The Great Cities of the Muslim World, and Their Decline

March 3, 2021 | Barnaby Crowcroft
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In Islamic Empires: Fifteen Cities that Define a Civilization, Justin Marozzi describes some of the great urban centers of the Middle East at their respective zeniths, reminding us of a time when they were larger, wealthier, and more sophisticated than anything Europe had to offer. Barnaby Crowcroft writes in his review:

If the book has an overriding argument, it is that great cities can be built and administered only by civilizations that have mastered ideas of good governance, which necessarily includes commitments to tolerance, cultural and economic openness, and cosmopolitanism.

This formula was as much about economic necessity as about ideological preference. For a large stretch of Marozzi’s story, Muslim rulers headed large multiethnic empires which stood at the center of global networks of trade. Too much sectarian strife would have destroyed their prosperity. Thus caliphs, sultans, and emirs from North Africa to Central Asia can be found undertaking what, even today, seem like remarkable acts of broadmindedness, such as subsidizing the construction of churches or synagogues in their capitals or making high-skilled minority communities feel at home.

Still, the caliphs of Baghdad’s 9th-century “golden age” remain in a league of their own. Marozzi’s portraits of the Abbasid rulers include an amateur scholar of Hebrew and Jewish law and another so dedicated to the recovery of Greek and Roman learning that he personally oversaw experiments designed to test classical scientific theories. These figures present a sorry contrast with the fate of Baghdad and its aspiring caliphs in the present day. [Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliph], Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, . . . was as a grim personification of the kind of cultural suicide that has engulfed large, historic parts of the modern Middle East.

What strikes Marozzi is not just that once-great cities have declined, but that so many of them today actively repudiate the same qualities he holds responsible for their past greatness. Self-confident engagement with the world has been replaced with suspicion and populist hostility. . . . You can travel all over the region without finding an unexpunged edition of the great Persian poets Rumi and Hafez; yet a few years ago, one could find Henry Ford’s The International Jew in an airport bookstore in one of its major international hubs.

Several of the cities Marozzi describes—including Baghdad, Cairo, and Cordoba—were also once flourishing centers of Jewish civilization, with prosperous communities that produced enduring works of scholarship.

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