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“Once upon a time, Europe wasn’t the center of anything,” Peter Frankopan contends, placing Central Asia and its prolific Silk Roads at the center of world development. Frankopan tells us how the Silk Roads were more than just ancient trade routes—they were a network of arteries that connected continents and people by spreading economic, scientific, religious, and cultural goods and ideas. Frankopan is senior research fellow at Worcester College, Oxford; director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research; and author of The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. 

Portrait of Peter Frankopan

Peter Frankopan. Photo: Johnny Ring

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The Silk Roads: A New History of the World book


JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.

PETER FRANKOPAN: We don’t have very much silver, there’s almost no gold in Europe. Spices, pepper, saffron, camphor—Europe didn’t really have anything that mattered to anybody. And arguably, we still don’t have anything that matters.

CUNO:  In this episode, I speak with Oxford professor Peter Frankopan. The term “Silk Road” was coined by the Prussian geographer Ferdinand von Richtofen in 1877 and was used to refer to a large network of roads and routes that crisscrossed Central Asia connecting China with the Mediterranean over more than a thousand years.

In his recent book, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, Peter Frankopan traces the history of that network and its role in the dissemination of religious and scientific ideas, the exchange of commercial and cultural goods, and the advance of military might and political ambitions. I spoke with Peter over the telephone from Oxford.

Peter, the first sentence of your book is, “The center of Asia was where empires were made.” And that first sentence, I think, makes clear that your “New History of the World,” as you’ve subtitled your book, is a history best and most accurately told from the perspective of the political, economic, intellectual, theological, and cultural developments, from Baghdad in the west to Chang’an or Xi’an today, in the east. Is that fair? In other words, it’s a book about the history of the world as told from the perspective of Central Asia.

FRANKOPAN:  That’s exactly right. I mean, what I would say is that it’s not just told from the perspective of the heart of the world. I mean, that is how I think global history and the history of the world should look. I mean, we find it hard, I think, when we imagine the past, to cut away from our own myths and stories we’ve been told about how we came to be today. And you know, it comes as a real shock to my students here at Oxford University to realize that, you know, once upon a time, Europe wasn’t the center of anything. And if you were gonna choose where you were going to try to understand history since the beginning of time, you’d naturally want to start in those places where human interaction is at its most vibrant. You would want to look at the region of the world where religions spring from and jostle and compete and refine each other. You’d want to look at the cauldron where all the language groups of the world collide. And you’d want to try and find where the beginning of mankind really starts and where we start, as a community and as a species, to live in cities, to harvest together, to collaborate and so on and so forth.

CUNO:  And you make, by the title of your book as well as the content of it, clear that you want to tell this story, a very complicated story as it is, by means of points of contact. And these points of contact are along things called roads, and it’s more than one road. So we’re often comfortable referring to the Silk Road itself as a singular expanse of tarmac or a path; but you wanna make it clear that there’s more than one road, that it’s a network of roads.

FRANKOPAN:  Well, you know, I don’t like to be—I’m not one of those academics who gets too strung up about terms. I think we all understand what we mean. But the term Silk Roads was originally coined by a German, and specifically in the plural, Seidenstraßen. So we’ve moved away from that because the Silk Road sounds better as a kind of holiday. You know, it sounds better as a list of places that you can go from and to, that there’s a beginning and there’s an end. And the general conception we have of the Silk Road is—I suppose it starts somewhere in China, maybe Xi’an, and then ends somewhere in the west—maybe in Baghdad, maybe Damascus, maybe Constantinople or Istanbul, maybe Venice. Who knows? But it creates this idea that there is not just a single route, but it gives us that impression of east-west. And I think what the system of roads—which is why the German scholar who came up with this term did so, was to try to capture the fact that roads are always two-directional. And in fact, that it’s more than just east-west and west-east, cause there are very important connection going north-south and south-north. So you know, it’s not just a—it’s true to its original coining, I think. But also it tries to move away from this idea of a single road and a single product of silk being used, but to give this idea of multiple and plural, which is—it’s much more helpful and much more rewarding, actually, I think, to look at it in that way, because it doesn’t have this problem of a beginning and an end, and it has that idea of a mesh and a web, which I think is much more accurate.

CUNO:  Yeah, and someone once told me that from the perspective of the Chinese, the road would more accurately be called the “horse road.” And you do talk a lot, write a lot about in the book, on the role that horses play as important for the Chinese to police its empire. And of course, important for the nomads in the region, which China sort of embarks onto this great Central Asian plateau. Tell us more about the role of horses and the role of horses in exchange for silk.

FRANKOPAN:  Well, across the top of what’s now China, the steppe starts, more or less in what’s Mongolia. And it runs the whole way across Asia, running eventually over the lip of—the northern lip of the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea into the great plains of Europe in now what’s called now the country of Hungary. And across these flat, rolling lands were these homes to nomads who would tend their flocks of sheep, and above all, their horses. And they worked in double ways with the sedentary world, the world of the cities lying to the south, because they were—the cities were sources of trade. But also they were the opportunity for pillage and for plunder. And one of the commodities that the nomads had in large numbers and found heavy markets for, particularly in China, were for Central Asian horses. And Central Asian horses are particularly hardy as animals. They are able to find food during the winter by pulling the snow away with their hooves, which is very unusual. Other horse breeds don’t do that. So they’re hardier, they’re stronger, they’re a little bit shorter. But they are known in China as being the—you know, the sports car for the Chinese, even in antiquity. That the man who wants to travel fast, safely, and securely wanted horses that were bred by the nomads. And so in Chinese art, in Chinese literature, and in Chinese consumer—in the Chinese consumer world, the desire to have access to the best horses is almost insatiable. And the finest horses in China are the blood-sweating horses. These are horses that probably either burst a capillary on their neck when they’re really sweating; but they produce some sort of foam around the neck that make—gives them the impression that they’re sweating blood.

