From Mecca to Doha, the tale of Islam in 15 cities

Aerial view of Doha in the morning fog

Noel Malcolm reviews Islamic Empires by Justin Marozzi

The clichéd view of Islam sees it as a religion of the desert – something that came out of the sands of Saudi Arabia, and was spread by scimitar-waving hordes on horseback (or camels), who speedily conquered the stable, city-based societies of the world around them. But this is less than half-true. Yes, the conquests were rapid, and of course that meant that existing cities were taken over. The essential truth, however, is that Islam has been an urban religion from the beginning.

Muhammad was not born in a tent in the desert; he was a citizen of the town of Mecca. Trained as a merchant, he was sent as a teenager on trading journeys to other towns. Islam is full of rules for the kind of dense social existence that takes place in urban settlements, not nomadic camps. And it’s significant that whereas Judaism and Christianity have a Holy Land, Islam has Mecca and Medina, the two Holy Cities.

So it was a good idea of Justin Marozzi’s to write a history of the Islamic world as a series of accounts of cities. There are 15 chapters here, each with a city representing a particular century: Mecca, of course, for the seventh, Damascus for the eighth, Baghdad for the ninth, and so on, until we reach Beirut (19th), Dubai (20th) and Doha (21st). At first sight this may look gimmicky and too neat; but in fact it works well, as it enables Marozzi to cover a huge sweep of Islamic history, taking in such places as Samarkand and Istanbul on the way. Only the last two in the sequence, Dubai and Doha, are a little too samey; Sarajevo or Jakarta – or Urumqi in China, where Muslim Uighurs are now being herded into camps – would have extended the range.

The title, Islamic Empires, might also puzzle at first sight: surely this is a book about cities, not empires as such? But of course it is about both, for good reasons. Again and again, we find that a city was developed by an imperial ruler: the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad, the Umayyad one in Cordoba, the Ayyubids in Cairo. Such rulers needed capital cities as administrative centres; they also needed the wealth that only cities, as hubs of international trade, could provide. And a large city could also sustain an appropriate display of power in physical form: a huge palace, a towering fortress, prestige mosques.

The scale of some of these projects was megalomanic. When the great Umayyad Mosque complex (roughly 400 by 300 metres) was finished in Damascus, it took 18 camels to carry all the building receipts to the caliph. The huge circular city of Baghdad was built from nothing, by tens of thousands of workmen, in just four years. Cordoba’s palace complex, measuring a mile by a mile-and-a-half, employed 17,500 servants. The colossal citadel of Cairo was built by 50,000 captives. And in Samarkand, Timur Leng laid out 15 formal parks and gardens, one of them so large that when a workman lost his horse there, it roamed unnoticed for six months.

Cities in the sand: a 20th-print of the sanctuary at Mecca Credit: Heritage Images

With the megalomanic projects come the megalomaniacs. In almost every chapter here, there is one overwhelmingly powerful individual: Saladin in Cairo, Mehmed the Conqueror in Istanbul, Shah Abbas in Isfahan. Most overwhelming of all was Timur Leng (Marlowe’s Tamburlaine), who devastated many more cities than he built: Delhi, Aleppo, Damascus, Baghdad, and also Isfahan, where he killed 70,000 Isfahanis and used their heads to build 28 “towers of skulls”.

Such horrifying figures remind us that, for many centuries, Muslim cities exceeded most Christian ones by an order of magnitude. In the middle ages, when Baghdad had 800,000 inhabitants, Cairo 400,000 and Cordoba 100,000, Constantinople was the only six-figure Christian city (though it was down to barely 50,000 by the time it fell to the Turks); London, Paris and Rome were in the 20-40,000 range. What sustained such huge urban populations in the Muslim world was manufacturing and, above all, trade. So, aside from the imperial palace, the real heart of each of these great conurbations was its bazaar or souk.

This is where Marozzi, who has a special fondness for lists, comes into his own, conjuring up the amazing variety of the Islamic mercantile world. From the medieval Jewish records of Cairo, for example, we learn that you could buy “silk turbans from Spain, slave girls from Abyssinia and Europe, cheese from Jerusalem and Baalbek, Yemeni mattresses, ostrich feathers and hides from Abyssinia, Armenian rugs, fine Chinese porcelain, Arabian Sea pearls, Baltic amber, Indian teak furniture, copper from Mosul”.

These places were cosmopolitan by their very nature. Languages and faiths commingled; Islam dominated, but no Muslim ruler could afford to make conditions of life intolerable for his non-Muslim subjects. And in most cases the combination of wealth, leisure and institutions of learning produced a rich and varied cultural life, where Islamic orthodoxy was only one strand among many. 

In another pleasing list, Marozzi tells us about the ninth-century Baghdadi polymath known as Jahiz (“goggle-eyed”): “he discoursed on the superiority of black men over whites, pigeon-racing, Islamic theology, miserliness, the Aristotelian view of fish, and whether women should be permitted to make noises of pleasure while having sex.”

This deeply engaging and fascinating book is not a history of Islam. Theological issues are mostly noises off; the only one that impinges heavily on the story here is the Sunni-Shia split, which caused murderous conflicts from an early stage. This is, rather, a history of the Islamic world and its civilisation – not a systematic, joined-up one, which would probably turn out too much like a giant encyclopedia article, but an episodic, impressionistic one that nevertheless manages to deal with almost every important Islamic imperial power at some stage or other.

And it is also, here and there, a personal account. Marozzi is an Arabic-speaking journalist with decades of experience of the Islamic world; he is good at evoking the atmosphere of these places in the present or the recent past. In Egypt, he tells us, he has been “pursued down narrow alleys by incandescent taxi drivers” and has travelled up the Nile “in prostitute-filled riverboats”. Oh well, I concluded, on balance that must be better than being chased down the alleys by incandescent prostitutes, and finding the riverboats full of taxi drivers.

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