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The Silk Roads

A New History of the World

By Peter Frankopan
18-minute read
Audio available
The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan

The Silk Roads (2015) is a comprehensive history of the world, written with an eye to the networks of trade that shaped it. The networks of trade first established in ancient Persia and later linked with Chinese trade routes created a great network between the East and the West. But these Silk Roads are not relics of the past. They have morphed and changed, and their impact can be felt today, right down to America’s fateful engagement in the region where it all began.

  • Economists looking for historical parallels
  • Intrigued followers of world events who want to learn about trade
  • Historians of all stripes

Peter Frankopan is director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research. He has lectured at Cambridge, Yale, Harvard, Princeton, NYU and other Universities. His other books include The First Crusade: The Call from the East (2012).

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The Silk Roads

A New History of the World

By Peter Frankopan
  • Read in 18 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 11 key ideas
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The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan
Synopsis

The Silk Roads (2015) is a comprehensive history of the world, written with an eye to the networks of trade that shaped it. The networks of trade first established in ancient Persia and later linked with Chinese trade routes created a great network between the East and the West. But these Silk Roads are not relics of the past. They have morphed and changed, and their impact can be felt today, right down to America’s fateful engagement in the region where it all began.

Key idea 1 of 11

In antiquity, goods and ideas flowed between East and West, creating the Silk Roads in the process.

Thousands of years ago, the expanse of land bracketed by the Euphrates and Tigris rivers was called Mesopotamia. This area, which covered most of what is now Iraq and parts of the surrounding countries, is the cradle of Western civilization. It was here that the first towns, cities, kingdoms and empires emerged.

Of these empires, the greatest was the Persian. By the sixth century BCE, it stretched from Egypt and Greece in the West to the Himalayas in the East. It was an empire built on trade between its cities – trade that was made possible by a network of roads that connected the Mediterranean to the heart of Asia.

These roads were a mighty achievement, but their destiny was to become a constituent part of the Silk Roads, the famous network of routes that eventually linked China with the West.

Under the Han dynasty, between 206 BCE and 220 CE, China began to expand its horizons. It pushed its borders northward and westward as far as the Eurasian steppes, the sweeping grasslands that cover much of modern-day Russia’s southern regions. This expansion linked Persia’s trade routes with China’s own network of roads.

The steppes were a wild place. The Chinese sought to maintain peace in the region by trading with the nomads. Rice, wine and textiles were all favored commodities, but silk was by far the most coveted.

Silk became a symbol of wealth, luxury and power. It was even occasionally used as currency. As trade expanded, it attained a reputation as a luxury good in the West, too. In fact, by the time Rome came to dominate the Mediterranean, in the middle of the first century BCE, silk’s reputation there was secure.

But it wasn’t just goods that flowed between East and West. The routes facilitated the exchange and dissemination of ideas, too.

The most powerful of these were religious. Local cults became increasingly mixed with established belief systems, a process that created a rich melting pot of ideas concerning the divine. For instance, the Greek pantheon of gods headed east, while Buddhist ideas circulated from northern India into China and the rest of Asia.

In fact, these networks partly explain why Christianity was later able to spread so quickly from its humble origins in Palestine through the Mediterranean and across Asia.

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