Islamic Empires: Fifteen Cities that Define a Civilization, by Justin Marozzi (Allen Lane, 512 pp., $26.89)
Preoccupation with our own demise is a perennial feature of human history. From Herodotus through Josephus to Ibn Khaldun, all were captivated with the ways in which states that “were once great have now become small,” as Herodotus put it, or how cities as glorious as Jerusalem under the Temple could be reduced by foreign occupation or disease. Why decline is inevitable has been a matter of debate. That it is inevitable has been demonstrated beyond doubt.
In the face of such prospects, there is something strangely reassuring in reading millennia-spanning histories of the world. When horrific wars, plagues, or revolutions destroy civilization in one corner of the globe, we can find another one rising up in another corner, thanks to mankind’s ingenuity, faith, and irrepressible ambition—as if in a kind of civilizational Whac-A-Mole.
Justin Marozzi’s Islamic Empires: Fifteen Cities that Define a Civilization tracks a long stretch of history, when the most spectacular of these ascents took place in the Islamic world. Marozzi, the son of Beirut-born parents, has spent most of his professional life in and out of the Middle East: as a student, journalist, and more recently as a PR consultant for governments in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia. His experiences have led him to an insight obscured for those of us conditioned by current events to see Middle Eastern cities primarily as urban dystopias: that, while the “mystique of the desert” has tended to captivate Western observers, the real Arab romance, and Islamic civilization’s greatest achievements, has been with its cities.
The case can be made with some basic statistics. For much of human history, population has served as the most obvious indicator of urban success. By this measure, Muslim cities drastically surpassed their Western counterparts for most of the Middle Ages. Ninth-century Baghdad was 20 times larger than contemporary Rome, and Cairo some ten times larger. Even relatively provincial Arab capitals, such as tenth-century Cordoba in Andalusia, dwarfed Constantinople, which had long been Christendom’s largest city. In fact, Cordoba’s palace complex alone employed as many staff as there were inhabitants in all of London. The monthly incomes of eleventh-century Cairo’s “multinational” trading houses exceeded the annual revenues of many northern European kingdoms. European cities were “muddy, provincial backwaters” at a time when would-be migrants of the medieval world risked life-and-limb to live in Muslim-ruled metropolises.
Islamic cities also presented some of the world’s most spectacular building projects. Baghdad and Cairo were both created from scratch on the edge of the desert, designed to serve as new capitals for continent-spanning caliphates. Baghdad’s monumental Round City, completed in 766 by the Caliph al-Mansur, was the largest man-made structure in the world. When Islamic armies conquered older cities of the Christian Near East such as Damascus or Jerusalem, they endowed them with prestige mosques and palace projects designed to express in architectural form the primacy of the new faith. This is why the Dome of the Rock dominates the skyline of Jerusalem, towering over its much older neighbor, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Marozzi also suggests that Islamic cities allowed far more space for the pursuit of pleasure than their Western counterparts. He provides an excess of examples, from eighth-century caliphs in Damascus who habitually bathed in red wine to the popular literary celebration of free and often same-sex love in Caliphal circles in ninth-century Baghdad, to a binge-drinking royal court culture in seventeenth-century Isfahan in modern-day Iran that one would more readily associate with the Vikings. Fundamentalist clerics and puritanical doctrine were always around. Ninth-century Baghdad was also the home of Ahmad ibn Hanbal, progenitor of modern-day Salafism and Saudi Wahhabism, but everyone in Marozzi’s account seems admirably blasé about the more obnoxious strains of the faith. Indeed, if religious austerity and fanaticism were what you were after, he says, you would have been equally as likely to find it in the societies of the Christian West.
Islamic Empires combines 1,400 years of history with a modern day-travelogue, pairing each century with a particular city, almost all of which Marozzi has spent time in (with the exception of Mecca—because non-Muslims are forbidden from entering it). If the book has an overriding argument, it is that great cities can be built and administered only by civilizations that have mastered ideas of good governance, which necessarily includes commitments to tolerance, cultural and economic openness, and cosmopolitanism. This formula was as much about economic necessity as about ideological preference. For a large stretch of Marozzi’s story, Muslim rulers headed large multiethnic empires which stood at the center of global networks of trade. Too much sectarian strife would have destroyed their prosperity. Thus caliphs, sultans, and emirs from North Africa to Central Asia can be found undertaking what, even today, seem like remarkable acts of broad-mindedness, such as subsidizing the construction of churches or synagogues in their capitals or making high-skilled minority communities feel at home.
Still, the caliphs of Baghdad’s ninth-century “golden age” remain in a league of their own. Marozzi’s portraits of the Abbasid rulers include an amateur scholar of Hebrew and Jewish law and another so dedicated to the recovery of Greek and Roman learning that he personally oversaw experiments designed to test Classical scientific theories. These figures present a sorry contrast with the fate of Baghdad and its aspiring caliphs in the present day. In a typically ludicrous piece, the Washington Post eulogized Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State leader killed in 2019, as an “austere religious scholar,” as if this was his signal contribution to humanity. Yet for most people the real significance of this self-proclaimed twenty-first-century caliph was as a grim personification of the kind of cultural suicide that has engulfed large, historic parts of the modern Middle East.
