The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan
In the show currently up at Thacher Gallery inside Gleeson Library, where I work at the University of San Francisco, there's a scaled down, hand-colored woodblock copy circa 1785 of A Complete Map of the Ten Thousand Countries of the World, 1602, by Matteo Ricci (Italian, 1552-1610), with Li Zhizao (Chinese, 1565-1630) on view. This early world map places China and the Pacific at its center, with waterways in general receiving heavy emphasis. For instance, the Bosphorus Strait is prominently presented. This is no surprise given it is a major avenue of trade, a strategic water route running through Constantinople (modern day Istanbul), connecting the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara, which opens directly out into the larger Mediterranean beyond.
This is, however, in striking contrast to the preponderant perspective given by Western, euro-centric world maps which center upon the Atlantic with the Americas (visual emphasis given to the United States and Canada) on one side and England/Europe prominently appearing on the other. Smaller waterways such as the Bosporus Strait are lost while the Black Sea ends up appearing to be generally landlocked. The copy of the early Ricci map thus reorients the typical Western outlook. A similar reorientation lies at the heart of Peter Frankopan's The Silk Roads: A New History of the World.
Too often, what has been passed down as world history has, in fact, been a rather one-sided history of the Western world, seen as the predestined end summation point towards which all the rest of the world is and has always been headed. That's not to imply Frankopan's "new history" doesn't encompass the standardly recognized significant events of the Western world. He covers the usual span from the Greeks and Romans up through the spread of Christianity, the subsequent drearily labeled Dark Ages and the Renaissance, forward to the rising spread of colonializing Atlantic powers such as Spain, Denmark, and Britain, leading in part up to the founding of the United States and onwards into subsequent world wars of the twentieth century. He just makes it clear that past stereotypical world histories have failed to significantly acknowledge the larger picture being played out in other key geographical areas. Neither exclusionary nor inclusionary, his take focuses upon the regions of the world which have always, as they continue to do to this day, pulled in the interests of powerful outside players, at times obstructing and/or complicating achievement of their interests.
Frankopan's engrossing tale broadens an appreciation and understanding for the considerable ongoing world-changing role played by the substantially rich crisscrossing of peoples and goods between East and West, in the area of the world where modern-day states such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan now exist, what is known as the stretch of "countries of the Caucasus." Such activity in this area extends south as well, into the Middle and Near East. Home to those "countries whose names have only grown far more familiar to Western ears of late: Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and Syria." These lands "are no backwaters, no obscure wasteland" to be ignored or alternately stripped of resources. To do one or the other is to misunderstand and fail recognize what in fact has been the longstanding, fertile multicultural exchange occurring there.
It is in this area "the halfway point between east and west, running broadly from the eastern shores of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea to the Himalayas" that peoples of various languages and diverse cultures have long fructuously mingled together.
It was in this bridge between east and west that great metropolises were established nearly 5,000 years ago, where the cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro in the Indus valley were wonders of the ancient world, with populations numbering in the tens of thousands and streets connecting into a sophisticated sewage system that would not be rivalled in Europe for thousands of years. Other great centers of civilization such as Babylon, Nineveh, Uruk, and Akkad in Mesopotamia were famed for their grandeur and architectural innovation. [...]
This region is where the world's great religions burst into life, where Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism jostled with each other. It is the cauldron where language groups competed, where Indo-European, Semitic, and Sino-Tibetan tongues wagged alongside those speaking Altaic, Turkic, and Caucasian. This is where the great empires rose and fell, where the aftereffects of clashes between cultures and rivals were felt thousands of miles away.
This is the heart of the story Frankopan successfully guides readers through, merging it with the familiar rise of Europe and the Western world. Tying together how latter-era European colonization and subsequent modern-day war proceeds by way of traveling down lines of commerce and competition established long ago. His presentation is both convincing and ever relevant.
If ever there is a case to be made for the living force of history, and how the manner in which it is understood or misunderstood has immediate ramifications upon the lives of today's readers, Frankopan's book presents it. Although his coverage doesn't extend fully into the very immediate present, major world issues of the current day are easily seen to be nothing but the latest cogs in the eternally churning gears of his "new history." From Russian aggression in Ukraine and imposition of their forces in Syria to the immigration travesty unfolding along the EU's borders, the continual presence of the United States military in Afghanistan and Iraq to nuclear negotiations with Iran, on to China's ever-increasing industrialization catch-up, with its devastating effects upon the physical health of the country's people and climate change, the underlying patterns of competition and dominance in economic and political exchange in the area have been constant for generation upon generation, as far back as existing records go. Frankopan gives a compact yet comprehensive view of the past importance "the silk roads" regional zone has played, impacting geographical neighbors both close and far. A glance at the international headlines of any major world newspaper affirms that the lessons to be learned are as relevant as ever.
The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan