“Once upon a time, Europe really did not matter.” The Silk Roads: An Illustrated New History of the World

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

“You start with a scarf…each 90-by-90-centimeter silk carré, printed in Lyon on twill made from thread created by the label’s own silkworms, holds a story. Since 1937, almost 2,500 original artworks have been produced, such as a 19th-century street scene from Ruedu Faubourg St.-Honore, the company’s home since 1880. The flora and fauna of Texas. A beach in Spain’s Basque country” –- this is a fragment from an advertisement article for Hermès in this month’s issue of a luxury magazine. The article is called “The Silk Road.” Does it refer to the “Silk Road” in any way that justifies the title, beyond the allure of legend? No. Does it mention that the first scarves created for this very label, in 1937, were made with raw silk from China? No. Not necessary, not relevant to the target reader. In fact, the less we mention the “East” while trying to sell such luxury designer items, the better, aiming as we are for the rich collector, the global consumer of fashion (whether belonging to the East or West) willing to spend hundreds of dollars on a small square of silk, and more likely to associate such status symbols with Western Europe rather than with the “underdeveloped,” impoverished, overpopulated, conflict-ridden East.

While silk has always been a coveted item, a symbol of wealth and power for millennia in many cultures around the world, the detailed, de-mythologized, accurate history of what we have come to know as the “Silk Road” is not only of little interest but has been deliberately suppressed in the West. Besides a vague connection with Marco Polo, most people usually draw a blank at its mention. During the many years that I have been working on (and presenting from) a trilogy of poetry manuscripts based on aspects of this history, I have come across few readers (including writers and academics) in the US who have a clear idea of the regions that have been, since antiquity, a part of these trade routes we call the Silk Road (or “’Seidenstrasse,” a term coined by the German historian Ferdinand von Richthofen in 1877) to define a network of land and sea routes of central and continuous importance to global trade as well as civilizational influences and the shifts in geographical borders around the world: a history that has been shaping not only how the world map looks from time to time, but how attitudes, knowledge, goods, technology, weapons, fashions, and even diseases and cures have been spreading across the continents and through the centuries.

Rudyard Kipling, despite his sweeping imagination and gift for lucid description, recycled the worst impulses of Western colonialism in works such “The White Man’s Burden,” George Orwell presented us with complex scenarios of power-play, offering a moving glimpse of what a level playing field might look like in the context of colonialism, Edward Said identified the skewed perceptions of the East (predominant in West) that perpetuate attitudes justifying colonial exploitation, attitudes that have effectively carried over to every facet of postcolonial existence. In his book “Silk Roads: A New History of the world,” historian Peter Frankopan, delves into the study of world history using a framework, a compass, a timeline hitherto absent in the typical Eurocentric discourse without a dose of which none of us are considered “educated” by today’s standards.

Frankopan’s premise as a historian of this significant and significantly neglected, erased, history, is itself a critique of modern western historiography. He begins with the personal story of the world map in his room that caught his imagination as a child; finding the evasion of large chunks of history in his school curriculum frustrating, he charted his own scholarly path at a young age; he became an autodidact.

“The Silk Roads” is quite a revolutionary book; it challenges the prevalent notions of Western Europe being the absolute center of civilization. Published a few years ago, it not only became an international bestseller but is deemed so important in understanding the imminent, tectonic shifts in global economy and power— that it has been included in academic courses in many countries worldwide. An illustrated version of the book was released a few days ago by Bloomsbury; it is a summarized version, rich with illustrations that are modern, whimsical interpretations of images recognizable as historical portraits, relics and cultural symbols. The writing style is modified to suit younger readers, the chapters are arranged chronologically but follow certain themes, named by topics such as “The Road to the New Worlds,” “The Road of Slaves,” “The Road to Chaos,” “The Road to Disenchantment,” “The Road to Heaven,” etc. The origins of, and interactions between the Huns, the Rus, Sassanians, Khazars, Sogdians, Mongols, as well as the more recent conflicts between world powers such the former Soviet Union and the USA are discussed briefly, all within the framework of the Silk Roads. The last chapter “the New Silk Roads” deals with the current economic and political developments taking place in the region.

Frankopan begins with the vast Persian empire and the conquests of Alexander: “Alexander’s advance helped deepen the connections linking east with west. Goods, people and ideas—about religion, literature and education—that were flowing in each direction began to do so even more rapidly.” He takes us through the millennia as they unfolded (in terms of global significance) in the pacific coasts of China and Russia to the Atlantic coasts of Europe and Africa, and from Scandinavia in the north to the Indian Ocean in the south. By the end of the book, the impact of the history of the Silk Roads is apparent on each and every continent.

An important message at the heart of this work is the discussion of cooperation, tolerance, and preserving human values; “It was easy to be tolerant and feel comfortable about those with different views, customs, and ways of living when things were going well. But when times were tough—perhaps because of climate change, economic upheaval, or military threat—minorities were always the first to suffer. Finding a way to cooperate and live harmoniously together could be— and still can be—surprisingly difficult.”

Tolerance is linked with valuing knowledge. In the Chapter “The Road to Wisdom,” Frankopan describes the Islamic civilization in its renaissance: “Great support was given to scholars and their research. Race, religion, and even gender were not barriers for those who were brilliantly clever, and scholars took pride in gathering knowledge from all corners of the world. This was a time that saw major breakthroughs in in sciences and mathematics, medicine and astronomy, literature and philosophy.” Comparing the Muslim civilization to Europe of the time, he says: “While the Muslim world took delight in innovation and new ideas, much of Christian Europe withered in the gloom, crippled by a lack of resources and curiosity.” He goes on to say: “in a world of opposites, even the most powerful leaders in Europe could barely read and write—and many could not read or write at all.”

The chapter does well to shed light on a remarkable period of intellectual efflorescence that took place in the heart of the Islamic empire of the time—Baghdad—but the preceding chapter “The Road to Islam,” leaves much to be desired, as it looks at Islam merely as a political and economic vehicle (without any mention of spirituality and human values at its core), followers of which were enticed by the reward of paradise, or the prospect of material gain in military campaigns. I find myself dumbfounded by these gaps and omissions. Knowing how articulately the author speaks of the ethos of Islam in the context of the thriving civilization it generated (its emphasis on knowledge linked directly with the first word revealed to the prophet of Islam: “Read!”), I think the wording of this short chapter may have resulted from an editorial oversight.

What I find to be the most valuable feature of this book is its clarity and accessibility (considering its enormous scope) as well as how well the illustrations go with the content of each page, and how fascinating and easy to decipher the maps are; thanks to Neil Packer, the illustrator, the author’s lifelong fondness for maps is conveyed beautifully. I got to this book before my twelve-year old son did, but I’m quite sure he’ll find it useful, entertaining and memorable; it gives me a sense of peace that he will grow up in a world where there is better awareness of world history, the picture of human civilization is less fuzzy, incomplete, or biased, and the rich, diverse confluence of history along the Silk Road is finally understood beyond the escapades of Marco Polo or the exotic romance of its name.