- Introduction:Early Modern Islamic Cities
Conceptions of the city, and of the complex socio-cultural practices embodied in cities, have been at the forefront of historical inquiry. The debate has been marked by diverse claims about the nature of cities, including the notion that "the city" is an incoherent concept that has been universalized based on urban patterns in the global North.1 The concept of the "Western city" can be traced back to Max Weber's nineteenth-century notion of the medieval European city as a self-governing ideal type, with an independent collective identity. Early modern studies have traditionally emphasized the significance of cities during the heyday of European dynastic states and empires. Cities played significant roles in the midst of the new commercial and political networks that spanned the globe, and within the socio-spatial complexes that emerged across the Atlantic and beyond.2 The city thus occupies a central place in studies of how western European societies produced new and unique urban experiences in connection with complex regional and global processes. Pioneering works such as Jan de Vries's European Urbanization, 1500–1800 and Paul M. Hohenberg and Lynn Hollen Lees's The Making of Urban Europe, 1000–1950, place early modern cities within broader economic networks and demographic transformations. Others, such as Calabi and Turk Christiansen or Christopher R. Friedrichs, focus on the cultural and religious aspects of city life against the backdrop of the increasing power of centralized states. These scholars argue that European cities produced cultural practices that reflected growing changes in the social experience of urban life. As Nina Levine maintains in her study of late sixteenth-century London, cultural practices such as theater performance opened up new social spaces of self-understanding and belonging, spaces wherein denizens engaged in new [End Page 1] forms of sociability on a plural level within the growing metropolis.3 Likewise, the changing media landscape in major European cities, such as Cologne and Hamburg, led to the incorporation of print technology in everyday life, and to what Daniel Bellingradt calls the "multifaceted modes of communication."4
Perhaps the most significant result of these intertwined processes was the emergence of distinct publics and public spaces in the midst of early modern European urban life. These publics and public spaces were the result of complex interactions between political authorities and communities in the context of the emergent market economies and empire- and state-building projects. They were enhanced through expanding networks of knowledge, as well as the increasingly global movement of ideas, people, and goods. They fostered new emotive practices, and helped create civic and cultural identities.5 Cities played a critical role as prominent loci for the new forms of political and social interaction. However, these findings about European cities have been utilized typically to promote the uniqueness of the European experience, and the specific characteristics of European cities have been deployed as normative criteria while evaluating urban cultures in other parts of the world.
This approach continues to dominate views of non-European cities, as in, for example, publications as recent as The Oxford Handbook of Cities in World History (2013). European cities are described, pace Weber, with reference to self-governance and civic and communal institutions, while Islamic and Asian cities are presented as having very little, if any, autonomy vis-à-vis the central administration of state or empire. Indeed, early modern urban expansion in the Middle East and Asia is connected to the rise of major empires, which is in turn contrasted with the self-driven expansion of many European cities. Similarly, commercial activity is said to have been fostered in Europe through the initiative of urban communities, while it was controlled by the central states in Asia and the Middle East, in the absence of separate fiscal administrative structures at the city level. This approach extends into the characterization of cities established by the Spanish in the New World, whereby these colonial centers are described as instruments of political and economic coercion serving the interests of the Spanish crown. Moreover, non-European cities are singled out with reference to a limited number of public spaces; the...