the silk roads

A 'new history of the world' is what the subtitle asserts. The title? The Silk Roads. Peter Frankopan's point is intentionally plural. There were roads, not a single road. Along these roads, eastwards and westwards, flowed ideas and products. Those that controlled these roads, controlled history. It has always been this way.

The Table of Contents is simply a long, roughly sequential, list of these roads. Be it 'spices or silks, slaves or silver' (or even sickness), this is what travelled across the region from the Mediterranean to the Himalayas and beyond. But this tends to be forgotten.
(This) bridge between east and west is the very crossroads of civilisation. Far from being on the fringe of global affairs, these countries lie at its very centre - as they have done since the beginning of history ... The real crucible, the 'Mediterranean' in its literal meaning - the centre of the world - was not a sea separating Europe and North Africa, but right in the heart of Asia (xv, xix).
Where, oh where, do I start?

What about Fifteen Fascinations (or, fifteen random observations that I don't want to lose and so, for security reasons, I am writing them on my blog!):

1. Let's begin with a global financial crisis and a bail-out - in the 1770s. The American War of Independence was a direct consequence of the British need to 'bail-out' (278) the East India Company in Bengal. Like the banks and auto industry of 2008, it was 'too big too fail' (278) and so the decision was made to tax the colonies in America in order to raise the revenue that was required. Oops.

2. The country with the most references in the Index is Persia-Iran. Not just dominating in antiquity, but also in the twentieth century when the 'road to black gold' (i.e. oil) became the obsession of empires. Whether it be the British or the Americans, the Germans or the Russians - and now the Chinese - today's Iran has never been far from their minds and appetites. One of the heroes in the story, Mohammed Mossadegh - 'the spiritual father of a great many heirs across the region' (417) - was the first to stand fast against the Empires. His conviction? It was 'invidious that the fruits lying under the soil brought (such) limited benefits to Iran' itself (401). How is it that a nation stays so poor when it has so much wealth? He gave them heaps until they did what they do: organized a regime change to protect self-interest, only to discover they've replaced him with someone worse. Will they ever learn?

3. With the rise of Islam, 'early Muslims saw themselves not as rivals of these two faiths (Judaism and Christianity) but as heirs to the same legacy' (84). Even John of Damascus considered Islam to be a 'Christian heresy' (90) in those years when cohabitation and tolerance reigned. But this changed dramatically - not by the Crusades (and the Christian conquest of Muslim peoples), but initially by the Islamic conquest of Christian peoples in the seventh century when vast sections of the Middle East was drained of its native Christian population by this Islamic onslaught.

4. Living in India, as a child and now as an adult, means that I've seen this desperation which people 'in the East' have to go and live 'in the West'. I still weep and wail - inaudibly, of course - when I watch the best and finest leave their home soil and plant themselves where they are scarcely needed. Especially Christians. I have to work hard and pray hard to stay engaged with them and to believe that God is the reason for the shift. Plus I have huge respect for those who could go, but who choose to remain - and those who choose to return. However it wasn't always like this. More than a millennium ago people 'in the West' were so desperate to go and live 'in the East' (101).

5. What about those Vikings? 'In the Viking age the bravest and toughest men did not head west; they headed east and south ... (and) in the east, they were to found a new state ... These men were known as Rus' ... They were the fathers of Russia' (114).  The Rus' were ruthless, 'enslaving local populations and transporting them south ... 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' (117).

6. The smartest empires in history seem to be the Mongols - also, 'the largest land empire in history' (158) - and the Dutch. The Mongols were more than just ruthless. They knew how to conquer, but also how to administer. For example, distinguishing features, like hairstyles, were 'stamped out with standardized fashions enforced' (177). As I travel, fewer and fewer music styles and fashions and sports, just as three examples, seem to prevail. Don't people see what is happening? The world is being controlled by being standardized (just as was the case with the Mongols), even as people, especially younger people, speak vociferously of their own self-determination. They are being duped. The Dutch prioritized a lot of things that sustained empire: like shipbuilding, map-writing, language-learning, and setting up multinationals. Interestingly, both the Mongols and the Dutch championed local arts and crafts. In the seventeenth century alone 3 million Dutch paintings were produced.

