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Nimrod Luz: The Mamluk City in the Middle East. History, Culture, and the Urban Landscape (= Cambridge Studies in Islamic Civilization), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2014, 278 S., ISBN 978-1-107-04884-3, GBP 60,00
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Bethany Walker
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Stephan Conermann
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Bethany Walker: Rezension von: Nimrod Luz: The Mamluk City in the Middle East. History, Culture, and the Urban Landscape, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2014, in: sehepunkte 15 (2015), Nr. 7/8 [15.07.2015], URL:

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Nimrod Luz: The Mamluk City in the Middle East

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As the capital of the Mamluk Sultanate, it is not surprising that medieval Cairo has been a long-term obsession of Mamluk historians and architectural historians alike. The body of scholarship on the cities of Greater Syria (Bilād al-Shām) in the Mamluk era pales in comparison, reduced to a handful of architectural surveys (Bourgoyne 1987 on Jerusalem, Sadek 1991 on Gaza, and Salam-Leiblich 1983 for Tripoli).[1] The neglect of this topic until now is the result of many factors: the erasure of the historical core of many Syrian cities through armed conflict and development, and the general Egypt-focus that long defined the study of Mamluk-era history and society, among them. Scholarly interest in Mamluk Syria, however, has grown markedly in the last decade. Nimrod Luz's The Mamluk City in the Middle East contributes in important ways to our rapidly developing knowledge of Syrian societies under Mamluk rule.

Luz describes his work, recently published by Cambridge University Press, as a multi-disciplinary study of urban form in Mamluk Syria through a comparative study of lesser known provincial cities in the region. While the author sets out to compare three urban centers that were dramatically transformed by the Mamluk elite - Jerusalem, Safad, and Tripoli - the book is essentially a study of Mamluk Jerusalem. He frames his project as a critique of the concept of the "Islamic city", a Eurocentric stereotyping of urban forms in the medieval and modern Muslim worlds, which privileges and idealizes religion as the active agent of urbanization. [2] The book is a systematic attempt to debunk this concept by turning to social theory and exploring the "cultural context of the urban sphere" (219), that is, identifying aspects of social life that are the tangible forms of culture, and determining how these, in turn, were translated physically and functionally into "the city". To this goal, he adopts a three-prong analytical framework, through which the book is organized: 1. the "tangible city" (its physicality - expressed through architecture and spatial organization), 2. the "socially constructed city" (through which the city obtains meaningful function), and 3. the "conceptualized city" (the "mental map" that contemporaries cultivated, which gave the city meaning to them). The first section consists of four chapters devoted to pre-Islamic urban forms, vernacular architecture, residential options, and neighborhoods. Part Two includes two chapters on endowments (awqaf) and Mamluk urban policies, and the two chapters of Part Three deal respectively with urban writings (the contemporary voice) and the urban sphere. Defining the city in social terms is the goal of Chapter One. Textually, the "city" (madīnah) is a fluid term, with the functions and structure of village and city often overlapping. Opting for defining the city by its social complexity, the author surveys the development of the three urban centers at the center of the book - Jerusalem, Safad, and Tripoli - through the early Mamluk era. Interesting patterns emerge from their comparison: in all three cases the city walls were demolished by Ayyubid authorities, who feared reconquest by the Crusaders, and revitalization by the Mamluks after their campaigns took the form of intensive building activity in previously abandoned, or derelict, spaces, while the city walls were neglected. In Jerusalem, the areas adjacent to the western and northern sides of the Ḥaram al-Sharīf, which were largely empty spaces in the thirteenth century, became the focus of a building frenzy by the Mamluk elite. The physical center of Safad shifted (and what was formerly a village was urbanized and promoted to a provincial center), and the city of Tripoli was rebuilt in an entirely new location. Luz interprets these preferences as evidence of an "urban policy" by the Mamluk sultans, a point to which he would return in Chapter Eight. Chapter Two is arguably the most interesting and practical, though conceptually troubling, of the book. The central theme is vernacular architecture: defining it for Mamluk Jerusalem and mapping it through a pedestrian survey of standing architecture. By focusing on "private" buildings, the author hopes to evoke the most immediate material expressions of "the social" in the urban landscape. Here he pulls on a rather modern definition of "vernacular architecture", which is supposed to have the following characteristics: 1. it is built by non-professionals ("nonarchitects"); 2. it is built to serve practical needs; 3. it does not adhere to theoretical principles; 4. it lacks aesthetic qualities; 5. it is multi-functional; and 6. it is built by private citizens. Following the advice of archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority, he conducted a pedestrian survey of the Old City, providing us with an unfortunately brief snapshot of his survey methodology. An intensive visual inspection and documentation of buildings located 60-80 meters from the exterior of the Ḥaram's western and northern walls - the area that contemporary written sources suggest were empty spaces and underwent extensive construction from the 13th century - produced a typology (Luz's "architectural vocabulary") of structures and decorative elements we can associate with the Mamluk period. [3] Using these as a benchmark for comparison, he extended his survey to the rest of the Old City. In streets and neighborhoods where a cluster of the elements were identified in a single monument, he attributed to the same date adjacent structures that may have lacked those elements but shared a "stratigraphic relationship" with that monument. This is, at least, what this reviewer was able to surmise from the summary description of survey methodology. It is something akin to the architectural phasing adopted by archaeologists to reconstruct a relative dating and building sequence. What seems to be missing is recourse to the quickly expanding body of published archaeological reports from salvage excavations in the Old City, which could provide independent lines of dating such buildings. Nonetheless, on its own the pedestrian survey is a sound method and one suited to making some historical sense of a complex urban environment, where buildings are reused and remodelled and frequently put to different uses, elements from one building are taken for building material in another, and many structures are simply not accessible for closer inspection.

