Review: The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan

Anyone who knows me knows that I love to read almost as much as I love to write, and yet by my estimates it’s been about six years since I wrote about a book. Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads, however, is simply too awe-inspiring not to talk about. I thought it’s billing as a ‘new history of the world’ was an exaggeration – but this epic tome spans centuries and continents with remarkable ease.

Admittedly, I did find it too dense in detail, and so long that it was hard to understand its message without consciously zooming out in my mind’s eye, yet no book has ever taught me so much about the world as it was and as it is now. Concentrating on the region between the Mediterranean and the Himalayas – the “spine of Asia” as Frankopan calls it – the book takes us from the birth of civilisation in Mesopotamia, through the Roman era, the empires of the Muslim dynasties, the Mongols and the Ottomans, to the European empires and their breakdown into the Middle East as we know it, right up to the origins of 9/11 and the war on terror.

In doing so, it introduces us to a new way of seeing a region so often thought of as chaotic, even backwards. Instead we see how the Middle East’s current problems are a result of its long-lasting importance to trade, empire, religion and geopolitics, which led to its endless manipulation by whichever Great Powers were in the ascendance. In the latter stages of the book we see just how much the current world powers, Western Europe and the US, are responsible for the bloodshed and turmoil which they now fear so greatly. Perhaps we knew this already, but the sheer scale of the mess and cross-purposes, of the short-termism and misunderstanding, is hard to comprehend without having it all laid out in front of you, as Frankopan so elegantly does.

I confess that these later chapters were a much easier read than anything predating 1600-or-so. This is probably in large part due to the fact that I am much more familiar with modern history. But I also felt that my understanding of the early history was impeded by a lack of maps (at least in my Kindle edition) which meant that at times I only had a vague inkling as to what was happening, being, as I assume most people are, unfamiliar with the borders, cities and geographies of the ancient and medieval Middle East. Indeed, this remains my main criticism of the book.

Nevertheless, it was refreshing and illuminating to read a true history of the world from a non-Western perspective. Frankopan breaks free of the canon of academia (and its awful written style) to tell another story. In a time when the Middle East continues to dominate headlines while being fundamentally misunderstood, this unlikely best-seller exposes the history of the region in all its complexity. It would be a very good thing if it found its way onto the bookshelves of diplomats and politicians the world over.

For me, too, the book has come at an opportune time; I am about to start a Masters in the Theory and History of International Relations, with a focus on the Middle East. This has always been my main area of interest, and yet until now I have never explored the region within academia. The Silk Roads, I am sure, has given me the best possible grounding for this next challenge.

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