The best books on the Silk Road

2 authors have picked their favorite books about the Silk Road and why they recommend each book.

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A New Diwan

By Andrew Staniland,

Book cover of A New Diwan

Alisher Navoiy is regarded as the father of the Uzbek language: he was the first person to use Chagatai (the forerunner of modern Uzbek) as a literary language, and he’s Uzbekistan’s national poet. English romantic poet Andrew Staniland, who has translated many of Navoiy’s poems, wrote A New Diwan after his first visit to Uzbekistan. It’s a collection of 84 short poems written in long couplets, inspired by Navoi’s original writing and by the wonders of the Silk Road cities.


Who am I?

When I first visited Central Asia in 2008, little did I know that it would become the focus of my life and work. I now advise the World Bank and national governments on economic development, with a particular focus on tourism, and I’m the Chairman of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs. I am Uzbekistan’s Ambassador for Tourism, a co-founder of the Silk Road Literary Festival, and I’ve written and updated guidebooks to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and the Silk Road.


I wrote...

Uzbekistan

By Sophie Ibbotson,

Book cover of Uzbekistan

What is my book about?

Bradt Travel Guides’ Uzbekistan is the best-selling English-language guidebook to Uzbekistan: The Heart of the Silk Road. Now in its 3rd edition, this guide covers not only the country’s rich history and cultural heritage, but also all you need to know about the fast-developing tourism sector. 

The Gates of Heaven

By Curt Benjamin,

Book cover of The Gates of Heaven

The Gates of Heaven is book three of Seven Brothers, a four-book series, in which the presence and role of the gods become more and more apparent as the overarching story unfolds. Llesho’s story starts off as what you might expect of a young prince in exile, sold into slavery as a pearl-diver, who escapes and sets out to find his scattered brothers. It doesn’t end up where you think, and this book is the point in the series where the story of gods and goddesses and dragons involved in human affairs really takes over as the main plotline, though the threads of it have been there from start. Mountains, grasslands, ancient cities, and their trade routes—this is an excellent silk road fantasy as well.


Who am I?

I’m a Canadian writer with a degree in Mediaeval Studies. Even as a child, I wrote stories about characters who weren’t entirely human; they were also always people lurking on the edges of things—families, cultures, places, ways of being, even people existing only on the edges of becoming themselves. Those have always been where I found my stories and as an adult I haven’t lost this fascination and the need to tell such tales. Gods, assassins, devils, demons, shapeshifters, immortal wanderers, and ordinary people caught up in their history, vast, deep worlds, and complex charactersthat’s what I do. 


I wrote...

Blackdog

By K.V. Johansen,

Book cover of Blackdog

What is my book about?

In a land where gods walk on the hills and goddesses rise from river, lake, and spring, the caravan-guard Holla-Sayan, escaping the bloody conquest of a lakeside town, stops to help an abandoned child and a dying dog. The girl, though, is the incarnation of Attalissa, goddess of Lissavakail, and the dog a shape-changing guardian spirit whose origins have been forgotten. Possessed and nearly driven mad by the Blackdog, Holla-Sayan flees to the desert road, taking the powerless avatar with him.

Necromancy, treachery, massacres, rebellions, and gods dead, lost, or mad follow hard on their heels. But it is Attalissa herself who may be the Blackdog's—and Holla-Sayan's—doom. Blackdog begins the epic five-book silk road fantasy series Gods of the Caravan Road.

Lands of Lost Borders

By Kate Harris,

Book cover of Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road

I’m more of a spin class person than a “cycle thousands of miles through Central Asia” person, but I loved reading about Kate Harris’s months tracing the Silk Road by bicycle in 2011. She doesn’t sugarcoat the hardships of such an undertaking (rain, snow, mountains, traffic, logistics, bureaucracy, scary humans, forbidden Chinese border crossings, friction with the friend who’s riding with her), which makes her human as well as brave, tough, funny, and brilliant. Books like this make huge travel projects seem possible, and even if I’ll never do anything on this scale, I love imagining such epic experiences.


Who am I?

In my third novel, Great Circle, a fictional aviator named Marian Graves disappears while trying to fly around the world north-south in 1950. While researching and writing, I became a travel journalist, partly so I could follow my character into far-flung, rugged corners of the world. Traveling, I encountered people who lead truly adventurous lives, and I started to seek out riskier experiences myself. I swam with humpback whales, tracked snow leopards in the Himalayas, and journeyed across huge seas to Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf. I still don’t consider myself a full-fledged adventurer, but I love reading about women contending with the challenges of wild places and their own internal landscapes.