And these horses are incredibly important in Chinese art. They’re sort of semi-mystical, actually. They’re so valuable, they’re so revered. And the horse means something very special in China. Now, having said that, and again, why it’s important to think of Silk Roads, that the story isn’t just about China, because those horses are incredibly valuable, important eventually in Russia, and also in India in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It’s the same process where you have new elites that rise as a result of global trading. And what they want is to buy horses. They want to buy animals that allow them to move around fans and safely. And again, there’s huge boom in appetite for horses. So, the horses, I suppose, in China in antiquity and in the Tang Dynasty, from the sort of seventh to tenth century, the cycle comes back around again and you find the same profile happening in other parts of the world, particularly in China—particularly in India, I beg your pardon, in the 16–1700s. So, the horse as a sort of commodity, bred on those steppes of the whole across of the—of the whole sweep across Asia, is an important connector of the natural world and of Mother Nature, and the ability of city elites to grow and to want to be able to have the best there is in life.

CUNO:  And we’re used to having—to reading Pliny and reading of complaints about the amount of money that Rome is spending on this luxury good called silk, all for the purpose of vanity and so forth. But you make it very clear that silk was more than a luxury good, that it was more than a commodity; that it was, in fact, a way of paying the soldiers or paying the policing forces, because it would serve as light material that was quite warm and quite transportable. So, it was useful, in addition to being glamorous.

FRANKOPAN:  That’s right. It was used as a currency when there wasn’t money. You know, having currency systems and coins is very sophisticated, because you need to mint coins, they need to look right, they need to weigh exactly the same amount. And then, you know, I suppose if you imagine walking out into the middle of the Great Plains of the United States and there’s no one around, having a pocket full of coins doesn’t help you do anything. And if you do bump into someone who’s got water or food you want to buy, and they have nowhere they can spend go to spend their money, you know, your transactions will happen through different things, through different means. Maybe through your work you’ll do for them or you trade. But silk is the kind of the par excellence currency that we know about not just for—not just within the military, but used to pay to Buddhist monasteries across China; but is also used, above all, to buy the peace with the nomads. Some of the great empire builders in history are the great nomadic emperors. And we tend to think of steppe nomads, and nomads, as being violent and aggressive and chaotic. But people like Attila the Hun, Genghis Kahn and so on, Timur the great—these were great figures who didn’t just destroy things.  They were able to build cohesive, coherent realms that really worked. And one of the reasons why that—they did work was because like any good chief executive, you need to reward your high fliers with things that make them feel better than the next guy down the food chain. And silk is incredibly effective and very important in the nomad world.

CUNO:  And together with commerce being exchanged and propelled along these different routes, and power being expanded across these routes, of course, there’s the exchange of ideas. And you make it very clear in the book, about the spread of ideas and religious beliefs—everything from the Indic religions to the Abrahamic faiths in the center of Asia progressing eastward, northward and eastward, so that it’s at just about the time there’s a decline in the West. That is, with things Greek and Roman. Could you tell us more about the spread of religious ideas across Central Asia?

FRANKOPAN:  Well, I guess I’d back up a little bit and say, you know, when we all travel, when I—you know, when I go to a new country, I’m interested—the things that I notice first of all are, do I understand anything about the language? Do people look similar? What do people wear? What do they eat? And once you’re through that process, then you start talking to them. What do they think? And perhaps the most important question that all of us ask ourselves—you know, maybe not, maybe some of us even everyday—you know, is what is the meaning of life? You know, why are we here? Why should I treat my neighbor well? What should I do if someone offends me or is rude to me or actually commits a crime against me or does something wrong to me? And so the concept of what is the purpose of the divine, how does God fit in, or the series of gods fit into human existence, is a question that has preoccupied all of our ancestors since the beginning of time. And so where you find vibrant exchange through trade—also through warfare, but through travel—you tend to find that ideas follow straight through. And like I said at the beginning, one of the key—one of the most interesting observations—it’s a very simple one, really, is that all of the world’s great global religions start in Asia. You know, we don’t think of it like that. We think that Christianity is a European thing, because of the Pope in Rome, I guess, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, and because of—it was Europeans sending Christians all over the world in the colonial era to evangelize. But Christianity, like Judaism, are born in Palestine. And Christianity spreads much, much quicker eastwards than it does westwards. To the point that you find bishops in cities like Gundeshapur in modern Iran; Merv in modern Turkmenistan; even in Kashgar, on the western entrance to China, before you find bishops—well, forget about the Americas, but before you find bishops in Scandinavia, before you find bishops in Great Britain. And this melting pot for ideas of trying to refine where we come from, what the purpose of life is, is something that drags Buddhism out of Northern India through these trade routes, up into China, but also westwards into this heart of the world. It drags Hinduism, as well; Zoroastrianism, one of the great world religions that has a dualism, it functions on the idea that there are two spirits, one light, one dark. All these religions—they’re thrown into the cauldron in the middle of the world, and they compete with each other. They fight with each other. And in fact, they borrow from each other, too. So symbols like the halo, for example, one of the most famous, one of the most important depictions in Christian art to show the holiness of a saint, man or woman, that halo is entirely understandable to a Hindu or to a Buddhist or to a Zoroastrian equally, as a sign of somebody’s proximity to the divine.

