Modelling Economic Change In late Medieval Cairo Through Religious Architecture

→Hend El-Sayed

Topic and research questions:

Public architecture provides a window on the workings of the urban economy. Religious architecture is a particularly sensitive barometer of economic life in medieval Islamic cities. Religious institutions were centers of economic activity and generated the economic life of the city, and through them we can document economic process in a complex urban environment. In this project, the religious architecture of late medieval Cairo – mosques, madrasas, khanqahs, kuttabs – is employed as a case-study. The focus is on Late Mamluk Period (1382-1517 CE), when extreme fluctuations in currency and market life and was a periods of imperial financial reforms.  While the fact of economic change in this period is widely recognized, the dynamics, and how this change was experienced on the local level, are not. The impact of these change on economic life in the city can be measured through changes in public building practices, such as changes in:

– Building material (quality, quantity, choice of materials, use of spolia).

– The scale of construction (size of floor plan, use of rooms for more than one function, second floors).

– The location of the building (heart of city, or in a cheaper part of town?).

– Architectural decoration (the ways building planners and architects minimized cost

– Building expenses (how much to build it, to repair it?)

– Building income (how much money does the building make in services, or acquire through endowments?)

– The potential of building for generating its own income, reviving urban  neighbourhoods and local markets, and creating jobs

Research method(s)

The textual record is rich for this period and can be culled for quantitative data. Most important in this regard are waqfiyyāt (endowment documents), which record properties endowed for the construction and maintenance of public buildings and the services associated with them, and how they change over time. Muslim endowments (awqāf) were the most important financial institution of medieval Islam and the institution that generated most urban construction activity.

The methods of traditional architectural analysis will be employed in the study of the physical manifestations of economic change in medieval religious buildings in Cairo, which are still standing today.

A. Documentation of building form, materials, and functional relationships with contemporary and neighboring structures:

Primary and secondary textual sources are essential for examining the historical context of the history of economics, the financial system, the changes of this system over the time. According to the waqf documents, one can examine to what extent Mamluks invested in the religious architecture, how much income they got and how this changed in this era as a result of financial crises. The files of the Egyptian Department of Antiquities are invaluable, as well, for documenting ways in which the standing buildings of today were transformed by later interventions, providing precious archaeological data relevant to spatial and functional analysis, and to study in detail the quality of building material.

B. Qualitative modelling:

While some degree of quantitative data are available through the endowment documents, the focus of this project is on the architecture itself; thus a qualitative approach will be adopted. The dynamics of the urban economic system will be documented through the most economically sensitive characteristics of religious architecture, identifying the relationships among those characteristics and how they functioned as a system on the scale of the building, as well as the scale of the city itself: for example, how growth in the number of some religious buildings led to the growth of these areas as urban and as market places, which on the other hand, led to decline in the urban form in another area .

Contribution to the bigger discussion of Archaeology of Economics:

The currentproject comes to represent another area of pre-modern economics, i.e. the late medieval Islamic world. The Mamluk Sultanate (1250-1516) represents in global history the end of the medieval era in the eastern Mediterranean. This is a time of great changes in global trade and economic life on the local level and is a period of transition from the medieval world toearly modernity. Finally, this project,  positions economic change of late medieval Islam, which developed financial institutions and economic life quite different from those of medieval Europe and the East. The structure of the economic system, and processes of change, as materialized in the most important urban institutions religious buildings –remains thefocus of this project.



  • Carl F Petry, Twilight of majesty : the reigns of the Mamlūk sultans al-Ashrāf Qāytbāy and Qānṣūh
  • Doris Behrens-Abouseif , Qaytbay’s Investments in the City of Cairo: Waqf and Power.‘ Annales Islamologiques, 32.
  • Eliyahu Ashtor, The medieval near east: social and economic history, Pennsylvania State University, 1976.
  • Jean-Claude Garcin, Du rab‘ à la masrîya. Réflexion sur les évolutions et les emprunts des formules d’habitat dans le monde musulman de Méditerranée à l’époque médiévale, Annales islamologiques vol. 31, 1997.
  • Jo Van Steenbergen, Appearances of Dawla and Political Order in late medieval Syro-Egypt. The state, social theory, and the political history of the Cairo Sultanate (thirteenth-sixteenth centuries, studies of the Annemarie Schimmel Research College II. In Mamluk Studies 12.
  • Mayer, L.A, The Buildings of Qaytbay as Described in his Endowment Deed, London: A. Probsthain, London: Arthur Probsthain, 1938.
  • Michael A. Cook, Studies in the economic history of the middle east from the rise of islam to the present day, Oxford University Press, 1970.
  • Michael Meinecke, Patterns of stylistic changes in Islamic architecture : local traditions versus migrating artists, NYU Press, 1996.
  • Nasser Rabbat, Documenting Buildings in the Waqf System,“ Thresholds 28 „concerto barocco: essays in honor of Henry A. Millon“, Spring 2005.
  • Ulrich Haarmann, Mamluk Endowment Deeds as a Source for the History of Education in Late Medieval Egypt, Al-Abhath 28, 1980.


Prof. Bethany Walker, Assit Prof. Ellen Kenney