I wrote...

Great Circle

By Maggie Shipstead,

Book cover of Great Circle

What is my book about?

After being rescued as infants from a sinking ocean liner in 1914, Marian and Jamie Graves are raised by their dissolute uncle in Missoula, Montana. After encountering a pair of barnstorming pilots passing through town Marian commences her lifelong love affair with flight. At fourteen she drops out of school and finds a wealthy bootlegger who provides a plane and subsidizes her lessons, an arrangement that will haunt her for the rest of her life, even as it allows her to fulfill her destiny.

A century later, Hadley Baxter is cast to play Marian in a film that centers on Marian's disappearance in Antarctica. Her immersion into the character of Marian unfolds, thrillingly, alongside Marian's own story, as the two women's fates – and their hunger for self-determination in vastly different geographies and times – collide. 

Drives of a Lifetime

By National Geographic,

Book cover of Drives of a Lifetime: 500 of the World's Greatest Road Trips

This guidebook broadens travelers’ perspective beyond the United States, unearthing a whole new world in a wide variety of countries. Written by National Geographic travel writers, they cover everything from the ancient Silk Road in Central Asia to the perimeter of Puerto Rico. There are plenty of scenic photos, colorful maps, and tips to help navigate the roads of foreign lands.


Who am I?

Like many road warriors, Kevin Shay experienced his first taste of highway travels through his family, piling into a station wagon at a young age to journey several thousand miles in a week or so. He learned how to entertain himself for long hours without an iPod or cellphone. As a journalist, he wrote travel articles for a variety of publications, as well as a travel guidebook on North Texas. He has traveled through 48 states and more than 30 countries, logging more than 200,000 miles in a variety of vehicles and his own feet. He also produced a 19-minute documentary, Searching for Something in the Middle of Nowhere, based on the Mad, Mad Trip book.


I wrote...

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Trip: On the Road of the Longest Two-Week Family Road Trip in History

By Kevin James Shay,

Book cover of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Trip: On the Road of the Longest Two-Week Family Road Trip in History

What is my book about?

In the summer of 2013, journalist Kevin James Shay was ready for a different kind of two-week family vacation. His kids had reached the ages where they sought their independence. They had been to Disney and the likes. A single dad, Shay wanted to take his kids on a trip they would really remember. So they left the Washington, D.C., area in Shay’s trusty 2001 Honda CRV that had about 165,000 miles, with the rough idea of somehow reaching the Pacific Ocean. Covering 6,950 miles in 17 days, they set a record for the longest family road trip in a roughly two-week span, certified by RecordSetter, the Wikipedia generation's version of Guinness World Records.

The book attempts to humorously recall that odyssey, while offering historical references, tips, resources, and other information to help others plan their own Great American Adventure. 

The Silk Road

By Valerie Hansen,

Book cover of The Silk Road: A New History

The Silk Road is a nineteenth-century invention, but the movements of people, things, and ideas in and through the immense and often terrifying space between modern Iran and China generated change in every sphere and engaged an astonishing variety of people. Valerie Hansen’s exploration of seven places along the imagined route and what has been found in them offers a lucid and lively introduction to a wider medieval world and how we know about it. 


Who am I?

I am a historian primarily of western Europe in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. My leading interest has shifted over many years from the people who were persecuted as heretics at that time to their persecutors, as it dawned on me that whereas scepticism about the teachings of the Roman (or any) church was easily understandable, the persecution of mostly rather humble people who presented no real threat to that Church or to wider society was not, and needed to be explained.


I wrote...

The War on Heresy

By R.I. Moore,

Book cover of The War on Heresy

What is my book about?

I wrote this book to understand why west Europeans acquired the habit of putting one another to death by burning in large numbers, which they continued to do until the eighteenth century. Such events were always surrounded by speculation and rumour-mongering, at the time and often for centuries afterward. It was necessary, therefore, to examine the sources with great care and strip away the accumulated crust of handed-down sensationalism and uncritically accepted conspiracy theories.

