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Architectural Characteristics of The Islamic City
Jan 1, 1998

There is no firm consensus on what the term islamic city’ means. It can mean a city founded by Muslims during some particular, historical epoch. Or a city whose design, construction and expansion took place during epochs dominated by Islamic civilization. Or a city that has in it certain, specific features generally identified as Islamic’ (mosques and minarets, for example). Or a city, old or new, that happens to be located within the Islamic world. And finally, the term is sometimes used as a theoretical or abstract concept, a kind of ideal city whose architectural styles and relationships are inspired by full adherence to the norms and values of Islam.

In this discussion we will look at typical architectural forms of the Islamic city which reflect the social and cultural characteristics of Islamic community, and the impact upon the Islamic city and its Muslim inhabitants of the cultural invasion by modern Western ( practices in urban design.

Architectural changes in the Islamic city

It is difficult to identify the architectural characteristics of cities in the Arab region before the advent of Islam because some have vanished and others have been greatly altered by developments after Islam. Most were established in the river valleys of the Nile, the Tigris and the Euphrates, and the littoral of the Levant and the southern Mediterranean. The prevailing type of major human settlements the Muslims encountered was the Greek-Roman type, a chess-board plan of equal sectors around the forum as administrative and commercial centre. Otherwise, the settlements were clusters of houses, more like villages rather than cities, and separated by open lands. Archeological remains show that most of these houses had internal yards to cope with the climatic and environmental conditions. There were also advanced engineering systems to provide the cities with water and irrigation. Greek colonies had long been established in urban settlements in Asia Minor, Syria and Palestine, as well as in parts of Egypt and North Africa. These were taken over by the Romans when they extended their empire to the eastern Mediterranean areas. There, they built cities sited and garrisoned for military purposes but soon afterwards transformed into commercial centres with markets and factories. Roman cities were distinguished from other cities in the southern and eastern Mediterranean region by their rigidly hierarchic arrangement of buildings and houses-the governing elite being nearest the centre and the lowest classes being furthest away.

This architectural pattern remained in place unchanged till around the middle of the seventh century when the rule of Islam spread, with unprecedented speed, out of the Arabian Peninsula westward across North Africa, northward over Asia Minor, and eastward across the former Persian empire. The region then witnessed the highest architectural growth in its long history. The Muslims followed Islamic Law and Islamic teachings on social and cultural aspects of community life in managing the cities they had conquered and the new cities they founded. Of the latter the most important- Basra (I4AH/635), Kufa (17AH/639), Fustat (21AH/641), Qairawan (48AH/670) and others-were large garrison settlements to start with but, as provincial administrative capitals, grew in size and importance as centres of Islamic learning and civilization-Fustat, for example, became Cairo.

While city planning and building necessarily responded to local conditions, there are typical architectural features by which the Islamic city is distinguished. The most important of these is the congregational mosques, built to express and focus the religious commitment of the Muslim community and its solidarity. The commercial and administrative activities and associated buildings grew around this central symbol of the Islamic city. An equally significant feature was the division of the cities into quarters where the Arab settlers were first housed: in many cases the different quarters are still called by the names of the clans who first inhabited them. There were also separate quarters for non-Arab converts to Islam from among the conquered peoples and, later, quarters also for the non-Muslims, the different areas being linked by roads and lanes and joined to the common centre.

The city was surrounded by a wall which, in addition to providing

some defence in the event of military attack, protected the inhabitants against the sand-laden desert winds. Access into the city was by large gates in the city walls, then along the main spinal roads where the commercial activities were concentrated. Workshops and small factories were situated side by side, often co-operating in the production of different articles. Islamic schools were situated around the central mosque, often funded by the rentals from traders in the nearby marketplace which typically had associated craft-shops such as book-binding and book-selling, sign writing, carpet making, etc, close to the central area. Commercial centres also grew up around the main city gates, serving the residential areas of the city and outlying villages. From the commercial centre, streets and roads branched out, usually becoming narrower and more winding, more disposed to provide seclusion than general access, into the residential quarters. Here too, there were smaller mosques and prayer-halls, but this was, broadly speaking, the private as distinct from the public part of the city, and intended to provide peace and quiet, intimacy and security, to the inhabitants. This arrangement, with its public/private division is still visible in some of the older cities of North Africa.

