DMINLGP

DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Whereisthatistan?

Written by: on October 12, 2019

Until recently, writing history without acknowledging ones cultural biases was a relatively simple matter. Now, however, in the age of the internet and global perspectives, such actions are not only unacceptable, but they are also immediately challengeable. This blog site we write in is live to the world, and it is read, analysed and critiqued in near real-time. Consequently, writing the history of the world using Persia as the locus of that history was driven by either a death wish or a hope that it would resonate in a new era. As director of the Centre for Byzantine Research, Peter Frankopan has followed that route by ambitiously relocating the centre of historical gravity, in a somewhat surprising and slightly frustrating book (mostly because of its unfamiliar place names and history).

The New Silk Road seems like a somewhat monocled observation of the world as it seems to ignore thousands of years of human history in order to contemplate the rise of the Persian empire. In the introduction, Frankopan makes it clear that his project is to offer a new vision of history; to confront suppositions about where we come from and what has formed us. He is right when he says that our western sense of self is formed by education and tradition that emphasises the greatness of the Greeks and our inheritance as heirs of the Romans. Consequently, the Mediterranean truly is the centre of our known world.[1] That being the case, Frankopan wants to topple that Eurocentric understanding by moving the axis to the east, beyond Mesopotamia to Iran and to those many “stans” we hear about.

The silk roads are the routes which people, goods, ideas, religions, disease and many other things have flowed and Frankopan reminds us that the routes between China and the Mediterranean Sea, which now pass through some of the world’s most disturbed and dangerous countries (Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan…) have been trodden or ridden long before documented history.

There is nothing especially new in claiming that the centre of world lies to the east: according to Google, in 1587 the English playwrite and poet, Christopher Marlowe, called Persia “the middle of the world”, a thought that has been repeated by other trade historians over the centuries.[2] Nevertheless, Frankopan wanders further from the carefully manicured boundaries of geopolitical history than many others. He offers a boggling number of archives and quotes seemingly endless texts to strike a point against the bedrock of histories status quo.

Frankopan explores the spread of well-known movements, but in ways different from our normal expectations. Christianity under the Roman;[3] Islamic expansion;4] the spread of scientific advances, philosophical ideas and the cross-fertilisisation of life – east to west.[5] Likewise, it was interesting to read Frankopans record of the less than beneficial aspects of life that travelled those same roads: violence was a regular commuter in rising of the Mongols,[6] the later appearance of the Russian empire,[7] and of course British and American intrusion that has taken place since the 19th century.[8] I admit to being enamoured by the writers accounting of the spread of the plague and the black death, along with the point that the destruction of Europe’s population came with specific benefits: a slight silver lining to a very black cloud; fewer workers meant the price of labour increased, and wealth spread across the classes. As a result, the soil of the Renaissance was watered.[9]

However, though the book is a fascinating read, it is missing references to other significant realities. There is a scant reference to the European Enlightenment. If I remember correctly, there was also a significant growth in North Sea trade which had a major effect on the silk roads in the 14th century.

The Silk Roads is an exciting read because it took my attention away from the ordinary version of history that is so familiar. However, without the assistance of old biblical maps and a few snapshots from Google, I would have had no idea how to geographically place many of the unpronounceable place names that Frankopan references. Which leads to my greatest question: who is the book aimed at? Without some knowledge of the Middle East, the various ‘Stans’ and their interconnected history, you would probably be left somewhat bewildered – and I certainly was despite having spent some time in those parts of the world. Also, given what we currently see of them, I found his optimism that Persia may indeed rise again, just a little too optimistic

Yet, despite those criticisms and the complications of unfamiliar place names, the book is quite readable and does give pause for thought – not so much about what might have been had circumstances turned out differently, but instead just how Eurocentric we are in our daily conceptions of who we are and how we came to be what we are.

 

[1] Peter Frankopan, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, 01 ed. (London: Bloomsbury Paperbacks, 2016). xix and 258

[2] Jacques Lezra, “Geography and Marlow,” in Christopher Marlowe in Context (Literature in Context), ed. Emily C Bartels and Emma Smith, (Cambridge University Press, 2013). 132

[3] Frankopan, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. 38-44

[4] Ibid. 63ff

[5] Ibid. vii

[6] Ibid. 154ff

[7] Ibid. 280ff

[8] Ibid. see Chapter 21

[9] Ibid. 191-192

About the Author

Digby Wilkinson

I am currently the Vicar of the Tawa Anglican Church in Wellington, New Zealand. I have only been in this role since February 2018. Prior to this appointment, I was the Dean of the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul, which made me the senior priest of the diocese working alongside the Bishop. I guess from an American perspective this makes me look decidedly Episcopalian, however my ministry background and training was among the Baptists. Consequently, I have been serving as pastor/priest for nearly thirty years. My wife Jane also trained for ministry, and has spent the last decade spiritually directing and supervising church leaders from different denominations. We have three grown children.

