A couple of months ago I purchased two new audio books to listen to while cycling. Often, while cycling, I listen to novels: they do not seem to demand as much concentration. Listening to non-fiction is harder, and I seem only to get a portion of what I am hearing.
The first of the books is Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. The sub-title indicates the bold, perhaps grandiose, vision of the book. Of course it is impossible to write a complete history of the world; that would be beyond any possible scholarly capacity. Frankopan, however, has achieved much of what he has set out to do.
Frankopan argues that Asia and the Middle East constitute the “heart of the world,” and that major trading cities were strung across this region, across “the spine of Asia,” like a string of pearls. These cities became centres of mercantile activity from ancient eras to the present, and indeed, the world as a whole is pivoting back to this region as it once more fulfils its role (destiny?) as “the heart of the world.”
Frankopan’s history is deeply fascinating and somewhat depressing. He manages to include enormous detail and great sweeps and movements of history as he exploits the imagery of the “silk road.” The origin of the term refers, of course, to the trade routes linking China to the west so that silk production in the former might find its way to the latter. In Frankopan’s hands, the silk roads become the “road to heaven” (the crusades) and the “road to hell” (the Black Death or the plagues). He speaks of the “slave road,” and the “road to the Christian east;” the roads of furs, gold, silver, and black gold. The roads to compromise, genocide, and super-power rivalry; the roads of catastrophe and tragedy.
There is much in the book to inform Christian interest in church history, though Frankopan seems to regard religion as a human capacity. His treatment of the modern world, as expected, is more detailed than that of the ancient world. The British are portrayed as a particularly wicked empire, followed closely by the Americans, though Hitler is worst of all, simply and utterly evil. In contrast to the British, other brutal tyrants of history such as Genghis Khan seem almost tame by comparison. But perhaps I missed some of Frankopan’s nuance, due to the cycling.
So why was it somewhat depressing? Because the story is one of warfare, conquest, exploitation, bloodshed, and tyranny, and all this based on economics and the desire for power or glory. While trade has certainly opened up the world and brought its varied peoples into contact and communication with one another, it has also opened doorways to violent military conflicts that have devastated entire peoples and regions.
As I listened I was glad for relatively recent developments in international relations and law which serve to constrain some of these worst impulses, though obviously not entirely. I was also very aware that the privilege I enjoy as a member of a first-world society has been funded at least in part by injustice in previous generations and centuries.
Is there hope that the future might be different from the past? Might new systems and mechanisms of trade and development emerge that somehow privilege the under-developed nations and allow them to space to prosper, even if “economic growth” and “standards of living” in the wealthier countries do not continue to grow at the rates we seem to desire? Might warfare and violence be constrained, and its devastating impact on civilian populations (especially children) reduced? Can the international community find better ways of relating than via stand-off and conflict?
I am not overly optimistic about this. It seems humanity is fatally incapable of learning that the way of hubris and greed leads inevitably to destruction, both for others and ultimately, for oneself. Perhaps works like Frankopan’s will help stimulate deeper reflection across many constituencies, and so result in new movements towards peace and justice. Such movements are welcome and are to be encouraged.
In the end, however, I find I hope most in the eschatological and apocalyptic vision of the New Testament: that is, I hope for the return of Jesus Christ and the establishing of the kingdom of God. As Christians, it is this in which we hope, this that we are to image now in our life together, and this that we are to work toward.
I found this a very worthwhile book, one I will listen to again. I have also bought a Kindle edition and hope one day to read it as well. I can recommend it.