A writer of dazzling range and energy, Peter Frankopan’s latest non fiction book The Silk Roads has engendered a ream of superlatives from the international literati. The U.S. magazine Vanity Fair has called it ‘’Monumental… prodigious… astonishing’, U.K. newspaper The Sunday Times reviewed it as “a magnificent study…. swashbuckling history…written with verve and precision.” The Silk Roads was also a New York Times bestseller and Daily Telegraph named it as the History Book of the Year. Frankopan, a director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research and Senior Research Fellow at Worcester College, specializes in medieval Greek literature and rhetoric, the history of the Byzantine Empire in the 11th Century, and on the cultural exchange between Constantinople and the Islamic world. Along with being ferociously brilliant, Frankopan is also a real life dishy Prince of Croatian descent and a hotelier (he recently acquired L’Hotel, Oscar Wilde’s former home in Paris as part of his hotel empire), a cricketer and a philanthropist. He has charmed audiences at the recently held Jaipur Literary festival where William Dalrymple pointed him out as one of “the literary crushes of the year,” as one of “the studs of the festival” and as “the best looking historian around” (Vogue India online). He was recently in Pakistan to attend the academic conference, Afkaar e Tazaa , and also spoke at Lahore’s terrific bookstore The Last Word. the gifted scholar/powerhouse told Afshan Shafi about the larger concerns of The Silk Roads, his favorite historical figures, and time travel
Peter with Aysha Raja
What would you say were your influences as a historian and thinker? What texts informed your point of view the most and continue to do so?
Peter Frankopan: I’ve had a great many influences, and I genuinely find it difficult to work out who has been the most important. In some ways, my teachers when I was a little boy had the greatest effect on me, because they encouraged me to think for myself and comforted me when I did not get things right. I was lucky to be taught by my parents too that asking questions was more important than getting the answers right.
Why is “a new history of the world” important? What would you say is lacking in the old history of the world, the grand and familiar narrative that most are familiar with?
Something deserves to be called “new” if it is really doing something different. And I think that is what my Silk Roads book actually does. By viewing the world from the same vantage point, not from the East or from the West, but from the lands in the middle, we get a radically different picture of the past, not only of the lands of the Silk Roads, but of the world as a whole.
In some ways, historians are like chefs, they cook their ingredients as they best can, and present the finest dish as a result. In my case, I’ve been lucky enough to be able to draw on a whole new set of materials that most historians have never used before, partly because I’ve been lucky enough to be able to learn lots of languages. So we find texts written in a huge range of languages, as well as the latest archeological reports from all over Asia.
I would never criticize individual historians for what they write. But it seems to me many have looked at the same problems in very similar ways; maybe there are more original and interesting ways of assessing the past.
Peter with Farah Rehman, Afshan Shafi & Madeeha Maqbool
One of the interesting things about immersing yourself in history is that one finds surprising patterns of connectivity everywhere. What do you think is the societal importance of focusing on this cohesion?
Perhaps the most obvious pattern is how similar we really are as human beings. It is easy to focus on variations in ethnicity, beliefs, language, custom and culture. But, at the end of the day, we are not so different from each other. We are all interested in the meaning of life; we are all interested in making the world a better place for our children; we are all interested in doing the best we can during our lifetimes, no matter what our position in society. And to me, that tells me that our natural instincts are to cooperate and to learn from each other; I am much more interested in how people exchange ideas and goods with each other than in glorifying warfare and confrontation, and seeing what happens when men (it always is the men, by the way) fight each other for power and status.
You have written of “the world’s center of gravity shifting — back to where it lay for millennia.” Can you explain this notion in lieu of the China-Pakistan economic corridor, in what ways do you think this initiative will have a favorable impact on Pakistan and Asia at large?
