Throughout history, Central Asia has been a nexus of burgeoning trade in goods, people, and ideas.
Drawing on prodigious sources, Frankopan (The First Crusade: The Call from the East, 2012, etc.), director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research, creates a sweeping, fascinating chronicle of world history focused on trade—in silk, spices, furs, gold, silver, slaves, and religion—in a vast region from the Mediterranean’s eastern shores to the Himalayas. What is now the Caucasus, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan once served as the bridge between Europe and Asia, an area, the author writes, “on which the globe spun,” where thriving cities housed diverse populations speaking a “cauldron” of languages, where “the world’s great religions burst into life” and “great empires rose and fell.” Trade in silk is exemplary of the confluence of cultures: the shimmering fabric was “a cipher for exoticism and eroticism” but also suspicion and conflict. Some thought the diaphanous material was “disgraceful” and sought to outlaw it; others damned the high cost of such luxuries. Controversies arose over religions, as well. The Silk Roads “were crowded, as deities and cults, priests and local rulers jostled with each other,” with political implications: “a society protected and favored by the right god, or gods, thrived; those promising false idols....suffered.” Among the many colorful figures the author vividly portrays, Genghis Khan emerges as a strategic genius who became “the undisputed master of the Mongolian steppes by 1206.” Although the author acknowledges the Mongols’ brutality, he also argues that their investment in infrastructure benefited the region. Likewise, he sees an upside to the Black Plague, which was a “catalyst for [the] social and economic change” that led to Europe’s rise. Until the 16th century, though, Europe was “little more than a sideshow” compared with “titanic struggles” in Central Asia. Frankopan weaves together his many narrative strands with verve and impressive scholarship.
A vastly rich historical tapestry that puts ongoing struggles in a new perspective.