The Silk Roads

A new history of the world

In The Silk Roads, Oxford-based historian Peter Frankopan has written a world history that is worthy of such a “big idea”. This is reading on a grand scale . . . . . 

Writing a world history

Attempting to give meaning to an idea as big as a “history of the world” is a challenge for any historian: the best world histories offer insight through a convincing theme that keeps the narrative connected while throwing intense light on the civilisations, cultures and ideas through which it passes. Much less successful are compilations of apparently disconnected chronologies – often assembled from a European perspective, with one or two tokenistic chapters about “the Fertile Crescent” or “The Mayans”.

The Silk Roads falls firmly into the first category and is a fascinating history of the world driven by a narrative connected by a convincing theme: the influence of the great Asian long-distance land routes. Although academically rigorous (references run to 93 pages!), it is also readable and relevant – written with an eye to the understanding of the present.

Not that it tries to teach us any lessons – but like all good history The Silk Roads provides context for understanding how the world has come to be what it is today.

Scintillating reading

It’s a scintillating read which brings to life the prophets, craftsmen, traders, rulers, ideas and armies that populated and travelled the long distance land routes between the Mediterranean and Pacific. Off stage to the north are the nomadic and often menacing peoples of the Steppes, while along its route and to the south we find the great civilisations of Persia, Mesopotamia, Anatolia, India, China et al. Nomads and urban dwellers alike are eventually drawn to “the Silk Roads”, attracted by the hope for riches, impelled by the excitement of new ideas or propelled by disease, population growth and climate change.


So far, so Asian – even though Frankopan makes sense of Asian dynamics in the very widest sense, from the ports of China at one end to Byzantium and Venice at the other. What gives this history a truly global dimension is the way the Asian elements of the story are woven into the narrative of western discovery, conquest and interference. Global connections are imaginative and enlightening. There may be nothing surprising about the Voyages of Discovery being a “new route” to the east – but the impact of gold from the “New World” transported along the Asian trade routes was a new connection for me. Moreover, in a world history as succinct and intensely described as Frankopan’s, parallels between the impact of the Conquistadors and the Nazi invasion of Russia in 1941 are striking. Both were connected to the idea and the presence of the Silk Roads. This is not just a world history – it is a human history, in all its ugliness as well as much of its glory.

Blue and white

Frankopan’s version of world history is also the story of human creativity, enabled by the great trading routes of Asia. Thus, blue and white pottery was a design idea which originated in the Persian Gulf, popularised in China and reemerged when imported by sea to inspire one of its most celebrated iterations in Delft where it was “heavily influenced by the look, feel and design of items imported from the east”.

What was happening in the world of ceramics was also true in a wider sense:

“Imitation was not only the sincerest form of flattery, in this case it was also part of a global system of material culture that now linked the North Sea with the Indian Ocean and the Pacific”.





A global driving force

The world was therefore already a much smaller place by the 17th Century: the routes and geopolitical relationships across Asia were by then not only part of a truly global system, but were also driving it. For Peter Frankopan, they continued to do so as imperial powers played the “great game” in the nineteenth century, declared war on each other in the early twentieth, and participated in the disastrous west Asian interventions in the early twenty first.


Peter Frankopan has not only written a world history on a grand scale in an economical 500 pages, but while leaving his historiographical comfort zone – as all “world historians” must –  he has done so in a convincing and entertaining manner. No mean achievement.


Andy Homden

With thanks for images from Pixabay – the free image website.

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