Mediterranean urban and building codes: origins, content, impact, and lessons


This study on codes is based on the context of the Byzantine and Islamic civilisations of the Near East and the territories that were under their direct or indirect rule and/or influence across all of the northern and southern parts of the Mediterranean basin. The study's sources and examples cover 14 centuries, from the 6th to the early 20th century. The article is divided into six sections: origins and diffusion, content of the codes, examples of specific codes, impact on the built environment, lessons for contemporary and future practice, and a conclusion. The section on lessons addresses in some detail the attributes of the traditional system as it relates to the phenomenon and science of Emergence. This is of crucial importance because it is a primary consideration for achieving successful sustainability in our cities and built environment in general.

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  1. 1.

    ‘The Arabs were not obsessed with taking over the cultural heritage of Antiquity at the time of their conquests’ (p. 21), and ‘The two worlds were strangers to each other’ (p. 27).

  2. 2.

    ‘Emergence is what happens when an interconnected system of relatively simple elements self-organizes to form more intelligent, more adaptive higher-level behaviour. It is a bottom-up model; rather than being engineered by a general or a master planner, emergence begins at the ground level’. From book cover (Johnson, 2001).

  3. 3.

    Julian's treatise was included as a part of the Book of the Eparch in Constantinople, 377 years after it was written, and then 435 years later in 1345 CE, it was incorporated in the Hexabiblos, a span of 812 years after its authorship in Palestine.

  4. 4.

    For details about this source, written in Syriac, see the work of Arthur Voobus. In his two-volume study of The Syro-Roman Lawbook, Stockholm, 1982, he indicates how much embedded is this compilation of codes in the ancient practices and laws of the Near East, including roots to Hammurabi's laws.

  5. 5.

    Chapter 1: ‘Islamic law and neighborhood building guidelines’: 15–54.

  6. 6.

    A case using a stipulation from Julian was found in a legal document dated October 1826 as a part of the local administration of the island of Naxos, Greece. This demonstrates the longevity of Julian's influence and how many of his stipulations became embedded as a part of local customary laws.

  7. 7.

    The nature of these codes are not to be viewed as being similar to contemporary planning regulations that are written to enforce an adopted master plan. Traditional towns, that are the subject of this study, were conceived and implemented according to known concepts and customary practices of a particular region. However, the incremental process of growth and change required that they follow accepted customary practices and rules known within the locality. These rules were formalized within the legal literature to provide local courts a framework for making sound and equitable decisions when two or more parties face conflicts resulting from changes and adjustments to their immediate surroundings. It is from this legal literature that we can identify specific rules and codes that were applied in the built environment of traditional towns.

  8. 8.

    For a detailed study of the sources that Ibn al-Imam utilized in writing his work, see Jean-Pierre Van Staevel's dissertation, 2000.

  9. 9.

    Equitable equilibrium is a term used here to imply that fairness and justice must always be maintained between the rights of proximate neighbours to achieve harmony and good will.

  10. 10.

    Fina is an invisible space of about 1.00–1.50 m wide alongside all exterior walls of a building, primarily alongside streets and access paths. It extends vertically alongside the walls of the building and allows extensions to be built from upper levels such as balconies, awnings, and even rooms bridging a street called ‘sabat’ (see Figure 8).

  11. 11.

    Proscription is an imposed restraint synonymous with prohibition as in ‘Thou shalt not’, for example, you are free to design and manipulate your property provided you do not create damage on adjacent properties. Prescription is laying down of authoritative directions as in ‘Thou shalt’, for example, you shall setback from your front boundary by (x) meters, and from your side boundaries by (y) meters regardless of site conditions. Byzantine codes in many instances included specific numeric prescriptions, unlike their Islamic counterparts that tended not to include them.

  12. 12.

    For examples from the past one can see how each town has distinct features and a sense of place unique to its built form. Whereas one can see the almost identical land use patterns and built form features in the thousands of communities that were built in the United States after World War II, that is, from about the early 1950s.

  13. 13.

    Remarkable similarities have been found from the north of France in the 13th century. Probably due to the influence of Byzantine/Roman law, although the linkage has not yet been traced: The Coutumes de Beauvaisis of Phillippe de Beaumanoir completed in 1283. The County of Beauvais of the 13th century is located in the north of Paris. This book contains specific dynamic type of codes that are remarkably similar to the type of codes found in the 6th century Julian of Ascalon treatise on building and in Islamic codes from the Mid-East, North Africa and Spain. Consider this example from Chapter 24 on Customs (equivalent to the Urf in Arabic): From article 706: (But other building conventions are current in the bigger towns because the lots are narrower, for my neighbour may support his construction beams against my adjoining wall, whether I want him to or not, provided that the wall is strong enough for my house not to be in danger… continues). This clearly allows abutting of buildings together incrementally across the passage of time.

  14. 14.

