Book Review: The Silk Roads

This is a frustrating, though still useful, book. Historian Peter Frankopan’s title claims this is “a new history of the world”. He then proposes that what the world needs is to reorient its focus from Europe to “the silk roads”, vaguely defined by him as “the region between East and West.. from the Eastern shores of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean to the Himalayas”. This almost certainly reflects the fact that the core of this region happens to his particular area of interest (Turkey, Persia, Central Asia and Russia) as a historian. Having made this decision, he has to force the rest of the story to keep coming back to this region, to somehow keep his argument afloat. My recurring thought on reading this book was that all this is unnecessary. He could have written a history of the region without pretending that this was the REAL history of the world, and it would have worked fine. Or he could have attempted a history of the world and not bothered with this tendentious framing. But he insists on doing both, and it causes endless (and needless) irritation.
The other issue is that having attempted a sort of forced universal history, he wanders into areas where he is clearly not an expert and makes some surprisingly basic errors. For example, the abduction of Sita is described as being part of the great Indian epic, the Mahabharata (it is actually in the Ramayana; a mistake that could be avoided by even the most basic familiarity with Indian culture); and the Quranic verse “hold fast to the rope of Allah” (3:103) is interpreted (with breathtaking audacity, if not accuracy) as a possible message of conciliation between Muslims, Jews and Christians (it is an explicit call for Muslim unity, against all comers). These are minor details, but they should put the reader on guard. More seriously, at one point he claims that the building of the Taj Mahal owes to the riches that the Mughals gathered from Europe, which in turn was getting them from the newly discovered Americas (“India’s glory came at the expense of the Americas”), which is a bit much. As far as I know, It came from the sweat and blood Indian peasants, not from events in the distant Americas. I don’t claim to be an expert on precious metal flows of that era, but the claim seems needlessly hyperbolic. If he is right, I would love to hear more about it though (PS: the erudite Pseudoerasmus pointed me to one of his posts that shed light on this issue, and basically says the injuns paid for it, not the Americas).

There is also a consistent and very strong undertow of what may be described as “Eurocentric-self-hate” throughout the book. Peter thinks the West has been very vicious and uniquely rapacious in history, which is a kind of mirror image of the idea that the West has been uniquely powerful in history. Even where this is likely true (e.g. in the 19th century), his treatment of this seems to be too close to popular postmarxist postmodern historiography for comfort.

In general, the account of recent events (the book ends with the recent American disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan) is too superficial to satisfy anyone who is genuinely interested in any particular theater of conflict, and too trite and formulaic to be categorized as a groundbreaking universal history. The last chapter is a good example of the irritating way he mixes occasional good insights with his need to fit everything into his original “silk roads as center of the world” thesis. He also has a tendency to rather pompously assert “the West needs to give up its current disastrous focus on X and step back and adopt the correct way of looking at things”; which is irritating because X is usually a straw man and the “correct way” is mostly a rewording of his unproven “center of the world” thesis.

My last point is bit hard to convey, but I will try: Frankopan displays absolutely no awareness of the fact that he himself is part and parcel of the institutions and society which he repeatedly dismisses as painfully naive and incompetent.  One gets the feeling that the author really believes that he and Oxford will be just fine, since they are somehow above the fray. As an (artificial) vantage point from which to write the book, this is not a bad idea, but when reading the book one gets the distinct impression that this is not just a strategic (and justifiable) vantage point, it is a thought that has really never crossed his mind. My point is this: a universal history is ultimately a reflection of the wisdom, insight, discernment and, yes, character, of the author. He is picking and choosing what few things to present out of a gigantic mass of materials, and he decides how to frame it; and Peter Frankopan does not impress me in this regard. And being impressive in this regard does not always mean one has to agree with the author’s conclusions. Christopher Beckwith (author of “Empire of the Silk Roads”) may have many opinions I do not share, but he commands respect by his impressive and careful scholarship and his deeply thought out positions. In short, what he says has weight, even if I do not agree with his conclusion. Peter Frankopan does not match that standard. He may have access to more facts, but he is no Gibbon, and that knocks this book down a peg.

Still, the book is not without its redeeming features. He has read widely and there are genuine insights and nuggets of interesting information scattered throughout the book, making it worth your while. You would be well advised to suspend judgement about the frame in which he has chosen to frame them, and you should keep in the back of your mind the fact that all his minor facts are not necessarily correct.
Still, worth a read.

PS: for a really good book about the Silk Roads, one that will teach you new things and genuinely make you think new thoughts, check out Christopher Beckwith’s “Empires of the Silk Road“. Razib Khan has an excellent review. 

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Omar Ali

I am a physician interested in obesity and insulin resistance, and in particular in the genetics and epigenetics of obesity As a blogger, I am more interested in history, Islam, India, the ideology of Pakistan, and whatever catches my fancy. My opinions can change.

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// As far as I know, It came from the sweat and blood Indian peasants //

Speaking of that, here’s a very funny take on it:

FYI: itihas = history in Sanskrit, and “aitihas” is a vRddhi (derivation/ezafat of itihas) meaning “historicity”. The -ik suffix (like -ic in Latin) makes adjectives of nouns.

Daheja/Kheera-nandani are plays on Raheja/Hiranandani .. famous (Sindhi) business families in Mumbai in building/construction.

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