Why are Arabic streets so narrow?

I can't say I'm fully convinced by this explanation but at least it is an explanation and it refers back to early medieval times:

The other important feature of the Great Mosque was that, as a space, it was closed off to the outside.  Roman cities were structured by wide streets leading to central forum areas, to which processions led and where public participation could be considerable, as continued to be the case in Constantinople for centuries.  Amphitheatres (in the West), theatres and racetracks were other major venues for public activity, and the Hippodrome of Constantinople carried on this tradition for a long time.  In the Islamic world, the mosque courtyard took over from all of these; major political events, like collective oaths of loyalty, took place there, not in any secular location.  And the Arab states did not use processions as a major part of their political legitimization; the assembly in the mosque courtyard was sufficient for that.  The need for wide boulevards ended; pre-Islamic Syrian and Palestinian colonnades were quite quickly filled in with shops in the eighth century, some of them commissioned as public amenities by caliphs.  The narrow streets of Islamic cities resulted directly from this, for there was no public interest involved in keeping them clear from obstructions like vendors' stalls, beyond a certain minimum (enough for two loaded pack animals to pass each other, later jurists said).  Public display came to be focused on the mosque, and secondarily, rulers' palaces and city gates, rather on the cityscape as a whole…The caliph and his advisers were nonetheless making a set of conscious symbolic and political points by organizing the Great Mosque as they did; and the way the public space in Islamic cities change, to focus so exclusively on mosques…would have seemed to them auspicious and fitting.

That's from Chris Wickham's The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000.  If you're wondering why I'm skeptical I suppose the key question is how much weight to place on the mere fact that Wickham a) seems to be certain, and b) in general knows what he is talking about.  What would count as a test?  Is a systematic comparison possible with Christian or otherwise non-Islamic cities in the Middle East from the same period?

Here is a related post on donkeys.


i have this book coming on interlibrary loan. i am sooo excited to start!

as to the original point, i have no doubt that wide streets would be filled in with makeshift storefronts. what i wonder is how wide the secular vs. religious divide became after the fall of Rome. Was there really a lapse in belief as a fundamental litmus test of political authority? Had Rome not also relied on religious symbology and institutions like the caliphates? it seems to me that governance has almost always rested on a tripod of politics, religion, and the military.

It could be that Islamic cultures had a greater emphasis on trade and business, and so preferred to line formerly-wide streets with shops.

The Prophet was an ex-merchant, but Roman society was dominated by landed aristocrats who looked down on trade. For a while ancient Rome even banned carts from moving in daylight.

Paris used to be full of small streets until Haussmann built large boulevards and reshaped the whole city (this inspired similar changes in London, Moscow and many big cities). Napoleon 3 needed big boulevards to enable the cavalry to charge... It enabled Adolphe Thiers to crush the communards in 1871.

How about this possible combination (of mostly facts):
1) Transport was slow and families wanted to live closeby : a 5mile trip to visit relatives would be a full day event
2) Technology to build tall buildings was not present
3) Lack of sanitation standards

Wouldn't this eventually lead to narrow streets in continually inhabited areas.

And it is not just Islamic cities, most old Indian cities share the same narrow street phenomenon.

Is Wickham arguing that the wide Roman streets of Syria were filled in when Islam arrived?

I wonder about the governance of the cities. The Roman state was strong enough to employ engineers who could do roads and streets well, as implied by the reference to "public" streets. The emperors apparently did a lot of reconstruction of the Roman urban landscape (remember "Rome" is before Augustus starts building). In Islam, I assume the city is subordinate to the religious authorities, so maybe, as Tim suggests, the secular state never gained the power in Arab countries to break the crust of custom and rebuild. Or maybe, when the secular state weakens, the people just take over the street (like some DC restaurants used to extend their seating areas across the sidewalk).

There are a few other possibilities:

1. As Jorge says, shade is a very good thing in very hot countries.
2. As Tom says, most medieval cities had narrow streets. But in Europe they were more likely to be constructed from wood, and were therefore very susceptible to fire. As European cities grew outwards, their old centres were mostly replaced with wider streets (either directly as a result of fire or through general redevelopment), although in some cases pockets of narrow streets remain.
3. You often had restrictions on building height in Arab cities, so greater density was achieved by narrowing streets.
4. Many Arab cities either didn't get rich enough to demand more cars and the wide roads they require, or did just fine without cars *because* of their narrow streets.

