Oxford historian Peter Frankopan discusses The Silk Roads, his major reassessment of world history and the political renaissance in the re-emerging east.

Silk Roads

Above: The Mongols swept through Asia with astonishing speed. Here Genghis Khan pursues an enemy, supported by his men

By Richard Lofthouse

Peter Frankopan is a historian at Worcester, and he has nominated Café Rouge in nearby Little Clarendon Street as our coffee house, noting that he has convinced them to make their coffee a bit stronger these days. 

He strides in from a sunny, late September morning with just enough crisp in the air to herald a Michaelmas term. Under arm, he clutches the chunky hardback of his book The Silk Roads: A New History of the World.  Its eye-catching, exotic dustjacket, I later discover is the Dome of Imam Mosque at Naghsh-e Jahan Square in Isfahan, Iran.    

FrankopanThis book marks a huge moment in the scholarly life of 44-year old Frankopan. If I am not mistaken, it is going to come to life on the Christmas lists of the book-buying public, that much neglected quarry of scholars.

It is not the sort of monographic style that you might remember if you read history at Oxford, in which several hundred pages are written about a postage stamp’s worth of historical action. Rather, it spans a thousand years and is not trying to laboriously recount what happened everywhere at all times.

Frankopan, born and raised in England, laughs about the not-insignificant significance of ‘winning’ a conversation with a literary agent as part of a charity auction to kickstart his publishing career. The Oxford-based agency Felicity Bryan immediately signed him up, and started with his first book, The First Crusade (2012). This very well-received work turned the field of Crusade studies on its head by claiming that the real call for the first crusade came not from Pope Urban, but from Alexios, the Emperor of Byzantium, applying his pressure on Urban. Hence its sub-title, ‘The call from the east.’ 

By the end of the conversation with his soon-to-be agent, Frankopan had already in mind a much bigger work that would expand the notional ‘call from the east’ into a much broader narrative of world history, but from the perspective of Eurasia and the great trading routes that came to be dubbed the ‘Silk Roads’.

ISAF troops

Above: ISAF troops in Kandahar, Afghanistan in 2010

It is hard to bridge the gap between the sheer weight of that herculean archival task, and the tanned, relaxed man sitting in front of me. He admits to being driven by a keen sense of fear – not only at the amount of work, but whether in fact he could say something of real note, particularly for the more modern reaches of the narrative where he went back to his roots as a Russian studies scholar. He was helped, he notes, by the rapid de-classification of US documents from recent engagements in the Middle East.

For instance, there is this incredible moment when we get the inside track on a conversation between the Afghan Supreme Leader and US officials, in a phone call whose transcription was recently declassified. Mullah Omar pointed out that missile strikes at Al Quaida within Afghanistan “would prove counterproductive and arouse anti-American feelings in the Islamic world.” Bill Clinton, who was embroiled in the Lewinsky scandal, instead launched 78 cruise missiles into Afghanistan, killing lots of innocents and missing Bin Laden.

Silk Roads

Above: One thousand years ago the great centres of world learning were not Oxford and Cambridge but cities such as Samarkand

Frankopan would be upset if he thought I was only recommending the book for recent events. Try this bit instead. In the immediate aftermath of the victorious first crusade and the capture of Jerusalem, Frankopan notes the lack of Muslim reaction. There were many reasons for this, but the real reaction, which he compares to a ‘lightening rod,’ came a century later in the form of Saladin. He shies away from generating flimsy ‘compare and contrast’ scenarios, but ISIL is a lightening rod, he suggests, with many precedents in the past thousand years. Seen historically, it is not ‘abnormal’. 

“I had always been really fascinated by foundation myths,” he says, “even from a young age.” In particular, his parents, both Oxonians, gave him a book by anthropologist Eric Wolf for his fourteenth birthday. Wolf recites the ‘lazy history of civilization’, which goes thus: Greece begat Rome begat Christian Europe begat the Renaissance begat the Enlightenment begat democracy, the industrial revolution, America, human rights and the pursuit of happiness. Frankopan took the lesson to heart. Even if it’s ‘right’, the ‘lazy history’ narrative now looks ponderous if not ill-conceived, particularly in 2015 with China well established, the Cold War in the past, and the lethal combination of failed states such as Yemen, alongside Syria, and Libya - not forgetting Clinton’s cruise missiles and all their dreadful counterparts.

Silk RoadsIt is into this great void that Frankopan’s book rushes, brilliantly. It is told consistently in the language of trade and economics, discovery and exploration, rising and falling groups and nations. There are many detailed footnotes, but the prose itself wears the learning lightly and is full of delightful human incident set beside beautiful colour plates and consistently excellent maps (thank goodness).

