Islamic Empires: Fifteen Cities that Define a Civilization by Justin Marozzi - review by Malise Ruthven

Malise Ruthven

From Cordoba to Kabul

Islamic Empires: Fifteen Cities that Define a Civilization


Allen Lane 464pp £25 order from our bookshop

On the face of it, Islamic Empires is an odd title for a book about Islamic cities. Although Islam may be defined as an urban religion conceived in a pastoral milieu, the relationship between Islamic cities and their imperial extensions is a problematic one given the perennially tribal nature of Islamic societies. Unlike their European counterparts, Islamic cities were more like conglomerations of villages, short of urban-style patriotism. As the great North African savant Ibn Khaldun, widely regarded as the first social scientist and frequently cited by Justin Marozzi here, pointed out in his masterpiece, the Muqaddima, Islamic cities have been vulnerable to takeover by hardy tribal groups from the hinterlands.

Marozzi is surely correct, however, in stating that by the middle of the 11th century, when barbarian hordes from the West invaded Jerusalem, the centre of the cosmos on medieval maps,

the Muslim world bowed to no other faith, nor any other region on earth, when it came to the sophistication of its civilization … Civilization was by definition an urban phenomenon, and no one did cities quite like the Muslims. While Islamic cities encompassed growing populations in the hundreds of thousands, their Christian counterparts muddled along with tens of thousands

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