The Silk Roads

Finding Western history rigidly focused on the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, in his new book The Silk Roads: A New History of the World Oxford historian Peter Frankopan reorients readers towards Asia. The result is a tour-de-force that is well over 600 pages and spans from Israel to China, from the Agricultural Revolution to the second term of President Obama.

Far from being mere trade routes, the Silk Roads were an essential first step to today's complex and interconnected world. Not only was Silk Road territory the birthplace of civilization (the Fertile Crescent of present-day Iraq and Syria), but early traders invented a sophisticated system by which East could link with West. "For the vast majority of the population of antiquity," Frankopan writes, "horizons were decidedly local... Nevertheless, the webs of communities wove into each other to create a world that was complex, where tastes and ideas were shaped by products, artistic principles and influences thousands of miles apart." Despite persistent dangers, Romans received goods from modern-day Java. Buddhism reached Egypt. Christianity made its way far into what is now Afghanistan.

Although lengthy, Frankopan's history moves swiftly, and each chapter is digestible in one sitting. Rather that doting on details, the narrative eases through the centuries. Philosophy, language and religious ideas move from East to West; bolts of silk (the world's first common currency) fall out of favor; power shifts from the traders of the steppe to the navies of Western Europe; camelback caravans are replaced by railroads and convenient sea routes. Frankopan reveals remarkable historical continuities between ancient and modern times. One sees, for instance, that the same Kazakh steppe where Scythian horsemen harassed merchants became a Cold War hotspot where the Soviets tested intercontinental ballistic missiles.

As Frankopan's history moves into the modern era, the reader gains new insight into the fragility of civilization and the long journeys the Silk Road countries have made to the present. Frankopan reveals how this long strip of Asia was responsible for both the birth of civilization and for nurturing societies into the modern nations we know and travel to today.