To describe this book as a history of Central Asia would be a horrible simplification. It does not tell the history of a place, or even a region. It offers, instead, a survey of the enormous wealth, glorious civilizations and marauding hordes that rose and fell in the wake of the caravans, railways and pipelines that carried silk, spices, oil and ideas from East to West and back over the past two thousand years.
It is, in a word, ambitious. And entertaining. Two words–ambitious and entertaining. Oh, and it’s erudite. Ambitious, entertaining and erudite. Not to mention exceedingly well-written. So that’s four words–ambitious, entertaining, erudite and exceedingly well-written.
Okay, so my maths isn’t great. Sue me. (Unless you happen to be a member of Monty Python. Then please, please, please do not sue me!)
Now back to the review.
There are two things that The Silk Roads does very well. First, it introduces us to a part of the world which, barring the occasional war, most of us either ignore or entirely forget exists. Second, it presents history not as a succession of dates and rulers and battles but as a set of forces working across time, geography and human society.
The primary force that Frankopan deals with is economics. He paints a picture of Central Asia–and the world–in which trade in goods and ideas generates wealth, art, culture and empire. He argues convincingly that a vast range of technological and political changes in history arose simply out of the desire to secure trade routes across Central Asia and then tax the goods moving over those routes. Whether describing connections between ancient China, Persia and Rome, the various Mongol empires (and the reason they never ventured far into Europe), medieval Venice and the Crusades, or the rise and decline of European empires in the past 250 years, Frankopan finds silken threads running across Asia that bind East and West in an intimate ledger of accounts paid and accounts past due.
Are you getting the sense that I like this book? Good. That’s not to say it’s perfect. The Silk Roads covers such a huge span of time and geography that it is, by necessity, a survey. This means that sections which touch on neglected subjects go by all to quickly, while sections that deal with familiar subjects reveal little that’s new and waste time and pages doing it.
Personally, I felt this most keenly towards the end of the book, which spent several chapters dealing with relatively recent British, American and Russian/Soviet interferences in Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. These topics are covered in numerous other books and a quick survey can’t really do them justice. Instead, I would have preferred to read more about how other nations and regions in Central Asia developed in the 20th and 21st centuries. (To be fair, the most recent edition has a concluding chapter that briefly deals with this, and Frankopan’s follow-up, The New Silk Roads, examines the present and possible futures of Central Asia.)
All-in-all, however, The Silk Roads is well worth the time. While I am not convinced that all of history can be reduced to economic relationships (and Frankopan does not explicity argue for that), The Silk Roads helps place the current world order in a different perspective while giving an eye-opening account of both the perils and profits of engaging with the peoples and nations lying on the ancient silk roads.
And for those of you who might be tempted to say, “Who cares? I’m comfy sitting in my First World arm-chair, streaming my First World films and eating my First World avocado burger,” let me end with a quote from The Silk Roads:
“In many ways, the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have represented something of a disaster for the United States and Europe as they have played out their doomed struggle to retain their position in the vital territories that link east with west… What we are witnessing…are the birthing pains of a region that once dominated the intellectual, cultural and economic landscape and which is now re-emerging. We are seeing the signs of the world’s centre of gravity shifting – back to where it lay for millennia.”