The first half of Peter Frankopan’s book is a triumph which presents the Eastern history of the world in a clear manner. “It is easy to mould the past into a shape that we find convenient and accessible. But the ancient world was more sophisticated and interlinked than we sometimes like to think” he wrote of the period in question. He contextualises, like Robert Conquest in his wonderful The Dragons Of Expectation, how dangerous ideas can be. It is interesting to question the modern narrative that Islam is destroying Western culture. We seem obsessed by it, yet if you go back to 1099 the Christian Crusaders were even more brutal when they took Jerusalem: “For all the rhetoric about the knighthood being motivated by faith and piety, the reality was that self-interest, local rivalries and squabbling were the order of the day”. Questioning the actions of our ancient Western ancestors is essential to viewing the modern world in a balanced light.
All this is not to say that the world was superior in ancient times – far from it. In 260AD, when the Roman Emperor Valerian captured a rival ruler, he used him as a human footstool before skinning him alive and consequently spurred the Persian Empire to similarly depraved heights. The ancient world was as brashly opulent as it was violent. Sizabul, who lead the Turks “took to receiving dignitaries in an elaborate tent while reclining on a good bed supported by four gold peacocks and with a large wagon brimming with silver”. It was partly this gross inequality that resulted in various revolutions. The Sassanian Empire, the last in the Middle East before the rise of Islam, was ruled on a monarchical basis. Religion was not yet a key element, even though a number of Christian missionaries had made their way as far East as the edge of China before the expansion of Islam had begun in earnest.
Before the spread of Christianity in the first couple of centuries AD, Buddhism was the first major religion, along with Zoroastrianism. The Zoroastrians were mainly based in Persia and clashed with Christianity. In 335 AD, the Romans banned blood sport due to the burgeoning influence of Christianity. Constantine’s warmongering spread east and he attacked Persia, which turned them against Christianity while Shapur II unleashed “hell” on the local population. Ironically, it was the atheist Steppes and Huns who brought the Roman Empire down. Frankopan notes how there were more Christians in Asia then there were in Europe in the Middle Ages.
The Qur’an noted that mankind was once a single umma and that Muhammad’s revelations were “revealed to Abraham and Ishmael, to Isaac and Jacob and the tribes”. That the prophets were largely the same as in Christianity led to early co-operation between the religions and it was some time before they began to genuinely compete against each other: “collaboration of the faiths was an important hallmark of early Islamic expansion- and an important part of its success”. Islam spread as far as France in the 8th century and very nearly conquered Europe. In the 8th and 9th centuries, Islamic territory was the envy of the world. They believed that when the Romans became Christian, it was a sign that they had chosen faith over science. The dominance of Islam at the time led to what many people believe was the face of Mohammad appearing on the back of a coin during the “coin wars”.
Frankopan unearths the testimony of Bohemond, who told of insane levels of brutality during the Crusades. Entire villages were levelled and endless people murdered. In 1204, when the Westerners took Constantinople, they “behaved like animals, the Byzantines were treated with abysmal cruelty as virgins were raped and innocent victims impaled”. The whole sordid tale also signified that the pope had “military and political capabilities”.
The Mongols came close to conquering all of Europe in 1241 after they rampaged through Kiev and all around Asia. Frankopan asserts that, after his father’s death in 1227, Genghis Khan’s son Ogodei, took as much land as Alexander the Great had on his epic journey. They became known as Tatars in a reference to Tartarus or torment in classical mythology and believed in low taxes in a secular society. Frankopan suggests that they were further ahead of their time than many other historians admit. In 1346, the Mongol army flung corpses into a Genoese trading outpost in Caffa, after some of them had died of a mysterious disease. They thought they would kill their rivals with the stench. Kill them they did, by infesting them with the Black Death which put a halt to the Mongol advancement.
Meanwhile, some Vikings who were called Rus or Rhos, largely because of their red hair, founded Russia after their forays to the East. They set up a lucrative trade network with the Muslims they came into contact with. Slavery was a major source of trade at this time. Slaves, or Slavs, had become such big business that in 961 that Prague had become the centre of the slave trade. They used to castrate slaves too. The Khazar rulers in the Steppes areas traded fur with the Muslims.
