Archive for the 'silk route' Category

Peter Frankopan: The Silk Roads – A New History of the World

March 26, 2016

616iX1X7ZaL._AA160_Peter Frankopan offers a new and different history of the world here, from the perspective of that key east-west artery of trade, civilisation, ideas and warfare over the last two and a half thousand years or so, the Silk Road.

In Ancient History at school, we never learned about the globalisation two millennia ago, when the Roman Empire looked eastwards; I didn’t know they traded with India. From William Dalrymple and others, I had been aware that Christianity in its early stages was an Asian rather than a European church, and ironically it was Constantine that endangered this; when I looked at maps, I was surprised I hadn’t realised how much nearer the Middle East and India were to Jerusalem, compared with us on the far-flung western extremities of Europe!

We learn about the close connections between the three peoples of the book with the rise of Islam in the seventh century; the internal wranglings of Islam were new to me, but obviously paralleled all those within the Christian church that I am familiar with. Some early Christians apparently thought Islam was another Christian heresy rather than a new religion…

The early Muslim empire became phenomenally wealthy; Byzantium’s weakness faced with the spread of Islam led to its calling on Western Christians for help and thus led to the Crusades, which stimulated both European and Muslim economic growth and trade immensely. Jews and Muslims co-existed peacefully especially after their expulsion from Spain after 1492; the Mongols, who ravaged Europe, eventually disappeared back to Asian, rating China as easier and better prey. The Black Death had even more devastating effects than I had known.

The centre of gravity of the world shifted to Europe with the discovery of the Americas…

As you can probably see, it’s a fascinating book filled with many new insights and perceptions into the growth and development of the world. Frankopan offers a careful and measured response to the information he assembles, and offers thoughtful and balanced analysis from a long-term perspective. At times, as the subject expands, the focus on the Silk Roads does seem to fade, particularly in the early modern period, though I finally saw how this couldn’t have been otherwise. Comparisons between different nations and parts of the world, and how and why they prospered or didn’t, are particularly enlightening.

However, for me, Frankopan is at his most interesting when he moves into more modern times. He makes clear the calamitous and thoroughly reprehensible behaviour of the British and the French in the Middle East at the time of the First World War; he is eye-opening on events, attitudes and decisions that created the problems and issues that still rage a century later. A very interesting idea is that the narrative of the First World War was rewritten after it was over, shifting the focus onto Germany as the enemy and threat to Britain, rather than Russia. The West, and latterly particularly the US comes across as even more crass, money-grubbing, racist and colonialist than I’d ever known (and I count myself pretty well-informed). Short-sightedness and short-termism have governed most of what the West has done through its interference.

It’s an eye-opener of a book. No doubt, professional historians will take issue with some of his analysis and conclusions. This amateur is still taking it all in…

William Dalrymple: In Xanadu

March 9, 2016

419DJZH9NFL._AA160_Dalrymple sets off to retrace the steps of Marco Polo, to the legendary Xanadu, in China. It’s a crazy undertaking, worthy of a student in his carefree student days – though his time is limited by the need to get back to Cambridge to prepare for his finals…

He’s travelling in 1986, so not all parts of the journey are straightforward, or even allowed. Travel between Israel and Arab nations requires a certain amount of detouring, Afghanistan incompletely off-limits, and crossing the areas of China through which Polo travelled required subterfuge and illegality, passing as it does, right next to their nuclear testing grounds.

He veers between being humorous – his tone is often bemused when he encounters various oddities of travel and people – and very knowledgeable about many interesting places along the route, which is basically the ancient Silk Road. Sometimes events, accidents, conversations take on a tinge of farce; sometimes he surprises us with details and contextual background to places and events we are perhaps vaguely familiar with. This is what I’m looking for from good travel writing: knowledge, interest and enthusiasm from the traveller. The maps are rather on the vague side, though. At times, he reminded me of Robert Byron, who travelled in the Middle East in the 1930s, and who describes, and conveys a sense of place, like very few other writers I’ve come across.

It’s an uneven work, by which I mean that some sections are leisurely and the journey and places are fully described, whilst sizeable actions of the journey are dashed through against the clock, with nothing seen or remarked on, let alone described. Such are student travels, in my experience, though I never went this far afield. Despite the haphazard voyage, the many scrapes and adventures he gets into along with his companions (two different women at different times) he nevertheless succeeds, daringly, in attaining his ultimate objective. This demands respect. But his later travels in From the Holy Mountain are far more engaging, less about him and more about what he saw.