7. The Mongols administered so well and so widely that when the 'Black Death' surfaced in the steppes on their own backdoor the Silk Roads turned into 'lethal highways' (188). Rat colonies in rural areas were the facilitator of disease. When the plague reached Europe, one third of Europe died. But it was out of this disaster that Europe rose again. It had not featured prominently in history for one thousand years. There had been this 'shunt into the shadows' (90). Old-time Eurocentric history-telling tended to accelerate from 500AD to 1500AD, as if not much was happening in these Dark Ages. We rushed from Constantine to Columbus - except for a brief dip into the Crusades to bash the Christians. That's it?! How could we have been so wrong? And then this plague turned out to be 'the catalyst for social and economic change that was so profound that far from marking the death of Europe, it served as its making' (191).

8. 'The world changed in the fifteenth century' (202) is the opening sentence in 'The Road of Gold'. It narrates the rise of Spain, with Christopher Columbus (going west), and Portugal, with Vasco da Gama (going east). This happened within five years of each other. Amazing. But what a shameful period of history it was, as 'exploration turned to conquest' (212). 'The native populations in the Caribbean and the Americas were devastated (213) ... scarcely imaginable quantities of silver, gold, precious stones and treasures were carried across the Atlantic' (214). 'It was as if a highly-tuned engine had been switched on, pumping the riches from Central and South America directly into Europe' (215). In fact the very next paragraph, after that opening sentence, is one of the most arresting passages in the book (and so I quote it all):
The new dawn propelled Europe to centre-stage, enveloping it in golden light and blessing it with a series of golden ages. Its rise, however, brought terrible suffering in newly discovered locations. There was a price for the magnificent cathedrals, the glorious art and the rising standards of living that blossomed from the sixteenth century onwards. It was paid by populations living acrossd the oceans: Europeans were able not only to explore the world but to dominate it ... The age of empire and the rise of the west were built on the capacity to inflict violence on a major scale. The Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, the progression towards democracy, civil liberty and human rights, were not the result of an unseen chain linking back to Athens in antiquity or a natural state of affairs in Europe; they were the fruits of political, military and economic success in faraway continents ... In truth, France, Germany, Austria, Spain, Portugal and England has nothing to do with Athens ... This was glossed over as artists, writers and architects went to work, borrowing themes, ideas and texts from antiquity to provide a narrative that chose selectively from the past to create a story which over time became not only increasingly plausible but standard. So although scholars have long called this period the Renaissance, this was no rebirth. Rather, it was a Naissance - as birth. For the first time in history, Europe lay at the heart of the world (202, 219).
9. Nowhere does Eurocentrism linger more than in the language that we use. As mentioned above, a phrase like 'the Dark Ages' says a lot about the perspective from which the story is being told. Science and and scholarship thrived outside Europe during that time, thank-you very much. It was no Dark Ages. What about the phrase 'the Far East' - its uttering accompanied by that haughty little look down the nose at the 'orientalist' (xvi). But if Frankopan's thesis is to be believed, then it is better to speak of today's NATO countries as the 'Far West', far, so far from the centre of history. In fact he might even call Europe the Wild West, given Europe's track record of violence, with '(it's) distinctive character as more aggressive, more unstable and less peace-minded than other parts of the world (259). Towards the end of the book the cynicism drips onto the page as the European Union receives the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012.
... how wonderful that Europe, which had been responsible for almost continuous warfare not just in its own continent but across the world for centuries, had managed to avoid conflict for several decades ... The silence of the guns, perhaps, owed more to the reality that there was nothing left to fight for than to the foresight of a succession of supposedly brilliant peacemakers in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century (397-398).
10. One of the disappointments of the book is that one third of the chapters centre on the action since 1900. Really?! Is that not a seduction by the contemporary ... which is barely acceptable from an historian! But what is so intriguing about this latter part of the story is that every time you think it is all happening in Europe, Frankopan demonstrates how the real action is going on over in Asia! He links the two World Wars directly to 'the fight to control the heart of Asia' (399). We can talk about the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo as the spark for World War 1, but 'the seeds of war grew out of changes and developments located many thousands of miles away' (314). The real battle was between Russia and Britain over the control of 'Persia, Central Asia, and the Far East'. Frankopan is at his most fearless (as one reviewer described the book) when he questions the priority given to German aggression in the twentieth century. The relationship between Britain and Germany was so cordial in the days before the Great War. The Royal Family even had a German name (until they stole our one!). Oxford University was handing out honorary doctorates to German mates barely a month before the war started. A 'fear of Russia' (316) was the cause of the war. Germany, France, Britain - they all had reasons to be fearful. Russia and Britain were actually 'rivals masquerading as allies' (317). As the tragedy unfolded
a narrative developed that reshaped the past, and cast the confrontation in terms of a struggle between Germany and the Allies, a debate which has centered on the relative culpability of the former and the heroism of the latter ... The story that became embedded in public consciousness was that of German aggression and the just war fought by the Allies' (318). 
Interestingly, it is the poetry of the time that paints a more accurate picture. And, of course, blaming Germany 'guaranteed a reaction - providing fertile ground to be exploited by a skilled demagogue who could unite national sentiment around the core of a strong Germany rising from the ashes' (320).