Islamic Empires is intended as a celebration of the sophistication of centuries of Islamic civilization, but its present-day lens cannot help but highlight present-day decline. In Kabul in 2018, Marozzi plies an elderly Afghan with questions over the city’s sixteenth-century ruler, prompting the man to reply gently and perhaps reproachingly: “People can’t think about Babur right now. . . . Everyone is just struggling to survive.” A Tunisian friend of the author surveys a bleaker scene. “Everywhere you look,” he says, “there’s chaos, fighting, bloodshed, dictatorship, corruption, injustice, unemployment. The only thing we’re leading the world in is terrorism.”
What strikes Marozzi is not just that once-great cities have declined, but that so many of them today actively repudiate the same qualities he holds responsible for their past greatness. Self-confident engagement with the world has been replaced with suspicion and populist hostility. As cities from Cairo to Kabul have grown less diverse, they have also become less tolerant of diversity and more stubbornly self-referential. You are as likely to encounter a Middle Eastern state with a government ministry tasked with the “Islamicization of knowledge”—that is, making sure that everything from modern agricultural techniques to the natural sciences is aligned with the revelations of the Koran—as you are ones with cutting-edge research departments. You can travel all over the region without finding an unexpunged edition of the great Persian poets Rumi and Hafez; yet a few years ago, one could find Henry Ford’s The International Jew in an airport bookstore in one of its major international hubs.
Why has this happened? One can find part of the answer in Marozzi’s portrayal of the renowned “tolerance” said to characterize Islamic civilizations. The phrase is an ostinato in Islamic Empires. Tolerance is the “lifeblood,” the “beating heart,” or the “foundation” of great Islamic cities, but Marozzi’s picture of this historic Islamic tolerance looks quite different from the ideal described in the speeches of President Barack Obama. For one thing, it has nothing to do with equality. On the contrary, tolerance often seems possible only in conditions of institutionalized inequality. Churches and synagogues were tolerated, Marozzi says, under the shadow of gargantuan mosques. Cosmopolitan minority communities were free to flourish in the great centers of Islamic civilization, but as protected “second-class citizens” in a legal framework that guaranteed the primacy of Muslims.
The heights of Islamic civilization were the product of an era when—in his words—“the Muslim world bowed to no other faith . . . nor any other region of earth;” when “mighty Muslim empires lorded it over enfeebled Western infidels;” and when Islamic societies were characterized by forms of religious and cultural superiority that viewed Europeans as “animals” and “uncivilized barbarians.” When the book advances into the modern age—and the predominance of Western societies becomes increasingly difficult to deny—Marozzi’s cities become notably less self-confident, less happily cosmopolitan, and less tolerant. In seventeenth-century Isfahan, we first hear the traces of that all-pervasive anti-Westernism that has flourished in our own time; in nineteenth-century Beirut, we get our first glimpses of modern inter-communal violence. The book’s title is significant: Islamic Empires. It’s an apt reminder that, for Arabs, Persians, and Turks—no less than for Europeans—the story of the modern world is also a story about the loss of empire and vanished supremacies.
Islamic Empires concludes with the modern city-states of Dubai for the twentieth century and the Qatari capital of Doha for the twenty-first. These cities keep alive the elements that Marozzi admires in the “golden age” of Islamic civilizations: prestige mosques, museums, universities, ambitious literary translation projects, gargantuan construction projects, and the authoritarian yet basically “enlightened” system of their traditionalist monarchies. Marozzi quotes the current ruler of Dubai—an accomplished poet and world-renowned breeder of thoroughbred stallions—who invokes the ideal of Arab Cordoba as the model for the almost 30-year transformation he has overseen.
The case for both these cities might again be made with reference to some basic statistics—namely, their levels of immigration. Statistically speaking, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates must stand as the most open nations in the world in their embrace of migration, such that “nationals” in each country make up less than 15 percent of their total populations. The metropolitan area of Dubai is probably the most diverse enclave on earth, where in the regular course of a day it is possible to meet someone from almost every country represented in the United Nations.
How have they managed this, when such numbers in reverse have pushed some European countries toward populist revolt? Here, too, the answer echoes those provided by Islamic rulers of the past. Both countries’ leaders have demonstrated extraordinary openness to the world combined with scrupulous attention to the need of their own citizens not to feel marginalized or “forgotten.” They have given their nationals reason to cherish their own citizenship, habits, and traditions, even as they have asked them to embrace the arrival of millions of new residents from abroad. They have adopted an existentially global posture, without forgetting that national belonging remains a basic human need no less natural than food or drink. Their cities are often parodied as soulless, Middle Eastern “Las Vegases,” but their societies remain about as far from nihilism as it is possible to imagine.
This kind of tolerance—in line with the historic Islamic reality, not the imaginary ideal—may still perhaps have something to teach the struggling societies of the twenty-first century Western world.