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Book Review: The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (Peter Frankopan)

The East, what in a more direct and confident time we called the Orient, has always held a deep fascination for a certain subset of Westerners.  This fascination frequently centers around a whole or partial perceived superiority of the East to the West.  For example, not so long ago, there was a vogue for Westerners, from TE Lawrence to Wilfred Thesiger, to wander the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia, where they found spiritual fulfillment, or at least something they thought they could not find in the West.  Peter Frankopan, a Byzantine expert and the author of “The Silk Roads,” is a modern, stay-at-home version of those men.  And while his book is interesting and not without merit, it is marred by his sharing with those earlier Westerners a credulous and unsupported belief in the superiority of the Orient.

One should start by giving Frankopan his due—he is ambitious to offer “A New History of the World” in 500 pages.   But the trouble begins with the title, for by “The World” Frankopan really means “a relatively small portion of the Orient.”  It is not that he is confused but rather that he thinks the location of the original Silk Road, roughly centered around today’s southern Uzbekistan, is The World.  Most people would not agree.  Maybe a few Kazakh sheepherders. Even if you think that the Orient overall is the center of gravity in today’s world, still a hard case to make, realistically, the glory years of the actual Silk Road are, what’s the word?—gone forever.

But we will return to what it is that Frankopan covers and alleges.  Why did he write this book at all?  Frankopan states he wanted to address the “problem” that he experienced as a youngster, that he “would look up at the map and see huge regions of the world that had been passed over in silence”—i.e., non-Western parts of the world, which had become “lost, suffocated by the insistent story of the rise of Europe.”  Frankopan objects to “the mantra of the political, cultural and moral triumph of the west,” and he calls for “looking at the past from [a different perspective than that of] the winners of recent history.”

This is hardly original.  In fact, it’s banal virtue signaling, and the story of his personal motivation is probably untrue—Frankopan was born in 1971, so likely his education was fully “multicultural,” meaning anti-Western, because since the 1980s all mainstream Western education has, by rote, slagged the West and exalted the Orient.  Nor is it true that the history of the East has been “suffocated”:  it for decades has gotten attention vastly in excess of what it deserves, given the entire region’s irrelevant contributions to the modern world, which exists, for good and bad, only because of the advances made in Europe.

History began, indisputably, in the East, and somewhere around 1400, the East was overtaken by the West, and the East then sank into desuetude and irrelevancy as far as global matters, which may be changing today with respect to China and India (but may not).  This narrative is widely accepted by those not members of the herd-like cultural elite, for the simple reason that it’s true.  Frankopan’s history is designed to cure a problem that does not exist—a supposed failure by historians to acknowledge that the East has important history.  And he combines that with his second goal:  trying to prove that today, the countries of the old Silk Road ARE REALLY RELEVANT AND IMPORTANT, DAMMIT.  Even if the first problem did exist, that truth would not imply the other, of course, but Frankopan’s book is largely devoted, like a game of three-card monte, to concealing that logical gap.  And why he thinks any of this is original I cannot fathom.  The result is a serviceable, trade-oriented history, done in chronological fashion, summarizing well-known areas of history.  But it is nothing more than that, and one chronically marred by his desire to show that the West is inferior, not superior.

And, unfortunately for Frankopan, he fails in his second goal:  ultimately the sole reason he can adduce why the area of the Silk Road is relevant today, which he adduces over and over, is that it has a lot of natural resources to sell to the West.  He makes no attempt to claim “political, cultural and moral” superiority of the East, or any portion of it, doubtless because he knows that would be laughable, or maybe because he’s an economic determinist.  He merely says, over and over, in many different ways, that the East has raw materials to sell, and that makes it relevant.  Which I suppose it does, in a way, but it doesn’t erode the “political, cultural and moral triumph” of the West, which makes the West meta-relevant, and is a historical fact.

I can hear you saying “what about China?”  That’s a fair point, although it’s not at all clear that China is the future—I am old enough that I can remember when Japan was the future, and we were all strongly advised to study Japanese.  But regardless, for Frankopan, the relevant “East” is not the Far East.  Instead, he believes that the center of everything is “the halfway point between east and west”—namely, roughly around Uzbekistan, or ancient Bactria.  His history revolves around a loosely defined region bounded by western China, northern India, the Horn of Africa, eastern Syria, and southern Russia.  When people think of Areas In History That Used To Be Important But Now Aren’t, this area is mostly what they think of.  That offends Frankopan, for emotional rather than logical reasons, so he wrote this book.