11. This fear of Russia is also behind the only incident where my country of New Zealand rates a mention: the Gallipoli invasion. Yes, it was an invasion of a sovereign state. Yes, it was sourced in a (pathological) fear of Russia. 'The disastrous campaign ... had its origins in the struggle to establish control over the communication and trade networks linking Europe with the Near East and Asia' (337).But with Winston Churchill leading the way 'a powerful narrative emerged that glorified soldiers, celebrated their bravery and paid tribute to the sacrifices they had made' (318) when this is so far from the full story. I am still trying to make up my mind about what to think about Gallipoli...

12. When it comes to Germany and World War II, Frankopan's chapter is entitled 'The Wheat Road'. What?! Are you serious? 'What's wheat got to do with it?!' I was at my most cynical at the start of that chapter - but what a chapter it is. He demonstrates how the fear of being unable to feed their own people led first to an alliance with the USSR - and then to a full scale invasion. Germany needed the fertile fields of the Ukraine and beyond in order to survive. He even asserts that a cause of the Holocaust - not the only cause - was that it meant there would be a few million less mouths to feed. The surprises keep coming. Frankopan reveals how Hitler drew inspiration from the British and American stories. 'The British in India were constantly cited by the Nazi leadership as a model of how large-scale domination could be accomplished by a few people' (378) ... and then ... 'The Volga,(Hitler) proclaimed, would be Germany's Mississippi, that is to say, a frontier between the civilised world and the chaos beyond ... (where) the local population had to be driven back - or exterminated' (378).

13. 'There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune' is the one Shakespearean quotation that I know from memory (other than 'Et tu, Brute?', of course). It could be supplemented with 'and taken at the ebb leads on to disaster.' The rise and fall of empires is so like a flooding and ebbing tide. Nowhere more so than in the 20th century. What a mess the British and American Empires have made of the world, as they've been spurred on by greed and self-interest. It is just shameful. Sometimes I am so relieved to be a Kiwi-Indian! Be it the British penchant for sloppy cartography (with India & Pakistan, with Iraq & the Middle East, and with Churchill using colored pencils to divide up Poland, 396), or the American capacity for betrayal and double-dealing - their ebbing empires have kept company with disaster. So 'many are horrified by the hypocrisy of the message of the primacy of democracy on the one hand and the practice of imperial power on the other' (506).

From the earliest years of its intrusion in the Middle East, the British exuded this 'lofty sense of entitlement' (352), but as the 'broken promises and disappointed peoples' (352) multiplied across the region 'this cocktail of disenchantment, disgust and disenfranchisement' (353) has to bear fruit at some point. Switching across to the American Empire - take Iran (again!) being forced by the US to get rid of its nuclear program. This programme was actually 'built on US technology sold to a despotic intolerant and corrupt regime in the 1970s' (506). Who is really to blame here? Or, what about the US siding with Iraq in their war with Iran (because it suited US self-interest) ... and then deciding to supply arms to Iran (because now this suited US self-interest). The ultimate betrayal. How could they expect anything less than a hell to break loose, a 'full-blooded hatred' (472) to be aimed at them? 9/11 isn't that surprising - and remember the chorus at that time? 'Why do they hate us so much?' Duh?! Read some history why don't you?

14. This area is 're-emerging' (509). 'The Silk Roads are rising again' (513). However I do not understand some of Frankopan's decisions with the book. A third of his chapters on the most recent 120 years? An entire chapter on 9/11 and no chapter on China extending its empire into Africa, South America and the Pacific? For a 'new history of the world' it saddens me that those regions - Africa & South America, especially - only make the story as colonized victims that were pillaged and abused. I'd like to hear a bit more from them and about them.

15. While I do travel a lot, I've never been to Paris or Rome, Athens or Madrid. However after reading Peter Frankopan - and William Dalrymple and Philip Jenkins before him - it is Samarkand and Bukhara, Merv and Kashgar that capture my imagination.  I've already started checking out the flights that are available to Uzbekistan.

nice chatting



Popular Posts