Peter Frankopan is research fellow at Worcester College, Oxford and director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research. His latest book, The Silk Roads, has been widely acclaimed as a corrective to standard accounts of world history.
Interview: Masoud Golsorkhi
Masoud Golsorkhi Your book The Silk Roads is an incredible journey – when did you start it?
I can’t believe how young you are. I was expecting a man 30 years older than you.
Peter Frankopan I moisturise a lot! The journey probably began when I was a teenager. Like all teenagers, the most important thing you can do is to fall in love; something needs to make you passionate. I fell in love with 19th-century Russian literature. Partly because of the story of deep tragedy of the people for whom, if 1917 had never happened, a different future would have been possible. Not just for Russia, but for the world. So I was determined to learn the language. I was very lucky that at school we had a Russian teacher. He was the right person at the right time. He sat in front of us all and said, “I’m not going to teach you vocab, that’s something you can do yourselves.” He was ex-naval intelligence, and his job had been to debrief defected or captured Soviet sailors, which is quite a cool line when you’re aged 15! He was unorthodox; he didn’t bother turning up to lessons and sang Russian peasant songs. I think the school recognised that he was naturally curious, so they sent him to Baghdad for nine months when I was 16 or 17. He came back to school and said, “Right, anybody who’d like to learn Arabic, I’ll teach you for a year.” We went through both Arabic language and literature, history, religion and so on. So I arrived aged 18 at Cambridge already aware of this historical overemphasis on the West, Western Europe. When we talk about Europe, we talk about France, Germany, Spain, Italy and Britain, of course, but no one knows anything about Bohemia or east of the Danube, or Bulgaria. Even Scandinavia is off on the side.
As a student I was desperate to discover a world that wasn’t centred on the West and at the same time look at the history of other people in the most important area in world history since the beginning of time. The Garden of Eden wasn’t in Surrey next to Wentworth Golf Course, however delightful that might be as a place to live now. All of our religions blended in this cauldron in the centre of the world. As an undergraduate I went through the Russian and Byzantine world, and then Constantinople was my launch pad, I suppose, to look at these things and to see a world where Western Europe wasn’t that important for 1,000 years.
MG It’s a very good jacket, by the way. The Safavid-era Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque in Isfahan.
PF My editor said, “Can you think of one image for the front cover?” So I sent several images, including this one from Isfahan. It’s such a clever way to express the book, actually, to give it a physical location and a visual that makes everyone think of Silk Roads.
In the book we start early on, with Alexander the Great, not heading towards Europe. For all the ancient Greeks and for Rome as well, the focus was on these other civilisations in Persia and China and India. The book sets out to explore how the Silk Roads are the world’s central nervous system. It was such an ambitious goal. If I hadn’t had an editor and people round me saying I could do it, I’m not sure if it would have happened.
MG How do you think about the Silk Road as a concept? Do you problematise the idea at all?
PF The first problematic is that everyone thinks of the Silk Road as going from somewhere in China to Venice, and somehow it dips into Istanbul, perhaps having gone through Iran, maybe via Samarkand. It seems vague but exotic. We always think of the Silk Road as passing east to west, and never really think about what went in the other direction. That process of exchange, particularly when there’s commerce involved, means there are causes and effects. Tracking how goods, ideas and languages were spread means resetting how we think of the networks that connected people from Europe through the heart of Asia and beyond – to think of them as veins and arteries.
This allows us to think about what is going eastwards too. Even very simple things, like pointing out that Christianity, despite what we think of it, as the archetypal defining metastructure of European identity, was born out of Semitic languages and spread much quicker eastwards than it did westwards. You find archbishops in places like Gundeshapur in modern Iran, in Merv in modern Turkmenistan, in Samarkand, and even in Kasher in China many, many decades before you get the first Christian emissaries into Britain. In the United States, politically, as a president or senator, you need to pin your Christian stripes on your chest. But we’ve expropriated Christianity to an extreme. There’s a wonderful story of an American senator in a debate in the Texas Senate about whether Spanish should be taught alongside English in schools. He stood up and said, “If English was good enough for our Lord, it should be good enough for the immigrants of this country.” I think that lack of any kind of context about even the fundamental building blocks of our DNA requires us to look at what happened to Christianity in the East. Until about 1400 there were more Christians in Asia than there were in Europe. How were the Gospels interpreted by half the world’s population, if not more, and what kind of tolerance do we see in places like the Persian or the Sassanian world, and even the Islamic world – where in fact early Islam was remarkably tolerant in its attitudes to other faiths? With ISIS we get the cartoon version of what they think Islam was like, which bears little connection with reality. Without knowledge and proper understanding of the past, they’re as cartoon-like as that Texas senator.
MG But we both really love the idea of looking into history and geography from an alternative to the Western European perspective. It’s a great decision of yours to conceive of it as essentially the internet of the ancient world. I think it would be really lovely to expand on that idea, of the exchange of information as well as goods.
