...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.