If it has one outstanding trait, it is the book’s determination to bring a different past to life. One thousand years ago the great centres of world learning were not Oxford and Cambridge, which didn’t yet exist. They were “Baghdad and Balkh, Bukhara and Samarkand.” Not by deliberately grinding an axe, but by being faithful to the historian’s trade, Frankopan almost unintentionally piles up ironies and insights into current affairs that make one gasp. 

Is the timing of such a ‘relevant’ book a great accident? In many ways, yes. 

Frankopan insists that his central gratification would be that people actually read the book and are changed by it. As he is at pains to point out, it’s the product of “twenty-five years of Duke Humphrey’s and the Lower Reading Room,” – reference not only to his Worcester fellowship but to his DPhil at Corpus, under the direction of James Howard Johnston, formerly University Lecturer in Byzantine Studies, now emeritus. 

In this respect the book is a reminder that history, done properly, is itself the best guide to human affairs, not least because of the tragic way that the past repeats itself. But the timing of the book, at a juncture where in Syria Russia has just openly intervened, and in Yemen where there is a five-way tussle for control of a failed state involving Iran and Saudi Arabia on opposing sides, could not be better. You need to read this book.

The Silk Roads is published by Bloomsbury. Dr. Peter Frankopan is 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 specialises in medieval Greek literature, and translated The Alexiad for Penguin Classics (2009).

Comments

By Jenny Woodhouse
on

That I am upset by a split infinitive may be due to the fact that I matriculated in 1961. I have to accept that linguistic usages change over more than half a century. I am disturbed, however, by the fact that fire from the heavens is twice spelt 'lightening'. Shame on you, Oxford today!

By John Haddon, Wo...
on

The book looks fascinating. Where to get it?

By Stewart Hawkins
on

One shouldn't forget that without the scholars of Baghdad in the eighth to tenth centuries there would be very few 'classical' texts available

By Dr Terry Dwyer,...
on

This very well-received work turned the field of Crusade studies on its head by claiming that the real call for the first crusade came not from Pope Urban, but from Alexios, the Emperor of Byzantium, applying his pressure on Urban. Hence its sub-title, ‘The call from the east.’

I read that at school back in the 60s in Sydney. Of course the Byzantines asked for help, just as the West Romans had asked for it long before against the Vandals.

As for Bill Clinton, I thought Mr Bush jnr sent missiles into Afghanistan. Clinton shot them into the Sudan if I recall rightly.

By Lee Alderman
on

One of my pet peeves is the rewriting of history without explanation for political reasons. I'm not a historian, yet I'm aware of the contributions to knowledge and the arts (creativity) by Eastern civilizations, so there's no need to rewrite that history. It's detailed in Wikipedia, for example. Although turning some established idea on its head is a great reason to write a book, this description seems a bit too sweeping in nature. The notion that we've been off the mark by correlating progress with developments in the West over the recent past (the last few centuries) is ridiculous, and the supporting explanation involves more than just history.

For example, the general description provided here seems simplistic in presenting the central argument as "East vs. West" while failing to take into account the CURRENT REASON why China and Russia have progressed: They have become largely "Westernized" economically, even though their participation is arguably a new, advanced form of socialist elitism. Suggesting some new version of the Cold War won't reappear is also wrong. History only repeats in terms of individual events. Clinton is the guy who deliberately avoided killing bin Laden and fired those missiles, but I suppose we can try to change it, if rewriting history is a legitimate goal.

History never repeats in terms of explaining the present. Historical accuracy can be argued, but only at face value for individual events. Changing our general assessment of the reasons for past examples of human progress would at least require proof for many such event corrections in history. Probably, a contrast of errors from different ages would be necessary. Even with that, corrections to historical events cannot be used to alter explanations for what we've experienced recently and the present. This statement pasted below seems intuitively correct, but an intellectual - especially a historian - should know this is wrong:

"In this respect the book is a reminder that history, done properly, is itself the best guide to human affairs, not least because of the tragic way that the past repeats itself."

By Jay Strange
on

Jenny Woodhouse is not the only one upset by the use of a split infinitive and I matriculated in 1999. However, as bad as the language on OT may be these days, it pales in comparison to what one finds on the Oxforddictionaries website, which not only uses but justifies ever-greater travesties of the language. As an example, it recently featured an article lambasting those opposed to the use of split infinitives as "17th century introverts". This is one of its more minor transgressions.

