Medieval cities: Europe vs. the Arabic world

Cities in the Arab world were on average much larger than those in
Europe, and the size of the “primate” city – the megapolis such as
Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo or Istanbul – was much bigger; a fact that is
indicative of a predatory state and low trade openness.
Europe, on the other hand, developed a very dense urban system, with
relatively small principle cities. Big cities in Europe were quite
often located near the sea, being able to optimally profit from
long-distance trade, whereas the largest cities in the Arab world were
almost all inland.

The sociologist Max Weber introduced a distinction between ‘consumer
cities’ and ‘producer cities’. Using this classification, Arab cities
were – much more than their European counterparts – consumer cities.

The classical consumer city is a centre of government and military
protection or occupation, which supplies services – administration,
protection – in return for taxes, land rent and non-market
transactions. Such cities are intimately linked to the state in which
they are embedded. The flowering of the state and the expansion of its
territory and population tend to produce urban growth, in particular
that of the capital city.

In Europe cities are instead much closer to being producer cities.
The primary basis of the producer city is the production and exchange
of goods and commercial services with the city’s hinterland and other
cities. The links that such cities have with the state are typically
much weaker since the cities have their own economic bases. It is this
aspect that accounts for the fact that Arab cities suffered heavily
with the breakdown of the Abbasid Empire, while European cities
continued to flourish despite political turmoil.

Between 1000 and 1300 Europe acquired an urban system dominated by
typical producer cities, which prospered in spite of Europe’s political
fragmentation. In fact, this fragmentation was strongly enhanced by the
rise of independent communes – city-states, or cities with a large
degree of local authority – which form the core of the political system
of Europe’s urban belt stretching from Northern Italy to the Low
Countries. Indeed, we still find this pattern in the so-called ‘Hot
Banana’ – the industrial agglomeration that stretches from the southern
UK to the Netherlands, through Germany and down to northern Italy.

Here is the full article.


What is a "principle city"? Never heard of such a thing.

Istanbul an Arab city?

Inspired by a factoid on the number of prostitutes dying each year in London in the late 18th century (from "Becoming Jane"), can one view cities as sites for the production and consumption of sex, particularly improper sex, and if so, is there a difference between consumer cities and producer cities?

Istanbul, before 1453 was a Byzantian city,

After 1453 it became an Ottoman city. Ruled by Turks, inhabited by many ethnic groups including Turks, Greeks, Armenians, Jews, Romas, Genovese, Jesuits, Bulgarians, Arabs, etc. But it was never an Arab city as far as I know.

Ironically their first reference is to Daron Acemoglu who happens to be an ethnic Armenian from Istanbul.

I don't think the Arabs ever controlled Asia Minor (Anatolia).

Considering the fact that Arab trade was largely between the Far East and the West over land routes, is it at all surprising that the largest cities were inland? Also, taking into account the geography in the regions would help as well. Cairo and Baghdad are where they are because they are near major sources of fresh water and fertile land surrounded by desert. European cities don't have those same concerns.

Another thing, what's with including Damascus and excluding Alexandria, which is far bigger? The only reason one would exclude Alexandria is that it completely contradicts the author's thesis.

Makes perfect sense to me. You can only sell "consulting services" to the people who grow your food and sew your clothes for so long before you either have to switch to selling "protection services" or doing some growing and sewing yourself.


You should include the name of the author in the posting. Most people aren't going to click on the link.

Is that why Moscow is so big relative to other Russian cities?

I just finished "The Great Arab Conquests" by Hugh Kennedy. Kennedy quotes several contemporary sources saying that the Arab capitals were intentionally founded away from the sea, during a period when the Byzantine navy still controlled the Mediterranean.

Of course, that doesn't explain why Cairo, Cordoba, and Damascus remained major metropolises after the point where Arab navies were able to control their local waters.

Have the authors even glanced at Jane Jacobs? Her landmark work in economy of cities is surely much better basis to jump from than the consumer and producer city used.

@Jaqueline: Offhand I'd guess that consumer cities (ancient Rome, I would guess, for example) would be better for time traveling to, particularly if you take Tyler's advice and try to work as a minstrel by playing Lennon-McCartney songs. Work as an alchemist/magician would probably also be steadier here, though in Rome another popular form of entertainment (which you'd do best to avoid participation in) was gladiator fights.

The comparison is not a direct one, but which would you prefer to visit now, without time travel: Manhattan, or Gary, Indiana?

"So what does it mean that Washington DC is growing and flourishing and Detroit MI is declining?"

That Republicans are spending money like it's going out of style (and it is)?

Quite the history lesson. It would never have crossed my mind that Arab cities would larger than European ones. I mean, Europe is the place to host some of the most famous capitals and cities around the globe. Although the size isn't as big as America's, Europe still managed to build wonderful cities. But I guess I'm talking about the present now and we should still linger a bit in the past. Perhaps this is why I collect movie swords because the past looks so romantic and innocent. No guns, knife fights, bank robberies. Just duels for a damsel's heart.

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