Peter Frankopan is a professor of Global History at Oxford University. He is also the director of Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research. He was in Mumbai to talk about his book — The Silk Roads — A New History of the World at the 7th edition of Tata Literature Live! The Mumbai Litfest. Here, he talks about his interest in Byzantine Empire and the Islamic world.
What piqued your interest in the Byzantine Empire?
As a teenaged boy, I was interested in Russia. And like all people interested in a story, the first thing is to find out the beginning of a story. And the beginning of Islam and Christianity, the connections of trade across Asia, how the ideas, religion, the languages travelled. There were not many people interested in this — they considered Byzantine Empire as something exotic and not very important. But it lasted for more than 1,000 years. And, in those 1000 years, there were lots of challenges, lots of opportunities.
It’s interesting to see how continuity, stability has been achieved in the world. And, the Byzantine Empire is one good example of this. Understanding this world and how it got lost in history and how other people have tried to explain it… is what got me interested.
Have you been to Turkey? What are your impressions of it? Will it be in the future what it was in the past?
Well, there are two different answers to this. Turkey, in the last one-and-a-half years, has seen regression in its politics. And, as we see in any country around us, the world is changing — in some ways it is good, in some ways it is bad. In some ways, it’s challenging. The Turks are trying to understand their own past. That’s what is happening in India too — what does the Mughal power mean to India? What primitive history are Indian history lovers, historians and scholars thinking about?
For a long period of time, the Turks thought that only the Ottoman Empire mattered, especially after the conquest of Constantinople. Now, there is awareness that Turkey has a very long history and it’s important to understand its physical location, the politics, the history. Like with many other countries today, Turkey has a rising sense of nationalism. If you are different from them, it’s a problem.
Have you also studied the language, Arabic?
My Russian teacher taught Arabic to us. And, my Arabic is as good as it should be.
Languages are not only for understanding what people say, but it’s important to understand what they mean, and the context in which it is being said.
Are you also on the advisory committee of government bodies, explaining the Islamic world to them, especially in this period of animosity and conflict?
Yes, I think this works in every direction. We need to have a better cooperation from inside, within communities, to understand how other cultures function. Quite often we hear complaints that we are not doing enough to connect with the local histories. That’s true, but it works in both directions as well.
The first question is — What does Muslim world even mean? What does it mean if you are Muslim in India, or a Muslim in North Africa or a Muslim in England and a Muslim in Palestine? These questions can be resolved through openness and dialogue in this time of rising intolerance. Saudi Arabia had at one point churches and synagogues. Now, no longer.
It’s time we recognised each other’s common humanity. We should be able to respect that we wear different clothes or eat different fruits, or worship in a different way. But when one culture, creates superiority over other, then we create a big problem.
We scholars and academics have a great duty in today’s world to explain connections, continuity, influences. But there are some people who don’t want to hear us. They are much more keen to convince others that they are correct.
How do Turkey and the Middle East perceive your interest in their culture?
I was in Sharjah last week and my book, The Silk Roads is coming out in Turkish, in a couple of weeks’ time. The people have appreciated that the book is not US centric. It’s important that they see how history looks through different eyes. I will say, ‘this is how the world looks to me if you look at different material in the past. People might disagree because ultimately this is a book of scholarship. So it’s important to come to festivals like these and put our ideas across to the laymen.
You had been to Pakistan recently. Where does Pakistan figure in The Silk Road: The New World Order? Where does India figure in?
There is no such think as The Silk Road. People think there is one motor way. But it’s not really very clear. Anyone can be a part of it. India and Pakistan have a joint history till 1947. Even at 1947, there were twins separated at birth. There are lot of commonalities; hence there is rivalry.
In the Silk Route of the past, of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa, you find the earliest cities in human existence. Many of the cities in present-day Pakistan like Peshawar and Lahore flourished through the trade route. Now, the future of relationships between Pakistan, India, China and Iran, also with Japan, Russia and United States, depends on the politicians we elect.