Sunday, June 29, 2008

Historical comparison of Arab and European cities

An excellent article by Maarten Bosker, Eltjo Buringh, Jan Luiten van Zanden in VOX highlights the role of vertical socio-political institutions, constraining the power of the state, in contributing towards the rise of European cities and the relative decline of Arab cities.

They find striking differences between the two urban systems. While the European urban systems consisted of smaller and densely populated cities, located closer to the sea or rivers, the Arab cities were larger megapolises and located inland, without access to the best transport facilities.

Drawing from Max Weber, they argue that the European cities were "producer cities", with production and exchange of goods and commercial services with the city’s hinterland and other cities being the main source of economic activity. Such cities have weaker economic and social links with the State and its fortunes were not tied to that of the State.

In contrast, the Arab "consumer cities" were "a centre of government and military protection or occupation, which supplies services – administration, protection – in return for taxes, land rent and non-market transactions". They were intimately linked to the state in which they are embedded, and their fate determined by the ebbs and flows of the State power.

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