Empires: past and present

April 26, 2020

In his new book, Justin Marozzi explores the rise and fall of major cities that shaped the cultural and social aspects of various Islamic empires

Islamic empires from the seventh century till their apogee in the 11th-14th century have remained a subject of immense research and countless books over the past few decades. A new book, Islamic Empires: Fifteen Cities that Define a Civilization, written by English journalist and historian Justin Marozzi, takes a different approach. It centres research on the cities that shaped the cultural and social aspect of various Islamic empires and their impact on the world starting from their rise in Mecca in the 7th century to modern-day Dubai and Qatar.

Islamic Empires provides a refreshing insight and comparison of the present with the past and follows a chronological approach from the foundation of Mecca as the bastion of Islam to Damascus, Baghdad, Córdoba, Jerusalem, Cairo, Fez, Samarkand, Constantinople, Kabul, Isfahan, Tripoli, Beirut, Dubai and Doha.

Akin to the present-day depiction of Islam, the author uses a kaleidoscope to exhibit the richness, cosmopolitanism and glitter of a succession of Islamic empires from the Middle East, North Africa, Andalusian Spain, Central Asia and parts of the Indian subcontinent. Under Islamic empires these cities ascended to new heights: Damascus in the eighth century under the Umayyads, followed by Baghdad in the ninth century during the Abbasid era. Baghdad’s present state of a shambles infested with violence contrasts starkly with the highs the city once attained under the Abbasid caliph Al-Mamun.

From the glitter and cosmopolitan culture of Baghdad, the focus shifts to Córdoba, which under the Umayyads became the ornament of the world and developed a thriving culture; an oasis of peace where Jews, Christians and Muslims co-existed. These rival empires and cities vied for superiority and leadership of the Islamic world. At the same time they were hotbeds of artistic grandeur, commercial power, spiritual sanctity and progressive thinking.

Cairo, a city with a rich diversified history since times of antiquity, was ruled by the Fatimid caliphate in the mid-10th century. The rule lasted until the 12th century. It was a glittering city, full of opulence and grandeur, its markets brimming with goods brought from as far as China, India and Europe. As the city thrived during the rule of the Fatimid caliphate, it exhibited the same characteristics of seeing Jews and Christians being promoted to the highest offices, much like Córdoba. Moving to Jerusalem, the author deconstructs the complex relationship of the three Abrahamic faiths and how it evolved throughout Islamic rule and influence in the region. Jerusalem’s religious significance and sanctity for Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the continuous tension that persists till the present day is highlighted thoroughly.

Fez in modern-day Morocco was considered the Athens of Africa in medieval times for being a centre of learning, and housing the architectural and cultural landmark Khizanat al Qarawiyyin, the Qarawiyyin Library founded in 859 by Fatima al Fihri a century before Cairo’s Al Azhar. From Fez the focus moves to Constantinople, the home of the crumbling Byzantine Empire in the 15th century. The Ottoman juggernaut under the leadership of Mehmet II, conquered the bastion of Orthodox Christianity in 1453. This chain of connectivity between these cities and how those who ruled them were able to, with their sheer ambition, take them to such unprecedented heights of splendour, prosperity and harmony between various faiths and peoples, marks the high point of this book.

Irrespective of whether the author talks about Isfahan, Samarkand, Kabul, Tripoli or Beirut, the internecine struggles and at times the ability of the people to coagulate and exhibit harmony remains the central theme of the book. Throughout the book a rinse and repeat cycle goes on, rulers raised these cities from primitiveness to altering world history and then with time its rise is followed by a gradual decline before falling apart. The vicious cycle of history, Marozzi shows, is an equivalent of a boom-to-bust cycle which retains its essence throughout the stories of these great cities that once constituted the highest point of Islamic empires.

Warping through a time machine, Samarkand, Isfahan and Kabul’s historical richness in terms of culture, architecture and diversity are made evident by Marozzi who shows that the zenith of these cities was never absolute but evolved over the decades and centuries as it moved from the past to the present. Tripoli and Beirut are cities that despite their ancient foundations’ boom, one in the desert of North Africa and the other as an entrepot during French colonial rule and then much like the previous cities’ breakdown into a mess and somehow keep moving despite their apogee.

Coming to modern-day, the rise of Dubai, the travelling capital of the world, from nothingness, was largely due to the determination of its ruler who dared to make his dream a reality and bet against the odds to accomplish this miracle. From its beginning, as an area that has been dependent on the pearl industry for centuries, Dubai accomplishes unprecedented progress from abject poverty to become the entrepot of the world with its magnificent skyscrapers, booming tourism, a world-class airline in Emirates and one of the world’s busiest airports.

Concluding on Doha, Marozzi offers an interesting perspective on how much like Dubai it was, dependent on the pearl trade to make ends meet, and how it carved its way through, thanks to its oil riches, to develop it into a modern energy giant which exports liquefied natural gas (LNG); to being a sprawling metropolis and attracting a lot of immigrants from across the globe. The author points out that the locals, who form merely 10 percent of the entire population today, feel displaced and are fearful of the fact that their culture, customs and traditions are diminishing.

However, Islamic Empires does provide a deep insight into how Islamic civilisation reached its zenith on several occasions and then how decadence unfolded. It gives hope that cities like Dubai and Doha can again make it bask in glory.

Islamic Empires

Fifteen Cities that Define a Civilization

Author: Justin Marozzi

Publisher: Allen Lane, UK

Pages: 464 (Hardback)

Price: Rs2,995

The writer is a freelance journalist. He tweets @MohammadFarooq_

Justin Marozzi’s new book explores rise, fall of major cities that shaped cultural, social aspects of various Islamic empires