In the Preface to his new book, Peter Frankopan writes, “Above all, I hope to inspire those who read this book to look at history in a different way” (xix). This “different way” is linked to his choice of a geographical and cultural focus through which to consider the world's history. Rather than placing the Mediterranean and Western Europe at the center of this work, Frankopan, a historian of Byzantium and the Crusades, emphasizes the region from the Eastern shores of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea in the west to the Hindu Kush in the east—a macroregion that he describes as the “center,” “heart,” or “spine” of Eurasia (and sometimes the world). The region was not chosen arbitrarily, but for its central role in the transmission of goods, technologies, ideas and beliefs, practices, and even illnesses. It is in this sense that Frankopan employs the term “Silk Roads,” referring to the routes through which these exchanges occurred and extending his meaning of this term beyond the “classic” Silk Roads that crossed central Eurasia to include an ultimately global network of land and sea routes.
This ambitious and absorbing book is intended to challenge narratives of world history that emphasize Europe from the ancient Greeks to the European Union, and successfully does so. Yet there is no denying that it still has a strong Western focus; even Frankopan's “heart” of Eurasia is given the greatest attention when it interacts with political or cultural forces in Europe and the United States. This tendency can be seen from the book's first chapter, which begins with Iran in the sixth century B.C.E. and then swiftly moves to Alexander's invasion. Frankopan explores the political and cultural encounters that resulted when communities of Greeks came to live along the “spine” of Eurasia, where they influenced (and were influenced by) its cultures. In this tale, Iran seems most significant when it is a stage for Greek engagement and, centuries later, a focus for Roman hostilities. While the author's gaze shifts from chapter to chapter, this general tendency holds true throughout. The book is indeed about exchange, but the most important of those exchanges seem to involve Frankopan's target macroregion primarily as it interacts with the West.
It must be stated that this is not a comprehensive “history of the world,” nor does it seek to be. Frankopan skips over much of human history (anything prior to the sixth century B.C.E.) and also pays scant attention to many parts of the world. The book's 25 chapters, arranged chronologically but also around specific themes, are not intended to cover the history of all regions of the globe in equal measure. It is perhaps unintentionally ironic that the book has relatively little to say about China, the source of much of the silk that ultimately gave the Silk Roads their name. Africa and the Americas, as well as South and Southeast Asia, also receive little notice. The United States eventually emerges from the shadows in the twentieth century once it becomes a significant actor along Frankopan's “Silk Roads” through the rise of the petroleum industry. Other regions come to light only when they are acted upon: India as a source of British anxiety during the “Great Game” of competing British and Russian interests in Eurasia, for example.
These issues raise the important question of the book's intended audience. It appears that the author is speaking primarily to persons who already possess some understanding of the major contours of world history; his goal is not to introduce them to world history per se but rather to encourage them to think about it in a particular way, with their gaze firmly on the world's “spine” as the fulcrum for much of his consideration of principal themes in world history. Much, therefore, is taken for granted and so omitted from the narrative. Even in the author's focus region many things remain unexplained. The nations of Saudi Arabia and Israel, for example, simply appear with no discussion of the historical forces that brought them into being. The book intentionally eschews detailed examination in favor of broad interpretation.
If readers are willing to accept this approach, the book proves coherent and stimulating, making connections that they might not have previously encountered and offering new insights into important events and trends. For example, Frankopan is not satisfied with accounts of the Mongol Empire that emphasize little more than convulsive conquest and destruction. Despite the headings of his chapters dealing with this era (“The Road to Hell” and “The Road of Death and Destruction”), Frankopan is aware of recent scholarship that demonstrates the productivity of the Mongol conquest in terms of cultural development and exchange, offering readers a more nuanced understanding of the Mongols' role in Eurasian history. One would not go to this book for an in-depth examination of the history of the Mongol Empire, but one could readily consult it to see how the Mongols fit into Frankopan's larger narrative, and thereby better understand their role in what might be considered early forms of globalization.
In a book that covers so much territory, it is not surprising that errors and misunderstandings occur. For example, Frankopan states that the capital of the Uyghur Empire (744–840) was the city of Balāsāghūn in modern day Kyrgyzstan (89–90), but he has confused this with Karabalghasun in central Mongolia, where the ruins of the Uyghur city can still be seen. He repeats the old chestnut from Ammianus Marcellinus that the Huns “scarred the cheeks of infant boys when they were born in order to prevent facial hair growing later in life” (48). Ammianus was conflating two completely unrelated things: the Asianoid Huns' sparse facial hair and their practice of lacerating their faces in ritual lamentation for a dead ruler. He misunderstood the situation, and Frankopan perpetuates this misunderstanding. Such problems, however, are infrequent and do not detract from the book's overall purpose. More frequent are puzzling disconnects. The book notes, for example, the Treaty of Nanking (290), but never mentions the Opium War. The modern relationship of the United States and the People's Republic of China is discussed without any reference to the Sino-Soviet rift or Nixon's visit.
As might be expected, the pace of the book is rapid, at times breathtakingly so, although it slows down significantly with chapter 17, most of which is devoted to the founding and development of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, later British Petroleum. From this point the book takes a more leisurely pace to consider the twentieth century and the early years of the twenty-first, ending with the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and the Second Gulf War. This slower pace allows for more detail, permitting readers to wonder at the litany of poor and often contradictory choices made by various Western (including Russian) regimes as they have sought to retain their influence in the region—and their access to its oilfields. Again, the narrative is focused primarily on how this area affects the West. More recent events, such as the rise of ISIS, are not included. In his Conclusion, Frankopan considers some recent occurrences, primarily to argue for the growing importance of the “spine” of Eurasia, including the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. His assertion that the focus of world history is now beginning to return to this region is, however, not entirely convincing.
Much of the book emphasizes high politics and tends not to dwell on matters of daily life, no matter what period is under consideration. That is ameliorated somewhat by the author's accounts of various forms of exchange which certainly had an impact on ordinary people—be it trade in material goods, the spread of religious beliefs, or even the inadvertent sharing of microbes. While Frankopan does not concentrate on the lives of ordinary people, he does note in general the impact, both benign and malign, of these various exchanges. Violence in particular plays a major role in the book's narrative as a type of exchange in itself as well as a medium through which further exchanges occurred. War, along with the displacement and enslavement of peoples, commands our attention with depressing regularity.
The book is highly readable, presenting its narrative clearly and periodically offering absorbing details to give flavor to the story and thereby engage its readers. For example, Frankopan's lead-up to World War II begins with Homes & Gardens magazine's interest in Hitler's Alpine chalet—hardly a necessary detail, but one that will intrigue readers nonetheless. Overall, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World is an impressive achievement that succeeds in its goal of re-orienting readers to Frankopan's “heart” of Eurasia as the fulcrum for understanding much of Eurasian, and ultimately global, history. For readers with some understanding of that history, Frankopan's work presents a fresh look, offering information and analyses that have been ignored or minimalized in other accounts. His research is wide-ranging and engages with important scholarly works. Those interested in the broad contours of world history will find much to ponder here and will surely profit from Frankopan's stimulating approach.