Monday,23 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1175, (5-11 December 2013)
Monday,23 July, 2018
Issue 1175, (5-11 December 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Play back the bazaar

The Bazaar in the Islamic City, edited by Mohamed Gharipour, AUC Press, Cairo, 2012

Play back the bazaar
Play back the bazaar
Al-Ahram Weekly


Academics like to project an air of authority, and truth be told it is often well-deserved. And, readers interested in the topic under discussion like it too, for it is reassuring to understand that one is taking the academicians word at face value. And, with several Arab countries undergoing political turmoil and civil war, most notably Syria, the works presented in this fascinating read is rather unsettling.

This is one of the academic works of the American University in Cairo Press that is worthy of acclaim. This is especially given the contretemps and catastrophic turn of events that has befallen many of the cities scrutinised in the wake of the Arab Spring.

The scholastic book is not for the featherbrained or frivolous reader. It is an exceptionally serious series of studies designed for the academician rather than the amateurish. 

“My interest in the bazaar originates in my family ties, personal experience and my academic involvement since my undergraduate studies. Over this long period, my passion has been shaped with the direct and indirect help of many people who have enabled me to develop an understanding of the bazaar, its function and culture; people from merchants to the customers and to my family. This book is the result of 15 years of study and experience,” editor of The Bazaar in the Islamic City, Mohamed Gharipour, assistant professor at the School of Architecture and Urban Planning at Morgan State University. An Iranian by birth, he obtained a PhD in architecture and landscape history at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Gharipour provides the reader with a compendious overview.

Next cropped up a somewhat querulous question. My only reservation about this work is that not a single African Islamic city south of the Sahara was included. Kano, in northern Nigeria, Zanzibar or Timbuktu in Mali could have been incorporated. Nor, incidentally, were Asian cities with Muslim majority populations included. Lahore, Pakistan, also has a captivating market with a rich history. Curiously enough, North Africa, too, was underrepresented with only Cairo’s Khan Al-Khalili market reserved for the last chapter by Anna Madoeuf and Marika Snider almost as an afterthought. What about Marrakech, Algiers, Tripoli or Tunis? 

This is not meant to be a facetious or hard-nosed observation, but this seminal work has a preponderance of Middle Eastern cities, whether Arab, Turkish or Iranian.

I personally believe that this salient overview of the bazaar could have been tremendously enriched by the inclusion of the bazaars of non-Middle Eastern Islamic cities.

A prescient assessment of the supposed threat posed by the political implications of the role of the merchants of the Iranian bazaar in the wake of the 1979 Iranian Revolution is often exaggerated. Gharipour scrupulously avoids any trivialisation of this matter. 

He shrewdly notes the irony that primitive forms of shops and trade centres existed in early civilisations such as Sialk Hills in Kashan (6000 BCE), Catal Huyuk (7500 BCE), Jericho (2600 BCE) and Susa (from 4000 BCE). These trading centers were not Islamic, and again the focus is the Middle East as opposed to other parts of the Muslim world, whether in Africa or Asia. I regret the oversight.

The reader, nevertheless, is given much to ponder. One of the attractions of this valuable work is the variety of the cities selected for scrutiny and survey, alas, within the confines of the Middle East. Take Sanaa, the Yemeni capital for instance. The writer Franck Merimier who authored this particular chapter, is an anthropologist and the director of research at the Institut Interdisciplinaire d’Anthropologie du Contemporain in Paris. His long, profound and sagacious experience with Yemen is abundantly clear in his study of the suqs of Sanaa. 

“Before becoming the capital of Yemen after its reunification on 22 May 1990, Sanaa was the economic and political centre of the Zaydi Central Highland. It is located at the crossroads of seven tribal areas belonging to the Hashid and Bakil confederations. It is a marketplace in the centre of a regional network of weekly markets,” Merimier notes.

Ali Modarres, with a background in landscape architecture and urban geography, earned his PhD from the University of Arizona and is currently professor and chair of the Department of Geography and Urban analysis at California State University, Los Angeles. Modarres is also editor of Cities: The International Journal of Urban Policy and Planning. His 2006 work Modernising Yazd: Selective Historical Memory and the Fate of Vernacular Architecture is a veritable seminal work on Iranian socio-political movements. The study on politics and the morphology of the bazaar in Yazd makes for a fascinating read.

