The Bigger Picture

  • Rashid Raina
  • Publish Date: Feb 22 2017 9:22PM
  • |
  • Updated Date: Feb 22 2017 9:22PM
The Bigger Picture

Peter Frankopan restores Central Asia to its rightful place in world history


In his famous work What is History (1961), EH Carr argues that belief in a hardcore of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historian is a preposterous fallacy, but one which is hard to eradicate. That an unbiased interpretation of history in all its probability is impossible. Almost all historical texts and treatises written so far demonstrate the predicament to which Carr’s study of history was subjected to. Much to the dismay of Carr, however, Peter Frankopan's The Silk Roads: A New History of the World challenges our current perspectives of the past and trace the movement of not only human experience but of goods and ideas between the nations at the end and along Silk Roads.

This volume marks a shift from traditional Euro-centric analysis of world history by making the otherwise obscure Orient the centre of analysis. Rather than a new history of the world, Silk Roads is an alternative insight into the telling of the past, describing it from the vantage point of the Asian region, more specifically, central Asia. Frankopan argues that the world as we know it today was not shaped by the Romans as much as the Persians of antiquity. The silk roads represent the avenues where the east and the west interacted and, in the process, reinforced cultures and influenced traditions. It was on the silk roads that the east and the west first met each other through trade and conquest, making the east fundamental in the developmental of the western civilisation.

Although trade was fundamental in this new-found relationship, different faiths, traditions, cultures and even diseases travelled along the silk roads – all which profoundly impacted the evolution of the modern civilisation. The cultures, cities and people along the silk roads learned and borrowed from each other, stimulating advances in philosophy, sciences, language and even religion. Libraries, places of worship, churches and observatories dotted the region. The detailed narrations about the rise and fall of empires, fascinating stories of slave trade, quest for riches of the east are more than sufficient to demystify the perceived superiority of the west over the east.

By engaging in a double reading of historical facts, Frankopan tries to deconstruct many myths, challenge assumptions and lay out a fresh perspective. For one, it is fascinating to learn that globalisation started 2000 years ago when the Carthaginian elite began wearing Chinese silk, wealthy Iranians became fond of Chinese pottery and Indian spices found a place in Roman cuisine. Major world religions such as Islam, Christianity and Buddhism spread far and wide through the network of silk roads, as did smaller belief systems; scientific advances travelled far and wide as did philosophical ideas.

It was on this bridge between the east and the west where great metropolises flourished. Rather than being a backwater, this Asian region was at the centre of the world for much of human history. It was in this region that the first great civilisations and cities were built, languages and religions were first documented. And it was here that Asia, Africa and Europe intersected. So preeminent was this region, in fact, Frankopan shows using archaeological evidence, that in the ancient world, the great empires of the east neglected the west as a cold, trackless and worthless part of the known world.

It wasn't always smooth, though. The silk roads witnessed several waves of terror unleashed by the likes of the Slavs, Mongols and Alexander. Later, the region was subjected to constant meddling by the western powers fighting for supremacy and loot of resources.

The imperialistic and expansionist policies of the post-industrialisation European nations wreaked havoc in the region. The great irony was that while Europe experienced a golden age in which art and literature flourished and science and technology advanced by leaps and bounds, this region was thrown in the throes of war and violence, from which it couldn't extract itself until recently. Now, though, Frankopan argues, the balance of world is again shifting towards the east.

In sum, Frankopan's book is an important read for those genuinely interested in a fair study of world history.