Book review: Western historians have ignored the Silk Roads region for too long. It’s time to create a new history of the world by recalibrating what we know and what we consider important.

Lanzhou, Gansu Province in China. Lanzhou was an important town along with the ancient Silk Road connecting China and Europe and the Yellow River runs through the whole city. Photo: AP

Twenty years ago, it was a prognostication widely accepted that the world was on the verge of another American century. Now, an increasing number of authoritative voices suggest that it is China that will define the world in the 21st century. 

Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, for example, suggested that we are already living in the Chinese Century. The America vs. China debate is not yet settled, but it would not be too extreme to say that the big geopolitical debate of our time occurs between those who believe that America will retain its exceptional status and those who think that the U.S. dominance will be successfully challenged by China.

According to a bold book, “The Silk Roads: A New History of the World” by Peter Frankopan, a historian at Oxford University, both of these views are mistaken.

The future will belong neither to America, nor to China. Instead, the world’s center of geopolitical gravity will shift to the area that lies west of China and south of Russia, a wide belt that stretches from the Gobi Desert to the Anatolian Peninsula.

This area, which Frankopan calls the Silk Roads, includes numerous states, including the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan), Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, Syria and Turkey. This is a place where the West has been interacting with the East for the past two millennia, along a network of trade routes that initially emerged to serve the profitable silk trade between Rome and China.

According to Frankopan’s interpretation, the rising geopolitical importance of the Silk Road states is not a new phenomenon. It is, in fact, a return to what used to be a normal state of human affairs. The lands of the Middle East and the Central Asia have produced numerous empires and civilizations, starting with the first advanced states that appeared on the Fertile Crescent between the Tigris and the Euphrates.

For anyone who is familiar with the backward way of life in the former Soviet Central Asian republics today, the notion that those economically underdeveloped and politically oppressive countries are historically important may seem odd. But the geopolitical importance is not a function of economic development. For example, it is Afghanistan, a poor and small state, that played an outsized role in the downfall of two superpowers, first the Soviet Union, and, as it increasingly seems now, the United States.

Frankopan does not simply tell a story about Eurasia, but aims to provide a new history of the world based on the premise that the Silk Roads countries have been unduly ignored by Western historians guilty of a European bias.

The timeline of this 650-page book is vast. It begins with the conquests of Alexander the Great that brought the classical heritage of Hellenism into the heart of Asia, and it ends with a description of the American quagmire in Iraq and the recent Chinese efforts to create a Silk Road Economic Belt in partnership with the Central Asian countries.

2,400 years in a nutshell

Any history of the world in one volume raises natural skepticism. The most basic question is which material should be included in the story and which should be excluded. 

This is a classical problem of method for any historian. What type of facts constitute “historic” is a debate that has been going without any final conclusion for a hundred years. Perhaps, the best way to think about this is according to the prominent English historian Edward Carr, who, in his well-known book “What Is History?” suggested that the process of molding the facts to the interpretation and interpretation to the facts is a continuous two-way street in which no primacy can be assigned to one or the other. 

This is exactly what Frankopan’s book delivers  a new interpretation of familiar facts.

It is quite telling which topics the author chose to ignore. There is no Egypt or Africa. Greek and Roman history is dealt with very briefly. There is little Byzantium and Europe gets short shrift throughout the entire book.

On the other hand, there is a lot of information about Iran, clearly the author’s favorite. Many chapters focus on the subjects that may be less familiar to a Western reader, yet which are essential to the history of the Silk Roads: the story of Khazars, a Turkish state on the Caspian that converted to Judaism, the rise of Russia in the 9th and 10th centuries and the Mongol conquests in the 13th century. When Europe acquired dominance in the 15th century due to the advances of military and naval technology, the book turns its focus to the West, to a more familiar historical territory. 

The narrative is arranged in two ways: chronologically with a focus on a period and on the dominant force of that period, be that Rome, Persia, the Arabs, the Mongols, the British or the Americans and by subject for each chapter Frankopan selects one of the things what was transported, and transmitted, over the Silk Roads: furs, gold, slaves, germs, religion, knowledge, and art.

