10 October 2015

The Antique Lands

2 October 2015

Srinath Raghavan is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi 
A majestic narrative on the Silk Roads retells global history where West and Central Asia form the axis of power play. The historian as a captivating storyteller is less convincing when he turns prophetic. The roads may not rise again

The Sultan of a Muslim dynasty is shown surrounded by his courtiers, from a manuscript of the Persian epic poem The Shahnama by Firdawsi 

Speaking in Kazakhstan in the autumn of 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping noted that for over two millennia the people that had lived in Central Asia had bridged the East and West, and flourished despite “differences in race, belief and cultural background”. It was a “foreign policy priority for China,” he asserted, “to develop friendly co- operative relations with the Central Asian countries.” Indeed, the time had come for a new “Silk Road Economic Belt” that would tie China with its Central Asian neighbours as well as the rest of Eurasia.

Since then, Beijing has elaborated on its vision of ‘one-belt one-road’ consisting both of overland connections and of a ‘Maritime Silk Road’. The Chinese plans have evoked a sense of opportunity as well as threat, especially in other regional powers such as India. It is interesting to note, however, that President Xi’s grand design draws on terminology that originated in Europe and only came into vogue in the late 19th century. The sprawling web of connections in Eurasian history was given a name by a famous German geologist, Ferdinand von Richthofen: ‘Siedenstrazen’, the Silk Roads. While the idea of Silk Roads has had some purchase on popular imagination, there have been few attempts at tackling their history over centuries. Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads (Bloomsbury, 620 pages, Rs 799) could not have been timelier.

Billed as a ‘New History of the World’, Frankopan’s book offers a fresh way of thinking about global history—one that places West and Central Asia as the axial region around which the history of the world has turned over centuries. ‘The halfway point between east and west,’ he writes, ‘running broadly from the eastern shores of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea to the Himalayas, might seem an unpromising position from which to assess the world.’ The fabled cities of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan are today rife with religious fundamentalism and sectarian tension. And the region as a whole is packed with autocratic and unstable regimes that are widely seen as potential threats to international security. Yet, Frankopan brilliantly succeeds in showing how mistaken we are in imagining the longer history of these places through the distorting lenses of contemporary problems.

As ever, claims of novelty remain a bit suspect. Just six years ago, we had Christopher Beckwith’s Empires of the Silk Road, a superb account that placed Central Asia in a world historical context and showed it to be far removed from the land of barbarians and civilisational backwater in the still-influential accounts of older historians. Nevertheless, Frankopan does have a longer geographic reach as well as chronological range. With extraordinary erudition and a vivid style, he takes us on a dazzling tour of these parts from the rise of the first empires right through to the present.

The ‘fertile crescent’—a swathe of highly productive land with plentiful access to water stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean coast—was both the cradle of civilisation and the site on which the earliest empires were built. The greatest of these was the Persian empire, which, starting from southern Iran in the sixth century BCE, spread as far as the Aegean coast and Egypt to the west and the Himalayas to the east. The Persians were critical to the setting up of the Silk Road. Equipped with a highly literate and capable bureaucracy, the Persian Empire not only spurred agricultural growth and the concomitant development of cities, but also built a road network that connected the coast of Asia Minor with Babylon and Persepolis. The distance of 1,600 miles, as Herodotus observed with awe, could be covered within a week. As trade flourished, the people— especially the elites—acquired a taste for artefacts made with such exotica as ebony and silver from Egypt and ivory from India.

The two-way link between the growth of trade and consumption lies at the heart of Frankopan’s history of the silk roads. After the Persians came the Greeks led by Alexander, whose military victories began ‘a new chapter for the region lying between the Mediterranean and the Himalayas’. Especially remarkable was the creeping Hellenisation of the region, as ideas and symbols from Greece seeped into the East. For instance, the earliest statues of the Buddha date from this period and it seems that these began to appear only after the cult of Apollo took hold in Gandhara (now Kandahar): Buddhists, hitherto having refrained from visual representation, had now to face competition. Frankopan similarly suggests that the Mahabharata and Ramayana might have been influenced by the Illiad and Odyssey, just as the Aeneid appears to have been influenced by Indian epics.

Yet it was the expansion of China’s frontiers that properly linked Central Asia and West Asia. The Chinese were impelled towards Central Asia by their desire to procure war horses from Xinjiang. By 119 BCE, the Han rulers of China had taken control of much of Xinjiang, so opening the door to the Pamir mountains to the west and the prosperous lands that lay beyond. It was under the Hans that silk began to be used and accepted as international currency—alongside coins and grain—for the growing long-distance trade along these routes.

The fall of Egypt in 30 BCE to a Roman army laid the foundations of the Roman Empire. By sucking up Egypt’s tax revenues and its enormous riches as well as by plugging into the Asian maritime trade network, the elites of Rome acquired an extravagant taste for the luxuries of the East. Several commentators noted that Roman virtue was being dulled on Asian vulgarities. To Seneca, a woman could not honestly say she was not naked while wearing silk. Pliny the Elder bemoaned the rising cost of silk merely to ‘enable the Roman lady to shimmer in public.’ The world of antiquity, Frankopan claims, was ‘connected, complex and hungry for exchange…very much a precursor of the world as we see it today—vibrant, competitive, efficient and energetic.’

