Walled Cities of the Muslim World

Walls of Taroudannt, Morocco

Encircling walls have been, historically, a common feature of cities around the world. Beijing’s and Paris’s old walls may have been replaced by ring roads quaintly maintaining references to the old gates, and few big cities have maintained their walls (Istanbul comes to mind), but most of the cities of the world were at all point surrounded by walls protecting the urbane and civilized from the relative lawlessness of the hinterlands as well as foreign invaders. Walls distinguished what was inside, the developed density of organized city life, and what was out.

I don’t want to get into causes–an interesting discussion, no doubt–but many of the greatest walled cities that survive into the present day seem to be in the Muslim world, particularly in the Middle East. Cairo, Damascus and Jerusalem are some of the most fabled, while smaller but still notable examples include Khiva in Uzbekistan, Lefkosa/Nicosia in Cyprus and Meknes in Morocco. Even among the Muslim cities that have lost their walls, many such as Old Delhi and Kashgar have retained much of that old walled atmosphere.

Walls of Cairo

Walls of Lefkosa/Nicosia

Walls of Khiva

That old walled city atmosphere–what is it? It has a lot to do with density–when walls constrain the growth of a city, urban life is forced to develop inward and upward, and life of every sort fills the alleys. Commerce and markets–the souqs so characteristic of Muslim cities–consume much of the urban core. Families are seen strolling from home to workshop to restaurant to hammam. And just as safety was one of the main reasons for building walls, to be able to maintain the order of civilized life inside, safety still reigns in these cities. Children run in the side streets, and scale and proximity somehow prevents the anonymity of city life from developing, every neighbor a constant presence.

We thought that we had a pretty thorough experience of Muslim walled cities by the time we got to Morocco, but we were pleasantly surprised. Of all the walled cities that we have visited, none equals the atmosphere of Fez–probably the most genuine, authentic and atmospheric walled city in our travels. More than any place else, one feels a continuity in Fez–a sense that the same people have occupied the same homes and narrow alleys for hundreds of years, living their lives in very much the same ways. Below, some images of Fez.

Fez is actually two different walled cities in one, with a substantial royal enclosure to boot. Here, the walls of Fez al-Jadid, or “New” Fez.

Markets fill many of the main arteries of traditional walled cities. Sometimes, covered.

Commerce is not limited to the “traditional”–here, a Credit Agricole branch.

Complementing the markets are warehouses or inns, called funduqs or khans, for merchants and merchandise.

Greeting neighbors, perhaps on the way to the mosque beyond

Fresh water and proper sewage facilities are of course essential to the functioning of a city–perhaps the single civil engineering technology most important to life in density. The street of Fez are still filled with fountains, public restrooms and hammams.

And room for industry as well. The famous tanneries of Fez are still in full production, not only for the local market but for import abroad.

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