So ideas, even visual ideas, they spread, they borrow, they learn, they compete. And you find, I suppose—like if you put iodine in the bloodstream and you could trace to see where things go through the body—in the same way with religion, you can see—you can trace through how Christianity spreads eastwards across Asia. You can trace caves being built and stupas being built—Buddhist stupas and caves being built—right the way across to Western—Central and Western Asia and into China, because religion is fundamentally important to us. Religions have a very important role in trying to show who’s up and who’s down, and above all, in trying to see where wealth is and who is interested in exchanging ideas. And if you’re not interested in exchanging because you resist, how do you deal with that? Can you deal with it through arms and violence? Or can you deal with it, as can happen, through the grace of geography? You know, important deserts, big mountain ranges, less and less big rivers—but you know, there are natural barriers that can insulate and isolate some countries and regions. Which is part of the reason why China has this very ambivalent attitude towards the world around it. Because on the one side, it has the Pacific Ocean, to the north, it has—it’s protected by deserts and then the steppes, and then very tricky mountain ranges guarding its western and southern flanks. And that means that China, at time to time—and we see this in the twenty-first century, too, right now—has a choice of either wrapping itself and looking inside, or being willing to throw light and look at its neighbors to the west. And so religion tells us all of that very neatly, because we can trace bishops, we can trace churches being built, we can see caves, we can see things like the Dunhuang caves, which show very clearly that there is a need and a desire to demonstrate religious beliefs and to show their triumph.

CUNO:  In the centuries before the rise of Islam in the seventh century, with the decline of China immediately after the Han Dynasty in the third century and the sacking of Rome by the Goths in the fifth century, you make it very clear that out of this decline east and west, in the center with the rise of Islam a couple hundred years later, that there is a transference or a reconfirmation, perhaps, or a confirmation, of the strength and vitality of the middle part of Central Asia. You call it that after an unpromising start in a cave near Mecca, Islam—the area has given birth to a cosmopolitan utopia, of sorts. And then you go on to say that the Muslim world took delight in innovation, progress, and new ideas. And as they were doing so, much of the Christian world withered in the gloom, crippled by a lack of resources and dearth of curiosity. Tell us more about that.

FRANKOPAN:  Well, you know, Rome had its glory days. Rome, as we know, you know, was a fantastically successful military and political empire. But the heart of—at the heart of Rome’s power was control of the Nile Delta. So Octavius, who was very soon given the title of Augustus by the Roman senate, when he died, in the beginning of the first century, he said, “I found Rome in brick and I left it in marble.” And he is the man who conquered Egypt. And that—the archeological records show that that’s correct. And to have buildings and scholars and so on and so forth, you need to have the golden ingredients of peace, a successful defense network or system, and you need to have prosperity. And when the Islamic armies, the followers of Muhammad, conquer Egypt and North Africa and swarm into Northern Spain, and then they go eastwards, broadly up to the Himalayas, they connect the most powerful and richest parts of the world together.

So it’s partly that Rome is on its knees and has been sacked by the Goths, but it’s largely because you find the most lucrative parts of the Silk Roads, of the most—the most lucrative parts of Africa and of Asia, all connecting into a single system that funnels cash back to the capital city. And above all, Baghdad is the major beneficiary of that. But even satellite towns or smaller towns like Bukhara, in Uzbekistan or Khiva, you know, they are home to flourishing schools of mathematicians, of algebraists, of people working out the position of the moon relative to the sun, calculating eclipses to—you know, to a degree of accuracy that was way beyond my ability as an eighteen-year-old mathematician, which wasn’t bad, by the way, once upon a time. They were—the skills that were being developed at that time also had no barrier to religion. So if you were a Hindu mathematician, if you were working on trigonometry or whatever it might be, or if you were a Christian or a Buddhist doctor, you found patronage. Because this was a time where when you’re rich, you’re self-confident. I suppose again, we can look at that in our own time, too. That, you know, the United States in the later part of the twentieth century, after the Second World War, was incredibly welcoming of people from all kinds of backgrounds. That idea of the American dream, that you could make it if you could. You could—you know, you could build yourself up to be anyone you wanted to be, and that there were great ideas going on and people learning from each other, who were brilliant—that was the same kind of profile as Baghdad probably about a hundred years after the death of Muhammad, for the next couple hundred years. Self-confident, strident, welcoming, incredibly curious, and wealthy. And that—the money that was available there means that, you know, the Nobel Prize winners of the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries were all based in cities like Baghdad and Herat and Kabul, Bukhara, rather than anywhere in Europe. This is a time when after the sack of Rome, for the next 600 years, the levels of making materials out of metal go back to prehistoric levels. You know, we just— we forget. People don’t know how to read and write. There’s very little building in stone. All—almost all buildings in Europe are built out of wood, because there’s a sense that, you know, there’s no point in planning for the long term, in any event, it’s too expensive. So there is a correlation between openness and prosperity and tolerance, and all these wonderful things that we associate with that in the Renaissance, I guess, in Europe, of cultural flowering, of art, of wonderful buildings. And this is where everything is going on, after the Sack of Rome.

