The Islamic city and architectural Orientalism

The Islamic city and architectural Orientalism
Book Club: Early twentieth century studies of the Islamic city take an Orientalist approach that fails to understand the true rationale behind the cities architectural heritage.
4 min read
09 March, 2015
Islamic cities typically have small winding alleyways [Getty]
In the early twentieth century, there were two main approaches to European studies of the Islamic city. The first was an English approach that attributed the city’s architecture to social and religious factors. The second was the French approach that employed a detailed analysis of the cityscape.

The second approach began during French colonialism when France controlled large areas around the Mediterraneanbasin, and saw the city as a system that needs to be described in detail before it can be politically controlled.

The City in the Islamic World (Brill, 2008), edited by Palestinian author and critic Salma Jayyusi, and recently translated and published in Arabic by the Centre for Arab Unity Studies, challenges Orientalist studies of the Islamic city through postcolonial criticism.

Composed of 46 original academic articles by authoritative scholars in the field, the book uses the latest archaeological, topographical and archival research available. It also uses sociological and anthropological field studies to crystallise a more vibrant perspective of how these cities operated and continue to operate as sites of identity and culture.

The book presents a sectional view of the Islamic city based on an interdisciplinary approach that not only deals with the historical development of a city but also takes modern and current transformations into account. Most of the book’s research also employs the typomorphology theories of the Italian architect Saverio Muratori. Its two volumes cover 50 cities across the Muslim world, such as Bukhara, Samarqand, Isfahan, Hyderabad, Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, Cairo, Tripoli, Rabat and Harar in Ethiopia.
The Orientalist approach ... has been slowly replaced by a more nuanced understanding
The French approach to understanding the Islamic city, theorised by the French historians William and Georges Marcais, bases the Islamic urban model on the importance of religion and the idea of conflict between urban and nomadic population.

The Marcais brothers hypothesised about the presence of the mosque at the heart of the city and the structure of the market (souq) organized hierarchically from the mosque to the city gates, followed by neighbourhoods organised on the basis of ethnic divisions without any municipal organisation.

Robert Brunschvig adopted the erroneous theories of the Marcais brothers and shared the wide spread tendency of Orientalist studies, describing the form of Islamic cities as "irrational" and lacking in any plan.

Later on, Orientalists ascribed the origins of certain elements in the urban structure, for example the narrow winding streets, to the spontaneous and unplanned nature of Islamic cities, its internal chaos, and its residents' nomadic origins.

However with the development of morphological studies, the Orientalist approach that was salient in western studies of Islamic cities has been slowly replaced by a more nuanced understanding of the urban model of these cities. Furthermore, a greater understanding of the unique character of each city developed, replacing the generalised view that combined widely divergent cities under one urban model.

In response to the Orientalist theories of Islamic cities, the book's research affirmed all the characteristics denied by Orientalist scholarship, by demonstrating that Orientalists could not grasp the models employed in the building of Islamic cities and therefore described at as chaotic and irrational. Some of the studies try to prove the planned nature of Islamic cities while others argue that what might at first glance look chaotic, does in fact follow a plan.

To understand the Islamic city, one should look at the research of Afif Bahnassi, for example, who writes: "Most cities in the Islamic world, with the exception of Cairo, followed a shared general design for houses that took climate and humidity into account."

According to Bahnassi early Umayyad cities such as Kairouan and Wasit or Abbasid cities such as Samarra were designed according to an architectural plan that ensured straight roads as wide as 50 meters. However, they did not last long because social and climatic factors forced residents to opt for more dense city models.

Bahnassi argues that roads and alleyways were planned as narrow and winding because houses, palaces and buildings contained courtyards that let in an abundance of sunlight and air, therefore reducing the need for wide streets. Furthermore, the narrow streets provided shade and trapped cold air during the night which was released during the heat of the day.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.