Tim Cope: On the Trail of Genghis Khan

January 9, 2016

51v22B8bKZL._AA160_It took me rather a while to warm to Tim Cope‘s adventures; initially the idea of trying to retrace the tracks of the Mongols under Genghis Khan from Mongolia to Hungary – the full extent of their maraudings – seemed rather self-indulgent, and this wasn’t helped by the account of his girlfriend accompanying the early part of his journey. But I had misjudged him; once she had gone back to Europe, and he was well advanced into Mongolia and heading for Kazakhstan, it settled into a fascinating account of a journey and the history and cultures of the land he was passing through.

As he travelled, he clearly developed – and, more importantly, perhaps, managed to convey clearly to his readers – a real empathy with, and understanding of, the peoples through whose lands he was travelling and the arduousness of their lives; there was an openness about him, a wish to understand and to learn about a people who had built one of the greatest empires ever, terrorising everyone in their wake. With Cope, we learn about these nomads, their necessary wanderings and their relations with their livestock. We learn about a completely different way of life that we might never otherwise imagine, one necessitated by a combination of geography, weather and force of circumstances; we can see perhaps a certain attraction to it, at least in contrast with the crazy and hectic pace of life in, and the rampant consumerism of the ‘advanced’ West. The reader learns much from Cope’s account, which is supported by copious and helpful footnotes and excellent maps (though I did find Bloomsbury’s choice to use American English spellings in an English edition rather annoying).

I found myself re-thinking some of my earlier judgements about there not being real opportunities for travel and exploration nowadays because of how accessible everywhere is; Cope’s journey reminded me of the travels of Ella Maillart and Peter Fleming through similar territory in the 1930s, and I was reminded of the accounts I’ve read of demanding travels by William Dalrymple, Sylvain Tesson and Bernard Ollivier (all of whom you can read about elsewhere on this blog if you search for them).

And yet, things are not the same: Cope had the benefits of GPS, mobile phone, and the ability to take a break and fly off home or anywhere else if he really needed to, advantages which earlier travellers did not have, and which do help him at several points on his journey. But I do not think that such ‘luxuries’ detract from his achievement, and they cannot take away his genuine commitment to the journey or love of the peoples and places he encountered. And by the end one can see that he was far more affected by his journey than he ever expected to be.

I learnt much about places, peoples and history; I was further shocked, if that is possible, by the account of the post-Soviet decline, alcoholism and appalling corruption endemic in the entire region, which he catalogues, usually impartially. There’s a good deal of food for thought about world economics and power politics there; no nation or system comes off well from it, and, as usual, it’s the ordinary folk who suffer most. A very worthwhile read, and I shall look out further of his writings.

Jonathan Tucker: The Silk Road Art and History

December 9, 2015

31GFEU8hIDL._AA160_If you have read may of my posts about travel writing on this blog, you will know that I’m fascinated by the Silk Road, that collection of routes (for there was no single route, like the M1) which linked East and West from the times of Alexander the Great onwards, allowing people to trade, and to exchange ideas and knowledge. This book is clearly a labour of love: it is helpfully illustrated by many maps of all the different routes that are known, and liberally illustrated with hundreds of wonderful photos of people, places, artefacts and treasures.

The fact that the routes have existed for over two thousand years does put our own world, with its empires and trade routes into a different perspective: how long will what we have invented or created endure? Equally, although these two millennia were never times of unalloyed peace and neighbourliness, it is fair to observe that Christians, Muslims and Buddhists managed to co-exist, to be interested in each other, to preserve contact, to trade, and to learn from one another. Maybe that was easier in a world full of unknowns and uncertainties – after all, travellers never knew whether they would reach their destination…

I marvelled at the vastness of the spaces along the routes, in lands where there was room for unwanted and no longer used buildings just to be left to decay and gradually disappear naturally, crumbling in peace after the people had long gone. They continue to crumble: it is also interesting to realise how the dryness of the desert treat the remains of human settlements, compared with the damp, humid and temperate lands we inhabit: out there, there are reamins of wooden buildings erected over a thousand years ago: shades of Ozymandias, I felt…

I was saddened to think how many of the places described and illustrated are nowadays inaccessible because of ongoing conflicts, and also realised how much had been destroyed by fanatics and fundamentalists since the book was written – the Buddhas of Bamiyan, the Roman remains of the city of Palmyra in Syria.

This is probably the book to have on the history and culture of the Silk Roads, as a companion to any other reading on the subject.

No-go areas?

November 15, 2015

I try to eschew overt political comment in my posts, because this blog is meant to be primarily about books and literature. However, the combination of the recent appalling events in Paris, and my enjoyment of travel writing combined to produce a small epiphany this morning.

