The first thing that has to be said about this book is that it is a delight to read a history of the Eurasian landmass that does not treat a peripheral group of islands on the western extremity of that landmass as central to the history of the world, until that actually became the case, at the end of the sixteenth century, to be generous. It is also interesting that it treats the western, European end of that landmass as peripheral, until Columbus and Vasco Da Gama opened the sea routes west and east at the end of the fifteenth century. As an addendum, it is interesting that Columbus had not had a clue about what he had done, and that it was not until the murderous conquests of Cortez and Pizarro in the early sixteenth century that the balance of the world was altered, and the contribution of Columbus to the imperialist destiny of Europe became clear.
It is also interesting that the Silk Roads were not roads, or at least not in the modern sense. They were trade routes, and the goods that were transported across them came on the backs of camels, donkeys and mules, and sometimes by sea. The great centres of civilisation were China and India, and they exported their surpluses along routes around the high Pamirs and the Taklamakan desert, through the steppes to Persia, to the civilisations of Mesopotamia and Egypt and then on to Rome, and its successors.
The steppes were also important because it was here that the beasts of burden were bred. Two-humped camels are called Bactrian because they were bred in the province to the west of modern Afghanistan, and they were vital because they had the ability to carry vast amounts of water in their two humps. The steppes were also home to vast horse herds, bred by nomad tribesmen and it was on horseback that the nomads swept time and time again to conquer – Huns and Avars and Turks and Mongols. The names of their leaders are legendary – Attila, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane. Genghis Khan conquered the biggest land empire that the world has ever known. The Silk Roads were the conduit for his armies.
But they were more than that: they were conduits for ideas and technologies. The Abrahamic religions spread along the Silk Roads. Silk manufacture and papermaking came along the Silk Roads from China. Peter Frankopan sets out the central role of the Silk Roads as the main arteries of trade and civilisation from the time of Cyrus the Great and the Persian Empire of the Achaemenids to the present day. Peter Frankopan sets out the case that the Silk Roads are the arteries leading to the heart of the world, and that heart is not Europe. It is a necessary lesson.
This is a complex tale, well-told by Peter Frankopan. It is very ambitious. It covers a timespan of 2,500 years in 521 pages. There are times when I wished for a bit more detail. For instance, why did the Mongol expansion stop when Ogodei Khan died unexpectedly in 1241. The answer, of course, is that it didn’t. It was merely that Subadei Khan withdrew from the Danube, with his armies, to take part in the election of the new Great Khan. Kubilai then moved into China, and Khulugu moved south into Persia and destroyed Baghdad. It was Qutuz, the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt who stopped the Mongol advance westward at the Battle of Ayn Jalud, but this was only decisive because Khulugu was engaged, more profitably, elsewhere and did not challenge the Mamluk victory. This, however, is a small criticism of what must have been editorial decisions to keep the story moving along without making it unintelligible.
No-one could accuse this book of being unintelligible. The author guides you through the story with great skill, and keeps your attention from Alexander the Great to Mossadeq and Ayatollah Khomeini. If you want to understand the world in which we live, this is a book that you should read.