The Silk Road — and how it made his­tory

His­to­rian says his book on an­cient trad­ing routes shows glob­al­iza­tion is an old con­cept, An­drew Moody re­ports.

China Daily (Canada) - - EXPATS -

Pe ter Frankopan be­lieves we have all been look­ing at his­tory the wrong way. Of­ten seen only from a Western per­spec­tive, the ac­cepted story of mankind largely ig­nores the con­tri­bu­tion made by that huge bridge be­tween the West and the East that is now of­ten re­ferred to as the Silk Road.

In his new 636-page his­tory book, The Silk Roads, the his­to­rian aims to put that right by show­ing how the in­ter­con­nect­ed­ness of Europe, the old Ot­toman Em­pire, Cen­tral Asia, the Cau­ca­sus and China have for mil­len­nia been the very cra­dle of civ­i­liza­tion.

He ar­gued his­tory did not be­gin with the an­cient Greeks and Ro­mans, and that Euro­pean move­ments such as the Re­nais­sance or the En­light­en­ment were not new but par­tially de­rived from a fu­sion and ex­change of ideas, cul­tures and re­li­gions along what we now see as some old car­a­van trail.

“We are all brought up in the West be­ing taught this mono­lithic story which hasn’t re­ally changed for 200 years. If you went back to a class­room in 1850 England, you would find much of the same top­ics be­ing taught. I am not sure what rel­e­vance the Bat­tle of Hast­ings would have to a boy grow­ing up in Shang­hai to­day.”

Frankopan, 44, who is di­rec­tor of the Cen­tre for Byzan­tine Re­search at Ox­ford Univer­sity and was speak­ing in of­fices over­look­ing Vic­to­ria sta­tion in cen­tral Lon­don, be­lieves his book’s es­sen­tial theme is glob­al­iza­tion — not as a new but a very old con­cept.

“It cer­tainly is noth­ing new. We might think we are liv­ing in a new age of ex­changes be­tween China and the West, but we can go back 2,500 years and find Chi­nese sources that sug­gest a world where the ex­changes were just as strong.”

Frankopan pointed out the term “silk road” is not as old as what it de­scribes and dates back only to the 19th cen­tury when it was used by Ger­man ge­ol­o­gist Fer­di­nand von Richthofen — un­cle of World War I fly­ing ace Man­fred von Richthoven, oth­er­wise known as the Red Baron — when he used the word sei­den­strasse.

He be­lieves one of its lead­ing mod­ern rein­car­na­tions, the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment’s Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive, ac­cu­rately sums up what the con­cept is in re­al­ity: myr­iad mar­itime and over­land links and not one cen­tral high­way.

“I think to many Western eyes and ears, the con­cept of the silk road is al­most like a semi-mo­tor­way, a sin­gle path that links Venice, through Con­stantino­ple and cen­tral Asia, to China. We also only think of it as go­ing from east to west but, of course, the traf­fic was in both di­rec­tions.

“It was also not al­ways about goods and traf­fic go­ing vast dis­tances from China to the West. Much of the ex­changes, in fact, were highly lo­cal, trad­ing be­tween towns and vil­lages near to each other, build­ing up to a sort of long chain.”

Frankopan be­came in­ter­ested in the east­ern world largely due to an in­spi­ra­tional teacher.

“I had a fan­tas­tic Rus­sian teacher who used to say the best way to learn a lan­guage was to sing its peas­ant songs. He was sent by the school to Baghdad and when he came back he said he would teach us Ara­bic if we wanted to learn,” he re­called.

“We were in­tro­duced to Ara­bic lit­er­a­ture and po­etry and had dis­cus­sions about Is­lam and con­tem­po­rary Mus­lim so­ci­ety.”

Frankopan went on to study Rus­sian at Je­sus Col­lege, Cam­bridge, where he switched to his­tory and re­ceived a prize for the high­est first of his year.

He then did both a master’s and a doc­tor­ate in Byzan­tine his­tory be­fore em­bark­ing on an aca­demic ca­reer, which he has mostly spent at Ox­ford, apart from brief spells at Har­vard and Prince­ton.

He has some­thing of an ex­otic back­ground in that he is also a Croa­t­ian prince.

“In a by­gone age that might have meant some­thing,” he said. “I am from a very old fam­ily that traces it­self back to the Dal­ma­tian coast 700 or 800 years. Nowa­days, it closes as many doors as it opens.”

Nonethe­less it led to his be­com­ing pres­i­dent of the Croa­t­ian cricket board and play­ing for the na­tional team, in­clud­ing at Lord’s (cricket ground in Lon­don, con­sid­ered to be the home of cricket).

“A lot of them (his team­mates) have been brought up in Aus­tralia and they are bloody good.”

The book, hugely am­bi­tious in its scope and which takes the reader from the an­cient Per­sian civ­i­liza­tions to the re­cent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, has a com­pelling nar­ra­tive and is jam­packed with sto­ries.

It con­tains nu­mer­ous snip­pets of in­for­ma­tion that shed new light on ma­jor world events.

The huge Bud­dha stat­ues in the East did not ex­ist be­fore those trav­el­ing up the Silk Road saw such stat­ues in an­cient Greece.

We also learn from Sad­dam Hus­sein’s own sur­pris­ingly metic­u­lous records that he thought the US am­bas­sador to Baghdad, April Glaspie, had given him a green light to in­vade Kuwait in 1990.

“I was aware that it needed to be read­able and not self-in­dul­gent with end­less foot­notes. As a stu­dent I used to read books that you couldn’t make head or tail of. It wasn’t be­cause the author was very clever but ac­tu­ally was a bad writer,” he said.

Frankopan said he had been itch­ing to write such a book that gave a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive on world his­tory since he start­ing his doc­tor­ate more than 20 years ago.

“Many aca­demics spend years con­tem­plat­ing and don’t write any­thing at all. This is such an am­bi­tious book, I can’t quite be­lieve I have writ­ten it. If you ask me why I have done it, I don’t re­ally have a very good an­swer.”

Con­tact the writer at an­drew­moody@chi­

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