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Symbolic and Political Production of Space in Capital Cities in the Middle East and Muslim World

Gülçin Erdi

Our special issue will focus on capital cities in countries which have authoritarian politics in different levels. We argue that, in the age of the nation-state, it is first and foremost the political and cultural functions which distinguish capitals from other cities by linking urban space to the national imaginary. The scientific literature is focusing on the fixed staging of political power in political geography and geopolitics and less has been said on the dynamics between the political regime and the fabrication of the city and lived and perceived lives in these cities (Morelle and Planel, 2018; Planel, 2015). Each national capital has a story reproducing a revised version of the national history. Architecture and landscape are then modelled and staged to show the weight of the new political power. They don’t only provide visual and spatial means of legitimation for a political regime or elite, but also as a genuine act of constituting political reality. In this case, a special attention will be given to the evolution of perceptions of urban aesthetics via architecture and design in different periods and political powers and how these perceptions affect the city, its population, and the image of country.

In this issue, we are planning to focus on the capitals of Muslim countries to propose a comparative perspective on the influence of similar aspects like the symbolic power of religion and the potential conflicts on the production of public spaces between various political ideologies and movements.

The issue has 3 main research lines

  1. the symbolic and political production of capital cities through the prism of power and political ideologies

  2. the influence of global urban networks and the circulation of international models in the urban development of capital cities

  3. forms of antagonism between the spaces designed and the spaces experienced: the various strategies of resistance and adaptation of the inhabitants and the alternative forms of appropriating space.

We focus mostly on capital cities with political disruptions at some level which have transformed the perception of capital city’s image as the mirror of political regimes. After regime changes and political rupture like revolution or coup d'état, policy makers took up new directions of planning and urbanism in these cities. In some cases, like Ankara and Astana, the capital has even changed after the political change and new urban spaces have been created in order to reflect the symbols of political power. For example, Ankara became the mirror of Republic erasing the Ottoman memory and then the AKP government under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s presidency attempts to impose a neo-ottoman style in the architecture for wiping off early republican era’s style. Astana reflects the will of policy makers to erase the spatial footprints of Soviet era to promote Turco-Islamic roots of the country.

Urban spaces are often reconfigured by political clashes between rival groups with distinct political, cultural and religious beliefs, and politics seek to translate these political divisions into physical structures and order of the city. The objective of the panel will be to study firstly the capital building process as the image of nation and political regime and then to show the backdoor struggles and divergences between different actors in the symbolic construction of space via capital cities.

Here are some key aspects to consider:

Historical Significance

Many capital cities in the Middle East and Muslim world have deep historical roots, often dating back centuries or even millennia. These cities have witnessed the rise and fall of empires, the spread of Islam, and the influence of various civilizations. Historical landmarks and monuments, such as palaces, mosques, and ancient ruins, play a significant role in shaping the symbolic production of space.

Religious and Cultural Identity

Islam plays a central role in the Middle East and Muslim world, and capital cities often feature prominent religious symbols and institutions. Mosques, shrines, and religious schools are essential elements of the urban landscape, and their locations and designs contribute to the symbolic representation of Islamic identity. Many capital cities in the Muslim world incorporate elements of Islamic urban design principles. These principles often include the presence of central squares or courtyards, grand mosques, and extensive use of calligraphy and geometric patterns in architecture. The design aims to reflect Islamic values and create a sense of harmony and order.

Monumental Architecture

Capital cities often showcase monumental architecture and urban planning as a symbol of national identity and progress. These structures, such as modern skyscrapers, government complexes, and cultural centres, project a sense of modernity and economic development.

Public Spaces and Urban Design

The design and allocation of public spaces, parks, and squares in capital cities have political significance. These areas often serve as venues for public gatherings, demonstrations, and celebrations, enabling the expression of political and social demands.

In addition, public spaces and plazas in capital cities often play a crucial role in the political production of space. They can serve as venues for political rallies, demonstrations, and celebrations, allowing people to express their political and social affiliations. Examples include Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, which became a symbol of the Arab Spring  protests.

National Museums and Cultural Institutions

Capital cities often house national museums and cultural institutions that preserve and promote national identity and history. These institutions play a significant role in shaping narratives and disseminating the ruling ideology. They showcase cultural heritage, artifacts, and historical narratives that align with the dominant political discourse.

Political Power Centers

Capital cities are centers of political power and governance. They house government institutions, presidential palaces, parliament buildings, and administrative offices. The layout and architecture of these areas reflect the authority and grandeur associated with political power.

Government districts and presidential palaces in capital cities serve as symbols of political power and authority. They are often heavily guarded and act as physical manifestations of state sovereignty. Examples include the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey, and the Qasr Al Watan in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

Urban Planning and Infrastructure

The spatial organization and infrastructure of capital cities are often influenced by political considerations. The development of grand boulevards, administrative districts, and landmark structures are intentional efforts to shape the physical and symbolic landscape of the city, projecting power and authority.

Contested Spaces

Capital cities in the Middle East and the Muslim world may also have contested spaces that reflect political, ethnic, or religious tensions. These areas can become sites of protest, resistance, or conflicting narratives. For example, the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif complex in Jerusalem is a highly contested religious site for Muslims and Jews. In the case of our capital cities, Forest farm of Atatürk in Ankara is a politically contested area between islamist power and republicans in terms of urban memory and heritage.

Urban Segregation and Inequality

Capital cities in the Middle East and Muslim world can also display stark socio-economic inequalities and spatial segregation. Wealthier areas, characterized by luxury developments and high-end commercial centres, may exist alongside marginalized neighbourhoods with inadequate infrastructure and services. These spatial divisions reflect underlying political and economic dynamics.

And finally,

Geopolitical Issues

The geopolitical context of the region can influence the symbolic and political production of space in capital cities. Strategic locations, such as proximity to important resources or neighbouring countries, can shape the development and prominence of capital cities.

By considering all of these aspects, it is essential to recognize that each capital city in the Middle East and Muslim world has its unique historical, cultural, and political contexts, which contribute to the symbolic and political production of space. The interplay between these factors helps shape the urban landscape and the representation of power, identity, and governance within these cities.

It is also important to note that the production of space in capital cities is not static, and it evolves over time, reflecting the changing political dynamics and aspirations of societies. Different regimes or ruling powers may leave their mark on the urban landscape, shaping the symbolic and political significance of these cities.

For any submission, please contact Dr Gülçin Erdi and refer to the relevant Méditerranée instructions for authors

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