Having briskly covered that story, Frankopan turns to another important aspect of his account: the spread of various religions along the Silk Road. Intellectual and religious exchange was as important a feature of this region as material exchange. Frankopan provides a synoptic picture of the spread of Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Islam. While he is very good at describing the political context in which these religions radiated out of their original homelands, he is rather less successful in explaining their appeal. This would have required closer analysis of the conceptual and social gap between the high philosophic systems that predated these religions and the varieties of popular cults that prevailed in these parts. More damaging to his enterprise is the absence of any analysis of the role played by religions such as Christianity or Islam in pacifying warring states and thus enabling the growth of trade and commerce.

The narrative canters through the next centuries, taking in the Khazars, the Rus and Byzantium. By the mid-11th century, notes Frankopan, ‘the places that mattered were not in Paris or London, in Germany or Italy—but in the east.’ By this time, the entire region was falling under the sway of new empires led by tribes of slave-soldiers from Central Asia: the Ghaznavids and the Seljuks. In 1055 the Seljuks marched into Baghdad at the invitation of the Caliph. Thereafter, they began to nip at the heels of the Christian Byzantine Empire, so setting the stage for the first Crusade.

While the Crusades are mainly thought of as wars of religion, Frankopan insists that they were ‘triggered by the realization of the prizes on offer.’ In effect, they resulted in the West lunging towards the heart of the world. Having written an entire book on the subject, The First Crusade, Frankopan is unable to resist devoting a chapter to it. The real action, though, was at the other end of the region: the rise of the Mongols under Genghis Khan.

In a succession of lightning-strikes starting in 1211, the Mongols thrust their way into China. The weakening of central authority in the Islamic world enabled the Mongols secure still more impressive victories in the west. Despite their reputation for savagery, their astonishing successes owed more to the fact that they were not always regarded as oppressors. The Mongols invested heavily in the infrastructure of some of the major cities they captured. As money poured into towns, crafts and arts were given a boost. In consequence, trade and exchange along the older routes began to thrive yet again. ‘Blanket images of the Mongols as barbaric destroyers,’ writes Frankopan, ‘are wide of the mark.’ They are an object lesson, he slyly suggests, in how important it is for leaders who have an eye on the future to patronise historians.

Among other things, the Mongols deliberately imposed low taxes on commerce and introduced sweeping monetary changes across Eurasia. In the meantime, Europe was being laid low by a widespread epidemic of plague that swept away almost a third of its population. Ironically, the social and economic changes ushered in by the so- called Black Death laid the foundation of north-west Europe’s long-term rise to primacy. As productivity rose in the altered social and demographic landscape of Europe, ‘aspirations were cast upwards and levels of disposable wealth increased along with opportunities to spend it.’

The idea of an ‘industrious revolution’— growing efficiency in the use of family labour leading to an increase in consumption-led demand—in Europe between the 16th and 18th centuries has been advanced by the historian Jan de Vries as a complement to the industrial revolution and as an explanation of why Europe became wealthier than Asia. Frankopan follows other scholars, especially Sevket Pamuk, in tracing the ‘great divergence’ between Europe and Asia back to the aftermath of Black Death.

Parts of Asia as far flung as China, southern India and the Persian Gulf also witnessed a spurt in growth and ambition. It was during this period that the Chinese eunuch admiral, Zheng He, undertook his expeditions to other parts of Asia and Africa—voyages that are now projected by China as the historical backcloth to its contemporary maritime aspirations. China’s fortunes, in fact, owed more to the rise in Central Asia of another warlord: Timur or Tamerlane. The Timurid conquests from the 1360s onwards not only forged a massive empire from Asia Minor to the Himalayas, but also integrated markets and set off another virtuous cycle of trade and consumption. Tamerlane’s empire as a precursor of modern globalisation has become something of a trope in the writing of world history. But Tamerlane was a transitional figure: his successors struggled to hold together his empire, especially once the financial crisis of the 15th century struck Asia and Europe.

In Frankopan’s reading, the crucial break in the history of the silk roads occurred in 1492, when Christopher Columbus set sail from southern Spain. Five years later, another small fleet under Vasco da Gama went forth from Lisbon. Together, these voyages transformed the position of Europe. ‘Suddenly, western Europe was transformed from its position as a regional backwater into the fulcrum of a sprawling communication, transport and trading system: at a stroke it became the new mid-point between east and west.’

The turn of the 16th century also marks a point of inflection in Frankopan’s own narrative. The story thereafter becomes rather more familiar. The discovery of the New World; the impact on Europe of African slave trade and American silver; the establishment in Asia of the Portuguese, Dutch, English and French commercial empires; internecine warfare between the states of Europe; the Napoleonic wars and rise to primacy of the British Empire: all are given as much attention as the preceding periods. Yet, it also becomes clear that the early modern and modern worlds are not Frankopan’s neck of the woods. His treatment, both in summary and in detail, is predictable and his grasp of recent trends in writing global histories of these periods less than sure. These weaknesses become all the more apparent when he deals with the 20th century and beyond: the headlong rush towards World War I; World War II and the Cold War in the Middle East; the region’s current travails in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq and the War on Terror.

