Conference report: Urbanity. History, Concept, Uses

— Aileen Becker (ORCID 0000-0002-9400-0516)

A second conference report on the conference can be found on H-Soz-Kult:

The international conference “Urbanity: History, Concept, Uses” of the Humanities Centre for Advanced Studies “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations” (funded by the German Research Foundation, FOR 2779) was convened by Susanne Rau, Professor of spatial history, culture, fellow and spokesperson of the KFG, together with Sara Keller, postdoc fellow in the research group. The conference was planned as an interdisciplinary event of with innovative format including three parts: a theoretical part on conceptual tools widely used by the UrbRel group, a World Café and lightening talks. It took place in Ettersburg castle (Weimar) and continued on the results of two summer workshops. The conference looked at the concept of urbanity and its possible variations. How do we live (together) in dense urban spaces? How has urbanity been defined so far, how can we contribute to better grasp and describe it?

The first part started with a retrospection of the first four funding years of the Religion-and-Urbanity research group, a contribution from SUSANNE RAU (Erfurt) and JÖRG RÜPKE (Erfurt). They confidently summarised that despite the pandemic, the work of the recent years has brought new insights into the historical diversity of the formation of urban lifestyles as well as into the “city” as a model and form of socialisation. Starting from a lowest common denominator, urbanity has been defined as both, a historic concept (meaning culturally determined and needing to be contextualised) and a concept of form that helps us to better understand the spatial configurations and transformations of the city, to which ‘religion’ represents one essential factor. The international projects on cities and religion(s) have had a profound influence on each other and led, in addition to a long list of publications, to the development of new ideas and collaborative project. They received a prize for internationalization. After a positive evaluation of the research group by the German Research Foundation (DFG), both are looking ahead to the second funding period. They are highly motivated to continue and develop the research further on how religion and urbanity are interwoven.

After the promising introduction, MARTIN FUCHS (Erfurt) took a look back at the last workshop and gave an insight in what “living together” means in modern India, where religion and urbanity are very much entangled and individualization is an important aspect of the lifestyle. In the most pluralist religious region in the world, he sees contemporary trends of diversity and segregation, inclusivist and exclusionary contexts in the relation of belonging. Urbanity finds different interpretations in modern India because of the diversity of communities, of social and religious groups. There can only be multiple definitions.

The conference went on with theoretical concepts that have been widely discussed and will be especially useful for research projects. Four of them have been progressed so far to present and discuss them together: Co-Spatiality, Heterarchy, Spatial Fix and Spatialisation.

ELISA IORI (Erfurt) started with Co-Spatiality. The concept was introduced by Jacques Lévy. According to him, co-spatiality is a particular type of interspatiality or relation between spaces. It refers to space as a simultaneous and multi-layered reality. In most configurations, co-spatiality can be imagined as a kind of baklava with its special honey paths laboriously crossing the dough and hardly connecting pistachios and almonds. But a lack of honey will maintain layers separated from each other and hinder co-spatiality. The vertical interaction between layers requires a third element. The baklava-image helps to explain the overlapping use of a same space, that can be regulated by instructions, individuals and groups to foster or avoid a co-spatial interaction.

SIMONE WAGNER (Erfurt) continued with Heterarchy. Heterarchy and hierarchy are closely related. A heterarchy can exist parallel to a hierarchy, be subsumed to a hierarchy, or contain hierarchies. The two terms of structure are not mutually exclusive. Rather, each level in a hierarchical system consists of a potentially heterarchical group. Both are closely related to power as a system of administration. Urban hierarchies are changing every time when the social power in cities changes. To understand the combat it helps to use both concepts as relevant instruments. She then refers to a work developed by Nimrod Luz about religious gentrification as heterarchies of urban planning in Acre (Israel).

SARA KELLER (Erfurt) moved on with the concept of Spatial Fix. The concept was introduced by David Harvey (1982). The term spatial fix is embedded in Marxist thinking, which emerged in geography in the early 1970s and has been widely discussed in the last decades. According to Keller, investments in religious infrastructure can be interpreted as a spatial fixing of capital, changing the character of religious practices by firmly tying  them  to urban  or peri-urban  space  and  rendering  them  more  attractive to  visitors  from  inside  and outside  the city. She added Emiliano Urciuoli’s work that transposes Harvey’s concept into a concept of “religious spatial fix”, whereby gods are fixed to places . All in all, the term spatial fix is useful to explain the entanglement of economical and religious factors.