Frankopan’s book is organized around the conceit of each chapter being a different “Road,” arranged roughly chronologically.  So, “The Road of Faith” is the first non-introductory chapter, followed by such non-informative titles as “The Road to Concord,” “The Road to Heaven,” etc.  It’s impossible, glancing over the table of contents, to glean any knowledge of what the book is about, which suggests this is a bad way to organize the book, or at least to title its chapters.  So I will tell you what it’s about.

We begin with a thumbnail sketch of the original Silk Road, touching on silk itself, Alexander the Great, the Sassanid Empire, Rome, and so on, in service of the thesis that it is the East that mattered at the time, and that Rome, which we think of as the progenitor of the West, was in fact mostly influenced by the East.  None of this is wrong as history, but Frankopan errs in thinking it is insightful.  We regard Rome as our progenitor because of its political structure, adopted in part by the West through the intermediation of the Roman Catholic Church and rulers such as Charlemagne.  We do not think that Rome itself was focused on the West and therefore formed the West.  Of course until roughly 800 A.D. what mattered most was the East.  That’s not news.

Next we are taken on a tour of religions as formers of culture:  Zoroastrianism (with interest); Christianity (with some skepticism, naturally, to show Frankopan’s modern bona fides); Judaism (noting that it spread quite widely, including among the Central Asian Khazars and dominating parts of Arabia); and Islam (more objectively than usual for modern academics, noting the good and the bad, and also noting correctly that Christianity spread without “the iron fist of political power,” unlike Islam—although intra-Christian conflicts and the heavy hand of the Byzantines also played a large part in Islam’s spread).  Here I learned more about something I knew little about, namely that the Sassanid (Persian) Empire contained large numbers of Christians, who were a sore point in conflicts between the Sassanids and the post-Constantine Empire.  I also learned that the Arabian Jews (and the Zoroastrians) regularly martyred large numbers of Christians, not something commonly publicized nowadays—until, of course, Muhammad massacred the Arabian Jews, at least those who failed to submit or convert, and ended their kingdoms and power.

Along similar lines, Frankopan is eager to push a false ecumenism on the part of Islam.  Noting that some Christians thought Islam merely a new Christian heresy, he says “there was a blurring of religious boundaries,” by which he means to assert that Islam did not claim exclusive truth.  His main evidence for such blurring by Islam is quoting cherry-picked sections of the Muslim inscriptions on the Dome of the Rock, saying they were “aimed at mollifying Christians,” giving as the example that “they proclaim that Jesus was the Messiah . . . . [and say] ‘bless . . . Jesus . . . on the day he is raised from the dead.”  This is silly.  The inscriptions as a whole are an explicit and aggressive attack on Trinitarian Christianity, in forty or so lines, more precisely explicating the Muslim rejection of the heresy of “shirk,” attributing companions to a unitary God.  Such propaganda was regarded as necessary and desirable since Islam had only recently conquered Jerusalem and many Christians still lived there, and Muslim superiority needed to be established.  “Mollifying” Christians was never a Muslim goal, then or now.  The inscriptions feature numerous such items as “Far be it removed from His [God’s] transcendent majesty that He should have a son,” threatening divine punishment; and the reference to Jesus being raised from the dead is a reference to the Muslim future, not the past Christian Resurrection.  Such tricksy delivery of information to the reader makes the reader wonder what other facts Frankopan has shaded.

But these are sidelights.  Frankopan’s basic point, again not original, is that trade and exchange along the Silk Road resulted in an efflorescence of culture and wealth, so that by around 1000 A.D., world riches were concentrated around Baghdad.  (The reader is jarred by odd spellings—Frankopan explicitly says that he does not strive for consistency in transliteration, but then he apparently randomly does things like spell “Turks” with an umlaut over the u, and “Muhammad” with a dot under the “h.”  Maybe this is pseudo-intellectualism.  Anyway, how we are supposed to know how to pronounce either is beyond me.)  This being a book about trade, Frankopan focuses quite a bit on the trade goods that resulted in those riches and their display, from furs to slaves to jewels, and this part (e.g., “The Road of Furs”) is very interesting.  I do suspect, though, that luxury goods are only part of the story—after all, the purchase of luxury goods is only made possible by the production of more boring commodities and the concentration of the wealth thereby generated in the hands of the ruling class.