Yet Frankopan sustains the pace of his narrative over 500 pages, drawing on a breathtaking range of sources in 10 languages and studding his account with choice quotations. The Iranian leader Mohammed Mossadegh is described by a British diplomat as looking “rather like a cab horse… He conducts conversation at a distance of about six inches at which range he diffuses a slight reek of opium.” The British would, of course, pay for their condescending under- estimation of the man. Equally entertaining are Frankopan’s periodic diversions and sidelights. Who knew that the greeting ‘ciao’ comes from a Venetian word ‘schiavo’, meaning ‘I am your slave’?

The author’s massive erudition is, however, deployed in the service of a decidedly old-fashioned project of history— one that privileges political events over long-range processes, the imperial centre over the distant periphery, narrative over analysis. The narrative history of high politics retains an important place in the craft of historians, but it may not be the best way to tackle change over centuries and millennia. Indeed, many of the most successful attempts at writing ‘big history’ have wisely privileged analysis of processes over simple storytelling.

Yuval Noah Harari, to take a recent example, manages to pack into his bookSapiens a much longer span of time, by avoiding any straightforward narrative and by proceeding instead through a series of analytical jabs. For all his impressive learning, Frankopan lacks similar explanatory ambition. Indeed, his book is reminiscent of the classics of mid-20th century narrative history written by that extraordinary scholar of the Byzantine world: Steven Runciman.

In consequence, while Frankopan tells a good story, he is less successful in explaining why the tale unfolded as it did. His narrative style precludes systematic treatment of several key issues that leap out of the text. For instance, the Eurasian upheaval of the mid-8th century which affected every empire in the region is not considered a unified historical phenomenon, let alone explained with reference to common causes. Similarly, war appears in the text as the most important motor of historical change in West and Central Asia. Yet Frankopan treats it mostly as an exogenous shock rather than a phenomenon that is related to the social structures underpinning these empires and states. At no point does he consider how those societies generated military power and how forms of war changed over time.

Economic crises are another important source of change. These too are only registered, but seldom analysed. Part of the problem is that Frankopan works with a rather simple of model of trade and consumption driving each other. Economic historians have shown increasing interest in patterns of consumption owing both to their intrinsic importance as sources of demand and to the fact that histories of consumption fit well with the broader turn towards cultural history in the academe. Still, it is intriguing that a book of such scope barely mentions processes of production and the social relations that underlie them. One doesn’t have to be a Marxist to recognise the importance of such questions.

A third motor of historical change in the narrative is climate change. Following recent research into late medieval and early modern Europe, Frankopan invokes climate- induced changes but fails to show how it systematically interacted with other sources of change. In the hands of a master historian such as Geoffrey Parker, the interaction between war, state-building and climate change provides a compelling explanation of the global crisis of the 17th century. Frankopan’s book lacks such analytical bite.

Even more problematic is the master narrative on offer. Arguments about the connectedness of the world of classical antiquity tend to be overstated. For instance, despite the volume of trade on the Silk Road and some sporadic diplomatic contact, the Romans and Chinese knew little and cared less about each other. Their cultural world encompassed not much more than their immediate neighbourhood. Global connectedness was very much an early modern phenomenon—one that intensified into globalisation as we know it only in the 19th century.

Similarly, the claim that 1492 marks the moment when Europe became ascendant over Asia is problematic. Much of the recent work in global history—brilliantly synthesised by scholars such as Christopher Bayly and John Darwin—actually underscores the resilience of the Asian empires. Around the time that Vasco da Gama set sail from Europe, Babur was establishing his own empire in Central Asia and would soon turn towards India. The Persian and Ottoman empires carried on into the 19th and 20th century— and China was never fully colonised. Europe’s ascendancy started only in the early 19th century and swiftly accelerated thereafter.

Stranger still is the limited attention paid to Central Asia as Frankopan approaches the modern age. Indeed, by the time he reaches the 20th century, the region almost completely falls off his map. For example, his discussion of the awkwardly phrased ‘The Road of Cold Warfare’ focuses on the superpower competition in the Middle East, while saying little about the impact on Central Asia of the Soviet modernisation project and subsequently of political Islam. 

Without such analysis, his closing claim that the ‘Silk Roads are rising again’ remains little more than an expression of hope or prophecy. Even if China wants to build an ambitious new set of Silk Roads, we cannot take it for granted that Central Asia is the best terrain on which to pursue this undertaking. The brittle, authoritarian states that dot the region today are not very credible as entrepreneurial hubs in newer networks of globalisation. Peter Frankopan has given us a fine account of the rise and workings of the old Silk Roads. To assess the prospects of the new ones, we will have to turn elsewhere.

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