It is not normal to say this about a book of history but: ‘The Silks Roads’ is one of the most exciting and illuminating books I’ve ever read. By ‘exciting’ I mean the way a novel should excite you. I was gripped by every page.
Part of this is simply the clever way the author has structured the book. Almost every chapter is titled ‘The Road to…’ (one or two are slightly different but all have the word ‘road’) and each one is a manageable length. Frankopan writes almost like a novel in that the pace of each chapter seems increase to breathtaking speed and leads us on at the end to tantalising glimpses of what’s to come next – like a true cliffhanger ending!
But the other part is the unique view he takes putting central Asia at the heart of world history. I have advocated for a long time that history is not taught well in schools in the West. Lip service is paid to world history and even then, only insofar as it touches on western countries (specifically the UK and USA). We know nothing of Mongolian, African, Chinese, Indian or Middle Eastern history other than in very loose terms.
Frankopan’s book changes that. He gives a convincing account of how the history of the world ties in together with Asia – genuinely central and containing 60% of the world’s population as it is – and this results in some remarkable paradigm shifts along the way.
I must confess, on risk of being flayed alive by book lovers, that ‘The Silk Roads’ has been badly abused physically by me. I have turned down the corners of so many papers that the book is ruined beyond repair and could never be sold on second-hand. But then, it’s never going to leave my possession! It’ll sit on the shelf on my desk as a treasured reference work which I’m certain I will dip into time and again.
The turned pages were where I learned something new. What I liked about all this was that there was no recourse to conspiracy theories or even ‘new research’. The text smacked of authenticity and most of the general history I knew full well; it was the reframing of all of it which made things eye-opening. Nevertheless, Frankopan fully references every single piece of information which, of course, makes this book very valuable for research. It is a rare academic who can write what is effectively an academic work yet make it readable for the average layman.
There was so much I came away with that I can’t possibly share it all, but here’s a few points I can away with:
*The medieval crusades, given such focus traditionally, were nothing but a sideshow compared to the Mongol invasions taking place at the time.
*The Black Plague actually resulted in a healthier population and excited economic growth because the younger generation were now less inclined to save and preferred to spend.
*By 1492 Jews were heading to Muslim Constantinople rather than the Christian West because there they found respect and tolerance as opposed to the bigotry and fundamentalism of the Christians.
*The so-called Age of Reason – which saw the progress towards modern civilisation – did not come about because of Greek thinking but by superior warfare technology which subdued other nations. Europe reinvented itself around Greek and Roman philosophies pretending to be a renaissance to justify itself when, in fact, it was simply a naissance.
*In the 15th and 16th centuries Muslim societies more evenly distributed wealth and were fairer to women economically than in Western societies.
*At the beginning of the 20the century, the discovery of oil in Persia, funded by William Knox D’Arcy which led to all but economic slavery of Persia to the British and later to the Americans and is, arguably, the source of all the modern-day troubles with Islamic extremists.
*Hitler had two sources of inspiration to use as models for his envisaged empire: The British Empire and America. Hitler also got on very well indeed with Saudi Arabia and consider it a potential ‘wahhabi style’ Third Reich.
*Even before Hitler was defeated, plans were being drawn up which saw the end of the war as a close of a chapter and not the whole story. Western fears of Russia making inroads into the Middle East and taking the lion’s share of the world’s oil was a very real concern. This meant trying to sweet-tooth Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries where, before the war, they had been largely ignored and simply used. But by 1952, Britain was hated in Iran and plans began to change to include creating coups. This in turn led to the West having a reputation as duplicitous and never to be trusted, giving birth to a host of extremist leaders.
I could go on with dozens more but you can see a thread running here of my interest in the history of Western interaction with the Muslim East. The summary, as far as the 20th century is concerned, is that the West does not come out well in terms of innocence. Such was the American fear of Communist Russia and the historical bigotry of Britain that they were both squeezed into a corner from which any way they moved was going to be a wrong one. Sometimes it was just wrong, other times it was disastrously so.
In short, this is the history book I would have loved to write. It’s as well that I didn’t because it would not have been close to Frankopan’s. His idea was inspired, his writing perfect and his research impeccable.
Writer and journalist D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Ken has two new books coming out over summer – don’t miss them!
Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media.
D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org