Exploring the Early Islamic City
Urban Crossroads #40

               The Umayyad Palace in the Amman Citadel. (CSBE)

               The Umayyad Palace in the Amman Citadel. (CSBE)

There are many ways through which we obtain information about the past. In the case of the recent past, a good deal is conveyed through oral traditions. Otherwise, our knowledge of the past is conveyed mainly through its written sources, and also through its material history, which includes a wide range of physical remains such as utilitarian and decorative objects as well as buildings and urban fabrics that make up the built environment. Some examples of the built environment have come down to us in relatively well-preserved condition; others only have survived as archaeological remains.

One period of history that has been the subject of considerable interest over the past century or so is that of early Islamic history, the formative period of Islamic civilization, which roughly extends from the first half of the seventh century through the middle of the ninth century. Because of the relative insufficiency of written sources that survive from this early period, a significant part of our knowledge of it has depended on excavation activities that have taken place in various Muslim sites, many of which are located in greater Syria and in Iraq. The information that these excavations provide has been supported by modern technological developments, as with satellite photography, which allow for extensive additional documentation of such sites. Those excavations and supporting satellite photographs help us construct a better and fuller understanding of the social, cultural, economic, and political history of the early Islamic period.

The early Islamic period was one in which numerous cities were greatly developed or even came into being. The Islamic world's first imperial dynasty - that of the Umayyads, which ruled from 661 - 750, carried out considerable construction activity, ranging from individual buildings to complete settlements, primarily located in greater Syria. This passion for construction was continued by their successors, the Abbasid dynasty, which ruled from 750 - 1258. The Abbasids, however, shifted their construction activities to regions located further east, such as eastern Syria, Iraq, and Iran.

A conference that the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) organized a few weeks ago presented a number of findings regarding the early Islamic city. The papers of the conference concentrated on important archaeological data made available by excavations carried out over the past two decades or so.

One of the papers addressed the relatively little-known site of Hisn Maslama, an Umayyad foundation located in the north of present-day Syria. Nine excavation campaigns have been carried out in this site, which was founded during the first half of the eighth century. The site extends over two kilometers in length, and its planning features show a combination of Roman practices, as with the use of an overall orthogonal plan, and of Umayyad practices, as with the incorporation of the residential unit using what is known as the Arab bayt plan.

Other papers addressed later Abbasid sites such as al-Raqqa, which the 'Abbasid ruler Harun al-Rashid established as his royal city in the late eighth century. This settlement soon expanded to include the nearby fortified city of al-Rafiqa, with the commercial and industrial city of al-Raqqa al-Muhtariqa, located between the two. The excavations carried out in this urban conglomeration are very important. Among other things, they provide information about the little-known subject of medieval industrial zones, which produced the various materials needed by the inhabitants of the city, including construction materials, pottery, and metalwork. Chronologically, the papers end with a study of Samarra, the expansive royal suburb of Baghdad that the Abbasids established in 836 and abandoned less than sixty years later, in 892. During its short lifetime as a royal settlement, Samarra extended over 50 kilometers in length.

The papers of the conference also touched upon thematic issues. These include a study of the continuity between the construction activities of the Umayyads and those of one of their predecessors, the Arab Ghassanids, who ruled parts of greater Syria under Byzantine suzerainty. Another theme is that of the transition from the Sasanian Iranian city to the Islamic city, which remains an almost totally unexplored subject, in contrast to the transformation of the late-antique Byzantine city into the Islamic one, about which a considerable literature has been produced. In fact, one of the purposes of the conference was to explore the transition from the pre-Islamic to the early-Islamic city. Such transitions were not necessarily abrupt and often contained higher levels of continuity than generally is believed.

The early Islamic settlements of Jordan featured heavily in the papers of the conference. During the rule of the Umayyad dynasty, the area of present-day Jordan enjoyed a great deal of prosperity and was the recipient of considerable construction activity. Two Umayyad examples, those of the Amman citadel complex and of Ayla in present-day Aqaba, provide very important examples that help us understand the evolution of the early Islamic city.

People study the past for a variety of interconnected reasons. Some do so simply out of intellectual curiosity. Others study the past out of a sense of romanticism that emotionally binds human beings to events and physical objects from bygone eras. Some examine the past for doctrinal reasons, in order to strengthen specific ideological positions often connected to nationalistic or religious sentiments. There also are those who study the past in order to search for and explore religious, intellectual, national, or ethnic roots to which they feel a sense of belonging or affiliation. There also are those who want to investigate human nature, and believe that the actions of individuals and groups from the past, whether enlightened or disastrous in their consequences, have much to teach us.

The papers of this conference provide fresh information for those interested in studying early Islamic history, wherever their interest in studying the past might lie. These papers might seem too detailed, technical, and specialized for the layman with a general interest in early Islamic history. However, it is through such papers that the initial processing of raw data from the past takes place. The knowledge they present eventually is filtered to make its way into more general writings about history, thus allowing the educated public to achieve a deeper and broader understanding of the past.

Mohammad al-Asad

June 2, 2005