In this module, we will focus on the Islamic city. We will discuss the term Islamic city and we will try to give you a general idea of what these medieval Islamic cities look like, how were the cities organized, and how could they grow to the size they did. Especially important is the role of water and the large quantities that were needed to sustain these large city populations. We will go into that in a second video. But let’s start with the term Islamic city. Why do we call it Islamic city? Much has been written on the Islamic city. But why do we interpret towns with a majority population of Muslims in terms of the dominating religion? We do not after all label towns in Europe as Christian or Jewish. Is there indeed something in the Islamic city that justifies this religious labeling? Before we can answer this question, we should look into the determining features of this so-called typical Islamic city. The concept of a Muslim or Islamic city, described as a recurring structure or pattern in scholarly writing, became popular between the 1920s and the 1950s and first only occurred in France. However, it was soon adopted elsewhere and is now often used by scholars in the Middle East itself as well. The initial accounts were strongly based on a black and white worldview of East versus West, whereby the defining feature of the East is considered the dominant religion, Islam. The description of Islamic cities was therefore mostly a comparison to a superior example of the European city. In some cases, it is in fact easier to find a description of what the Islamic city is not than of what it is. A typical Islamic city is generally described as a place of limited central planning. So, a quarter is a collection of individual houses and a city is a collection of individual quarters. That way of building inevitably leads to a labyrinth-like structure with irregular winding streets, many ending in a cul-de-sac. Some of the quarters almost functioned as a town within a town. Ethnic communities and religious minorities tended to unite within their own quarters. These communities would function fairly autonomously. Another distinguishing feature that is often mentioned is a strong contrast between zones. There are public zones and private zones. In the public zone, the central mosque and one or more souks or marketplaces formed the heart of the city. A distinctive feature of the marketplaces was that they were at least in part covered. Up until today, we can find this covered markets in old centers of many Muslim cities. Other distinguishing buildings in an Islamic city center were the madrasa school and the Hammam bathhouse. Not surprisingly, in larger cities that fulfilled a regional or national function, elements of governing structure could be found as well, such as palaces, courts, and a citadel. In residential areas, houses were typically turned inwards. The image of a Muslim house is one which on the outside would be made of plain-looking blank walls. All the splendor of the house, like a rich garden or courtyard, would remain hidden from the public view and was only accessible to the select few who had permission to enter the house. Though often mentioned as a typical Islamic building style, we can in fact find examples of enclosed gardens and courtyards throughout the Mediterranean and predating the rise of Islam as well. Moreover, this style of living seems to have been preserved for the rich. Since most interpretations of Islam forbid the depiction of human beings, and especially of the Prophet Muhammad, alternative styles of decoration evolved, most notably calligraphy and geometrical mosaics. These decorations tend to be very prominent in mosques, but we do find them in many other buildings as well. Though the shapes are different from one region to the next, they are very recognizable as Islamic decoration. Not as visible as landmarks like the central mosque, but essential to the functioning of the towns were elaborate water structures. Hydraulic engineering was already an important factor in the success of the Romans and the Persians but it was further developed by the Arabs in the Middle Ages. Since the heartland of the Muslim Empire was in a warm and dry area, careful water management was essential to the growth of Islamic cities. But back to our question: Can we justify what we call these cities Islamic cities? One reason for calling cities Islamic would be the presence of Islamic laws, sharia that determine the shape of cities. If we look at the early sources, Koran and Hadith, we hardly find any texts worth mentioning. If we look at later text, we do though, not surprisingly, find legislation concerned with city life, for instance, with regard to property, ownership, and commerce. However, there’s no reason to assume that the architectural shape of the city was determined by that legislation. Indeed, it makes more sense to conclude that the legislation derived from common practice. We do see that behavior or city life was in some ways dictated by Islamic laws. We see, for instance, that due to dietary changes, pigs quickly declined in number. But again, this hardly affected the architecture of the city. One thing we can argue affected city planning was the presence of fairly large communities of religious and ethnic minorities. Because Islamic laws protected Jews and Christians, we can see large communities living in their own quarters building their own houses of prayer and other institutions. Since the labyrinth structure of Islamic cities is largely due to these different communities creating towns within a town, we can state that one of the determining features of the medieval Islamic city paradoxically is the presence of non-Muslims with their own institutions and structures. But all in all, we should conclude that we cannot find any determining religious Islamic features, except maybe for the presence of a mosque in the architecture of cities all the way from Morocco to Indonesia that would really justify the use of the term Islamic city. Neither in terms of time nor in terms of geography can we indicate a strong denominator of where the Islamic city starts or ends. It is also clear that Islam did not determine everything that people did or thought in the cities. Scholars have therefore now mostly stopped using Islamic, preferring terms like Islamicate. You can read more about this in the assigned readings. However, the common in daily use remains Islamic city, and we will therefore use it in this course too. But by explaining the background of this term, we hope you understand the limitations and objections of this terminology.

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