Why We Should Look to the East for a Fuller Understanding of World History

History Hit Podcast with Peter Frankopan

3 mins

07 Oct 2018

Image attribution: Madhumita Das

This article is an edited transcript of The Silk Roads: A New History of the World with Peter Frankopan on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 21 October 2015. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.

As a historian, it’s slightly unusual to find yourself right in the middle of the zeitgeist. But it does seem that the subject of my latest book, The Silk Roads, really is the zeitgeist right now.

Nike recently launched some trainers called Silk Roads, influenced by the fabrics of the past, while the new Hermes fragrance is called Samarcande – a reference to a city in Uzbekistan that was on the ancient Silk Road trade route.

There is a growing sense that the centre of the world’s gravity is shifting, and that those parts of the world that were in the Silk Road region seem suddenly to be incredibly important.

Nike’s Silk Road trainers.

Whether it’s due to the terrorist acts in Palmyra and the emergence of ISIS, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine or China spreading its tentacles westwards across Asia, the world’s eyes are increasingly fixed on a region that stretches from eastern Europe and sweeps right across Central Asia and deep into China and India.

Five years ago, no one was looking at this part of the world.

The heart of the world

But even if this region seems newly relevant to us in the West, it’s undoubtedly a part of the world that has always been hugely important.

All of our religions come from quite a small circle, a cauldron, right in the heart of Asia, which also happened to be where all of the major language groups – Semitic, Altaic, Caucasian, Sino-Tibetan – collide into European languages.

The ancient Semitic city of Palmyra in Syria. Credit: james_gordon_losangeles

The strands that flow out westwards and eastwards from this circle provide a very interesting vantage point from which to look at the events of history in a very different way. What did World War One look like from the perspective of Persia and Mesopotamia, for example?

These places may have been a long way from the action on the Somme geographically, but they were not peripheral to World War One. In fact, in 1918, the secretary of the British war cabinet, Sir Maurice Hankey, described the acquisition of Persia and Mesopotamia as a first-class war aim.

This part of the world that we might – until recently – have thought of as peripheral has always been a place where ideas have come from, where exchanges have happened. We now find ourselves feeling that we’re having to rediscover a part of the world that, actually, we should know a lot more about.

Is the West less central to human history than we tend to think?

For the last 400 years, from around 1600 onwards, the engine of what has happened in the world has been western Europe and the United States.

But until the discovery of the Americas and, at more or less the same time, routes around the southern tip of Africa towards India, Europe – and particularly western Europe – were cultural, intellectual, and political backwaters.

Of course, there was the Roman Empire, but Rome’s primary focus was on Egypt and on Persia. Its most prestigious enemies were in the east.

Rome’s whole orientation was pointed towards the eastern Mediterranean and beyond, which is where all the luxuries came from too.

Today, we are in a different era. We in the West had our moments in the sun, just as other cultures and civilisations did before us, but it is again the East that is becoming increasingly important globally.