Ancient Islamic Cities: Villages, Towns, and Capitals of Islam

The first city belonging to the Islamic civilization was Medina, where the prophet Mohammed moved to in 622 AD, known as Year One in the Islamic calendar (Anno Hegira). But the settlements associated with the Islamic empire range from trade centers to desert castles to fortified cities. This list is a tiny sample of different types of recognized Islamic settlements with ancient or not-so-ancient pasts. 

In addition to a wealth of Arabic historical data, Islamic cities are recognized by Arabic inscriptions, architectural details and references to the Five Pillars of Islam: an absolute belief in one and only one god (called monotheism); a ritual prayer to be said five times each day while you are facing the direction of Mecca; a dietary fast at Ramadan; a tithe, in which each individual must give between 2.5% and 10% of one's wealth to be given to the poor; and hajj, a ritual pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in his or her lifetime.

Timbuktu (Mali)

Sankore Mosque, Timbuktu
Flickr Vision / Getty Images

Timbuktu (also spelled Tombouctou or Timbuctoo) is located on the inner delta of the Niger River in the African country of Mali.

The origin myth of the city was written in the 17th century Tarikh al-Sudan manuscript. It reports that Timbuktu began about AD 1100 as a seasonal camp for pastoralists, where a well was kept by an enslaved woman named Buktu. The city expanded around the well, and became known as Timbuktu, "the place of Buktu." Timbuktu's location on a camel route between the coast and salt mines led to its importance in the trade network of gold, salt, ​and enslavement.

Cosmopolitan Timbuktu

Timbuktu has been ruled by a string of different overlords since that time, including Moroccan, Fulani, Tuareg, Songhai and French. Important architectural elements still standing at Timbuktu include three medieval Butabu (mud brick) mosques: the 15th-century mosques of Sankore and Sidi Yahya, and the Djinguereber mosque built 1327. Also of importance are two French forts, Fort Bonnier (now Fort Chech Sidi Bekaye) and Fort Philippe (now the gendarmerie), both dated to the late 19th century.

Archaeology at Timbuktu

The first substantive archaeological survey of the area was by Susan Keech McIntosh and Rod McIntosh in the 1980s. The survey identified pottery at the site, including Chinese celadon, dated to the late 11th/early 12th century AD, and a series of black, burnished geometric potsherds that may date as early as the 8th century AD.

Archaeologist Timothy Insoll began work there in the 1990s, but he has discovered quite a high level of disturbance, partly a result of its long and varied political history, and partly from the environmental impact of centuries of sandstorms and flooding.

Al-Basra (Morocco)

Ait Benhaddou Kasbah at dawn, Morocco
Cyrille Gibot / Getty Images

Al-Basra (or Basra al-Hamra, Basra the Red) is a medieval Islamic city located near the modern village of the same name in northern Morocco, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) south of the Straits of Gibraltar, south of the Rif Mountains. It was founded circa AD 800 by the Idrisids, who controlled must of what is today Morocco and Algeria during the 9th and 10th centuries.

A mint at al-Basra issued coins and the city served as an administrative, commercial and agricultural center for the Islamic civilization between ca AD 800 and AD 1100. It produced many goods for the extensive Mediterranean and sub-Saharan trade market, including iron and copper, utilitarian pottery, glass beads, and glass objects.


Al-Basra extends over an area of some 40 hectares (100 acres), only a tiny piece of which has been excavated to date. Residential house compounds, ceramic kilns, subterranean water systems, metal workshops, and metal-working locations have been identified there. The state mint has yet to be found; the city was surrounded by a wall.

Chemical analysis of glass beads from al-Basra indicated that at least six types of glass bead manufacturing were used at Basra, roughly correlating to color and luster, and a result of the recipe. Artisans mixed lead, silica, lime, tin, iron, aluminum, potash, magnesium, copper, bone ash or other types of material to the glass to make it shine.

Samarra (Iraq)

Qasr Al-Ashiq, 887-882, Samarra (UNESCO World Heritage List, 2007), Iraq, Abbasid civilization
De Agostini / C. Sappa / Getty Images

The modern Islamic city of Samarra is located on the Tigris River in Iraq; its earliest urban occupation dates to the Abbasid period. Samarra was founded in AD 836 by the Abbasid dynasty caliph al-Mu'tasim [ruled 833-842] who moved his capital there from Baghdad.

Samarra's Abbasid structures including a planned network of canals and streets with numerous houses, palaces, mosques, and gardens, built by al-Mu'tasim and his son the caliph al-Mutawakkil [ruled 847-861].

The ruins of the caliph's residence include two race tracks for horses, six palace complexes, and at least 125 other major buildings stretched along a 25-mile length of the Tigris. Some of the outstanding buildings still in existence at Samarra include a mosque with a unique spiral minaret and the tombs of the 10th and 11th imams.

Qusayr' Amra (Jordan)

Quseir Amra or Qusayr Amra desert castle (8th century) (Unesco World Heritage List, 1985), Jordan
De Agostini / C. Sappa / Getty Images

Qusayr Amra is an Islamic castle in Jordan, about 80 km (fifty mi) east of Amman. It was said to have been built by the Umayyad Caliph al-Walid between 712-715 AD, for use as a vacation residence or rest stop. The desert castle is equipped with baths, has a Roman-style villa and is adjacent to a small arable plot of land. Qusayr Amra is best known for the gorgeous mosaics and murals which decorate the central hall and connected rooms.