Most of the travel writing I read is about areas of the planet that, over my lifetime, have virtually become no-go areas for (safe) travel. When I was a teenager, yes not all of the planet was safe to visit, but as far as I can recall, South East Asia was the major danger zone, because of the Vietnam War, which ended forty years ago. Now when I mentally review the planet, the entire Middle East stretching as far as India, the states that once formed the southern Soviet Union, most of North Africa, the Sahara and Sudan are pretty much off-limits. I knew people in my younger days who hitch-hiked from England to India, via Afghanistan – how far might one get nowadays, I wonder?

The regions which have interested me most as a reader have been the Middle East, the Silk Road countries, the Sahara and the Soviet Union. I’m astonished when I look at what’s happened to so much of the world and realise the changes which have taken place. And I’m saddened that so much of the mayhem and death which has blighted these countries has been due to interference from outside, and especially from the West. I cannot perceive anything positive or of longterm value that we have achieved by this.

I was particularly struck by something I read during the past week or so, written by an Arab traveller in the twelfth century, who was either on his way to perform the hajj or making his way home from it, I can’t remember which and it isn’t important. He was travelling through Palestine, at the time of the Crusades, and passed somewhere where Christians were in the process of besieging a Muslim stronghold. He and his companions encountered no problems passing through the region, because they were travellers about their own business, and the siege was nothing to do with them! We may well be over eight centuries later in time, but in attitudes and behaviour?

I’m a quiet life merchant generally speaking; I don’t mind the small adventure of driving hundreds of miles across Europe to visit places and people I want to see, but I can do without extra excitement, thank you. And in these pages I’ve often written appreciatively of explorers who have taken great personal risks, venturing into the unknown or unpredictable on their travels and written entertainingly and knowledgeably about what they saw and who they met. I’m struck by how much of humanity’s past history there is in some of these newly-forbidden places, particularly the Middle East. I know that people are more important than places and buildings, and yet I am always horrified when some relic of human history is destroyed by ignorant fundamentalists – the Bamiyan Buddhas, or the city of Palmyra are two recent instances. In some ways we are an astonishing species, capable of great things, and in other ways we seem collectively not very intelligent at all.

So, for all those places which I cannot imagine ever getting to see with my own eyes, I am very grateful to the travellers, explorers and writers who have brought them to my sofa.

Robert Silverberg: The Realm of Prester John

November 10, 2015

51Hlfo-MbXL._AA160_The Prester John legend seems to have its roots in the idea that the apostle Thomas (doubting Thomas) travelled to India and set up an early Christian community there; with the sketchiness of mediaeval geography and Muslims in between the Middle East and the Far East, all sorts of rumours emerged… Prester John, according to a forged document which first came to light in the early decades of the twelfth century, was a Christian priest and ruler of fabulous wealth and power somewhere ‘out there’ in the east, and a potential ally of the West in its struggle against the spread of Islam.

I first became interested in the legend after I read Umberto Eco’s Baudolino, a novel I rate a close second to The Name of the Rose, and which shows off Eco’s mediaevalism brilliantly. I then hunted out John Buchan‘s Prester John, and started reading whatever I came across on the legend, including early travellers across the Silk Road such as William of Rubruck.

Robert Silverberg I already knew as a science fiction writer, but this is an impressive volume of historical and literary research: he reviews and details the possible origins of all aspects of the legend which arose at some point in the twelfth century. The detail is fascinating, as is how mediaeval knowledge was so circumscribed (geographers conflated India and Ethiopia, which is why Prester John was to be sought in both places…) The story was developed, enlarged, embroidered, pirated and plagiarised over the centuries, even when real travellers brought back increasing amounts of accurate information, accounts of places, events and peoples.

Mediaeval travellers failed to hunt down the fabled ruler in the far East, although they visited the courts of Genghiz Khan and his successors and brought back many fascinating accounts of life there, as well as encountering the Nestorian (heretical) branch of Christianity which had flourished in the region for many centuries. So they turned their attention to Ethiopia, which is where the story links in with Portuguese empire-building in the sixteenth century… Europeans came to insist on calling the ruler of Ethiopia ‘Prester John’ even though it was not his name, he had other names, and had never heard of Prester John.

Utterly fascinating for being a full and easily readable account of the entire story as far as it is known, and clear insights into the workings of the mediaeval mind and its attitudes to knowledge, I must also mention that it’s a well-produced and bound US hardback from 45 years ago, good for another 45 years at least. The Americans do know how to make decent quality books.