The narrative proceeds at a lively pace, and is filled with nuggets of research that enliven the picture of the past. Buddha statues acquired their familiar form, and popularity, only after Alexander the Great brought Greek culture and aesthetics to India. The appearance of Chinese silks scandalized Romans who thought that they revealed too much female form. The Silk Roads region was often short on water, but it was rarely short on blood that was generously spilled by numerous conquerors. The book offers plenty of gory details, especially in the chapters that cover the conquests of Genghis Khan, the founder and emperor of the Mongol Empire, and Tamerlane, founder of the Timurid Empire in Persia and Central Asia.

How significant is the difference between Frankopan’s interpretation of history from what is commonly known or believed in the West?

On occasion, very significant. For example, Frankopan argues that a complete conquest of Europe by the Arabs was avoided not due to the Frankish victory at the battle of Poitiers in 732 but because 8th century Europe so poor that it was not even worth plundering. The great riches and rewards to a conqueror were elsewhere, mainly along the Silk Road. Five hundred years later, Frankopan says, Europe was spared the Mongol invasion for the same reason. When the world is falling apart, being poor can be a good thing.

The book’s last chapters touch on very recent events, including the U.S. war in Iraq and Afghanistan. At this point, the narrative turns polemical. Frankopan makes a case that America’s lack of understanding of the Silk Roads region doomed the U.S. war on terror from the very start. Frankopan singles out America’s missile strike on Afghanistan in 1997 as a huge miscalculation that failed to kill al-Qaeda’s leader Osama bin Laden, derailed negotiations with the Taliban and ultimately paved the way for the 9/11 terror attacks.

Frankopan recognizes that many of his arguments can be perceived as anti-European, or even as anti-Western.  His response is that such bias is justified because the Silk Roads region has been ignored by the Western historians for too long. The author’s aim it to create a new history of the world by recalibrating what we know and what we consider important.

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It all started with Marco Polo

There is nothing new about the West suddenly “discovering” the significance of the East. Arguably, the most famous effort of this type belongs to Venetian merchant Marco Polo, who travelled over much of the territory covered by Frankopan’s book. In 1298, while sitting in a Genoese jail, Polo produced his famous travel memoirs.

A less famous but more recent attempt to elevate the importance of Eurasia in the Western mind belongs to Halford Mackinder, an English politician and geographer, who, in the early 20th century, proposed the Heartland theory, according to which controlling the center of Eurasia was the key to the command of the world. A few other examples can be mentioned. Calling attention to the Silk Road region, Frankopan is in highly respectable company. 

Whether one chooses to believe in the argument that the Silk Roads region is really that important is largely a question of, well, interpretation. And the historic interpretation can be a matter of nationality, ideology, or taste. But there is one, arguably more objective, issue this book raises: Does human history possess any meaningful direction, moving towards some ultimate higher state, which may justify the suffering incurred in the process? 

Although Frankopan never says so explicitly, the reader can sense that the author’s view of history is pessimistic. The story of the Silk Roads is the story of a world going in circles, often with no progress whatsoever. Many social and business phenomena we hail as new (globalization, multiculturalism) are in fact rather old. Even the words Frankopan uses to describe the ancient times are purposefully modern: globalization, trade, Internet of roads.

One of the themes that comes up in the book repeatedly is the idea that the people who lived in the Silk Road states a millennium ago were considerably more sophisticated than we think. It is certainly true that places like Uzbekistan, for example, now seem to be just a pale shadow of their past grandeur, either intellectually, politically or artistically. According the author, in many respects the West has not fared very well either. It is quite an irony that the invincible U.S. armies suffered a de facto defeat in the same sands of Mesopotamia where the Roman emperors lost so many legions two millennia ago. 

The book creates a powerful link between the past and the present. Once the reader realizes, for example, that Erbil, the capital of the modern Iraqi province of Kurdistan, is the same place where Alexander the Great defeated Darius III in 331 B.C., it is hard to resist the temptation to pull out a good map and to study the fascinating lands bordering Russia and China, whose history is described so vividly in this engaging book.