The Silk Roads – by Peter Frankopan
Date read: 3/5/19. Recommendation: 7/10.
A comprehensive world history from the perspective of the East. The entire book is an important reminder that before the modern era, the Middle East and Asia were the scientific hubs of the world. Places like Iraq, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan were the centers of logic, theology, mathematics, medicine, and philosophy. The Silk Road allowed ideas and goods to spread, connecting distant people and cultures, from the Pacific to the Mediterranean. For most of history, Western Europe was an isolated, intellectual backwater. Frankopan details all of this and how the world’s political and economic center of gravity eventually came to shift West in recent centuries. It’s a great resource if you want to challenge your Western-centric view of history (it could also double as religious studies course).
See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews.
Intellectual center of the world:
Before the modern era, the Middle East and Asia were the scientific hub of the world (places like Iraq, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan). Center of logic, theology, mathematics, medicine, and philosophy.
At its peak, Baghdad was magnificent. Filled with parks, markets, mosques, bathhouses, schools, hospitals, palaces, kiosks, gardens.
Linked the Pacific to Mediterranean, first major pathways that connected distant people and cultures. Carried goods, but also fostered intellectual and religious exchange.
This is not a modern phenomenon. It was just as prevalent 2,000+ years ago with the expansion of China under the Han dynasty or Alexander of Macedon’s conquests of Persian territory. Each created its own opportunities, problems and technological advances.
What we think to be uniquely modern problems are rarely that (with the exception of climate, obesity, and a few others). People have been outraged for the entirety of human history about certain things, particularly progress and change. Certain themes have remained present as far back as we can see – i.e. struggles between religions.
“Two millennia ago, silks made by hand in China were being worn by the rich and powerful in Carthage and other cities in the Mediterranean, while pottery manufactured in southern France could be found in England and in the Persian Gulf. Spices and condiments grown in India were being used in the kitchens of Xinjiang, as they were in those of Rome. Buildings in northern Afghanistan carried inscriptions in Greek, while horses from Central Asia were being ridden proudly thousands of miles away to the east.” PF
The Mongols rose to power and gained the largest land empire in history because of ruthless planning, streamlined organization, and a clear set of strategic objectives. Ability and loyalty > tribal background or status.
Mongols were not always seen as oppressors, invested in infrastructure, rebuilt cities, emphasized arts and production. Their reputation as bloodthirsty barbarians is due to histories written after the fact.
“This slanted view of the past provides a notable lesson in how useful it is for leaders who have a view to posterity to patronize historians who write sympathetically of their age of empire–something the Mongols conspicuously failed to do.” PF
Silk roads were the veins through which the plague devastated the world.
Social and economic change brought about in the west was significant. Shortage of labor helped increase its value and wages, enhanced negotiation power of lower classes. Also matched by weakening of propertied class with lower rents and falling interest rates. Wealth became more even distributed and resulted in a greater purchasing power and demand for luxury goods. Rise in wealth also brought about better diets and health. Post-plague populations were generally far healthier than before it struck.
Great overview of the political struggles between faiths for much of human history. Puts the foolishness of religion and silly beginnings in perspective.
Eighth and ninth centuries, Muslims (in the east) were curious, tolerant, open-minded, focused on progress. Europe (the west) was filled with Christian fundamentalists who were the opposite. They were considered intellectual backwaters.
In the middle of the ninth century, the Khazars decided to become Jewish. Khazar ruler brought delegations from each faith to debate and present their case. He asked Christians whether Islam or Judaism was the better faith, they said the first was much worse. He asked the Muslims whether Christianity or Judaism was better and they ripped Christianity. Both had admitted Judaism to be better and so they converted.
Shift in world's political and economic center of gravity:
Since Europe was at the far end of the Silk Roads, it was an afterthought for most of history. But in the 1490s, Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic and Vasco de Gama navigated the southern tip of Africa. Both opened new trade routes and shifted the center of world power. Europe took center stage as the midpoint between the east and the west.
Rise of Western Europe:
France, Germany, Austria, Spain, Portugal and England were irrelevant in the world of the ancient Greeks, and were largely peripheral in the history of Rome. But after Columbus and Vasco de Gama, this changed their course of history entirely.
England would eventually turn what proved to be its weakness (distant, isolated), to its strength and the tides shifted towards Western Europe.
Led to a massive redistribution of wealth. WWI bankrupted the old world and enriched the new. To finance food production, weapons, munitions, the Allies commissioned J.P. Morgan & Co., taking on huge debts. During the Great War, Britain went from being largest creditor in the world to being its largest debtor. World economy was left in ruins.