The Silk Road — Summary
A Book by Peter Frankopan
A journey through the history of the silky road
The ancient Mesopotamian commerce route network has molded, transformed, and spread with our ever-changing planet. At its peak, this network was known as the Silk Road, which Marco Polo famously traversed on his journey from Italy to China. As people from both East and West traded along its various arteries, this route brought the world together. However, the Silk Road was not a one-off historical occurrence. It’s been expanded upon and repeated several times, and it’s gone through several stages. As a result, it may make more sense to conceive about it in plural: the Silk Roads.
As Frankopan’s tale demonstrates, the history of the globe may be interpreted through the lens of commerce. According to him, whoever controls the Silk Roads also controls the world.
Goods and ideas moved between East and West in antiquity, forming the Silk Roads in the process.
Mesopotamia was the name given to the area of territory bounded by the Euphrates and Tigris rivers thousands of years ago. This region, which included much of what is now Iraq and parts of neighboring nations, is considered the cradle of Western civilisation. The first villages, cities, kingdoms, and empires arose here.
The Persian Empire was the most powerful of these empires. It spanned from Egypt and Greece in the west to the Himalayas in the east by the sixth century BCE. It was an empire founded on trade between its towns, made feasible by a network of routes connecting the Mediterranean to the heart of Asia.
These roads were a magnificent feat, but their fate was to become a component of the Silk Roads, the well-known network of pathways that eventually connected China with the West.
Between 206 BCE to 220 CE, China began to broaden its horizons during the Han dynasty. It expanded its frontiers to the north and west all the way to the Eurasian steppes, the vast grasslands that encompass much of modern-day Russia’s southern regions. This extension connected Persia’s commercial routes with China’s own road network.
The steppes were a dangerous place. By dealing with the nomads, the Chinese hoped to keep the region peaceful. Rice, wine, and textiles were all popular commodities, but silk was by far the most sought-after.
Silk began to represent riches, elegance, and power. It was even used as currency on occasion. As commerce grew, it gained a reputation as a luxury item in the West as well. In fact, by the time Rome seized control of the Mediterranean in the middle of the first century BCE, silk’s reputation was well established.
But it wasn’t only things that moved from East to West. The routes also aided in the exchange and dissemination of ideas.
Religious leaders wielded the most authority. Local cults grew more intertwined with established religious systems, resulting in a rich melting pot of divine beliefs. The Greek pantheon of gods, for example, moved east, while Buddhist concepts spread from northern India to China and the rest of Asia.
Indeed, these networks help to explain why Christianity expanded so fast from its humble beginnings in Palestine to the Mediterranean and throughout Asia.
The new Muslim world acquired control of the Silk Roads, bringing wealth and knowledge to spread throughout the world.
The eastern edges of the Roman Empire — and, subsequently, the Byzantine Empire — were a disputed zone in the early decades of the first millennium CE. Both empires waged fierce struggles for control in the Western world against the Arsacid and Sasanian Persian dynasties.
Western Europe had entered a dark period of turbulence and unrest by the sixth century. On the Arabian Peninsula, a new force was forming, unified by a strong sense of religious identity.
Muhammad, a trader from the Quraysh tribe in Mecca, had a series of revelations from God around 610 CE. He thought he’d been picked to be God’s messenger. In a polytheistic Arab civilization, Muhammad was selected out to preach that this single God was the all-powerful God of Abraham.
The word of Muhammad was heard and embraced. Within a short period of time, the Arabs had bonded behind the teachings of Islam, and their identity had been forged. The sword also helped spread the religion; Muhammad and his companions prevailed on the battlefield, and the tribes of southern Arabia were persuaded to embrace the new faith.
The impact of these victories was quickly apparent: the Silk Roads were now under Muslim control.
The writing was on the wall by 700 CE. The Arabs seized and merged the previous Byzantine and Persian superpowers’ economic heartlands. It was just a matter of time before these once-powerful forces were no longer dominating.
As a result, Muslims were able to seize control of the extensive network of oasis villages, ports, roadways, and cities that linked the Arab world to China. Goods poured into the region, and it grew richer and richer.
A new golden era of thriving commerce, arts, and science had dawned. Luxury items such as Chinese china, as well as intellectual publications and tracts, flooded into the region. The Muslim world, which valued education, grew in numerical, geographical, philosophical, and scientific knowledge. Europe, on the other hand, was becoming an intellectual backwater as the Christian Church fought to stifle scientific research and inquiry.
A thriving slave trade and the conquest of Jerusalem signified the beginning of Europe’s ascent.
The Muslim empire grew to ever-greater proportions. During this ascension, the demand for slaves increased significantly as well.
Surprisingly, the Vikings carried a large number of slaves from Eastern Europe to the Muslim world. In reality, the word “slave” is derived from the designation given to this group of people at the time: Slavs.
