Derek Sivers
The Silk Roads - by Peter Frankopan

The Silk Roads - by Peter Frankopan

ISBN: 1547600217
Date read: 2023-10-18
How strongly I recommend it: 8/10
(See my list of 360+ books, for more.)

Go to the Amazon page for details and reviews.

A children’s illustrated book that I started reading to my boy, but enjoyed it more myself. I’m so curious about the subject, but was glad to have the succinct entertaining version, which was just enough. Taught me so much history I’d never heard before.

my notes

The Silk Roads do not have a start or an end point, because they are not actually real roads at all.

Merv, in modern Turkmenistan, was once so large and so beautiful that it was called “the mother of the world.”
Kabul had gardens that were famous hundreds of miles away.
Mosul, Iraq, was famous for its magnificent public buildings, its bathhouses, and its craftsmen.
The greatest empire of all in antiquity was Persia.

Tigris and Euphrates rivers and deep in the Indus Valley, had the very first towns and cities.

Mesopotamia means “the land between the rivers”.

Hammurabi, king of Babylon, was 4000 years ago.

Alexander the Great conquered Persian forces in Egypt.
He began an extraordinary march into the heart of Asia, taking city after city, building new towns, roads, and fortresses along the way.
Alexander knew it was important to treat the local populations well.
Alexander’s advance helped deepen the connections linking east with west.

In China, the Emperor Gaozu and his wife, Empress Lü Zhi, founded the Han dynasty around 200 BCE.

Silk was sometimes used instead of money.

Religions that were Indic in origin, such as Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism, spread out along the Silk Roads to compete with those that had roots in Persia, such as Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism.
From further west came Judaism and Christianity, and, later, Islam.

Alexander the Great set up temples all over the heart of Asia.
This challenged Buddhists to build shrines and temples of their own.
This encouraged people not to live their faith privately but to celebrate their faith together - and with musical accompaniment.
Competition had forced them to react, adapt, and innovate.
Christianity gathered large numbers of followers in Asia and North Africa.

Emperor Constantine of Rome kept an eye on what happened in the east.
In 324 CE, he set about building a new city on the banks of the Bosporus at the point where Europe and Asia meet.
The city was called New Rome.
Today, the city of Constantinople is known as Istanbul.

One tribe established themselves as the masters of the steppes, crushing all before them: the Xiongnu. Referred to in the west as the Huns.
The Huns brought devastation wherever they went.
The Roman emperor and Persian shah put their rivalry aside and agreed to work together against the Huns to save themselves from further devastation.
Their brutal leader, Attila. Attila the Hun, spent the next 15 years dominating Europe.

In 610 CE Muhammad began to receive a series of revelations.
Over the following years he received a series of recitations that were first written down a few decades later in a single text - known as the Qur’an.
These teachings provoked a strong backlash in the town of Mecca, and Muhammad fled to the town of Yathrib (later renamed Medina) in 622 AD, in what eventually became known as the hijra or departure.

Many were also attracted by the prospect of financial gain that came with military success.
Goods seized from nonbelievers were to be kept by the faithful, said Muhammad, and those who converted to Islam soonest were rewarded with a greater share of the prizes.

Those praying should face the Ka’ba, a sacred shrine said to have been set up in Mecca by Abraham and his son Ishmael.

Christians and Jews were singled out in the Qur’an as “People of the Book” and as having “nothing to fear or regret.”
And so, early Muslim leaders not only allowed churches and synagogues to be built in areas that they conquered, but in some cases even helped pay for them.
The fact that the Qur’an talks of the importance of figures like Abraham, Isaac, Moses, and Noah helped bond the different belief systems rather than divide them.

Shia argue that only the descendant of Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, should rule as caliph (a Muslim ruler).
Sunni take a much broader view about who should be the supreme ruler.
The division between the two groups was bitter and often violent:
Three of the first four men to be appointed as successor to Muhammad were assassinated.

The richest and most populous city on earth - and remained so for centuries. It was called Madinat al-Salam. We know it today as Baghdad.

