Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism, for example, resulted in the merging of ideas but also conflict. Even intolerance becomes a driving force as well as an obstacle, “that made sense of victories and success” while it “undermined that of rivals.”

Religious places of no economic value sometimes had huge political importance while in other places geography, race, and technology (biological and mechanical) made the future. External factors, not themselves so random—such as climate, disease, invasion/migration, earthquake etc.—also affect change.

The right person in the right place at the right time does make a difference, such as with Mohammed or Genghis Khan. Other people will be the face of revolution, not its driver.

Christopher Columbus, for example, defied solid scientific knowledge to obtain political and economic support for a venture to reach China. He wanted to see the money gained used to retake Jerusalem for the Christians.

Unintentionally, Columbus discovered the New World and joined America, Africa, Asia, and Europe together. Whatever his crimes, failures and mistakes, he began the modern world of globalization with the resulting effects on agriculture, discovery, disease, environmental change, war, wealth, etc.

This book is anything but a dry analysis of the interaction of big thoughts and movements. Great players, empires, invasions, and battles are here to teach in fact and legend how our civilization works.

The less well understood has its place here, too. Even the small isolated islands around the world triggered economic revolutions through new products way beyond their status as way stations in great oceans.

Similarly, knowledge, even when manufactured in Alexandria, Baghdad, Timbuktu, Washington, and other such legendary centers of learning, proved a fragile commodity, despite its obvious value. Printing, cotton textiles, writing, and so much more would need to be invented multiple times.

Much of this broad and sweeping book is thought provoking. The author, for example, describes the transition of Rome from republic to empire as coming “setting its anchor in the east—Asia” but if “Rome’s success and its glory” came from that part of the world, so did its failure and demise.

Descriptive words like "epic" and "engrossing" do not seem enough. The maps and choice of illustrations are up to the high standards of the scholarship, text, and thought in Silk Roads.

No book can cover everything in world history, however. This one surprisingly does not discuss how the different roles of women affected the societies that created the modern world.