11 responses to “Whereisthatistan?”

  1. Mario Hood says:

    Great post. I have a feeling that if this book continues to be a requirement the next cohorts would be smart to use this post as a reference :).

    One thing I was left with (other than where are all the stans) is hearing a different version makes me aware that what I know is only a portion of the truth. Be open-minded more than closed and that will make you a better leader.

    • Digby Wilkinson says:

      When it comes to history Mario, we are rarely dealing with the truth. History doesn’t exist, only artefacts. We have to create a story from those artefacts and the stories created are not always the same because in the present we overlay our own stories from the present so the past tells us what we want to hear. Being a historian is an incredibly difficult task because the temptation to politicise history or to use it to make sense of our present is always there. And for the average punter, how would we even know? That’s why I’m not sure who this book was written for. Perhaps no one in particular.

  2. Thank you Digby for this great post, I like your openness to Frankopan’s attempt to redefine the future of the world. I also appreciated getting to know more about the silk roads but wondered at his omission of the role of Christianity in shaping history, both in the past and in the future.

    • Digby Wilkinson says:

      Hi Wallace. I think Frankopan wanted to view the Persian world without the lens of Christianity. By putting it to one side, the view changes and it is a good thing for historians to do. However, as you say, you can’t discount Christianity as having no role because it did. It was just a mechanism that Frankopan used to make a point that the world is multifaceted,

  3. mm Karen Rouggly says:

    Good post, Digby. Like you, I needed to read this with a book in one hand and a map in the other. Your question about the audience gives me pause because this book made the NY Times best seller list and so it was pretty widely read. I wonder what the average western reader got from it and why it was so popular. My guess – it was the black plague.

    • Digby Wilkinson says:

      Hi. I have no idea what the average western reader might have got from it, but I do have a theory and I spoke with Jaso about this in London. My generation is the first in human history not to have witnessed or experienced a war that directly threatens our existence. That means we have never experienced the terror of being overrun by another culture through violence. So, we become entitled and a bit bored with our reality because it is rarely threatened. Subsequently, it is interesting to flirt with alternative possibilities and broaden the eyes of our mind so we can protest our otherwise benign lives – it’s an educated and very middle-class thing to do.

  4. Andrea Lathrop says:

    Thanks Digby. I was looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this book. Although I was challenged by it (and had to remind myself to engage critically instead of just swallowing it all), you articulated something I was aware of as well: his confidence that Persia would rise and reign again seems very optimistic. But even considering the possibility has been good for me this week.

    Appreciate you.

    • Digby Wilkinson says:

      Don’t swallow history Andrea, it’s a dark and dreadful art. I wrote to a historian friend recently and asked if the past really exists. She said no. There are only relics from the past, and the task to piece together events and people and experiences, but none are entirely reliable. Our ability to politicise historical artefacts into stories that serve our own ends is always problematic. However, as you say, it’s good to consider a different possibility.

  5. mm Jenn Burnett says:

    I was pretty confident this book was aimed at the Western reader, which made me wonder how it would be read by Eastern readers. Would they affirm his story as true? How would they feel about this Oxford fellow making money by telling their story? Was the hoped for intent of this book to warn the west of a looming shift in power? Or to better acknowledge our roots? And my anxiety trigger has me asking what role Climate change might play in who rises as a power next.

  6. mm Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Digby,
    Your thoughtful post summary affirmed (I really like it when you do that) my primary takeaway, that is, not the content of Frankopan’s work but rather his bold admonition to become aware of my Eurocentrism. Yes, I am a Texan from the USA, but I am quite taken by my European cousins (especially those interconnected with Oxford, wow, what a place!) Through Frankopan, I have discovered my Eurocentrism tends to blind me toward other histories, other maps, other perspectives. Digby, thanks so much for your thoughtful banter and your admonition to rethink our individual centrism.

  7. mm Sean Dean says:

    Digby, your post reminds me of a phrase I keep hearing people say – particularly people on the more progressive side of things. “You don’t want to be on the wrong side of history,” they say as if there is an absolute history that will be written about any topic. It always feels like a shortsighted view of history – as if history is only written by the victors and there is an obvious victor in any given situation. Taking time to pause, realize that history is really in the eye of the beholder, and that we sometimes need to see with other people’s eyes seems like a wise way of understanding history. Thanks for your post.

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