As a result of this survey, Luz identifies the following characteristics of Mamluk Jerusalem's vernacular architecture: vaults that are often double-arched and supported with or without angled springers; double relieving arches above doors, vaults, and windows; small square, rectangular, or narrow and elongated windows, appearing singly or in sets of two or three; air vents of various form; chamfers at building corners (on the street); doorways that might imitate imperial style (through the use of muqarnas, dogtooth moldings, ablaq, recessing); and simple balconies with stone parapets.

This kind of documentation of "heritage architecture" is extremely important, as such buildings are rapidly disappearing from urban landscapes throughout the world. What we have through Luz's study is documentation of limestone constructions; buildings of more ephemeral materials (wood and mud and straw) have not survived. This chapter would have been significantly supported by reference to a rich body of scholarship (mostly in Arabic) on "vernacular" architecture in rural Palestine and Transjordan, defined as such by archaeologists and ethnographers as a local tradition. A coordinated database on such architecture should be a goal of interregional, international, collaborative research in the future.

Residential options are the topic of Chapter Three. The chapter largely problematizes another pillar of traditional scholarship on the Islamic city: the internal courtyard house (the dār). Luz is able to refute the assumption that this is the most typical housing form for Muslims in Jerusalem and that courtyard houses were used exclusively by the Muslim community. Pulling on the so-called Ḥaram al-Sharīf documents (a collection of late 14 th-century files kept by a local Shāfiʿī judge and indexed by Donald Little) and early Ottoman sijillāt (court documents - the author seems to rely on references to them in the British Institute's two-book series on Ottoman Jerusalem), Luz describes a range of public housing options available in Mamluk-era Jerusalem: the khān (caravanserai - temporary housing for travellers'), rabʿ (multi-story, rental complex akin to an apartment building, mostly for artisans and shopkeepers), and Ḥawsh (a cluster of small rooms around a courtyard - housing for poorer renters). What is not accomplished in this chapter is relating these building types from the texts to the physical structures documented in the author's pedestrian survey.

Chapter Four serves a similar function: to debunk mistaken premises about the "Islamic city". In this case the problematic is the character of the "neighborhood" (called in different places and times as a Ḥarah, ʿaqabah - as in a steep street, khaṭṭ, and maḤallah). The author's sources for Jerusalem in this instance are Mujīr al-Dīn al-ʿUlaymī's urban history and the Ḥaram documents. According to these texts, the neighborhoods of Mamluk cities in Syria were not necessarily synonymous with a tax unit, were not homogenous, and there was not a rigid spatial separation between residential and public/business/trade areas - characteristics normally associated with the neighborhoods of "Islamic cities". Muslims lived in all neighborhoods of the city (and Jerusalem had, apparently, 50 of them), but Christians resided with coreligionists. What the chapter lacks, as in the previous one, is a tie-in to the results of the pedestrian survey.

