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The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan

This, I believe, was one of the first History Teacher Book Club reads and therefore one I missed out on. I read the sequel, 'The New Silk Roads' on a plane flight between London and Abu Dhabi in one sitting - and Peter Frankopan even replied to my tweet, congratulating me for keeping my son asleep during the whole flight to allow me to do it!

Anyway, my (extensive) notes from the original are below. An extraordinary study - one that is so wide and broad that I will have to spend some time to see how it can neatly fit into our schemes of work at school. But it certainly blows open Asia as essential to this historical narrative we have all been teaching this time without ever really acknowledging the vital role played by this huge chunk of humanity. A good first step in 'de-colonising' the curriculum, or at the very least, making it less Euro-centric.

Hope it helps:

Persian Empire appears first in the rich area between the Med and the Persian Gulf.

Then Alexander the Great demolishes it in just a decade of fighting, establishing towns along the way to be held by his men and providing a fortified trading route. Herrat, Baghram etc are all Alaxander. The Greek language and culture spread in this manner, with Greek letters and statues of Apollo found in India before any Buddhas (indeed, the creation of the Budda symbol/statue is believed to be in part a reaction to the prevalence of Apollo statues).

This line of fortified trading posts by Alexander was mimicked by the Chinese Great Wall. Both were protecting their gains from the Mongols that Dominated the plains of Russia and Asia in between. However, both also traded with these Mongols as they required the horses they bred, which were of fine quality, for their own military endeavours.

Silk became a currency in China as it did not go off, was light and easy to move and was used to pay the soldiers of China's army which were operating far away from the main Chinese cities where coinage had been introduced- so they needed silks to take part in the barter economies in those areas.

Trade between the Romans and Chinese changed the Persian Empire which sat in between. Previously its centres of power had been to the North, to protect from, and trade with, the nomadic peoples of the steppes. As the value of trade between Rome and China increase through its southern regions the economic centres shifted southwards to capitalise.

The Roman decision to relocate to Byzantine (and rename it Constantinople) was made to bring the centre of gravity of the Empire closer to its lucrative trade lines with the East, and further away from the costly and rebellious North West of Europe.

When Constantine converted to Christianity, the Empire didn't immediately switch at once. It took several years but popular support was such that it didn't take too long. He began the reconstruction of Jerusalem into a spiritual centre for the religion. This is the important bit; while he is remembered as the man who cemented Christianity, his actions also saw its future prospects in the East immediately cease. Christianity had spread throughout Persia, India and beyond. However, as soon as it became associated with the Roman Empire it ceased to be neutral, Christians were now seen as a 5th column of Roman sympathisers. In Persia and beyond Christians were hunted down, arrested and killed. Constantine solidified the faith in Europe but in so doing ended it in the East.

Due to the climate change, the "hordes" of the great plains began moving south, raiding deep into Rome and Persia. In response, the two enemies began to work together to build a wall linking the Caspian Sea to the Black. A wonder of planning and engineering. Thirty Forts across its width garrisoned, built with standardised bricks. Rome contributed men and funds to man the wall.

But it wasn't enough. The hordes were running riot on mainland Europe. Gaul was lost and then Alaric, Chief of the Visigoths sacked Rome in 410. Soon after this Atilla himself arrived with the main Hun army and savaged Europe. In response, the Emperor order the construction of huge fortifications around Constantinople. Atilla is eventually defeated by an alliance of other horde tribes and then dies in his sleep of a brain haemorrhage.

Frankopans calls it "voguish to downplay the Dark Ages that followed the collapse of Western Rome. However, as he notes: "Literacy levels plummeted; building in stone all but disappeared, a clear sign of the collapse of wealth and ambition; long-distance trade that once took pottery from factories in Tunisia as far as Iona in Scotland collapsed, replaced by local markets dealing only with the exchange of petty goods; and as measured from pollution in polar ice-caps in Greenland there was a major contraction in smelting work, with levels falling back to those of prehistoric times."

Of note, Zoroastrianism was the religion of ancient Persia (pre-Islam) and therefore growing Christian communities in this region were in competition with them. Violently at times.

At this point, the church now based in Constantinople when through a series of meetings, edicts and reforms to try and create a consensus over religious teachings. In the meantime missionaries, now free from the stigma of being aligned with an all-mighty enemy, achieved notable success with some steppe tribes converting, Christian communities appearing as far afield as the Arab Pennisula and Sri Lanka. The Central Asian Silk Road routes were predominantly Christian during this time, helped by the Persian leadership's "deftness" Frankopan states:

"Cities like Merv, Gundesẖāpūr and even Kashgar, the oasis town that was the entry point to China, had archbishops long before Canterbury did. These were major Christian centres many centuries before the first missionaries reached Poland or Scandinavia."

