I, Prester John, am the lord of lords, and I surpass all the kings of the entire world in wealth, virtue and power…Milk and honey flow freely in our lands; poison can do no harm, nor do any noisy frogs croak. There are no scorpions, no serpents creeping in the grass.
- Purported letter of Prester John to Rome and Constantinople, twelfth century.
The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, by Peter Frankopan.
I am beginning a new, exotic journey, a journey through the history of the Silk Roads – the region from Mesopotamia east to western China. When the author opens with a purported letter from a legendary figure – supposedly descended from the three Magi – who leads an unknown congregations of believers somewhere in the east…well, this will be quite a journey.
Even today, the names of the countries are colorful and fascinating, to name a few: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. Major centers of civilization are to be found in the history of this region, cities such as Harappa, Mohenjo-daro, Babylon, Nineveh, Uruk, Akkad, Merv, Rayy, Constantinople, Damascus, Isfahan, Samarkand, Kabul and Kashgar. Mystery piled on mystery.
A belt of towns formed a chain spanning Asia.
Obviously, the Silk Roads are recalled as major trade routes. Goods would travel from as far away as Vietnam and Java to the Mediterranean. This trade was not just for goods, but ideas: science, religion, mathematics, language.
Even as long as 5000 years ago, some of these centers offered civilizational advances not to be seen in Europe for thousands of years: streets and sewage systems, libraries, places of worship, and observatories. Over 1000 years ago, the region offered major scholars such as Ibn Sīnā (also known as Avicenna), Al-Bīrūnī, and Al-Khwārizmī.
Silk was known for something else – a luxury good that became an international currency.
We think of globalisation as a uniquely modern phenomenon; yet 2,000 years ago too, it was a fact of life, one that presented opportunities, created problems and prompted technological advance.
Capital would flea Rome in pursuit of these newfound luxury goods. The amounts represented a significant portion of the Roman budget. This was not sustainable. Rome decided it had to control the heart of the world in order to control the trading centers and therefore collect the revenue. Plans were developed to push as far to the east as the Caspian Gates in Persia.
From the beginning of time, the centre of Asia was where empires were made.
And the greatest of these was Persia. It also was where empires were broken. The Persians pushed back.
Rome was weakened by its further dwindling tax revenues and burgeoning deficits. Emperor Diocletian did what all political leaders do in such times: he overhauled the tax code – taking inventory of every single asset in the empire; he debased the coin; he established price controls. We know what happened next to Rome.
For me, the lasting mental image of the fall of Rome is not the inflation, dwindling empire, or the advancing barbarians. It is this: citizens voluntarily offered themselves as slaves to the barbarians; for the former citizens of this once proud empire, this was better than the alternatives.
In the meantime, Constantine established eastern Rome. The location was the old town of Byzantion; he would rename it Constantinople.
So, what happened? Why did this burgeoning Central Asian civilization lose out when one considers the history of the world? Well, besides the fact that the victors write the history and that history is considered through the lens of whichever power is currently on top?
Two events occurring within a few years of each other at the end of the fifteenth century: Christopher Columbus sailed west, connecting two huge land masses to Europe, and Vasco da Gama navigated the southern tip of Africa, opening a sea route to India.
But before all of that, Frankopan has a story to tell.
The real crucible, the “Mediterranean” in its literal meaning – the centre of the world – was not a sea separating Europe and North Africa, but right in the heart of Asia.
Far from being on the fringe of global affairs, these countries lie at its very centre – as they have done since the beginning of history.
In other words, Mackinder’s world island.
Is this a history book or a roadmap for the future?
Why not both?