The Silk Road: Peter Frankopan

The history is ambition, and it seeks to recast most of recorded history with a new orientation, that places Asia at the center. Drawing a sharp contrast with Eurocentric histories of the world, Frankopan states that Europe was peripheral to the world until the late fifteenth century, period he labels the "naissance" of Europe. With more than a nod to Mackinder's Heartland theory, Frankopan focuses on the struggle for control of central Asia (for Frankopan, this is the heartland not Eastern Europe as Mackinder had posited). But central Asia is no passive object over which the great powers compete, it is also the foundation of globe-spanning empires, and the location of great centers of learning and culture.

Frankopan traces the origin of the Silk Road to the post road built by the Achaemenids connecting Asia Minor to the great cities of Susa and Persepolis in the deep interior of the empire. This was the same road Alexander followed as he conquored first Egypt and from there the Persian empire itself. Significantly, the newly energized Greeks under Alexander thought only of going east and south and not towards Europe where there was no culture, no wealth and no civilization in Alexander's time -- nothing worth conquering. The Achaemenid post road connected with the westward expansion of the Han dynasty through the Gansu corridor and the oases ringing the Taklamakan desert, to complete the continent-spanning trading network that eventually became the Silk Road.

The brief sun of the Greeks was soon eclipsed by Rome, and the Achaemenids gave way to the Parthians and then the Sassanians. Frankopan tellingly points out that the real center of the Roman empire lay to the east -- Roman conquests to the west were reluctantly undertaken and easily abandoned, since there was no economic advantage to be had from ruling over fractious tribes in savage lands. (For example, Rome withdrew from Caesar's conquest of Britain within years and made no further attempt to extend their rule for close to a century afterwards.). Roman prosperity was based on the Augustan conquest of Egypt'r rich and fertile land -- and according to Frankopan this was the income that enabled Rome to live beyond its means for centuries. Still, its insatiable appetite for Asian luxury goods led to a chronic balance of payments crisis spanning centuries. 

The Silk Road was also the path for the spread of religions--Buddhism from India and Christianity from ancient Israel, and from the seventh century for Islam from the depths of Arabia. Though relations between religious groups were mostly peaceful, there were also periods of intense conflict and the fates of religious minorities figured prominently in the centuries-long tussle between the eastern Roman empire and the Sassanians. 

Frankopan highlights some little-known historical facts about trading networks. After the Arab conquests, luxury goods and consumables flowed to the flourishing cities of the Muslim world, from China and India. But all northern Europe had to offer was furs and forest products -- plus one insidious commodity, slaves. Viking slavers, who settled along the upper reaches of the rivers flowing into the Caspian, eventually became the Rus. And their victims the Slavs. 

In the 11th century, after close to 5 centuries of flourishing, central power in the Islamic world began to weaken and northern tribes like the Ghaznavids and the Seljuks, which for long had supplied the foot soldiers of the empire, began to see a new role for themselves as rulers. The Byzantines too began to feel the pressure, and appealed to their co-religionists in Europe for support. A bad strategy it turned out. The Italian city states -- Venice, Genoa, Pisa -- which had profited from the eastern trade, saw an opportunity to cut out the middleman and trade directly with Asia. The Crusades followed, with Jerusalem as the overt prize, but control over the Asian trade as the real objective. More devastation was to follow -- in the 13th century, Genghis Khan's Mongols and in the 14th, the Black Plague, both following the paths of the Silk Road. 

In the 15th century, something new was beginning to stir in Europe. With Constantinople in Ottoman hands and the Mamluks in power in Egypt, Europe's lucrative trade with Asia was almost completely cut off. Ships from Portugal and Spain had for some time been creeping down the western coast of Africa, trading in slaves and in the process finding that there were rich kingdoms in the heart of Africa. But in the late 15th century, European navigators circled Africa (with the aid of local guides) and found the new world. Long considered to on the remote fringe of the world, Western Europe suddenly found itself on the center. A flood of gold and silver flowed to Western Europe sparking what Frankopan calls the "naissance."

But the European emergence did not stop with southwestern Europe. Soon, northern Europe and especially the Dutch and the English were demanding a share of the spoils. Not averse initially to making alliances with Muslim powers against the Catholics, these arrivistes soon realized that they could make it on their own. England's location was a major advantage -- with no land borders to defend, England had only a fraction of the defense expenditures that its continental competitors did and therefore low taxation. It also invested early in naval superiority, partly out of necessity since it was a maritime nation, but it also gave England the opportunity to intervene in continental affairs only in the most advantageous battles. Slowly, England was pulling ahead of its rivals, but only after several protracted conflicts with its other northern European rival, the Dutch. England in turn robbed its colonies bare, especially India where the richest Mughal province, Bengal, was reduced in less than one generation to penury and famine. 

Slowly, as the Ottoman empire declined, a new power was emerging in the east, Russia. An expansionist Russia clashed repeatedly with the Ottomans and with Persia, with the Western European powers opportunistically changing sides. Fearful that the French were opening channels to Persia, Britain made overtures too to the latter and promised help against the Russians -- until Napoleon invaded Russia, and suddenly Britain ditched Persia and made an alliance with Russia against the common enemy, France. But alliances shifted again, when on perceiving that Russia was growing too powerful, an Anglo-French invasion force advanced against Russia in the Crimean war. Always, Britain's goal was to prevent a Russian move on its Indian colony. The Great Game was afoot.

Frankopan puts forward an interesting thesis, that the British alliance with Russia in the First World War was a ploy to turn Russia towards tantalizing territorial gains in Eastern Europe, and therefore away from aggressive actions against India. 

Frankopan's panoramic history now moves towards better-known contemporary times, but here too there are numerous insights. For example, he argues that Hitler's decision to break the alliance with the Soviet Union and invade the latter was motivated by the German desire to control the rich and fertile belt of land in Ukraine and Southern Russia stretching westward across the top of the Black Sea. German planners divided Soviet territories into a "producing south" and a "consuming north" and aimed to detach the former from the latter. No less important was the oil and gas in the Caucasus. But German ambitions came to naught at Stalingrad, strategically located right between the Black and the Caspian seas, and controlling access to the Soviet Caucasus. Tragically, Frankopan argues, it was the failure of the German drive towards the Caucasus that led to chronic food shortages that gave the Nazis an added incentive for genocide. 

The last few chapters cover the scramble for Middle Eastern oil, the creation of the rapacious Anglo-Persian Oil Company, the graduate eclipse of British and French power from the region to be replaced by American interests, and the subversion of local governments to ensure the free flow of oil. These chapters also cover the Iranian Revolution, the Iran-Iraq wars, and eventually right up to the present times - the Iraq war, the rise of the Taliban, Osama Bin Laden and 9/11. The book concludes with a survey of the reemergence of Central Asia fueled by oil and mineral revenues, China's expansion into its own historically neglected Western territories, and the emergence of the new Silk Roads. 

Frankopan's book is breathtakingly ambitious, attempting to reorient the study of history altogether by putting Asia back in its center. But the coverage is heavy on West Asia, with much more attention to the Roman-Sassanian conflict, say, than to developments in China. Some more attention could have been paid to the places of origin of luxury goods, like fine porcelains, textiles or jewelry, than to the intermediaries by which they reached Europe or Islamic world. Also, though the book is about the Silk Roads, major sections are devoted to developments further afield such as the Atlantic slave trade, or the conquest of the Americas. This book is more a world history in that sense than it is a history of the Silk Roads; but fair enough, the subtitle of the book is "a new history of the world." On a minor note, the insistence on naming all chapters as the "road of this" and the "road of that" gets tiresome after a point. But overall, an excellent informative and entertaining read.