Lead book review

The best of journeys: Justin Marozzi’s monumental trek through the history of the Muslim world

21 September 2019

9:00 AM

21 September 2019

9:00 AM

This impressively clever, careful, and often beautiful book is the best sort of journey. It takes us through 15 cities that represent Islamic civilisation, but also through 15 centuries of Islamic history. Our voyage takes us through the core of the Middle East, but also to Fez in what is now Morocco and to Samarkand, in what is now Uzbekistan.

We are introduced to very attractive characters such as Akbar, the tolerant and cultured warrior-poet who was Mughal emperor in the 16th century, and Harun al-Rashid, who turned Baghdad into a cultural and commercial centre so rich and powerful that its fame resonates more than a millennium later. We also meet less savoury types, who torture, burn and kill in innumerable inventive ways, and less powerful ones, such as writers, architects, traders and pilgrims. Our guide is never predictable, continually fascinating, and his elegant writing makes for a very comfortable ride.

Justin Marozzi is a traveller, journalist, Arabist and scholar whose reading is deep and his touch, though not always light, is always clear. A preceding work, an excellent historical biography of Baghdad, has clearly laid the ground for this more ambitious project.

We start, naturally enough, in Mecca. The city is forbidden to non-Muslims and so the joyous descriptive passages inspired by the author’s visits that often enliven the text elsewhere are sadly absent. Imagination is a fair substitute for experience, however, and Marozzi nicely conjures the rough and ready — and atrociously hot — trading settlement that was home to Mohammed before the prophet’s flight to nearby Yathrib, or Medina. Marozzi’s account of the early years of the Islamic faith is impressively fair-minded, encompassing the traditional version of Mohammed’s life and times, as well as touching on recent revisionist interrogations of that account.

And then we are off, across centuries and a vast region. His selection of destinations is partial, Marozzi readily admits. Jakarta, Lahore and Delhi are absent — though the latter is covered in the Kabul chapter as the seat of the first Mughal emperor, Babur. Marseille and Bradford might have been contemporary contenders as he brings us into the 20th and 21st century, he writes, though eventually he chooses Dubai and Doha. This is a shame, I can’t help but feeling, largely because I dislike both, adore Marseille, and would have hugely enjoyed reading Marozzi describing Yorkshire former mill towns.

This may be unfair to both Dubai and Doha but multiple visits have left me unimpressed by their vacuous globalised commercialism. The stories of their success are undoubtedly compelling — particularly the crazy gamble that was Dubai — but it is unlikely that a new Marozzi in just over 1,200 years will be writing about either.

Constantinople gets a chapter, a useful retelling of the story of its fall to the Ottomans in 1453. This was a closer run thing than western historiography has usually suggested. So does Tripoli, with an entertaining account of the barbary corsairs and their depredations. Marozzi’s affection for Baghdad, which we visit when it was at the apogee of its glory in the 8th and 9th centuries, is as rich and entertaining as the court of the Abbasid dynasty in power at the time. We visit Jerusalem, bloody and battered in the 11th century. The past of both cities is usefully linked to the present.

The big question posed by Marozzi, though never articulated as bluntly, is simple: what went wrong? Here we have cities — Cordoba, for example — that were light years ahead of their western European contemporaries. While Islamic cities in, say, the 11th century encompassed populations in the hundreds of thousands, their Christian counterparts muddled along with tens of thousands living in rather less style and considerably less splendour. If medieval Europe was inching towards urban life, the Muslim world was galloping through it at full tilt, Marozzi points out. The contrast with today, with the Middle East plunged in continuing turmoil, is obvious.

It is striking that so many of the rulers described by Marozzi are outward looking, dynamic, intellectually curious and often exceptionally tolerant for their time. Their capitals reflected this, and were economically successful as a consequence. In Harun al-Rashid’s Baghdad, Arabs lived alongside Persians, Turks, Indians, Armenians, Kurds, in a capital of Jews, Arabs and Muslims. Tolerance was ‘less something to boast about than a generally accepted fact of life’, Marozzi says. The strength of their cities derived from and engendered these diverse populations. Now much of the region has become introverted, intolerant and stagnant — with catastrophic consequences, Marozzi writes.

The lesson appears an obvious one, and as important now, for those living in western capitals as much as for the inhabitants of the cities described in this excellent book, as it ever was before.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments