Book Review: The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan

Quote of the book

“We think of globalisation as a uniquely modern phenomenon; yet 2,000 years ago too, it was a fact of life, one that presented opportunities, created problems and prompted technological advance.”

5 key points

  • The rise of the Mongols was due to their planning, organisation, and goals, rather than a lack of order and chaos, which helped them to create the largest land empire in history.
  • During the Great Bengal famine of 1770 whilst there was dual governance over Bengal between the British East India Company and the Nawab of Bengal, the price of grain increased substantially. There were millions of deaths in the local population and it was estimated by the governor-general that around ⅓ of the population died.
  • Some reasons were given for why Britain became successful compared to continental Europe. For example, it was noted that Britain had less socio-economic inequality and higher levels of calorie consumption compared to other parts of Europe.
  • The word “Ciao” (“schiavo” in Venetian dialect), which is currently widely used as a greeting to say hello, has roots in slavery as slavery was prevalent in the Mediterranean and Arabic worlds – “Ciao” means “I am your slave”.
  • In Europe, the plague ended up being a marker for a new social and economic era in Europe, which very much defined Europe today.


It is impressive to be able to provide an overview of global history in a single book, a task that Frankopan took on and delivered well in “The Silk Roads”. This book follows the cities and countries which fall on the infamous ancient Silk Road to explain the rise and fall of some of the world’s greatest empires, as well as how ideas and languages have travelled across the world.

One point that Frankopan touches upon is the shift in the centre of power in the world. It was interesting to learn where the original centres of power and culture were in the world, before shifting to the West. He notes that history has been manipulated and biased in favour of the West, such that the rise of the West became inevitable, but now the regions are shifting again. Before the West became powerful, the education centres of the world were originally in Samarkand, Baghdad, Balkh and Bukhara, not in the West in Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard or Yale. Now, the world is seeing new cultural and economic centres, outside of the West.

I also found it interesting to learn about the reasons why certain systems were successful or not. For example, the Persians developed a successful administrative system for their empire because they were open to new ideas and ways of doing things. Whilst for Spain, some luck with a shift in power and opportunity had helped them to develop into a centre of power, becoming more important in Europe. Rome gained glory following its success in seizing Egypt and establishing a base in Asia. The Taj Mahal could be completed because of how power and economy had shifted in the world, as Europe and India gained glory whilst the Americas didn’t. These examples are simplified; Frankopan explains them in much more depth, alongside were many more examples from different regions of the world. I think this provides a useful context to how things came to be today.

It is written clearly, though I found that the content is very dense – this is a good thing as it is a reflection of Frankopan going into immense detail to give each area of history that he gives attention to, but it does not make for a light read. For an overall view of global history this book is effective on its own, and if it is read alongside a more specialist history book, it can provide essential context. I would put it alongside Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari – both books complement each other.

In sum, this book helps you to understand why things are the way they are today and how the world developed with civilisations, empires, economic and cultural centres, and influential events. I particularly liked how this book felt for the most part unbiased (for the most part, and not wholly, as I think history always has some bias based on what has been preserved and recorded). This is in contrast to some history books where a personal or national bias can come through. Overall, I’d say this book is one of the most efficient ways of learning about world history as Frankopan has managed to teach so much in 500 pages (albeit dense pages).

Overall rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Get the book | Official website | Goodreads

Published by sharemylibrary

Non-fiction book reviews, summaries, and recommendations

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