Looking at the CPEC at the moment involves some crystal ball-gazing, as one never knows if the corridor will look like it is supposed to when it is finished. What is clear is that there are big visions and grand ambitions at stake. China is armed with deep pockets and a clear vision of what its future requirements are. Much depends now on how it builds long term, sustainable relations with its neighbours. Pakistan is a major part of the One Belt, One Road initiative. The big question is whether Pakistan is able to take a long term view of what the major investment in the country’s energy and infrastructure will do for the country. Everything depends on getting this detail right at the outset; the concern is that China will solve today’s problems, rather than help deal with those of tomorrow.
The foremost educational institutions of learning in the world are geographically centered in the U.S. and in Europe today. In your book you have set out to reclaim an alternative past where the major centers of knowledge were “Baghdad and Balkh, Bukhara and Samarkand.” What do you think is lost when the locus of academic innovation is concentrated within a certain region only?
The most important fact about world-class educational establishments is that they are supported by wealthy patrons. Harvard, Yale and Princeton are held up by huge endowments, with multi-billion dollar values. Oxford and Cambridge are not quite in the same league, but still have proved skillful at raising large sums of money.
Supporting scholars is expensive. Laboratories and equipment cost a lot, as does attracting the finest minds in the academic world to work together and produce high class research. Inevitably, the best institutions are able to attract the best scholars from across the world, which means ideas get challenged, tested and refined. For me, the wonder of Oxford is that some of the cleverest people in the world come to my lectures and ask questions that stop me and make me think, likewise, listening to one genius after another is brilliant too.
I sometimes think of it like Premier League football: being alongside the best in the business makes me better, sharper and pushes me further. But, as I write in my book that process once did not take place in Oxford and Cambridge, but in cities across Asia. Perhaps it will happen again.
Your book also discusses some phases of the origins of Islam and in a recent interview you have noted that “the oldest books on Islam talk of it as a faith of great tolerance, patrons of art and music and high culture, a perception very different from what fundamentalists reading these texts have made it out to be.” Please elaborate on this statement.
When young Muslims are taught about their faith, they usually learn about the life of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and of course are taught to memorise the Qu’rãn. But there are other things that they could also learn about, which can supplement their faith, explain it and make it stronger. The early history of Islam, in the time of the Prophet and in the decades that followed were tolerant, sympathetic and inclusive. Often, Muslims seem to think that military conquest was the key to the expansion and spread of Islam. But the first Caliphs were careful to honour Christianity and Judaism, as set out in the holy Qu’rãn; they were humble enough to visit the Holy Sepulchre where Jesus Christ had been buried and to do so in the robes of a pilgrim. Some even wept when they heard of mass conversion to Islam, as they felt this was the result of opportunism, rather than real faith.
In a world where we are learning to our cost what fundamentalism and intolerance mean, I think it is a shame that some (albeit a small number of) Muslims seek confrontation with other religions, rather than honouring what the holy Qu’rãn actually teaches about compassion, tolerance and respect.
What are the perils to the West in continuing to subscribe to a Eurocentric version of history? Do you think that an imbalance of power continues to define the way individuals from less enabled regions think about themselves? Do you think that in the next thirty years or so this insularity of thought will be remedied?
Ignorance is dangerous because it breeds misunderstanding, fear and hatred. The problem of Eurocentric history is that is starts with the assumption that the West/Europe was always destined to lead the world. What history actually teaches is that the period from c.1600-2000 was a good time for Europe, an age of empire, of wealth and enlightenment. But that does not mean that the sun will always shine on the West. Indeed, my own view is that the sun is setting and that a new world is emerging, based on the ancient Silk Roads.
The lands lying across the spine of Asia are important for their mineral wealth (oil and gas, uranium and rare earths, copper, aluminium, gold and so on), but also are vital because they are weaving together in a way that looks very familiar to me. Our lack of knowledge about their importance in the past can prove problematic – many of these countries have proud histories and we should learn about them and respect the fact that these are highly sophisticated societies, and not, as we often think in Europe, states that need reform, help and civilization.
