this is a fine book that helps recentre our understanding of the past by focusing on cities about which little is known in Europe, in spite of their enduring importance and the role they have played in history. It is a compelling and personal account by an author who knows, cares and has thought deeply about his subject matter. It is a new Hudud al-Alam, the famous 10th-century Persian geography book, for the 21st century — informing, revealing and delighting in some of the parts of the world that everyone should know about.
It is refreshing to read a book on Islam by someone who combines profound erudition with emotional intelligence and empathy. Marozzi is a historian, traveller, journalist and Arabic speaker who spent most of his professional life in the Muslim world. Yet he wears his learning lightly. His writing style is lively, limpid and graceful and it enables him to turn a vast amount of material into a continuously readable narrative. He uses the full panoply of sources — archives, histories, biographies, travelogues, letters, maps, pictures and photographs — to illuminating effect. Written records are interspersed with interviews with the living and personal impressions of people and places... Amid all the turmoil in the heart of the Islamic world, [Marozzi] urges his readers not to forget the great achievements of its history and the possibility of a brighter future.
In this highly readable book, he takes his readers on a whistle-stop tour of fifteen cities he regards as defining Islamic civilisation, contrasting the nodal points in their historical formation with their current conditions. His aim is to show how ‘a thousand years ago Islamic civilization bestrode the world’ with cities stretching from Kabul to Cordoba. These cities offered ‘an exhilarating combination of military might, artistic grandeur, commercial power and spiritual sanctity’, and were also ‘power-houses of forward-looking thinking in science, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, cartography calligraphy, history, geography, law, music, theology, jurisprudence and philosophy, each metropolis a superbly humming engine room of innovation and discovery’. This is a hugely ambitious project, and its execution is sometimes patchy, with passages on some cities reading more like entries from a Lonely Planet guidebook than the result of research and personal experience, a combination that served him so well in his masterly Baghdad (2014). The weakest chapter is the one on Mecca, which, as a non-Muslim, he evidently has not visited. The chapter on Baghdad also disappoints, not least because he has set the bar so high in his previous book about the city.
This impressively clever, careful, and often beautiful book is the best sort of journey. It takes us through 15 cities that represent Islamic civilisation, but also through 15 centuries of Islamic history. Our voyage takes us through the core of the Middle East, but also to Fez in what is now Morocco and to Samarkand, in what is now Uzbekistan...
Tolerance was ‘less something to boast about than a generally accepted fact of life’, Marozzi says. The strength of their cities derived from and engendered these diverse populations. Now much of the region has become introverted, intolerant and stagnant — with catastrophic consequences, Marozzi writes.
The lesson appears an obvious one, and as important now, for those living in western capitals as much as for the inhabitants of the cities described in this excellent book, as it ever was before.
I lost count of the number of beheadings and executions in this book, all told with a grisly relish. Muslim chroniclers are Marozzi’s sources, of course, but like all chroniclers they exaggerate for political reasons or simply to impress the reader; it is unlikely, for example, that the eighth-century Abbasid general Abu Muslim “killed 60,000 people in cold blood”. Then there are the enervating lists of expensive stuff: after his death Harun al-Rashid, the caliph best known from the Arabian Nights, apparently left “4,000 turbans” and “1,000 pieces of the finest porcelain”; a later caliph had “7,000 eunuchs” and “4,000 black pages”. Marozzi has a wide-eyed credulity about such numbers to match that of those literalistic Muslims wedded to every detail of the prophet’s life story.
Travelling with these traders were adventurers and social commentators such as Ibn Khaldun and Ibn Battuta, who provide Marozzi with much of his source material. He adopts their hyperbolic style too; expect long lists of exotic cargoes and the palaces and mosques they filled, from Cordoba to Cairo, Jerusalem to Isfahan. As modern-day visitors to Dubai have sometimes found, too much opulence can sometimes be wearing.
Justin Marozzi has not only picked the perfect frame — the city, often literally framed by its wall, pierced by the proscenium arches of its gates — he has given us 15 cities, one for each century. He has peopled them with characters from potentates to prostitutes and he has painted them in colours from splendid to sombre... What might have been formulaic is fun, and full of surprises... Apart from the travels and memories, the reading that went into this book is enormous. Very occasionally, the result might go a madrassa too far. But nearly always, the balance between telling detail and telling the story is spot on. The prose, too, is beautifully paced, sprightly but never tiring. And the city portraits build up into a panorama of Islamic civilisation as full as any history, and far more entertaining.