What is “the axis on which the world spins?” What is the center of the world? This is really the driving question of Peter Frankopan’s monumental international bestseller: The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. Frankopan set out to write the history of the world from Antiquity to 2014—what an enormous feat to attempt.
One reviewer suggests that Frankopan set out to deal with questions that historians, neuroscientists and anthropologists have been asking forever, is the question of the human impulse to explore, travel, to “reach out beyond the horizon toward the unknown…”
But the author has done more than to reveal the interesting dynamics of trade routes and how humans have pursued conquest and trade along these routes for all these centuries. Frankopan is concerned with perspective, and how history is always told from a particular perspective. He offers a new way of looking at the history of the world where Europe, or the Mediterranean to be precise—which literally means, “the center of the world,” to suggest that much of the way history has been taught in the west, not surprisingly, has been western-centric.
According to one reviewer who argues Frankopan’s sense of urgency for this book: “How shamefully we in the West have been caught in the 20th and early 21st centuries with our strategic trousers around our ankles, dunderheadedly failing to remember why the map of the Middle East is drawn with such straight lines. Our ancestors would have been horrified by today’s willful ignorance.”The book reveals to us over and over again that the world did not find it’s center in Europe and only moved out from there, but in fact, these “silk roads,” went in two directions. Forgive the long quotation, but this reviewer reminds us of several key events Frankopan discussed in his book:
“The third century BC Indian emperor Ashoka, whose life was transformed by the Buddha, issued an edict in Aramaic with a parallel Greek translation. In the sixth century AD, a Chinese noble was buried with a silver ewer depicting the Trojan war. It was Chinese cloth “of inestimable value” that was draped in the early 12th century over the Ka’aba, Islam’s most sacred site, in Mecca. The descendants of slaves, trafficked along the Silk Roads, became the powerful Mameluke rulers of Egypt. The ferocious Ghaznavid and Seljuk empires, too, were established by Turkic slave-soldiers. It is heart-rending now to read a Chinese traveller’s description of a tranquil Syria in the seventh century AD: ‘Brigands and robbers are unknown, the people enjoy happiness and peace. None but illustrious laws prevail…’
We do history and the human experience a disservice if we follow a linear, teleological narrative through time, imagining it to be unidirectional or neatly boxed. Across time and space we are all connected; we all rise and fall. Globalisation might be voguish, but it is not new.”
In 1998, I joined a group of classmates from Westmont College to study World Civilization (ancient world) for several months. The entire course was taught in Cairo and throughout Egypt and even parts of Israel, by a professor from Westmont who had moved to Cairo ten years prior to our course, to run and teach a program called the Middle East Studies Program, which was a rigorous program for college students to spend a year learning Arabic language and culture.
Having spent 10 years in Cairo by the time we arrived, Rick Cahill (our prof) was fluent in English, Arabic, German, French, and something else—maybe Indian. My conservative upbringing which I have been rebelling against for as long as I can remember, would have described him as “anti-western”, because he told a history of the world that was not centered in Europe, and did not give off a kind of ignorant western superiority. I remember being in Palestine as a twenty year old, listening to my professor teach on site, on the very dirt, with no notes and all the passion (and even profanity) of an Eminem song, him taking us onto the very ground somewhere near Gaza where Genghis Khan’s troops conquered a village, gutted the bodies and used them as bags to carry the jewelry and other valuables back to Asia. He was a passionate historian, an American ex-pat (I supposed), so committed to teaching history from what seemed like a different perspective. And I ate it up. I loved his teaching. I wanted to stay with him and sit at his feet. As a twenty year old, he caused me to not only question but also to reject the West, and certainly the United States of America, as the center of the world. He helped me to see an entirely different way of understanding history as almost a story of the world that has no real geographic center in terms of how the story of human history is told, but there are ancient histories that are told from every corner of the earth, it seems, each of which are swallowed up by the centrality of God in all things and in all places.
If there is a “center” of human history, it is not geographically understood, but theologically accepted. Jesus Christ, the incarnation of God in human form, is the center of human history. This perspective, therefore, gives room for Frankopan and other historians to tell the history of the world from any number of different perspectives, because in the end, all of history will be gathered up in Jesus Christ.
We don’t learn much about Genghis Khan and the Mongols here in the west. At least, if we do, it’s peripherally taught, as something sort of optional to know, but certainly not critical. What matters, according to modern western education, is how we became civilized through, as Frankopan is so apt to attack, the Romans, the Greeks, the Enlightenment, and then modern day science—all of which is western.
We are not the only nation or culture that wants to tell history in a way that works in our favor. According to one historian, “Genghis Khan is now seen as a national hero and founding father of Mongolia, but during the era of Soviet rule in the 20th century, the mere mention of his name was banned. Hoping to stamp out all traces of Mongolian nationalism, the Soviets tried to suppress the Khan’s memory by removing his story from school textbooks and forbidding people from making pilgrimages to his birthplace in Khentii. Genghis Khan was eventually restored to Mongolian history after the country won independence in the early 1990s, and he’s since become a recurring motif in art and popular culture. The Great Khan lends his name to the nation’s main airport in the city of Ulan Bator, and his portrait even appears on Mongolian currency.”
We must be committed to truth as it is, not as we see it. But the problem of course is that we believe what we see, or what we think we know. To be open to other ways of telling the story of history, it is humility that is needed.