Cities of Islam


 When during the crusades (1095-1291), the Western Christians came in contact with the Muslim East, Erbstosser says, the size and structure of Muslim cities must have been impressive for such crusaders.[1] At the beginning of the 11th century, Tripoli  in today’s Syria , had 80,000 inhabitants and its fortifications enclosed an area of about 12,000 hectares. Not only did it possess a series of palaces, but its five and six storey buildings were also an impressive sight.[2] The city also had centralised water supply systems, which were either in the form of cisterns with pipes leading to the houses of the wealthy citizens at least, or, in individual cases, consisting of an integrated mains supply system for the entire city.[3] The same can be said for other cities, where also street lighting had been common in their centres since the 10th century, vegetable oil being used as fuel in Syria, for example.[4] Public baths, with strict male and female segregation and sometimes of considerable artistic merit, were just as familiar a part of the urban scene as the great hospitals, libraries and schools.[5] The streets of Muslim cities were also paved, and many were actual mosaics of different coloured stones, often shaded with canopies stretching between the roofs of the buildings to give shelter from sun and rain.[6]


It was, thus, a new and alien world with advanced economic and cultural standards, that confronted the crusaders.[7] Indeed, the contrast between East and West as far as urbanisation goes could not be sharper. In medieval times, whilst Western Christendom was formed of a society primarily agrarian, feudal, and monastic, the strength of Islam was in its great cities, wealthy courts, and long lines of communication.[8] In Europe, the cities of antiquity had disappeared due to economic crises, (5th century) invasions and brigandage; the town was now merely a cramped castrum for defence and refuge; the period was marked by the triumph of the large estate and of rural economy ‘Barbarisation and ruralisation having spread over almost the whole of the Western World,’ says Lombard.[9] Which contrasts sharply with Islamic Cordova, a city of fountains; baths, schools, and much else, its thoroughfares, for a distance of miles, brilliantly illuminated, substantially paved, kept in excellent repair, regularly patrolled by guardians of the peace.[10] In Paris there were no pavements until the 13th century; in London none until the 14th; the streets of both capitals were often impassable, and it was only at the close of the reign of Charles II (17th century), that even a defective system of street lighting was adopted in London.[11] And the contrast was even greater, when considering that a city such as Baghdad  at the end of the 9th century had a population exceeding one million people, whilst even in the 13th century, Lombard insists, we are struck by the difference with Western Christendom; cities in Italy, or Flanders, with population not exceeding thirty or forty thousand people.[12] In 1700, London, the most populous city of the Christian West, was only half as large as Cordova was in 900, when Almeria and Seville  had ‘each as numerous a population as the capital of the British Empire eight hundred years afterwards.’[13] It was only in the 14th century that Paris, the largest city in the Christian West, reached three hundred thousand inhabitants.[14]


It is not just this contrast which is startling, especially when one considers today’s situation, it is more astounding that the early environment of Islam was the sands and tents of Arabia . Most remarkable of all, though, is the fact that, whilst Western medieval contemporaries, as just noted, were amazed at the superiority of the Islamic urban setting, just as the medieval Western scholars were amazed at Islamic learning, modern Western ‘scholars,’ in general, in their comments and writing on Muslim cities, turn everything upside down, and instead, deride the whole Islamic history of urbanism. This is one of the points of focus in this chapter. Other points will deal with the remarkable integration of early Islamic cities, including facilities and services, which surely anticipated those prevalent in modern cities of the advanced world today, and a management of urban services which today’s Islamic cities will be at great pain to match.   

[1] M. Erbstosser: The Crusades (David and Charles; Newton Abbot; Leipzig; 1978), pp. 130-1.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Z. Oldenbourg: The Crusades; tr from the French by A. Carter (Weinfeld and Nicolson; London; 1965), pp. 476; 498.

[7] M. Erbstosser: The Crusades; op cit; pp. 130-1.

[8] R.W. Southern: Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages (Harvard University Press, 1978), p. 7.

[9] M. Lombard: The Golden; op cit; p. 119.

[10] S.P. Scott: History; Vol 3; op cit; pp 520-2.

[11] Ibid.

[12] M. Lombard: l’Evolution Urbaine; pendant le Haut Moyen Age; in Annales, vol 2 (1957) pp. 7-28; p. 24.

[13] S.P. Scott: History; op cit; pp 520-2.

[14] M. Lombard: l’Evolution Urbaine;  op cit; p. 24.


Cities of Islam


The Islamic Urban Setting: Countering Western Fallacies

 Lombard notes that Sao Paulo in Brazil, said to be the fastest growing city in the world (its population rising from 60,000 in 1888 to 2 million in 1950), hardly, in fact, compares with the growth of Baghdad from 500 inhabitants in 762 to nearly 2 million in 800. This was by no means an isolated case.

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Urban Imperatives
 Fast urban growth in the Islamic world today is symbol of, or synonymous with, chaos, which is in sharp contrast with medieval Islam. Then, urban growth proceeded alongside order, aesthetics, and inclusive of basic amenities. Udovitch has noted how Islamic cities provided economic opportunities, and with their mosques, madrasas, churches, synagogues, schools, bathhouses, etc, contained all that was needed for leading ‘a religious and cultured life.

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Construction Skills, Aesthetics, and Historical Misrepresentations
 ‘It is only necessary to go through the literary and artistic works of the Arabs,’ [says Le Bon] ‘to notice that they always sought to embellish nature. The characteristic of Arabic art is imagination, the brilliant, splendour, exuberance in decoration, fantasy in the details. A race of poets- and poets doubled with artists. Having become rich enough to achieve all their dreams, they bred those fantastic palaces which seem to be sculptures of marbles engraved with gold and precious metals. No other people has possessed such marvels, and none will ever posses them. They correspond to an age of youth and illusion gone for ever. It is not this epoch of cold and utilitarian banality, which humanity has now entered where they could be sought.

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Impact from Within, and Impact on the West
 The point of departure of Islamic construction and design, obviously, is the mosque, and in a chronological order the first such mosque: the Prophet’s (PBUH) Mosque. Artz in his thorough and lengthy description of this edifice and those that followed captures the central element of faith as the fundamental determinant of both design and decoration.

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