Much of this embedded error was a legacy of the sentimental medievalism of the nineteenth-century Gothic Revival, which evoked a never-never land of wandering knights, love-lorn ladies, and pious peasants, and in doing so reaffirmed that those centuries were not to be blamed for the grimy realities of the modern world.

The Silk Roads

By Peter Frankopan,

Book cover of The Silk Roads: A New History of the World

An enjoyable read from start to finish, Frankopan vividly describes the successive civilizations that arose in the Middle East, and which influenced the course of world history. As the chapters trace the rise of new technologies, sophisticated philosophies, and cultural refinements, it becomes apparent that he is subtly decentring our traditional view of world history. Europe, we realise, came late to the game, far behind the Assyrians, Byzantines, Sasanians, Abbasids, Mughals, and Persians, who could legitimately have regarded their societies as the centre of world civilization. And their successors, Frankopan argues, still play pivotal roles in global politics.


Who am I?

I'm an anthropologist on a mission to discover how people have used, and abused, law over the past 4,000 years. After a decade in a wig and gown at the London Bar, I headed back to university to pursue a long-standing interest in Tibetan culture. I spent two years living with remote villagers and nomads, freezing over dung fires, herding yaks, and learning about traditional legal practices. Now, based at the University of Oxford, I’ve turned to legal history, comparing ancient Tibetan texts with examples from all over the world. The Rule of Laws brings a long sweep of legal history and its fascinating diversity to a wide audience.


I wrote...

The Rule of Laws: A 4,000-Year Quest to Order the World

By Fernanda Pirie,

Book cover of The Rule of Laws: A 4,000-Year Quest to Order the World

What is my book about?

The epic story of the ways in which people have used laws to forge civilizations.

Rulers throughout history have made law. But laws were never simply instruments of power. They also offered diverse people a way to express their visions for a better world. I trace the rise and fall of the sophisticated legal systems that underpinned ancient empires and religious traditions. I describe tribal assemblies, farmers, and merchants who turned to law to define their communities, and I reveal the legal efforts that people repeatedly make to control their leaders. The rule of law has ancient origins, I conclude, but it Is not inevitable. Laws can only make the world better if we understand where they have come from and how they could have been different.

House of Eclipses

By Casey L. Bond,

Book cover of House of Eclipses

The main character in House of Eclipses is the third daughter of the “king," appointed by their God, Sol. Her father abuses her but when he sees a way to increase his power, sends her to enemy lands to secure that power for him. She looks at this task as an opportunity to get the upper hand on her father, but things quickly get out of hand. She discovers she may not be able to follow her father’s orders. Does she follow her heart or do her father’s bidding and potentially escape his wrath? I love that this book has the element of a character choosing her own path in life. The second book in this series takes a while to dig into but House of Eclipses will not disappoint.


Who am I?

Since reading The Lion, the Witch, and Wardrobe, Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, and The Crystal Cave as a kid and teen, I’ve been hooked on all things magical. I love the fantasy genre and characters who are driven to use their powers to protect their tribes. I am constantly reading books about witches, vampires, the fae, sirens, shifters, and any other supernatural character with a good storyline surrounding them. L.J. Smith, Cassandra Clare, P.C. and Kristin Cast, Stephenie Meyer, and so many other YA fantasy writers are absolutely my heroes. Fantasy books not only entertain but have helped me process life and our world in a safe environment. 


I wrote...

Kingdom of Embers

By Tricia Copeland,

Book cover of Kingdom of Embers

What is my book about?

Her pale skin and weird diet make her a target at school. If only they, and she, knew the truth. Seventeen-year-old Alena Scott is tired of pretending to be something she’s not. As an outlawed vampire-witch hybrid, she’s forced to abide by the oppressive secrecy imposed by her Vampire Chancellor mother. When she comes face-to-face with a handsome, full-grown version of her childhood imaginary friend, rules cease to matter.

Shocked that he recognizes her, the two embark on a quest to solve the mystery of their friendship. As they unravel their destinies, Alena realizes she holds the key to a curse that could free them all—or condemn witchkind to eternal suffering. Can they reverse an ancient spell before they’re sent to a mortal grave?

Red Sands

By Caroline Eden,

Book cover of Red Sands: Reportage and Recipes Through Central Asia, from Hinterland to Heartland

Food is without doubt one of the most insightful windows into any culture. The food we eat is a mirror of who we are and where we come from, a strong trigger for memory, and cooking together or sharing a meal creates an unusually strong bond between people who were previously strangers. In Red Sands, Caroline Eden combines reportage, photography, and recipes to build a rich picture of Central Asia, introducing people and places foreigners would never normally encounter. Her stories are diverse, evocative, and thought-provoking, but they have one thing in common: they make you hungry for adventure and to taste the many ingredients and dishes she describes.


