S. Frederick Starr is chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and author of “Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane.”
This absorbing but curiously misnamed book is more than the story of the “Silk Roads” and less than a “History of the World.” Peter Frankopan, an Oxford specialist on Byzantium, presents some two dozen “roads” or episodes in the history of Europe and Asia over two millennia, of which the Silk Road phase is only one. And while he claims to write a history of the world, whole civilizations and continents, including Africa and the Americas, enter his story only when they come under the influence of Europeans. Japan barely rates a mention. His real focus is the Eurasian landmass, and his goal is to convince readers that the stories of Asia and Europe are really one, that they interacted constantly in the past and that they do so even more today.
Well-researched and gracefully written, Frankopan’s fat volume is a good read, with two-fifths devoted to the centuries before Columbus, a third to the early modern era and two-fifths to the 19th and 20th centuries. Along the way the author offers many provocative insights, for instance, on the Asian-ness of Christianity, the way Crusaders mixed religion and commerce, how the gold that built the Taj Mahal traced to the New World and how the discovery of oil in Persia by the Englishman Knox D’Arcy transformed world politics. Frankopan’s constant theme is how trade-based globalization was a reality millennia before the term became popular. This is not a new discovery, but it is an important point, and Frankopan defends it convincingly.
His narrative wanders into so many curious avenues that everyone will find something of interest in these 500 pages. He is not without bias, however. He attacks ancient Rome as having “acclaimed violence and killing” but withholds such judgments when speaking of many Eastern despotisms. He follows the current fashion of stressing the Mongols’ free-trade policies while tipping his hat to them for using violence “selectively and deliberately.” He plays down their utter destruction of scores of cities that had built and maintained continental trade for millennia, claiming that most recovered quickly. But many of the biggest did not, as the Mongols had systematically destroyed their irrigation and hydraulic systems.
In the same spirit, he devotes a chapter to the participation of Vikings and other Northern Europeans in the Asian slave trade without mentioning that medieval slavery, like modern slavery, was driven by demand and that for a millennium before Vasco da Gama, the demand came from the great slave markets of the Muslim Middle East and Central Asia. Indeed, the high culture of the medieval caliphate was built on a solid foundation of slavery, a fact Frankopan ignores.
As the author approaches the modern era, he offers up judgments that many will find jarring. He dismisses the European Reformation as a time when “bigotry and religious fundamentalism were rapidly becoming defining features,” yet he scarcely mentions the Sunni-Shiite divide in Islam and the bloody wars and gross intellectual repression to which it gave rise, from the Mediterranean to India. Similarly, implying a comparison with Western European colonialism, he argues that Russia’s expansion to the south and east was done with “a reasonably soft touch.” Tell that to the thousands in the Caucasus who died from tsarist Russia’s advance there, or the 16,000 Turkmen who perished in one day during the Russian siege of Geok Tepe (in modern Turkmenistan) in 1881. He also characterizes the Soviets’ campaign to pillage East European industry and commandeer its experts as “logical.”
In chapter after chapter, Europeans emerge as the villains. Heaven knows, there is much to justify this view, and we have scores of excellent studies that detail heinous actions by Europeans in the Middle East, Africa and the New World. But Frankopan is not content just to retell this story. Instead, he preaches endlessly about how the modern states of Europe arose as “the strong [i.e., the West] devoured the weak,” how they prospered through “consolidation and covetousness,” how overall the West succeeded in placing itself in the center of the world thanks to its “entrenched relation with violence and militarism.” Lest we somehow miss the point, he concludes that “Europe’s distinctive character as more aggressive, more unstable, and less peace-minded than other parts of the world now paid off.”
Having worked himself into a rage, he dismisses European art of the 17th and 18th centuries as having been “forged by violence,” a mark of opprobrium he withholds from most of the art produced under tyrants of the Eastern world clear to the Mughals in India. The problem here is not that he is wrong but that he fails to consider that much of the rest of his story, whether the rise of the nomadic Seljuks or Asian jihadists such as Mahmud of Ghazni, Tamerlane or Babur, was no less driven by utter brutality. Indeed, there is little difference between the Islamic State today and the savagery that Muslim jihadists over many centuries directed against India. Instances of evil that might have led him to reflect on human nature cause him instead to hand out posies and demerits in a manner that is both one-sided and politically correct.
It is revealing that Frankopan offers up a collection of nasty (and often droll) European comments on the deceitfulness, brutality or smelliness of various Eastern peoples without touching on the similarly critical one-liners to be found in works by Arab and other Eastern writers on Westerners or, for that matter, on the inhabitants of Russia or the Indian subcontinent. When 11th-century scholar al-Biruni dared to pen an appreciative work on Hinduism, he made a point of contrasting his book with the crude abuse that previous writers in Arabic heaped on Indians and their religion.
Competition for Frankopan’s main bete noire is keen, but Americans may at least claim parity with the Huns, Tamerlane, Cortes and the British. He begins mildly enough, instructing us that the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving, in 1621, was organized “to mark their safe arrival in the land of plenty but also [as] a commemoration of a campaign against globalization.” When he reaches the 20th century he is at full steam, saying — not without foundation — that America was ready in Iran to “double-deal and double-cross” at every turn, and condemning the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq, but without distinguishing between them or delving into the gory domestic context in either country. Frankopan then quite reasonably accuses Washington of “cutting deals and making agreements on the hoof, solving today’s problems without worrying about tomorrow’s.”
This is not the first work to conceive the diverse inhabitants of the Eurasian land mass as a single whole rather than as a collection of largely autonomous sub-regions and peoples. Its great strength is that it focuses squarely and consistently on trade as the great engine of integration across the region. Frankopan presses home this important thesis with persistence and clarity. One may bristle, or smile, at some of his biases and eccentricities, but in the end he does us all a great service.
By Peter Frankopan
Knopf. 645 pp. $30