Diversity is not simply a subset of culture, but a dialect of nuance, perspective and narrative. It is the pen by which men and women express their story and expose their truth. The English playwright, Edward Bulwer-Lytton captured this beautifully when he stated, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Peter Frankopan, historian and director of Oxford’s Centre for Byzantine Research envelopes his audience into a world of variants – He challenges his readers to see the world from a new perspective and journey with him through the provocative history of the Silk Roads.
The author reveals that, “For centuries before the early modern era, the intellectual centres of excellence of the world, the Oxfords and Cambridges, the Harvards and Yales, were not located in Europe or the west, but in Baghdad and Balkh, Bukhara and Samarkand.” The Silk Roads A New History of the World, challenges readers to understand that the east was the meeting place of the minds, commerce, community and religion – it was the centric point of global influence. Frankopan suggests that, “It is easy to mould the past into a shape that we find convenient and accessible. But that ancient world was much more sophisticated and interlinked than we sometimes like to think.” Throughout the text, Frankopan weaves in and out of history – giving readers a glimpse at the world through the eyes of the east.
The author delves into the religious backdrop of the early world and reveals that:
Christianity has long been associated with the Mediterranean and western Europe. In part, this has been due to the location of the leadership of the church, with the senior figures of the Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox churches based in Rome, Canterbury and Constantinople (Modern Istanbul) respectively. But in fact every aspect of early Christianity was Asian.
Moreover, “Cities like Merv, Gundeshapur and even Kashgar, the oasis town that was the entry point to China, had archbishops long before Canterbury did. These were major Christian centres many centuries before the first missionaries reached Poland or Scandinavia.” The author suggests that the trade routes enabled Christianity to reach countless individuals and influence culture at staggering amounts. However, it also enabled various other religions to gain impact throughout the cities as well. Heretical and variant forms of religions were being born; however, according to Frankopan, “…it was Christianity that kept chipping away at traditional beliefs, practices and value systems.” However, Christianity would soon lose its footing and Islam would help pull out the rug.
Frankopan explains that, “Muhammad’s preaching certainly fell on fertile ground.” However, Muslims also waged war against anyone who did not hold to a similar theology. Islam, like many other religions during that time, was used to manipulating the people for political gain, economic increase and territorial reign.
According the author, many Christians and Jews supported Muhammad because of his unwavering stance of unity and monotheism. Frankopan suggests that, “Cohabitation of the faiths was an important hallmark of early Islamic expansion – and an important part of its success.” Muslim leaders were tolerant and gracious towards Christian leaders; however, after Muhammad died, they became intently focused on conversion and proselytization.
Frankopan delves into the torturous history of the Middle Ages and recalls the ravages, castrations and slave trades that filled the pockets of Muslims during the ninth century. He recounts the travesties that stained the east and the Crusades that cried out for revolution. In the following chapters, Frankopan went on to discuss the ramifications of Columbus, the ripple effect of eastern influence, the Cold War and the aftermath of terrorism and national security.
The east has gone through numerous accounts of transformation throughout the centuries; however, their influence is still reaching the far ends of the earth. Frankopan concludes his text by stating:
It is easy to feel confused and disturbed by dislocation and violence in the Islamic world, by religious fundamentalism, by clashes between Russia and its neighbors or by China’s struggle with extremism in its western provinces. What we are witnessing, however, are the birthing pains of a region that once dominated the intellectual, cultural and economic landscape which is now re-emerging. We are seeing the signs of the world’s centre of gravity shifting – back to where it lay for millennia.
Peter Frankopan takes us through the story and invites to respond. He gives us a glimpse at the ramifications of globalization and reveals the remnants of the past that present a foundation for the future. “The world is changing around us.” This is why it is crucial to understand the world from varied perspectives. Leadership requires us to walk in someone else’s’ shoes – it challenges us to lead from a place of servanthood. Frankopan dares his readers to look at the nations with new eyes – He dares us to remove our biases and understand another’s pain. He dares us to create hubs of conversation that breed community.
Peter Frankopan, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, Reprint ed. (New York, NY: Vintage, 2017), xvii