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The Islamic and Byzantine City

The Islamic and Byzantine City

Islam first developed and spread in a region of the world where urban civilizations had originated. Caravan routes crisscrossed the Fertile Crescent and the Arabian peninsula several millennia prior to the birth of Christianity, linking the urban-centered civilizations of Mesopotamia, the Nile Valley, and the Indian subcontinent. Overland routes were supplemented by water transit via the Red Sea and the Persian (Arab) Gulf, with transshipping ports in what is now Yemen. Arabia was then more fertile than it is in the early 2000s, and its products (including frankincense and myrrh) were in much demand.

The lands through which the desert caravans passed were divided into the territories of seminomadic tribes that controlled and protected passage. The islands in the narrow gulfs harbored "pirates" who could block passage, pillage, and even sink sailing dhows. If there was not to be a war of all against all, the neighboring communities, whether urban, transhumant, or nomadic, had to develop rules of trust, hospitality, and fair exchange of goods. And there needed to be centers of safety in which members of diverse tribes and communities could mingle without fear.

Mecca: A Place of Safety

Long before the message of Muhammad initiated the religion of Islam, the thriving city of Mecca was just such a place of safety. It was considered "sacred;" its Ka'ba (an enormous, cubicle black stone) was endowed with holy significance (Esin). In much the same way that the polytheism of Greek mythology derived from the unification of various city-states, each with its own deity, so the Ka'ba was host to the gods of various tribes and peoples who, at least there, could coexist. In this context, "sacred" meant safe. As early as the first millennium b.c.e., Mecca had been established as a place of pilgrimage, where traders could meet without fear. Greco-Roman influences and the monotheistic cults of Judaism and, later, Christianity, were already present in Mecca when Muhammad was born in Arabia in about 570 c.e. He eventually settled in Mecca where he lived with his first wife, Khadijah, serving as commercial agent for her long-distance caravan trade. When he was about forty years old, revelations began to appear to him, in which the text of the Koran was revealed in a series of retreats.

Thus began the formulation of a new monotheism called Islam, considered seditious by the residents of Mecca. In 622, when Muhammad was fifty-three and in declining health, he was forced to escape with his followers to the city of Yathrib (later renamed Al-Medina, meaning "The City") and gained the support of the local tribe there and his first converts to the new religion. The date of the Hegira (flight to Yathrib) is accepted as the founding date of Islam and the first year in the Muslim calendar. The first mosque, a simple unroofed walled square with the prayer direction oriented toward the Ka'ba in Mecca, was built in the desert outside Medina, to which followers were summoned to gather five times per day by a call to communal prayer. Resisting recurring attacks from Meccans, Muhammad finally returned to Mecca in 630 at the head of a powerful army of his followers, accepted the keys to the Ka'ba, destroyed the idols and other signs of polytheism, and dedicated the structure (and the city) to the worship of one God and as the destination of prayer and pilgrimage. Two years later the Messenger of God was dead.

The Rapid Spread of the New Religion

Within one century of the death of the Prophet, Islam had spread to a vast area that included, in addition to the Arabian peninsula, Sassanid Persia as far north as the Caucasus and including Mesopotamia, the Fertile Crescent, and a thin coastal layer along North Africa that stretched from northern Egypt up the Nile to Cairo and had reached the westernmost tip of Morocco. The Byzantine Empire, defenders of Orthodox Christianity, controlled much of the northern edge of the Mediterranean, from its base in Anatolia and its capital, the New Rome, in Constantinople. While it is impossible to estimate what proportion of the populations in these two juxtaposed "empires" actually lived in urban centers (and that would depend upon the demographic definition of a city one accepted), it must be acknowledged that, for its time, the region was, along with the Indian subcontinent and China, certainly one of the most "urbanized" in the world.

Over the ensuing centuries, the Arab Conquest increased the levels of urbanization in three ways: by establishing temporary encampments for its troops and their accompanying dependents, by founding new "princely" cities for the successive ruling dynasties that came to power in various subregions of western Islam, and by occupying preexisting cities that would grow larger under conditions of increased prosperity.

The New Garrison Towns

The early days of expansion saw the founding of armed camps, often outside existing settlements, where troops were quartered, mosques were constructed, captive populations administered, and conversions encouraged. Basra and Kufa were the first "garrison towns" (amsar ) set up by the Arab conquerors in the Persian-ruled region of lower Mesopotamia. Fustat, which means "tent city," was an army camp set up beyond the limits of an existing Greco-Roman bishopric seat of Babylon, near present-day Cairo, by the Arab general who in 640 c.e. conquered Egypt. Another variety was the ribat or fort. Rabat in Morocco began as just such a walled fortress in which the ruler and his troops were quartered. "The term Amsar as later used to designate those fustats and ribats that were selected as centers to manage the conquered territories and as bases from which further military campaigns could be launched" (Al-Sayyad, p. 45). Their regular gridiron arrangements revealed their military origins, just as the bastide towns in Gaul revealed their origins in the Roman conquests. Gradually, as the lines between conquerors and converts grew more permeable, these army camps blended with existing settlements and were transformed into cities endowed with schools and mosques, palaces, and offices of the rulers, and took on unified commercial functions.

