1,001 nights on the Tigris

A truly splendid work of erudition, storytelling and humanity

One of the two men stood before the other. He had a light complexion, a long straight nose, and a long beard.  Abdullah al Mamoun was, at 43, the 25th Caliph of Islam. The faith-empire that he ruled stretched from the Pillars of Hercules to the Hindu Kush. The other man was seated on a throne. He had reddish-white skin and a high forehead atop bushy eyebrows and dark blue eyes.

The year was perhaps 830 AD. The Prophet Muhammad had died 200 years earlier. Mamoun, his distant successor, styled the Commander of the Faithful, was dreaming.

The place was Baghdad. The city in central Mesopotamia had been founded 65 years previously by Mamoun’s great-grandfather, Mansour. It was already the largest metropolis on earth, with more than a million inhabitants. Ctesiphon, the former capital of the Persian Empire of the Sasanian dynasty, was only 20 miles to the south, and the new city was very much in the Iranian orbit. The ruins of Seleucia-on-Tigris, the capital of Greek Mesopotamia, were there too, just across the river from Ctesiphon.

Al Mamoun’s name meant “The Trustworthy”. Half-Iranian, he had usurped the throne of his Arab brother in 813, and had ruled from Iran for six years before bringing his Persian court to Baghdad. He recalled being the first of the two men to speak.

“Who are you?” inquired the Commander of the Faithful.

“I am Aristotle,” replied the Greek from his throne.

Mamoun later described himself as “filled with awe”. Aristotle was his philosophical hero. The Caliph had undertaken a personal struggle to transform Islam into a humanist faith. The effort was as risky as it was ambitious. The faith-wide clergy, the ulema, stood squarely against him. So, overwhelmingly, did the traditions of the Arabs and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad himself.

The Caliph asked the Greek a question: “What is good?”

“Whatever is good according to reason,” answered the Greek.

It was an extraordinary moment. The dream itself was propaganda. Here was the leader of Islam telling us that the paramount principle does not lie with God. It does not lie with the perfect truth revealed by Muhammad, His final and perfect Messenger. It lies with reason, which means man. Philosophy would be the new religion. Moral law and human agency would take the place of God’s will.

Mamoun failed. The intellectual flowering in ninth-century Baghdad that he exemplified would rank alongside classical Athens and Renaissance Florence among the most intense moments in the project of humanist civilisation. But within two decades of his death in 833 the reaction of the Sunni orthodoxy began, and a world of God’s pure will had no room for anything else. The orthodox victory would be resounding. Shiism, a Persian faith replete with Aristotelian reason, would eventually develop into a separate religion and account for only 10 per cent of those who call themselves Muslims today. The end, exemplified in Mamoun’s failed reformation, of medieval Baghdad’s cultural high noon forms the tragically early pivot of the remarkable story that Justin Marozzi tells in Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood.

Marozzi’s history starts with Baghdad’s founding during the years 762-767 and ends with an average of 25 Iraqis killed by violence every day during 2013. The 12th-century saga is, as Marozzi concludes, “relentlessly tempestuous”. Baghdad’s is perhaps the greatest urban story ever told, with more beauty and more evil — more sheer humanity, for this is what beguiles and inspires Marozzi — than any other.

This is the city that was the capital of the world when, fewer than 50 years after its birth, it underwent its first civil war, siege, mass fire, starvation, and physical destruction as Mamoun besieged his Arab brother Amin; where the Mongols slaughtered 200,000 people in a single sacking four and a half centuries later; and where Saddam Hussein ruled while killing three or four times that many of his own people in relentless wars abroad and repression at home.

Along the way were Buyids, Seljuks, Mongols, Persians, Turks, Mamlukes, Britons, Americans and others. All came and went in violence. At a time of plague in 1831, with “bodies piled up in the streets” because the rulers would not allow prophylactic medicine to interfere with God’s will, the city was a “Dantean vision of hell”, in Marozzi’s words.

The amazing thing about Baghdad is that such a description could turn up on any page of this story. There simply is no place on earth where more people have been slaughtered, raped, tortured, burned to death, starved, or killed by flood, drought, pestilence or famine.

And yet Marozzi loves the place, and succeeds magnificently at making us love it with him. Blood-soaked navel of Islam’s violence it may be, but it is also the place where caliphs dream of Aristotle while perfumed Circassian slave girls sing in meadows of gold. It is hard to imagine anyone else being able to write a book that does the subject such justice. Marozzi’s sources range from the medieval Arab chroniclers such as Al Tabari to unpublished papers written by Iraqi intellectuals of the last decade, from the accounts of European travellers, beginning with Benjamin of Tudela in 1170, to many private conversations with old-fashioned Baghdadis living today, who embody the author’s vision of the profound, painful worldliness of the city. Such prodigious research — 17 pages of bibliography, 25 pages of notes, all of it credible and relevant — is rarely pulled together so elegantly.

Marozzi has spent a great deal of time in Baghdad. It is in the thick of yet another of the city’s endless, peculiarly vicious wars that he visits the Mustansiriya University, founded in 1233, Baghdad’s only major physical legacy from the heyday represented by Mamoun. “Defiance and nostalgia are set in every stone” of the ancient university, writes Marozzi. This is the spirit — adventurous, sophisticated, respectful — that typifies a truly splendid work of erudition, storytelling and humanity. 

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