06/01: Islamic City Planning

 The five cities in four countries mentioned in yesterday’s post find themselves with the Dar-al-Islam, within the historic boundaries of the Islamic Empire of the middle ages and later the Ottoman Empire. As a result of this shared history, certain urban structures and organization patterns can be seen as shared amongst the five cities. Stephano Bianca outlines much of this history and its influence on the development of Islamic cities in the book Urban Forms in the Arab Word: Past and Present.

Bianca begins by describing the influence of Islam on the social and urban structures of the Arab world. The strength of its ritualized living patterns dispensed with the need for many formal institutions. A large number of administrative structures which are normally identified with cities- at least in Europe- did not develop, simply because the society had internalized its structuring constraints, which minimized the need for external controls. … Traditional Islamic cities had no municipalities comparable to those of the Western world. … The lack of formal institutions resulted in the absence of outstanding government buildings such as city halls, courts or audience halls and related formal open spaces. Most of the institutional functions were fulfilled by the Friday Mosque, the prime public building, which … had not only religious but all sorts of political and social functions. … While being the major religious building, it usually remained a polyvalent structure integrated into the urban fabric, with no intention of expressing the power of religious or secular authorities.1 Here the point is made that the increased presence of institutions in society is not only a modern phenomenon but a western one as well. The physical manifestation of the state was limited to city walls, a few citadels and the Mosque, which payed tribute more to the Almighty than the local political leaders. The mosque served as both a civic and a religious center. “Joint prayer is encouraged and is mandatory for men at Friday noon, when it coincides with a civic assembly of the community. On this occasion, the inhabitants of a township or a region are addressed by their political leader, his representative or another trusted member of the community who acts as their ‘imam’”2. “This weekly ceremony involved the implicit (but not less obligatory) confirmation of the social contract between the ruler and the ruled. It implied both the acceptance of the executive authority of the ruler by the community and the adherence to the given religious laws by the ruler.”3

The city became a fabric of residences surrounding the central mosque, with a few other public buildings (markets, baths) serving as urban nodes. The residential districts are shielded off from the main streams of public life. The houses, often closely knit together, or built wall to wall in the case of the courtyard structures, form inward-oriented autonomous units which are protected against visual intrusion from the street or from neighboring buildings. … the sanctuary of the house is not directly exposed to alien influences … which preserves the ‘aura’ of the family sphere and prevents friction with the public realm.4 The non-linear streets, dead end alleys and organic growth patterns are an extension of this privacy bestowed upon individual residences. The street one lived on was not subject to excessive traffic, and the lack of linear streets prevented individual homes being subject to attention from the public realm.

1Bianca, Stephano. Urban Form in the Arab World. Pages 30-31

2Bianca 101

3Bianca 109

4Bianca 38


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