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Peter Frankopan

Subtitle: A New History of the World: Alfred A. Knopf, N.Y., 2016, 645 pgs., index, notes, maps, illustrations


Reviewer Comment: I was a bit disappointed when begining to read the book because I presumed it was about the original Silk Road and its continuation over the centuries. But eventually I found much of great interest. The author takes 'Silk Roads' as a kind of umbrella theme to write a history of both the core region (western China to the Mediterranean well past the period of caravans) and also international trade and globalization including trans-Pacific, trans-Atlantic trade and European- African trade. In addition oil takes the center place of significance after 1900. Thus the author's most intense geographic focus is on the region from Syria, through Iraq and Iran to Afghanistan. But he also impressively ties much more of world history to its interaction with peoples and events in this region. Most impressive is Dr. Frankopan's command of the sources (both original primary and secondary) in many languages. And as the narrative continues so also does it expand into world-wide themes encompassing Africa, Europe and the Americas. The densely written factual content is too extensive for more than a broad summary in this review. The maps are excellent .


The author explains the origin of his interest in the subject. He believes the significant role of the greater Middle East has not received the attention in typical western education that it should. He writes, "The halfway point between east and west, running broadly from the eastern shore of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea to the Himalayas, might seen an unpromising position from which to assess the world." But, he continues, "In fact the bridge between east and west is the very crossroads of civilization." Further, "These pathways serve as the world's central nervous system, connecting peoples and places together, but lying beneath the skin, invisible to the naked eye." Thus, he states his hope and purpose. "My hope is that I can embolden others to study peoples and places that have been ignored by scholars for generations by opening up new questions and new areas of research." I believe his effort is successful as an invitation.


Chapter 1 - The Creation of the Silk Road:
Dr. Frankopan opens his narrative with a strong description of the Persian Empire as the greatest of the succession of political entities in ancient (classical) times. He follows this with the role of Alexander the Great (Greece and Macedon) in expanding a new, hybrid, culture even more widely. Then he turns to the steppe nomads to the north east to describe the ties between the Persian/Greek Mediterranean and Chinese societies and their economic relationships. This brings him to silk, the most valuable, widely transported item in international trade across this vast expanse. With the Roman conquest of Egypt trade expanded via both caravan and sea routes between the Mediterranean societies and India and China. One result was the great increase in Roman demand for luxury goods (generating counter attacks and sumptuary laws). Ultimately the economic impact was terrible as Roman assets (including currency) flowed to the east. (We should note that initially Roman glory was built on wealth flowing IN - slaves and tribute - so when the balance shifted to OUT it the eventual decline was set. The author mentions the Kushan Empire as middlemen. The Kushan society is a fascinating topic that deserves extensive study in itself. The chapter contains much valuable information and analysis.


Chapter 2 - The Road of Faiths:
In this chapter the author shifts from trade in material commerce into trade in ideologies, religious beliefs. He writes :"The intellectual and theological spaces of the Silk Roads were crowded, as deities and cults, priests and local rulers jostled with each other." It is a marvelous chapter from which we learn a great deal about the spread of Christianity to Asia. Again, the Buddhist Kushans play the role of middlemen. The narrative describes the interrelationships between the many religious groups and the political authorities. The chapter contains one of the excellent maps which shows graphically the various spreads.


Chapter 3 - The Road to a Christian East:
The power of Rome declined, but so did Persia. Extensive climate change created famine and economic disruption in both empires. But worse was to come from the steppes from which displaced warrior societies attacked. The author draws attention usually lacking to the joint Roman- Persian building of defensive walls in the Caucuses. The major highlight of this chapter is the discussion of the spread of Christianity into Asia. The author states that even in the western Middle Ages there were more Christians in Asia than in Europe. He discusses how Christianity spread along the caravan routs across Central Asia. Very interesting indeed is his note that Auriel Stein discovered letters of Sogdian traders in a watchtower on the Han wall near Dunhuang. We have all of Stein's reports with illustrations on web site. It was during this rapid expansion of Christianity to the point it was on the verge of extensive success in Asia that a major war resumed between the Byzantine and Persian Empires that so weakened both that a new religion was able to overcome both in the 7th century. As the author describes it: "Closely related to the words for safety and peace, "Islam' gave little sense of how the world was about to change. Revolution had arrived."


Chapter 4 - The Road to Revolution
The author begins with: "The rise of Islam took place in a world that had seen a hundred years of turmoil, dissent and catastrophe." In 541 a very different threat spread throughout the Mediterranean area. It brought widespread death from Rome to China. It was bubonic plague. Economies collapsed demography was altered. Byzantine efforts to re-establish rule into the West failed followed by extensive losses in the east. 'Stagnation took hold and the public mood towards Justinian soured." But similar disasters hit the Persian Empire as well. New bodies of Turks were gaining power in Central Asia, cutting the routes between East and West. Dr. Frankopan vividly describes the wars that continued to debilitate both Byzantium and Persia, wars during which religion was brought more and more into the military support role. "The establishment Orthodox Christianity came into increasing theological conflict with other strains of Christian religious groups throughout the eastern areas.
The author notes that the original sources are confused, making understanding of the details about the expansion of Islam difficult. But expand it surely did into this near political vacuum. But he supplies a great amount of detail about the economic, cultural and well as military situation in Arabia.
He writes: "Muhammad's teaching certainly fell on fertile ground. He was offering a bold and coherent explanation for traumatic levels of upheaval with immense passion and conviction." He faced powerful opposition from the then elite in Mecca. The author describes in detail the events that followed and the policies and actions that brought Muhammad success.


Chapter 5 -The Road to Concord


Chapter 6 - The Road of Furs


Chapter 7 - The Slave Road


Chapter 8 - The Road to Heaven


Chapter 9 - The Road to Hell


Chapter 10 - The Road of Death and Destruction


Chapter 11 - The Road of Gold


Chapter 12 - The Road of Silver


Chapter 13 - The Road to Northern Europe


Chapter 14 - The Road to Empire


Chapter 15 - The Road to Crisis


Chapter 16 - The Road to War


Chapter 17 - The Road of Black Gold


Chapter 18 - The Road to Compromise


Chapter 19 - The Wheat Road


Chapter 20 - The Road to Genocide


Chapter 21 - The Road of Cold Warfare


Chapter 22 - The American Silk Road


Chapter 23 - The Road of Superpower Rivalry


Chapter 24 - The Road to Catastrophe


Chapter 25 - The Road to Tragedy


Conclusion - The New Silk Road -


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