Until recently, writing history without acknowledging ones cultural biases was a relatively simple matter. Now, however, in the age of the internet and global perspectives, such actions are not only unacceptable, but they are also immediately challengeable. This blog site we write in is live to the world, and it is read, analysed and critiqued in near real-time. Consequently, writing the history of the world using Persia as the locus of that history was driven by either a death wish or a hope that it would resonate in a new era. As director of the Centre for Byzantine Research, Peter Frankopan has followed that route by ambitiously relocating the centre of historical gravity, in a somewhat surprising and slightly frustrating book (mostly because of its unfamiliar place names and history).
The New Silk Road seems like a somewhat monocled observation of the world as it seems to ignore thousands of years of human history in order to contemplate the rise of the Persian empire. In the introduction, Frankopan makes it clear that his project is to offer a new vision of history; to confront suppositions about where we come from and what has formed us. He is right when he says that our western sense of self is formed by education and tradition that emphasises the greatness of the Greeks and our inheritance as heirs of the Romans. Consequently, the Mediterranean truly is the centre of our known world. That being the case, Frankopan wants to topple that Eurocentric understanding by moving the axis to the east, beyond Mesopotamia to Iran and to those many “stans” we hear about.
The silk roads are the routes which people, goods, ideas, religions, disease and many other things have flowed and Frankopan reminds us that the routes between China and the Mediterranean Sea, which now pass through some of the world’s most disturbed and dangerous countries (Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan…) have been trodden or ridden long before documented history.
There is nothing especially new in claiming that the centre of world lies to the east: according to Google, in 1587 the English playwrite and poet, Christopher Marlowe, called Persia “the middle of the world”, a thought that has been repeated by other trade historians over the centuries. Nevertheless, Frankopan wanders further from the carefully manicured boundaries of geopolitical history than many others. He offers a boggling number of archives and quotes seemingly endless texts to strike a point against the bedrock of histories status quo.
Frankopan explores the spread of well-known movements, but in ways different from our normal expectations. Christianity under the Roman; Islamic expansion;4] the spread of scientific advances, philosophical ideas and the cross-fertilisisation of life – east to west. Likewise, it was interesting to read Frankopans record of the less than beneficial aspects of life that travelled those same roads: violence was a regular commuter in rising of the Mongols, the later appearance of the Russian empire, and of course British and American intrusion that has taken place since the 19th century. I admit to being enamoured by the writers accounting of the spread of the plague and the black death, along with the point that the destruction of Europe’s population came with specific benefits: a slight silver lining to a very black cloud; fewer workers meant the price of labour increased, and wealth spread across the classes. As a result, the soil of the Renaissance was watered.
However, though the book is a fascinating read, it is missing references to other significant realities. There is a scant reference to the European Enlightenment. If I remember correctly, there was also a significant growth in North Sea trade which had a major effect on the silk roads in the 14th century.
The Silk Roads is an exciting read because it took my attention away from the ordinary version of history that is so familiar. However, without the assistance of old biblical maps and a few snapshots from Google, I would have had no idea how to geographically place many of the unpronounceable place names that Frankopan references. Which leads to my greatest question: who is the book aimed at? Without some knowledge of the Middle East, the various ‘Stans’ and their interconnected history, you would probably be left somewhat bewildered – and I certainly was despite having spent some time in those parts of the world. Also, given what we currently see of them, I found his optimism that Persia may indeed rise again, just a little too optimistic
Yet, despite those criticisms and the complications of unfamiliar place names, the book is quite readable and does give pause for thought – not so much about what might have been had circumstances turned out differently, but instead just how Eurocentric we are in our daily conceptions of who we are and how we came to be what we are.
 Peter Frankopan, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, 01 ed. (London: Bloomsbury Paperbacks, 2016). xix and 258
 Jacques Lezra, “Geography and Marlow,” in Christopher Marlowe in Context (Literature in Context), ed. Emily C Bartels and Emma Smith, (Cambridge University Press, 2013). 132
 Frankopan, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. 38-44
 Ibid. 63ff
 Ibid. vii
 Ibid. 154ff
 Ibid. 280ff
 Ibid. see Chapter 21
 Ibid. 191-192