“From its establishment in the mediaeval era to the 21st century, the bazaar in Yazd has witnessed fundamental shifts in both form and function,” Modarres explains. “The internal spatial logic of the bazaar suggests that the covered spaces under which stores, caravansaries and their associated services were located were organised by guilds and functional arrangements that separated market activities from each other (for example, jewelers, copper smiths and rug merchants were grouped and separated from each other in various branches of the bazaar). This spatial logic allowed similar businesses to enjoy a pre-capitalist form of agglomeration, while making tax collection an easier task,” Modarres expounds.

These academicians, such as Modarres, lay out their arguments and analyses in meticulous detail. The authors place the bazaars of their respective cities in proper perspective. Much has been written on the bazaar in the Middle East. Yet, many of the studies tackled in this work are truly groundbreaking.

Two chapters focus on Damascus and another on the historical formation of the Ottoman trading intermediary convergence on the contemporary Turkish city of Bursa. The study pertaining to the bazaars of Aleppo is arresting. The chapter on the souqs of Sanaa is, simply put, fascinating. And, the public markets of Palestine’s Nablus are equally intriguing. The politics and morphology of the bazaar in the Iranian city of Yazd is gripping. The sharp contrast between Kabul, Tehran and Istanbul’s Valide Han is at once engrossing and spellbinding. The captivating tale of Cairo’s Khan Al-Khalili is savoured last.

Readers reared on less academic works on the subject of Middle Eastern markets and bazaars might find certain aspects of this particular book rather tedious. 

“Religion and commerce were intertwined in the ancient world and markets were built close to places of worship. During the Roman era, markets were found south and east of Jupiter’s temple (where the Umayyad Mosque, today the fourth holiest site in Islam, stands) a practice typical in Roman cities. Subsequent civilisations did not alter the layout of the temple and the market, though the population became Christian and then Muslim with the Byzantine and Islamic empires respectively. During the Islamic period the area around the mosque became the major commercial and political centre, though several important souqs remained to the south and the east of the city. Today, the stretch surrounding the mosque continues to be a lively commercial area despite the demolition, in the 1980s, of many stores that extended along the outer walls of the mosque to make way for a ceremonial square,” Faedah Totah extrapolates.

Totah obtained her PhD in socio-cultural anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin and is currently assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. She focuses in her research on how historic preservation affects the social use and production of space, as well as the impact of neo-liberal economic policies on urban space. What is gripping about Totah’s study and several other authors is that they delve into the history of the cities they study and not simply concentrate on the workings of the bazaar.

Curiously enough, concerning the title of the book The Bazaar in the Islamic City, most of the writers stress that the bazaars predate Islam. As history unfolds, the very concept of the marketplace develops and in such a fashion as the changes in the bazaar interplay with politics. 

The Mamluk, Ottoman and European colonial periods had special significance and perhaps this is a common thread throughout the book. The European colonial period was crucial to the contemporary bazaar in Middle Eastern cities. Many imagine otherwise. These misconceptions are dispelled as one reads on. 

This work captures something far greater than the history of the bazaar in several Middle Eastern cities and one North African case, Cairo. Nasser Rabbat’s account of the various Damascus market places is comprehensive and painstaking, taking us back in time. His analysis is complimentary to that of Totah. “Damascus is an ancient city. It was an active commercial center under the Aramaeans (1750 BCE), and went through different stages of urbanisation until the advent of Islam. The most effective phase, and the one that left indelible marks on its plan, took place in the Imperial Roman period after the first century CE, when the city acquired the status of a metropolis under the Emperor Hadrian (117-38) who endowed it with a number of civic buildings for the occasion. The city’s commercial centre was concentrated around the Via Recta, or the ‘street called straight’, mentioned in the Bible,” Rabbat notes.

“It was not until the return of some tranquility with the Seljuk and post-Seljuk rulers — especially the Atabek Tughtakin (109-1128) that new urban areas grew extra-muros,” Rabbat, the director of the Aga Khan Programme for Islamic Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, observes.

