Looking East and Linking West

This neat checkerboard brings wonderful clarity if you plan to sell weapons to people, or menace people with weapons, the principal executive actions of geopolitics.

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | Updated: September 5, 2015 4:01:21 am
Yadan landforms in Dunhuang. A copy of the Diamond Sutra, the world’s first printed book, was found in a cave in Dunhuang. Thinkstock Yadan landforms in Dunhuang. A copy of the Diamond Sutra, the world’s first printed book, was found in a cave in Dunhuang. Thinkstock

Title- The Silk Roads: A New History of the World
Author: Peter Frankopan
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Pages: 656 
Price: Rs 799

Peter Frankopan is the sort of historian who exasperates geopolitical players, strategic affairs-wallahs and neo-nationalists, whose world-view is usually a grid of binary pigeonholes marked progressive and regressive, democratic and autocratic, good and evil. This neat checkerboard brings wonderful clarity if you plan to sell weapons to people, or menace people with weapons, the principal executive actions of geopolitics. The grid is strictly two-dimensional, with the arrow of time edited out, for it would inconveniently reveal the web of historical connections which binds regions and cultures together. History makes violence look ridiculous.

But everyone knows this already. We also know that long ago, someone fiddled with the world map. Something is rotten in the state of Western scholarship if, almost four decades after Edward Said’s Orientalism, it needs to be reminded that none of the cities whose names haute couture advertising drops — customarily London, Paris and New York — is the navel of the civilised world. Frankopan, director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research, first noted the rot in his childhood when he learned of the omphalos, the navel of the world, the point where two eagles loosed from the ends of the earth by Zeus met. Pedagogy and the map on his bedroom wall disagreed about its location. In school, Frankopan was taught that the Mediterranean is the cradle of civilisation, but the real sense of the term — the middle of Terra — would locate the omphalos or umbilicus in Asia.

Indeed, if you draw two convergent lines from the ends of the Old World — from, say, Cornwall and Kamchatka — they would meet somewhere between the Black Sea and the Himalayas. Archaeologically, this domain would stretch from Babylon to the Tarim Basin. In the realm of myth and story, it would stretch from the Garden of Eden to Xanadu. Alexander the Great and Vasco da Gama chose to go east because the centre of the Old World lay there.

Modern contests between the Western powers, like the Great Game and the Cold War, were fought on Asian battlefields, and the Afghan and Syrian migrants now braving the Mediterranean in search of better lives in Europe are their last victims. So are the morons who vandalised Palmyra and Bamiyan.

In order to construct new demons in Asia, Western politics may find it expedient to make up new maps like those of old, in which parts unknown were confidently labelled, “Here be dragons.” But academia must know better, since Western scholarship was crucially instrumental in piecing together the puzzle of the ancient east. John Marshall and Mortimer Wheeler organised the excavations at Mohenjo-daro, after it was discovered by Rakhaldas Bandyopadhyay. Masada, whose Jewish garrison chose mass suicide over surrender to the Romans, was identified by Edward Robinson and Eli Smith, before the Israeli archaeologist (later chief of staff of the armed forces) Yigael Yadin excavated its ruins.

Babylon was first excavated by the antiquarian Claudius James Rich. Max Müller’s philological work projected South Asia as the mother lode of Indo-European culture. And with patience, persistence and (allegedly) a little bribery, Sir Aurel Stein recovered a copy of the Diamond Sutra, the world’s first printed book, from a cave in Dunhuang.

In a lost mailbag — perhaps some fourth century postman lost his job or his life for this — Stein also discovered the famous Sogdian letters, correspondence from a globalised world. One, written by a young woman abandoned in Dunhuang and living on the charity of a monk, requested financial aid from nations away. Another, written by someone who understood money as well as a futures trader, was written to a head office in Samarkand, half a continent away, requesting the reinvestment of a portfolio left behind, and also arranging for its bequest in case the writer did not return home alive.

The Silk Roads is appropriately named, for in this book, globalisation is the thread holding history together from the dawn of civilisation. Frankopan draws attention to the fact that the original coinage of Ferdinand von Richthofen (the Red Baron’s uncle, in case aerial warfare and trideckers interest you) was in the plural: Seidenstrassen. His chapters develop on the idea of multiple Silk Roads — they are titled, for instance, ‘The Road to a Christian East’ and ‘The Road of Superpower Rivalry’. It is an interesting device but in the main, the narrative does not diverge significantly from the mainstream account of history, except in emphasis, which is economic and social rather than political. For instance, says Frankopan, the Third Reich made World War II inevitable not because of plain territorial ambitions, but its hunger for grain from the Caucasus.

However, a few threads are conspicuous by their absence. Commerce spreads not only goods but their names and associated practices. Map the first use of the word “tamarind” across cultures, and you would roughly know when they were exposed to trade goods from India. Because the word is actually tamar-e-hind – “Indian date”. Apart from goods, capital and culture, commerce also spreads human beings and their diseases. DNA mapping will add volumes to the understanding of the great migrations which made the first Silk Roads, long before sapiens emerged as the planet’s dominant hominid.

And, while historians cannot be expected to gaze deeply into the future, a little speculation about silicon roads would have been interesting. When ideas become the new coin trading across networks at lightspeed, will the old wars over oil, gold, lapis, land and human capital, whether in the form of slaves or contract labour, seem as quaint as a game of Battleships?

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