Ask the History Expert: Peter Frankopan
Peter Frankopan is Professor of Global History at Oxford University where he is also Senior Research Fellow at Worcester College and Director at the Centre for Byzantine Research. He was also Schiff Scholar at Jesus College, Cambridge, and Senior Scholar at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. He has been Stanley J. Seeger Fellow at Princeton, Scaliger Visiting Professor at Leiden and Presidential Scholar at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. His revised translation of The Alexiad by Anna Komnene was published by Penguin Classics in 2009.
He is actively involved with several charities, mainly in the areas of education, international development, gender studies and classical music. Both he and his wife Jessica are Companions of the Guild of Benefactors at Cambridge University. He has been a Governor of Wellington College since 2006. He chairs the Frankopan Fund, which has granted more than two hundred and ninety scholarships and awards to outstanding young scholars from Croatia to study at leading academic institutions in the UK, USA and Europe. As well as all of this, Peter also chairs a collection of family businesses in the UK, France, Croatia and the Netherlands, including A Curious Group of Hotels which he set up with his wife Jessica in 1999.
Peter is the author of The First Crusade: The Call from the East (2012) and The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (2015) and The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World (2018). Peter spoke with Ultimate Library about his career and the books which shaped it.
1. Both ‘The Silk Roads’ and ‘The New Silk Roads’ present expansive yet detailed histories of the world. Would it be possible for you to tell us what inspired you to write these books?
Well, I’m not sure there was a flash of lightening that suddenly made me want to write these books. I’ve been interested in finding out about all the corners of the world since I was a small boy; and I’ve been lucky that finding out new things has always given me a thrill. I’ve also always enjoyed reading widely – and not reading what everyone else has read. So I’ve spent decades looking at the history, languages, culture, politics and exchange across continents.
I guess that it has felt a bit like working out which all the different pieces of the jigsaw are. Writing these books has been putting them all together in one big picture. Both were enormous fun to write – but they weren’t easy to do!
2. These extensive histories clearly require intense research and investigation – which book/books were the most useful to you in writing ‘The Silk Roads?’
I am always drawn to original sources – things written by people who describe events that they saw with their own eyes or heard about in their own lifetimes. I too feel like I am trying to make sense of the world around me, and finding other people who were doing the same thing as me 500, 1000 years ago and more is not just a joy, but helps make sense of what I try to do myself. This is also a really exciting time to be a historian as there are so many non-literary sources that throw new and sometimes unexpected light on the past – archaeology, art and material culture, of course; but also new climate-related evidence; DNA materials and new ways of charting linguistic exchange are incredibly exciting, but the list of what was useful is a huge one!
3. Was there a book/collection of books that you sought relief in when writing?
Actually, relief came largely from music. I used to be a chorister and a music scholar and performed at a high level when I was young. So I have a very intense and passionate relationship with music and with sound generally. I have a lot of Central Asian, Russian, Middle Eastern, South Asian playlists (and a lot more besides) that helped keep me going in fact, I had my own playlist of World Music on British Airways for a couple of years after Silk Roads was published!
4. How important do you think it is for a contemporary audience to understand the history and culture of the places they travel to?
Travel is the greatest luxury that there is. Full stop. Visiting new places, seeing, hearing, tasting, experiencing new things is a privilege. In today’s world where we travel quicker, cheaper and more easily than any one of our ancestors means more people can enjoy the differences and variations in the rich and wonderful planet we live on. So I think our great fortune demands our respect: for the environment, of course; but also for other cultures, languages, places and histories. I don’t just think know about history and culture is important; I think it is essential when travelling. That’s why I spoke about Maldivian languages and history – and how each fit into the global picture – when I was at Soneva Fushi.
5. Which 3 books would you recommend for any budding historian?
I never like to dodge a good question. But my own great luck in becoming a historian was to be able to find my own way. Part of the problem we have in the modern world is that everyone knows the same things and (very often) think the same way. So I think it’s important to be independent and to think for oneself. But I can promise any budding historian one thing: if they ever walk past a bookshop and ask their parents/friends to buy them a book, anyone who has their wallet with them should say yes 100% of the time. So I’d recommend trying that and picking some books off the shelves and giving them a chance. As my wife and I have always told our children, it’s OK to not like a book or a topic – as long as you can explain why.
A huge thank you to Peter Frankopan for offering Ultimate Library an insight into his impressive and expansive career. If you would like further information on his work please visit his website, or you can find him on Twitter @peterfrankopan.
Photo credits to Julia Neeson who can be found on Instagram @julesandbeyond.