While the Muslim world took delight in innovation and new ideas, much of Christian Europe withered in the gloom, crippled by a lack of resources and curiosity.

Such a lack of interest in science and scholarship baffled Muslim commentators, who had great respect for ancient Greek scholars like Ptolemy, Euclid, Homer, and Aristotle.
Some had little doubt as to what was to blame.
Once, the historian al-Mas’udi wrote, the ancient Greeks and the Romans had allowed the sciences to flourish; then they adopted Christianity and chose faith over knowledge and reason.
Most of Europe was an intellectual backwater with little to recommend it.

The steppes of what is now Ukraine, Russia, and Central Asia:
As these cities grew and flourished, so did the fortunes of the Khazars.
So many Muslim, Christian, and Jewish traders flocked to do business with them and then settled in Khazar territory, that by the 800s CE, the Khazar rulers decided it was time to consider adopting one of the three main faiths for themselves.
Scholars were invited to present their religion in a format that sounds a bit like a modern TV game show, as each scholar took their chance in turn.
After listening carefully, the Khazar leader declared that “the religion of the Israelites is better,” and so he decided, “trusting in the mercies of God and the power of the Almighty, I choose the religion of Israel, that is, the religion of Abraham” - in other words, Judaism.
With that, he circumcised himself and ordered his male servants and subjects to do the same.
This news astonished Jews living in other parts of the world, with one scholar in Spain scarcely believing his ears that there was a powerful new Jewish empire in the heart of Asia.

Slave trade was huge.
By far the most effective at this business were the people of Scandinavia. They were also known as Vikings, the Rus’.
Vladimir, the ruler of the Rus’, converted to Christianity in 988 CE.
The economy of the Rus’ began to change too, with its tough, warrior society giving way to a civilization more interested in good administration.

Europe was changing by this time. Castles and monasteries had started to spring up in order to cater to an aristocracy that was increasingly ambitious, curious, and pious.

In 1095, upheaval in the Muslim world resulted in Turks not only taking control of Baghdad but expanding westward almost as far as the walls of Constantinople.
The Byzantine emperor reached out to Pope Urban II for military help.
1099: the First Crusade successfully fought their way across thousands of miles.
Everyone in Jerusalem was a target: the Christian knights saw their success as a chance to avenge the killing of Jesus.

In the 1180s the tables began to turn. At that time a very smart general named Saladin managed to unite the Muslim world, and in 1187 he inflicted a crushing defeat on the Christian knights.
The fall of Jerusalem.

A huge expedition to Jerusalem set off, led by the three most powerful men in Europe.
They achieved almost nothing, and a decade or so later, another ambitious plan was set in motion to recover the Holy Land.
But this didn’t go according to plan either.
The fleet diverted to Constantinople, drawn by the promise of money.
In 1204, yet another expedition set out to recover the Holy Land.
The Crusaders quickly got into trouble following an ill-judged attempt to take Cairo in the 1220s and soon faced a devastating defeat.
Then news came that a huge army was advancing from the east: warriors from Mongolia. Genghis Khan.

The Mongols’ conquests had helped accelerate and improve communication from one side of the world to the other.
Then, in the 1340s, things were brought to a sudden stop.
Plague spread like fire from the steppes of Central Asia into Europe, Iran, and the Middle East and on to Egypt and the Arabian peninsula, killing millions.
The Black Death, spread by fleas.
A third of the population died in less than five years.

Black Death had a surprising impact.
With a reduced population, the gap between rich and poor narrowed, as those with land and property had to give better terms to workers and tenants.
Wages also rose because there were fewer people to employ, which in turn meant that those who could work were able to demand better pay.
There was a change too in spending patterns, as people who had seen friends and family members suffer and die moved away from saving their money to spending it more eagerly.
After all, surely life was worth enjoying while you still had the chance?