The growing slave trade had far-reaching implications. Money rushed into Europe, where it was utilized to import highly sought luxury products such as spices and pharmaceuticals.
The domino effect of these valuable Eastern items appearing in Europe was quickly recognized. Europeans began to cast their focus eastward, becoming increasingly interested in visiting — and conquering — the areas linked with Jesus Christ and the Holy City.
During the First Crusade, Christian knights prepared themselves for violence and marched to Jerusalem. Jerusalem was conquered on July 15, 1099.
At the stroke of a pen, a new era was born, one controlled by Western Europe. For four centuries, Muslims had ruled Jerusalem. But that is no longer the case.
Surprisingly, the first wave of resistance to the Christian invaders was local and restricted in extent. As a result, the Crusades are likely best viewed as a catapult for Europeans to claim more riches and authority. In other words, reducing it to a theological struggle, as we are prone to doing these days, is a bit of a disservice.
The trade balance altered once more once Jerusalem fell into Christian hands. European interests were boosted by more than simply Jerusalem. Trade with Constantinople and Alexandria also helped to improve Europe’s socioeconomic situation in the twelfth century.
The Italian city-states of Genoa, Pisa, and Venice, in particular, grew wealthy as they connected to a commerce network that extended all the way to the Far East.
Over only two centuries, enormous swaths of the planet were ravaged, first by the Mongols and later by disease.
The Mongols were only one of numerous tribes that lived in the steppes north of China in the late eleventh century.
The Mongols were often regarded with disdain. The Mongols seemed to outsiders to be a disorganized swarm, yet they were actually very clever and meticulous strategists. By the end of the thirteenth century, the Mongols had conquered most of Asia and Europe, forming the world’s greatest continuous empire.
As early as 1206 the Mongols controlled the Mongolian steppes. Following that, they subjugated neighboring tribes by threatening or committing violence. The Mongols then battled their way into China, conquering the capital of the Jin dynasty, Zhongdu, in 1211. Following that, in the 1230s, the Mongols began to advance westward into Central Asia. They attacked Baghdad in 1258, and a year later, they were making advances into Eastern Europe.
The Mongolian Empire had reached gigantic proportions by the end of the century. It reached all the way from the steppes to northern India, and all the way from the Pacific to the Black Sea and the Persian Gulf.
The Mongol conquest of territory also gave them control over the Silk Roads and other commerce routes. Following that, their cultural influence could be seen in styles such as Mongol caps and dark-blue Tatar textiles throughout Europe.
However, the Mongols brought about more than just alterations in fashion. They also carried sickness with them.
Not just any sickness, but the Black Death, caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis. The pandemic had driven most of the old world to its knees by the mid-fourteenth century. An apocalypse swept through the trading channels. It began in the Asian steppes, the Mongols’ heartland, and quickly spread to Europe, Iran, the Middle East, Egypt, and the Arabian Peninsula.
The death toll was nearly unfathomable. For example, during a plague epidemic in 1347, Venice lost around three-quarters of its population. It was a terrible experience. The epidemic killed more than a third of Europe’s population!
It appeared that Europe would never be able to recover. However, the epidemic, ironically, created conditions that aided a new European ascension.
Expeditions by Europeans to Africa, the Americas, and Asia linked the world, but they also inflicted enormous misery.
Despite the enormous death toll inflicted by the Black Death, the feared apocalypse did not occur.
After the plague, Europe was a very different place. The population had plummeted considerably, yet this had benefited the peasantry while weakening the propertied elite.
The distribution of wealth had become more equitable, and interest rates had fallen. These two shifts in the socioeconomic environment boosted the economy and aided in the creation of new technology. Military and naval technology advancements were particularly noteworthy. Discovery voyages would sail over new oceans by the fourteenth century.
Many of these journeys left from ports in Portugal and Spain. Before long, European naval voyages to Africa, the Americas, and Asia had shrunk the planet. The Portuguese were the first to seize the lead. They sailed into the Eastern Atlantic and along the West African coast, finding archipelagos such as the Canary Islands, Madeira, and the Azores.
Most notably, Columbus sailed out under the Spanish flag in 1492 in search of a new trade route to India. The Americas, on the other hand, got in the way of that purpose. Then, in 1497, the Portuguese adventurer Vasco da Gama triumphed where Columbus had failed. In 1519, Ferdinand Magellan set sail and became the first person to circle the world.
New commercial channels were formed as a result of these missions, with Europe serving as their hub. Europe was able to extract wealth from American gold and silver mines, buy Chinese porcelain and silks, and, most crucially, ship spices from Asia like as pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, and frankincense.
However, there was a significant drawback to Europe’s economic progress. The rest of the world was designed to be miserable.