In a similar vein, Chapter Five revisits the debate over the ultimate function of Islamic endowments in an urban environment, namely their impact on spatial patterning and their economic sustainability (did endowed buildings, for example, deteriorate more quickly than those not endowed?). According to Luz, "religious endowments should be viewed as an urban improvement mechanism" (108). In Jerusalem, most of the newly constructed and endowed mosques, madrasas, khāns, ribāṭs, water installations, and Ḥammāms were built in undeveloped, abandoned, or extra-mural lands. Endowments were, in this way, mechanisms for implementing urban policy and realizing urban planning. It is an interesting idea that deserves further scrutiny.

The following two chapters address meaning - from the perspective of patron and urban resident. In Chapter Six the author maps public monuments built by the Mamluk elite to identify spatial patterns that might reveal ways the built environment was used to reinforce the authority and legitimacy of the regime. The placement of zawiyas far from the Ḥaram al-Sharī f - frequently in non-Muslim areas and outside the city limits (beyond the ruins of the city wall) - has been interpreted by the author as an instrument of Islamization. Chapter Seven compares the image of Jerusalem and Safad that emerge from the chronicles of two of their long-term residences (the qāḍīs al-ʿUlaymī and Shams al-Dīn al-Uthmānī, respectively) with that of contemporary travelers' accounts, to get a sense of how urban meaning could differ from urban reality.

The final chapter is concerned, in a sense, with urban realities and attempts to gauge the degree to which the city was really autonomous from the state. Luz presents four case studies from 15th-century Tripoli and Jerusalem to illustrate different ways in which local communities came into conflict with the state, how those conflicts were resolved (or not), and in what physical spaces in the city the dramas unfolded. In Tripoli, local residences fought to have the forced purchase (ṭarḤah) of oil, soap, and grapes repealed, and succeeded. The residents of Jerusalem did not get satisfaction over the same issue, and did not, in fact, stand up for themselves. A drawn-out dispute, led by the local Muslim elite in Jerusalem, over the demolition of a derelict Jewish house and an ancient synagogue adjacent to it, got the sultan involved, who ordered the synagogue rebuilt, against the wishes of the local ʿulama. Local outroar caused by the construction of a new church by the Franciscans on Mount Zion, led the sultan, in this case, to have the structure torn down. Collectively the stories raise questions about the "urban public", how its norms developed and how they were enforced. At this point the author's urban analysis moves entirely from the technical and spatial to the social.

It is refreshing to read a work that actively engages social theory to the degree that Luz's study does, pulling on social and architectural theory from Bourdieu and Geertz to Norberg-Schulz. This has been relatively rare in Mamluk Studies. The Mamluk City in the Middle East raises new questions about the function, structure, meaning, and development of Mamluk Jerusalem, moving away from formal, typological approaches to the study of medieval urban forms to more "cultural" ones, and encouraging inter-regional comparisons in the process. Luz's survey of "vernacular architecture" is a most welcome entrée into local architectural history, appearing a time of rapidly expanding research on the architecture of rural Syria in the pre-modern era. In way of critique, many potentially useful textual sources have not been consulted for this study (the vast body of archaeological reports on excavations in Jerusalem - all quite recent and readily available, new editions of the Ottoman sijills for Jerusalem, and the St. Catherine archives - microfilms of which are accessible in several countries). Terminology in many places is imprecise (vernacular architecture, urban policy), and incomplete editing has resulted in misspellings throughout (ultimately the responsibility of the editors and publisher). Nonetheless, The Mamluk City in the Middle East addresses many of the lacunae that exist in the field of Mamluk Studies as a whole, and the study of Bilād al-Shām, in particular.


[1] One should add to this list Dorothée Sack: Damaskus: Entwicklung und Struktur einer orientalisch-islamischen Stadt, Mainz 1989. Mohamed- Moain Sadek: Die Mamlukische Architektur der Stadt Gaza, Berlin 1991; Hayat Salem-Leiblich: The Architecture of the Mamluk City of Tripoli, Cambridge 1983.

[2] The classic works on this topic are George Marçais: La conception des villes dans l'Islam, in: Revue d'Alger 2 (1945), 517-533; William Marçais: L'Islamisme et la vie urbaine, in: L'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles- Lettres, Comptes-Rendus (1928), 8-100; Albert Hourani / Samuel Stern (eds.): The Islamic City: A Colloquium, Oxford 1970.

[3] This typology is further reinforced by reference to Burgoyne's by now classic work on the Mamluk architecture of Jerusalem, s. idem: Michael Burgoyne: Mamluk Jerusalem: An Architectural Survey, London 1987.

Bethany Walker