The Impact of Islam on Urban Development in North Africa

This paper seeks to remind readers of the contribution of Islam to the civilisation of the peoples of North Africa by looking at its influence on the urbanisation of the region. The aim is to define the forces and circumstances underlying the urbanisation process during the Islamic period, discuss the nature and character of the urban development, and assess the urban morphological consequences resulting from it.  The paper first defines and provides the general setting of the study area (North Africa).  Next, it addresses the region's pre-Islamic urban development.  The emphasis is on the assessment of the pre-Islamic origins, and the impact of Islamic rule on urban development in North Africa, and the emerging urban form of the Islamic pre-colonial North African city.

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The concept of North Africa, as a geographical area, is used to cover a region that differs among researchers.  Abu-Lughod (1976, 1979) and Clarke (1973), for example, used the concept to cover Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. Others exclude Egypt (Blake, 1974) and a third group adds Sudan to the list. Lawless (1981), Valensi (1977) and most French researchers used North Africa to mean the Maghreb region which extends from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Mediterranean sea in the east, covering only the countries of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.  This definition is the one adopted in the present paper.

The region covers an area of 2,996,000 km2 and has a population of more than 70 million people (Table 1). This vast land is marked by a variety of relief which runs from the west to the east in a succession of strips. The coastal area forms the first strip, extending over 3000 km from the Atlantic coast in the west of Morocco to the eastern Mediterranean coast in the east of Tunisia. This band contains pockets of fertile plains namely in the Moroccan western coast, central coast of Algeria, and eastern coast of Tunisia. It is succeeded by a chain of mountains, the Tell Atlas Mountains which reach a height of 2,308 m (Djurdjura) in Algeria and 2,456 m in the Rif Mountains (Tidighin) in Morocco.  Behind this chain lie the High Plains, extending from the east of Morocco to the east of Algeria near the Tunisian frontier.  This area is famous for wheat production. To the south of the High Plains, a second chain of mountains, the Sahara Atlas, extends from the centre of Tunisia to Morocco where it joins with the Haut Atlas Mountains. The Sahara Atlas attains a height of 2,320 m in the Aures region (Chelia and Nememcha Mountains) in eastern Algeria, and 4,165 m in the Toubkal Mountains in the Haut Atlas in Morocco. To the south of these mountains lies the Sahara Desert.

North Africa enjoys a Mediterranean climate but is also influenced by the subtropical weather conditions which dominate the Sahara. The Mediterranean influence results in a cold wet winter season mostly in the northern part.  The effects of the sub-tropical climate appear in summer when the hot dry weather is predominant for a period extending from three to five months with temperatures reaching 28 and 30 degrees C in the coastal regions.

Figure 1: North African natural environment Source: Troin (1985)

The characteristics of the land have had a great impact on the distribution of the population and thus urban settlements. Higher density settlements are found on the coastal plains along the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts.  In the interior, towns are mainly located in the high plains, but only a few are found in the Sahara.  Mountains are only occupied by villages and small hamlets. The role of the climate is visible in the concentration of towns in the northern region where the Mediterranean climate is predominant.  In the south, the Sahara with its hot dry climate does not provide ideal conditions for the development of settlements, and only a handful of small towns are found there. Furthermore, the effects of climate also appear in settlement, building design and material.  This is very noticeable in early towns such as the narrow covered streets of the medina which provide shelter from the summer hot sun and allow cool air to circulate. Similar provisions are used in the buildings such as those found in the south where particular forms and materials were introduced to escape the heat1.

On the other hand, the geographic location of the North African region has ensured that it has remained close to successive Mediterranean civilisations and a gateway to Africa.  Its plains, climate and wealth have played a major role in raising its strategic importance and attracted many civilisations which brought it prosperity and cultural richness, and established an advanced settlement system. 

It attracted the Romans for its wheat and animals while through it Islam reached Spain and Europe. The Spanish and Portuguese conquered parts of North Africa and still holds parts of northern Morocco. Finally, imperial France colonised it in the late 18th century. Many of today's urban settlements carry the fingerprints of these successive civilisations.  However, the impact of Islam is unique in its lasting and overwhelming influence.

