The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, by Peter Frankopan.
With this post, I am going to offer a variety of dishes from Frankopan’s book; you are free to select as many or as few items as you wish from the buffet table. Like a true smörgåsbord, even if you sample a bit of each plate, you will not leave stuffed.
The Silk Roads of the Steppes
…the steppes were much more than a Wild North, a frontier zone filled with savage people with strange customs….the nomadic lifestyle was in fact both regulated and ordered.
The tribes of the steppes held large herds and flocks of livestock; the flocks needed proper pasture. This could not happen in a world of chaos. One example is the Pechenegs, living to the north of the Black Sea:
The Pechenegs were subdivided into eight tribes that were in turn split into a total of forty smaller units, each with clearly demarcated zones that were theirs to exploit.
Farming also became increasingly important: wheat, millet and rye; hazelnuts; wax and honey. But one of the most important goods for trade was pelts. The prices paid for pelts were incomprehensible to some observers:
“…in any other country, a thousand loads wouldn’t buy you a bean.”
The Silk Roads of Conversion
One very constant theme throughout the book is the ebb and flow of religion, following trade and conquest. One of the more interesting conversions from the eighth or ninth centuries is described, albeit the history is much debated. The story involves the Khazars, a Türkic tribe prominent north of the Black and Caspian Seas:
So important were the Khazars as allies that in the early eighth century two marriage alliances were arranged between the ruling houses of Khazaria and Byzantium….
Such Imperial marriages with foreigners were rare for Byzantium; with nomads from the steppes, this was almost unheard of.
Byzantium was not satisfied merely with intermarriage. After a request by the Khazars, Byzantium sent envoys to explain the virtues of Christianity, for the purpose of conversion. At the same time, the Khazars sent for envoys from the Muslims and from the Jews. It was time, it seems, to choose a religion.
…the Khazar leader decided that Judaism was the right religion for his people.
The Silk Roads of Slavery
A new power began to grow, from the far north:
The Rus’ were ruthless when it came to enslaving local populations and transporting them south.
The majority of those taken captive – the Slavs – gave us the name we know: slaves.
Slaves also came from sub-Saharan Africa; one trader boasted of selling more than 12,000 black slaves in Persia. But those taken from the lands of the Turks were considered the best slaves of all.
The sale of slaves paid for imports flooding into Europe in the ninth century. But not all were pleased with this activity: in 776, Pope Hadrian I decried the sale of men and women; the bishop of Bremen, Rimbert, would ransom any slave professing to be Christian.
But the slave trade brought wealth to the Rus’; by the end of the tenth century, they came to be the dominant force on the western Steppe. They sacked, and destroyed, Atil – the capital of the Khazars. The Rus’ were so feared that in Constantinople they were limited to a maximum of 50 at a time entering the city to trade.
Meanwhile, severe winters drastically impacted the crop in the south, in lands controlled by Muslims. An opportunity was opened to Byzantium to retake lands lost to Muslims in the past, including Crete, Cyprus and Antioch. Taxes and revenues shifted once again – away from Baghdad and toward Constantinople.
The fruits of this shift were visible even to Western Europe; interest in the Christian east – where Jesus Christ had lived – grew. Men from Scandinavia and the British Isles were welcomed into the Varangian guard – an elite unit meant to serve as the Emperor’s guard; to serve in this unit was considered a rite of passage by the royal families of the west.
It was not Paris or London that mattered, but cities in the east; it was not just the Holy land, but the cities that connected west to east – cities that connected to the Silk Roads. In this, Kiev became a lynchpin of the medieval world:
Daughters of Yaroslav the Wise, who reigned as Grand Prince of Kiev until 1054, married the King of Norway, the King of Hungary, the King of Sweden and the King of France. One son married the daughter of the King of Poland, while another took as his wife a member of the imperial family of Constantinople.
The marriages in the next generation were even more impressive: Hungary and Poland were again represented, along with Henry IV, the German Emperor.
The Silk Roads to Crusade
And then, from the east, came the Seljuk Turks. With names that were certainly Christian, if not Jewish – Michael, Israel, Moses and Jonah – it is likely that these Turks from the Steppes were once evangelized by earlier missionaries to central Asia. The moment celebrated as the birth of the Turkish state was at hand:
…the Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes set out from Constantinople with a large army, meeting with disaster in 1071 at Manzikert where the Byzantine forces were caught by surprise and humiliated….The Seljuk ruler, Alp Arslan, made the Byzantine leader lie on the ground and placed his foot on his neck.
Appeals were sent throughout Europe, including to Pope Urban II – a last-ditch effort, given the less than pleasant history between the eastern and western church. The Pope called for the faithful to march to the aid of their brethren, announcing this at a church council at Clermont, north of the Alps.
…many were convinced that the apocalypse was nigh. Urban’s call to arms met with a massive response: in 1096, tens of thousands of men set off for Jerusalem.
Many were motivated by faith and the reports of horrors and atrocities committed by the invaders. While the Crusades are remembered for the religious aspect, many of its most important implications were worldly – the powers of Europe were to compete for riches and prestige in the east. The west was going to drag itself closer to the heart of the world.
But this is a story for the next chapter.