Then came the Crusades (where Frankopan makes the usual error by ascribing the spiritual benefit of participating as “absolution from [ ] sins,” when it was actually remittance of the temporal (purgatorial) punishment due to sins that was promised, since absolution was always available as close as the nearest priest).  Then the early Middle Ages.  Frankopan strangely claims that in the late 12th Century, a time of undisputed outstanding European thought, European thinking was instead stagnant, so those interested in thought had to move to Muslim Spain.  But at that time in Spain the Almohads were slaughtering Christians and Jews, and Muslim thought had long since been tightly circumscribed throughout Islam, and thus it was Islamic, not European, thought that was actually (and remained) stagnant.  Frankopan’s sole evidence for this supposed exodus of European intellectuals is the obscure Daniel of Morley, who did move to Toledo—then moved back to England, which Frankopan does not mention.  Again, this is tricksy delivery of partial information by Frankopan, which, frankly (no pun intended) suggests serial lies by omission.  And, of course, naturally Europeans mostly feature to show the superiority and relevancy of non-Europeans.

Then the Mongols ruined everything in the area Frankopan cares about, mostly by killing everyone, or very near everyone (although Frankopan naturally adheres to the revisionist school that the Mongols weren’t wanton slaughterers, but rather users of terror for defined political ends).  Then the Mamluks stopped the Mongols at Ain Jalut (the Europeans responded to the Mongols only with cowardly “blind panic,” a phrase Frankopan likes so much to describe Europeans he uses it twice in one page).  History continued.

Next, Frankopan turns back to Europe, mostly because it’s difficult to talk about the modern world without putting Europe at center stage.  I’m sure he would have avoided talking about Europe if he could.  Of course, a muted negative spin is put on all European activities; the author pulls the usual modern trick of highlighting only bad activities of Europeans and only good activities of all non-Europeans.  For example, he decries Vasco da Gama massacring a ship of Indian Muslim pilgrims in the Indian Ocean—which is certainly nasty, but Frankopan doesn’t note it was part of an organized punitive expedition against Indians who had earlier massacred the Portuguese trading settlement on the Malabar Coast (he casts the ship sinking as just massacring some random people da Gama ran across on the ocean), nor that such behavior was pretty much par for the course for everyone until the 20th Century.  Similarly, Frankopan can’t seem to understand why Fifteenth Century Spain engaged in activity that “was part of a wider hostility towards Islam that was growing across the Iberian peninsula at the time.”  I suppose armed struggle of many hundred years to expel alien invaders fails to explain hostility—especially when a few pages later Frankopan relates that Spanish wealth from the New World attracted “Muslim raiders, who . . . turned their attention to ravaging ports and towns on the coast of Spain, carting off thousands of prisoners [to slavery] in the process.”  No idea how that could inspire hostility.  Must be European bigotry, which is constantly talked about, along with European greed, while European leadership of the world in all areas of human improvement for more than half a millennium is ignored.

And, of course, violence is a purely European phenomenon—the rest of the world has mostly had “long periods of stability, peace and prosperity . . . .  Only a European author [Hobbes] could have concluded that the natural state of man was to be in a constant state of violence; and only a European would have been right.”  This statement, and many others like it, shows either profound ignorance or blinkered political correctness.  Also, the reader is instructed didactically that the Puritans moved to New England not for religious reasons (but did you also know that they were “religious conservatives,” not the radicals their contemporaries thought they were?), instead they moved solely because “they were reacting to the strange stream of new ideas and goods that made the world a very different place—where Chinese porcelain was appearing on household dining tables, where marriage of people with different skin colour to Europeans was giving rise to questions about identity and race, and where attitudes about the body were prompting was one scholar has recently termed the ‘first sexual revolution.’”  Wow.  What offensive, ahistorical stupidity.  And it suggests, again, that ideology blinds Frankopan to reality, which rightly makes the reader distrust the entire book.

Some discussion of India follows; the flavor of this can be gotten from one paragraph of seven lines, in which the conquering Muslim Mughals are described as “astonishing,” “buoyant,” their buildings “exquisitely designed,” and their court “splendid.”  Europeans, of course, are favored with no such adjectives, at any place in the book.  There is almost no mention of China except as the provider of the original silk of the “Silk Road.”

Finally, we reach modern times.  We review the Great Game.  We review World War One (where, we are told that after the war, “different visions of the future were being offered,” among which was the “impulse toward self-determination, championed at least to start with by the Bolsheviks,” who also gave us gender equality.  Woodrow Wilson?  Who’s that?  No mention of him.  “This early post-Revolutionary [Bolshevik] progressivism contrasted sharply with the imperialist attitudes of western powers and their resolve to retain control of assets and resources deemed vital to national interests.”  Yes, this is really Frankopan’s entire analysis.  Yay Communism!  Just step around the bodies.

