The Book of Roads and Kingdoms

The Book of Roads and Kingdoms was a total impulse buy. On a recent vacation to Australia, I saw it prominently displayed in a Dymocks book shop. I’d never heard of the author and it’s about a topic I know almost nothing about, but I’ve always been intrigued by geography and the cover is beautiful. So what the heck, why not?

The book is a little hard to categorize. It’s part history and part travelogue.

The Book of Roads and Kingdoms takes place during the period known as the Islamic Golden Age, a period roughly bracketed by the founding of Baghdad in 762 CE to its capture by the Mongols in 1258. During this time, the caliphs, the successors to Muhammad, ruled the largest empire in history, extending from Spain to the borders of China and India. It was a time of incredible cultural, scientific and economic flourishing.

The author, Richard Fidler, is a writer, broadcaster and former comedian. He’s host of the Australian radio program Conversations with Richard Fidler.

Cover of The Book of Roads and Kingdoms

The Book of Roads and Kingdoms
By Richard Fidler
HarperCollinsPublishers Australia, Sydney, 2022

Fidler explains the history of the Islamic Empire, and the caliphates – dynasties – that ruled it. But this is really just context. The Book of Roads and Kingdoms is mainly a collection of reports and stories from diplomats, traders and scholars who travelled from Baghdad to the extreme edges of its far-flung empire. Fidler recounts their travels and travails.

One such story is about the mission of a diplomat named Ibn Fadlan, sent by Caliph Muqtadir in 912 CE to negotiate an alliance with the King of the Bulgars who lived on the banks of the Volga River, part of modern-day Russia. The journey took several years. Fidler paints a vivid picture of the hardships Ibn Fadlan and his company endured in an era before down-filled Gore-Tex jackets. I get freaked out when my flight gets delayed. Poor Ibn Fadlan had to deal with someone stealing the money he was supposed to deliver to the Bulgar King to seal the alliance.

These stories were interesting, sometimes even amazing, but it’s hard to know how accurate they are. Are they just travelers’ tall tales? How deeply have they been investigated and corroborated?  

However, collectively they paint a picture of a city and an empire that were curious, outward-looking, and tightly woven into a network of trade and diplomacy that was far more complex and extensive than I ever imagined.

I found the historical parts of the book very rewarding too. They helped filled in large blank spots in my knowledge. In school I learned about Marco Polo and his incredible journey to China along the Silk Road, and how he brought back exotic spices and other goods unknown in Europe at the time.

But somebody made those roads. Or rather many people did. Marco Polo traveled along well-established trade routes, joining up with caravans and fellow travelers. In other words, he wasn’t travelling across terra incognita, it was only incognita to Europeans. I learned nothing about this in school, nothing about the territory, the people or the cultures that he encountered along the way.

I did know a little bit about the early history of Islam from reading Lesley Hazleton’s After the Prophet. Even here The Book of Roads and Kingdoms expanded my knowledge.  

For example, I didn’t know that around the time of Muhammad, the two major Eurasian powers vying for dominance were the Eastern Roman Empire based in Constantinople, and the remnants of the Persian Empire based in Ctesiphon, Iran. Fidler writes that in 536 CE, a volcano eruption, possibly in Iceland, led to atmospheric cooling, crop failures and famine. Then plague in 558, 573 and 599 rampaged through both empires, but was less virulent in the hotter Arabian climate. Just as Muhammad was uniting the Arab tribes and expanding outward, the great powers of his day were exhausted and depopulated. The Islamic Empire expanded into a power vacuum.

Still, much of this history is a centuries long tale of violence and mayhem: succession by assassination and murder, incessant wars of invasion and conquest, and the wholesale slaughter of combatants and civilians alike. European history is no less bloody, but this made for depressing reading nonetheless. It makes me truly thankful to be alive at a time and in a place where the peaceful transfer of power is the norm, even if that norm is on somewhat shaky ground these days.  

Unsolicited Feedback

The Book of Roads and Kingdoms may not appeal to everyone. It’s about a specific period that’s not very familiar to many English language readers.

That said, I found the book to be well-paced – I never got bored. Fidler includes a detailed timeline at the beginning of the book that I kept referring back to, and each major section of the book starts with a list of characters. Plus there are lots of maps. 

All in all, I’m pretty happy with my impulse buy.

Thanks for reading.

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5 Responses to The Book of Roads and Kingdoms

  1. Very interesting. Nicely written up

    Liked by 1 person

  2. For those of us at a certain age in Australia, Richard Fidler is a very well-known name. When we were young adults, we loved the edgy musical comedy trio he was a part of – The Doug Anthony Allstars. As we’ve all matured, he moved away from comedy and into serious radio programming, creating an interview/conversation program on our public broadcaster, ABC that is much admired.
    In the past decade or so, he has started writing books with an historical aspect. He now lives in my suburb and is a semi-regular visitor to the small independent bookshop I manage.
    Sadly I have yet to read any of his books. I love history books and most of the topics he has covered, I simply haven’t prioritised them, favouring Russian history instead. Maybe he needs to write one next on Russia/Ukraine!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is a time and place I don’t know much about either and I always enjoy filling in those knowledge gaps! It sounds like the author shared a lot of contemporaneous accounts, which is cool, but I would also be interested in knowing how well verified the stories were 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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