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The Urban Social History of the Middle East 1750–1950 (review)
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This edited book on the urban social history of the Middle East between 1750 and 1950 is extremely welcome. It presents a review and critical overview of the field by combining a discussion of relevant historiography in the introduction and a fine collection of essays (Chapters 2–8), both of which are supplemented by a very useful 50-page bibliography. In the introduction Peter Sluglett and Edmund Burke present a cogent historiographical discussion which ranges from key literature on European urban social history to French and American scholarship on Middle Eastern and African cities (pp. 1–42). In particular, Sluglett’s thematic excursus over some of the literature of post-mediaeval European cities (pp. 7–15) reminds urban historians of the Middle East of the importance of keeping an eye on Europe, as well as on the historiography of Asian and African cities.

Both the editor and the contributors to the volume are leading specialists of the Arab world (mostly historians) with an outstanding portfolio of publications on cities and urban societies, an area of study whose importance for the development of Middle Eastern history can be hardly overstated. Since the 1960s the urban history of the region has not only engaged successive generations of historians, but has also served as a platform to challenge traditional Orientalist historiography on the Arab world, Ottoman Empire and beyond, as suggested by the work of illustrious scholars such as Albert Hourani and André Raymond. In the last few decades, the achievements of urban historians can be measured by their ability to generate lively debates on institutional power, social elites, and civic life — debates which have been at the forefront of new approaches to the study of the history of the early modern and modern Middle East.

The value of this edited volume is precisely that it addresses some key issues on state, society, and power relations arising from these debates in order to stimulate further academic interest and research in the field. The contributions, in fact, follow a thematic and largely comparative rubric, an approach which deserves much praise for its originality. As it is abundantly clear from the long bibliography at the end, most of the historiography of early modern and modern cities in the Arab world and Middle East has been confined to case studies and to very specific local settings. The range of themes covered in this volume and the lines of argument pursued by its contributors conform to an understanding of urban history as a field of study which places emphasis on the intersection between institutional power and social practice. Thus, the focus is generally on key relationships and specific social contexts that have underpinned available studies on individual urban centres such as the interconnections between the urban and rural worlds and city and state, minorities and urban popular movements.

Particularly illuminating in this respect are the contributions by Sarah Shields, Dina Khoury, and Sami Zubaida. Shields (pp. 43–66) discusses relations between city and countryside in the 19th century, focusing on the political economy of cereal, wool, and meat production, mostly in Iraq and Syria. Central to her argument is the growing influence of urban notables in cementing urban/ rural relations and the importance of social history as an analytical tool to understand the nature of these relations. Khoury’s excellent chapter on power relations between city and state mostly before the Ottoman reforms (pp. 67–103) sketches a new research agenda on Arab provincial capitals. She advocates a combination of local and imperial perspectives while challenging monolithic understandings of the Ottoman Empire and of the concept of urban notables. She also proposes a tentative categorization of city types in order “to start thinking more creatively about relations between city and state in the Ottoman context.” Zubaida’s lucid contribution to the volume (pp. 224–256) tackles the issue of urban politics and political modernity by analyzing urban popular movements over two centuries. Concentrating on Egypt and Iran until the 1950s, his main concern is to illustrate the shift from pre-modern to modern forms of political mobilization against a set of conditions which underscored the consolidation of political modernity.

While these contributions are written as critical...