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Bosworth Edmund C. (ed.), Historic Cities of the Islamic World, Leiden-Boston, Brill, 2007, 583 p., 32 pages of maps and illustrations

Valérie Gonzalez

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1In Historic Cities of the Islamic World, the reputed specialist of Islamic history, C.E. Bosworth, has collected the entries dealing with the most important urban formations in the history of Islamic culture that were published in the second edition of the Encyclopaedia of Islam. The book thus displays the same pragmatic organization of the Encyclopaedia in which each city under observation is to be found following the alphabetical order. But unlike the latter, this volume lists the different locations under their English name in order to facilitate its use. A substantial corpus of plans, and black and white photographs is included at the end of the text. Many essays involve the participation of several authors, from two to four of them. The editor himself offers his inputs in both single and collective entries.

2This book provides a useful and practical tool to whoever is interested or engaged in urban studies of Muslim countries, as it gathers in a single volume general historical and cultural information on a rather exhaustive list of Islamic cities (some important cities such as Granada in Spain are missing though). However, as the editor himself says in his introduction, the nature of his project was based on works that were previously published. Consequently, the information provided in Historic Cities of the Islamic World is the product of the founding or early period of the field of urban studies in Islam. It does not reflect the wealth of updated developments and diversified approaches of the topic since the blossoming of the discipline in the first half of the XXth century. In this regard, many authors of the volume belong to a past generation of scholars, some of them being genuine pioneers like Jean Sauvaget, E. Levi-Provencal, D.M. Dunlop or R. Le Tourneau. If their contribution remains indeed highly valuable, with the flourishing of this branch of history it has been revised, enriched or even sometimes deconstructed, bringing about the complexity and multifaceted character of the urban phenomenon in the Islamic civilization. Just to mention a significant example, Aleppo has received great attention since Sauvaget’s seminal work. In the same way, some ideas that initially appeared attractive have been called into question. That is the case of the thesis of an Islamic model of city or the oppositional scheme of the classical Arab city in the Middle Age versus the chaotic agglomeration of modern times. Although rich in historical details, Hichem Djait’s essay on the Iraqi city of Kufa is to be read with this in mind. His view of the urbanization process of Kufa that became “ a classical Muslim town after having been an Arab camp-town” has compelled to think about the very notion of a “classical Muslim city”. As scholarship has shown since then, this notion hardly applies to the reality of the urbanism throughout the different ages and lands of the world of Islam. A great variety of patterns of urban development have been identified depending on particularities of various natures such as historical and sociological contingencies or geographical configurations. In general rule, these particularities have conditioned the city’s design and evolution without referring to any paradigm. In the Muslim world there was no urban phenomenon sustained by urban politics that could be comparable to the Greco-Roman scheme. The argument many specialists have agreed upon is that if indeed the religious ideal has had decisive implications in the shaping of Islamic institutions and architectural structures, there is no such a thing as the prototype of an Islamic city or an Islamic urban design as a whole system that would be applied systematically. Except for the historical case of the round city of Baghdad that was indeed born out of a pre-established project of design, the forms and configuration of the historical Islamic cities have been determined by the multiple contextual particularities, including pre-Islamic particularities.

3Therefore, for more scholarly accuracy, Historic Cities of the Islamic World should be consulted in conjunction with more recent and more specialized resources relying on an updated bibliography. Acknowledging this fact, the editor does provide several references of American and European specialists that do not appear in this publication but have significantly advanced the urban history of Islam. He also cites a few books, noticeably the 2007 publication Cities of the Middle East and North Africa, A Historical Encyclopedia, while again paying tribute to pioneers like I.M. Lapidus. Still, it has to be said that the spectrum of scholars and publications on this topic is much larger, as the contemporary scholarly activity in this field is particularly dynamic and productive.

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Valérie Gonzalez, « Bosworth Edmund C. (ed.), Historic Cities of the Islamic World, Leiden-Boston, Brill, 2007, 583 p., 32 pages of maps and illustrations »Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [En ligne], 128 | 2010, mis en ligne le 11 juin 2010, consulté le 28 juin 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Valérie Gonzalez


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