    Also from The Coutumes de Beauvaisis of Phillippe de Beaumanoir completed in 1283 (see note 13 above), the issue of privacy and overlooking is addressed as it was in Islamic codes. Example from article 708: (When someone makes his garden or yard in a private place where the neighbours cannot see in, and one of the neighbours wants to build next to it, you cannot prevent him from building, but you can prevent him from building a door or window which would spoil the privacy of the yard or garden; for some people would do it in bad faith to take away their neighbours' privacy. Therefore a person wanting light on that side must put in an opaque window, then there will be light and the neighbour's place will not be spoiled).

  15. 15.

    My question does not apply to Sicily that was under Islamic rule for over two centuries (832–1056 CE).

  16. 16.

    A Greek manuscript known as the ‘Procheiron Legum’ was found in Soverato on the eastern shores of Calabria, about 30 km south of Cantanzaro. This was possibly authored during the reign of Emperor Basil II (976–1025 CE), and subsequently revised in the reign of the Norman King Roger II (1101–1154 CE). The author is unknown but as evident from its contents he compiled this treatise from the two official manuals of the Ecloga of Leon III (717–741 CE), and the Procheiros Nomos of Basil I (867–886 CE). See Procheiron Legum (eds.) F. Brandileone and V. Putoni, Instituto Storica Italiano, Rome, 1895. Remarkable similarities to the ‘Procheiron Legum’ are evident in the contents of Julian of Ascalon's treatise and in Islamic codes.

  17. 17.

    The phenomenon of self-regulating and adaptive systems has been the focus of many disciplines for at least the last 50 years, such as in physics, biology, economics, and geography. It has been scrutinized by mathematics and has captured the imagination of social scientists whose interpretations brought the findings of these various disciplines, especially the life sciences, closer to urban planning and design. The following are brief definitions of the primary terms used to explain the phenomenon of Emergence – related to the term Emergent Form (the outcome that results from a bottom-up organization which follows its own set of rules that are often fairly simple). Complex adaptive system (a form of system containing many autonomous agents who self-organize in a co-evolutionary way to optimize their separate values). Self-regulation (When a complex adaptive system self-organizes itself it would need rules to follow during processes of change and growth. It thus forms such rules to follow, and they are generally few and simple). Negative Feedback (negative feedback tends to return the system to a balanced tranquil state where equity is maintained between adjacent neighbours). Generative Program vs Descriptive Program (a generative program is based on bottom-up rules that are understood and followed by various actors in a system. Their aggregate decisions create a unique emergent form. Whereas a descriptive program is one that is usually top-down directed and instructed where all actors follow the same rules regardless of their particular micro condition, resulting in a predictable outcome). Non-linearity (linear is a property of straight lines, of simple proportions, of predictability. Nonlinear on the other hand applies to systems that do unpredictable things, that cannot be exactly predicted and need to be approximated). Agents and Aggregate Agents (the basic elements of a Complex Adaptive System are agents. Agents are semi-autonomous units that seek to maximize their fitness by evolving over time. Agents scan their environment and develop schema. Schema are mental templates that define how reality is interpreted and what are appropriate response for a given stimuli. The term Aggregate Agents is used to refer to the aggregate result of decisions and acts by a number of agents).

  18. 18.

    For a detailed discussion and the rational for these rules see Part II of Epstein's book, pp. 53–148. There are many similarities in the spirit and purpose of these rules to the Mediterranean rules and codes that were discussed earlier in this study.

  19. 19.

    For a detailed study of an issue that was a part of common law practice in the UK see the excellent study by Howard Davis, The Future of Ancient Lights, Journal of Architectural and Planning Research, 6(2), Summer 1989, 132–153. The doctrine of ancient lights was also practiced in the early history of the US but was finally struck down by the New York Supreme Court in the case of Parker vs Foote, 1838 (19 Wend. 309). Another study that describes the workings of the common law in London during the 13th to 15th centuries is by Diane Shaw, The construction of the private in medieval London, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, 26(3), Fall 1996, 447–466. A more general study that also discusses similar issues in medieval urban England is by Vanessa Harding, Space, property, and propriety in urban England, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 32(4), Spring 2002, 549–569.

  20. 20.

    For Alexander's work on neighbourhoods and related generative codes visit: For Hakim's work on traditional Mediterranean towns and their codes visit: Also, see Hakim, B. Generative processes for revitalizing historic towns or heritage districts, Urban Design International, 12(2/3), 2007: 87–99.

  21. 21.

    The article in Urban Design International, mentioned in note 20 contains a brief description of the Bahrain project. Work on that project by Hakim was completed at the end of February 2006.


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Parts of this study were presented earlier at two conferences: (1) Congress for the New Urbanism, Council IV on Codes, held in Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA, October 2002. (2) La Ciudad en el Occidente Islamico Medieval, 1st Session: La Medina Andalusi, held at the Escuela de Estudios Arabes in Granada, Spain, November 2004.

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Correspondence to Besim S Hakim.

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Hakim, B. Mediterranean urban and building codes: origins, content, impact, and lessons. Urban Des Int 13, 21–40 (2008).

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  • Mediterranean
  • Byzantine
  • Islamic
  • codes
  • generative program
  • emergence