Silk Road by Peter Frankopan is a historical view of the world that is taken from a non-eurocentric perspective. Frankopan is a well noted scholar and academic from Oxford, England, where he is the director of the Centre for Byzantine Research. Frankopan ignores the common thought of the world’s history going back through the Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians to a view of the world’s originating civilization coming from the east. The “Silk Roads” named by German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen, were the routes which people, goods, ideas, and religions, traveled from the east to the west. Frankopan takes the ideology of the “silk road” to also be the avenue in which civilization itself traveled.
This historical view of the east being the epicenter of civilization is not new with Frankopan. In 1587, Christopher Marlowe called Persia/Iran “the middle of the world”. As well, many other historians have shared the same perspective. Frankopan, also omits some interesting and somewhat important historical facts about human history, I think this is due to the immense about of time and breadth of information attempting to be covered. I think it is important to note that some that history is impactful in shaping history. For instance the entire European Enlightenment is almost forgotten, as well a very different look at the Arab and Jew relationship that is very favorable to the Arab and light on violence and conflict. Again, I mark much of this to only having a 504 pages (600 plus with references) in which to cover thousands of years of human history and not a slight against any group or fact.
For me, the most interesting perspective of Frankopan’s writing is the tension that it reveals. There are three major tensions that I see emerging from his book. First, is the tension of conflicting historical views and narratives are vastly different and interesting. Secondly, the view of history repeating itself and almost reoccurring is a suggestible narrative. Third, is how the impact of yesterday actually impacts how we live today and ultimately our view of tomorrow. The tension of differing and opposing views, thoughts, and ideologies in which we live our lives on and raise our children to believe is probably the most fascinating of all.
We take almost for granted that history is just that, history and therefore it is fact. We are taught this in elementary school: the teachers teaches it, book states it, and we believe it. It is not until later in our maturity and educational journey that the information and data we know as history is subjective and is subject to some interpretation. Yes there are facts and absolutes that our world confirms, but there is personal perspective, conjecture, and some good old fashion “filling in the blanks”. I think that Frankopan’s writing pushes back and creates some well needed tension on history and our view of it.
The idea that life or history is linear has long been defeated. However, we still think that we are the only people facing a problem today. When we look we realize that we are not the first and probably not the last, but rather part of the cycle of history repeating itself. Frankopan deals with ideologies, religion, and even disease that traveled the Silk Road. Today is no different than then. New ideologies, religion, and even viruses travel to us today in the form of the internet. The speed of transmission may be fast, but the result of change is the same.
Last, understanding that how we view our origins indicates how we view the future. Our origins make us sympathetic to people groups and parts of the world. It informs our compassions. In Frankopan’s writing that our western origins are from the east and not of Roman or Greek descent, colors our leanings and even interests. It gives meaning and insight into how’s and why’s of our nature.
All of the above tensions culminate to produce our world view. They inform how we look at people groups and current events, as well they give interest and insight in to how we got to the present. History is not neutral and therefore not tension free. It is colored by opinions, perspectives, and voices that are not all in unison. It requires of us to think, process, and decide for ourselves. As well, we don’t all agree, as we may not all agree with Frankopan’s view or interpretation. One thing is for certain, Frankopan and others inform how we view ourselves, others, and the world in which we live. Just as our history is not free of tension, neither are we.