The Silk Roads: A New History of the World - Peter Frankopan

This book. It’s been such a disappointment: Not only is the title an exercise in how to cram several misrepresentations in less than ten words, but the writing style left me rather unimpressed, too.

There is little that is new about the history contained in the book. It certainly is not a history of the world (Europe, perhaps, but the focus on the power struggles between Christianity and Islam, and later on the West v. the East, and the US against Iraq/Iran/Afghanistan does not make this a book about the history of world). It is even less a book about the Silk Roads.

If you picked this up in the hope of learning about the trade routes and the people who live or travel along them, you’ve picked the wrong book.

Sure there were a few interesting snippets of history in this, but the authors choice of not going into a lot of detail and preferring to follow up events with other events without providing a lot of deliberations about the possible connections or effects, does not make for inspiring reading. Unless, that is, we are talking about the inspiration to look for other books.

Maybe the premise of the book was a little too ambitious? Maybe some editor should have pointed out some of the gaps … or at least that the title does not reflect the content of the book?

Whatever the cause of its failings, I was hoping for a thoughtful insight into the history of the Silk Roads, but all I got from the books was what read like the work of a self-congratulatory academic who couldn’t make up his mind what to write about and looked at history mostly through Union-Jack-striped goggles.

Previous Reading Updates:

Reading progress update: I’ve read 26 out of 636 pages.

I just finished the introduction of the book, and have come across this in the last paragraph of the Introduction:

“It is easy to mould the past into a shape that we find convenient and accessible. But the ancient world was much more sophisticated and interlinked than we sometimes like to think. Seeing Rome as the progenitor of western Europe overlooks the fact that it consistently looked to and in many ways was shaped by influences from the east.
  The world of antiquity was very much a precursor of the world as we see it today – vibrant, competitive, efficient and energetic. A belt of towns formed a chain spanning Asia. The west had begun to look east, and the east had begun to look west. Together with increasing traffic connecting India with the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, the ancient Silk Roads of antiquity were coursing with life.
   Rome’s eyes had been fixed on Asia from the moment it transformed itself from a republic into an empire. And so too, it turned out, had its soul. For Constantine – and the Roman Empire – had found God; and the new faith was from the east too. Surprisingly, it came not from Persia or India, but from an uncompromising province where three centuries earlier Pontius Pilate had found infamy as governor. Christianity was about to fan out in all directions.”

I have some problems with Frankopan’s statements here: is he trying to sell the idea that Rome or the Greek states were not the origins of “civilisation” as the “new history of the world” as the book’s subtitle suggests?

If so, what is so new about the idea of Asia developing in parallel and indeed matching Rome and the Greek states on many levels?

What is so new about Persia being an amazing early civilisation in its own right?

And what is this about Christianity? Are we considering a part of the Med, which had already been part of the Roman Empire as the “exotic east”?

This is why I have stalled at reading the book since picking it up. I really hope that Frankopan’s message is different from what I got out of the Introduction, but from what I read so far I have doubts about the book.

I hope Frankopan develops a better explanation of where he is going with this book.

Below, just for fun, is one of the personal highlights of my trip to Berlin in April: I finally go to visit the Ishtar Gate at the Pergamon Museum. Built around 575 BCE, the gate was one of the entrances to the inner city of Babylon. It was excavated in the early 20th century and a reconstruction using original bricks, completed in 1930.


Reading progress update: I’ve read 62 out of 636 pages.

Apart from brief glimpses into Persia and Asia beyond the Black Sea, this book still mostly seems to have a focus on the Roman Empire and, um, issues or effects on people mostly located in the eastern region of the European continent, but most definitely not as much focus on Asia as I expected.

For example:

Chapter 2 is titled “The Road to Faiths” and mostly talks about the rise of Christianity.

Chapter 3 is called “The Road to a Christian East”. It starts with two and a half pages about the Huns raiding Europe and Persia, then follows up with fifteen pages about the spread of Christianity.

Chapter 4 promises to deal with the rise of Islam, but also seems to be constrained to the region between Constantinople and Persia.

While somewhat interesting, I am questioning the books focus on the religious aspects. There seems to be a lot of theory about the religions, too, which again is not something I would be looking for in a book about the Silk Roads.


Reading progress update: I’ve read 90 out of 636 pages.

So, after 40-odd pages of dense and somewhat pointless writing about about religious squabbles in the Middle East, we have now arrived at a section that seems to talk about the trade routes. Finally.

This had better be a good section because I am very tempted to DNF this sucker of a book.


Reading progress update: I’ve read 136 out of 636 pages.

“The Rus’ were ruthless when it came to enslaving local populations and transporting them south. Renowned for ‘their size, their physique and their bravery’, the Viking Rus’ had ‘no cultivated fields and they live by pillaging’, according to one Arabic writer. It was the local population that bore the brunt. So many were captured that the very name of those taken captive – Slavs – became used for all those who had their freedom taken away: slaves.”

