Following the Silk Roads


Within two months of their seizure of Palmyra, in Syria, the militant Islamic State group (IS) had demolished both the Temple of Baalshamin and the Temple of Bel, leaving little of the city’s world heritage standing by the end of August 2015. Palmyra was a world heritage site, scattered with the architectural remains of the “Venice of the East”, so-called because it was an entrepot of wealth and renown along the Silk Roads. It was with the wealth derived from the through-trade between east and west that the rulers of the Palmyrene Empire constructed the Temple of Bel, dedicated to the Mesopotamian god Bel or Baal in AD 32. Already connected through trade to the Mediterranean world at the start of the Common Era — three centuries before the incorporation of Palmyra into the Roman Empire in AD 273 — the temple’s architects took inspiration from familiar Hellenistic models to fuse Greco-Roman architecture with local styles.

In the 12th century, after the Arab conquest, the temple was converted to a mosque, continuing its use and saving it from dilapidation and destruction. By the 21st century, Palmyra’s Temple of Bel was no longer in use for worship but, like the city’s other structures — and those in other ancient cities such as Jerash, in Jordan, and Scythopolis, in Israel — was drawing in tourists from around the world. Until, of course, IS — the jihadist, fundamentalist organisation with aspirations of establishing a worldwide caliphate — razed the temple, the city, and centuries of history. The militants did so under the pretence of seeking to destroy idolatry and influences from the West in a bid to restore what they believe is a pure Islamic culture.

Ready for publication before these atrocities were committed, Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World nevertheless serves to illuminate the history and global significance of the space from which IS (also known as Daesh) has emerged. Frankopan’s central thesis is that this space — the Silk Roads — was once at the centre of the world, was briefly surmounted and then dominated by the West, and is now remerging and reasserting its global significance. “From the beginning of time,” he opens his book, “the centre of Asia was where empires were made.” Fast-forwarding through a considerable slice of human history to the 6th century BC to validate this claim, Frankopan’s narrative commences with a potted history of the Persian Empire, “the greatest of all” the “many kingdoms and empires [that] sprang up from this crucible.”

Fast-paced, and at times exhausting, Frankopan’s book proceeds by conjoining the familiar figures, episodes, phenomena, and political dynasties and societies that can be connected to the Silk Roads. From the Persians, the author takes us to Alexander the Great’s campaigns and city-building between the Mediterranean and the Himalayas, from the rise of Islam to the Crusades, from the expansion of Genghis Khan’s empire in Eurasia to the Black Death, from Colombus’s and Vasco da Gama’s voyages of discovery in America and Asia to the Spice Trade. This vast terrain is covered in only the first half of the book, which concentrates on the Silk Roads as the economic and cultural pivot and political centre of the world. In the second half, the focus shifts to the emergence of the Atlantic slave trade system and the expansion of Europe from the margins of the Silk Roads, 19th century empire-building by Great Britain and the 19th century Great Game, the making of the modern nations of the Middle East in the early 20th century, the emergence of radicalism during the Cold War, the rise of US influence in the region and, finally, the Gulf War and the ‘war on terror’. In this book, time slows down, with the author painting in finer brushstrokes, offering more detail as one marches on with the narrative.

Frankopan has had to be selective to produce a book of this breadth, but the result is a rather uneven treatment of A New History of the World — the subtitle of the volume. Upon putting down the book, a reader might ask, for example: ‘Did sub-Saharan Africa cease to have a history after the end of the slave trade?’ The sub-Saharan region, after all, scarcely appears after a cursory discussion of the Kingdom of Mali, whose wealth was built on the trans-Saharan trade, and of the role of enslaved Africans in the exploitation of Spanish America’s resources, which was the basis for the emergence of Europe from relative obscurity to the mastery of the Silk Roads in the pre-industrial era. Is this oversight the outcome of the sparseness of the scholarship on Africa upon which Frankopan relied to research and write this book? Surely not. African historians have worked tirelessly in recent decades to situate the continent within wider frames of reference and thereby reverse the neglect of Africa and Africans within world history. Rather, this oversight is the outcome of the structure of the book, and a systemic weakness within its thesis.