The strong Amazon Empire was killed in Mesoamerica by Spanish conquistadors. The indigenous peoples of the Americas did not perish entirely via the use of the sword. Smallpox and measles were brought by European explorers and military, and the aboriginal inhabitants lacked immunity.
Of course, the Europeans brought the most heinous development of the time: the global slave trade. Africans were transported across the Atlantic and sold into servitude in order to feed the economic boom on American plantations.
As different European countries took turns in the imperial spotlight, new commerce routes led to the formation of new empires.
Europe had moved to the center of the world as a result of the explorations of European mariners.
Portugal and Spain had risen to become the continent’s most powerful countries by 1500. Their reigns, however, were brief. Northern Europe rose to prominence in the sixteenth century.
England had not remained idly by when her southern neighbors set sail. The English, too, had launched expeditions in all directions in order to establish new trade routes. It had formed a number of firms by the end of the sixteenth century. Each was given a monopoly in the areas where they would trade. The Levant Company, Turkey Company, and East India Company all became immensely successful commercial outposts of England.
The Dutch were close behind. They established comparable businesses, most notably the East Indies Company and the West Indies Company. In doing so, the Dutch basically developed the modern corporation, as well as the concepts of capital pooling and risk sharing among a corporation’s numerous stockholders.
But everything must pass. By the early nineteenth century, Russia was becoming more ambitious. War seems to be looming.
Russia started to expand its borders and launched attacks on the Ottoman Empire, which was situated in what is now Turkey. By the 1820s, it had made inroads into the Caucasus and had driven away the Persian army.
When Russia advanced into Central Asia in the late 1800s, the threat to Britain was obvious. Russia’s borders were now only a few days’ march from the British Crown’s Indian possessions.
The British needed a plan. The plan was to keep good ties with Russia and therefore persuade it to focus on the western border it shared with Prussia, the progenitor of modern-day Germany. It was something that the growingly powerful French Republic appreciated as well. To maintain the balance of power, the three powers of Russia, Britain, and France formed an alliance.
However, this was not the best news for the newly established German state. It, too, had imperial ambitions, but it was encircled by allied enemy armies. Military conflict between these two countries appeared to be unavoidable. As a result, the First World War broke out in 1914.
As the twentieth century began, Western nations rushed to secure Persian oil supplies.
Large oil deposits had long been suspected to be lying underneath Persia. However, before to 1900, no one was particularly interested in its black gold. It required a Britishman, William Knox D’Arcy, to persuade Persia’s Shah to grant access to the reserves.
The Persian Shah, Mozaffar ad-Din Shah Qajar, signed a deal in 1901 that gave Knox D’Arcy exclusive rights to Persia’s natural gas and petroleum for 60 years. In exchange, the Shah would get 20,000 in cash and another 20,000 in newly established business shares, as well as 16 percent of the firm’s revenues each year. The Knox D’Arcy Concession was the name given to this deal.
The Shah took a risk, and he paid the price. The British reaped considerably greater benefits than he did. Indeed, the concession became one of the twentieth century’s most important papers. The Shah’s choice sowed the seeds of the Persian monarchy’s demise about 80 years later.
As ships all around the world became more dependent on oil for fuel, demand for oil skyrocketed. D’Arcy’s company grew into a multibillion-dollar enterprise as a result. The British government purchased a 51 percent share in the corporation in 1914. It would become the British Petroleum Company within a few decades (BP).
The subjects of the Shah were unimpressed. The Persian people received very little while the British became wealthy by plundering Persia’s natural riches.
As anti-British feeling grew, it became evident that something had to be done to put a halt to the British. As a result, much to the British dismay, the American oil corporation Standard Oil was awarded a fifty-year concession in northern Persia, where the Knox D’Arcy Concession did not apply, in the 1920s.
The Persians thought that American investment would put a dent in Britain’s supremacy in the area. However, this strategy did not succeed. According to one Persian delegate, the Americans proved to be “more British than the British.”
The arrangement was simply disrespectful for an area that had been the heart of trade along the Silk Roads for millennia. The Persians received nothing in exchange for the money pushed into the West by oil pipelines. Their Shah had betrayed them.
Hitler aspired to seize southern Russia’s fertile lands, and the low grain output may have led to the Holocaust.
Arch-enemies Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression deal in August 1939. But the deal was constructed on a secret: Hitler and Stalin had agreed to divide Poland between the two countries.
As a result, on September 1, 1939, the German Wehrmacht invaded and conquered its eastern neighbor. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union did nothing.
Hitler, on the other hand, had kept something to himself. He desired access to the Silk Roads in Europe’s southeast. These would deliver Nazi Germany the resources it needed to conduct an intercontinental war — most notably wheat and oil. Stalin had no notion Hitler was planning something like this. He had completely misunderstood the scenario.