Most of the buildings are still standing and can be visited. Recent excavations by the Spanish Archaeological Mission discovered the foundations of a smaller courtyard castle.

Pigments identified in a study to preserve the stunning frescoes include a wide range of green earth, yellow and red ochre, cinnabar, bone black, and lapis lazuli.

Hibabiya (Jordan)

The sun sets over windswept red sand dunes and rock cliffs in Wadi Rum, Jordan.
Ethan Welty / Getty Images

Hibabiya (sometimes spelled Habeiba) is an early Islamic village located on the fringe of the northeastern desert in Jordan. The oldest pottery collected from the site dates to the Late Byzantine-Umayyad [AD 661-750] and/or Abbasid [AD 750-1250] periods of the Islamic Civilization.

The site was largely destroyed by a large quarrying operation in 2008: but the examination of documents and artifact collections created in a handful of investigations in the 20th century has allowed scholars to redate the site and place it in context with the newly burgeoning study of Islamic history (Kennedy 2011).

Architecture at Hibabiya

The earliest publication of the site (Rees 1929) describes it as a fishing village with several rectangular houses, and a series of fish traps jutting onto the adjacent mudflat. There were at least 30 individual houses scattered along the edge of the mudflat for a length of some 750 meters (2460 feet), most with between two to six rooms. Several of the houses included interior courtyards, and a few of those were very large, the largest of which measured approximately 40x50 meters (130x165 feet).

Archaeologist David Kennedy reassessed the site in the 21st century and reinterpreted what Rees called "fish-traps" as walled gardens built to exploit annual flooding events as irrigation. He argued that the site's location between the Azraq Oasis and the Umayyad/Abbasid site of Qasr el-Hallabat meant it was likely on a migration route used by nomadic pastoralists. Hibabiya was a village seasonally populated by pastoralists, who took advantage of the grazing opportunities and opportunistic farming possibilities on annual migrations. Numerous desert kites have been identified in the region, lending support to this hypothesis.

Essouk-Tadmakka (Mali)

Sunset on the desert, around Essouk
Vicente Méndez / Getty Images

Essouk-Tadmakka was a significant early stop on the caravan trail on the Trans-Saharan trade route and an early center of the Berber and Tuareg cultures in what is today Mali. The Berbers and Tuareg were nomad societies in the Saharan desert who controlled the trade caravans in sub-Saharan Africa during the early Islamic era (ca AD 650-1500).

Based on Arabic historical texts, by the 10th century AD and perhaps as early as the ninth, Tadmakka (also spelled Tadmekka and meaning "Resembling Mecca" in Arabic) was one of the most populous and wealthy of West African trans-Saharan trading cities, outshining Tegdaoust and Koumbi Saleh in Mauritania and Gao in Mali.

The writer Al-Bakri mentions Tadmekka in 1068, describing it as a large town ruled by a king, occupied by Berbers and with its own gold currency. Beginning in the 11th century, Tadmekka was on the route between the West African trading settlements of the Niger Bend and northern African and the Mediterranean Sea.

Archaeological Remains

Essouk-Tadmakka includes about 50 hectares of stone buildings, including houses and commercial buildings and caravanserais, mosques and numerous early Islamic cemeteries including monuments with Arabic epigraphy. The ruins are in a valley surrounded by rocky cliffs, and a wadi runs through the middle of the site.

Essouk was first explored in the 21st century, much later than other trans-Saharan trade cities, in part because of civil unrest in Mali during the 1990s. Excavations were held in 2005, led by the Mission Culturelle Essouk, Malian Institut des Sciences Humaines, and the Direction Nationale du Patrimoine Culturel.

Hamdallahi (Mali)

Dawn at Hombori
Luis Dafos / Getty Images

The capital city of the Islamic Fulani caliphate of Macina (also spelled Massina or Masina), Hamdallahi is a fortified city which was constructed in 1820 and destroyed in 1862. Hamdallahi was founded by the Fulani shepherd Sekou Ahadou, who in the early 19th century decided to build a home for his nomadic pastoralist followers, and to practice a more rigorous version of Islam than he saw in Djenne. In 1862, the site was taken by El Hadj Oumar Tall, and two years later, it was abandoned and burned.

Architecture extant at Hamdallahi include the side-by-side structures of the Great Mosque and Sekou Ahadou's palace, both built of sun-dried bricks of the West African Butabu form. The main compound is surrounded by a pentagonal wall of sun-dried adobes.

Hamdallahi and Archaeology

The site has been the focus of interest to archaeologists and anthropologists wishing to learn about theocracies. In addition, ethnoarchaeologists have been interested in Hamdallahi because of its known ethnic association with the Fulani caliphate.

Eric Huysecom at the University of Geneva has conducted archaeological investigations at Hamdallahi, identifying a Fulani presence on the basis of cultural elements such as ceramic pottery forms. However, Huysecom also found additional elements (such as rainwater guttering adopted from Somono or Bambara societies) to fill in where the Fulani repertoire lacked. Hamdallahi is seen as a key partner in the Islamicization of their neighbors the Dogon.


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Hirst, K. Kris. "Ancient Islamic Cities: Villages, Towns, and Capitals of Islam." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Hirst, K. Kris. (2021, February 16). Ancient Islamic Cities: Villages, Towns, and Capitals of Islam. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "Ancient Islamic Cities: Villages, Towns, and Capitals of Islam." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).