Fancy a trip along the Silk Road?

A lost imperial city, full of wonder and marvels. An empire that was the largest the world had ever seen, established with astonishing speed. A people obsessed with travel, knowledge and adventure. For ancient history buffs and those with pent up wanderlust, take a trip down the Silk Road with Byron Writers Festival Member Judy Ebner, in this review of Richard Fidler’s The Book of Roads and Kingdoms.

Ten years ago my husband and I travelled along this route from East to West by train, from Xian in northern China further north to the Mogao caves near Dun Huang and then via Urumchi into Kazakhstan. We changed to a Russian train and skirted the Taklamakan desert to visit wondrous cities like Samarkand and Bukhara which had survived the onslaught of Genghis Khan. We climbed the ruins of once impressive cities like Merv which Genghis Khan’s son, Hulagu Khan, had reduced to a heap of rubble.

Sadly the Chinese authorities have since closed this route to tourists, wanting to keep their ‘belt and road’ traffic for more important business.

But you can now imagine yourself there by reading Fidler’s terrific new book, The Book of Roads and Kingdoms, which follows the mediaeval wanderers who travelled to the edges of the known world during Islam’s fabled Golden Age. His book travels in time from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, then the birth of Muhammad in c. 570 CE, 20 years after the Plague of 541-549 CE to the destruction of much of Islamic cities including Merv and Baghdad.

Some of these journeys are feats of endurance, like the journey of Ibn Fadlan in the 10th Century, from Baghdad to the freezing riverlands of the Bulgars in modern Russia. Fidler collects a number of astounding accounts from a plethora of varied sources.

Fidler dedicates his book to his father and his ‘wall of history books in his living room’. He has learnt well from his historian father how to make his book easy to follow and to comprehend. So it begins with a chronology.

Then the book is divided into six sections, four of which are the compass points, in order: West, East, South, and North. Beautiful, clearly drawn and labelled maps begin each section. I would recommend using a book mark for the map accompanying the section you are reading so you can have quick reference for cities, towns, mountain ranges and rivers, the names of which can be hard to place geographically, given an often Eurocentric view of the world.

Discover unfamiliar names such as Sallam the interpreter and Xuanzang, Mutawakkil and Biruni, alongside familiar names like Sinbad the Sailor and Ali Baba and the 40 thieves and Al-ad-Din , the son of Baha-ad-Din, the Persian advisor to the Mongol viceroy of Persia. Then rediscover notorious names including Aurel Stein who ‘gleaned’ the first printed book from the Mogao ( Thousand Buddha) caves near Dunhuang, which is now in the British Museum along with other ‘stuff the British stole’.

The name Abd al Rahman rings a bell. This was the name of the first Prime Minister of Malaysia post Merdeka or freedom from British rule. But I learned it was also the name of the Emir of the Emirate of Cordoba in Muslim Spain. Was Tungku Abdul Rahman’s name destiny or the fulfilment of a prophecy?

Two thickset stonemasons are building a wall next door to my house. I watch them discretely, wondering if they are descended from the bricklayers who built the Round City of Baghdad in the time of the Caliph Mansur in the 8th century CE. It had two huge defensive outer walls and beyond, a deep moat and was once thought invulnerable. The stonemasons stop their work briefly to do their midday prayer, standing in the back yard beneath a huge gum tree and facing Mecca. A moment of peace and solemnity. A nomad’s religion handed down through the centuries.

Fidler’s book concludes, not with the end of the 500 year long reign of the Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad, but with a last wonderful tale from the Scheherazade – The Travels of Tufah the Slave Singer who draws a veil over the whole epic.

My mother died a year before my journey along the Silk Road. She had been a great traveller, the daughter of a sea captain and had bought silk scarves (‘light and easy to pack’) wherever she went. So I decided to take these beautiful scarves with me and give them to the women I met along the Silk Road – Uighur women near Urumchi, Uzbeks near Tashkent, Khazaks in Almaty and schoolgirls in Samarkand. I think Mum would have been pleased with my giving the scarves away.

I think readers will be more than pleased with Richard Fidler’s literary gift. The Book of Roads and Kingdoms is a treasure for the imagination and for the sense of adventure many of us delight in experiencing.

Enjoy the journey! Insh’allah! God willing.

Richard Fidler will feature live in conversation at Byron Writers Festival 2023. For details and tickets, head to

Byron Writers Festival