01 September 2009

Why are Arabic streets so narrow?

...asks Tyler Cowen. He isn't convinced by Chris Wickham's answer: 
"the Arab states did not use processions as a major part of their political legitimization; the assembly in the mosque courtyard was sufficient for that. The need for wide boulevards ended" 
Ryszard Kapuscinski in "The Shadow of the Sun" inadvertently offers an alternative hypothesis: 
"...one enters the narrow streets typical of old Arab towns. I cannot say why these people built in such a cramped and crowded fashion, why they pressed together this way, practically one atop another. Was it so that they would never have far to walk? Or to be better able to defend the town? I don't know. But one thing is certain: this mass of piled stone, this accretion of walls, this layering of balconies, recesses, eaves, and rooftops, somehow secured, as though in an icy treasury, a corner of shade, a tiny breeze, and a bit of coolness during the most terrifying noontime heat." 
Maybe Arab streets are designed for this bit of coolness?

Update: Philip Blue also weighs in.


Philip said...

Lee, thanks for your comment on my similar post. But I'm not sure it explains why the streets are narrow. Firstly because Arab cities are not hot year-round, and in the winter the narrow streets are actually very cold. Second, because streets in cold countries from that time were also narrow.

But as I said in my post, as a side-effect, the narrow streets are great in the summer for avoiding the sun...

(As a side-point, if a street runs east-west, then it's less useful, as they don't get that much shade...)

Ranil Dissanayake said...

Is this just a typical economists' problem of not reading any cultural history?

There are many linked reasons. Heat is one; the patterns of the spread of architectural ideas is another: if such streets exist in one extremely hot place that was colonised (politically or religiously - remember that architecture is a major way of expressing religious belief) or did a lot of trade or housed a lot of powerful migrants, then the same patterns of building are far more likely to spread to places where the original 'reasons' don't make as much sense.

Classic case: Zanzibar. yes it's very hot. It's also a monsoon-country. Flat roofs and narrow roads do not deal with flooding very well; but the Arab immigrants and Sultans built Zanzibar town in the style they found familiar and were accustomed to.

Post a Comment