Of course, an alliance between such ideological adversaries was doomed to fail. Both Hitler and Stalin were aware of this. Nonetheless, when Germany struck earlier than predicted, Stalin was taken off surprise.
Hitler led his armies into the Soviet Union, and his men crossed the border early on June 22, 1941.
It felt like a strange moment to do it. Germany had already attacked and captured France to the west, and opening a second front to the east appeared insane.
Hitler’s objective was simple. The Reich’s populace and soldiers could be fed from the vast wheat plains of southern Russia and Ukraine. The Soviets would starve if food was not available.
The German march seemed unstoppable at first. They quickly came to a halt, however, when the reality of the harsh Russian winter — as well as overly-strained supply lines — kicked in. To make matters worse, the land in Russia and Ukraine did not produce as much grain as anticipated.
The Nazis used this scarcity to pursue their anti-Semitic agenda. Adolf Eichmann, the Final Solution’s architect, said that the Jews “can no longer be fed all at once.” Of fact, the Nazis had already herded Jews into concentration camps in preparation for mass slaughter. However, the author claims that the absence of expected grain contributed to the Holocaust.
Following World War II, the United States attempted to expand its influence throughout Western Asia.
The atrocities of the Second World War came to an end in 1945. The world’s power balance has been restored. The Soviet Union and the United States were now pitted against each other as superpowers.
Soon after, these powers shifted their focus to where the Silk Roads’ history began: the 1950s marked the beginning of American supremacy in Iran, previously Persia.
By 1950, the clamour for nationalizing the entire Iranian oil sector for the sake of the Iranian people had been too strong to ignore. Prime Minister Mossadegh was elected in 1951 and decided to start the procedure. It was a move that the US was well aware would decrease its influence and access to key resources. They acted quickly. The CIA organized a coup to depose Mossadegh in 1953.
The US put up a slew of American oil corporations to take over management of Iran’s oil wells. It aimed to keep the Soviets out of this crucial, powerful, and oil-rich region. The idea was to create a belt of states stretching from the Mediterranean to the Himalayas, each with pro-American governments capable of providing economic and military assistance.
The Americans, on the other hand, were not successful and paid a hefty price for their involvement. During the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the Shah was deposed. Anti-American sentiment was strong, and the situation swiftly deteriorated. Militant Iranian students stormed the American embassy in Tehran and kidnapped roughly 60 diplomatic workers. It took a year for them to be released. And when they were, it was evident that the United States’ influence in the area had waned.
Another blunder was committed by the Americans. During the late 1970s, the United States provided major assistance to Islamic fundamentalists fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, including providing them with weapons.
Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, these fundamentalists turned against the United States. They finally attacked the United States on their own land on September 11, 2001.
The Silk Roads area is in chaos, yet it is reemerging as a power.
The follies of the United States and European nations highlight the importance of eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Western and Central Asia. There is little doubt that the places where the Silk Roads originated millennia ago have a future. After all, these are the territories that connect East and West. However, the precise character of that future is debatable.
Take, for example, Ukraine. The country is being ripped apart by the East and the West due to differing national ambitions for it. Or consider Syria, where a heinous civil war has pitted conservatives against liberals and liberation fighters against government troops. Then there’s the Caucasus, which is in a state of near-constant political upheaval. Consider Chechnya and Georgia.
But perhaps these are the regular problems that occur when a region reemerges. Because the world’s symbolic center of gravity is shifting back to where it has been for millennia.
There is one apparent and significant explanation for this: the region is rich in natural resource reserves. Consider the crude oil riches beneath the Caspian Sea, the coal in Ukraine’s Donbas region, Turkmenistan’s natural gas reserves, or Kazakhstan’s rare earth minerals.
Cities are expanding in all of these areas. New structures grow from the earth to dominate the metropolis. Tourist resorts and luxury hotels are springing up, as are airports.
New transportation connections are also being created, resulting in increased commerce. Consider the Northern Distribution Network, a network of transit routes that runs across Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. There are also transcontinental railway links connecting China to German distribution sites.
The oil pipelines, on the other hand, run all the way from the Middle East to Europe.
It isn’t only a matter of economics, though. Arts and academic excellence centers are sprouting up all across the Persian Gulf. There’s the Guggenheim Museum in Abu Dhabi, the Baku Museum of Modern Art in Azerbaijan, and even university campuses managed by Ivy League institutions like Yale and Columbia are sprouting up.
While many western minds continue to struggle with the region’s “otherness,” viewing it as a dictatorial and violent backwater, the region itself is once again becoming a melting pot of trade and ideas. It is fair to predict that China’s influence over the Silk Roads area will rise, and that the West’s dominance will be pushed back. China currently sponsors many of the region’s infrastructure projects, and its investments are laying the groundwork for a network of trade channels that will reach well beyond the Silk Roads. The Silk Roads’ lands are expanding.