What cities say about the history of Islam

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As a travel writer, he followed the ancient Saharan slave caravans and tracked Herodotus. As a historian, he launched his book on Tamerlane in Baghdad in 2004, the year after the American invasion and 602 years since Tamerlane devastated the city in 1401. So what sort of book has Marozzi written now?


Feeding the poor and needy is an act that draws us closer to Allah. We earn His forgiveness, mercies and blessings through this act of charity.

“Anyone who looks after and works for a widow and a poor person is like a warrior fighting for Allah?s cause, or like a person who fasts during the day and prays all night. (Bukhari)

He is a skilled writer – this is not a boring book. He knows his cities from living in them, and each chapter merges his own travelogue with a narrative of the city’s history. He has read a lot and taken advice from numerous eminent academic historians. He cites many chroniclers – mainly Muslim, sometimes European travellers – men prone to exaggeration for effect or partisanship.


Marozzi often takes their unbridled accounts of violence (massacres, beheadings and impalings), or conspicuous consumption (the fantastic wardrobes of the wives of caliphs and sultans and kings) or sexual licence (tens of thousands of women in harems) all at face value, although their descriptions may be more symbolic than real.

Sometimes the symbolism falls a little flat: he mentions, but does not quote, the chronicle story of how al-Mansur’s architects marked the ground-plan of Baghdad with a ring of cotton balls soaked in crude oil, which they set alight. Baghdad began as a ring of fire, a story that captures how past and present metaphorically converge.

Each city roughly represents a century in Islamic history, when it was a dominant power. So Damascus, the capital of the Umayyad caliphate, is the exemplar of the eighth century, Baghdad, capital of the Abbasids, the ninth. Fez, headquarters of the Moroccan Marinids, stands for the 13th century, and Constantinople, the Ottoman capital, for the 15th.

These are dramatic places, so it is a pity that the illustrations and, above all, the maps are not better. They look more like stock images, unconnected to the text, rather than helping to tell the story

The cities overlap in time. Al-Mansur founded Baghdad in 762, Idris I started Fez in 789 and Abd al-Rahman made the ancient settlement of Cordoba his capital in 756. But Baghdad reached its peak under Harun al-Rashid (785-809) and it was in the mid-ninth century that a rich, pious and royal woman endowed the great mosque-university of Qarawiyyin in Fez. The Marinids, despite their splendid architecture, were quite a minor 14th century dynasty.

The old medina in Tunis, which dates from the 12th to the 16th century. The city was a centre of religion and intellect in the 17th century.

The old medina in Tunis, which dates from the 12th to the 16th century. The city was a centre of religion and intellect in the 17th century.

Islamic empires ceased with the Ottomans. Marozzi calls their capital Constantinople, the name the Greeks and other Christians used until the 20th century, rather than Istanbul – which the Muslim Turks increasingly called it after their conquest of 1453. But the Ottoman Empire lasted another 450 years and gave a good account of itself in Gallipoli and Iraq in 1915, as Australians and others found to their cost.

So, after the 15th century, Marozzi had to settle for the capitals of provinces or semi-autonomous protostates, or countries further out from the central Middle East. Sixteenth-century Kabul under Babur and 17th century Isfahan in Persia are good reminders that Islamic civilisation is more than Arabs, and more than Sunni Muslims.

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But with provincial capitals – Beirut for the 19th century or Tripoli for the 18th – it’s hard not to ask why these and not others. Tripoli has a gothic history, bubbling over with events. But in the 18th century it was a backwater, even though it posed the first armed challenge to the United States – a confusing story that Marozzi tells well, laden with all its with present-day irony. Certainly, it was a major centre of sea-raiders and the slave trade, yet so was Tunis.

The heart of modern Tunis is still a working 17th- and 18th-century city. Then, it was a centre of religion and intellect and bustling commerce: not just slaves but olives, textiles and carpets, gold and the soft dumpy felt hat called the chechia that resembled the red fez. Chechias, like so much of the rich artisanry of Tunis, were produced by refugees and exported across north Africa.