Rabbat authored two seminal works — The Citadel of Cairo: A New Interpretation of Royal Mamluk Architecture, and Mamluk History through Architecture: Building, Culture, and Politics in Mamluk Egypt and Syria. His focus on architecture and urbanism across the ages. He is adept at evoking the atmosphere of the time. “Bursa was the first capital of the Ottoman Empire and has always maintained its importance because of its strategic location,” observes Ozlem Koprulu Bagbanci, an associate professor of Uludag University, where she teaches historic preservation, conservation and the rehabilitation of historic sites.

“The city of Bursa was founded by the Bithynians, becoming an independent kingdom in 327 BCE. The name of the city, Purisias, was changed first to Prusa and then to Bursa. The Kingdom of Bithynia joined the Roman Empire in 74 BCE, and following the division of the Roman Empire in 395 CE, the city of Bursa became part of the eastern empire. During his reign (525-65 CE) the Emperor Justinian founded a small city with its own natural thermal springs in Pythia (Cekirge), where he built his royal palace. During this era Bursa was famed for its baths and its silk production,” Bagbanci provides an intriguing context of the Bursa bazaar through a thorough historical perspective. 

Those readers who cannot stomach such scrupulous details would have to go elsewhere. Bagbanci goes on to recount how Bursa was annexed to the Ottoman Empire in 1326 by Sultan Orhan.

“The bazaars of Aleppo are roofed... the roof gives the effect of a cubby-house which you never gain from Cairene bazaars, that are open to the sky,” extrapolated Janet Starkey, honorary research associate in the Department of Archaeology and part-time lecturer at the Middle Eastern Studies at Durham University.

“Besides, their closing in adds richness. The undiffused light heightens colour, and the confinement of the roof magnifies the heaps of wares and the fruit, It magnifies the sense of profusion that is Oriental,” Starkey quotes Hector William Dinning, who visited Syria during the Australian campaigns of World War I. 

Dinning smacks of Orientalism, yet his observations ring true. The European travel writers at the time did make invaluable insights. However, their motives were hard to unravel.

These contemporaneous accounts of distant times are a recurring theme in the book, and they describe political disasters that have down the centuries changed the face of the bazaars.

Cairo is no exception. “With its cacophony of colour and smells, Khan Al-Khalili has inspired visitors for centuries, but it now struggles for definition in contemporary Cairo. A remnant of mediaeval Cairo, Khan Al-Khalili was once the commercial heart of the city and located adjacent to exceptionally important religious monuments. For example, the Mosque of Sayidna Hussein claims to contain the head of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohamed, and Al-Azhar Mosque has been a centre of Islamic learning since it opened in the 10th century, making it the second oldest continuously operated university in the world. Today, this area rich in architectural heritage has managed to retain some of its traditional functions but is primarily considered a tourist reserve,” lament Madoeuf and Snider in the chapter provocatively entitled New Trinkets in Old Spaces.

Change was underway, and numerous academicians warned of dire consequences. The threat went unheeded. However, there were positive moves. “In tandem with modernisation efforts, the 19th century also marked the beginning of an interest in preserving the architectural and urban heritage of Cairo,” Madoeuf and Snider point out. Still, the authors expound on the theme that “little study has been devoted to the modern and currently viable commercial district, which begs two important questions: how does Khan Al-Khalili fit within contemporary Cairo; and does the touristic aspect negate the authenticity of the site?”

The saddest case in the book are the Syrian bazaars. For we know that only a miracle can restore them to their former glory. “The Aleppine bazaar, with its many small-scale business enterprises run by owner-managers, and family consortia run on informal lines, remains the heart of the private-sector economy of Aleppo,” writes Starkey.

Khan Al-Jumruk in Aleppo is typical.

Fatema Soudavar Farmanfarmaian is an accomplished writer and novelist who is on the Executive Board of the Society for Helenic-Iranian Studies and a permanent member of the Ancient India and Iran Trust. Her impressive account of the Sara-ye Amir in the Bazaar of Tehran is riveting.

This pioneering academic work poses pertinent and complex questions about the future of the traditional bazaar in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Some, like the bazaars of Damascus and Aleppo will never be the same again, or will take a decade or two to be restored to their former ambience and vitality.

Indeed, many of the bazaars mentioned in this book may develop in a manner in which they will no longer be recognisable. In this context, The Bazaar in the Islamic City is destined to emerge as a key historical reference work.


                              Reviewed by Gamal Nkrumah


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