And if—you know, I think it’s been going on before then, as well. So—but as the West sort of withers—we used to call it the Dark Ages; that’s very unpopular amongst my colleagues at the moment. We like to think about continuities and how do we understand what it felt like if you were, you know, being—having your monastery being burnt down by the Goths. But in this part of the world, connecting all of North Africa right the way through Palestine and Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, past the world that today, we think of as very unpromising as cradles of civilization, that is where everything began in the first place. You know, we had sewage systems in Mohenjo Daro, in the Indus Valley, that were better than anything until New York in the 1870s. So this was a world that was sophisticated, that was curious, interested. And better still, from their point of view, money flowed in, and it allowed scholars like Ibn Sina to work on Aristotle. It allowed Al-Khwarizmi to work on math—on complex and applied mathematics. And it allowed artists and artisans to create some of the great wonders of the late Antique and early modern periods.

CUNO:  Yeah. And then in the eleventh century, with the arrival of the Crusaders and the taking of Jerusalem, for example, you say something that caught me as really extremely—not only interesting, but provocative. You said that things had shifted in such a way, with the arrival of the Crusaders coming in, that suddenly the West was about to drag itself closer to the heart of the world.

FRANKOPAN:  Well, you know, I think Europe—we have—I can promise you, we have not a great climate here. It rains a lot. And that’s good if you’re a farmer who is growing wheat or if you’re pasturing cattle. But what we don’t have in Europe are things that—the things that get sold along the Silk Roads. We don’t have very much silver; there’s almost no gold in Europe; spices, pepper, saffron, camphor—You know, we find these wonderful Sogdian letters, written in the fourth and fifth century, that talk about the kinds of things that are being traded. And you could see a long, long list, and there’s not a single one of them that either grew or was made or could be found or dug out of the ground in Europe. So the problem is that Europe didn’t really have anything that mattered to anybody. And arguably, we still don’t have anything that matters. I mean, we— There’s quite a lot of coal in Europe, but you know, that’s all being replaced now with clean tech. But apart from our agriculture, the raw materials, the gold, all the diamonds, the emeralds, the rubies, all the things that you want to have if you’re rich, to be able to distinguish or differentiate yourself from everybody else, we didn’t really have very much of. Whereas in the East, since—you know, since antiquity, Asia was known—was known to Cicero as a land of plenty where, you know, you just had to sit down under a tree every day, because it rained gold on you. That things grew on trees. You could just help yourself whenever you wanted. And that seemed very hard to Europeans, to had to work hard for a living. And I think that what happens is that as Europe starts to awaken, it realizes that its key differential is its military prowess. You know, if you’re a young knight, you learn how to joust, you learn how to kill. And, you know, that’s a very important part of our Western experience. You know, that we have always treated our armed forces with great reverence. And you know, we have a—we have a system where we have always sought to ensure that when we are fighting, we’re fighting for a good cause. You know, the concept of just war, no coincidence, is developed in the West, because we have an idea, I think, of using violence in a good way. But of course, what happens when the knights get to Jerusalem, they find out quite quickly that it’s pretty tough to hold onto the Holy Land. The Holy Land of the cities like Jerusalem and Tripoli and Antioch, they’re surrounded. They’re little—it’s a little island of Christians, surrounded by a sea of Muslims who want to get these cities back. And you know, it’s very hard to hold. It’s very hard to convince more knights to come out from Europe, to come and join them. You know, it’s hot. Disease kills lots of people, dysentery. You know, all the kinds of things you can imagine. It’s expensive to get to Jerusalem. And so after about 150, 200 years, the Crusades sort of peter out. And when the call comes to defend Jerusalem and for all the Western knights to do their duty to God and so on, there’s a sort of bit of a shrug of shoulders, and people say, well, look, you know, let’s— You know, we’ll save it for another day, because the Crusades haven’t gone so well. And eventually, we have, here in this country, have a very—a hymn that I used to sing, you know, once every two weeks at my school when I was a boy, called Jerusalem, a poem by William Blake, which says, you know, well, let’s build Jerusalem here in these green and pleasant lands, you know, in Somerset. Because quite frankly, it’s a lot nicer and a lot easier to get to than getting to Jerusalem. So that process of the West trying to embed itself, trying to get close to the East, in terms of what it really achieved, apart from the [inaudible] of capturing Jerusalem once in 1099, above all— The great thing that it achieves, it allowed fleets from Genoa, Pisa, and Venice to establish trading bases in the Levant and in Alexandria. And that that is ultimately what gets Europe back up into the kind of playing fields where it can start to be trading in a way that is meaningful with Asia.