Who am I?

When I first visited Central Asia in 2008, little did I know that it would become the focus of my life and work. I now advise the World Bank and national governments on economic development, with a particular focus on tourism, and I’m the Chairman of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs. I am Uzbekistan’s Ambassador for Tourism, a co-founder of the Silk Road Literary Festival, and I’ve written and updated guidebooks to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and the Silk Road.


I wrote...

Uzbekistan

By Sophie Ibbotson,

Book cover of Uzbekistan

What is my book about?

Bradt Travel Guides’ Uzbekistan is the best-selling English-language guidebook to Uzbekistan: The Heart of the Silk Road. Now in its 3rd edition, this guide covers not only the country’s rich history and cultural heritage, but also all you need to know about the fast-developing tourism sector. 

The Devils' Dance

By Hamid Ismailov,

Book cover of The Devils' Dance

Tragically little Central Asian literature has been translated into English: Hamid Ismailov’s books are notable exceptions. The Devils’ Dance won the 2019 EBRD Literature Prize, and it was the first time an Uzbek writer was awarded a major international prize. It is the desire to see more writers like Hamid be able to bring their books to global audiences that prompted me to co-found the Silk Road Literary Festival.  


Who am I?

When I first visited Central Asia in 2008, little did I know that it would become the focus of my life and work. I now advise the World Bank and national governments on economic development, with a particular focus on tourism, and I’m the Chairman of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs. I am Uzbekistan’s Ambassador for Tourism, a co-founder of the Silk Road Literary Festival, and I’ve written and updated guidebooks to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and the Silk Road.


I wrote...

Uzbekistan

By Sophie Ibbotson,

Book cover of Uzbekistan

What is my book about?

Bradt Travel Guides’ Uzbekistan is the best-selling English-language guidebook to Uzbekistan: The Heart of the Silk Road. Now in its 3rd edition, this guide covers not only the country’s rich history and cultural heritage, but also all you need to know about the fast-developing tourism sector. 

A Carpet Ride to Khiva

By Christopher Aslan Alexander,

Book cover of A Carpet Ride to Khiva: Seven Years on the Silk Road

As I perched on the ramparts of the citadel in Khiva one sunny morning in autumn of 2001, the scene in the bazaar below of sellers hawking everything from recalcitrant sheep to giant melons and elaborately-carved furniture summoned up the exotic past of a town once traversed by caravans of merchants plying their trade between China and Europe. But what is compelling about this book is its focus not on Khiva’s illustrious history but on the present-day lives of the people the author encountered when he lived among them running a carpet-making workshop. Fascinating both for its forensic exploration of that ancient craft and for the sensitive depictions of the people of Khiva, this book is a true tale of the modern-day Silk Road.


Who am I?

I am a reporter and author with a passion for seeking out stories less told, and there are plenty of those in Central Asia, where I made my home more than two decades ago: first in Uzbekistan and, since 2005, in Kazakhstan. I have found telling overlooked tales from an overlooked region that is overshadowed by its mighty neighbours – the Russian bear to the north and the Chinese dragon to the east – to be both rewarding and valuable. I hope these book selections will bring more stories about the people who populate Central Asia to the attention of readers with inquisitive minds.


I wrote...

Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan

By Joanna Lillis,

Book cover of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan

What is my book about?

Featuring tales of murder and abduction, intrigue and betrayal, extortion and corruption, Dark Shadows is a compelling portrait of Kazakhstan exploring how a vainglorious president transformed himself into a potentate and his country into a swaggering oil-rich monocracy – and examining the tortuous fallout from his departure from power. A colourful cast of characters brings the politics to life: from strutting oligarch to psychotic presidential son-in-law, from principled politicians to striking oilmen, from crusading journalists to courageous campaigners.

Traversing dust-blown deserts and majestic mountains, glitzy cities and dystopian landscapes, Dark Shadows shows a country grappling with its past, with survivor testimony recounting a dramatic history of revolution and war, famine and flight, terror and trauma that left the Kazakhs battling for their survival as a people.

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