Political Program and the Formality of Public Space in the Middle East

Project 2: Go Deep [Political Program and the Formality of Public Space in the Middle East]

Matt Marinelli and Avery Nackman






Throughout history Middle Eastern Mosque overflow has defined public space.  As the urban grid developed the Mosque and the public space surrounding it remained constant.  However, the formality of that public space has changed and is defined by the degree of integration of political program.  The political program itself has changed on an urban level over time resulting in a change in the formality of public space which can be traced historically.  The integration of political and religious programs is what defines the formality of public space in the urban fabric.  In Isfahan during the Safavid Empire, political structures were situated on the Maidan and visually presented themselves to the public space making the space formal.  This differs in a city like Istanbul during Ottoman rule where the Topkapi Palace was detached from the urban fabric which allowed the development of informal public spaces meant for trade and social interaction such as the Grand Bazaar.  In contrast to early Middle Eastern empires, the public space of modern Cairo was designed and altered based on a Parisian model where there is a lack of political program integrated in relation to public space.  This results in an informal use of public space.


[Function of Public Space]

Chehel Situm, Safavid Maidan, Topkapi Palace and the Kulliye – Isfahan and Istanbul – 1500-1900


Mosques throughout the Middle East are the center for daily worship and service.  The overflow from the Mosques constantly floods the streets where people continue to worship even though they are not inside.  This creates a zone that is neither inside nor outside the boundary of the Mosque, and this space evolved into what would be considered public space (Gharipour).  In the Safavid

The Naqsh-e Jahan Maidan in Isfahan.
The Naqsh-e Jahan Maidan in Isfahan.
Notice the open porch orientated east towards the Maidan.
Notice the open porch orientated east towards the Maidan.

Empire this zone was called the Maidan which expanded in size to include other programs such as the Chehel Situm Palace and small shops that were under the watchful gaze of the palace.  In contrast, the Kulliye of Istanbul still retained the primary figure of the mosque but does include political program overseeing it.  Instead it is purely a religious and social gathering space with programs including public baths, schools, shops, and cafes (Vimercati).   The function of each space is different because of the way political structure affects formality.

Public space is defined by the mosque in both cities, yet the formality of that space is completely different. On the Naqsh-e Jahan Maidan, the Chehel Situm Palace presents itself to the public. The palace is defined by its large talar, or open roofed porch, that visually allows the public to observe the court society of the shah. The large Ali Qapu gate uses monumentality to portray the power of the aristocracy, making the space formal (Massey). In some events, the Maidan was closed to the public and used for ceremonial processions for the Shah. In this way the space belonged to the Shah as he could control what it was used for. The state had a very different role in Ottoman Istanbul. The Topkapi Palace symbolized the international power of the Empire whereas the Safavids were more concerned with conveying that message domestically (Rood). The Ottoman Palace was situated on the Seraglil Point which overlooked the bosphours straights and was walled off from the urban fabric on the interior.  Topkapi translates to “cannon gate” which implies the desire to convey international power to all those entering the harbor.  In this way political program has no relation to the Kulliye or other open spaces of Istanbul because it is physically and visually separated from society.  The lack of integration of Ottoman political program informality in public space is created in contrast to public space in Isfahan and is thus used differently.

The Topkapi Palace clearly separated from the urban fabric (solid line) in relation to the Grand Bazaar (dotted line).
The Topkapi Palace clearly separated from the urban fabric (solid line) in relation to the Grand Bazaar (dotted line).


[Formality of Public Space]

Safavid Maidan,  the Kulliye, Topkapi Palace, and the Grand Bazaar – Isfahan and Istanbul – 1500-1900


The degree of formality in public space determines the functions which occur within them.  The function of the Mosque, in both the Maiden of Isfahan and the Kulliye of Istanbul, remains constant as a center for religious space. In Ishfahan, as one moves further away from the Mosques, the power of the government is more evidently felt which changes the nature of the space. There was economic and intellectual exchange on the Maidan in the form of small shops and tents owned by merchants (Safavid Empire). The merchants operated under the vision of the aristocracy and even were made to pay a tax to operate in the public space.  Knowledge between merchant and customer was shared, but not to the degree of places like the Grand Bazaar where the aristocracy did not have a direct grasp on the merchant class business (ArchNet, Kapali Carsi). The Maidan is more ceremonial and less social since the Shah can make his claim on the space at any point in time for different political activities. In these times the court society of the Shah was displayed to the lower levels of Safavid society on the public land its citizens would use. Nothing like this occurred in Istanbul as the public space was reserved for the public and the space for the government was reserved for the

