‘The Silk Roads are rising again’. Peter Frankopan, Oxford fellow and Director of the Centre for Byzantine Research at the university, ends his historical epic The Silk Roads with these six words. Six words they may be, but it is for this reason that you should stop reading now and find your own copy of the book. This is essential reading for us all today.
In school, history lessons invariably consist of the Nazi Germany, Cold War and post-1914 British periods, with little to no focus on any history beyond the frontiers of Europe. Even at A-Level, the curriculum restricts us to similar periodical and geographical constraints, with perhaps a brief flirtation with the history of our neighbours across the pond. For those of us who choose history as an option, we leave school confident in our ability as historians, able to rattle off facts about the last 200-or-so years of Western history. Yet, how many of us could tell someone about the rise of Islam in Asia from 610 AD onward, or about the domination of the Mongol Empire, which became the largest contiguous empire in history following the death of its first Great Kahn, Temüjin Borjigin, also known as Genghis Khan. As a consequence of this, perhaps blissful, ignorance, vast swathes of the world that are now becoming increasingly important have histories that are relatively unknown to those of us in the West. This is where Frankopan comes in. The Silk Roads reveals the history of the ‘cradle of civilisation’, allowing us to expand our own historical perspectives and opinions, and allowing us to better inform our own knowledge of world history as we know it.
Now, if you’ve read this far and you paid attention to the title of this article, you might have noticed that I haven’t yet given you non-historians any reasons to read this book. Fear not, for here they come. To start, parts of the world that Frankopan chooses to explore in his book find themselves planted at the centre of the modern Western world’s attention as a result, in part, of one particular commodity. Oil. Wars have been fought in recent years over access to the vast and plentiful wells in the middle-eastern world, yet this dispute has historical grounding. ‘The Silk Roads’ addresses the diverse and important history of this often stereotyped part of the world today, from Kabul’s role as a major trading post on the Silk Road, to the Knot D’Arcy oil concession, an event that arguably kickstarted the mass extraction of the oil reserves in the Middle-East. To understand the history of this tumultuous and volatile region of the world allows us to better understand the reasons behind the situations reported by the news today. Frankopan’s work also allows us to go on a journey through the history of regions lesser explored in modern western culture, as well as in academic historical circles. The journey from China to the middle-east, trod by Sogdian traders in days gone by, allows an insight into the culture of a world largely shrouded in mystery and intrigue. Not only does ‘The Silk Roads’ allow us to become better historians, but it allows us to become more culturally rounded individuals, allowing for a greater appreciation of different cultures from around the world.
‘The Silk Roads’ may, on the surface, appear to be ‘just another history book’, reserved only for the attention of academics and serious history buffs. But Frankopan’s work offers so much more than that when the surface is scratched, providing an in-depth and necessary cultural reshuffle, emphasising the importance of the often ignored Central and Eastern regions of the world. ‘The Silk Roads’ is ‘History on a grand scale’ according to the Guardian. That it certainly is.