Long ago, there was a boy by the name of Zeus, son of Cronus and Rhea. He later became the god of sky and thunder in ancient Greek religion and also ruled over the gods of Mount Olympus. He would overthrow his father and drew lots with his brother Poseidon and Hades to decide who would rule as supreme ruler of the gods. Zeus was known for hurling thunderbolts at those who defied him, but we could also say he was a Casanova…what a man, what a man, what a man!!! Frankopan must have realized that people like myself needed a story to connect us with the facts because The Silk Road begins with the story of a boy and a map who was electrified with adventurous danger. This boy would eventually learn about the myth of Zeus releasing an eagle at both ends of the earth at the sacred points between the Black Sea and the Himalayas: the heart of the world. The Silk Road gives us a historical look at early civilization in Central Asia to the Second Gulf War and continues to highlight some of the challenges affecting the ‘Middle East.’
There are those who are thrilled with hearing about the battles between kings riding on chariots. However, if you’re like me, history is not always exciting unless something intriguing draws us in. Living in America, you don’t always get a chance to appreciate the history of other countries because you rarely hear about it. However, as a Jamaican native, global history was the norm in most schools. While visiting Oxford, every aspect of the country’s history was inviting because I met Martyn Percy personally. Every aspect of this history was engaging and personal because of my acquaintance with Dr. Percy. When we heard that “Alice in Wonderland” was inspired by real events or that the Harry Potter series found inspiration in our dining hall, suddenly Oxford’s history was even more intriguing.
More than a book, the Prussian geographer, Ferdinand von Richthofen developed the term “Silk Road” in 1877 to highlight the network of roads and routes. This is cultural interaction at work as it connected the East and West from China to the Mediterranean Sea. “Trade on the Silk Road played a significant role in the development of the civilizations of China, the Indian subcontinent, Persia, Europe, the Horn of Africa and Arabia, opening long-distance political and economic relations between the civilizations.” Frankopan wanted to trace this network and role throughout history. There is uniqueness that remained throughout history until now. In our present culture, we associate a country’s power based on its wealth and resources. “What made empires great were large numbers of cities, producing taxable revenues; what made them culturally spectacular were artisans and craftsmen who developed new ideas when wealthy patrons competed with each other for their services and rewarded them for their skills” (p. 13).
The author provides the backstory between modern Iran and the US, Israel and Palestine, and the Gulf conflicts. By reading this book, you’ll find that the author uses stories to connect with some of the key moments in history, rather than throwing a bunch of dates to the readers. Here’s some of what you learn in this book:
- The Persian Empire: “Trade flourished in ancient Persia, providing revenues that allowed rulers to fund military expeditions targeting locations that brought yet more resources into the empire” (p. 2).
- The First Silk Roads between Central Asia and China
- Formation of colonial-imperial economy in 15th century
- Development of petroleum extraction in Iran
- British and Russian competition over Persia, Afghanistan and Indian subcontinent
- The famous ‘Hunger Plan’ developed by the Germans during World War II to seize food from the Soviet Union for German soldiers; it was death by starvation for the ‘racially inferior. Who was the architect behind this? Herbert Backe with the help of Heinrich Himmler.
- US/Soviet competition on the Cold War
- Rise of Islamic extremists
- Buddhist: “By the 460s, Buddhist thought, practices, art and imagery had become part of the mainstream in China” (p. 31) and actually rivaled
The author suggested that this book “draws on primary sources written in different languages” with the intent of challenging each reader to realize that the Silk Road impacted everything in history. While you’ll find that global history is magnified from an eastern perspective, the author is intentional in his inclusion of the religious and racial issues that affected history and deals with some of the complexity of each region he covers in its historical context. The author specifically targets Europe and late US policies primarily in the Middle East.
Positively or negatively, we understand history through our ethnocentric culture, but Frankopan decides to expand on our narrow perspective by opening our historical appetite to information that showed a fair representation of the evolution of the region and its influences through the ages. Cross pollination of cultures, beliefs and morality, money and the influence of power were practiced by religious groups that attached themselves to the governments and nationalistic needs. This book is not a historical encyclopedia, rather it provides enough insight that has the ability to challenge each reader to explore any of the events that emerged.
 Jerry Bentley, Old World Encounters: Cross-Cultural Contacts and Exchanges in Pre-Modern Times (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 32