The Silk Roads

Sometimes a new history book receives so many plaudits and commendations from a variety of sources that it would be remiss not to read it. Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World is one such. It’s a reasonable assessment that Lanark is not the centre of the world. That being granted, has there truly been any one centre of world civilisation? Empires come and go. Baghdad, Athens, Rome, Beijing, Byzantium, and a score of other centres have made a lasting contribution to human culture whilst in their ascendancy. For medieval Europeans with a theological mindset, the true centre was the Holy Land, as testified by the Hereford Mappa Mundi, where the whole world stretches out from Jerusalem. Later, Gerardus Mercator projected a globe—standard to this day—in which Europe floated in the middle, stressing its political predominance since early modern times.

The maps that fascinated Frankopan as a child were the charts of Arab geographers that put the Caspian Sea at the centre of the world, or a Turkish map that oriented itself around the now unknown Kyrgyz town, Balasagun. They suggested to him a different thread running through world history. It is popularly held in the West that, starting with ancient Greece as the supposed birthplace of civilisation and, especially enhanced since industrialisation, Europe and its New World progeny has been the dynamo generating the forward progress of human history. But for Frankopan, the centripetal force of history lies further to the east, in the caravanserais of central Asia that constituted the Silk Roads. His thesis, indeed, is that the belt of territory between China and Constantinople was for most of history the centre of the world. Further, it is this territory which has in fact produced the foundations of what has come to be regarded as “western civilisation”.

Caravans are not incidental. Silk Roads is about the journeys more than the destinations. The rise, fall, combining, and perpetuating of cultures described by the author is exactly what upheld civilisation. Silks, spices, furs, sugar, drugs (legal and otherwise), currency, slaves, and disease flowed like blood through a body, giving life and traveling the world. Frankopan shows the reader that the past and the present combine as one process of many “moving parts.”

Many crucial observations about our own present emerge along the way. The author argues that our global history is now so old that there are no true “backwaters, no obscure wastelands,” that everywhere is anywhere and part of the past and in the present. The passage of religions, notably the progress of Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism resulted in the merging of ideas, but also through conflict. Even intolerance becomes a driving force as well as an obstacle, “that made sense of victories and success” while it “undermined that of rivals.” Religious places of no economic value sometimes had huge political importance while in other places geography, race, and technology (biological and mechanical) gave birth to the future. External factors, not themselves so random—such as climate, disease, invasion/migration, earthquakes are also shown to have significant influence.

Reading this book is to benefit from the erudition of a scholar with an enviable lightness of touch, who enlivens his narrative with a beautifully constructed web of anecdotes and insights. These are backed up by an impressively wide-ranging apparatus of footnotes drawing on works in multiple languages. So this history of the world should be on everyone’s shelves.

At the end of it all you may come to see these damp islands hanging off the north west corner of Europe as a tiny, short lived bit player in the drama of human civilisation.

Dr. Peter Frankopan ( is a historian and Senior Research Fellow at Worcester College, Oxford and Director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research. He works on the history of the Mediterranean, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Russia and on relations between Christianity and Islam. He also specializes in medieval Greek literature, and translated The Alexiad for Penguin Classics (2009).


Enquire at your local library or consult  for further bibliographic detail.


656 pages in Bloomsbury

First published 2015

ISBN  978-1408839973


Image result for peter frankopan

Dr. Peter Frankopan




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