‘Islamic Empires’ Review: Revisiting a Glorious Past

Dow Jones, a News Corp company



The Mezquita-Catedral of Córdoba, Spain. Photo: Wendy Rauw/getty images

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.

Islamic Empires

By Justin Marozzi
Pegasus, 440 pages, $35

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?


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