Penned by an Oxford scholar, this 600 page chronicle has the potential to cause a paradigm shift in your world view. The narrative is embellished with nuggets of information about the ancient and modern worlds. It deftly removes the mask of ‘civilization’ from the face of Europe and reveals the true motivation behind many historically significant moves.
ON ISLAM AND CHRISTIANITY
• The Prophet Mohammed’s last words: “Let there not be two religions in Arabia.”
• The faithful (Muslims) had initially been told to face Jerusalem when they prayed. It was only in 628 (six years after his flight to Medina) that Mohammed decided on Mecca.
• When Mohammed came to Yathrib (Medina) the Jews in the town concluded a mutual defence agreement that offered protection for their faith and property. However, one rabbi opined that Mohammed was a false prophet, ‘for prophets do not come armed with a sword’.
• Muslims were tolerant towards other religions during the early decades of Islam. They rebuilt the church at Edessa (Turkey) when it was damaged by an earthquake in 679. The mosque of the Dome of the Rock, constructed at the start of the 690s, had mosaic inscriptions mentioning not only Mohammed but also Jesus and Mary. Muslim attitudes towards ‘kafirs’ hardened towards the end of the seventh century as a result of the antagonism between rival factions for the control of Islam. (Of the first four caliphs, three were murdered.)
• The Arab conquest of Sindh (Pakistan) in 711 yielded 60 million dirhams in immediate gains (not accounting for future taxes).
• “Islamic societies generally distributed wealth more evenly than their Christian counterparts, largely thanks to very detailed instructions set out in the Quran about legacies.”
THE SLAVE TRADE
• The customary greeting in Italy, ‘Ciao’ does not mean ‘hello’ – it means ‘I am your slave.’
• Venetian merchants became involved in the slave trade in the mid 8th century.
• From the 8th to the 10th centuries, slaves were the currency used for trade between Europe and the East. Money was a later addition.
• A ninth century prayer from France: “Save us, O Lord, from the Savage Norsemen who destroy our country; they take away….our young, virgin boys.”
• The Roman empire at its height required 250,000 to 400,000 new slaves annually to maintain its slave population, but the size of the market was substantially larger in the Arab world (centuries later).
• One writer opined, “There is no equal to the Turkish slaves among all the slaves of the earth.” Another account mentions a Caliph and his wife owning a thousand slave girls each.
• There were guide-books for slave-purchase. Wrote one 11th century author, “Of all the black (slaves), the Nubian women are the most agreeable, tender and polite.”
• Jewish merchants played a key role in trafficking boys and girls from Europe and castrating the males on arrival. Eunuchs were highly valued. “If you took Slavic twins, wrote one Arabic author in this period, and castrated one, he would certainly become more skilful and ‘more lively in intelligence and conversation’ than this brother – who would remain ignorant, foolish and exhibit the innate simple-mindedness of the Slavs.”
• The Arabic word for eunuch comes from the ethnic label referring to Slavs.
• Rustichello of Pisa and Marco Polo of Venice struck up a friendship in a Genoese prison. Genoa had been victorious in separate naval battles against Pisa and Venice – and the poor men had been captured. Rustichello had spent a decade in prison before the world traveller came along. It was he who carefully recorded “The Travels of Marco Polo”.
• The Mongols were “far removed from our common perceptions of them.” They combined military dominance and selective brutality with religious tolerance, political savvy and liberal taxation.
• The Incas had meticulously recorded births and deaths.
• Elihu Yale was Governor of Madras for 5 years. He returned from India with priceless loot that included five tons of spices, diamonds and precious objects. Before his death (in Wales) he donated generously to a college in Connecticut that now bears his name. (Wikipedia describes Yale as merchant, philanthropist and slave trader.)
• European powers often resolved their disputes by exchanging their colonies. Madras changed hands between the French and the British. When Portugal ceded Bombay to Britain as part of the dowry of Catharine of Braganza in the 1660s, the Portuguese Governor of Bombay predicted that this move would spell the end of Portugal’s empire in India. It did.
• After Robert Clive defeated the Nawab of Bengal in 1757, over two million pounds flowed into the pockets of East India Company employees. Clive became the richest man in the world. The Bengal Famine of 1770 followed soon thereafter.
Everything about this book is interesting. The fonts are reader-friendly but you need both hands to hold the book.
An unforgiveable faux pas: The Guru Granth Saheb is described as “the great scared text of Sikhism.”
Overall assessment: It would make Oxford proud.
The Silk Roads: A New History of the World
AUTHOR: Peter Frankopan
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 2015
Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.