The elevations on the Islamic city streets are distinguished by their plainness and simplicity, very few openings and the low height commensurate wh the width of the streets. In contrast to the simplicity of architectural expression of the exterior facades, the interior of the houses was rich in architectural details and ornamentation, varying according to the tastes and means of the occupants. Thus, while simplicity and likeness on the outside confirmed the solidarity and egalitarianism of the community, the variety and wealth of the interiors allowed for individual freedom.

As noted above, building design varied from location to location, with different architectural solutions being adopted to suit different conditions. The wind tower (malqaf) is an example. In the dry hot areas it is directed to the north where winds blow most times of the year. Thus air is funnelled from top to bottom through moist elements in order to increase the percentage of moisture in the air and so enhance the feeling of coolness during the hot summer days. In more humid areas, the air corridor is pointed to all four sides in order to increase the chance of catching the wind flow, and the air is directed from top to bottom through moisture-absorbing elements to reduce the effects of summer humidity.

Though a central market-place is a common architectural feature of Islamic cities, public squares never achieved the prominence they have in Western cities, with the exception of some examples such as Shah Square in Isfahan, an impressive 510 m by 165 m and surrounded by shops and overlooked by the splendid Shah Mosque with its many domes at the entrance of the main city market.

With the decline of the Ottoman Turkish state from the late seventeenth century onwards, as the trade and commercial life of the Islamic world was squeezed by the expansion of the maritime powers of western Europe, the Islamic cities fell into a corresponding architectural decline and chaos. Thus, the golden epoch of the Islamic city in the Middle East was during the period between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, continued into the eighteenth century in the area under Ottoman rule in such places as Istanbul, Bursa, Konya and Bosnia. In the nineteenth century, following the industrial revolution in Europe, European economic and military superiority began to curtail the independence of Muslim peoples all over the Islamic world, most of whom were eventually colonized. The changes that followed affected the social and economic life of the Islamic world and the changes were reflected in the architecture of the Muslims’ cities. Cultural values that had prevailed in the Islamic city were set back, and the Islamic city lost its cultural identity and its distinct architectural feel.

The modern city, needing to provide large populations with utilities and public services, called for new patterns in urban planning contrary to the planning patterns of traditional cities. These new patterns were imported to the Islamic world from the West together with Western technologies, and cities came to be designed for road networks for vehicles and utilities networks. Western architectural forms appeared in public buildings like banks, courts, universities, schools and administrative centres, as well as in private palaces and private homes. Thinkers and architects in the Islamic world have been deeply disturbed by these changes and have searched for forms which can link the contemporary Islamic city with the values, teachings and spirit of Islam, an effort that is part and parcel of the general quest to rebuild a contemporary Islamic civilization.

Traditional Islamic architecture and modern dwellings

According to Islamic tradition, man is the high aim or object of creation, born perfectible though capable of sin and charged with the responsibility of constructing a beautiful world, almost a reflection of Paradise. So, in Islam, a work of art can be regarded as the product of human will and effort, individual and collective, to make the world (and human life in the world) beautiful. That is one of the reasons why architecture has been prominent among other fine arts in Islamic societies.

Western domination of Muslim lands has had its effect on architecture. As in the modern West, Muslim intellectuals have ceased to see life an integrated whole, and deal with the problems that arise separately, with little care or attention to the consequences of their solutions for the life of the community as a whole. Modern attitudes give priority to the material dimensions of life, to the short cycle of production and consumption, investment and drawing profit. This makes it very difficult to build for beauty, to build for the generations to come. That is why newness and being modern is part of the self-consciousness of even the most important public building projects in the West, and it is difficult to see how aggressively modern buildings can become loved over the centuries in the way that the pre-modern traditionally built monuments are loved, and loved as beautiful even when they are in ruins. A modern building in ruins is unbearably ugly. The emphasis on material considerations has of course also meant a cruel functionalism, the reduction of building to the economic calculation of maximum rent per square millimetre of land, or maximum dwelling space for minimum production costs. The effects on design and choice of materials of these considerations has resulted in the towers of steel and cement which so alienate and depress modern city- dwellers. The contemporary Islamic city has not, unfortunately, escaped the pressures to conform to the styles dominant in the Western cities.

The modern Islamic city is no longer a unity or totality encompassing the family, the district, the natural environment, unifying action with the spiritual, the functional with the beautiful, the private secluded space for family residence with access to public space for communal, collective activities. Individualism has captivated almost all people, with the result that almost no one tries to build in accord or harmony with his neighbours, near or far, but tries to outdo them. Ostentation in exterior facades has come to characterize both private and public buildings, with individuals trying to show off their wealth or taste, and corporations or departments of state trying to project their power or authority onto the streets to impress passers-by.

