“Islamic Empires: The Cities that Shaped Civilization From Mecca to Dubai” by Justin Marozzi

Umayyad Mosque, Damascus (Wikimedia Commons) Umayyad Mosque, Damascus (Wikimedia Commons)

Justin Marozzi starts his survey of Islamic civilization by noting that the Arab world hasn’t had the best of press lately. “Everywhere you look there’s chaos, fighting, bloodshed, dictatorship, corruption, injustice, unemployment,” a Tunisian friend of his tells him.

Marozzi’s sets out to demonstrate that while


that is indeed much of the perception in the West today, as well as in the Arab world itself, … it is far from being the whole story… A thousand years ago, Islamic civilization bestrode the world.


This point has been so often as to be by now commonplace, but usually it is made piecemeal, by authors (Marozzi among them) who take one place or epoch at a time. In Islamic Empires, however, Marozzi starts by linking “civilization” with “city”:


The word ‘civilization’ springs from the Latin civis, a citizen, which is in turn related to civitas, a city. From these etymological origins, it is only a short step to argue that a city civilizes—it removes men and women from a savage, barbarian life—and that without cities there is no such thing as civilization. It is within cities, rather than among deserts, wildernesses, steppes, mountains and jungles, however beautiful and spirit- soaring, that humankind has realized its greatest potential: excelling in the arts and sciences, exploring the human condition and leaving an indelible literary legacy.


Islamic Empires The Cities that Shaped Civilization From Mecca to Dubai, Justin Marozzi (Pegasus, February 2020; Allen Lane, August 2019)
Islamic Empires: The Cities that Shaped Civilization From Mecca to Dubai, Justin Marozzi (Pegasus, February 2020; Allen Lane, August 2019)

Rather than writing a story of horsemen riding out of the desert, Marozzi has chosen 15 cities, one for each century since Islam’s beginnings. Mecca is followed the Damascus (8th century), Baghdad (9th century), Cordoba (10th century), Jerusalem (11th century), Cairo (12th century), Fez (13th century), Samarkand (14th century), Constantinople (15th century), Kabul (16th century), Isfahan (17th century), Tripoli (18th century), Beirut (19th century), Dubai (20th century) and Doha (21st century). Assigning a city to a single century is a bit artificial but Marozzi treats the century more as a pivot than a strict chronological delimiter. A more serious quibble is that Marozzi has nothing East of the Indus. He associates the Mughals with Kabul rather than Delhi or Agra and one could, as Marozzi acknowledges, make a good case for the inclusion of Jakarta.

Some of these cities and periods—early Islam, the Ottomans, al-Andalus, Tamerlane, the Mughals—have been covered in detail by other (often very good) books. Islamic Empires’s best chapters are those on cities which have attracted less attention by popular historians. Fez recalls a time when large parts of Europe when North Africa projected imperial force into Europe rather than the other way around. Tripoli, in what is today Libya, saw the nascent United States’ first attempt at regime change in the Middle East more than two centuries ago. 19th century Beirut showed the commercial and cultural potential of a fusion of Western Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean, one that foundered on sectarian divisions and the West’s inability to refrain from meddling. Marozzi gives an excellent brief history of Dubai and its transformation into a modern entrepôt that has come to rival Hong Kong and Singapore.


Despite, or perhaps due to, a certain lack of narrative coherence—other than Islam, there can be little to link the chapters—Marozzi shows the breadth and diversity of the Muslim experience: Arab, Berber, Persian, Afghan, Turk. He has roots in the region—he was born in Beirut and traveled to several of these cities in his teens with his father—and writes of these places with personal affection. An accomplished travel-writer, his histories include modern vignettes.

Marozzi also, deliberately or not, finishes the story where it began, in the Arabian peninsula. After passing through North Africa, the Levant, Persian and Afghanistan, he concludes with Dubai and Doha, places which present themselves as being as much part of the modern, globalized world as the Muslim one. Is this the future: a Muslim modernity which takes from Western culture and science what it wants and needs, merging it with its own traditions to create something new? It would not, as this very readable book points out on several occasions, be the first time.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.