Top positive review
Examining the Long History of What is now Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan
Reviewed in the United States on May 28, 2018
Author Peter Frankopan sets out, mostly successfully, to reorient our knowledge of history as taught in Europe and North America — history as viewed through the lens of Western Civilization courses. My quibble is that this is still a view of Central Asia though European eyes, and arguably the author pays slight attention to the history of ancient India and China and overplays the history of Central Asia and Western misconceptions of the Mongols.
Frankopan’s main thesis is that the region stretching from the Mediterranean to China, and particularly the region that is now Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, remains the crossroads of civilization and the center of global affairs. As such, we need to understand ancient history and historical development over more recent centuries, as well as the way history is perceived by those in the region.
The book proceeds chronologically. Chapter headings trace the many “silk roads” that have influenced global history, including the emergence and migration of major forms of religious faith, the rise and fall of empires at a time when Europe was an uncivilized backwater, and the role of trade as a conduit for the spread of ideas and wealth.
We learn, for example, that the early expansion of Islam was benign. Often the major religions coexisted peacefully. Mohammed and the Jews needed each other as both repudiated Jesus as the Messiah. In Damascus, churches were untouched even as Islam became the religion of the majority. Only after divisions began to develop in Islam did attitudes harden toward other religions, says the author.
Western Europe in the 600s and 700s was barbaric, while Baghdad was at the height of its wealth and academic achievement. Thus, traders and intellectuals along the Mediterranean were oriented toward the East, not Western Europe. Among conventional beliefs that Frankopan seeks to puncture is the notion that the Mongols were chaotic. Instead he says they were good bureaucrats and operated as a meritocracy. Terror was applied selectively but was broadcast broadly as a tool of coercion. The result was to control wealthy territories with a minimum of effort.
As Elizabethan England competed with Spain, says the author, there was an opportunistic alliance with the Muslim world against a common enemy. Both the English and the Moors engaged in piracy against the Spanish and Portuguese. The English freed Muslims who had been “galley slaves” and returned them home, and had Muslim support for the 1596 attack on Cadiz. Shakespeare portrays positively the Moor in Othello and Persia was also characterized favorably in English literature of the time.
By the late 18th and early 19th Century, however, the power relationship between rising Western European powers and Persia and neighboring countries had been reversed. India became a crown jewel in the British Empire and the British became preoccupied with fear of Russian expansion into Persia. Misunderstandings were rife. “The British cannot say what they mean and the Persians do not mean what they say,” noted one observer.
In the aftermath of World War I, the British created Iraq out of Mesopotamia, arbitrarily combining a hodgepodge of nationalities. As oil was discovered in Iraq and Iran, the British moved quickly to exploit these resources and minimize the royalties that were paid to the nations from which oil was extracted. Dissatisfaction with British oil companies resulted in a greater role for American oil companies, but the exploitation of the region changed little until OPEC was formed.
The final 40% of the book is devoted to British and American ignorance and arrogance in the 20th and 21st Centuries, resulting in the support of the Shah in Iran, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and Ayub Khan in Pakistan among others. Frankopan characterizes British, then American strategy as “solving today’s problems without worrying too much about tomorrow’s problems.”
This is useful background for anyone trying to understand the resentment felt in Iraq and Iran toward the West today.
As Frankopan looks forward, there is little analysis of the potential role of China in the balance of power that could shape the region’s future or of India whose population and economy are among the world’s largest and fastest-growing.
Instead, with an emphasis on what was once known as Mesopotamia, the author asserts that, “the Silk Roads are rising up once more.” Events that appear chaotic instead are the “birthing pains of a region that once dominated the intellectual, cultural and economic landscape of the world…We are seeing the signs of the world’s centre of gravity shifting — back to where it lay for millennia.” This seems an optimistic analysis.
In sum, the value for many readers will be found in the first half of the book, as a balance to the history taught in the West. The resentments held in the region toward American and British influence are the result not just of recent decades but of exploitation taking place in the past 100 years. Oddly, though, the author’s contemporary assessment of the region seems viewed through the same Western lens that he criticizes as having warped our understanding of the past.