By Tunku Varadarajan
Jan. 31, 2020
Justin Marozzi is a British journalist and popular historian who frequented such places as Egypt and Libya as a boy. His father was born in Beirut in 1938 to an Italian father and a Prussian mother who had fled to Lebanon from impending war in Europe. His great-grandmother, he discovered only recently, was a Lebanese Christian Maronite.
So Mr. Marozzi has roots in the Dar al-Islam—the historically Muslim lands. He also has close personal experience. As a teenager in Cairo, he honed his backgammon skills in “dirt-cheap coffeehouses, slamming down the counters deep into the early hours.” In 1980s Tripoli, “a beautiful, melancholy place,” he was taught never to talk to taxi drivers about politics. “Anyone here could be an antenna,” his father had warned, using the Libyan expression for Muammar Gadhafi’s ever-present informers.
A history graduate from the University of Cambridge, Mr. Marozzi is an accomplished and ambitious writer: His previous books include biographies of Herodotus and Tamerlane, the 14th-century Turco-Mongol conqueror whom Mr. Marozzi lauds as “one of history’s greatest self-made men.” He has also written an elegant history of Baghdad. His latest work is “Islamic Empires,” a sweeping, vibrant and often irrepressible account of the cities most emblematic of Islam since that religion was promulgated by the Prophet Muhammed in the early seventh century.
The charm of this book lies in the fact that it is so obviously the adult sublimation of a boyhood passion for the lands and history of Islam. Mr. Marozzi is now 49, but his prose often has the wonderment of a young man who has devoured a shelf of books and is dying to tell everyone about the things he has read. Like an erudite magpie, he gathers material from every available source—primary texts, both religious and historical, as well as a profusion of secondary ones—and weaves it all together with dexterity.
Mr. Marozzi gives us a tale of 15 cities, one for each century in a count that begins with the seventh and ends in the 21st. The first city is Mecca—“the Mother of All Cities”—and his list includes Damascus, Baghdad, Córdoba, Jerusalem, Cairo, Constantinople and Kabul, as well as Samarkand in present-day Uzbekistan and Isfahan in Iran, all capitals of successive Islamic empires. Contrasting these imperial boom-towns at their zenith with the benighted condition of many Muslim cities today, Mr. Marozzi writes that they “represented an exhilarating combination of military might, artistic grandeur, commercial power and spiritual sanctity.”
They were also, he writes—in prose that is typical of his exuberant narrative style—“powerhouses 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.” Rather as many in the Muslim world look upon the West today, Christian Europe—“out-gunned, out-peopled and out-thought” at least until the 15th century—“looked south and east with envy, dread and hostility.”
Although Mr. Marozzi takes care to stress that his choice of 15 cities is a personal one, his exclusion of any city from the Indian subcontinent has to be regarded as contentious. Does Tripoli—for all its history of corsairs and Barbary pirates—really deserve to make the cut above Mughal Delhi or Agra, or even 20th-century Islamabad, the first purpose-built capital of an Islamic state since Baghdad’s Round City was completed in A.D. 766? And do we really need both Dubai and Doha—the Persian Gulf cities that are Mr. Marozzi’s standard-bearers for the 20th and 21st centuries, respectively?
Dubai, a remarkable city-emirate grown rich on the foresight of its rulers and the wits of its inhabitants—both native and immigrant—is much the more complex of the two modern conurbations. In fact, Mr. Marozzi concedes that Dubai is more interesting and, “with its deeply rooted policy of open doors, free trade and tolerance,” more reminiscent of history’s great Arab cities. Doha, by contrast, “has been able to sit back and watch the natural gas revenues pouring in.”
In making this last comparative point, Mr. Marozzi directs us to the most striking feature of most of the cities in his book: their onetime ethnic and religious diversity. “One of the defining features of Abbasid Baghdad,” he writes of the city in its ninth-century heyday, “was its cosmopolitanism. Arabs lived alongside Persians, Indians, Turks, Armenians and Kurds in a capital of Jews, Christians and Muslims.” Tolerance was “less something to boast about than a generally accepted way of life.” Elsewhere he writes that the Samarkand of Tamerlane—a man feared in the West as the scourge and wrath of God (to use the poet Marlowe’s famous phrase)—was “one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, though this owed as much to the forced movement of people and prisoners as it did to the magnetic attraction of the place.”
Even Kabul, which struggles daily to keep the Taliban at bay, was in the 16th century a polyglot place that beguiled a young Babur. When in 1504 he captured the city as a 21-year-old warrior from Fergana (in modern Uzbekistan), he was “fascinated by the human population . . . of which he had made himself master.” He found himself ruling over “many tribes, including Turks, Mughals, Arabs, Persians, and Sarts, who spoke up to twelve languages.”
This cosmopolitanism, to be sure, rested on self-interest. Babur, who would go on to found the mighty Mughal Empire that stretched from Afghanistan to the easternmost reaches of India, “took care to promote the liberalizing forces of commerce, which brought in numerous foreign traders.” A spirit of tolerance was good for business—whether in the India of Babur or in Umayyad Damascus in the eighth century, in the Fez of the Marinid dynasty in the 13th century or in tiny, cash-strapped Dubai in the 20th, which opened its gates to foreign traders on an unprecedented scale when its pearl-fisheries-based economy collapsed after the Great Depression.
Mr. Marozzi is notably pained by the de-cosmopolitanisation—my clunky word, not his—of the Dar al-Islam in modern times. Over time, “the heterogeneous has given way to the homogeneous.” Islamic empires were living palimpsests, their many-layered societies comprising a dizzying array of religions, sects and ethnicities. As recently as 1917, Mr. Marozzi tells us, “the Jews of Baghdad . . . made up almost 40 percent of the city’s population and thrived as businessmen, financiers and merchants.” A century later, the Jewish community, which had lived in Iraq for more than two millennia after Nebuchadnezzar sacked Jerusalem, “had shriveled into single-figure oblivion.”
The reader cannot but grieve to read how a region where knowledge flourished for centuries, debate thrived, poetry and music were composed, and some of the finest architecture on earth was built by rulers who sought to outdo one another in splendor, has become “introverted, intolerant and stagnant, held hostage by strongmen . . . who have failed to lead their people into a freer, safer modern world.” Yet even as he mourns the current dystopia in Tripoli, Damascus and Baghdad, Mr. Marozzi seeks solace in the fact that there are “echoes” of the old “restless, cosmopolitan, risk-taking” spirit in cities such as Dubai. An unabashed romantic, he is too much in love with the Golden Age of Islam to let his present-day anguish mar his attachment to the past.
Mr. Varadarajan is executive editor at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
Original Headline: ‘Islamic Empires’ Review: Revisiting a Glorious Past
Source: The Wall Street Journal