PF I think what’s interesting as I get older is that I try to look for these bigger connections. A lot of the most important connections along the Silk Roads are local and regional. It’s not just the big jumbo jet that flies from China and ends up in Venice; it’s about small level, very intensive connections, and tracking how these ideas spread. So I use the metaphor of the world’s central nervous system to convey that these communications, these connections, are not always spread by individuals who have histories written about them, but are spread by merchants, by evangelical Buddhists, by Hindus, by Islamic holy men, by Sufis going to the steppes and saying, “Yes, Islam is very similar to your religion, and we can make it work by doing both at the same time.” Or the early Christians who interact with Buddhism, linking angels with heavenly beings and downplaying differences while underlining similarities between the faiths. This week we’ve had Xi Jinping in London and people have been saying that we mustn’t “kowtow” to the Chinese: that word and act, the process of putting your forehead on the floor while greeting someone important, is something that may not happen any more in modern China, but is a legacy that links imperial China with the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople 1,000 years ago, where visitors to the palace would perform this act, and binds even to Muslims who pray facing Mecca – placing their foreheads on the ground. We as human beings are united, I think, by our ability to communicate, but also by our curiosity. It is interesting to compare the networks that carry religions in all these different directions with a map of pipelines and train tracks and the massive international investment schemes going on right now. It is, I think, no coincidence that as the Chinese premier arrived in London yesterday, Putin and Iran announced about $40 billion of joint infrastructure investment. That competition to make alliances, to gain position, to steal each other’s thunder, is all part of efforts to control the Silk Road networks and the goods and commodities that flow along them.
It’s an awful expression, but we live in a world that is deeply interconnected and interlinked. To my eyes we always have done. The speed of our communications is very different and you can pick up the phone now and speak to someone in Shanghai, or WhatsApp them in real time, and that obviously didn’t happen 1,000 years ago, but people have always been incredibly interested in and connected to each other. I’m fascinated by the spread of ceramics at the moment. The blue and white that you would think is very classical Persian, or if you’re from Mesopotamia you’d say is classical Mesopotamian, actually comes from China; when it first arrived in the Persian Gulf, local potters started to copy it. Eventually when the British started their pottery works in Staffordshire with Wedgwood and so on, the same colours, the same designs were used, with the same objectification of Oriental buildings that look like someone must do something in them; that show a way of life. Even the plates we eat off today are part of this long continuum that links many thousands of miles, many oceans apart. I think it’s quite interesting that this human jigsaw is replicated. You can see it in the modern world.
I’m sure your well-travelled readers will have seen how growth has affected cities in the non-West. The level of growth in China, where the economy has quadrupled since 2005, has been startlingly fast – just like when the West discovered a way of getting big ships to India around the southern tip of Africa, and helped generate unprecedented rises in European economies in the 17th century. That example shows how we could maybe be more reflective of how the rhythms of history change, and that change is not actually unusual. Societies, civilisations and countries rise and fall; in fact, you can take advantage of them if you’re smart and open to the idea of seeing what opportunities might appear in the future. What’s difficult is when you have Europe turning in on itself, literally putting up the barbed wire to keep people out and saying we can’t afford to look after our own people. It’s an idea of fear and emotion leading decisions rather than being able to stand back and assess why migration is happening, what its positives and negatives are, and what it tells us about what is going on in the world. Why, for example, are none of those fleeing Syria, Iraq and elsewhere trying to head east? I suppose that’s the luxury of the role of the historian – to be able to stand back and try to interpret these things. It can be very difficult otherwise, in the hustle and bustle of our daily lives, to try to see how things fit together.
MG In the age of communication, the one thing that is not new is the way history behaves. It just happens to be happening a little bit faster and with different means. I was looking at places where the Romans and the Arsacids were fighting, and it’s basically modern-day Syria.
PF The good news for me is that when one looks back at history, there are of course the famous figures – but then the other rock stars are the historians. Historians are important as they help explain the world around us and record it for future generations. That’s why all great empires produced wonderful historians, like Samuel Pepys, or the the Byzantines with their wonderful historians, like Anna Comnena, who is one of the greatest Byzantine writers. Their texts still get read because they’re explaining how the world looked to them in their own times – and how they looked at and understood history. I think that is something that the Silk Road book does, and maybe that’s why people have got so excited about it. It’s because it sets out how the world has come to look the way that it has, and why understanding the past is so important. It’s incredibly flattering to read such glowing reviews all around the world, because I’ve written lots of other things before, and people didn’t get quite so excited about those.
I worked before on the Crusades, and on religious violence. Although many people think they understood the Crusades, with their heroism and knights fighting for God, there is in fact loads of material on the East in the Arabic world, in the Caucasian sources and in the Greek world, which show a totally opposite vision of how we think the past looks. It is extraordinarily exciting to unpick even central events that have been written about – more has been written about the Crusades than about anything else in human history, apart from the First and Second World Wars – and find interesting and new things to say. I think we are a generation whose ability to travel, to explore, to be able to negotiate different languages, means we can cope with trying to have better, longer, more meaningful conversations with each other. People are prepared to travel to all corners of the world, and no longer think it’s unusual to have half-misunderstood discussions with people they meet. That’s very liberating, but at the same time our circle of vision seems to be narrowing, as there is also pressure for standardisation: many people seem to want the same things, with ideals driven home by those same channels of communication that can be so liberating. For many indulged teenage children these days, pleasure and relaxation means going to a five-star hotel in the Maldives, Caribbean or south of France, and going to the right five-star hotel. When they and their parents get there, there is often no engagement with the local culture at all, apart from going to and from the airport. §
The Silk Roads: a New History of the World (Bloomsbury, 2015) is out now.