Top critical review
Got a little lost along the Silk Road
March 8, 2016
When I saw this book coming out I was really excited. I've always been fascinated by the history of this region of the world. However, I wish I read the title and subtitle a little more carefully. The emphasis is on the plural - the Silk Roads - not road. And the subtitle "A New History of the World". This is a lofty, though I think almost impossible goal.
Frankopan's goal is to challenge how Western history is predominantly taught - the inevitable march of Western Civilization from ancient Greece, to Rome, to Christianity and the Renaissance to liberal democracy and capitalism, and the underlying assumption of the superiority of Western beliefs and values over the East, while at the same time really ignoring the profound impact that the Middle East/Asian countries had on the development of the West.
The scope he covers is immense - not just in terms of geography - from China to Great Britain but also the time frame - ancient Greece to now. This by necessity (especially in a one volume book) really only allows for a high altitude survey of the Silk Roads with periodic deep dives into a particular region or time period. This is one of the weakness of the book. I think the other is really one of focus and editing.
The book started losing me when he started writing about Christopher Colombus and the discovery of the New World. Yes it is critical to note that the impetus for this trip was to find an alternative sea route to the East and that the riches plundered by Spain and Portugal in particular helped finance further trade with the East for luxury items not available in Europe at the time. But I felt the detour on the exploits of the Spanish Conquistadors conquering Central and South America was unnecessary (one example where I thought tighter editing would have been helpful).
We see the power slowly shift from the East to the West and the rise and fall of great European powers until Britain is the last man standing with an Empire where the sun never sets.
There is discussion of WW1 and the war front in the Middle East and the post war divying up what was left of the Ottoman Empire to suit European strategic needs, a price of which we are still paying. He also relates how the Middle East became a chess pieces in the struggle between the US and USSR in the Cold War and how oil changed once again the power struggle for global control and the self determination of the peoples of the area. A considerable amount of time is spent on post-war Iran and the various British, US and to a lesser extent USSR's intervention in Iran and how those actions really did lead to Khomeini's rise to power and the over throw of the Shah. He also of course discuses Soviet and US involvement in Afghanistan and how the US first propped up Saddam and then decided he needed to be taken out (and similarily the Taliban) all of with disasterous consequences. If you were not already cynical about global politics, you certainly will be now.
While all of this admirable, I don't feel he really reached his goal of describing a New History of the World. It wasn't clear whether his thesis was more about global trade links or the geopolitical importance of the area or both. A lot of this has been told, albeit broken down in smaller pieces that are more digestible to the average reader. So I personally felt that he felt short of his goal.
The two things I was left with - Centuries of Western meddling in the Middle East has been a calamity first and for most for the people of the area and but also for us -- since we now are paying the price of anti-Western extremism and terrorism. Second, we now associate Baghdad Kabul, Terhan, with religious extremism, tyranny, violence, war and anarchy, not at the time when the Silk Road flourished, as beautiful wealthy cities of stabilty, relative tolerance (at least compared to the Europe of the Middle Ages) that cultivated the arts, literature and centres of learning. This is sad, There is a rich culture and history of the Middle East that Westerners should know and learn about.