The Islamic City



One of the most controversial topics, which has been the subject of debate by many scholars, is the nature of the Islamic city. Studies on the nature and morphology of the Islamic city began in the late 19th century with historians trying to find a model for this Islamic city in comparison to the "West" and from an "Orientalist" point of view, i.e. French Historians were more concerned with North African cities while the British were more focused on Egypt and Syrian cities. It is a topic that may not be viewed from one angle but rather from many including urban, geographical, socio-historical, legal and architectural frameworks and this is mainly why the debate remains unresolved.

What is an Islamic city? What are its fundamentals? What sets this city apart from other cities? Is it its walls, its quarters, its mosques, its souqs/markets, its baths/hammams? In studying its morphology, what is the point of departure? Is it through a socio-historical – 'cultural' – examination or through a purely urbanistic and architectural mode?

When one speaks of a Muslim character of a city, one tends to undermine the importance of the city's indigenous characteristics; the fact that these Muslim cities coexisted simultaneously(at one point) and shared a set of religious protocols amongst one another is almost continuously stressed over the fact that also these cities existed in different geographical settings with particulars of their own. Yet, interestingly, one notices a common pattern throughout most of the Muslim cities around the world, which is that of a very similar topographical character. This was characterized by very little thoroughfares and lots of streets with dead-ends. Being the contentious topic it is, many scholars argue that the structure of the Islamic city was a continuation of what had prior existed, while others argue that it was a way of living that was newly introduced through the 'culture' of Islam.

In a dissertation I had written on the politics behind the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, I briefly discussed the character of the city of Damascus before and after Islam. While some historians are of the idea that the Greco-Roman character of the city, which was that of a grid-like system, began to disappear with the advent of Islam, there is a tendency amongst historians to conclude that this change in character did not come with Islam but actually started happening under the Byzantines. In fourth to sixth century Syria, there was a mass emergence of churches, basilicas, monasteries and all forms of Byzantine worship, life and architecture. Generally speaking, the thriving urban life in Byzantine Syria took off from the Greco-Roman times and continued with an influx in settlement and an increase in economies, especially in major cities such as Damascus, Aleppo and Jerusalem. It seems the architectural/urban structure of the Syrian land was being transformed into that of a Christian/Byzantine character. When Damascus became a Byzantine province, it started losing its Greco-Roman character, which was more of an organized city governed by strict rules, to the privatization of public spaces and confused and unclear plans. Burns explains that despite the existence of arguments stressing that the loss of Damascus’ Greco-Roman character came after the Muslim conquest, there is profound reason to believe that it followed the annexation of Syria under the Byzantine Empire. This theory is supported by Kennedy who, after careful examination, firmly contends that this urban structural change was the result of several economical and political factors that began during the Byzantine times. Degeorge, too, confirms that by the fifth century, the Greco-Roman urban impression was slowly turning ‘Oriental’ with many stalls and shops marking the narrowing streets. I am an advocate of this theory since – apart from archaeological findings and architectural remains – it may not seem plausible for the Byzantines to have been in Damascus for over 3 centuries without leaving a substantial imprint on the city.

However, while there is an explanation for Damascus and other Syrian cities, there isn't a clear understanding as to why this character is prevalent throughout most Muslim cities. A main reason, which had been at the forefront, is the 'obsession' in Islamic societies with the protection of privacy and families, i.e. dead-ends and certain lanes were blocked by gates or doors and these gates would be locked following the evening prayer. All of this stems from the cultural aspects of the Muslim person and society, which derives from the Islamic laws of protecting/concealing the individual, i.e. the women of the household/family. Thus, this privatization of space forced the structure of the city to evolve into one where there was a clean cut between private space and public space. Other leading factors would be the Sharia law, the Waqf system, and the policing systems. Thus, the state was concerned with the public and religious foundations and the markets, leaving it up to the dwellers to organize the rest among themselves. The state did not interfere within the private sphere and with the details of dwelling, neighbouring, windows, and so forth. Markets themselves were either closer to the gates or the center and generally this is where the life of the city was. The center was where public affairs were happening and the periphery was the private section. Interestingly, spatial organization of residential areas, although not universal in Muslim residential architecture, is the segregation of space and its gendering, i.e. an area separate for the women and that for the men. However, while the street pattern of Muslim cities is consistent through out, the introverted house or courtyard house is not consistent and may not be termed Islamic, as it rarely existed in Iraq and Cario for example. The latter, thus, supports the idea of bringing together a set of objects or symbols that would typify this Islamic city and make it 'easily identifiable' as mentioned above such as the mosques, madrassas, hammams, etc.

However, hoping to link the street and urban character of Muslim cities it would be safe to say that the Waqf system was almost identical anywhere, even between Sunni and Shia Islam, and thus it could be a main reason why there existed great commonalities between Muslim cities. Another issue to keep in mind is the fact that during different periods, there was a shift in priorities. During the medieval period, the Muslim state was more of a military state and its cities were characterized by garrisons. An example would be Salah al-Din, who was a man of war and who was busy with consolidating his power in Egypt and Syria and fighting the Crusades. Thus, he was more of a policy maker rather than an urban planner.

This whole system of identifying the city through its social structures was developed and supported by Lapidus who identifies a city through a set of socio-economical and political idioms. This is what I mean by different angles at reconstructing this Islamic city, because while certain scholars tend to look for physical institutions and layouts that mark a city, others study this city from its social structure and patterns of living that would consequently affect the physical structure of a city and not vice versa. As a result, different findings are made and this lies at the heart of the debate.

Significantly, this city underwent a series of "reforms" and began to evolve from its "unclear and chaotic" character, as would be termed by certain Weberian historians. In the case of Beirut, during the late Ottoman period and toward the end of the 19th century, during the Tanzimat and post-Tanzimat reforms, Beirut was undergoing a lot of changes in its urban character. This was mainly due to the political and economical pressures that befell the Ottomans: the Ottoman empire was at the brink of failure and was suffering greatly from European domination and interference and was reputed to be "old, archaic, sick", thus, its Arab provinces became the playground where they could prove to the Europeans that they were capable of "modernity" – here, the term modernity denotes technological and economical advances. When Beirut became provincial capital in 1888, it received a great amount of attention from the Ottoman empire in terms of economic and urban developments and some of the main Beiruti elites were directly affiliated with the Sublime Porte. Thus, road-networks were being changed and developed and architectural and administrative changes were introduced that were to ultimately alter the medieval structure of this Islamic city, which in the wake of the late Ottoman reforms began its long struggle between old and new, things European and non-European. While Beirut was receiving the utmost attention of the Ottomans in their attempts at 'modernizing it' and 'Ottomanizing it' (see Fin de Siecle Beirut by Jens Hanssen), Tripoli and Aleppo were also very integrated in this agenda.

Anyway, this is a topic by far complicated than I present here and the studies and debates are very intricate, detailed and theorized and listing them all here would require a greater input from my part, an input equal to that of writing an essay or thesis. For now, this is enough to know on the Islamic city and the questions surrounding it.


Posted by poshlemon at 11/09/2007


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