Table 1: General indicators on North Africa

Source: Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat, World Population Prospects: The 2000 Revision and World Urbanization Prospects: The 2001 Revision,


As indicated earlier, the strategic geographical location of the region has played a decisive role in its urban development.  Being the gateway to and from Africa, early towns of North Africa were established on the coast as commercial centres linked to major Mediterranean empires, forming part of its trading system. This is clearly evident from the Phoenician2 towns3, which represented the earliest urban origin in the region.  These spread from Carthage (their capital in Tunisia built in 814 BCE), Icosium (Algiers) in Algeria, to Rabat in Morocco4. In the second century BCE, the Numidians (a Berber tribe) founded scores of towns in the centre of North Africa (Algeria) including their capital Cirta (Constantine today), which accommodated no more than 15,000 people (Bulletin Archaeologique de l'Est, 1952). Only a little is known about the form and function of these towns and all that is left of them today are ruins and artefacts.

Figure 2: Aerial view of a Typical North African Roman Town showing here Timgad (Algeria) Source: Lassus (1981, p.14)

Because of the size and diversity of its land, North Africa attracted successive Mediterranean Empires, including the Romans. The search for grain, luxury commodities such as precious stones, gold and silver, and exotic beasts for their popular animal shows was the main driving force behind the Roman occupation (Owens, 1992). Towns were first built partly to provide shelter for Roman migrants and legionnaires (Parker, 1987), and partly to extract and export these commodities to Rome.  Later, towns and cities played an additional role, that of maintaining peace (Pax Romana) and promoting Roman civilisation (Owens, 1992). However, as the profits and wealth extracted from the region expanded, the Romans extended their occupation to the interior. Consequently, North Africa saw the emergence of a number of towns of varying sizes.  The economic basis of these towns was generated mainly from agriculture through the trade in olive oil and other agricultural products.  Such towns served as the religious, administrative, and military centres for the Roman Empire. They reached the legal status of colonae, an indication of their importance. Carthage, destroyed in the third and final Punic War, was rebuilt in 45 BCE to become a very important settlement.  Tunis and Icosium (Algiers) were also rebuilt but they never reached the importance of Timgad and Djemila (Algeria). In Morocco, the Romans also founded a number of towns including Sala Coloniae (today part of Rabat). Their urban layout reflected these functions, and exhibited the general Roman features (table 2).

Table 2: The general form of the Roman town

Sources: Mumford (1961), Owens, (1992).

Sources: Mumford (1961), Owens, (1992).

However, this urban experience excluded local Berber populations who continued to live separately in the countryside, especially inhospitable mountainous areas.  This was because the Roman settlement policy favoured Roman soldiers and migrants.  Meanwhile, the rebellious Berbers preserved their traditional way of life. A proof of this "ethnic" separation is the Berber settlements which continued to exist independently from the Roman rule.  The famous Queen of Al-Kahina who was the only Berber leader to resist Islam caused considerable trouble for Uqba Ibn Nafi'5.

Following the fall of Rome, the region was ravaged by Vandal and Byzantine invaders during the period between 429 and 533 CE.  This exhausted the local economy and created political instability leading to social unrest and sectarian strife (Courtois, 1955). Furthermore, these struggles took place mainly in cities where the political power and commercial resources were concentrated. The consequences were a demographic decline and destruction of many cities including Carthage, Icosium and Sala (Laroui, 1977, p. 139).  This continued to be the case until the arrival of the Muslims.


The penetration of Islam to Tunisia in 670 CE, and subsequently to the rest of North Africa had an irreversible and overwhelming impact on its urban development. Numerous towns were established inducing urban development of that area. This was due to a number of reasons. Islam is considered, even by non-Muslims, to be an urban religion (Fischel, 1956). The religious practices, beliefs and values, especially those relating to organisation and authority, emphasised the effectiveness of and cohesiveness within the social gathering. Firstly Muslims are requested to undertake the obligatory five daily prayers in congregation in mosques, each known as a Masjid6, as pointed out in the Hadith narrated by 'Abdullah ibn 'Umar who said that Allah's Apostle said, "The prayer in congregation is twenty seven times superior to the prayer offered by the alone person." (Bukhari, Volume 1, Book 11, Number 618). To achieve this reward, Muslims had to live in proximity to a congregational mosque. Secondly, the Friday prayer, which is also a compulsory duty, is only carried out in congregation in the main mosque, known as Jami'. This can only refer to settlements rather than the nomadic life. Thirdly, the emphasis on the protection of privacy and the application of head covering (hijab) also refers to urban living where neighbourliness and the presence of a great number of strangers can constrain such private life. Fourthly, the annual pilgrimage ritual takes place in the cities of Makkah and Medina, another emphasis on urban living. In addition to these "urban" religious duties, the Muslim is also requested to lead a strong social life and avoid isolation. The Quran states:

 "And keep yourself patiently with those who call on their Lord morning and afternoon seeking His face, and let not your eyes overlook them, desiring the pomp and glitter of the life of the world; and obey not him whose heart We have made heedless of Our remembrance, one who follows his own desires and whose affair (deeds) has become all excess"(The Cave, 18: 28).

