coffee table book · Non-Fiction

Review: Silk Roads (ed by Susan Whitfield).

Review: Silk Roads (ed by Susan Whitfield).


Silk Roads is extraordinary in its scope. It is comprised of short essays from academic contributors. For the reader, this offers multiple perspectives and creates a book to dip into and savour.

There was no Silk Road. This is the first point made in the introduction. Silk Roads is a romanticised term used to describe the trade and interaction across Afro-Eurasia between roughly 200 BCD and 1400 CE. The term Silk Roads came into play during the Victorian Era.

What becomes clear from the earliest sections is that this period of trade and interaction between different civilizations challenges us to accept the limitations of one source of knowledge. This is seen especially clearly in one of the book’s early essays called Mapping The Silk Roads by Peter Whitfield. Ptolemy’s world map, described by Whitfield as a touchstone for modern European Cartography was later proved inaccurate and remapped using the knowledge of Chinese historians.

Rather than dividing the book by time period or country, the essays are divided by landscape – Steppe, Mountains And Highlands, Deserts And Oases, Rivers And Plains, and Seas And Skies. To keep the reader grounded, detailed and labelled maps are printed regularly throughout the book. 

As a newcomer to the subject, I couldn’t have asked for more. This is not an easy subject to begin studying because it encompasses not only a vast area of land and space of time, but it also takes into account conflicting and often absent histories. A recurring theme throughout the essays was that history is dominated by the written record, but that by looking more closely at cultures whose voices have been overwritten, a richer and more nuanced understanding can be gained. What worked for me as a novice to the subject was that the different essays touched on such different aspects that the book demonstrated the scope of this history.

Photography both historical and modern, of land and of artefacts, is included throughout the book. These visual references help situate the reader and to give a sense of what life might have looked like during different eras. From textiles to architecture, coins and pottery and implements of war, the clear and detailed images make it possible to browse the book as one might browse a museum exhibition. Full page photographs of different landscapes draw the reader in and make the geography real.

Silk Roads is a book to treasure. One to read slowly and return to regularly. It is visually stunning and the text and the photographs together build a rounded overview of the subject. The recurring themes about interaction between cultures and overlapping histories make us think about broader ethical issues and overall it is a beautiful and informative volume.


Thanks to Thames And Hudson for my copy of Silk Roads. Opinions my own.