New Princely Capitals for Dynasties

Although fewer in number and developed later, these served significant symbolic purposes, since the "royal cities" established in the emerging Islamic world were often accompanied by regime changes: the movement of the caliphate or shifts between Sunni and Shiite sects. Two notable examples were the planned princely cities of Baghdad (properly Madinat al-Salam, the "City of Peace," or Madinat al-Mansur, the "City of the [Caliph] Mansur") founded during the second half of the eighth century by the Abbasids who displaced the Umayyad caliphate, formerly located in Damascus, and Cairo (Al-Qahirah, "the Victorious"), founded in 969 by the Fatimids, a Shiite dynasty coming from Tunisia that displaced the former Sunni rulers. Both were new cities, located on level and well-irrigated land some distance from existing settlements; they were carefully designed as walled protected enclaves for new rulers. But they differed radically in terms of conceptions and plans.

The royal city of Baghdad was a circular city on the opposite bank of the Tigris from the village of Baghdad, intended to house the newly victorious Abbasid caliphate. Surrounded by a pair of formidable walls and a moat, with entry restricted to four gateways and commoners forbidden admittance, the round city held at its center the palace of the caliph with its attached cathedral mosque. Around this most protected focus were the palaces for the princes and their armed defenders. Inside the peripheral walls were arranged governmental offices to administer the empire. Gradually, population gathered on the outskirts of this city, of which only archaeological traces remain. Within a short time Baghdad had grown into a large capital in which Islamic learning and scientific and intellectual development reached a medieval peakat least until it was sacked by the Mongols in 1258.

Cairo, in contrast, would eventually grow from imperial enclave into the greatest capital in the Islamic world until Ottoman times, filled with architectural and artistic treasures, many of which are preserved to this day. Laid out in the form of a walled rectangle with a regular street pattern of two major streets intersecting at right angles and leading to four impressive gateways, it contained the palaces of Mu izz al-Din, the newly installed Fatimid caliph, the major mosque, and quarters assigned to various ethnic groups that made up his army. The ordinary citizens of Fustat, by then grown into a prosperous commercial city to its south, were at first enjoined from entering. Only after Fustat was burned (in 1169) to protect the princely city from invading Crusaders, were the gates to Al-Qahirah opened to the "masses." But this marked the rise of Salah al-Din Yusuf al-Ayyub (Saladin; 1137/81193), the demise of the Fatimids, and the establishment of the Ayyubid dynasty. Thereafter, the history of the city's development approximated that of the third category.

Conversions of Existing Cities into Cities
of the Dar al-Islam

Constantinople, the Christian capital of Byzantium until its conquest by Muslim forces in 1453 (officially renamed Istanbul in 1930), and the Roman-patterned cities of Aleppo and Damascus in Syria and of Tunis in North Africa, are noteworthy examples of existing cities whose plans were transformed by Islamic occupation. These walled cities had inherited from the pre-Islamic period regular streets and processionals, churches, covered markets, and a clear division, according to principles of Roman property law, between public (both secular and religious) and private space. Over time, the major changes were to create, from those regular divisions, the narrow labyrinthian paths and dead-ends that are associated with the Islamic city.

Sauvaget, in his pathbreaking studies of the transformation of Damascus (1934) and Aleppo (1941), traced these changes, attributing them to the substitution of Islamic law for Roman law, a theory more fully explicated by Hakim (1986), who examined Islamic legal precedents as they developed primarily in the Maghreb (western North Africa). In Islamic property law, responsibilities to one's neighbors, including the protection of their visual privacy, took precedence over a priori protection of the public way. As a result, buildings began to infringe on the streets, unless neighbors objected in the courts, and the residential neighborhoods became honeycombed into cells of semipublic space. Given the greater segregation between male and female space in Islamic codes of modesty, markets and residential zones became more spatially differentiated, with markets, courts, mosques, and industrial districts more specialized. These changes, which occurred over time in both preexisting "Christian" cities and in formally planned army camps and princely towns, gave rise to many of the characteristics now associated with the Islamic city.

Relation of Islam to the Idea of the City

This brief history is sufficient to establish several principles of Islamic expansion and its urban and social roots.