Then we review the early years of Britain in the Middle East.  The rest of the book is devoted to proving Frankopan’s thesis about modern times:  the countries of the Silk Road are now relevant again because they have oil.  Evil Europeans for decades monopolized this to their benefit; then the virtuous peoples of the area threw off the European yoke (and the spread of fundamentalist Islam is the fault of Europeans, for being mean because they wanted oil).  Despite a few conflicts in the area since World War Two, all of which were fomented by and the responsibility of Europeans, those righteous peoples are now beginning their march into their glorious future, which is like their glorious past—centered on trade, and Westerners are not relevant or important, except as purchasers and supplicants to the mighty, virtuous inhabitants of the Silk Road.

By far the most space in this section is devoted to discussing Iran, presumably because the tortured modern history there can best be shaped to make Europeans look bad.  Jimmy Carter shows up a lot, looking weak; the hostages were released not because Reagan had been elected and was going to start bombing Day One, but merely because of “a deal struck behind the scenes.”  Dick Cheney was fine with an Iranian nuclear program under the Shah but not today; this is weirdly pointed to as a giant hypocrisy.  We supplied the Afghan mujahidin so we could get oil; we supplied them with “semi-automatic rifles,” though—maybe that was Osama bin Laden’s complaint, that he did not get modern select-fire rifles.  More likely Frankopan and his editors are just totally ignorant about guns.  Ronald Reagan was bad and his only substantive actions related to Iran-Contra, which is extensively discussed.  We resisted Saddam Hussein in Iraq for the low, base reason that it “was a direct challenge to American power and interests,” not for the high, honorable reason that it “violated the sovereign territory of Kuwait or international law.”  How dare we look after American interests!  All Iran’s terrorist activities against the West since 1988 are because the US shot down an Iranian airliner and didn’t apologize enough.  The Iraq War was dumb and driven by the West’s “doomed struggle to retain their position in the vital territories that link east and west,” not by George Bush’s costly false belief that all peoples want democracy.  And today’s civil war in Syria is described as “going through a traumatic experience of profound change, as forces of conservatism and liberalism battle each other at huge cost,” which may be the single most ignorant statement in this book.

Finally, Frankopan ends with a paean to the coming renewed glory of the Silk Road.  “We are seeing signs of the world’s center of gravity shifting—back to where it lay for millennia.  There are obvious reasons why this is happening.  Most important, of course, are the natural resources of this region.”  But that’s not just the “most important” reason given, it’s the only reason—the author never adduces a single other reason why this shift should occur; he just repeats for many pages variations on “the countries of this region are groaning under its natural resources.”  Mean people like Hillary Clinton have characterized this region “as backward, despotic and violent,” whereas really, in Tajikistan, they have Central Asia’s largest theater, library, museum and tea house!  Also, “Ashgabat in Turkmenistan has had a new presidential palace and indoor winter sports arena built at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.”  “The Georgian tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili bought Picasso’s “Dora Mar” for $95 million at auction in 2006.  This is a region being revived and restored to former glory.”

In reality, Frankopan’s evidence merely shows what will really happen to the money generated by sale of natural resources.  Note that no outstanding new art is being created in Georgia—European art is being bought.  The money from oil will line the pockets of a few despots and their families, who will spend a portion of it to maintain power (the traditional curse of resource-rich countries), and will spend the of it in the West, on goods that cannot be gotten in the East, such that, just as happened in 17th Century Spain, when the money runs out all these countries, and the entire region, will be just as backward and irrelevant as they were before.

In Frankopan’s vision, though, this is where the world’s “center of gravity” will be in the future.  Why exactly, he does not say.  He wishes it to be true, so it must be true.  The last sentence of the book is “The Silk Roads are rising again.”  It would be more accurate to say “The Silk Roads are eagerly selling their newly discovered commodities, discovered by Western technology, none of which was developed indigenously, to other countries that are doing something to advance the modern world.”  In a hundred years, the countries of the Silk Road will probably be like Bolivia—briefly the focus of world attention for what they could offer (silver to the Spanish in the case of Bolivia), then forgotten by the world at large that has more to offer than selling assets that cannot be replaced.  We in the West have our own problems, but whatever Peter Frankopan wishes, they’re not that Tajikistan is taking our place on the world stage.

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