...excellent, authoritative and illuminating ... [Marozzi] is an outstanding guide to the urban centres he expounds on, partly because of his deep understanding and love for the peoples and places he writes about ... It is a compelling and personal account by an author who knows, cares and has thought deeply about his subject matter. It is a new Hudud al-Alam, the famous 10th-century Persian geography book, for the 21st century — informing, revealing and delighting in some of the parts of the world that everyone should know about.
The concept is dramatic, an epic in 15 acts. But with its fine drawing and mass of minute detail, reading the book is more like poring over the framed miniatures in a manuscript: here a Moghul lolls by a pool, there a Timurid rampages across the page ... [Marozzi's] descriptive powers are flying high: a glimpse of Black Hawk helicopters in the cobalt sky of Baghdad, for instance, paints darkness in a few strokes of perfectly chosen colour. As that example shows, Marozzi isn’t timebound by his allotted centuries. He slips between 1,001 Nights Baghdad and today’s nightmares ... What might have been formulaic is fun, and full of surprises. That doyenne of cityscapists, Jan Morris, would be envious ... nearly always, the balance between telling detail and telling the story is spot on. The prose, too, is beautifully paced, sprightly but never tiring. And the city portraits build up into a panorama of Islamic civilisation as full as any history, and far more entertaining.
This is an accessible, popular history to introduce readers to the kaleidoscopic sweep of 16 centuries of Islamic history ... [Marozzi] makes huge editorial choices within Islam’s kaleidoscopic histories, not to mention his unexplained decision to focus on 15 cities as his narrative concept. His most curious omission is to overlook the impact of Western colonialism on Islamic history. Many of the Islamist movements Marozzi so deeply laments and resents were born in anti-colonial struggles during the 18th and 19th centuries. Political Islam has reactionary roots ... That geopolitical and historical dimension is largely overlooked ... the necessary depth of perspective requires a writer to slip under the skin of historical surfaces to explain the roots of the melancholia and the complex reasons underlying cultural stagnation. It is a project more demanding than what this quick-hit survey can accomplish ... His history of these vast lands has a narrow thesis, and it is a narrative of past glories and contemporary wastelands ... His immersion and passion for his subject deserve admiration. But his seemingly random city selections, overt cultural assumptions and historical omissions do not. When grappling with a subject as vast and politically fraught as Islam’s 16 centuries through such a personal lens, some degree of humility would seem reasonable. Instead, Marozzi’s tone gives the entire project a disappointing air delivered with an outsider’s smug condescension.
Marozzi does not dispute [the] excoriating charge sheet against contemporary Arab regimes. What he does provide is a compelling counterpoint to the present state of affairs by recalling the pluralism, cosmopolitanism and magnificent achievements of the Islamic empires of the past ... It is refreshing to read a book on Islam by someone who combines profound erudition with emotional intelligence and empathy. Marozzi is a historian, traveller, journalist and Arabic speaker who spent most of his professional life in the Muslim world. Yet he wears his learning lightly. His writing style is lively, limpid and graceful and it enables him to turn a vast amount of material into a continuously readable narrative ... Amid all the turmoil in the heart of the Islamic world, he urges his readers not to forget the great achievements of its history and the possibility of a brighter future.
[Marozzi's] book is a relief from the often downbeat tone of literature about the region ... Mr Marozzi resists the impulse to say modern Islam has reverted to its harsh, intolerant origins. With their free trade, multinational populations, sybaritic excesses, showpiece museums and soaring architecture, his last two cities, Dubai and Doha, recall those of the heyday he mourns. The appetite for huge sports events, such as the football World Cup of 2022, testifies to their global ambitions. If only they could also recover Islam’s intellectual buzz.
Smith is a professional archaeologist who has excavated many ancient ruins around the world. As she conjures the lives lived among those now tumbled stones, she depicts people who bear an uncanny resemblance to contemporary, urban Californians. If she has conjured aright, the nature of the urbanite has been more or less set from the start ... Smith seems to view inequality as a natural condition for humans, and writes that in the first cities it led not to oppression but opportunity. She sees the elites of ancient cities as 'patrons.' Nor is there the slightest sense in her book that the consumption that occurs in cities, with its rapid uptake and discarding of the latest fads, is related to the current environmental crisis. She finds city life—with its consumerism, fashion, and constant interaction—so attractive that she can’t conceive of life without it. I put down her book filled with dread, fearing that if cities have always generated prodigious mountains of waste, then perhaps our environmental problems have no solution.
