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.

The beginning of the end, and the new

Exams are over. I have finished my degree. I am still in complete denial because I can’t believe I will never again get a book out the library or get lost in the social science building. It’s taken me a week of sleep and relaxation to process that in itself, and now somehow I have just three weeks to reconcile myself to the fact that I am leaving Warwick. I am trying not to think about it too much, because doing so is just too hard.

Eyes firmly on the horizon then. I realise that I haven’t written here about what I’m doing next. Provided all goes well and I bag myself a 2:1, I will be taking up an offer to do and MSc in the Theory and History of International Relations at the London School of Economics. Lots of people are telling me how exciting this is and how great it will be, but for now I am too caught up in the worry of finding new carers and having to make new friends and missing the Warwick gang like crazy to get too excited. Once the practicalities are sorted and I’ve got over the exam-induced academic fatigue, though, I will be able to look forward to it, and once I’m thrown in to the course I’m all but guaranteed to enjoy it. Or at least I hope so, anyway.

The good thing is that the course combines international relations, my favourite part of my undergraduate degree, with history, an interest I put on hold after school. The bad news is that LSE recently cancelled the module I was most looking forward to, on the Middle East, which means that despite years of waiting I will never get to properly study the region I am most fascinated by. Hopefully this summer I will be able to read about it in addition to actually preparing for the modules I will be taking. I am also counting on my best friend’s history essays to get me back up to speed with the discipline (thanks Soph!).

Before all that, though, I have a reading list of random interesting books to get through, including a selection of feminist work. I’m currently reading Germaine Greer’s latest, The Whole Woman, which I am agreeing and disagreeing with in equal measure. Perhaps when I have finished, it will provide a good topic for a post here.

I’m looking forward to writing more in the next few weeks in preparation for a week back at the Guardian in July. Most importantly. though, I am soon off to Ibiza to help the wonderful Fran celebrate her hen do. I’m very excited and am sure I will come back with stories to tell – although maybe not here!

So yes, I’m nervous about the future, but when you think about it, this is only the beginning.