A long winding mountain path across the original silk roads
The Silk Roads - a fulcrum for world history

Finding new perspectives on the big jigsaw puzzle of world history

Professor Peter Frankopan became a bestseller in 2015 when his book, The Silk Roads, captured interest across the world. As well as traveling as prolifically as the roads it’s named after, the book was also named one of the 25 most important books to be translated into Chinese in the last 40 years. It’s an engaging and erudite look at how travel and connections between cultures in the east became a lynchpin of world history. Richly researched, Peter’s been praised for giving its readers the chance to challenge the western perspective and see history in a bold new light. His follow-up, The New Silk Roads, looks to the future and how recent events are shaping a future along new global lines.

This month, Frankopan was awarded the Calliope Prize by the German Emigration Center Foundation. The awarding panel said the way The Silk Roads ‘breaks with the Eurocentric perspective’ was a big part of their decision.

Professor Peter Frankopan headshot
Professor Peter Frankopan wins Calliope Prize

Frankopan, who is Professor of Global History at Oxford University, has always been fascinated by how schools in the west don’t teach a lot of history about Asia, Africa or the Americas (pre-Columbus). When he first came to Oxford as a graduate student, he was excited to build on how the university teaches the history of regions to the east of Constantinople (modern Istanbul). Certainly, it seems like his writing hit upon a hunger for new and diverse points of view.

Asked to explain part of the wide appeal of his work, Peter said: ‘I suppose that the main thing is that if you look at the history of exchange, of connections, and how the big jigsaw puzzle of world history fits together, one can find new perspectives even about things that seem very familiar.’

 ‘Delighted’ to be awarded the prize, Frankopan is looking forward to putting the lion’s share of the prize money towards a new project: working with the German Emigration Center, Frankopan will look at links between multilingualism and having an open view of the world.

Speaking of the upcoming project, he said: ‘I have always been interested in how language helps facilitate exchange, as well as overcoming boundaries. So as well as being honoured by the recognition for my past work, I am excited by the prospect of gathering data not only about how to measure the openness of societies, but see if and how the conclusions might have practical applications in the future.’

While the research is in the early planning stages, Peter explained: ‘My working assumption is that multilingualism tends towards two forms: first, elites who can afford language lessons, including the time to study, learn and memorise. Second, those who are forced to adapt because they are migrant workers and need to learn languages to work and survive. I have an open mind about how language proficiency is linked to tolerance and open-mindedness. But the aim of the research is to gather data so we can quantify and shape these ideas. And of course, potentially be proved wrong – and find that we are drawn into different directions. That in itself would be very interesting.’

The award is given to a researcher who ‘help[s] convey migration in a lasting, global and easily understandable way’. This is in keeping with the German Emigration Center’s mission to illustrate the impact of both emigration from the country and immigration to it.

It seems appropriate then that Peter sees the new collaboration as part of an academic duty to enable progress through generations: ‘One of our roles at Oxford is to teach, inspire and encourage the next generation to think about what matters, and to help train them on how to best answer those questions. So my hope is just that: to be a link in a chain that enables others to build on my work and research. Then they can take things on in whichever direction they think is most productive.’

Professor of Global History, Peter Frankopan, has been awarded the Calliope Prize from the German Emigration Centre Foundation. The Calliope Prize award ceremony will take place on November 23, 2019 at the German Emigration Center.