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

The history of the relationship between Eastern and Western civilization duly focuses on Central Asia, and the result is both enlightening and timely

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My history education up to (and even throughout) college was mostly focused on Western civilization. I don’t think this was the fault of anyone but myself. I know my curriculum through 6th grade incorporated the history of China and the Middle East. I just did not have the interest at the time, or maybe I didn’t have a thorough enough background knowledge for it to click with me. In college I even preferred my history courses to focus on the United States in some way. My honors humanities courses took me out of my comfort zone, but for the most part I drifted back into that same comfort zone afterward. What changed me and caused me to think about the world in a more inclusive way was when, in successive semesters of my junior year, I took a course on the Song dynasty of China and one called The US and Vietnam. Both ignited a passion specifically for the history of Asia. Fast forward to today, and I am a world history teacher that also teaches AP World History. Both courses require extensive focus on non-Western history. AP World suggests spending no more than 20% of class time on Western civilization (I bend this a little to spend more time in Latin America, a region important to my student population). Even despite this and all the knowledge I have gained about non-Western history in the interim, I still sometimes struggle to steer the curriculum away from the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance. I want to focus more on Tang and Song China, the Islamic Empire, the Mauryans and Guptas, Mali, Ghana, Ethiopia, and the like. I want my students to catch the importance of something I didn’t until later.

And then I read Peter Frankopan’s “The Silk Roads: A New History of the World”, and I realized I was still woefully underestimating the importance of yet another region of the world: Central Asia. Lovers of history know the Mongols, and my students love the Mongols if only because of John Green’s running joke in his Crash Course World History videos. But what else could most amateurs tell us about the history of this region between the years of the Persian empire and the 20th century? Frankopan fills in the blanks, but in a way that is constantly connecting familiar Western history with the history of the East. He shows how invaluable Central Asia was in its interaction with the West and the growth of our now-global society.

The general region of focus in Peter Frankopan’s “The Silk Roads”

My favorite recurring point of Frankopan’s argument is that Europe was “little more than a sideshow” of history until the 16th century. Where everything was “happening” was in Southwest, Central, and Eastern Asia. It is only in retrospect that we emphasize European history because of its immense impact on our lives. However, it is believed that 2% of the world’s population right now are direct descendants of Genghis Khan. And that is just one figure from the immense history of the East. As we become more globalized, and as countries like China, India, Japan, and South Korea begin to dominate more of the economy, it is wise to learn something about the history of the people with whom we will have increasing contact. The Silk Roads is one good step toward that self-education.

If there was anything I didn’t like about The Silk Roads, it was the marketed description of focusing on “the East” when China and India are only tangential players. There is almost no mention of China after the Communist Revolution, for instance. However, I was quickly swayed by Frankopan’s evidence that Central Asia is undeniably worthy of even more study and that this region is now returning to prominence. Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, and Syria have only been growing in importance in the half-century due to shifting power balances and regime changes. They deserve all the study from historians that they can get.

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Jason Park

Jason Park

Book-reviewer, AP World History and AP Psychology Teacher. MAT Secondary Social Studies, University of Arkansas. Arlington, TX.