Why look a little further beyond? Most of us have, at least, a vague picture of the contours of the globe, although this picture may leave many conceptual spaces to fill. Inevitably, we develop vivid ideas of the realities with which we come in contact with, which sometimes turn out to be stereotypes, or macro concepts which are passed on to us via second-hand information, from an other with whom we don’t have direct contact. On the other hand, maps also give us an incomplete, or even partial picture. We know that the planet is spherical, but there is in the collective imagination a flat idea of the world, with a center line and extremities, from where concepts such as “Mediterranean”, “Middle East” or “Far East” emerge, expressions that derive from defining a purely subjective geographic referential. Being aware of said subjectivity and of the blanks in our imagination, the question arises: “what is there that I don’t know, and what was there that I wasn’t taught?”
“The Silk Roads” by Peter Frankopan is one of the works that lead us to explore this unknown. The author builds the argument, having placed himself in the position of asking the same question, that the supposed center (which is imaginary) of the world has been in other places in history. The Romans likely understood it, and its when their expansion directed itself to the east that the empire found its apex. It was there that they faced that which might have been the civilizational center of the old continent, or in other words, where cultures crossed and mixed, producing new ideas and refining theirs with others brought from afar, ancient Persia. This is not a statement that asserts itself on a basis of superiority or centrality of a certain people or place – it is merely the result of it being a meeting point in the most well known road in history, from where the book draws its title.
Questions such as economic and trade relations between the peoples of Eurasia, as well as the history of places which today are forgotten or caricatured, such as central Asia, Afghanistan and others, are explored. It is known that Augustine of Hippo, one of the doctors of the catholic church and a great contributor to a lineage of political philoosphy, was influenced by Mani, a zoroastrian prophet. That alone tells us that religion may not be as immutable as we imagine it, and while it is common to see religion mentioned when the topic is Asia and Middle East, its perhaps less common to refer to these areas as highways of ideas, and where thinkers and their thoughts crossed, and that didn’t always result in conflict. Limited by our perception, and by the temporal boundaries to which it restricts us, a broader idea of the past may easily expand our imagination and look at the future with different eyes.
“The Silk Roads” is a relatively long book, but whose accessible reading makes it easy to consume. The thematic organization of chapters gives it an “episodic” tone, and we have the opportunity to explore varied subjects, some more positive, others surprising and counter-intuitive (if we consider popular “wisdom” as intuition), and others more somber. But all of that is anything but the history of humanity.