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In The Spotlight: Justin Marozzi

by Kati Taylor

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Justin MarozziGetting to know the history and culture of a destination, and immersing yourself in its complexities, is one of the best parts of a travel experience. Following in the footsteps of bygone figures, meandering through ancient streets and imagining the world from different perspectives can take you far beyond the average tourist path. When tracing histories and culture, every destination becomes a journey; inviting the curious to join its winding path.

Justin Marozzi is dedicated to taking these journeys. From retracing the colourful history of Tamerlane to piecing together stories of Baghdad, he has travelled across the globe to bring his work to life. 

We caught up with Justin to talk about his latest book, his most memorable travel experiences and the locals he’s met along the way...

TL: Can you tell us a bit about your latest book Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood? 

It’s the story of one of the most extraordinary cities on earth, from its foundation in 762 to the present day, through periods of dazzling cultural riches and world-beating intellectual achievements to violence and bloodshed on an unfathomable scale.

TL: Looking at your work, you seem to be drawn to histories which have flown under the popular radar - from the brutality of Tamerlane to the meandering journeys of Herodotus. Where do you think that interest stems from? 

I’ve always had an interest in the Muslim and Arab worlds. It started in my childhood with my father doing business in the Middle East and I seem to have inherited it.  

UzbekistanTL: You’ve clearly travelled extensively and have written about various geographical locations. Have your experiences abroad shaped the subjects of your books? 

Travelling for long periods in sometimes difficult places makes you aware of what makes us human, what we all have in common rather than what divides us. Researching a book on Herodotus, who is forever banging on about how everyone fundamentally thinks their own culture and customs are best, was a wonderful reminder of this while travelling in Turkey, Egypt, Iraq and Greece. Look for divisions and you’ll always find them.

TL: Your books tend to deal with lesser known figures and some, like Tamerlane, have stories so fantastical it’s hard to believe they’re true. Does retracing their journeys help bring your ideas to life? And do you do a lot of your research on the ground? 

For me the idea of a history of Tamerlane – or Herodotus, or Baghdad for that matter – made no sense without spending a lot of time in his world, albeit six centuries later. It helps enormously to take a look at his architectural record, the cultural legacy, how people in the heart of his empire in Uzbekistan look at him today and so on. I love going to these sorts of places, tracking down people to talk to, be they straight-laced academics or exuberant taxi drivers.

MandalayTL: What are your favourite memories of your travel and research experiences? Any great stories to share? 

Far too many to list! Being briefly kidnapped by Tuareg tribesmen in Libya during the 2011 revolution. Interviewing and breaking bread with the heroic Afghan resistance fighter Ahmed Shah Massoud in the Hindu Kush mountains. Stumbling across a very hostile group of Arab fighters in Kabul before any of us had heard of Al Qaeda. Sharing a 10-hour ride in a Winnebago with Imelda Marcos in the Philippines. Interviewing a brave Egyptian feminist in Cairo who told many stories far too rude to repeat here (they are available in all their Technicolor glory in my book about Herodotus)! Chartering an unbelievably inexpensive private train from Rangoon to Mandalay with a drunken cook who kept falling off in Burma. Having a massively boozy, restsina-fuelled lunch with the nonagenarian war veteran and writer Paddy Leigh Fermor in his beautiful home in the Peloponnese.

city of peace city of blood TL: We often hear from our customers that they are constantly surprised by the different cultures and traditions they encounter while travelling. Have any of the destinations you’ve visited and researched overturned your expectations? 

They almost always do, and almost always for the better. Travels often remind me how we in the West have lost lots of our traditional values, especially hospitality, which is such a strong feature of life in the East. We live life in an enormous rush. There’s a lot to be said for being less manic during the few decades we have here.

TL: Have you met people on your travels who have influenced you or your work? 

My dear Iraqi friend Manaf al Damluji was a constant source of friendship, wise advice, humour and support during the research of my history of Baghdad. One of my favourite friendships grew out of a shared love of Herodotus – take a bow, Professor Paul Cartledge. I’ve always thought it a remarkable testimony to the man’s character that an ancient historian who died almost 2,500 years ago could be capable of inspiring friendships in the twenty-first century.

TL: Our ethos is all about bringing travellers as close as possible to local expertise. Have you ever been saved by a bit of local advice?

I don’t think I’d ever want to travel without it. 

FezTL: What’s your favourite travel destination and where is next on your wish-list? 

No one favourite. The great cities like Cairo, Istanbul, Fez, the vast steppes and mountains of Central Asia, always the Sahara but only ever by camel! Where next? Anywhere the British government advises against. 

Make it happen
You can hear more from Justin by following him on Twitter (@justinmarozzi) or visiting his website: http://www.justinmarozzi.co.uk/. If you’re ready to start planning your own journey, head to our website and send an enquiry to our lovely local experts. 

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