The Jigsaw of World History

Since leaving school, I’ve had an abiding interest in history. How did the world end up the way it has?

Along the way, the focus has zoomed out from parochial, recent UK history – the stories the UK told itself to explain how it ‘won’ the Second World War, yet saw its global power collapse – to European history, taking in little islands of interest (the Celts, Greece, Carthage, Rome and Byzantium, the European Renaissance) and trying to patch together how they all fit in with each other.

The jigsaw pieces we always have

What I really enjoyed were the books that attempted to describe world history. Paul Kennedy’s The Rise And Fall Of The Great Powers was a revelation to me when I read it, because he based his narrative on financial and industrial statistics. It was a grand sweep over five centuries, charting the rise of the European seafaring empires, and the belated relative rise of the USA, Russia, China and Japan. It showed that a country can continue to improve on all sorts of measures, but what matters is its performance relative to other nations. The only let-down was the end, when Kennedy attempted to predict the (then-)future course of the USSR and Japan in the 1990s. Reading it in 2001, it was painfully clear that even the best history won’t provide a clear guide to what happens next.

Books like Jared Diamond’s excellent Guns, Germs and Steel, and Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail Or Succeed, or Niall Ferguson’s Civilization: The West And The Rest did much to explain how different countries advance at different rates, but with a few years’ hindsight I can see a tendency to look at details in isolation to each other (which makes it easier to use them as examples to illustrate the author’s point), or to overlook counterexamples. There is perhaps an overemphasis on the current (fading) power of Europe and the USA.

Environment can explain the fortunes of some, or most, nations, some or most of the time. So can geography, population density, technology, industry, money, and culture. It seems to me that any of these factors can enhance, diminish or circumvent the effects of the others. It’s all very well constructing a narrative to explain the sweep of global history and cite examples that support it, but I’ve always had this nagging feeling that there’s a lot missing – the narratives depend entirely on what interests the authors, and in any case no account can possibly include everything.

The jigsaw pieces we don’t have

Even so, there has been a common gap in the accounts I’ve read. Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East are all well-accounted for. So are India, China and the Far East as long-lasting major civilisations. The Americas, Africa and Australia feature largely as lands conquered and colonised from Europe, with attention given to a few prominent local empires such as Mali, the Aztecs, and Incas. That seems pretty comprehensive, but what about central Asia?

For the most part, central Asia tends to crop up only as the lands covered by the ‘Silk Roads’, or else as a source of invaders, from the Huns to the Mongols and Turks. That seems a bit thin, for the world’s largest continent.

Fortunately, that gap is getting filled in.

This is a region of the world where Indo-European cultures arose, and spread not just to the Middle East and Europe, but also eastward to the deserts of the Tarim Basin. It was a conduit for the spread of religions, from Buddhism in classical times to Islam in the early middle ages. It was a major trade route, briefly disrupted by a few centuries of European maritime commerce, and is today rising in prominence thanks to demand for its oil and mineral resources, as well as improving air and rail links. And that’s before we get to all the wars and terror attacks taking place. This is not a region to overlook.

Filling in the missing pieces

The first book I read which gave an overview was Christopher Beckwith’s Empires Of The Silk Road (2009), which covered the cultures and fortunes of the various peoples who rose to prominence and made for an excellent introduction. If there was one message to take away from the book, it was that the past few centuries have not been kind, particularly the modern era. Soviet occupation left cultures and environments devastated and torn apart by war and terrorism, just as the current Chinese occupation of East Turkistan (Xinjiang) and Tibet.

A far more comprehensive account can be found in The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan (2015). It’s a history of the world written from the perspective of central Asia, with a repeated focus on Persia.

World history suddenly makes far more sense, when viewed as an unending power struggle for control of the region, when the people who live there don’t want to be controlled.

The Achaemenid Persians had that power, and dominated it only until they were weakened by rebellions and supplanted by the Seleucids after Alexander The Great’s invasion. The same thing happened again, with Parthians and Sasanids taken over by Arab, Turk and Mongol empires. No matter who controlled the trade routes, money was still made, with money, goods, slaves, and ideas passing to and from China to West Africa and Europe.

With affluence came cosmopolitan lifestyles, art and science. So what went wrong?

The obvious answer is the Spanish and Portuguese plundering the Americas, and finding alternate maritime routes, accessing trade from the south (Persia, India) and directly from the East (China); subsequent European nations followed suit. The fact that the relatively poor, Germanic nations around the North Sea could rise to prominence and dominate global affairs is astonishing, seen in this context – and explored in depth in Michael Pye’s The Edge Of The World (2014).

So, trade went around the fringes rather than the core of Asia. But the European grasp was fragile. By the 19th century, the British and Russian empires struggled for control of the core. The Russians wanted trade to go through their territory. The British felt threatened. Afghanistan, Persia and the Ottoman Empire were caught between them.

In the run-up to The Great War; strategically speaking, Russia was a greater threat than Germany. Given the choice of risking a fight in central Asia where no allies could help, or a fight in Europe against an enemy flanked on two sides, the British opted to join Russia and France.

Within three decades, every single European empire either collapsed, or was in rapid retreat. The turning point was Adolf Hitler’s plan to temporarily ally himself with the Soviet Union whilst neutralising the threats to Germany’s western flank, before launching an invasion to take the agricultural lands and oil fields of the steppes around the Caspian Sea.

Cack-handed diplomacy and military interventions soured relationships between the British and the central Asian nations. British oil companies took over-generous shares of the profits from Iran, causing resentment. The same mistakes were made by the USA, for decade after decade, in a desparate bid to control the oil wealth. The result was the rise of pan-Arab nationalism, anti-Western resentment, economic wars affecting oil prices, dictatorships alternately supported and fought against, and almost constant conflict.

As a result of interventions in Afghanistan in the 1980s, Russia, China and the USA have had to deal with terrorist attacks on their own territories in the 21st century, from Chechnya to Xinjiang to New York. Meanwhile, as Frankopan says, “The Silk Roads are rising again.” We might view the conflicts and economic turmoil as a result of the jockeying for control of them.

History makes far more sense when viewed from the Silk Roads; I thoroughly recommend it!


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