For Frankopan, the resources to be found along the Silk Road — horses in the ancient to early modern eras, natural resources such as oil and gas in the 20th century — are part of what gave global significance to the region. Within this narrative, the key to understanding the birth of modern Iraq and Iran in the early 20th century, and the emergence of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan after the collapse of the USSR in the 1990s, is the global demand for oil; these themes take up much of the last third of the book. Concluding by noting China’s interests in the region and a so-called “Silk Road Economic Belt” — a source of energy for Chinese manufacturing, the site of routeways connecting the Chinese interior to the west, and also a set of markets for Chinese goods — Frankopan asserts: “The world is changing around us … The Silk Roads are rising again.”

This is rousing stuff. Yet, it is the product of a selective and blinkered view of history, one which wholly ignores the parallels between the space encompassed by the Silk Roads and the African continent. In Africa, too, the European powers competed for access to the continent’s natural resources from the 1880s, while Chinese infrastructure investment is today transforming the political economy and global significance of the continent. The fight for independence and the radical politics of the 20th century that Frankopan discusses in the final few chapters of The Silk Roads drew Nasser in Egypt together with Nkrumah in Ghana, for example; the latter receives no mention. Sub-Saharan Africa is not the only blind spot in this book. A similar story could be told of South America; that continent is similarly marginalised in this book, appearing as the source of bullion that lubricated global trade in the era before the European powers turned to the task of conquest and empire-building in Asia circa 1750. Pakistan and Burma, which were long linked to the arterial Silk Roads through Central Asia between the Mediterranean and China, are also recipients of considerable investment from China in the latter’s bid to forge economic ties and fashion a strategic counterweight to India. They are also conspicuously absent, although Pakistan does enter the narrative in connection with Cold War rivalries and post-Cold War terrorism. Such connections, contrasts, and parallels weaken the thesis of The Silk Roads, fixed as it is on the uniqueness and centrality of Eurasia.

More perversely and perniciously, such omissions allow the author to tell a grand narrative — a great sweep of human history — that has at its heart the emergence of European imperialism (the chapter on the establishment of the British Empire is, unsurprisingly, the central chapter of the book) just as it tries to highlight how Europe was once, and is again, at the mercy of the Silk Roads. In a large part, the author’s accidental slip into a rather subtle sort of Eurocentrism is the product of the British historical tradition in which he was educated, as well as the legacy of older histories of the British Empire from which have emerged the new world histories so popular today. Because the history of Latin America and much of the history of Africa lie outside the history of the British Empire, they continue to be marginal to these new sorts of historical writing, of which Frankopan’s work is amongst the latest and most popular (rather than scholarly) offerings.

“The world is changing around us. As we move into an era where the political, military and economic dominance of the west is coming under pressure, the sense of uncertainty is unsettling. While we ponder where the next threat might come from, how best to deal with religious extremism or how to negotiate with states who seem willing to disregard international law, networks and connections are quietly being knitted together across the spine of Asia; or rather, they are being restored. The Silk Roads are rising again.” — Excerpt from the book

Putting aside the spatially uneven focus of this work of world history, and its implications, the reader might also ask a rather more elementary question: ‘What are the Silk Roads?’ Scholars have long recognised that the Silk Roads — or Seidenstrasse in their original coinage by Ferdinand von Richthofen from the 1870s — refer neither only to the arterial routes running from China to the Mediterranean, nor only to the routes through which silk was exchanged in antiquity. There were ‘branches’ along the east-to-west trunk of these routes to India or North Africa, for example. The range of commodities exchanged between Asia and Europe was much more extensive than silk, including olive oil and fats, livestock and animal products, precious stones and metals, paper and books, medicines and dyestuffs, cloth and yarn. Rather, the term ‘Silk Roads’ — insofar as it is useful at all — is useful as a concoction of the historian as an heuristic or analytical tool for the study of connections across Eurasia. Specifying what ‘Silk Roads’ encompasses enables historians to focus their analysis.

