A visiting fellow at Harvard and Princeton. An accomplished musician and former chorister at Westminster Cathedral. A former cricketer who represented Croatia. As I sat listening to the many achievements of Peter Frankopan, I couldn’t help but wonder if Michael Aspel would have needed multiple Red Books had he been leading the introduction to describe the multiple lives of this one man.
However, it was his day job as Director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research at Oxford University that brought him to the University of Edinburgh, and an appearance as part of the Asia Scotland Institute’s series of guest speakers. The aim of the Institute is to educate and inform the people of Scotland about the region and the opportunities that it offers, so having Frankopan discuss his bestselling book profiling the 2,000-year history of the Silk Roads was a natural fit.
The author has grand ambitions for his work, and that is no more evident than in the title. The Silk Roads: A New History of the World aims to recalibrate our perception of history, illustrating a world where the heart of power is documented through the prism of Persia, a far cry from the dominant idea that we are all beneficiaries of the power and prestige brought by the success of the Romans. Frankopan says that the evidence for this East-West reorientation lies in the success of the Silk Roads, a complex network of channels which span between China and the Mediterranean Sea. Indeed, he makes a point of emphasising the plural, insisting that it was far more complex than a single route. These roads were not only the gateway for the flow of goods and services, but the various ideas, language and religions of which we are now accustomed.
He argues that although goods such as gold and other commodities were the pioneering trade across the Silk Roads during the conquests of Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC, it’s the exchange of ideas which has been the most captivating and enduring, creating a lasting cauldron in the region, with Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all competing on a theological playing field.
It’s no surprise given the nature of Frankopan’s ideas that the audience in the room were keen to understand how this concept manifests itself in the modern world. He doesn’t recognise the idea that globalisation is a recent phenomenon, but instead argues it is a process which has been going on for two millennia. Globalisation, to Frankopan, is not primarily an economic system, but is more usefully thought of as the connectivity of humans. He concedes that recent advances in science and technology has accelerated and aided our connectivity, allowing companies to grow across the globe. However, he completely rejects the premise that it has served only as a way to advance the expansion of the West.
The speech concluded with a damming assessment of the mindset of politicians here in the UK and across the Atlantic. Nodding to modern success stories in the emerging countries of China and Dubai, Frankopan believes that those in power are too narrow-minded when it comes to forging relationships and links, and that we should use the process of Brexit to focus energies on the emerging markets in the East.
To take one example, 4G connectivity is far more advanced in Uzbekistan than in the UK. Shepherds can track their flocks using a smartphone. Since the fall of the USSR, Uzbekistan’s GDP has increased by almost 800%. Before dismissing these countries, we should look to how we can engage meaningfully with them. Brexit or no Brexit.
Frankopan was once described as the “history rock star du jour”. Judging by his presentation last night, he’d like to be remembered as much more than that. Frankopan would like to change our society’s view of the East, and with it change the way in which we live.