In the preface to Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, he gives this mission statement:

I wanted to know more about Russia and Central Asia, about Persia and Mesopotamia. I wanted to understand the origins of Christianity when viewed from Asia; and how the Crusades looked to those living in the great cities of the Middle Ages – Constantinople, Jerusalem, Baghdad and Cairo, for example; I wanted to learn about the great empires of the east, about the Mongols and their conquests; and to understand how two world wars looked when viewed not from Flanders or the eastern front, but from Afghanistan and India.

Hey, Pete, me too! So it’s kinda disappointing that that’s not what this book is. While the focus of the book is on the Middle East and Asia, it’s on them from the perspective of Europe—they’re acted upon, only rarely actors. So, for instance, we hear about how the Roman Empire was focused more on the Middle East than on Western Europe, how Egypt and Persia were more important than Britain and Gaul, despite all we hear about Caesar’s northwestern campaign. But we don’t read about internal Egyptian politics, we don’t read about life in the Persian Empire. We’re still focused on Rome.

And that pattern follows throughout the book. As we get to the Crusades, we don’t read about the various Islamic factions, but we get a full accounting of the divisions in Christendom. There’s almost no discussion of life in India, but a whole bunch about the East India Company. Almost every part of twentieth-century Middle Eastern history is through the lens of French, British, and American foreign policy.

But… that’s not a devastating critique, because if this isn’t the book I wanted or the book that the preface seems to think it is, it is an interesting history of Europe, as focused on Asia. And it is a useful corrective to the kind of mythological “western civilization” take on history that you might get in high school. With a scope as broad as this (it goes from antiquity to the George W. Bush administration, which tbh is probably way too recent to really count as “history,” but one can understand the temptation to not stop before 9/11), it’s necessarily not going to go into too much detail on any particular time period, but it manages to be satisfyingly informative even from a high-level view.

Recommended, if this is what you’re looking for; but I still want the book the preface promised.


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