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Culture

Dr. Peter Frankopan on His Work and Upcoming Lecture “Greece: Futures”

April 17, 2022

NEW YORK – The Gennadius Library of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA) and Dr. Peter Frankopan, best-selling and award-winning author of The Silk Roads and Professor of Global History at Oxford University, present Greece: Futures, the final installment in a three-part series of lectures for the inaugural Thalia Potamianos Annual Lecture Series, on Tuesday, May 10, 6 PM, at St. Bartholomew’s Church in Manhattan. The lectures have been held at select venues in Athens and the U.S. and live streamed worldwide on the ASCSA website https://www.ascsa.edu.gr/.

For in-person or streaming registration: https://bit.ly/3xxwCIS.

Dr. Frankopan spoke with The National Herald about his latest book and the lectures in the Potamianos Series.

TNH: How long did your book The Silk Roads: A New History of the World take from idea to realization?

Dr. Peter Frankopan: There are two answers, both of which are right! I think the most honest one is that it took me the best part of all the 45 years I was on the earth before it was published. I’ve spent years – decades – learning languages, working out how to deal with complex material, some of which is technically complicated (like statistical modelling of coin production; or understanding manuscript traditions). So to me, the book feels like the end of a journey that began when I was very young! Some of the things I wrote about in Silk Roads were ideas I first came across as a teenager – like the connections between Scandinavia and Russia in the age of the Vikings; others from when I was an early career scholar having to teach undergraduates who were just a couple of years younger than me – and had to work out how to communicate complex concepts in ways that were accessible and above all engaging and interesting. So it took me a long, long time.

The second answer is that around 12 years ago, I started to think about how to join up all the dots of things I’d learned, how to connect different periods and regions – and how to write a history that re-centered how we look at the world. From that point, it took around five years to put the whole thing together, to read around a few subjects that I did not know enough about, and then to write it. I told very few people what I was doing, partly because I did not think many people would want to read it. So it came as something of a surprise when it caught fire around the world. There is nothing that warms an author’s heart more than sitting next to someone on a plane who is reading your book; or people telling me excitedly at a drinks party or a dinner that I should read this great new book called The Silk Roads, without knowing I was the author. I’m very humbled and still find it hard to believe that millions of people around the world have read my book.

The Gennadius Library of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA) and Dr. Peter Frankopan, present Greece: Futures, the final installment in a three-part series of lectures for the inaugural Thalia Potamianos Annual Lecture Series, May 10. Photo: ASCSA

TNH: What were the most challenging and most rewarding aspects of the writing process?

PF: The bit I love most is the research, and above all finding out things that I didn’t already know – and wondering how on earth how and why that was the case. Sometimes historians and authors can complain about how difficult writing is. But for me, I not only think but know that it is a luxury to spend time thinking about the past – and also a joy. Writing it all up is tricky, because my natural instinct is to produce a 2,500 page book; so having to leave things on the cutting room floor is difficult – it’s like having to disinvite friends from a party and telling them they can’t come. The process is a bit like putting a fiendishly difficult jigsaw puzzle together; so there is huge excitement when you find the corners, when you start putting a few sections together, and then real pride when it’s all done. I mainly wrote late into the evenings, often working till 3 AM, and then getting up to give the children breakfast and take them to school. So it felt like a painful and tiring exercise at times, and my lovely wife was good at telling me that I also needed to look after myself as a dead author with an unfinished book doesn’t make for a great husband either. I have an excellent collection of hats from Central Asia that I would often put on and wear while writing difficult passages – my way of trying to make myself keep on going.

TNH: How has the audience responded so far to the lectures in the series?

PF: One thing I love about Greece and the Greeks is how generous they are to outsiders who come in and talk about their pasts. I guess that maybe has something to do with the fact that other peoples have been fascinated by the Hellenes since the first recorded histories, so perhaps the Greeks are used to it. Perhaps, too, it is good to get an outside perspective on the past, present, and the future; any which way, I’ve been very touched by kind comments and also the enthusiasm for both talks so far. I’m trying to widen the lens through which we look at Greece over millennia – talking about links with parts of the world far removed from the usual goldfish bowl of the Aegean, Balkans, and Asia Minor, and casting my eye towards Central Asia, towards China, towards the Middle East, Russia, Iceland, and beyond. I think it helps to look at the world to look through lenses that are different to normal; maybe that’s why people have been so kind to me!

TNH: What can attendees look forward to in the third lecture?

PF: The first two lectures have covered millennia; this time, I’m going to start with Greek Independence which we celebrated the 200th anniversary last year and then move forwards to the present day and into the future. No matter which corner of the planet one is living in today, it’s clear that we are living in a rapidly changing world. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is part of that; but so, too, is the rise of China, India, and many parts of Asia; so, too, are digital technologies; climate change; access to resources; and demographic transformation. So I’ll look at where Greece is and where it goes next. Should be fun.

TNH: What are you working on next?

PF: I’ve just finished a big new book that looks at the environment and the natural world and also at the past, present, and future of climate change. That has been a big project that I started a few years ago and have managed to work on a lot because of lockdowns during the pandemic. But I am also pretty involved in some of things behind the scenes with Ukraine, but also in South Asia, Central Asia, and China where there is a great deal going on. I’m moving around quite a bit in the coming months as I’m called on for advice in corridors of power in the west and also in quite a few places in Asia; I wrote some of the post-pandemic recovery plans for quite a few states that I work on. So I’m moving around a bit now and in the coming months. What happens in the coming months will affect the lives of billions of people. From where I am standing, there are a few bits of good news here and there; but there are some dark storms coming towards us all.

 

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