Having finished The Button Box by Lynn Knight I was in need of a good new non-fiction reading project to dive into.
It could be anything as long as it was new and a bit different, and having read From East End to Land's End (thoughts coming soon) with its history of Judaism, and realising that the gaps in my historical knowledge were, despite all this reading, still like yawning chasms, well I was up for tackling something hefty but readable.
A book that would give me plenty of Did You Know moments at the breakfast table and a book that would leave me feeling that I had learned new things, maybe even experienced a shift in long-held assumptions, that's what I needed.
What about a book that might even shift the axis of my perceptions about the world.
I had been eyeing up The Silk Roads - A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan for a while. This from the publisher's (Bloomsbury) website...
For centuries, fame and fortune was to be found in the west – in the New World of the Americas. Today, it is the east which calls out to those in search of adventure and riches. The region stretching from eastern Europe and sweeping right across Central Asia deep into China and India, is taking centre stage in international politics, commerce and culture – and is shaping the modern world.
This region, the true centre of the earth, is obscure to many in the English-speaking world. Yet this is where civilization itself began, where the world's great religions were born and took root. The Silk Roads were no exotic series of connections, but networks that linked continents and oceans together. Along them flowed ideas, goods, disease and death. This was where empires were won – and where they were lost. As a new era emerges, the patterns of exchange are mirroring those that have criss-crossed Asia for millennia. The Silk Roads are rising again.
A major reassessment of world history, The Silk Roads is an important account of the forces that have shaped the global economy and the political renaissance in the re-emerging east.
The reviews had been ecstatic verging on stellar...
“Brilliant and fearlessly wide-ranging … undaunted by the complexity of the material, and the scale of the subject he has taken on, Frankopan marches briskly through the centuries, disguising his erudition with an enviable lightness of touch, enlivening his narrative with a beautifully constructed web of anecdotes and insights, backed up by an impressively wide-ranging scholarly apparatus of footnotes drawing on works in multiple languages … This is history on a grand scale, with a sweep and ambition that is rare … a remarkable book on many levels, a proper historical epic of dazzling range and achievement” – William Dalrymple, Books of the Year, Guardian
And that little shrug of a dust jacket which I have removed rather than rip but which reveals the sumptuous design that lies beneath.
I'm ready for the off and so I embark but with some trepidation. I mean World History, where on earth do you start.
Fortunately, Peter Frankopan knows exactly where to start; 2000 years ago when globalisation was nothing new, Persia and China were bursting with opportunities and with them the problems and technical advances that accompany those opportunities. Meanwhile, Rome was also in the ascendant and silk, as well as being a luxury product, was a reliable currency.
Before I knew it I was in.
Now many of you will be experts on all this, for many I expect it is a specialist subject, but imagine coming to it as an almost blank sheet with the occasional cursory line filled in now and again, well that's me.
At page sixty-three I stop and write in my notebook...
'Big surprise, I am really enjoying this...'
Slowly the religious faiths are emerging; Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam and to my surprise they seem able to live in relative harmony. There exists cooperation and mutual respect, a 'cohabitation of the faiths,' The Moslem world is scholarly and inquisitive with a thirst for knowledge, whilst in stark contrast Europe is a gloomy black hole, backward and constrained by Christianity in any attempts at progress.
'I'm dangerous when I get my hands on a bit of history,' I note, and by now, having safely traversed the book as far as the twelfth century proceed to the breakfast table with the startling news that actually I have realised that Game of Thrones is not that far wide of the mark for realism, it just has added dragons, and that the Mongol hordes (surely the Dothraki) under the leadership of Genghis Khan (has to be Kahl Drogo) were actually far from being the barbarians I had always assumed.
I've glossed over the Knights Templar and the Crusades here because it would seem they were ultimately a waste of time and effort, but the Mongols...well how fascinating are they. Not as wild, chaotic, unreliable and bloodthirsty as first thought and only cast in that light by the Persian historians who wrote about them and were keen to emphasise only the devastation.
No indeed, Peter Frankopan informs me that the Mongols were ruthless planners with clear strategies (domination) and a streamlined organisation who used violence selectively and deliberately to cultivate fear, making capitulation more likely. Conquered towns and cities were re-energised and arts and culture encouraged, whilst Northern Europe was largely left alone because it wasn't much of a prize.
In fact, as a prize in a raffle you'd be much happier winning Venice.
And, for now, that is far as I have read. 200 or so pages of gripping reading. It is 1492 and Christopher Colon (aka Columbus) has just set sail west, so America you are about to enter stage left, but in the process I have discovered an authorial presence that I trust. If Peter Frankopan can steer me through the first millennium and keep me interested and enthused, then I am winning because each time I put the book down I can't wait to pick it up again.
If you have read The Silk Roads I would love to know your thoughts...
If not are you at least impressed by the cover...
And can anyone recommend any other books that focus on the subject of the Silk Roads and especially the production of the silk itself...