The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, by Peter Frankopan

Peter Frankopan, an Oxford historian, sweeps us through the last 2,000 years of world history, showing us how it looks from an Asian perspective rather than from the European perspective that dominates our educational experiences. He posits that the Middle East, Central Asia, call it what we will, is the focal point of the world’s trade in ideas, commerce and wealth. For most of these 2,000 years, Europe was a backwater, not the driving force we imagine. He gives us example after example of how European events reacted to events in Asia — from the crusades to colonization of the Americas, the industrial revolution, and the world ward of the 20th Century.

Frankopan’s perspective intensifies as he nears the present; forty percent of the text deals with the period from World War I to the present. As we were reading this book during the final days of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the immediacy of Western cluelessness about this part of the world was poignant. If only Frankopan’s broader worldview had been a part of our foreign policy considerations over the last century!

This book is a long, hard read. At over 500 pages thick with unfamiliar names and places, it feels encyclopedic. Most of us felt the effort was rewarded with a new outlook on world affairs and international relationships. It is the textbook to the world history course we wish we had taken. For those looking for the Cliff Notes version, two related books are available. Frankopan has published The Silk Roads, and Illustrated New History of the World (2018), aimed at young adult readers and found in the children’s section of our library. It was a welcome companion for several of us. Another member was sent Frankopan’s The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World (2019), which extends his discussion into the world he sees unfolding in Asia today. We have added it to our list of possible future books.

— Bill Smith

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