There is at least one hadith which warns against dispersal and isolation: AbudDarda' narrated: I heard the Apostle of Allah (peace be upon him) say: If there are three men in a village or in the desert among whom prayer is not offered (in congregation), the devil has got the mastery over them. So observe (prayer) in congregation (Jama’ah), for the wolf eats only the straggling animal. Sa'ib said: By the word Jama'ah he meant saying prayer in company or in congregation. (Sunan Abu-Dawud: Book 2, Number 0547). Thus, Islamic towns in North Africa were erected at an early stage to preach and practice Islam. Consequently a number of thriving towns emerged to fulfill this religious role. In the tenth century CE, for example, there were six major towns7, each having a population of 20,000 inhabitants or more (Chandler and Fox, 1974). These were mainly inland towns dependent on the land routes, which were essential for the trade and economic life of their communities. Waterways were still of very limited importance. Qayrawan (also spelt Kairawan), founded by Ibn Nafi' in the seventh century, was the main centre of civilisation of this period. With its famous school (medrassa) and economic and artistic booms, it attracted students, artists and merchants from all over the Muslim lands. Under the Aghlabid leaders, Qayrawan played a key role in the spread of Islam to the rest of North Africa, Sicily and southern Italy.

By the ninth century CE, the prestigious role of towns was replaced by political motives as North Africa broke its traditional links with the Caliphate in the East. This was a period when local leaders and influential groups pursued their political ambitions, respecting neither the will of their populations nor their Islamic moral convictions8. At first three states were established.  The Idrissids in Morocco founded Fez as a capital in 809 CE on a strategic site at the crossroads of the east-west route from Tunis to the Atlantic and the north-south route from Tangiers in the north to the south.  The Rustamids in Algeria took Tahart (Tiaret) as their capital.  Finally the Aghlabids in Tunisia replaced old Qayrawan with Tunis.  These states were soon involved in disputes over sovereignty and sometimes quarrels erupted between members of one ruling family or tribe. As a consequence several dynasties followed each other resulting in the appearance of a succession of capital cities as each dynasty founded its own distinctive capital. The rise of a new capital was often achieved at the price of the existing one. This could have produced a multiple number of former capitals but, since power was usually taken by force after heavy fighting, such towns were either destroyed or abandoned.

Figure 3: Islamic North Africa in the 13th century. Source: Laroui (1977)

The lack of stability was also reflected in the decline in the economic, cultural and social ingredients essential for urban prosperity.  This was followed by the advance of Banu Hilal and Banu Sulaym tribes. Driven from Egypt, these two Arabian tribes swept through North Africa "like locusts" (Ibn Khaldun, 1925). Algiers was destroyed as were many other towns while Tunis faced a major setback. Morocco, however, was spared the destruction, as these tribes did not manage to penetrate beyond Algeria. These conditions have greatly undermined the survival, growth and birth of towns, as they were the battleground for these divisions and disputes.

In the eleventh century, Europe took advantage of the weakening state of the North African Caliphate invading it from all sides. In Spain, Christians conquered Toledo (1085), Badajoz (1086) and Saragosa (1118). In Italy, the Normans occupied Sicily and invaded Tunisia and managed to occupy most of its towns.  Meanwhile, the rising powers of Genoa and Pisa managed to re-conquer Sardinia in 1016 and began harassing the North African coast including Bone (Annaba in Algeria) in 1034. Amid these deteriorating conditions people turned back to Islam for inspiration leading to the rise of a devoted group calling themselves Al-Murabitun (the Almuravids), the dedicated worshippers and defenders of God.  The choice of the name was not accidental as this group soon emerged as a leading power defending against European threats. Within a century of their rule, they had managed to unify Spain and North Africa under one Muslim Caliphate, extending it from Andalusia to Mauritania and Mali in the south (11th century) and Algiers and Tunis in the east (12th century).  North Africa and Spain entered a golden age benefiting from the political stability and tolerance of the Almuravid leaders. Urban life prospered significantly with the establishment of a number of towns including Sijilmassa, Telemcen, and Marrakesh. Sijilmassa in particular established an important position, becoming the northern station of the trans-Saharan gold trade coming from Awdaghust in ancient Ghana.  In fact the Almuravids managed to completely control this route and established new routes to connect to places more firmly within their domain. Sijilmasa’s role in the Islamisation of the western Sudan and other parts of Africa was decisive.