The weakness in Frankopan’s book, therefore, is that there is a consistent lack of specificity in the use of the term. At times, Frankopan’s Silk Roads are the arterial trade routes. At times, they map onto Eurasia (but not the connected land mass of Afro-Eurasia), sometimes including and sometimes excluding Europe, and sometimes specifically Central Eurasia or Central Asia. At times, especially at the beginning and towards the end of the book, the Silk Roads are in Persia or Iran. Focusing more closely on any of these dimensions of the Silk Roads would have afforded the analysis and arguments much more clarity, and, at the same time, made the narrative much less exhausting for the reader. A global, longue durée history of Iran, for example, would have been truly compelling.

Palmyra is mentioned only twice in Frankopan’s book, but it illuminates — both as a symbol of IS’s vulgar destruction of our shared human past and, at the same time, as a fragment in the long history of Islam — two of the most interesting themes of this book. The first is religious conflict, competition, and persecution. The ancient world was competitive, with the religious communities of the Silk Roads jostling for souls and the influence that came therewith: the visual and ritual practices of Buddhism were transformed in response to the impending threat of Hellenistic beliefs following Alexander the Great’s advance in South Asia, with Buddhists appropriating and adapting Greek statuary styles, for example. Today, Zoroastrianism is associated with the influential and tightly-knit but mild-mannered and slowly disappearing Parsi communities spread around the world. Yet, as the faith most closely connected to the Sasanian Empire between the 3rd and 7th centuries, Zoroastrianism was a threat to rival faiths along the Silk Roads as the empire expanded outwards from Persia. “Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Manicheans and others were persecuted,” writes Frankopan, before describing the persecution by Zoroastrians of Christians as that faith expanded eastwards and came into conflict with the Persian state. In contrast, in the early years of the spread of Islam, the Prophet (PBUH) and his descendants received support from Jews and Christians, in part the consequence of commonalities in ideas and teachings, and in part fuelled by mutual strategic concerns. The Jews of Medina, for example, pledged their support to Muhammad (PBUH) in return for guarantees for mutual defence of Jews and Muslims, which were formally codified by the Prophet (PBUH).

The second theme that is woven, whether accidentally or otherwise, through the book is the history of Islam. While the Silk Roads and their history are older than the history of Islam, the latter is intimately intertwined with the former. The Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) revelations of impending doom and the efficacy of his preaching, for example, are comprehendible in light of the Prophet’s (PBUH) origins as a trader in the Banu Hashim clan of the Quraysh tribe who lived at a time of severe economic contraction in southern Arabia. The Holy Qur’an is described as “point[ing] to a polyglot milieu, where emphasising similarity, rather than difference, was important.” Quickly, the Prophet (PBUH), his followers, and his descendants were able to spread the revelations across Central Eurasia, with the Islamic conquests and the Abbasid Caliphate representing “a new world order, an economic giant, bolstered by self-confidence, broad-mindedness and a passionate zeal for progress.” The Silk Roads as a conduit, and the exchange of goods and ideas across this space, is the context to understanding the spread and the success of Islam.

If the first half of the book focuses on accommodation and concord within the emerging Islamic world, then the final few chapters focus on exclusion and persecution — though the author is rather shy of making any bold claims about the connection of Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism, and Islamic ‘terrorist’ organisations. One way of reading this book, therefore, is as a connected history of Islamic cosmopolitanism — and, in certain eras, including our own — of Islamic fundamentalism. Although this theme is not drawn out and developed in Frankopan’s tame, two-millennia-long narrative, it speaks to the crises and concerns of our time. 

-The article first appeared on

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