CUNO:  And then answering the Crusaders, I—was not only—or perhaps not even, I think, primarily—the wealth and strength of the Abbasid Caliphate, but it was the force of the Mongols that came storming out of Central Asia, led by Genghis Kahn, going first, I think, into China, and then coming west and ruling—going up into Russia and to Eastern Europe, down into India and so forth. I know it’s a terribly broad question, but this is a fundamental change in the—or at least a fundamental—an impressive moment in the history of the world. Tell us more about the Mongol invasion.

FRANKOPAN:  Well, I guess there are two stories. One is the one which we are familiar with, which is Genghis Kahn and blood-thirsty violence, where everybody’s murdered and, you know, well, terrifying. Then there’s the second one, which is, well, okay, Genghis Kahn did something; but actually, all the credit should go to his sons, ’cause Genghis Kahn died before the major expansion of the Mongol world. So number one, you know, we attach the wrong guy to the—to give him credit. So I do tell my sons that I hope that one day, that I get all the credit, rather than their hard work. You know, I think that there is—there is—the different ways that the reasons why the Mongols are able to expand so very fast, from about 1210, let’s say, over the course—within the next thirty years—from 1210, they reach the plains of Mongolia, which I promise you, is a really very, very long way away.  And within thirty years, they are in Central Europe. And the reason they’re able to conquer that quickly is that they use violence selectively very, very cleverly. So what they will do is they’ll turn up outside a city and they’ll say, look, we’ll give you a choice: either you surrender to us or we will behead everybody and pile up your heads in pyramids that you can see from ten miles away. And they do that once—well, more—they do that more than once or twice, they do it three or four times. But not surprisingly, that’s quite effective when you arrive at the next city, where you say, well, would you like to suffer the same fate as those guys? Or would you like to hand the keys over to the town?

And by and large, the people in charge of these cities will say two questions to the Mongols. Number one, will my tax bill go up? And this is greatly revealing, I think, about our human condition. Number one, will I pay more taxes? And number two, will I have freedom of worship? That is, can I keep my own beliefs, or do I need to adopt some sort of weird customs that you have? And the reason for the Mongols’ success is that they are—they are conservative-slash-republicans, in the greatest way you can imagine. So they don’t—not only say you won’t pay any more taxes; in many cases, they say, actually, we’re gonna let you play less taxes. So that, not surprisingly, goes down very well with people in the merchant business. And second, they say, not only are we not gonna tell you that you should have our beliefs; you can have your own beliefs. And guess what, our leader is—just so happens to be exactly the same belief that you already have. To the point that you find some Mongols who are thought by locals to be Christians. Some think he’s Christian, some think he’s a Muslim, some think he’s a Buddhist. You know, they’re very good at appearing all things to all people. Because when you—when you polarize, you lose half of your—or more. You lose—you know, you lose a lotta support. So the Mongols are, in fact, highly sophisticated, how they use their violence to scare and intimidate. But once they’ve established their blanket control, they rule for a really very long period of time. You know, so from about 1240 in Russia, they’re there for another 500 years. And in Central Asia, they’re there for another 500 years. Because we disconnect this from the Mughal world of Northern India, because we change the name. But these are Mongol descendants. These are—these are the Central Asian tribespeople, who build things like the Taj Mahal, Humayun’s tomb, and so on. The great empire builders of Northern India are descended from the Mongols, too. So the bad story of the Mongols is the sort of the chaos and the violence and the bloodshed. The good one is that, well, what is it that you—what could one actually learn from seeing how such rapid growth could be effected so quickly? Because by and large, like I said, we— Normally, if you kill everybody, people really will fight and resist you. If you are smarter, and you can use your violence on an occasional basis, to carefully select who your targets will be— Which the Mongols do. So they find one city governor who doesn’t answer quickly enough, so they pour gold into his ears and out of his mouth. And that—you know, it’s surprisingly effective in getting people to cooperate with you.

CUNO:  So for hundreds and hundreds of years, all these developments in the history of the world seem to come out of or stream across the great landscape, Central Asia, either coming west or going east, at that point. But then following the Mongols or following the first decades and century, let’s say, of the Mongols, in the middle of the—in the thirteenth century and then into the fourteenth century, there seems to be a shift in naval and trading power. And it’s coincident with a revival of China with the Yuan and Ming dynasties. You write that by the middle of the fourteenth century, so many ships were sailing to towns like Calicut, in—which is now in Kerala, on the southwest coast of India, that some observers commented that all maritime transport and travel in this part of the Indian subcontinent was being undertaken in Chinese boats. This was a significant change, I gather, going to the military—or to naval power and naval trade.

FRANKOPAN:  Well, of course, the advantage of carrying goods by ship is that you cou—you can take a lot more with you. And the manpower costs are less. You invest once to build your boat, and then you have to pay for the crew, and then you’re as good as you are smart, in terms of what your profit margins will be. And we know from shipwrecks that, you know, some other charities have been invo—very heavily involved in helping salvage—the scale of the trade. You know, there’s a single—there’s a single shipwreck off Indonesia that was carrying 70,000 pieces of ceramics from China. That gives you a sense of the scale. That’s’ a single ship. Just one that we happen to have found by marine archeology. And so there is a—there is a process by which the acceleration of trade, it—there is an inevitability of trying to do this by ships. But the ship technology doesn’t change hugely across Asia at this time. What happens, in the case of the thirteenth and fourteenth century, again, it’s quite enlightened governance, where factories are set up near to ports, tax breaks are given to allow people to build up their trading positions. Because the more output—the more exports you produce—we know this today, too—the more exports you produce, the more taxes and revenues you collect. So governments are aware that there’s a strong incentive to be promoting long-distance trade, particularly in goods that are expensive and valuable, because they have higher margins and markups and so on.

