The Topography and Urban Fabric of Madinah in Aid of the Defense of the City

{jcomments on}Assoc. Prof. Dr. Spahic Omer
Kulliyyah of Architecture and Environmental Design
International Islamic University Malaysia

Madinah is a vast oasis surrounded from each side by mountains kept apart irregularly by narrow valleys and exposed open terrain. Thus, due to the city geography that offered a great degree of natural protection against a sudden and large-scale invasion, there was no need for an immediate or forthcoming walling up of the city. The city got its first walls during the reign of the Abbasid caliph al-Ta’i’ Lillah b. al-Muti’, somewhere after the year 363 AH / 973 CE.[1] The existence of many fortresses, as well as the overall organization of spaces and the compactness of neighborhoods, additionally aided the cause of the city defense.

Such a strategic spatial highlight of the Madinah city clearly manifested itself during the battle of Uhud in the third year. On the eve of the battle, the Prophet (pbuh)suggested that the city fortresses, its lofty houses, and the scarcity of vast open spaces in a number of areas, especially within the ambit of the populated ones, be optimally utilized for defensive purposes. He proposed that the enemy be confronted inside the city and the women and children be stationed in the fortresses. The women and children thus could enhance the strength of the city defense by troubling the enemy from the roofs of the houses by whatever means they could get hold of.

Remarkably, before putting forth his suggestion, the Prophet (pbuh) saw in a dream that he was wearing an impregnable coat of mail, which he later interpreted as the existing defense potential enjoyed by the city of Madinah.[2] However, the battle eventually took place outside the city proper – in the vicinity of the Uhud mountain. Thus, the thesis that Madinah’s plan and the organization of its spaces were capable of enhancing the Muslim defense, was yet to be tested.

In the fifth year during the battle of Khandaq, the advantages of the location of Madinah and its layout in terms of defense once again were in the spotlight. So great was the number of the enemy armed forces, which consisted of the Makkans and their numerous allies, that it was impossible for the Muslims to face them directly in an open battlefield. The Muslims found themselves in a precarious situation. The Prophet (pbuh) assembled his companions for consultation and the companion Salman al-Farisi, originally a Persian, came forward with a solution: digging a trench. Short of better options, other companions, who hitherto had never witnessed such a warfare strategy, enthusiastically accepted it. Having much experience in warfare and its tactics, Salman realized that Madinah was surrounded by mountains, hills, and exposed open territory, which could be broken through by the enemy, so he proposed to the Prophet (pbuh) that a trench be dug in the exposed places.[3]

Martin Lings (Abu Bakr Siraj al-Din) wrote about the nature and position of the trench:“…The trench did not need to be continuous; at many places a long stretch of fortress-like houses at the edge of the city was adequate protection; and to the north-west there were some masses of rock which in themselves were impregnable and merely needed to be connected to each other. The nearest of these known as Sal’, was to be brought within the entrenchments, for the ground in front of it was an excellent site for the camp. The trench itself would bound the camp to the north in a wide sweep from one of the rocky eminences to a point on the eastern wall of the town. This was to be the longest single stretch of the trench and also the most important.”[4]     

Researchers vastly differ as to the exact length, site and form of the trench;[5] nonetheless, several points are nearly unanimously agreed upon. Firstly, the most critical part of the trench was dug at the north-west, western and northeast sides of the city due to the vastness of open terrain there, and due to the existence of the “natural main entrance” to the city on the northwest side routinely used by outsiders who would come to Madinah for trade or other purposes.

Next, there was some digging exercise elsewhere around he city, but the natural landscape all-around dominated by hills and mountains was impenetrable. Where neither hills nor mountains could be depended on, there were fortress-like houses forming at places integrated and well-joined neighborhoods. Some houses could not guarantee adequate protection, so they needed to be sufficiently upgraded in order to do so. The accesses to neighborhoods, narrow or wide, were blockaded by anything that was deemed helpful under the circumstances, from building and placing heavy and massive objects, to digging trenches.

At any rate, although it was not continuous, the trench had to be several miles long, maybe four to five miles. This estimation could be authenticated, firstly, by examining the size of the Madinah oasis. We have seen that the Sal’ hill was about one mile from the Prophet’s mosque to the northwest, and the Quba’ suburb was about two to three miles to the south-east from the Prophet’s mosque. Secondly, the Prophet (pbuh) planned the execution of the trench project in such a way that he ordered every ten men, who constituted one unit, to dig as much as forty cubits (about twenty meters) of the trench.[6] There was no particular criterion for deciding on the members of units, except that the members of a clan would generally dig near their own houses, if the trench was meant to be there.[7] Practically, all units consisted of both the Migrants and Helpers. Now, if the Muslim defense consisted of about three thousand combatants, most of whom must have played a part in the arduous task of digging the trench for fear that it may not be completed properly and on time, then the roughly estimated length of the trench appears likely and credible. The four or five miles length of the trench was dug by three thousand men divided into between 200 to 300 units, each unit being responsible for about a 20 meters length of the trench.

And finally, when the siege of Madinah commenced, women and children were stationed in the city fortresses. A’ishah, the Prophet’s wife, was in the fortress of the Banu Harithah clan reputed as the most impregnable one in the city and which was right behind the trench.[8] Certainly, not only for security reasons were women and children positioned in the city fortresses, but also for defense purposes. Should the city defense, which was concentrated on the trench, fail to ward off the enemy’s assaults, then the entire city would instantly be converted into a battleground. In that case, from the roofs of the houses women and children would be able to cause some considerable damage to the enemy by whatever means they could get hold of, especially in neighborhoods with narrow and labyrinthine street patterns – exactly like what the Prophet (pbuh) had suggested prior to the battle of Uhud two years earlier.


(The Sal’ hill on the right is about one mile to the northwestfrom the Prophet’s mosque on the left.)  

[1]Al-Samahudi, Wafa’ al-Wafa, (Beirut: Dar Ihya’ al-Turath al-‘Arabi, 1997), vol. 2 p. 766.

[2]Ibn Kathir, al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah, (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1985),  vol. 4 p. 13.

[3]Khalid KhalidMuhammad, Men Around the Messenger, translated into English by Shaykh Muhammad Mustafa Gemeiah, (n.pp: al-Manarah, n.d.), p. 31.

[4]Martin Lings (Abu Bakr Siraj al-Din), Muhammad, (Kuala Lumpur: A.S. Noordeen, 1983), p. 216.

[5]See some of these views and maps in: Badr ‘Abd al-Basit, al-Tarikh al-Shamil li al-Madinah al-Munawwarah, (Madinah, n.pp, 1993), vol. 1 p. 189-195.

[6]Ibn Kathir, al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah, vol.4 p. 101.

[7]Mu’annas Husayn, Atlas Tarikh al-Islam, (Cairo: al-Zahra’ li al-I’lam al-‘Arabi, 1987), p. 102.

[8]Ibn Kathir, al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah, vol. 4 p. 109.  


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