Writing from Arab lands

July 14, 2014

Continuing the posts exploring my wider reading, and my opinion that other countries and languages offer sometimes better reading than English…

I’ve become increasingly fascinated by literature and other writing from the Middle East over the years. Partly this is from a wish to understand some of the conflicts going on in various parts of the world, but also from a longer historical perspective, as I’m aware that Arabs lands in the Middle Ages were not only the safeguarding repositories of much of humankind’s knowledge, but also the places where much new research and discovery was happening, while our part of the world languished in the so-called ‘Dark Ages’. I know that this is a bit of an over-simplification, but for me it’s also a counter to the Western-centrism which ignores so much of the rest of the world and what it has achieved.

Travels by Arab writers are fascinating: Ibn Battutah‘s voyages in the fourteenth century dwarf those of Marco Polo; Ibn al-Mujawil wrote in the thirteenth century and al-Masudi even earlier. I have a translation of Ibn Jubayr which is still on the to-read pile. And then there is Leo Africanus, and his Description of Africa, as well as the wonderful re-imagination of his life and travels by Amin Maalouf. Ibn Khaldun as a historian and compiler of knowledge is as interesting as Isidore of Seville.

My reading of fiction is limited by what is available in translation, and much more is accessible in French (currently) than in English. I have really enjoyed the novels and essays of the Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf: his perspective is a very helpful one in that his country is a society where Christians and Muslims have long co-existed (not always peacefully). The length essays Les Identités Meurtrières, and Le Déreglement du Monde are thoughtful and insightful takes on current conflicts in the world. His novel about the celebrated poet and astronomer Omar Khayyam, Samarkand, is available in English, as is Baldassare’s Travels; his novel about Leo Africanus and many others, which I recommend highly, are not, to the best of my knowledge.

I was quite stunned by Naguib MahfouzCairo Trilogy when I first came across it, and have read it twice, now: it’s a panorama of life in Cairo in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries centred around a single extended family; it’s a soap-opera of daily life, a fascinating and detailed insight into a totally different society, its customs, habits and morals, and the background is the increasingly turbulent history of the times; as a Westerner I learned a lot as well as enjoyed the novels; obviously life in Egypt is far more complex than a novel can reveal, but I loved being allowed these glimpses. It is sobering and necessary to see how other people can and do think, feel, react, exist in ways that are so different from our own: we may accept the difference, we may question it, but how can we begin to do anything if we have no knowledge?

This brings me on to the realisations that the Arab lands, via the Silk Route, were the way in which we originally came to know the Far East, the lands of China and India… that the things which connect us to other peoples are, or ought to be, far stronger than those which separate us, and cause conflict. I’m no philosopher and have no wish to be a politician, but I do strongly believe that we should be celebrating this diversity.

Burnes: Travels into Bokhara

August 21, 2013

9781906011710Another of Eland‘s nicely-produced re-issues of travel-writing from the past, but I’m not really sure how to take this one. It’s from the 1830s, and Alexander Burnes was basically a British spy at the beginning of what is, I feel, insultingly called ‘the Great Game’ – the rivalry between empires, especially the British and Russian, over the lands in the Middle East. He basically blagged his way up the Indus river, across what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan, pretending, lying and deceiving the local inhabitants, whilst secretly mapping and storing information which would later be invaluable in Britain’s empire-building and outwitting the Russians, and for which he was much praised by his colonialist superiors.

And yet, it’s a fascinating account of the places and the people from nearly two centuries ago, with lots of detail, and an extremely good (original) map to help you follow the journey. Burnes took considerable risks, and, because he was a spy in disguise, came into close contact with people and their customs and way of life, through his familiarity with their language.

What offends me really, I suppose, is the tone of superiority that sometimes comes through towards them, confident in the military power of the British. On the other hand, his explorations eventually led to the first British adventure in Afghanistan, which was a disaster, like all subsequent ones, including the present unfinished business there.

Bernard Ollivier: Longue Marche III

November 16, 2010

51KKE2v8M1L._AA160_The final volume covers the last two sections of his journey, from Samarkand to Turfan, across the Taklamakan desert, and then from Turfan to Xi’an, where he completes his walk, at the age of 64 (!) of somewhere between eleven and twelve thousand kilometres.  The achievement is astonishing – he realises at the end that he is possibly the only person ever to walk the entire length of the Silk Route.  The section in China is rather weird as he knows nothing of the language, meaning that his contact and communication with people is somewhat restricted, and yet he has many friendly contacts and encounters with people. He communicates a powerful sense of the dynamism of the Chinese as a people, reinforcing my impression that China is the nation that will mould the 21st century.

I really enjoyed these books.  If you read French, read them.  If you know someone who will translate them for English readers, tell them.

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