View Full Version : The Silk Roads

06-03-2018, 02:35 AM
I wrote a review of Peter Frankopan's "The Silk Roads" a few months ago. It is up at Brownpundits. (http://www.brownpundits.com/2017/06/14/book-review-the-silk-roads/)

...This is a frustrating, though still useful, book. Historian Peter Frankopan’s title claims this is “a new history of the world”. He then proposes that what the world needs is to reorient its focus from Europe to “the silk roads”, vaguely defined by him as “the region between East and West.. from the Eastern shores of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean to the Himalayas”. This almost certainly reflects the fact that the core of this region happens to his particular area of interest (Turkey, Persia, Central Asia and Russia) as a historian. Having made this decision, he has to force the rest of the story to keep coming back to this region, to somehow keep his argument afloat.

...The other issue is that having attempted a sort of forced universal history, he wanders into areas where he is clearly not an expert and makes some surprisingly basic errors. For example, the abduction of Sita is described as being part of the great Indian epic, the Mahabharata (it is actually in the Ramayana; a mistake that could be avoided by even the most basic familiarity with Indian culture); and the Quranic verse “hold fast to the rope of Allah” (3:103) is interpreted (with breathtaking audacity, if not accuracy) as a possible message of conciliation between Muslims, Jews and Christians (it is an explicit call for Muslim unity, against all comers). These are minor details, but they should put the reader on guard. More seriously, at one point he claims that the building of the Taj Mahal owes to the riches that the Mughals gathered from Europe, which in turn was getting them from the newly discovered Americas (“India’s glory came at the expense of the Americas”), which is a bit much. As far as I know, It came from the sweat and blood Indian peasants, not from events in the distant Americas.

...There is also a consistent and very strong undertow of what may be described as “Eurocentric-self-hate” throughout the book. Peter thinks the West has been very vicious and uniquely rapacious in history, which is a kind of mirror image of the idea that the West has been uniquely powerful in history. Even where this is likely true (e.g. in the 19th century), his treatment of this seems to be too close to popular postmarxist postmodern historiography for comfort.

In general, the account of recent events (the book ends with the recent American disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan) is too superficial to satisfy anyone who is genuinely interested in any particular theater of conflict, and too trite and formulaic to be categorized as a groundbreaking universal history. The last chapter is a good example of the irritating way he mixes occasional good insights with his need to fit everything into his original “silk roads as center of the world” thesis. He also has a tendency to rather pompously assert “the West needs to give up its current disastrous focus on X and step back and adopt the correct way of looking at things”; which is irritating because X is usually a straw man and the “correct way” is mostly a rewording of his unproven “center of the world” thesis.