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.

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