What follows next is a series of bloody back and forth wars between Rome and Persia, with both sides at times coming very close to the utter destruction of the other before their overreach and collapse.

Arguments began to occur between the Western and Eastern parts of Christianity as a result - large parts spent large chunks of time under Persian control and began to diverge in their teachings as a result. When they were liberated during one of the Roman advances they then had explained their behaviour, leading to clashes over doctrine.

Then in the 500s came a plague. The black death. It weakened both major powers (Rome and Persia). And opened up a crack for a new power...

As the two mighty powers exhausted themselves Mohammad began to receive messages from god in the Arabian Peninsula. This area at the time was undergoing rapid change as Christian churches were beginning to appear in Mecca at the same time as the demand for the luxury goods provided by the Arabs to the two superpowers was on the wane. Additionally, the routes used by pilgrims to visit Mecca became unsafe and the lucrative pilgrim trade dried up

An economic depression ensued. These were unsettling and confusing times for the Arabs.

At first, his preaching was deemed too controversial and he was chased to Medina. However, after fighting his way back (which involved a lot of plundering of passing caravans) a truce was signed and Mohammed was allowed back into Mecca. Upon which his followers grew in number and he set about establishing his new religion. The Ka'ba, already a centre of pilgrimage for polytheism was adopted as the new centre of this religion. To cement support with locals followers were told not to pray towards Jurseluem as before but instead to Mecca. The new religion was to be 100% Arabic. Locals loved it. Along with the renewed pilgrim trade.

Next was to conquer new lands. The timing was perfect with the Persian Empire in disarray with 6-8 claimants to the throne causing disarray and civil war. A large Arab expeditionary army racked up riches by being paid to leave Persian cities along, or by sacking the easy pickings.

Mohammed's next smart move was to design a system for sharing the spoils of war. 20% was reserved for the Caliph while the rest was shared between supporters in what Frankopans refers to as a "pyramid scheme". It made financial sense to support Mohammed and convert.

Islam grows. There then follows a fight for the heart of the tribes of the steppes, which pick up influences from all three religions. Into this mix come the Rus, the Vikings, following the rivers over Eastern Europe down to the Black Sea in order to trade, mostly slaves.

The Crusades begin. The first time that North and West Europe mustered much strength, they came to the rescue of the Byzantine Empire and looted Islamic cities.

One important consequence was the rise here of Italian merchant states, emerging from the crumbled Western Roman Empire by providing shipping services to the Crusaders. Western European crusaders purchased maritime services in exchange for a percentage of future loot taken from the Islamic forces. Hurrah for the power of shipping.

Ultimately the Crusades had a huge impact on Western Europe.

1. Turned the Pope from a local Bishop into someone with great financial and military authority.

2. Gave Western Europe a shared sense of identity.

3. Established service and good deeds (going on Crusade) as vital to the culture of European nobility.

4. Allowed Europe to benefit from some of the new philosophies and sciences being developed in the Middle East.

5. Turned the Italian City States into financial hubs - which later could sponsor and commisiomany of the great works of the Renaissance which combined Middle Eastern ideas with Italian financial muscle.

Good fodder for a lesson this ♤

Meanwhile, the Mongols were busy consolidating and extending their empire, which at its height stretched the Pacific to the Mediterranean. They adopted a former Chinese city to be the New capital of their Empire. Today it's called Beijing.

Their Empire prized safe passage for traders

A huge opportunity here arose. Despite the failure of the Crusades to capture and hold the Middle East, it had created the rich Italian merchant States. And the Mongolians had just paved the way from Europe to China... guidebooks sprang up about people could travel East, routes to take, taxes to expect, spices to find and typical prices to pay.

However. As the road across Euroasia suddenly opened up, something else, other than trade was allowed to flow - the plague.

The steppes l, dry and arid are great breeding grounds for Yersini Pestis in gerbils - the main rodent of the great steppes.

The Ottomans surged across the Bosphorus and seized lands in the Balkans. Constantinople stood as a Christian island inside this new Islamic power. In 1453 it fell. Byzantium was gone.

This triggered some soul searching among the Christian world, and according to some historians, one man in particular, began drawing up plans for the recapture of Jurseluem and much else besides... but first he'd need money and an audience with the Mongols to secure an alliance. So he needed a way to get to the East.

So he went West.

He was called Christopher Colombus.

The wealth brought back to Europe gave it new confidence. Rich patrons looking to commission great artworks and buildings appeared within a matter of decades from the first gold ships returning. However, Europe was still unable to force the Islamic forces out of the Middle East and reclaim what many believed was their rightful heritage. So, in the absence of territorial gains, the newly rich in Europe came to repaint the histories, and portray themselves in Western Europe, despite their peripheral part in the story, as the direct heirs of Rome and Athens. In reality, they had more influence on those areas that became Byzantine and then the Ottoman Empire. So the Renaissance was not a Re-Birth at all. But a Birth.

