The palace-city of Madina al-Zahra in Spain was built in 936 CE under the Caliph ‘Abd al-Rahman III in a hillside at the base of the Sierra Morena. This location, some distance from Cordoba in a lush and well-watered landscape, lends to the complex being functionally more diverse and self-sufficient than its predecessors. Though excavations at the site began in 1910, still only about 10 percent has been properly explored. It is a significant site as one of few royal palace-cities that were not built over in later years (Ruggles 2002 pp. 53).
The city of Cordoba has had a long history and the echo of Punic, Latin, Visigothic, and Arabic sounded along the winding streets of its old city before Spanish came to be spoken. The Visigothic city fell to the conquering armies of the Umayyad Caliphate in 711, and became the capital of the new province of al-Andalus some five years later. Much like North Africa, which quickly slipped from the grasp of the Caliphate centered first in Damascus and then Baghdad, Cordoba and al-Andalus broke away in 756 and became the center of something new. Abd al-Rahman, a member of the Umayyad dynasty, fled to the city in that year as the victorious Abbasids demolished what remained of the old caliphate. Al-Rahman established himself in Cordoba, and began the two and a half century history of that city as the glistening capital of a new center of Islamic learning and power.
The Islamic conquests in 7th century, known in Arabic as the fatah, expanded the reach of Islam within the traditional area of the Middle East, but also to North Africa and Central Asia. It is in the modern day Tunisia that one of the most important cities in terms of its religious significance to Islam was established in 670 C.E. by the Arab conqueror Uqba ibn Nafi (Jayyusi, Holod, Petruccioli and Raymond, The City in the Islamic World, 126) on a previous Roman/Byzantine site on the central plain of Tunisia (Figure 1).
Al-Fustat (“the town of the tent”) was established between 640-3, and is frequently discussed in scholarship as the foundational city for modern Cairo. It is significant as the first Islamic city of Egypt and strategic base for the Islamic conquests of North Africa and the Byzantine Empire. Initially founded as a garrison town, it fast became a bustling urban center and was the capital of Egypt for almost 200 years. The nature of settlement of Al-Fustat and its organization reflect both political realities of the mid-7th century, as well as facets of Muslim rule.
Baghdad – Navel of the Universe
We may all know Baghdad as the sprawling city it is today, one known by all and frequented by many. However, the relationship between individual man and urban order, social order and city, varies significantly from century to century. Although we can observe the elements of the city today, its architectural evolution and foundation is important in understanding a city so obviously politically and economically significant, that it has survived until today.
Kufa, in Iraq, is one of the so-called “garrison cities” built to house the soldiers of the caliphate and their families in newly conquered territory. Like the other garrison cities, Kufa was built near existing settlements, during the reign of Umar and only 2 years after Muhammad’s death. Of the garrison cities, Kufa perhaps plays the biggest role in Islamic history, becoming a hotbed for what would become Shia Islam.
The city of Samarra was one of the most significant new cities built under the Abbasid caliphate. As the empire began to grow, the need to separate the Turkish troops from the everyday population, in addition to the growth and development of the original capital of Baghdad, led to the establishment of Samarra as the new capital of the empire.