The Middle Ages of the Volga-Kama region through the prism of the “Islamic city”

07 March


What unites the medieval cities of the Volga-Kama region and the Muslim East? At the same time, exactly the last mentioned have formed the basis of the concept of “Islamic city”, studied at the intersection of related scientific fields: history, archeology, architecture, sociology and many others. The city construction of the Volga-Kama region developed in frames of changing each other Volga Bulgaria, Golden Horde and Kazan Khanate. The majority of the population of all three states professed Islam as the official religion. But in domestic practice, the study of medieval cities from the point of view of the influence of Islam began only in the post-Soviet period.

On the territory of Tatarstan, the cities of the Middle Ages were located on high capes between rivers or ravines. The encircling defense systems included ditches, log walls and towers. The pre-Mongol city of Bulgar or, for example, Kazan belonged to this type. The capital of Volga Bulgaria, Bilyar, had a concentric spatial organization, similar to the cities of eastern Mesopotamia. An open type of city, extended in a line, became widespread in the Bulgarian ulus of the Golden Horde. A striking example is the capital of the ulus, Bulgar. Archaeological excavations confirm the spread of various architectural structures in the past.

The concept of “Islamic city” was developed by European researchers at the beginning of the 20th century. They were based on the assumption that in Islamic civilization everything is determined by religion. The structure of the city within the Muslim world on three continents and for thirteen centuries was considered to be constant. According to early Western researchers, the straight streets of ancient cities became distorted by the infiltration of Muslims into intricate communications. One of the main postulates of the concept was the lack of provision of municipal institutions. So, the achievements of Islamic urbanism were assessed negatively.

It is important to understand that foreign research took place within the boundaries of the “Orientalism” movement, which implies a European view to the East. The point of view of Western civilization alone cannot be infallible. However, the idea didn’t stand still - in the 1950s, scientists moved on to studying the development of Islamic cities. But the principles of city construction in the Maghreb continued to be common to all Muslim regions. A hypothetical model emerged: a cathedral mosque in the city center, a hierarchically organized market, residential areas of various ethnic groups, and the absence of municipal organizations.

The medieval Islamic cities of the Volga- Kama region were characterized by features recognized by general consensus. The cathedral mosque in the center could also be a madrasah for religious and scientific education. Products in the market surrounding the mosque were distributed according to value: books, incense, fabrics, and so on, were sold closer, and others, in accordance with the degree of security, were sold further from the center. Services, administrations, bathhouses, hammams and hotels operated on the square. The ruler's citadel, also known as the "kasbah" and typical of capital cities, was a fortress on high ground, surrounded by its own wall and including a mosque and guards.

Residential neighborhoods are households based on personal connections, interests and moral unity. Each neighborhood has its own mosque, schools, bakeries, shops and other essential amenities. Ethnic diversity was represented by clusters administered through a complex judicial system to ensure social equality. The connection between the neighborhoods and the center was provided by a network of narrow winding streets and alleys. Well-fortified walls with several gates surrounded the city. In the outskirts there were cemeteries, separate for Muslims, Jews and, later, Christians. Not far from the main gate there was a weekly market where were sold animals.

The collapse of the colonial system put an end to the latent Eurocentrism in urbanism. The Muslim world of the Middle Ages covered a vast territory from the Atlantic Ocean to India and Central Asia, from the Maghreb to the middle part of Eastern Europe. Different regions had different natural and climatic conditions. Have appeared researches about the impossibility of using the concept of an Islamic city with a single model. In the 1980s, many scholars had already abandoned the use of the phrase “Islamic city” due to ambiguity - it became clear that the concept originated in the West.

At the end of the twentieth century, researchers proposed a structural approach to understanding the traditional Islamic city. The hierarchy of space was based on the primary element - a house with a courtyard. The structure of the city had levels formed in the process of accumulation of buildings, and not its subdivisions. The streets weren’t planned, but arose from the remaining empty spaces after the construction of buildings. Houses clustered around narrow alleys, forming neighbourship that in turn grew into neighborhoods. Residential areas of the cities of the Islamic east were, in essence, similar to tribal villages under the patronage of the local elite.

There is an interesting analogy between a city and a large mansion. The Friday mosque is a living room, the caravanserai is a public place with rooms for guests, the market is a connection of internal corridors leading to quarters - living rooms. Spaces were endowed with social meaning based on secrecy and clan rights. To a stranger, the streets and alleys of the city with a Muslim population seemed like a labyrinth of corridors with blank walls. In reality, they were a visually coded system of thresholds and transitional places. Arches, stone walls, piles of bricks, narrowing alleys - all together acted as filters against the penetration of strangers deeper into the interior.

The last decade has seen a diversity of study methods. Researchers view the medieval city as a living organism, consisting of deeply interconnected parts, continuously changing from birth to death. Stretched out over decades, the scientific debate around the concept of “Islamic city” has carried over into modern times. Certainly, medieval cities with an Islamic population had a special organization of space and life, determined by religious attitudes. But the specifics of the regions, implying the influence of climate, economics and political history, left their mark on each of the settlements.

The kaleidoscope of medieval cities of the Muslim world represents vast chronological and territorial poles of existence. The Volga-Kama region of the Russian Federation is the northernmost in the Islamic world. However, to this day the medieval cities of Volga-Kama region aren’t represented in this diversity. Along with the identical types of religious, memorial and public buildings characteristic to the Muslim world, the region had its own uniqueness. The features of residential fabric and defensive structures of cities were dictated by the natural conditions and architectural traditions of the Volga-Kama region.



GSV "Russia - Islamic World"