With insularity, who knows? We seem to be much better in the modern age at breaking and destroying than we are at building. Recent decades show a pretty disastrous record in repairing, consolidating and getting failed/failing states back up on their knees. To use a cricketing metaphor, sometimes you need a slow, boring partnership to stop the clattering fall of wickets.
The route of the ancient silk roads saw the birth of new religions being born and the spread of empires and of ideas. You’ve compared this flux to the phenomenon of globalization. Please explain this comparison in terms of the ways in which ideas are disseminated in the modern world.
As a species, we are extremely interested in ideas and learning. We love to try new things, new tastes and new experiences, and we like to find out what is important in life. In that sense, sharing ideas about the divine and about the purpose of our existence (and what happens to us after we die) is part of the process of acquiring knowledge and wisdom. So, naturally, one learns from the most educated, the most pious, the best examples of living a good life. That is why we revere scholars, holy people and artisans because they are showing something of the human condition at its most pure.
On a more practical, day to day level, the process is not too dissimilar. We all want to know where the tastiest food comes from, the finest clothes, the most beautiful books. And our ancestors were the same even thousands of years ago. That is why one finds guidebooks written by some of the great scholars of the past in the Islamic world not only about philosophy, science and mathematics, but also how to value the finest shields, where to buy the best ceramics and how to enjoy the most glorious banquets. Chinese writers wrote about that too, so did Indian writers; and Persian authors; and those in Europe. We are a curious and wondrous species!
What is your favorite period in history? Would you choose to travel back in time or continue in the present?
As a historian, I would love to travel back in time. If you can make that happen, I’d be very excited!
I would ideally choose several different periods and regions: I would want to go Baghdad and Constantinople around the year 850 to see great courts at their peak. I would want to visit the Khmer Empire and Angor Wat around 1100. I’d like to see the Mongols at their finest, ideally not during their periods of conquest, but after things had calmed down. I would particularly like to have visited Lahore at the time of Ranjit Singh and to see the “little grey mouse” for myself. And I have always had a soft spot for Russia in the late 1800s too.
The main thing I would insist on, however, is that if I did go back in time, I would want to be a figure of high status. I don’t think any period in the past would be fun if you were poor, oppressed, ill or hungry. We sometimes forget that glorious ages in the past were glorious if you happened to be at the top of the pyramid. Could you ensure that for me too, please?!
Which historical personages do you admire the most and why? Are there any ancient figures from the Indo-Pak region that you feel are particularly exciting?
I admire people from the past who left a legacy. I particularly revere authors and writers whose work survives because that tells me they were saying something interesting and important that was worth preserving. In the same way, I admire those who designed and created buildings that are works of great beauty. So Wazir Khan is on my list for the spectacular mosque in Lahore; or Hakim Ilmuddin Ansari for the Shahi Hammam too. Of course, that would lead me too to the great Mughal emperors and their patronage not only in Lahore and the Punjab, but across a much wider region. Perhaps it is no surprise that my favourites are Akbar the Great and Jahangir. They made our world a richer and more beautiful place.
What was your experience in Pakistan like? Were there any major surprises during the course of your trip?
I came to Pakistan at a very difficult time, just a few days after the terrible bomb in Lahore. I was struck by the courage of the city and by the anger that people felt with the intolerance that lay behind this awful act. Lahore has a proud tradition of respecting its inhabitants and visitors, and is famous for its hospitality. I was able to see and experience this myself when I was in the city. Despite the horrors, I was impressed by the optimism of all I spoke to and the determination that we should learn to cooperate and respect each other, rather than allow hatred and fear to take over.
There’s a Confucian saying on the study of history “Study the past if you would define the future.” What advice would you give to young, emerging historians?
We can all find it hard to change our minds about how we look at the world around us, past, present and future, so it is important keep an open mind. The key for any historian, young or old, is to keep reading, looking and asking questions. The world is changing and if you study history, you quickly learn that it always has been. Change is nothing new, and it is not something to be scared of.