The early Islamic Empire was one of the largest empires in the history of the world. As the empire grew, large cities emerged as centers for trade and government. Some of these cities held religious importance including Mecca and Medina. Other cities served as capital cities for the government (called the Caliphate) that ruled the empire.
Mecca (Saudi Arabia)
The most important city in the Islamic religion is Mecca. Mecca is where Muhammad was born and where he founded the religion of Islam. The city is still the most important city in Islam today. When Muslims pray each day they pray toward the city of Mecca. Also, each Muslim, if able, is required to make a pilgrimage (called the Hajj) to Mecca at least once in their life.
Medina (Saudi Arabia)
When Muhammad left Mecca, he traveled to Medina. Throughout Muhammad's life and the reign of the First Four Caliphs, Medina served as the capital of the growing Islamic Empire. Today, Medina is considered the second holiest Muslim city after Mecca and is the home of Muhammad's tomb.
Mosque in Medina by Ahmed Medineli
The Islamic Empire took control of Damascus in 634 CE. It was the first major city of the Byzantine Empire (Eastern Roman Empire) to fall to the Arabs. In 661 CE, Damascus became the capital of the Islamic Empire under the rule of the Umayyad Caliphate (661-750 CE). For nearly 100 years, it was the political center of the Islamic Empire.
When the Abbasid Caliphate took control of the Islamic Empire in 750 CE, they decided they wanted a new capital city. They founded the city of Baghdad in 762 CE and made it the new capital. For most of the next 500 years, Baghdad was the center of political power in the Middle East. Its location was chosen because it was located in the center of Mesopotamia on the Tigris River.
In 1258, the Mongols arrived at Baghdad and sacked the city. Much of the city was destroyed. The Abbasid Caliphate re-established its position as the religious leader of the Muslim world in Cairo, Egypt. However, the real political power was held by the Mamluk Sultanate of Cairo. For the next several hundred years, Cairo became the center of the Muslim world.
Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey)
Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Empire in 1453. When the Ottoman Empire captured the city of Cairo in 1517, they assumed the role of the Islamic Caliphate. Constantinople was one of the largest cities in the world and a major trade center.
Mosque of Cordoba by Wolfgang Lettko
Cordoba was the center of Islamic rule in the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal). At first it was part of the Umayyad Caliphate, but it broke away when the Abbasids took control. Cordoba became the major city (and sometimes capital) of the Islamic presence in Spain (called Al-Andalus). For a period of time, the Umayyads rose to power and claimed the Caliphate of Cordoba.
Interesting Facts about Major Cities During the Early Islamic Empire
Today, non-Muslims are prohibited from entering the city of Mecca. Any non-Muslim caught within the city will be deported from the country.
At its peak, Cordoba was one of the most advanced cities in Europe, featuring wide paved streets, running water, hospitals, and technology that other European cities did not have during the Middle Ages.
Baghdad was a planned city. The center of the city was a large circular construction called the Round City of Baghdad. By the 9th century, over 500,000 people lived in Baghdad making it one of the largest cities in the world.
Cordoba returned to Christian rule in 1236 as part of the Reconquista.