When human existence began to be viewed as made up of disconnected material and spiritual elements, the arts, architecture included, inevitably reflected the change. Art is not now that beauty of man-made things which appears (and should appear) in the ordinary use of things, to add (like good manners) grace to ordinary living, to elevate the spirit. Instead, art has become that which is seen in special objects, prized and priced by specialists, pieces for the museum: the beautiful carpet is hung on the wall. Architecture of course has to be useful, practical, and has consequently suffered the worst extreme of the effects of commercialism and mass-production. Thus, families are not linked to each other by shared spaces leading into accessible areas where they do things in common like going to the mosque or the market, but are instead stacked one on top of the other in residential towers of steel, concrete and glass, as physically near to each other as ever but near without easy accessibility, so that people feel crowded without feeling together. The pressure of land values has become so intense in certain cities that, in some individual buildings, as many as 30.000 people may come and go each day, with all the necessary services laid on: as exercises of human power and planning, these buildings are spectacular achievements, but insofar as architecture is supposed to provide an environment which expresses the values of human life and symbolizes great human aspirations, these buildings are failures. The values they express are this-worldly materialism and commercialism, functionality disconnected from the higher purposes and the deeper needs of human beings.

Belief in eternity is central in Muslim life and has had a very particular influence on Islamic architecture. Belief in eternity leads a Muslim to see everything as formed in an infinitude of time and space which cannot be changed by man, cannot be divided into parcels. What first interests a Muslim architect is, rather than the size and shape of the site, the architectural features in spatial infinitude, that is, the relation of the site to its environment and how the whole space around the site fells. The site is seen in its full environmental context, not as a fixed and separate volume exploitable for some specific building purpose. That is why the traditional Islamic constructions, especially those for public use, were complexes of buildings-- mosque, school, pool or fountain with faucets at the sides for ablution, library, bath houses, and residential rooms for teachers or students.What first catches the eye is not the individual buildings composing the collection, but the collection itself, so it is experienced as a whole with all its fronts, from top to bottom, from bottom to top. (In the West, the mediaeval collegiate buildings in the ancient universities like Oxford or Cambridge which were derived from Islamic models, are the nearest equivalent though. of course, being cut off from the normal life of the towns in which they were situated, these buildings do not have the feel of Islamic mosque-madrassa-market-place complexes.)

The infinitude of space in Islamic architecture showed itself both in the horizontal extension seen from windows, and in the vertical extension symbolized by the minarets and domes of mosques. Intimate courtyards, often arcaded with asymmetrical arches, set off by trees, gardens and flowers, and surrounded by high walls, symbolized privacy: while their firmness of construction symbolized the hope of eternity and beauty everlasting. The roof lines, bay windows and wooden latticework over windows, the terraces and the variety of interior ornamentation expressed spiritual richness, serenity and quiet, a kind of solemn peace at ease with itself-this is especially characteristic of Turkish architecture with its wealth of naturalistic motifs.

The older Turkish houses especially were dwellings providing both privacy and sociability-dwellings where the sanctity of family life was deeply felt but whose seclusion was not an isolation because the structure was complementary to similar residences spaced closely in the whole district. They inspired the feeling of a meaningful, modest existence and were lively, secure and spacious, homes in which the residents lived conscious of their own identity and of their belonging to their community.

Islam is based on unity in multiplicity and harmonious wholeness of opposites. It frees man from intellectual and spiritual fragmentation, unifying his life on the basis of tawhid. Tawhid, that is, attributing all existence to God and affirming His Unity, without associating any partners with Him, is the integrative principle of harmony, able to align the physical with the metaphysical, the functional with the ideal, the corpo-real with the spiritual, and the individual with the communal. All dimensions of man’s earthly life have their proper stations within the matrix of Tawhid so that each can serve its function and enable man to be at peace with his whole being, his self, his family, his community and the natural world, and ultimately to earn happiness in both worlds. Tawhid enables a Muslim to maintain a holistic view of life; to see the city and its districts and their functions, and his home, within the one same whole, as fully interconnected and interdependent. It is unsurprising if a Muslim is exceptionally challenged and alienated by the assumptions and values which underlie modern Western thinking and the cities it has produced.