Peter Frankopan – Silk Roads: A New History of the World
Peter Frankopan, is Director of the Centre for Byzantine Research at Oxford University and Senior Research Fellow at Worcester College, Oxford. In this comprehensive and compelling book Frankopan presents a perspective of world history through the lens of the East. With superb scholarship, extensive research, and multi-lingual capabilities he argues that the Silk Roads situated in the heart of Asia are the cradle of civilization—linking the East to the West. He challenges the predominant Euro-centric history that for centuries focused the heart of civilization in the European Mediterranean belt. In this work, the Silk Roads are the focal point and foundation of Frankopan’s perspective of a “New History of the World.”
Frankopan views Central Asia with its abundance of Silk Roads as the center of world history and development. These roads formed a network of interconnecting routes that connected continents and people groups, resulting in the exchange of economic, scientific, and religious ideas and cultural goods. The term “Silk Road” was coined by the Prussian geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen in 1877, in reference to an enormous network of roads and routes that crisscrossed Central Asia connecting China with the Mediterranean for more than a thousand years.
In the Silk Roads, Frankopan traces the history of that network and its role in the dissemination of religious and scientific ideas, the exchange of commercial and cultural goods, and the advent of military and political regimes. It was the place where the civilizations of antiquity began, where the world’s greatest religions were born and thrived, where languages spread, where empires rose and fell, where disease ran rampant, and where slavery was practiced. Frankopan believes his concept of a New History of the World is global history rightly understood from the perspective of the political, economic, theological, and cultural dynamics of Central Asia.
I was intrigued that one of the most important contributions that the Silk Roads made to world history/civilization was that they served as the seed bed for and means of dissemination of the major religions of the world (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism) and lesser known religions along the routes crisscrossing Central Asia. This occurred primarily through trade, warfare, and travel. These religions are so disparate in theology and doctrine I can’t help but wonder what corresponding tensions or hostilities accompanied this level of religious diversity. Frankopan states that all the religions compete with each other, fight with each other, and borrow from each other. But, it was also important to demonstrate that one had religious beliefs and values and that they were beneficial to one’s life.
A shocking element associated with the Silk Roads is the large scale trafficking of white men, women and children in Europe as slaves to the East in exchange for silver during the early Middle Ages. Frankopan seeks to impress upon his readers that it is a fact that the Silk Roads impact almost everything in life: from the expeditions of Columbus, to the Holocaust, and beyond. They are inextricably involved in the fate of the West.
According to Frankopan, the lands around the Silk Roads were eclipsed by the shift of global power to the West, but the countries in greater Asia in general, and Central Asia in particular are now rising again. He thinks it is apparent that the world’s center of gravity is shifting back to where it was for millennia. He indicates if “Lesson one is to pay attention to the countries around the spine of Asia, Lesson two is to learn to see them as parts of a connected whole.”
Frankopan informs us that key regions in the East are currently in strategic positions relative to international politics, commerce, and culture and are shaping the modern world. He is confident that a geopolitical shift in power from the West to the East will usher in a new history of the world. If Frankopan is correct that the Silk Roads are on the rise and the lands of the Silk Roads have renewed global significance, what might that look like in a contemporary context? For the global economy? For global ministry? For the Church’s impact as a dynamic voice and source of spiritual transformation?