Medieval Apartment Buildings

We know that medieval cities could be crowded and space could be in short supply. There are even some places where people lived in what we would call apartment buildings.

The modern apartment building began to emerge in the 18th and 19th centuries, first in Paris, then spreading to other major cities. By the 1850s elevators were being invented that could safely lift people, and this allowed apartment buildings to be built much higher than just four or five floors. This type of housing system then flourished over much of the world, with many urban residents calling this home today.


While apartment buildings are seen as a modern invention, there are several examples of this kind of structure in past centuries, from several cultures. In some cases, this would happen in highly-populated urban areas, where the demands for housing led people to build up. Ancient Rome had a type of apartment building known as ‘insula’ (meaning ‘island’), which could be several storeys high and typically accommodate 40 people. Around the same in the Americas, the city of Teotihuacan was mostly made up of apartment compounds the could house dozens of people. This allowed the city to grow to as many as 100,000 residents.

When it comes to the Middle Ages, one of the most important cities in the world was Cairo. Founded only in the year 969, the city grew very rapidly in just a few decades, thanks to it being an epicentre of international trade. Medieval travelers were often in awe at its palaces, markets and mix of peoples, and they also left evidence of the use of apartment buildings.

The tenth-century geographer Al-Maqdisi would have known Cairo well, as he came to live in the city in the final years of his life. In the year 985 he wrote The Best Divisions for the Knowledge of the Provinces, where he praised the city, calling it “without compare in the world.” Al-Maqdisi also noted that in one section of town there were buildings four or five storeys tall, and large enough to accommodate 200 people. He added that there was also an internal courtyard, which allowed for sunlight to get through into the various units.


Several decades later another writer came to Cairo. Nasir Khusraw was a Persian poet, considered today one of the greatest of his era. Between the years 1046 and 1052 he went traveled around the Islamic world, going a total of 19,000 kilometres. His account of this adventure, the Safarnama (The Book of Travels) includes vivid descriptions of Jerusalem, Mecca and other places. But he spends more time writing about Cairo than any other place, and was clearly impressed by its size and wealth. When describing one section of the city he said it looked like “a mountain”, and then goes on:

There are places where the houses are fourteen storeys tall and others seven. I heard from a reliable source that one person has on top of a seven-storey house a garden where he raised a calf. He also has a waterwheel up there turned by this ox to lift water from a well down below. He has orange trees and also bananas and other fruit-bearing trees, flowers, and herbs planted on the roof.

Khusraw adds that these buildings could be home to as many as 350 people, and they lived in units that were roughly 15 square metres (or 160 square feet) in size. This part of Cairo was so dense with tall buildings that in the bazaars and lanes “lamps always must be kept lit because no light ever falls upon the ground where people to and fro.”


While Cairo declined somewhat in later centuries, even in the Later Middle Ages they had apartment complexes, also known as rab’. Doris Behrens-Abouseif explains that they would have shops and businesses on the ground floor and living units above them, which would be rented out by the month. Very little of the medieval architecture of Cairo has survived to the present-day, but we do have an excellent example of what a medieval apartment would have looked like in Yemen.

“Manhattan of the desert”

Dating back to the 3rd century AD, the city of Shibam in Yemen became wealthy from its trade in frankincense. This wealth also attracted enemies, and the townspeople decided to build their city upwards and dense. Today there are about 500 of these highrise houses, which rise between five and eleven storeys high (up to 30 metres or 98 feet). These date back to the sixteenth century and are made of mud bricks.

Similar types of buildings also existed in medieval Italy, where rich families would create their own towers out of their urban homes. This was largely a defensive measure, but some records of floors being rented out as apartments do exist. Few of these towers survive to the present day, with one notable example being San Gimignano.


One final example of a pre-modern apartment building can be seen in southern China. In the province of Fujian, the Hakka people have a long-standing tradition of building apartment complexes known as tulou. Dating back to the twelfth century, these are rectangular or circular structures that were between three and five storeys high and housing up to 800 people. Also built as a defensive measure, these buildings could be viewed as their own little city.

As part of his work Science and Civilisation in China, Joseph Needham describes what a tulou would look like.

inward-facing apartments with balconies for individual families forming the periphery and looking down on a central circular courtyard around which are set guest-rooms, washing-places and yards for pigs and poultry. An assembly hall and the ancestral chapel are arranged diametrically opposite the main entrance, while lavatories, milling and pounding sheds, also brick-built, occupy lateral positions outside the main perimeter.

Hundreds of these buildings still remain in the region. Like Shibam, these places provide physical proof that medieval people could create impressive and tall buildings when needed to, and like many of us today could make their homes high above the streets.


Further Readings:

Doris Behrens-Abouseif, Islamic Architecture in Cairo: An Introduction (American University in Cairo Press, 1989)

Nasir Khusraw, Book of Travels (Safarnama), translated by W.M. Thackston (Persian Heritage Foundation, 1986)

Al-Maqdisi, The Best Divisions for Knowledge of the Regions, translated by Basil Collins (Garnet Publishing Limited, 2001)

Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, Volume 3: Physics and Physical Technology (Cambridge University Press, 1971)


Top Image: Photo of the skyline at Shibam. Photo by Dan / Flickr


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