The silk roads of the title are the arteries along which people, goods, ideas, religions, disease and many other things have flowed. The “silk road” label is relatively recent, coined only in 1877 by the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen, uncle of the first world war flying ace, the Red Baron (one of many fascinating details Frankopan has packed into his text). But the routes between China and the Mediterranean Sea, which run through what have become some of the world’s most disturbed and dangerous countries (Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan…) have been trodden or ridden along since long before documented history.
Frankopan tames this bear of an intercontinental narrative by ordering his chapters as a series of ideas: The Road of Gold, The Road to Hell, and so forth. Throughout, he relies on tight economic analysis: silk was, after all, not simply a luxury good but an international currency, too. The environmental impact of the silk trade is also intelligently explored – he raises new evidence, drawn from the polar ice caps, that the fall of Rome caused pollution levels to drop as smelting works across its empire fell into disuse.
Recognising that the fringes of a cloth are as interesting as its fabric, Frankopan also spins off on to the threads of social history. The Black Death, for instance, had an impact on attitudes to fertility. Young women, newly empowered by social upheaval, could choose not to marry. Anna Bijns, an Antwerp schoolteacher, wrote in verse: “Unyoked is best! Happy the woman without a man!” The Silk Roads is peppered with other memorable details: in Venetian dialect, for instance, the word “ciao” originally meant “I am your slave”, while the conical hennin hat worn by European women from the 1430s directly imitated high fashion at the Mongol court.