I just finished listening to the Audible version of The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan. I’ve been a fan of World History since reading, cover-to-cover the Abridged version (in a single volumn of some 1000 pages) of the Cambridge World History. By now I’ve read at least a half dozen books that give an overview of the history of the world, and when I purchased The Silk Roads, I was hoping to learn more about the history of central Asia. Frankopan gave me that and much more, with a perspective of world history that considers Central Asia at the center rather than the usual focus on Western Europe.
Not long ago I finished listening to another Audible book, The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt by Toby Wilkinson in which I learned about one of the original civilizations that developed as the people on the Nile developed methods of agriculture. Around the same time civilization, with language and writing, was developing in Mesopotamia, now known as Iraq, while another civilization developed around the Indus Valley. It was between these and the civilization developing in China that the first Silk Road developed to include an area now including Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, dominated initially by tribes called the Scythians by ancient and medieval western writers. The Scythians were threats from the north feared by civilizations in Asia Minor, encountered by Alexander the Great who defeated them at the Battle of Jaxartes in 329 BCE. Trade with the Scythians most famously brought horses to the warring ancient states around the Mediterranean.
Trade with these and other tribes of the Silk Road became the source of many articles desired by the West, from silk to spices. Persia served as the gateway to these riches, subjected to a succession of rulers from the Achaemenid dynasty, the Seleucid Empire, the Greco-Bactrian kingdom, the Kushan Empire, the Kidarites, the Hephthalites (a.k.a., White Huns) and the Sasanid Empire.
The Silk Road also brought ideas from the West, initially those of the ancient Greeks, and most notably resulting in the spread of Islam starting in the 7th Century CE. The Islamic Abbasid empire in the pushed east from the Levant to eventually come to defeat China in the Battle of Talas in Kyrgyzstan (751 CE) where they obtained control of the Fergana Valley on the Silk Road. The Islamic dominance continued under the Samanid dynasty and Qarakhanid dynasty, only to be brought to its knees by the Mongols in the 13th Century CE.
It was money from the West, and by the Medieval period, particularly from Western and Northern Europe, that brought wealth and power to the Silk Road. Furthermore, wealth generated in the 16th to 19th Century CE by the Spanish conquistadors, Portoghese, and the English, moved wealth from the Americas to Western Europe to the East, including Central Asia, as well as China. A distribution of wealth like none that had happened before. Frankopan writes about the transformation of the economies that resulted from this flow of wealth.
Then a transition occurred. The source of resources creating the wealth became Iraq, Persia (later Iran) and Central Asia, as oil was discovered in these countries. Starting in the early 1900s the British began building the infrastructure to ensure access to this oil for their ships which switched from coal to the more efficient oil. The British, and their substitute, the U.S.A.’s policies ensured extraction of this wealth without adequate sharing of that wealth, and the associated power it represented. Both Britain and the U.S.A. and their industrial representatives, e.g., British Petroleum, Shell Oil, did all they could to retain control of these oil resources while the people in these countries resisted more and more. Much of this was the West’s fear of the U.S.S.R. and their increasing influence in Central Asia and the Levant. These policies eventually led to the power dynamics that have culminated over the last 50 years in the 1973 oil crisis, the Iran hostage crisis (1979-1981), the Gulf War (1991), September 11th Attacks (2001), the Iraq War (2003-2011), the Afghanistan War (2001-2021).
Furthermore, the importance of Central Asian countries is increasing as demands for their reserves of rare earth elements, as well as other important commodity ores like iron, coal and oil, continue to grow in importance as populations grow in their insistence on computers, batteries and, of course, cars. Russia, China, and the U.S.A. continue to develop policies that attempt to attract partnerships with these Central Asian countries, as they have in the past with countries in the Levant.
This book by Frankopan has opened my eyes to the center of world attention, and the politics of courting it for the last millennium. It was well worth a listen, and likely worth another listen in the future.