The Mosque defines the public space with secondary function buildings surrounding the area.
The Mosque defines the public space with secondary function buildings surrounding the area.

government. This allowed for the development of spaces such as the Kulliye and the Grand Bazaar. The Kulliye was a space of intellectual, religious, and social gathering. Schools, or Madrasa’s, were integral to this space as a way to reinforce the importance of religion in Ottoman culture. Hamam’s, or bath houses, existed on the Kulliye as space for both men and women to meet in an informal way.  Hygiene was emphasized in the Ottoman Empire as it relates to the Koran and purity. Another type of space around the Kulliye is the café, which created a new relation between private and public space in Istanbul (Vimercati). Meals were almost exclusively enjoyed in the private space of the home, so the café was an extension of that space. Though it was an extension it turned private family dining into a public experience where people could now engage with each other over a meal or snack. In all of these instances, the public space remained informal and for the public. In a different way, markets such as the Grand Bazaar were purely social and economic spaces for a rising middle class in society. The Grand Bazaar consisted of covered streets with market stalls and shops that contained a huge variety of trades and goods (ArchNet, Kapali Carsi). Economic interactions are professional but informal in the sense that the government was not involved directly in the transaction. The only government presence in the Grand Bazaar were guards that circulated the city to keep the peace but had nothing to do with political program keeping the space informal.


[Application of Function and Formality in Modern Cairo]

Cairo, Egypt – 1900-1989


In both Isfafan and Istanbul political program had an effect on the public space within the city.  Though the Topkapi palace was disconnected from public the urban fabric it still affected the formality of public space by its lack of integration.  In the same way that the political programs of the Maiden affected the space in a more formal way due to the integration of the open porch of the palace and the Mosque. The same trend occurs in modern Cairo which was remodeled using a Parisian model of squares and boulevards connecting the public spaces together.

After the remodeling of Cairo in the later part of the 19th century by Ali Pasha Mubarak, the public spaces of Cairo became connected together (Tahrir Square).  Mubarak was inspired by Paris’s wide boulevards and open public spaces that wove together to create connection between open spaces.  Despite Mubarak’s reconstruction based on the Parisian model, Mosques were still at the center of public spaces (Thomas).  Yet, unlike historical societies, political program is integrated into the urban fabric differently.

Cairo, 1958.  The Public Spaces are Highlighted in red as well as the Major Connecting Streets.
Cairo, 1958. The Public Spaces are Highlighted in red as well as the Major Connecting Streets.

Modern government is more invisible than in the past. Communication from the government to the rest of society occurs through the media as opposed to public appearances in public spaces. Government program still exists, but in the form of political party headquarters, bureaucratic and embassy buildings. Egyptian government, on paper, is a democracy in which society now participates in government activity to a different extent.  Government program is no longer concentrated within palace compounds but spread out through the urban fabric.  Some public spaces, such as Tahrir square, have concentrations of political program yet they are still defined by the location of Mosques.  Since government program is dispersed and diluted the presence does not affect the formality of the space as it did in Isfahan or Istanbul.

Public space in Cairo is primarily used for vehicle transportation.  The nature of public space has changed over all since the time of the Safavids and Ottomans in relation to economic factors, yet religiously public space has remained the same.  Commerce has moved from open plazas to private institutions and intellectual discussion is moved to universities. Society has become transportation oriented as the nature of the economy has changed.  Public space remains informal with the use of motor vehicles and lack of visible government presence.  On a few occasions however the public space has been reclaimed by the people through protest and used once again for social and intellectual purposes (Alsayyad).  When such protests occur the government steps in and attempts to clear the space of protest and reclaim it for civil purposes.  In a way this relates to how the Shah could claim the space of the Maidan from the public to use for political ceremonies and control the space whenever the Shah deemed acceptable.  This creates a concern within society about whether a space is truly public or just another extension of government control similar to how the Safavids held control over the Maidan.