Right, so now the book is becoming more interesting … and it only took 100 pages to get there. *rolls eyes*

I’m still having problems with the writing. Frankopan throws in new names and references without any explanation whatsoever. So, I’ve spent a fair amount of time reading this with my search engine open.

For example, the mention of the “Rus’ ” in the above paragraph is the first time that he mentions them. No background is given. I am either expected to know that they are a tribe of Vikings originally based in what is now Sweden and that they had turned landward (and over time end up – apparently – founding what we later call “Russia”) or I am expected to look it up.

This same thing has happened all the way through the book.

I am by no means expecting to be spoon-fed background information on everything, but other than references to literature, there are literally no footnotes in this book. It really makes for frustrating reading – and I am guessing also that this book may have made the bestseller lists but it probably is one that a lot of people will not actually have read after buying it.

The last section was in fact the first section that talked about the trade network and the establishment of trade posts and routes and the impact this had on the growth of towns and cities.

As such it was quite interesting, even tho reading about the slave trade is never easy reading.

It seems, tho, that chronologically speaking slaves were the first, … erm, commodity … for which there was enough demand and that made enough profit to create a thriving industry of trade.

“Eventually, the slave trade began to dwindle – at least from eastern and central Europe. One reason for this was that the Viking Rus’ shifted their focus from long-distance trafficking to to the business of protection rackets. Attention focused on the benefits that the Khazars enjoyed from the trade that passed through towns like Atil, thanks to the levies raised on all merchandise transiting Khazar territory. The famous Persian geographical treatise Hudud al-Alam states that the very basis of the Khazar economy lay in its tax revenues: ‘the well-being and wealth of the king of the Khazars are mostly from maritime duties’. Other Muslim commentators repeatedly note the substantial tax receipts collected by the Khazar authorities from commercial activities – which included levies charged on inhabitants of the capital.
Inevitably, this caught the attention of the Viking Rus’, as did the tribute paid to the khagan [king of the Khazars] by the various subject tribes. One by one they were picked off and their loyalties (and payments) redirected to the aggressive new overlords. By the second half of the ninth century, the Slavic tribes of central and souther Russia were not only paying tribute to the Scandinavians, but were being forbidden to make any further payments ‘to the Khazars, on the grounds that there was no reason for them to pay it’. Payment was to be made to the Rus’ leader instead. This mirrored practices elsewhere – such as in Ireland, where protection money gradually replaced human trafficking after being attacked year after year, records the Annals of St Bertin, the Irish agreed to make annual contributions, in return for peace.”

Btw, you may have noticed that the book is still mostly about Europe. Sure the trade routes affected the Middle East and Persia, but mostly this book is not about the Silk Roads any further beyond the the Caspian Sea. I have kind of given up on reading anything about the trade or history of central, east, or south Asia.

Oh, and the next section is about the Crusades arising out of Constantinople’s and the Pope’s envy of the flourishing wealth in the east.


Reading progress update: I’ve read 159 out of 636 pages.

The Crusades. Blah, blah, blah…
Why is this even in here?
Oh, I see, that’s right, the author previously wrote a book about the Crusades.


Reading progress update: I’ve read 201 out of 636 pages.

“Merchants could be found crossing the South China Sea in ever greater numbers, establishing trading posts in Sumatra, on the Malay peninsula and above all on the Malabar coast of southern India, home to the world’s great supply of pepper – long established as a favoured commodity in China as well as in Europe and elsewhere in Asia. By the middle of the fourteenth century, so many ships were sailing to towns like Calicut that some observers commented that all maritime transport and travel in this part of the Indian subcontinent was being undertaken in Chinese boats. An example of their typical flat-bottomed design has been recently identified wrecked off the coast of Kerala.
The lubricant in this long-distance trade was silver, which took on the form of a single currency across Eurasia. One reason for this was the innovation of financial credit in China that had been introduced before Genghis Khan’s time, including the introduction of bills of exchange and the use of paper money. Adopted and improved by the Mongols, the effect was the liberation of enormous amounts of silver into the monetary system as new forms of credit caught on. The availability of the precious metal suddenly soared – causing a major correction in its value against gold. In parts of Europe, the value of silver plunged, losing more than half its value between 1250 and 1338. In London alone, the surge in silver supply allowed the royal mint to more than quadruple output between 1278 and 1279 alone.
Production rose sharply in Asia too. In the steppes, too, coin production took off as rulers of the Golden Horde began to strike coins in large quantities. New regions were stimulated too. Japan, which had relied heavily on barter or on payments in products such as rice as an exchange mechanism, shifted to a monetary economy and became increasingly active in long-distance trade.”

And this is all that Frankopan has to say about the revolutionary introduction of a monetary system. Seriously, those three paragraphs are all there is.

He spends the next five or so pages on the effects of the Black Death on Europe. While I agree that this was a huge event changing everything, the effects of the plague in Europe are not what I look for in a book supposedly about the Silk Roads.

But who am I kidding…this book is all over the place.

Btw, guess what the next chapter is about?

Yup, Columbus and the exploration of the Americas.

This is where I am going to abandon ship. I’ll skim/skip-read to end but that is it.


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