The dawn of a new age of Western European Power, that dressed itself up in the icons of Mediterranean antiquity, as a sort of cultural salvage operation of those once-great Empires.

Further new sea routes around Africa to the Indian Ocean opened up routes away from the Italian merchant states, Lisbon, Madrid and London began to rise as financial centres.

The new found European wealth propelled the demand for silk Road Eastern luxury goods, especially spices. Land routes and sea routes now competed for the trade. Trading posts and resupply stops up and down the African East And West Coast sprang up.

Meanwhile, the new ocean-going ships allowed Manilla, the Philippines to emerge as a key market, allowing American gold and silver to reach East Asia without going through Europe first. Manilla became what many called "the first international city" as a meeting place between Asian and Amer/European traders.

The rise of Britain.

Being protestant forced them to build a Navy to protect themselves, this investment led to new developments in shipbuilding that paid off against the Spanish Armada. However, the real eye-opener was the capture of the Portuguese galley Madre de Deus which was carrying so much treasure it equalled 50% the of English treasury that year. Unfortunately for the crown word soon spread and it was looted while still in the harbour! The treasury only for a fraction of it back. However, it got people thinking...

Another reason, the main reason, for European success, was its history of violence. Its fractured political nature led to near-continuous warfare, far more so than elsewhere in the world which experienced long periods of peace. The constant life or death struggle in Europe led to breakthroughs in shipbuilding, Castle building, weapons and the financial mechanisms to fund it all - features that would allow them to better Dominate the globe.

As the North West of Europe grew rapidly. Venice, Florence and Rome, the city-states that had once controlled and financed the Silk Road trade fell into irrelevance. They instead became cities devoted to leisure - centres of tourism for the newly rich of North Europe and their "Grand Tour". A coming of age gap year of sorts for the young of the wealthy.


Britain began to expand...

The East India Company was a game-changer. Replacing the Portuguese in India and rubbing up against the Dutch East India Company.

The competition with the Dutch forced Britain to spend heavily on the Navy, roughly 20% of the entire government budget. Overseen initially by Samuel Pepys who gathered the most up to date ship designs and carefully managed and established new Dockyards across the country. The new ships coming out were larger, with an emphasis on putting as many guns on one platform as possible. Admiral Blake wrote, "Fighting Instructions" which shared best practices and a strict meritocracy and promotion board that helped improve leadership. The fatality rate of Royal Navy officers in combat fell by 98% between 1660 and 1815. A testimony to better fighting methods.

Fortunes could be made within the British Empire. One American born official of the EIC returned to Britain having made unbelievable riches. He donated money to the collegiate school of Connecticut, which renamed itself after their new donor, Yale.

Why did Britain do so well?

One reason, is geography: Being an island meant it did not need a standing army to protect its borders. Meaning more cash to invest elsewhere compared to mainland European powers.


The 1800s saw British imperial dominance but also the period of the "Great Game" where Britain's biggest concern was Russia. The Crimean War was eagerly sought by the British to humble this threat to British possessions in India and China. While victorious the war merely spurred social, economic and military reform in Russia and a decade later Britain faced a more fearsome opponent.

As discussed at length in Dreadnought by Robert K Massie, Britain believed an alliance with Germany to be the sensible solution. Germany could apply pressure to the Russian front and prevent them from planning expeditions into central Asia.



Anglo-Persia oil company in the early days 1910s -

The ambassador to Iran had to help divide the cultural gap "between the British who do not say what they mean, and the Persians who do not mean what they say".


The importance of oil was promoted by Admiral Fisher. Oil burnt better than coal. He realised whoever controlled the oil, controlled the ships of the future. He approached the First Lord of the Admiralty - Winston Churchill. He agreed.

Days before Franz Ferdinand was shot the British government bought a 51% stake in the Anglo Persian oil company.

The crappy deal given to the locals spurred the enduring legend of Islam being cheated by the West - and fuelled Islamic Fundamentalism.

To make matters worse in WW1 Britain promised the Arabs a state in exchange for help protecting the oil from the invading Ottomans. It was a lie.

Gallipoli was meant as a diversion to keep the Ottomans from venturing too far south and approaching the oil fields.

The Picot-Sykes agreement was, as the US ambassador said "turning the Middle East into a breeding ground for future conflict".

Iraq, given to Faisal I, a Sunni, in exchange for his help in WW1 was:

A) an entirely new country made by the British

B) a three-way mishmash of people with no history of living together

C) Largely Shia and Persian - Not ideal for the Sunni Faisal.

Roald Dahl served as a hurricane pilot in the Middle East.


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