On the opposite side of the Mediterranean sea, on the French and Italian Riviera, one of the two main reasons for the narrow streets in old town is precisely for resisting muslims razzias, who captured at least 1 Millions of slaves (the other one is for temperature regulation).

Testing the validity of Wickham's hypothesis in Islamic country should be possible by comparing between before and after islamic colonization.

Would it be too gauche to turn from p. 237 of Wickham's book to his source notes?

"p. 237. City plans: see H. Kennedy, Past and Present, 106 (1985), pp. 3-27."

Possibly that might be the place to find whether the assertion is supported.

No no no. The reason the streets are so narrow is because Arabs didn't use the wheel. The economics of using camels as the primary means to transport freight between and donkeys and mules within cities were far more advantageous than the economics of using wheeled vehicles pulled by horses or oxen. That's why they let the Roman road systems go to ruin: not because they weren't sophisticated enough to maintain them, but rather because one man with a train of 6 pack camels could carry freight much cheaper than several men with a wagon train. Absence of the wheel meant streets could be narrow, twisted and full of dead ends. It's all laid out in "The Camel and the Wheel" by Richard Bulliet.

This quotation and supposed citation to Hugh Kennedy does not bode well for the accuracy of Wickham's book.
I was not able to access Kennedy's paper directly beyond the first page, but looked at Andre Raymond's
"Islamic City, Arab City: Orientalist Myths and Recent Views," British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies,
1994, 21(7), 3-18. The following quote appears on p. 11 and is from the 1985 paper by Kennedy.

"In the urban communities of the fifth and sixth centuries in Syria, there was no classical town plan to
affect later growth...The 'streets' were narrow winding paths, there was no agora, not colonnades, no

So the shift happened under Byzantine rule (Eastern Roman) rule prior to the Muslim takeover.

Raymond notes that the sort of argument Wickham makes was first developed by French orientalists early in
the 20th century, led by Sauvaget, who was less concerned with the narrowness of streets and more concerned
with their windingness and the lack of "orthogonal order" that marked the classical Roman cities at their
peak. He also claimed that there were no city governments, and was a supporter of the idea that the French
colonizers in North Africa were reintroducing Roman order and law and orthogonality. Raymond describes a
literature that has come to discredit his arguments for the most part.

One important aspect of the Muslim cities that apparently Wickham hints at with his discussion of the
mosque courtyards is the nature of homes. In Islam there is strong emphasis on the privacy of the family
and home life, so there was in general a great emphasis on a home having a beautiful interior courtyard.
Timur Kuran has written on this at length and its relationship to architecture and urban structure.

But, offhand, Wickham seems to have goofed, and mistaken the general decline of economic strength after
the collapse of Rome with some theological nonsense. Early medieval European cities also had narrow and
winding streets, and although they are no longer narrow, the street patterns of Paris and London and Moscow
and some other great European citeis are not orthogonal (or radial, as is St. Petersburg), but higgeldy-
piggedly, just as are many Muslim cities.

Still amazed by the depth of "comments"...the investment boggles the mind....all I have to offer is that the width of a chariots wheels can still be seen in modern railroad track width.

their asses weren't very wide

I wrote a comment about this on my blog:

I don’t know much about urban history of Rome or Greece. Someone in the comments there mentioned chariots, an interesting point worth looking into. But I can say with certainty that historic European capitals were as dense as the cities in the Middle East. A lot of European cities where build predominantly with wood and burned down. A lot of European cities were developed over the old dense grid. For example for military and aesthetic reasons Napoleon III commissioned Baron Haussmann to cut the famous boulevards through the historic maze of Paris. Many “modern† cities copied French boulevards rather literally. For example Commonwealth Ave. in Boston or Easter Parkway in Brooklyn, the latter comes complete with an arch.

It might as well be true that the classical Roman parades where not part of an Arabic culture but it would hardly excuse or explain the density. More interesting question is if Islam’s Mosque plagiarized from Judaism were designed to mirror the traditional urban role of the Jerusalem Temple?

Arabic streets are so narrow because Arabic numerals are written left-to-right, but Arabic words are written right-to-left. A street address contains both numerals and words; narrow streets force the two together, increasing readability, and thus making it easier to find the building you're looking for.

As literacy improved and street signs became more common, many of the older, wider streets had to be deliberately narrowed to accommodate both letters and numbers; this, of course, was justification after the fact.

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