CUNO:  Yeah. You say that naval commerce in the Mediterranean was large, but that trade over the seas and the Pacific and through the Indian Ocean was huge. And then you remind us, I think quite interestingly, that in the fifteenth century, as Spain and Portugal begins to open up and travel and trade to Africa and the Americas, with Columbus and Vasco da Gama, that Columbus and Vasco da Gama were sent by the king of Portugal or— and da Gama particularly, with the idea to find a new way to India and the countries lying near to it. In other words, there was still— While they were going out onto the sea, inevitably they would end up in the west, they would go down to the South, to Africa and so forth, but they were en route to India. So still the lure, if I understand this correctly, of the East was driving the developments in new trading routes and trading technologies.

FRANKOPAN:  That’s right. I mean, we think—we think, you know, that Columbus was trying to find out if the world was flat or, you know, to see what there was across the other side of the ocean. Columbus was very clear what he was doing. He was trying to find a route to China or to India. Very specific. Columbus had trained on Portuguese ships, sailing down the coast of Africa, all on slaving missions, to bring slaves and human beings back into bondage in Europe. But in Spain and Portugal, everybody realized that, you know, it was—I already said Europe was peripheral. Spain and Portugal were absolutely the backend of beyond. You know, at least Venice was a little bit closer to the action. Genoa, too. Constantinople, likewise. You know, everything lay in the East. And if you were Spanish or Portuguese, there’s nothing really—there’s nothing—there’s nothing—there’s no hope for you at all. So Columbus heads out across the Atlantic. And by the way, what he’s trying to do is to—not just find a route there; he’s trying to find a route to open up trade, so that he can raise enough money for the Spanish king. He goes to work for—in the employment of the Spanish king, to raise money to—for a campaign to recover Jerusalem. Columbus is obsessed about the fact that people in Europe and Christians are not paying enough attention to the holy places. Because Christianity is the only one of the world’s great religions that doesn’t control its own holy sites. But what Columbus does in the process of finding that there are—there are other continents on the other side of the world—and those who follow him straight afterwards—is that suddenly, the mineral wealth and the jewels, the gold, the emeralds and so on of the Inca and of the Aztec world are all funneled back towards Europe. And what happens is that they arrive, first of all, in Seville. Eventually, they’re coming to a place like Amsterdam, and eventually to London. That huge surge of cash that comes out, including one mountain in Bolivia that was the single largest silver strike in human history, that money that’s recycled, it energizes Europe. It suddenly makes everybody in Europe very rich. It’s like a—it’s like a huge lottery win for the entire continent, because every ruler who suddenly has vast amounts of money can build himself palaces.

That enriches that architects, enriches the laborers, enriches everybody. He can reward his men, his generals, much, much more. And what happens with that cash is that through a complete fluke of timing, almost—well, six years after Columbus has sailed across the Atlantic, Vasco da Gama rounds the southern tip of Africa and finds a sea route through to India. So Europe, armed with all of this new cash, taken away at spear point, at gunpoint, cannon point, from the Americas, and that is brought back to Europe, who—and then is spent on buying the stuff from people who make things and have things that are really valuable. And that means India and China, in particular, the Persian Gulf. So pearls, spices—pepper, particularly—silk, of course, ceramics—all of these things start to flow through into Europe in huge numbers, because Europe, having been on the edge of everything, of no crossroads at all, unlike Dunhuang, suddenly Europe is the center of everything, because it’s the connector point between all the continents. And that process dramatically reconfigures global trade routes. You know, soon silver is going straight from South America across the Pacific, to places like Manilla, that are built and set up at the end of the sixteenth century, as a sort of new trading point to allow goods to reach Spanish customers back in the Americas quicker. But that rerouting of global trade networks suddenly changes where markets lie. They change, also, how people make things in China and India, because if your primary market is no longer in the Persian Gulf or in India, wherever it is, Indonesia, suddenly your buyers are all European, then you start to change what it is that you make, because tastes are always slightly different. And cu—and prices change because they become slightly different. And of course, because the Europeans suddenly have all this money, that is no coincidence, I think, that then this is when great universities like mine, Oxford and Cambridge, start to really blossom and flourish. You know, from 1550—1600 particularly, suddenly you have that transfer. That profile that I talked about already, of wealth and prosperity and patronage allows these great universities to flourish, because you can afford to pay scholars to do their examinations and tests to see if you can work out how do you measure a vacuum, how do you—how do you calculate— You know, how do you—how do you understand, like Robert Hooke, how do you use microscopes to understand what a—what a moth really looks like? And that process of reconfiguring global trade is triggered by these two discoveries, first of a route across the Atlantic, and then second, around the southern tip of Africa. And that—and it changes—it changes life for everybody globally.

CUNO:  So the land-based network of commercial exchange we call the Silk Road or Silk Roads, does it wither and die? Does it become simply a metaphor now? Or is there still life on land?

