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