  1. First, cities and commerce were central to the new religion, and many of the developments in Islamic law and jurisprudence dealt with densely settled urban places.
  2. Islam was initially tolerant of other religions but welcoming to converts, extending to them equality in the umma (community of believers).
  3. Property laws differed substantially from Roman law.
  4. The religion stressed rules to police business practices and ensure trust and credit in trade.
  5. Laws reformed social relations, regularizing and liberalizing relations between masters and slaves, husbands and wives, albeit while increasing gender separation.
  6. Religious duties were encumbent on all members of the community of believers, including declaring belief in one God (Allah), accepting the prophetic message of Muhammad, praying five times daily, tithing to charity and sharing wealth with the poor, observing the dawn to dusk fast during the month of Ramadan, and make the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Common Consequences
of these Distinguishing Features

The amsar, the ribat s, the converted Greco-Roman settlements, and the new princely capitals, while differing in origins and original plans, eventually evolved into communities that had much in common. Most were walled. The center of the city usually contained the main mosque, next to which were linear market streets specializing in books, candles, and other religious items. Nearby were the hostels for long-distance merchants and high value, low bulk items such as gold, other precious metals and minerals, and the officer whose duties included policing honest trade in the markets. Another main thoroughfare held the workshops of artisans and their shops, other mosques, hospitals, and schools, with the judicial courts and other government offices nearby. Outside or just inside the major gates to the walls were the markets for live animals and bulk agricultural products, on which taxes were imposed. But what was particularly noticeable in developed towns of Islam, attributable to Islamic property law, was the tendency of regular plans to be transformed into cellular structures of what might be called "defensible space." Religious charitable endowments (called awaqf, sing., waqf ) and the largesse of rulers provided material support for many of the "public" functions, such as hospitals, schools, mosques, and water fountains, that Westerners associate with municipal government. Unlike the West, however, private users were held collectively responsible for cleaning, sprinkling, and lighting the streets in their own neighborhoods, as well as for protecting the safety of their residents. It was a workable system of governance so long as the empires remained prosperous but, as in all cities, in times of economic, political, and epidemic troubles, urban decay could set in.

The Consequences of Ottoman Rule
and Subsequent Colonialism

The conquest by the Ottoman Turks of Constantinople in the mid-fifteenth century and the expansion of the Ottoman Empire to the Arab provinces in the Fertile Crescent and North Africa in the sixteenth century led to a period when the wealth of empire was concentrated in their capital Konstantiniyee (Constantinople), known by its popular Turkish name as Istanbul. Istanbul grew to become one of the largest cities in the world, whereas former major metropolitan centers such as Cairo were demoted to mere provincial capitals, losing population and economic vigor. Severely weakened, province after province fell victim to European colonial incursions in the course of the nineteenth century, and the remaining remnants of the Ottoman Empire, with the exception of Anatolia, were lost to the victorious Allies after World War I.

While twentieth-century decolonization movements, with few exceptions, succeeded in liberating the countries of western Islam, the region was fragmented into many small states, in contrast to the unities in religion and law the region had enjoyed during the heights of earlier empires, and the poor economic conditions due to subservience to the industrialized West left a heritage of underdevelopment. Although urban populations increased, from both higher rates of natural increase and immigration from the countryside (Istanbul in the early 2000s has a population of eleven million and the greater Cairo region houses perhaps sixteen million), economic development lagged behind, creating conditions typical in Third World cities. In most countries, although Islam remains the official religion, governing laws mostly derive from the Napoleonic Code. Many of the older forms of urban property law, charity, and personal behavior no longer sustain vital urban functions.

See also Law, Islamic ; Religion and the State: Middle East .


Abu-Lughod, Janet L. Cairo: 1001 Years of the City Victorious. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1971.

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. Rabat: Urban Apartheid in Morocco. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980.

AlSayyad, Nezar. Cities and Caliphs: On the Genesis of Arab Muslim Urbanism. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991.

Celik, Zeynep. The Remaking of Istanbul: Portrait of an Ottoman City in the Nineteenth Century. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1986.

Esin, Emil. Mecca the Blessed/Medina the Radiant. New York: Crown; Novaro, Italy: Paul Elek Ltd., 1963.

Hakim, Besim Selim. Arabic-Islamic Cities: Building and Planning Principles. London and New York: KPI, 1986.

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Sauvaget, Jean. Alep: Essai sur le developpment d'une grande ville Syrienne. Paris: Librairie Orientaliste, 1941.

. "Esquisse d'une histoire de la ville de Damas." Revue Etudes Islamiques 3 (1934): 421480.

Janet L. Abu-Lughod

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