FRANKOPAN:  No, well, what happens is that trading ports, particularly in India, which have done good business over the last 2,000 years, are sudden—and in China, as well—are suddenly hit by a wave of cash. That wave of cash that has come from the Americas through Europe, to now come and buy things, delivers huge wealth into India and China. And in fact what immediately happens—the correlation, it’s sort of uncanny—is that at that precise moment, there’s a new dynasty, founded by Babur in Central Asia, who comes down from the valleys of Fergana—what’s now Uzbekistan, through what’s now Afghanistan, and then into Northern India, and founds what we call the Mughals. And that’s—that explosion of wealth, that wall of cash that comes into—let’s say into India, allows rulers in India to do things like, well, when your beloved wife dies, you know, forget about building her some modest tomb; let’s build something proper, because I can afford to. And so you build the Taj Mahal. You find that the wealth in India, in the same process as the blood-sweating horses who are attractive to China a thousand years earlier and so on, suddenly that demand for horsepower becomes intense from Central Asia. And so you start to find, in the same way that in the third and fourth century AD, when the Dunhuang caves start to get built, you start to find Buddhist stupas and temples dotting along these routes that link Northern India through into China, exact—the same profile happens. All—only this time, instead of it being stupas and monasteries, you start to find inns, or places for people to stay, for traders to stay. And then you find horse markets that start to grow and become quite important. And some of the great horse markets are towns that today are places that are quite well known. Like Jaipur or Jaisalmer or Udaipur, even Delhi itself. These were cities that grew because they became important trade centers that connected into that Central Asian world. So the Silk Roads, on the contrary, they got a—they got a big shot in the arm as a result, because the destination of a lot of that—a lot of that silver from the Americas ends up in the heart of Europe—in the heart of Asia.

CUNO:  So beginning with the sixteenth century, shall we say, and continuing through the seventeenth and the eighteenth and into the nineteenth century, there’s 300 years of, 350 years or so of empire, and the world is divided up into these large governing entities called empires, whether they be Eastern or—Mughal in the south or the commercial empires of the Dutch and the English, or the political empires of the—of the English and dividing up the world. But then you say, just to skip along because we’re gonna run out of time here, but skip along, you talk about the First World War. If we can get into the First World War. You say that it made control of the Silk Roads and its riches more important than ever.

FRANKOPAN:  Well, the European experience—the reason why Europe built empires is because they started to trade. And what happens when you trade, what happens when the Europeans trade, is they brought along with them those castle-building skills that I mentioned. And you start to build warehouses that are fortified. And when you have fortified warehouses, and you’re a permanent colony that’s there, you like having armed me to protect it. And then soon as day follows night or night follows day, those armed men soon get used to help settle local disputes amongst local rulers. And then eventually, having started as a as a merchant and as a trader amongst equals, you suddenly have a competitive trading position, and you can use that to actually take control. So those empires of Europe are sort of built almost by chance on—certainly not by design. Just— And they fall into the lap. So places like the Bengal falls into the lap, because the East India Company are used to fight by the—by the ruler of Bengal, against his—against his rival. And as a result, the chief commander of the East India Company is given control of the entire purse of the Bengal, which makes him the world’s richest man at that time because he doesn’t spend any of it on common goods; he sends it all back home for his family. So these countries and these states and these European empires find themselves—they were stressing with each other, the muscles all locking against each other. And before the First World War, the biggest problem is about how Britain particularly is going to manage Russia’s growth. You know, we all know that Russia, before the First World War, is building railway tracks, it’s building factories, it’s industrializing, it’s becoming stronger, faster, richer, everything. And it’s putting pressure into Central Asia, into Persia, threatening the Persian Gulf, which is an important strategic asset for the British, where they have a lot of influence; and on to India, where Britain feels it’s una—would be unable to protect itself against a major Russian invasion. And so to protect that from—stop that from happening, the British take the view that it’s butter to keep the Russians edgy and preoccupied in Europe. And so that locking in of Germany—of France, Britain and Germany—in 1907 is a way of making sure that the Germans get extremely agitated, which in turn, like a—like a flame, attracts Russia’s attention towards its western flank, and makes the Russians very edgy about what will happen with the Germans. So those Silk Roads that—those connections that—the Asian backdrop story, even to the First World War, is very important. And in the Second World War it’s crucial, as well. Because what happens at the beginning of the twentieth century is that instead of finding gold or silks or spices or ceramics, those things that have been valuable, the prime commodity that suddenly becomes important is oil. And the British speculator discovers oil in Iran in 1907. And within seven years, the company that eventually becomes British Petroleum, BP, has made—has taken a controlling interest in that. And so that during the First World War, the British cabinet are talking about control of Persia and of Mesopotamia as being a first class war aim. So Britain and France particularly, but Britain’s aim at the end of the First World War is to divide up the Middle East into a configuration that suits the need for oil to supply the Royal Navy and, you know, the growth of automobiles and so on and so forth. So in the—in the—even during the Second World War, therefore, working out how to keep Hitler away from the oil wells of the Caucuses and from Iran and what will happen to this part of the world afterwards becomes crucial. So an American who comes out to explore or take a look at the Middle East, what it looks like in Saudi Arabia, Iran and so on, reports back to President Roosevelt and says, “The oil of this region is the single greatest prize in human history.” And therefore, that tells us that these—that the twentieth century and the second half of the twentieth century has really been the story of trying to control pipelines, resources, regimes that sit on top of large amounts of this black gold, and try to either influence them or protect them from being taken over by rivals. And you know, I would say on balance, we probably haven’t managed that process particularly well.

