Written By: Leigh Shipman
Submitted By: Leigh Shipman, email@example.com
Grade Taught: 10
School: C.D. Hylton High School
Division: Prince William County Public Schools
THE ISLAMIC CITY: Order Within Chaos
Despite the chaotic appearance it presents at first glance-especially in relation to some of the newer, more spacious and formal parts of the city that surround it-the Islamic city is an entirely rational structure. Its notoriously narrow streets provide vital shade, keep down winds and dust, and use up little valuable building land.
In fact, there is a clear logic underlying the city's layout, one that is announced in the holy book of Islam, the Koran, and codified by the various schools of Islamic law. Although there are regional differences, most towns and cities that have developed under the influence of Islam at any time in the last 1,300 years show surprisingly similar features. These apply to hundreds of settlements in a broad swath of land from Seville, Granada, and Cordoba in southern Spain in the west, to Lahore in Pakistan in the east. Elements of these ideas can be found in cities as far away as Dar es Salaam in East Africa and Davao in the Philippines.
Although Islamic cities have generally been allowed to grow piecemeal, sometimes over many centuries, every new building or street has been constructed in line with certain basic regulations governing the rights of others and the pursuit of the virtuous life in the densely crowded city environment.
The main guiding principles of Islamic city planning: recognize the need to maintain personal privacy; specify responsibilities in maintaining urban systems on which other people rely, such as keeping thoroughfares or wastewater channels clear; and emphasize the inner essence of things rather than their outward appearance. This last principle applies as much to the decoration of houses as to more purely spiritual issues.
The major elements of the Islamic city are easily described. At the city's heart lies the Friday mosque, or Jami, typically the largest structure in the city. A number of smaller mosques are often found toward the periphery. It is rare, however, for other mosques to rival the Jami in height.
Close to the Jami are the main suqs, the covered bazaars or street markets that are generally specialized in function. Within the suqs, trades are located in relation to the Jami. Closest in are those tradespeople who enjoy the highest prestige, such as booksellers and perfumers. Farthest away are those who perform the noxious and noisy trades, such as coppersmiths, blacksmiths, and cobblers. The neutral tradespeople, such as dressmakers and jewelers, who create no physical offense, act as an intermediary buffer.
Attached to the ramparts, on which are located several towers and gates, is an immense fortified structure, the Kasbah. Usually perched on the highest ground, it was a place of refuge to which the sovereign or governor retreated when the main city had fallen to an enemy or was in the throes of civil war. The Kasbah contained not only the palace buildings and the barracks, but also its own small mosques, baths, shops and even markets.
Everywhere else within the city is filled with cellular courtyard houses of every size and shape, tied together by a tangle of winding lanes, alleys, and cul-de-sacs. Housing is grouped into quarters, or neighborhoods, that are defined according to occupation, religious sect, or ethnic group.
The most important residential unit in the Islamic city, the courtyard house, clearly demonstrates the application of the various principles of Islamic city planning. Outside walls lining a street are usually left bare and are rarely pierced by windows. If windows are necessary, they are placed high above street level, making it impossible to peer in. Entrances are L-shaped, and doorways opening onto the street rarely face each other, thus preventing any direct views into the house.
In hot climates, courtyards with trees and water fountains provide shade, but they also provide an interior and private focus for life sheltered from the public gaze. But within the courtyard and the house itself the appearance of plainness often gives way to lavish displays of wealth and decoration. The vividness inside parallels the emphasis in the Koran on the richness of the inner self compared to more modest outward appearance.
Students also learned that Muslims apply the principles of their faith to the cities they build. The Koran, the holy book of Islam, explains the logic behind the layout.
One of the main guiding principles in city planning is to recognize the need to maintain personal privacy.
Doorways do not face each other, preventing any direct views into houses, the students explained.
Snowden said houses in Islamic cities are often plain on the exterior, while lavishly decorated on the inside. This parallels with the Koran's teaching that the inner self should be rich and the outside appearance more modest.
To end their lesson on the Middle East, students will read chapters from the Koran, she said.
Mosques are centers of cities, or of neighborhoods in cities. This function does not always have to be structured, but can be connected to mentality, and the construction of a new mosque makes a centre emerge. Very few mosques lie in open areas, and very few mosques does not have shops and commercial activities in the streets around it. People's houses are often lying in a second "circle" outside the mosque and the shops. Other social functions have often been connected to mosques, schools, law courts, hospitals, and lodging for travelers. This pattern is based upon the Madina mosque, but is of less importance today, as city planning now often use Western models.
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