When I Was a boy, I had a map on my bedroom wall. I used to stare at it
when I woke up in the morning and before bedtime, admiring the size of the
continents and the oceans, looking at the location of the mountain ranges, deserts and
rivers, and trying to memorise the names of all the countries and their Capital cities.
At school, I learned a lot about the history and geography of the country
and continent where I lived. I loved learning about Britain and about
Furope. But when I spoke with my parents, it was often about things
elsewhere that I felt I should know about. In many parts of the
world, people were fighting each other—and I could not understand
why. Places were changing, Sometimes in a way that was good
and sometimes in a way that was bad. When I listened to the
news, I realised that millions of people’s lives would be affected
We study history to understand the past, but also to try to help
explain the present. History is a bit like tracing back your footsteps
and trying to work out how and why you took a particular route
to where you are now Standing. It is interesting and exciting to
look at individua] turns or steps you made, but It can also be
revealing to look at the journey as a whole.
Staring at the map on my wall, I wanted to learn about Russia, whose leaders at that
time built nuclear weapons that were pointed directly at targets very close to where I went to
school. I wanted to learn about the Middle East, where there seemed to be terrorist acts
taking place almost every day, but which I also realised was the birthplace of lots of religions.
I wanted to find out about China, Iran, India, Pakistan and Southeast Asia — places that
were not just the size of empires but had dominated the past and seemed to be enormously
important in the modern world too. I longed to learn about the people, history, geography and
culture of Africa and to understand if there were similarities and
differences between one part of the continent and another.
I never got the chance to do that at school. Instead, I was
taught a lot about Henry VIII and his six wives (divorced,
beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived — in that
order). I wish I’d had a book that could have
told me about all the other places. I wanted to
understand how everything fitted together.
Why, for example, was there nothing worth
studying in between the Romans arriving
in Britain and the Battle of Hastings — a
thousand years later?
And so I| decided to spend my life reading
and writing about history and looking for
connections that would help explain the
past better than how I had been taught as a
child. I have had lots of help from scholars and writers, many of whom lived hundreds — and
in some cases thousands — of years ago. One very important person was called Ferdinand
von Richthofen (his nephew became a famous First World War fighter pilot, known as the
Red Baron). He thought long and hard about how to come up with a name to describe the
way that Asia, Europe and Africa are connected. He could have chosen the name of any
of the goods and commodities that were transported over thousands of miles — like spices
or ceramics; he might even have chosen something to do with languages, travel or biology.
But he decided on something that caught the imagination of other scholars — something
that has stuck to this day: the Silk Roads.
The Silk Roads do not have a start or an end point, because they are not actually real
roads at all. They are a web of networks that have allowed goods, people and ideas, but also
disease and violence, to flow east to west and west to east — from the Pacific coast of China
and Russia to the Atlantic coasts of Europe and Africa, and also from Scandinavia in the
north to the Indian Ocean in the south. You might even think of the Silk Roads as the
world’s central nervous system, linking all the organs of the body together, or perhaps as
veins and arteries pumping oxygen and carbon dioxide away from and towards the heart.
To understand the body, you need to look under the skin, and you also need to see how the
body as a whole works, rather than just looking at one part of it.
In this book, we are going to visit places you might not have heard of before. Some
have disappeared and are now gone: Merv, in modern Turkmenistan, was once so large
and so beautiful that it was called ‘the mother of the world’. The magnificent city was
destroyed by fighting 800 years ago, and never recovered.
Some places have changed. Today, Kabul is known as the capital of war-torn Afghanistan.
But 500 years ago, the city had gardens that were famous hundreds of miles away. Mosul,
in Iraq, is a city that was recently devastated by ISIS, who inflicted terrible suffering on
the inhabitants, whom they used as human shields. However around 1000 years ago, it was
famous for its magnificent public buildings, its bathhouses and its craftsmen who produced
some of the finest arrows, saddles and stirrups in the world.
**Contents and Sample Pages**
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