I lost count of the number of beheadings and executions in this book, all told with a grisly relish. Muslim chroniclers are Marozzi’s sources, of course, but like all chroniclers they rexaggerate for political reasons or simply to impress the reader...Marozzi has a wide-eyed credulity about such numbers to match that of those literalistic Muslims wedded to every detail of the prophet’s life story ... His intellectual history is equally shaky ... Time and again Marozzi treats us to lusty descriptions of 'wine-soaked, hashish-perfumed' parties or the sexual prodigiousness of slave girls. Entertaining enough, if that’s your kind of thing; but the licentiousness is made to bear too much historical weight ... Gender relations are not examined with any depth here, even though there is much fascinating material outside elite, male-dominated circles ... The unspoken message to Muslims? Make your nations great again by becoming more like us. So this is less a book about 'Islam’s superiority complex', as the author puts it, than about the west’s. It says so much that of all the thriving modern cities with large Muslim populations Marozzi could have explored – Delhi or Jakarta or Amman – he prefers to visit Dubai.
...expect long lists of exotic cargoes and the palaces and mosques they filled, from Cordoba to Cairo, Jerusalem to Isfahan. As modern-day visitors to Dubai have sometimes found, too much opulence can sometimes be wearing ... Moreover, while Marozzi is understandably obsessed by the industry and vision of the builders, I can’t help guiltily admitting that I am more gripped by the destruction. Is that wrong, or just a natural response to the elephant in the room of this literary fashion? The reason we are reading these books, after all, is because of the recent smashing of Aleppo and the razing of Raqqa, once the capital of the great Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid ... Marozzi seems to regard the speediness of his cities’ rise and fall as natural and does not inquire farther. I found it hard not to speculate.
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 ... [its] best chapters are those on cities which have attracted less attention by popular historians ... Despite, or perhaps due to, a certain lack of narrative coherence—other than Islam, there can be little to link the chapters ... 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.
The charm of this book lies in the fact that it is so obviously the adult sublimation of a boyhood passion for the lands and history of Islam. Mr. Marozzi is now 49, but his prose often has the wonderment of a young man who has devoured a shelf of books and is dying to tell everyone about the things he has read. Like an erudite magpie, he gathers material from every available source—primary texts, both religious and historical, as well as a profusion of secondary ones—and weaves it all together with dexterity ... even as he mourns the current dystopia in Tripoli, Damascus and Baghdad, Mr. Marozzi seeks solace in the fact that there are “echoes” of the old 'restless, cosmopolitan, risk-taking' spirit in cities such as Dubai. An unabashed romantic, he is too much in love with the Golden Age of Islam to let his present-day anguish mar his attachment to the past.
...a skillful overview of the important seats of Muslim power while resisting narratives of 'faith and fable' in the process ... The author is fair in his assessment of these significant cities and what they have meant to Islam as a whole, and his enthusiasm is infectious ... A rich foray into the history of Islam and the emergence of key cities as capitals of commerce, culture, and conquest.
Marozzi...a former foreign correspondent for the BBC and the Economist, combines travel writing and history in this fluid, enriching series of vignettes about the great cities of Islamic civilization ... The range and detail of Marozzi’s research brings a welcome variation on the standard view of Islamic history. Marozzi doesn’t skimp on historical details (sometimes at the narrative’s expense) but the travel writing is fresh, with first-person accounts of the author’s peregrinations and stories of contemporary inhabitants interwoven into the recitation of names and dates. Most importantly, Marozzi provides a contrast to one-sided narratives of the Islamic world, as it showcases 15 centuries of sophisticated and cosmopolitan cities full of intellectual, artistic, and economic power. While the work can feel aimless, it is nonetheless enjoyable and deeply informative, and will appeal to anyone interested in the diversity of Islamic culture.