One could ask the same question about some of his other choices. Why Fez rather than Marrakesh, the other Moroccan imperial city? Marrakesh was founded around 1070 as the capital of the Almohad empire, driven by religious enthusiasm coupled with commerce; it controlled the caravan trade in gold slaves and salt across the Sahara. Behind its huge curtain walls of pressed mud, hard as concrete, were great mosques and palaces and a tightly packed market that served both sides of the desert. Marrakesh was the capital of two later regimes, the Almoravids in the 12th century and the Sa’dis in the 16th. Unlike Kabul, tourists can still visit.

One of Islam’s greatest thinkers, the Tunis-born ibn Khaldun, believed cities destroyed their rulers. Men, motivated by religious enthusiasm and tied by kinship, conquered huge areas, took over the cities or founded new ones. Then the need to hold together complicated economies and diverse societies weakened them and they collapsed. The new just-as-tightly-knit group that replaced them, also united by religion and kinship, followed the same cycle of blossoming and collapse.

Ibn Khaldun based his profoundly pessimistic view of history on his own experience as an administrator and minister in several small states in north-west Africa, including the Marinids. He became a qadi in Cairo, and met Tamerlane – who was besieging Damascus at the time. Marozzi is right: Muslim cities contained and constrained the dynasties that took and built them.

Marozzi is also misleading, for the great surviving cities do not epitomise all the history of Islam. Ibn Khaldun’s cyclically evolving states began in small places in mountains and deserts. Once powerful cities have now subsided into insignificance. The Fatimids, the only great Shiite dynasty of Arab Islam, ruled Egypt for 200 years (970-1171) but began on a tiny spit of land on the east coast of Tunisia. There they built their first capital, Mahdia, now a very sleepy little fishing port. Samarra, today a largish Iraqi town, replaced Baghdad as the Abbasid capital for nearly a century (836-892) when it had lavish palaces and the biggest mosque in the world.

With only a little effort, modern tourists in Marrakesh can push southwards to the very edge of the Sahara and the lost city of Sijilmasa. Heterodox Muslims founded it in 757 as a refuge after their revolt in Tangier collapsed and it survived until the end of the 14th century. Now it has disappeared, apart from a very large archaeological dig and a few collapsing mud walls.

Justin Marozzi chooses Doha as the Islamic city representative of the 21st century.

Justin Marozzi chooses Doha as the Islamic city representative of the 21st century.Credit:Alamy Stock Photo

Yet at its height, with its population of North African Berbers mixed with sub-Saharan Africans and ruled by the descendants of Mesopotamian Arabs, it was famous for its spices, salt and gold. Coins minted in Sijilmasa have been found in Jordan. The history of Islam in cities is also the history of the also-ran.

Marozzi is excellent on how commerce and multi-ethnic, or multi-religious, communities underpinned all the great Islamic cities. Even today they are the core of Abu Dhabi, which he chooses for the 20th century, and Doha, for the 21st.

Yet although he tries to make these modern urban explosions interesting, is his heart really in it? The UAE and Qatar are rich and multi-ethnic, but they are political enclaves and, for all their wealth, could hardly absorb Saudi Arabia or Iran. The Abbasids made Baghdad and the Ottomans made Istanbul into the centres of huge multi-ethnic empires, but is there a viable candidate for modern times?

The events of 2003 and 2011 shook the existing states in the Middle East and North Africa. Marozzi repeatedly uses “fitna”, the Arabic term for political chaos, to identify the crumblers of states and empires throughout history. Fitna, as he says, provided the arena, the opportunity and the stimulus for new powers to rise up. Very briefly, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his cohorts tried to profit from the modern fitna to lay the basis of a new caliphate. Migrants came from outside and they overran a large area in a short time, but they failed.

Rather than incorporate the richly varied minorities of northern Iraq and Syria they expelled, murdered or enslaved them. It’s not a point that Marozzi makes, but it’s one that his book leads to.

Richard Pennell is al-Tajir Lecturer in Islamic & Middle Eastern History and Associate Professor in the School of Historical & Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne.

Islamic Empires: Fifteen Cities that Define a Civilisation

by Justin Marozzi,

Allen Lane, $55

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