by Ratnakar Tripathy
The Silk Road
A new history of the world
Bloomsbury, Rs 799, pp 636
By Peter Frankopan
One of the most rewarding books for me in 2015 was Peter Frankopan’s ‘The Silk Roads’ which also sensationally claims to be a ‘new history of the world’. I fell for the brazenness and the decision turned out to be more than worthwhile. All my life I have been reading critiques of the so-called euro-centric view of history that moves in a golden line from Greece through Rome to modern Europe, almost predictably punctuated by the eras of renaissance, reconnaissance, reformation, and enlightenment down to the several waves of the industrial revolution. But the critiques never got me anywhere far enough and the grand march of European progress continued to seem a valid though an oversimplified model, as models are wont to be. China, India, Egypt, Persia – they all seemed like glorious but ‘also’ stories that decorated the margins of the grand European table spread. But I have to admit that just one reading of the book ‘The Silk Roads’, and I have recovered from my slavery to the grand narrative in the favour of a complex mass of grand narratives in the plural. To put it simply, the axis of human history is to be found neither in the west nor the east, but in the numerous pathways connecting the distant shores of ancient China to the Mediterranean and Persia, with India, the central Asian region, the Mesopotamian spread as well as Rome and Greece. In brief, history belongs not to frozen spaces but the highways and the lanes through which the civilizational traffic moves. This movement is made visible as men carry goods and ideas, circulating and creating constant ripples in the global fabric of humanity.
Before I get down to the specifics from the book I would like to share how this view of global human history matches my own nano research experience in the field of popular culture. Nearly all my research projects in the last ten years began with hypotheses that presumed a point of origin for specific cultural forms. Just as routinely my research projects ended up concluding that cultural dissemination through migration and trade related travel lay at the core of the unique forms. To use a metaphor, the water of culture invariably came flowing like a river rather than emerging from within like a bore well. This is why I appreciate Frankopan’s title ‘The Silk Rods’ for putting civilization on a ‘road’ rather than a settlement! Civilization in brief is the name of a traffic and not a place, except for the moment. The traffic of course is called the silk roads, a nomenclature given in the 19th century. But think of other traffics and confluences like the Silicon Valley or Bangalore, where the intermeshing of myriads of talents creates local ecologies of growth and employment.
So what happens if you turn your history upside down or inside out? You begin to notice that the first Neolithic civilizations after all emerged in Asia. Ancient Greece looked to the east towards Persia rather than towards the west. Ancient Rome similarly depended on Egypt as its granary and traded with a chain of centres in the east as far as India. All the wisdom of the Greeks was preserved in the east in translations by the early Islamic scholars. The early Muslims were the new masters of the silk route, placed as they were at the very nerve centre connecting China, India, Africa and Europe.
After a long interval when Europe showed signs of stirring, it was only in the 9th century through the stimulus received from the Islamic trade channels and for long Europe’s one major commodity was the slaves it could sell for pieces of silver. Yes, the first slaves came from Ireland, Britain and the Slavic regions and not Africa – this is how Europe began its economic rise which culminated in the wealthy city states around the 13th century, which again looked to the east for wealth and started the crusades. The age of discovery too clearly indicates an eastward thrust for access to the fabulous wealth of the Chinese and the Indians. The violent story of discovery and colonialism continues to this day when the oilfields of the mid-east receiving the most devastating form of attention from the super powers. Both the world wars begin to make sense only when you put the colonies as the central issue, a prerequisite to understanding the cold war as well, not to mention the unending disturbances in the Mideast in recent times that show no signs of abatement. But even as the high points of the Silk Road like Syria and Iraq seem reduced to wreckage, a new silk route may be taking shape connecting China with the numerous central Asian countries like Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan which are undertaking massive infrastructural projects. What emerge as the keyword with an epic value for all ages bygone and to come is ‘networks’ in its vast and extended sense. So why do the historians get stuck over fixed points like magnets?
According to Frankopan most scholars have neglected these networks for three reasons.
1. First, they ‘challenge the familiar, triumphalist story of the rise of the West’.
2. ‘Second, historians today work in crowded and competitive fields requiring increasingly narrow and precise specialisations. To say something new means opening a new field of investigation – which requires turning over a small stone, previously assumed to be unimportant, and assessing what lies beneath. Revolutionising history on a grand scale calls for a braver and more ambitious approach’.
3. ‘Finally, there’s the simple fact that Western scholars’ ability to follow historical connections can be limited by the lack of knowledge of central Asian languages’. Students and scholars rarely peek into Greek, medieval Greek especially from Byzantium, and Slavic sources like The Russian Primary Chronicle (850-1110) and The Chronicle of Novgorod (1016-1471). Similarly, the ‘works of Muqaddasī, Ibn Faḍlān and Masūdī are almost entirely overlooked. ‘The great works of Persian poetry and prose – such as the epic Shāhnāma of Firdawsī or the Ta’rīx-i Jahān-Gušā of Juvaynī, which relates the history of the Mongols – remain a mystery, while texts in Tamil, Hindi, and Chinese – such as the Shi Ji, written more than two thousand years ago by Sima Qian – fare no better’.
To wind up this review essay, I would like to assure the lay reader that this new history runs like a thriller and if you end up enjoying it more than you ever expected no need to hold it against yourself or the author who is the Director at the Centre for Byzantine research at the Oxford University. There is nothing sinful in writing a history book that can be enjoyed by the lay reader and provides the expert with a lot to chew over even if the professional historians of the type who reduced us to jaw-breaking yawns in classrooms all over the world, do not concur.