The collapse of the Almuravid Caliphate came as later leaders, corrupted by wealth and excessive power, lost their Islamic piety and devoted themselves to worldly desires.  As a consequence, disputes broke out and the dissatisfaction of the population grew significantly leading to the rise of Almowahidun, the proclaimers of oneness of God.  Originally from the high Atlas Mountains, the Almowahidun (commonly known as Almohads), united North Africa under one authority for the second time (Abun-Nasr, 1971, p.110). They established their capital in Marrakesh in Morocco.  They gave great impetus to learning and hosted a number of great scholars including Ibn Tufail and Ibn Rushd.  Their Kutubia Medrassa reached outstanding position in disseminating science, technology and arts. The Almohad art and architecture surpassed their predecessors, especially in their famous minarets. (see our article Architecture of Muslim Spain and North Africa).

Towards the end of the twelfth century, Yaqub Al-Mansour (third Sultan of the Almohads between 1184-1199) founded Rabat.  He decided to use the fort built by his predecessors and named Ribat El-Feth, a royal town.  The city was located on the right bank of the River Bouregreg facing the old Sala (Salé).  It was enclosed by a wall to the south and east while the ocean and the river provided natural defences to the north and west.  The walls were about four miles long and enclosed an area of over four hundred hectares (Abu-Lughod, 1980, p56). Rabat reached its golden age during this period but unfortunately only three gates and some parts of these walls still remain today. Algiers was used as a small port and did not achieve a substantial importance. Tunis, however, flourished and became once again the provincial capital (capital of Almohad province of Tunisia).

Following the collapse of the Almohads in 1250, North Africa and Andalusia entered a troubled period of divisions and disputes affecting greatly the stability and prosperity of the area.  In general, between 1200 CE and 1500 CE urban development concentrated on the coast due to the rise of the importance of sea transport. Consequently, urban population increased significantly as flourishing ship manufacturing attracted many migrants (Wagstaff, 1980). In addition to that, thousands of Andalusians, who had fled Spain after the Christian recapture, settled mostly in coastal towns. Issaoui (1969) adds another significant reason suggesting that the countryside’s insecurity, which was caused by the Bedouin raids, made the rural population flee to the cities.  Therefore, coastal towns multiplied.  According to Abu-Lughod (1976), North Africa saw the appearance of at least four new coastal towns9 in addition to the growth of existing ones, and only one new inland town -Marrakesh- during that period.

Stability was regained in the region by the arrival of the Ottomans in 1516.  The Ottomans were enabled to take control of North Africa (excluding Morocco) in a desire to revive the Islamic rule (Caliphate), and as a defence against Spanish and Portuguese colonial invasions. Cities and towns again assumed political and economic functions.  They served to consolidate the Muslim (Turkish) Caliphate. They were governed by the Bey, who was designated by the Dey10 and accountable only to him. The authority of the Dey was based in urban areas, while a Bey appointed by him handled the administration of the countryside and the collection of taxes there.

In economic terms, these towns were energised with an unprecedented economic activity geared towards ship- building to support the Turkish fleet, and defend Muslim ships against European pirates in the Mediterranean. The economic prosperity and political stability encouraged the flow of migrants from the Ottoman Empire (but essentially from Turkey), leading to a substantial urban growth (Figure 3).

With the increasing power of imperial Europe in the seventeenth century, North African cities’ main role was to provide men, money, and armaments to maintain Muslim supremacy over the Mediterranean Sea. Slowly, these efforts started to exhaust local resources amid the rise of a corrupt generation of leaders. Once again the region went into a dark period of internal fighting, ignorance and immorality.  It was followed by the spread of disease during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Historic sources revealed that a plague, which cost Tunisia a third of its population in 1784, spread to Algeria between 1793 and 1799, and to Morocco in 1800 causing the same devastating effect. In 1817, the same plague reappeared to claim a quarter of the population of Tunisia and an equivalent proportion in Algeria (Vallensi, 1977). In general, on the eve of colonisation (in 1800) urban population in North Africa represented about 20% of the total population (Table 3).

Table 3: Major towns in North Africa and their sizes (in ‘000's) at the eve of colonisation.

Sources: a- Abu-Lughod (1980, p153); b- Magali Morsi (1984); c-Bennoune Mahfoud (1988, p27) * between 1