Christopher Columbus, in 1492, announced that he had traveled to previously unknown parts of India that were astonishingly fertile.
The people that Columbus initially met seemed to be “very gentle and do not know what evil is.”
This was a good sign, said Columbus. People like this would not put up much resistance. In fact, they would make ideal slaves, he wrote.

Columbus and others also encountered the sophisticated Aztec civilization in North America and an Inca empire in South America, both well-organized and complex societies with great riches at their disposal.
All were quickly targeted by those who had sailed from Europe in search of fortune and fame.
The local populations were treated with astonishing cruelty.

The immense wealth that flowed from the Americas back to Europe made the ruler of Spain, Charles V, by far the most powerful man on the continent.
He used his new financial muscle to dominate his rivals and in 1519 made sure he became the Holy Roman emperor.

Five years after Columbus’s first crossing, a Portuguese fleet commanded by Vasco da Gama set off in the opposite direction - east, toward Asia, to India.
In doing so he opened up maritime routes that were no less important or rewarding than those across the Atlantic.
Suddenly, Europe was no longer at the wrong end of the world, but at its center - the mid-point of continents.

The slave trade would carry on for three hundred years, with as many as 17 million men, women, and children being shipped across the Atlantic against their will.
Africa and the Americas lost out.
Asia flourished as a result of the surge of money that poured in.

Central Asian ruler named Babur and his descendants - known as the Mughals - established an empire that united Central Asia with much of what is now India and Pakistan.
The Mughals built cities such as Lahore, Jaipur, and Fatehpur Sikri, with great palaces to show off their fabulous wealth, as well as monuments like the Taj Mahal.

In Persia, Shah Abbas I set about a massive project designed to transform the city of Isfahan into one of the wonders of the world.

As Portugal and Spain grew fat on the riches they took over, few were more bitter than the English.
Portugal and Spain had Catholic rulers; England a Protestant queen: Elizabeth.
Major investment was plowed into developing warships that could protect England’s coast.
Seamanship improved dramatically.
By the time the Spanish Armada arrived in 1588, the English were not just waiting but ready to outduel, outthink, and embarrass their rivals.
The Spanish were left humiliated.
English sea captains became clever bounty hunters, shadowing ships coming back to harbor from the Americas or from Asia before pouncing on them, loading their goods, then sailing for home.
It helped create a golden age in England, for music, art, and literature.

Queen Elizabeth sent envoys (messengers) to Ottoman Constantinople assuring the sultan that Protestants had very similar views to the Muslim Ottomans when it came to religious images and hostility toward Catholics.
Ambassadors and explorers were sent farther still, to Moscow and to Persia, to seek access to markets for English merchants.

Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, the Protestant population found themselves at the mercy of the Spanish.
The Dutch responded by creating a new trading business called the Dutch East India Company.
It allowed investors to pool their resources according to how much money they put in.
This meant risks were shared among many if things went wrong, and there would be benefits for all if things went right.

Dutch did their homework carefully, producing accurate maps, and texts listing the grammar and vocabularies of the languages of South and Southeast Asia, such as Tamil, Malay, and Tagalog. Pushing out the Portuguese and then expanding.
Suddenly, they had a virtual monopoly on the spice trade.

In Persia, a British-backed company discovered oil.
One ambitious young member of Parliament (Winston Churchill) told Parliament in 1913, “If we cannot get oil, we cannot get a thousand and one commodities.”
He urged the government to buy control of the oil company - which was later renamed British Petroleum (BP).

Sykes-Picot agreement was reached between Britain and France about who got what in the Middle East.

The Suez Canal was “the spinal cord of the [British] empire”.

Hitler enjoyed great popularity across much of the Muslim world. His anti-Semitism was shared.
The idea of an ancient “Aryan” people, who were racially pure, caught on in Persia, where the shah decided to change the name of the country to “Iran,” and to link its people with the “Arya” of ancient history, who were known from Sanskrit and Indo-Aryan languages and who had previously lived in this region.

In the autumn of 1980, Iraq launched a surprise attack on Iran, starting a war that was to last for nearly a decade.