Book review of ISLAMIC EMPIRES: Fifteen cities that define a Civilization, by Justin Marozzi
Published under title The Golden Ages, History Today, October 2019,
This is a superbly crafted book. Bite-size chapters plunge you straight into a buzz-point of historical change as we explore a fascinating city evolving in its heyday. This spares the reader from the barrage of names and recurring events that would be necessitated if a comprehensive narrative of 1,400 years had been attempted. Instead fifteen historical moments in fifteen historical cities take the reader effortlessly through 1400 years. It also allows for an astonishing geographical, ethnic and cultural diversity.
The succession of great cities which emerge before our eyes, were all too often assembled, designed, demolished and rebuilt at the command of just one man. The dynasties they founded seldom work effectively beyond three generations, and golden ages grow dim after a hundred years. In most cases, fragments of their days of glory ( the Great Mosque of Cordoba or that of Damascus) survive as an architectural memory peg. Or sometimes in an astonishing miracle, whole medieval quarters remain with their streets intact in cities such as Cairo and Fez. To add variety to these dazzling architectural visions, Marozzi now and then chronicles this process in reverse, and so we witness the destruction of early-medieval Jerusalem at the hands of the Frankish knights, the fall of Byzantine Constantinople under siege by the Ottoman army and the self-destruction of civil war that wrecked 19th-century Beirut and Mughal Kabul.
In the process of these fifteen chapters we meet some of the most fascinating, and some of the most disturbing characters from Muslim history. Muawiya (founder of the Ommayad dynasty), Abdal Rahman III ( self-appointed Caliph in Cordoba), Mehmet II (the multilingual Conqueror of Constantinople), Babur (the refugee prince turned conqueror of Mughal India) and Shah Abbas I (17th-century builder of Isfahan) all have blood on their hands, but also had their creative virtues. Marozzi’s historical portraits are painted with a tangible relish in how self-driven individuals can empower exceptional change. They are also set within an expansive cultural horizon, so as well as analysing the nuts and bolts of the rise to power, we meet scholarly travel writers collecting court gossip, poets on the make and break, garden designs to die for, celebrity cooks, inspired musicians and the occasional powerful woman who makes it into the pages of these male chronicles. We are also given a very honest grounding in where these stories come from and are introduced to the history writers and chroniclers (and the axes they groun) as actors in the grand narrative, rather than mere academic quarries for footnotes.
Marozzi knows the ground intimately. The chapters on Kabul, Tripoli, Baghdad and Cairo are scented with the bitter-sweet memories of thirty years of his experiences, and we get impressions of his different levels of insight. The enchantment of the student-traveller and the researcher-historian are set against the grittier realities of working as an investigative journalist, before becoming a public-relations adviser seconded to embattled regimes in Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. It is these experiences which collectively inform Marozzi’s acute understanding of the abuse and the use of power. They also may have helped him achieve a sense of distance. Vary rarely are we subjected to lectures on morality, and though we look in detail at the crimes of some monstrous autocrats, in the end Marozzi is interested in just one question. Did it work? Did they create a society that functioned and fed itself, both intellectually and fiscally. Beneath this there is an insistent second level of inquiry. Successful cities, by the very nature of mercantile and intellectual exchange must be multicultural and tolerant of diversity. Any ruler or regime that disobeys this golden law dooms the city he rules over to decay and destruction.
Although Marozzi writes about Islamic Empires, this is not a book about Islam, it neither analyses religious belief or explores spirituality or self-governing Islamic communities or the peaceful spread of Islam through language and trade. It is about the effective rulership of the Middle East and Central Asia. In some ways it is almost a modern day “Mirror for Princes” or a Machiavelli for a Muslim Emir. Marozzi is not especially interested in systems of governance, or championing such western totems of value as free speech, budget accountability and electoral democracy.
The episodic nature of this work makes it an especially satisfying book to be read in sections, a self-contained chapter a day. This is certainly how I enjoyed it. But there is a careful pattern to the selection of fifteen cities which effortlessly takes the reader on a journey through 1,400 years of Islamic history. His chapter on the city of Samarkand, informed by an earlier biography of Tamburlane, is so knowledgeable and intimate that one is in danger of briefly warming to this murderous but garden-loving tyrant, worthy of being listed alongside Stalin, Mao and Hitler. His twin chapters on Doha and Dubai are controversial choices with which to end the book and express the realities of contemporary Islam, but they are refreshingly positive and engaged. If I had to choose a single chapter to share it would be the one focused on the rise of Beirut. How this modest port had remained in the hands of the Frankish Crusaders until very late. They were not finally expelled until 1291 (more than a century after Saladin’s victory at Hattin) but yet it was the Muslim liberators of the city, the Mameluke Sultans of Cairo, who chose the local Maronite Christians as their local allies, whom they set against the Shia Muslims in the mountains. In a similar contrarian way to the expected narrative (of a clash of Civilizations) it was the occupation of Beirut by an Egyptian army (1831-1840) that pathed the way for Beirut’s spectacular expansion in the 19th-century. How the new Egyptian-built jetty allowed Beirut to leapfrog over her local rivals (Sidon, Tyre, Acre and Tripoli were then larger and richer cities ) as the big new steamships needed deeper ports. How the city had retained a Muslim majority until the 1860 massacres (in the streets of Damascus and in the villages of Mount Lebanon) packed the streets of Beirut with thousands of Christian refugees. How you might expect that the main square in an Arab capital which commemorates 20th-century National Martyrs, might implicate either France, Israel or Britain, but in this case the oppressor was a Turkish Pasha. How the constitution lists four different forms of Islam and thirteen Christian factions.
For the truth is that no single theory can consistently explain the rise and fall of Islamic Empires, for the answers are buried in thousands of intimate details. Marozzi has constructed a brilliant narrative by stringing together a necklace of tales from fifteen extraordinary Islamic cities, some which endure to this day as precious gemstones of civilization, while others have imploded and exploded in the murderous fireworks of civil strife.
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by Barnaby Rogerson