After the Mongols had been largely repelled in Europe, the pope anointed Spain the head of Catholicism after Elizabeth in the UK had become Protestant. Spain duly went bankrupt four times in the sixteenth century, despite having amassed more wealth than any other country on earth after new trade routes were opened up with North and South America. They were constantly at war with the UK and the Netherlands. The Dutch had set up the East and West Indies trading companies and removed the Portuguese by force in Jakarta to further their own ends.
Frankopan asserts that it was the warfare after 1492 that led to Europe’s rise. He is clear that European society was not in any way superior to the indigenous societies in the Americas. For example, the Incas were a relatively progressive meritocracy who distributed wealth quite evenly around their society – certainly more so than in Europe, where primogeniture still ruled the day. “Although the Europeans might have thought they were discovering primitive societies, and this is why they could dominate them, the truth is that it was the relentless advances in weapons, warfare and tactics that laid the basis for the success of the West”. This is an important point to grasp. When the Spanish rode in on horseback and spread Smallpox to the local population, they conquered them because they were violent and aggressive, not because they were culturally superior.
The British Empire also believed that they were superior to other countries in the eighteenth century. When Thomas Bowrey drank Bangha (a form of cannabis) in India in the late seventeenth century, he “sat himself down upon the floor and wept bitterly all afternoon”. Sadly, his fellow British compatriots did not choose to chill and get high but instead to loot, pillage and starve the Indian people. In 1770, one-third population of the population of Bengal died because of an enforced famine: “Europeans thought of enriching themselves as the local population starved to death”. This links directly to the Boston Tea Party: the catastrophe in India was the reason Britain had to levy taxes on America.
The British Empire disliked the French who, under Napoleon, had attacked Russia in 1812. Fast forward to 1854 and the UK helped take Crimea and gave it to the Ottoman Empire in order to stop Russia’s progress. Ironically, this denial of the Russian military access to the Crimean peninsula meant that they were intent on, and did, improve their military. The burgeoning Russian Empire attacked the Balkans in 1877 and then Merv in Persia in 1884 in a show of their imperial strength. The British feared their rise. When the Bolsheviks, after World War one, began to entice the new countries in the land that was formally the Steppes territory, they began to rapidly expand.
Perhaps it is my own bias because I am more familiar with history from the last two centuries but the second half of the book was not as inspiring. Frankopan wrote a lot about Iran, which dovetailed with Michael Axworthy’s superb history which I reviewed here: https://orbitalmick.wordpress.com/2017/04/19/review-revolutionary-iran-a-history-of-the-islamist-republic-by-michael-axworthy/
Middle Eastern countries played the rival superpowers off each other in order to get larger and larger aid from them. The British and American imperialism was bound to fail. Iraq nationalized its oil in 1972 and the Islamist revolution in 1979 had the same effect. The era also saw the rise of Gaddafi in 1970. The Western backing of the Shah in Iran, after they had overthrown Mossadegh, and support for the despotic regimes of Saudi autocrats were anti-democratic, despite the US playing lip service to trying to spread democracy. They are continuing the charade to this day.
During the first Gulf War, the US gave Hussein the green light to attack Kuwait and, post-war, put $100m into covert regime change when they could have easily taken him out after they backed him to the hilt during the Iran-Iraq war. The number of times the US played politics with both sides can only prove one thing: that they wanted to permanently undermine the region and ensure its instability. In 1998, after Clinton had illegally bombed Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, Mullah Omar told him it was completely unacceptable and that it would lead to further extremism. We know how that panned out. In October 1956, the UK and France took military action against Egypt to try and retain control of the Suez Canal. The West also vehemently tried to prevent a United Arab Republic from forming and growing after Syria and Egypt tried to join together in 1958.
One key lesson from this is that we need to keep the sovereignty of nation-states intact to preserve a peaceful world. Imagine if every country, like Ireland, took a neutral stance. What would the world look like? No country has the right to interfere in other countries’ affairs. The only exception to this is if a country is committing a genocide on its own people and intervention is necessary to protect them. Judging by the start of the twenty-first century we have not learnt anything. Frankopan compares modern imperialism to the Crusades: “Just as the Crusaders had found in the holy land hundreds of years earlier, the mere existence of a state supposedly made up by outsiders was a cause for disparate Arab interests to set to one side”.