Formality of public space is determined by the integration of political and religious programs within the urban fabric.  Most public space in the Middle East is stationed around the areas of Mosques because of the cultural activity in religious service.  Despite the Mosques, public space can be described as either formal or informal depending on the integration of political program into public spaces like the Maidan or Kulliye.  The Safavid Maidan in Isfahan is considered formal due to the palace being located next to the Maidan whereas the Kulliye in Istanbul is considered informal because of the disconnect of the Topkapi palace from the urban fabric.  The Kulliye and Grand Bazaar become areas of economic and social gathering where the Maidan remains an area of public gathering and economic exchange under the watchful eye of the government.  Public space in Modern Egypt changes in terms of government visibility and commerce. Transportation has affected the formality of public spaces such as Tahrir square where streets are now meant for vehicles and not pedestrians.  The government is almost invisible and is dispersed amongst the urban fabric which changes the way society feels about the government.  Public space is now used on occasion for protests where society comes together for social and intellectual activity.  However the government still has the ability to take over public space as an extension of their power to diffuse public activity in places such as Tahrir Square much like the Shah of Isfahan. This brings into question if public space truly belongs to the people, or is merely extensions of government control. Integration of political program has consistently determined the formality of public space, whether it be in Isfahan or Modern Cairo.




Project One Link:


Topic 1 Resources: Egypt’s Tahrir Square under Colonial Influence (1900-1989)


“Tahrir Square.” Embassy of Egypt. Embassy of the Arab Republic in Washington DC, n.d. Web. 22 Sept. 2013. <http://www.egyptembassy.net/tahrir.html>.


Thomas, Benjamin E. “Cairo (Egypt).” Encyclopedia Americana. Grolier Online http://ea.grolier.com/article?id=0070500-00 (accessed October 6, 2013).


Alsayyad, Nezar. “Cairo’s roundabout revolution.(Editorial Desk)(OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR)(Editorial).” The New York Times, April 14, 2011. Gale, Global Issues in Context (A253979693).


Topic 2 Resources: Ottoman Empire’s Topkapi Palace and Grand Bazaar (1750-1900)


Rood, Judith Mendelsohn. “Architecture, Islamic—West Asia.” Encyclopedia of Modern Asia. Ed. David Levinson and Karen Christensen. Vol. 1. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002. 136-140. Global Issues In Context. Web. 6 Oct. 2013.


Vimercati, Alain. “Ottoman Architecture.” http://www.studio-basel.com/assets/files/files/18_ottoman_architecture_web.pdf.


ArchNet. “Kapali Carsi.” http://archnet.org/library/sites/one-site.jsp?site_id=7441.



Topic 3 Resources: Safavid Maidan in Isfahan (1500-1750)


Arch Net Digital Library. “Building Style: Safavid.” Accessed October 6, 2013. http://archnet.org/library/images/sites.jsp?select=style&key=Safavid&order_by=site_name&collection_id=-1&showdescription=1.


Mixed Resources:


Gharipour, Mohammad. “architecture in the medieval Islamic World.” In Crabtree, Pam J. Encyclopedia of Society and Culture in the Medieval World. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2008. Ancient and Medieval History Online, Facts On File, Inc.  http://www.fofweb.com/activelink2.asp?
ItemID=WE49&iPin=ESCMW034&SingleRecord=True (accessed October 6, 2013).


“Safavid Empire (1502-1722).” http://www.northernhighlands.org/cms/lib5/NJ01000179/Centricity/Domain/98/Lesson%2047%20How%20did%20the%20Safavid%20Empire%20rule%20the%20Middle%20East.pdf


Image Citation:


“Cairo 1958.” Map. University of Texas Libraries. Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection. Web. <http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/world_cities.html>.


Ross, Eric. “Istanbul and Beyoglu.” Map. Imperial Capitals of Turkey Field Seminar: Istanbul, Iznik, Bursa & Edirne. 17 May 2012. Web.


Massey, Johnathan. “Court Societies.” Syracuse University School of Architecture. ARC 134 Lecture. Syracuse. 11 Sept. 2013.

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