On another note, you do not recall rightly, Dr. Terry Dwyer. Bill Clinton launched missiles into both Afghanistan and Sudan the night before his presidential debate with Bob Dole. What began with a blow from Monica Lewinsky under the desk in the Oval Office has led-on to the September the 11th attacks and the rise of ISIS. Such are the events that spur history on.

By Simon
on

"One shouldn't forget that without the scholars of Baghdad in the eighth to tenth centuries there would be very few 'classical' texts available."

I'm no expert but was it not ultimately Byzantium from whence Muslim (and Jewish and Christian) scholars gained access to so many classical texts?

By Stanley Williams
on

You can't compare Saladin to ISIL. Saladin was the recognised leader, respected and accepted. Known for his mercy and justice to the extent he sent Richard the Lionheart gifts of fruit when he was sick. He united the Moslems and pushed out the invaders. ISIL are a bunch of ravaging rebels who do nothing but shed blood and spread mischief and chaos.

By Driscoll Malington
on

There are still people around who worry about splitting the infinitive? Even with the narrow confines of linguistic pedantry, there are better things to worry about.

By Robert Proctor
on

Split infinitives, aside the book is a brilliant tour de force and gripping reading so thankyou Peter for your scholarly effort it's a significant contribution to understanding the endless roll of civilizations and what we could learn from history. If only our politicians could read and learn.

By Mary Alafouzo
on

In answer to Simon 25 October 2015: You are absolutely right. Even if one allows that Islam transmitted some Greek philosophy, science and technology to the supposedly "backward West",
"the transmission not only of Greek science and technology BUT ALSO OF GREEK SCULPTURE, PAINTING, DRAMA, NARRATIVE AND LYRIC, which could not and did not take place via Islam because of religious barriers, would equally have place WITHOUT Islam......." (Dario Fernandez-Morera, THE MYTH OF THE ANDALUSIAN PARADISE, 2016:76). Communication was on-going between the Byzantine (the Greek Christian Eastern Roman Empire) and Latin translations from the Greek were available at least since the 6th and even the 4th century, and later by William de Moerbeke and the monastery of Mont StMichel. The Muslims, on the other hand, obtained their texts in Syrian translations, by Syrian scholars in the conquered lands of the Byzantine Empire, which were then re-translated into Arabic. As Fernandez-Morena states, "It was Christian scholars who were responsible for bringing Greek knowledge to Islam, and this knowledge came to Islam only because Muslim forces had conquered areas (the Middle East and North Africa) where a rich Greek civilization had developed (Ibid:73). See also the COLUMBIA HISTORY OF WESTERN PHILOSOPHY, which states that "authors of the Latin West were quite familiar with the logical works (ORGANON) of Aristotle (Columbia University Press, 1999:230-231).
I could go on but I think this is enough to show that you are correct.

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By Mary Alafouzo
on

In reply to SIMON 25 October 2015: You are absolutely correct. Even if one allows that some Greek philosophy, science and technology, was transmitted to the presumed "backward West" "the transmission of not only Greek science and technology BUT ALSO OF GREEK SCULPTURE, PAINTING, DRAMA, NARRATIVE AND LYRIC, which could not and did not take place via Islam because of religious barriers, would have taken place WITHOUT Islam....." (see Dario Fernandez-Morera, THE MYTH OF THE ANDALUSIAN PARADISE, 2016:76). Communication between the Byzantine Empire and Europe was on-going and Latin translations directly from the Greek were available at least since the 6th century and maybe even the 4th, and later by William of Moerbecke and the monastery of Mont StMichel among others. The Muslims, however, obtained theirs from Syrian translations by Christian Syrian scholars in the lands they had conquered from the Byzantine Empire, which were then re-translated into Arabic. Indeed, as Fernandez-Morera states, "It was Christian scholars who were responsible for bringing Greek knowledge to Islam and this knowledge came to Islam only because Muslim forces had conquered areas (the Middle East and North Africa) where a rich Greek Christian civilization had developed" (Fernandez-Moreno:73). See also COLUMBIA HISTORY OF WESTERN PHILOSOPHY, where it is mentioned that "authors of the Latin West were quite familiar with the logical works (ORGANON) of Aristotle" (Fernandez-Moreno:72 and Columbia History of Western Philosophy, 1999:230-31). I could go on but I think this is sufficient to show that your are correct. Pity that the huge amounts of money poured into our Western Universities from some sources have muddied the waters.

By Toby Musk
on

A brilliant book and illuminating read. I can't help feeling that English Schools might be better served by asking their students to read this book and learn about the world rather than the current narrow curriculum today which really serves no useful purpose whatsoever.

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