The Transformation of Middle Eastern Cities in the 12th Century: Financing Urban Renewal

The Transformation of Middle Eastern Cities in the 12th Century: Financing Urban Renewal

By Stefan Heidemann

AKPIA@MIT FORUM: Studies In Architecture, History and Culture (2008)

Introduction: The 12th century was a period of rapid change in the Middle East. It was a time of renewal as well as completion as the cityscapes’ Islamization came to a head. In Syria and Northern Mesopotamia a vast building program finally transformed the late Roman/early Islamic city of the sixth to the tenth centuries – followed by almost two centuries of decline – to the prosperous medieval city of the twelfth to sixteenth centuries, which can be still seen in the old towns of modern cities in the Middle East. The majority of the urban populations had become Muslim, and, with the appearance of a strong Muslim constituency, the cities became dominated by Islamic buildings and institutions, such as congregational mosques, schools of higher learning (madrasa), convents for mystics (khanqah), and hospitals. The period prior to the Seljuq conquest of Syria in 1087 witnessed urban decline. The beginning of the urban, political and economic renaissance, and the extensive Zangid and Ayyubid building programs are all comparatively well‐known. However, the political and economic structures behind this growth and expansion are less familiar.

After the Seljuqs laid down the military, administrative, and fiscal foundations, the Zangids conducted far‐reaching economic and fiscal reforms that allowed for that urban transformation throughout the area. At the same time the Zangids adjusted many of the existing political and economic institutions to the regulations of the revealed law, the shari’a. The Zangid’s care for Islam, shari‘a and jihad was vital for their legitimization of power.

Approaches that follow Max Weber’s views of the development of the cities in the Middle East usually fail to address what made the Islamic city work because they focus on constitution, privilege and legal and political autonomy. Although these issues can be fruitful, a crucial, distinctive, and frequently overlooked issue in the development of Middle Eastern cities is that of the legal system. Islamic law was almost independent from the ruler and provided for a legal security and relative predictability of legal decisions from the Maghreb to Central Asia. Islamic law makes no distinction between free citizens and peasants, in principle. From the standpoint of the nexus between urban development and legal systems, the visible growth of cities in the Middle East during the 12th century followed a different path than that of the West. The multidisciplinary project ‘the transformation of Middle Eastern cities in the 12th century’ aims at achieving a better understanding of economic growth and urban change in pre‐modern societies. It employs as its criteria patterns of land tenure, urban and rural taxation, and the monetary and legal systems.

In the middle of the 12th century a new waqf policy was enacted by a ruler from the Seljuq tradition, Nur al‐Din Mahmud ibn Zangi (r. 1146‐1174). The intention of his waqf policy went far beyond the mere financing of single institutions. The waqf policy meant the systematic use of a legal instrument of private law for general public institutions and duties that fell – in the broad sense – under the responsibility of the state. This function of the waqf is familiar to scholars of the Mamluk and Ottoman periods, but it is not yet established when and why this conscious policy began in the Seljuq and Zangid period and what immediate impacts it had on the transformation of the cities.

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