Book review: The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan is a dazzling piece of historical writing
Frankopan locates the engine of history in the zone between Constantinople and China, where East and West met and intermingled, sometimes bloodily
The Silk Roads
by Peter Frankopan
Twenty five years ago, as a young journalist fresh out of college, I drove under wintry cloud banks, through the snow-haunted valleys of Annandale and Eskdale, to interview Sir Steven Runciman in his ancient tower-house in the Scottish borders.
Runciman was the greatest medieval historian of our times, but he was always a most undonnish don. Despite long spells in the dank of the archives, his life still reads like something out of an Indiana Jones film or even a Rider Haggard novel: he was besieged by Manchu warlords in the city of Tianjin, but escaped to play a piano duet with the emperor of China; lectured Ataturk on Byzantium and was made a grand orator of the Great Church of Constantinople; smoked a hookah with the grand celebi efendi of the whirling dervishes, and correctly predicted the deaths of both King George II of the Hellenes and Fuad, the last king of Egypt, by reading their tarot cards.
But perhaps his most undonnish quality was his wish – and ability – to write wide-ranging books about big subjects and to do so in beautifully honed prose for a general audience, something that is still rare, but which in 1954 seemed a radical departure from the academic norm: “When Gibbon or Macaulay were writing,” Runciman told me, “the publication of one of their volumes was a great literary event. One of the tragedies of our time is that it is no longer considered relevant to write history well.”
In the preface of his three-volume masterpiece, A History of the Crusades, Runciman threw down the gauntlet to his more workaday rivals: “I believe that the supreme duty of the historian is to write history, to attempt to record in one sweeping sequence the greater events and movements that have swayed the destinies of man.”
Runciman died 15 years ago, but he would greatly have approved of Peter Frankopan, the brilliant and fearlessly wide-ranging young Oxford historian who is in many ways the true heir to his mantle. Like Runciman, Frankopan is a multilingual Byzantinist whose first books were about the Crusades. Now he has taken on an even larger and more daunting chunk of history – nothing less than a history of the world, seen through the timely lens of east-west interaction.
The concept of a “silk road” is not an ancient one: it was first coined only in the late 19th century by the Prussian geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen, a cousin of the first world war flying ace the Red Baron. He used it to describe the trading routes that first linked China with the Mediterranean, which he realised formed one of history’s great spaces of cultural transfer, economic change and intellectual fusion. Frankopan’s 650-page tome on the subject takes some of the most fascinating of Von Richthofen’s ideas and cross-fertilises them with those of Runciman to spectacular effect.
Runciman’s great insight was that the real heirs of Roman civilisation were not the crude chain-mailed knights of the rural west, but instead the sophisticated Byzantines of Constantinople and the cultivated Arabs of Damascus, both of whom had preserved the Hellenised urban tradition of antiquity long after it was destroyed in Europe: “Our civilisation,” he wrote, “has grown … out of the long sequence of interaction and fusion between Orient and Occident.”
Frankopan shares Runciman’s love of the rich, cosmopolitan cultures of the eastern Mediterranean, and the way they seeded so many of the great ideas of the west – it was here, he writes, quoting the historian Sallust, that “Roman soldiers came of age: learned how to make love, to be drunk, to enjoy statues, pictures and art”. But he throws his net wider still, showing how the belt of territory between China and Constantinople was for much of history the centre of the world, and a place from which we drew so much of what has come to be regarded as “Western civilisation”.
Traditionally, of course, it is a part of the world that rarely figures in Eurocentric histories: who, for example, now remembers those Turkic converts to Judaism, the Khazars, who dominated the trade and culture of the steppes from the 8th to the 10th century, when they were finally and savagely wiped out by the Rus Vikings, who after spilling “rivers of blood” and plundering the Khazar capital Atil were “gorged on loot and worn out with raiding”?
Equally, how many of us recall the legendary greatness of the Seljuk sultans of Merv? The ruins of their once magnificent capital lie now amid the camel-coloured wastes of Turkmenistan: a scatter of mud walls, a few ambiguous foundations, the odd cracked dome of a mud-brick Sufi tomb forgotten on the outer edge of a polluted and provincial post-Soviet town. On one side a forest of smokestacks belches fumes into the desert; on the other a spread of barren collective farms extend towards the encroaching dunes: “If you meet a viper and a Mervi,” advises a local proverb, “kill the Mervi first, and the viper afterwards.”
Yet in the 10th century, while Europe was paralysed by Viking raids, Merv was a flourishing Silk Route capital, and the second city of Islam, trumped only by Baghdad with its one million citizens. It grew fabulously rich on the profits of the China trade and the tribute of an empire that extended from Afghanistan to Egypt and the gates of Byzantium.
Along with its great sister cities – Tashkent, Bukhara and Samarkand – Merv developed a complex culture, fostered in universities, and produced such geniuses as al-Biruni, who first computed the radius of the earth, the lyric poet Rudaki, and the great Ibn Sina – known in the West as Avicenna – who wrote 242 books of stupefying variety and whose Canon of Medicine became a textbook in the hospitals of Christian Europe for more than 500 years.
Today, what draws most travellers to the oasis cities of the Silk Route is the breathtaking remoteness of these exotic-sounding places. Yet what most distinguished them in the early first millennium AD was the opposite: the fabulously wealthy and cosmopolitan nature of the societies that thrived there. The Middle East and central Asia were the centre of globalisation from the 1st century AD onwards: ideas of art, decorum, dress and religion passed backwards and forwards, mixing and melding to create the most unexpected innovations and fusions.
Undaunted by the complexity of the material, and the scale of the subject he has taken on, Frankopan marches briskly through the centuries, disguising his erudition with an enviable lightness of touch, enlivening his narrative with a beautifully constructed web of anecdotes and insights, backed up by an impressively wide-ranging scholarly apparatus of footnotes drawing on works in multiple languages.
If Frankopan is not afraid to take on big subjects, he is also quite unafraid to take on controversial ones, none more so than in his treatment of Islam. It was not the defeat of the Umayyad armies at Tours by Charles Martel in 732 that stopped the Arab advance into Europe, he writes. Rather, that in the West “prizes were few and far between: wealth and rewards lay elsewhere” – the East. He points out how, in the Middle Ages, Muslim scholars avidly investigating the science of the heavens and earth were baffled by the lack of intellectual curiosity in Christendom. In an inversion of today’s Islamophobic prejudices, it seemed to Muslim scholars such as al-Mas’udi as if the Christian faith had destroyed science in Europe, “effaced the signs of learning, eliminated its traces and destroyed its paths”.
This is history on a grand scale, with a sweep and ambition that is rare. I learned a huge amount about subjects I thought I knew well: who would have guessed that Indian Buddhist monasteries once reached as far as Persia, Syria and the Gulf; that the Romans sent embassies as far as China; that Kashgar had a Christian cathedral before Canterbury; that the Chinese were the first to use toilet paper; that the “exceedingly savage” Huns wore robes made of field mice and ate raw meat “partially warmed by being placed between their thighs”; or that the Roman emperor Diocletian’s proudest achievement was the size of his cabbages?
Inevitably with such a massive panorama, there are a few places where Homer nods: in the Indian sections, Frankopan confuses The Mahabharata and The Ramayana, and he thinks the great Ellora caves were built by the Marathas in north India when they were actually 1,000 years older, and can be found inland from Mumbai. But these are small quibbles. This is a remarkable book on many levels, a proper historical epic of dazzling range and achievement.