Peter Frankopan shares themes and inspirations behind ‘Silk Roads’

Peter Frankopan shares themes and inspirations behind ‘Silk Roads’

16 March 2018

Luke Foddy

It was an inspirational teacher who introduced Peter Frankopan to Russian and Arabic as a schoolboy that set him on course to writing The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, the author told an Asia House Arts audience last night.

“It was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” he said, adding that the teacher, who lived in Baghdad for a year, enthralled him with stories of the Middle East and Asia.

“I was amazed to learn how some of the biggest cities in the world were in the East. I couldn’t believe how cities like Merv and Baghdad had dropped out of history.

“It’s a cliché but it is the winners who write history. And for the last few centuries, the winners have been in the West.”

The Oxford academic and author was appearing at Asia House in partnership with First Story – a charity that helps broaden opportunities for young people through writing. He was in conversation with Sameer Rahim, Managing Editor of Prospect Magazine, whose line of questioning mirrored a key theme of The Silk Roads; the need to shift people’s understanding of global history.

“About 93 per cent of history faculties are working on the history of the West,” Peter said. “We are comfortable and familiar with our old truths, but that’s no good in a changing world.”

And the world is changing. Geopolitical and economic shifts are changing the global order once again, with Asia in the ascendance. For Peter, the book aims to frame this change and present a bigger picture of world history; “It’s about how we are all connected.” And it’s about the legacies of what passed before and how they are relevant now; “Why do most Premier League football clubs have Silk Road owners?” he asked.

The bigger picture is perhaps a good way of referring to Frankopan’s book, which critics have described as ‘an epic study’ which is ‘hugely ambitious in its scope.’ How did he pull off a history of more than 2,000 years without alienating the average reader?

“The trick is getting the canvas at the right level of distance,” he said, drawing on an artistic analogy. Impressionist paintings have tremendous detail up close, but are best appreciated when stepping back. But it was the efforts of specialists working across the field who provided the detail, as Peter was keen to make clear.

“I could not have done that if there weren’t brilliant scholars working on stairs in Antwerp and the price of horses in Delhi in 1785.”

Audience members also had the chance to put questions to Peter, with issues including migration, imperialism and the problems with how history is taught all arising. China’s Belt and Road Initiative – a reimaging of the ancient Silk Roads – also came up.

But perhaps the biggest takeaway from a thought-provoking and engaging discussion were Peter’s wider points on how the teaching of history should reflect the best of humanity. “We teach a lot about what went wrong in history, but not enough about what’s gone right,” he said.

It was a point that chimes with the wider work of Asia House Arts and First Story, who seek to open minds through creativity.

“What we do best as human beings,” Peter said, “is create things that are beautiful.”