From Damascus to Dubai: exploring the rise of Islamic civilisations

Justin Marozzi has written a chronicle on Islamic cities at their moments of greatest glory – and Dubai is among the most important

C26R6D Umayyad Mosque Muslim Old City Damascus Syria
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From Kabul at the height of Taliban rule in 1996, through 18 months living in Mogadishu as Al Shabab threatened and on to Tripoli, where his latest book was conceived, Justin Marozzi has seen great cities in the cruellest times.

With an understandable hunger to look for the better, the English journalist has chosen to chronicle 15 Islamic cities at moments of greater glory. The result is Islamic Empires: 15 Cities That Define a Civilisation.

EYC506 English journalist, historian and travel writer, Justin Marozzi, appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
English journalist, historian and travel writer Justin Marozzi. Alamy

It starts at the beginning of Islam with an account of the rise of Makkah in a chapter entitled "The Mother of Cities". Marozzi rattles through the succeeding 14 centuries, looking with brio at other crucial settlements of the Islamic world. For the 20th century, he has chosen to examine the development of Dubai. It is a chapter that sums up the best of the book, providing a rich mix of historical detail, colourful description and first-hand insights from the author's own love of travel and interviewing residents of the place he is writing about.

The chapter opens with a quote from the former Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Rashid. "What's good for the merchants is good for Dubai," he is said to have once advised. The chapter examines the origins of the city's wealth in pearl fishing, claiming to find a reference to the trade in the third millennium BC Epic of Gilgamesh, in which a Mesopotamian hero dives into the sea to find the flower of immortality.

The first mention of Dubai itself in Western literature is traced to 1590, when the Venetian Gasparo Balbi mentions the settlement in Viaggio dell'Indie Orientali.

The author also unearths a drawing of Dubai in 1882 by a Lt Cogan of the East India Company, consisting of a cluster of 25 houses scattered on the coast of the Arabian Gulf.

The rapid development of Dubai with the dredging of the Creek and the construction of the city’s airport is at the heart of the chapter. “I’ve entitled it ‘Build it and they will come’ and for me it’s one of the most positive chapters in the book,” Marozzi tells me in the summer heat on the lawn of his club on London’s Pall Mall. “It’s about how Sheikh Rashid proceeded despite all of the naysayers and the very conservative advisers who were telling him it can’t be done. The incredibly entrepreneurial, can-do spirit that put Dubai on the map was down to the attitude of the leadership.”

KMHM02 Dubai Creek 1964. Alamy
The Dubai Creek in 1964. Alamy

In the book, Marozzi talks to Ammar Shams, a retired UAE banker, who recalls the scale of the challenge in raising the equivalent of $15 million (Dh55m) in today’s money to deepen the waterways of the Creek, launching what became a global maritime hub.

"Dredging the Creek was the first great gamble in the 1950s," says Shams. "It would have broken Dubai if it hadn't come good. He bet the farm on it."

Resonant accounts of cities as the building blocks of the future include a second chapter focused on Damascus, or "The Perfumed Paradise". It was there in the 8th century that the caliph Al Walid declared to the people that the city had four great attributes – climate, water, fruits and baths, to which it would add a great mosque as the fifth. The result of the pledge was the Umayyad Mosque.

While Islamic Empires was being written, the incredible destruction of the Syrian civil war was well under way. Marozzi provides the perspective he gained from a pre-war walk down Straight Street before embarking on a clear-eyed account of one of its most decisive periods. "I want to write a different story, a chronological history of the Islamic world over the 15 centuries through the incredibly impressive cities that were world-beating at the time. Umayyad in Syria, for example, is one the great examples of that," he says. "I've not run away from the violence but I've wanted to concentrate on periods that are more historic and resonant." 

The Sultan Mehmet II, 16th century. Private Collection. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
The conquering of Constantinople by Sultan Mehmed II is covered in the book. Getty Images

A roving government adviser in his day job – he is currently working in Kabul – Marozzi's style mixes historical insight with the descriptive flow of a seasoned traveller. Thus the book is strong on some of the characters who specialised in conquest and empire building. It is no
surprise one of the best portraits in the book is of Baghdad, the Abbas
id city of the 9th century. He quotes from Muqqaasi, who writes of the "city of well-being". "In it
are to be found the best of everything and all that is beautiful."

Writing on "Samarkand – Garden of the Soul" – it is clear that Marozzi is in awe of Turco-Mongol conqueror Tamerlane (also known as Timur). The trail of destruction he wrought is all the more remarkable for his relatively humble origins. "I think in history you have to compare him to Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan," he says.

"Unlike Alexander he wasn't a king and unlike Genghis he didn't have a single people to fight behind him. He did it all himself."

Portrait of Mongolian conqueror Tamerlane, otherwise known as Timur. Getty Images
Portrait of Mongolian conqueror Tamerlane, otherwise known as Timur. Getty Images

Glimpses of personal history litter the book but do not overwhelm. He compares the grim sights of his 1996 visit to Kabul with the 16th century "Garden in the Mountains" under the reign of Barbur. It was a vastly more enlightened and tolerant time. "It is wrong that Babur is much better known in the Muslim world than rest of the world," he says. 

Marozzi inevitably chronicles turning points of global significance. There are chapters on Cordoba, the capital of Al Andalus, Jerusalem during the First Crusade and Cairo as Saladin built the Citadel. Here, too, is the author's admiration for the 21-year-old Sultan Mehmed II and the "daring military strategy" that finally breached the Roman walls of Constantinople to take the city for Islam. Closer to our time, Marozzi looks at Tripoli in the 18th century as it moved out of the Ottoman orbit and became the leader of the Barbary Coast piracy trade.

When he turned his attention to the flourishing of Lebanon as Ottoman rule ossified, the story took a personal twist. The Englishman had always known his father had been born in the city, not least because of his sorrow-filled reactions as news unfolded from the civil war.

“I discovered I had a great-grandmother who was Lebanese – that was a new discovery for me,” Marozzi says. “I was googling my grandfather in Beirut and there he was in a family tree compiled by somebody else. My father was born there in 1938 and while he didn’t really grow up there, he was always very upset by the news from there from 1975.”

If there is one takeaway from Islamic Empires, Marozzi says it is the constancy of what makes for a successful Islamic city, from present-day Dubai and back to earliest times.

"The themes that come out are cosmopolitanism and tolerance," he says. "Dubai, for example, echoes the success of the other cities at their high points. Where they are most successful, there is a mixed population, an openness to great learning, tolerance, outward-looking leadership and innovation. Those are the ingredients."

Aware that the readership of Islamic Empires is likely to straddle several audiences, Marozzi says he hopes it contributes to greater understanding on all sides at a time when conflict tends to dominate the news cycle. "People are struggling to see where is the
way out from some of the turmoil. Is it punishment for straying from the true path? I would say not," he says. "On the other side a lot of people have an ide
a fixed about the Middle East and Muslim world without having much idea of the history and how much we owe to the region as well."