CUNO:  And of course, the importance of the Middle East and Central Asia is ever present today, if perhaps only as a site of persistent instability in what is maybe another great game. But looking at the history of the Silk Roads through this lens and reflecting on what you call, at the end of the book, the new Silk Road, tell us what it means that you end your book with this observation that, in your words, networks and connections are quietly being knitted together across the spine of Asia. Or rather, they are being restored, and that the Silk Roads are rising again. And should we be optimistic about this?

FRANKOPAN:  Well, I think that, you know, I can ask a very simple question, that your very erudite and committed listeners who got to the end of the podcast, will, if you’re still with us, you know, if you can—can you name an Arab pop star, film, novelist, artist? Could you do the same for modern Russia? Could you do the same for Iran or China? You know, there are— What are we—75% of the world’s population lives along what China calls the One Belt One Road network, plus Northern Africa. And we are totally disconnected, I think, from the history of these regions. I think we’re disconnected from the present and from the future. And because we’re busy looking at problems and trying to put out fires and trying to do the best we can, and very difficult decisions to make, dealing with the Middle East or with how to— how to stand up, how should we have a relationship with Mr. Putin or with the Chinese, it means that we are not conscious at all, I think, of what is going on in other parts of the world. And it would seem to me that these networks that I talk about being reconnected, it’s part of something that is the signature Chi—China’s signature economic and foreign policy of the next century, which is this building of what they call the One Belt, One Road, the new Silk Roads networks, where the language about—of cooperation between countries, of constantly trying to tell the Chinese very—very anxious to tell all their neighbors and near neighbors that China’s relationships with them have always been peaceful. They’re very keen to show, like the caves at Dunhuang, as a—as an example of how people can get on with each other, how the fact that the Chinese haven’t fought wars with their neighbors, unlike its European experience in Asia, which the Chinese are very careful to underline. Probably with some good reason, actually. But the idea that these people need to work together with each other, and that pipelines can flow from Iran—Turkmenistan, a country not many people can place on a map, has the third largest natural gas reserves in the world. Those pipelines are only pumping gas and oil towards the east, towards China. Nothing is coming towards us in Europe. And I think that those networks of connections are ones that we need to pay a lot of attention to. You know, the wheat supplies of Russia and the Ukraine are hugely important for global cereal prices. So that when, for example, Russian forces went into the Ukraine a couple of years ago, global prices of wheat jumped by 20%. And we might not recognize that, you know, when you go into the supermarket in L.A. or in Oxford on a daily basis, because you know, those prices take a while to come through, and it’s a few cents here and a few cents there. But in communities like in Northern India, in Mumbai, with huge populations, price sensitivity on that scale, a 20% swing, is immediate and affects whether you can feed your family or not.

So this world, where at the moment, already China consumes 50% of the world’s eggs, 45% of the world’s steel, 45% of the world’s pigs, as China’s population grows—which it will do, now they’ve dropped the one-child-per-family rule—and China’s muscles start to grow and, you know, its ambitions and its horizons start to change, who its friends with, how people perceive China, how the countries and the neighbors with each other react communally to China, as well—it’s hugely important. And I think we are—we are probably spending too much time looking at an irrelevant picture of the past, which I don’t think is accurate in the first place. You know, I think we know quite a lot about the First World War and quite a lot about the Second World War. I would’ve thought that this is—this is a moment for us to be trying to look at the big picture. You know, global history is an important way of trying to connect dots across multi regions, across different civilizations, different language groups. And you know, it’s difficult, because to write a book like mine, you’ve got to spend a lot of time in the classroom when you’re young, learning lots of complicated languages that’s very unrewarding at the time. By and large, scholars tend to disappear down a very, very small mine to go dig for material and become very specialized. And it—you know, you have to be quite brave to stand back and say, here’s something that looks in a big—in a big way.

But I think that there—there are rewards in doing that, because we all are trying to understand that big picture. And I suppose a bit like—we all know with our—with our iPhones or with our cameras, if we stand too close to a picture, you know, you can get fantastic detail, but you can’t see what the whole thing is. But actually standing back, and maybe even trying to look at things from a different perspective, like I’ve tried to do, can be very rewarding in giving you a way of seeing, even things that you think you know about, but looking at them in a different way.

CUNO:  Well, Peter, thank you for all of this. I mean, and congratulations on the monumental achievement of your book. It is, as advertised, a new history of the world. The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. You write with eloquence, you write with a tremendous amount, mountains and mountains of scholarship. And we’re grateful for the book you’ve written and for your time this morning on the podcast.

FRANKOPAN:  Thanks for having me, Jim.

CUNO:  Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday. Subscribe on iTunes, Google Play, and SoundCloud or visit for more resources. Thanks for listening.

JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.

PETER FRANKOPAN: We don’t have very much silver, there’s almost no gold in Europe. Spices, peppe...

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This post is part of Art + Ideas, a podcast in which Getty president Jim Cuno talks with artists, writers, curators, and scholars about their work.
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