MARTIN CHRIST (Erfurt) described spatialisation as a process in which individual actors or groups construct or claim or name space for themselves, which can also be in relation to objects and/or discourses. This can be to perform rituals, hold events or trade, indicating a wish for a more permanent presence. He argues that urbanity can be created through processes of spatialisation, within religious factors and actors play an important role. In urban contexts, the presence of multiple confessional or religious groups led to conflicts and compromises when it came to spatialisations, for  instance  in  shared  cemeteries. Not all religious groups wanted or could participate in spatialization processes. By observing group formations in urban spaces we can also see how different groups claim urban spaces.

EMILIANO URCIUOLI (Erfurt) commented, by differently combining the explanatory power of these four concepts, new pathways for the spatial analyses and understandings of religious phenomena are possible. They all are useful to describe the reciprocal formation of religion and urbanity and the history of these developments from the first millennium BC to the present day. He concludes that the concepts of spatiality help to compare better the various processes of the city formation in Europe and beyond, across the Mediterranean and in South Asia.

Impressions from the first presentations on Wednesday, 16 November 2022. Images: Raghad Alrousan

The second part of the conference on the next day started with the authors’ workshop organized in the format of a World Café, whereby the four groups presented their collaborative projects and discussed it with the other participants of the conference. The co-authored papers were initiated during the preparatory workshops “Typologising Cities” (May 2022) and “Metamorphoses of Urbanities” (June 2022). The selection of topic and case studies from these events were focused on the differentiation of cities and urbanities. They ranged from Court Cities in India and Germany, to urban domestic architecture in ancient Israel and Italy to modern India. Within the groups, they tried to find out criteria and parameters that are useful in qualifying the experience of urbanity and explain how religious phenomena such as religious pluralism or secularization contribute to the shaping/changing of the urban.

MARTIN CHRIST (Erfurt) and SARA KELLER (Erfurt) started the first round of table discussions with a contribution about court cities as an urban typology in Europe and South Asia in the early modern period. The royal presence in the cities has produced a number of designations that indicate the unique character of such settlements. They were called capital or royal city. In addition to the king’s presence, these cities shared a number of elements that distinguished them and made life in them urban. The unique urbanity of such royally influenced cities justifies understanding them as  unique urban systems, which can best be referred to as a “court urbanity” for the benefit of cross-regional studies.

MARA ALBRECHT (Erfurt), JUDIT MAJOROSSY (Vienna) and SUSANNE RAU (Erfurt) presented a draft chapter on typologies of cities and typologising itself, their usefulness, especially in a trans-cultural comparative perspective, and their limits. City types always suggest a certain staticity. The trio of authors also invited methodological reflections. Cities can change rapidly because of the people living there and their embeddedness in trans-local networks of trade, migration, and knowledge transfer. They are fundamentally dynamic entities. Instead of focusing on the religious actors or institutions (such as bishop’s town), another way of forming city typologies from a religion-and-urbanity perspective would be to elaborate on the structural effects of dealing with religious conditions, such as the ways of segregating or integrating diverse religious groups in the city or dealing with religious mobility, or to highlight activities, i.e. religious practices. Another concern is to give greater consideration to temporality and historicity in a comparative framework.

EPSITA HALDER (Kolkata) and ANNE MURPHY (Vancouver) started the second round with a round table discussion about the mutual emergence of religious formation and cultural production associated with urban development in early modern Bengal and Punjab. They presented case studies from the two regions of South Asia in order to compare them with each other. To look at Bengal and Punjab as localised perspectives on urbanisation in South Asia and its relationship to religious community formation that is further regionally varied, and its expression in vernacular literary forms they explore variations of the idea and practice of urbanity.

ANNETTE HAUG (Kiel) and GIL KLEIN (Los Angeles) presented a paper that examines boundaries and boundary making in the cities of the Roman empire. They particularly looked at the transformation of the Roman urban block (insula) as a component of the roman city from its inception as a cosmically oriented portion of the landscape to a built, inhabited and living residential unit. They argue that it is the insulas diversity of architecture and ritual across the Empire of the 1st century BCE to the 2nd century CE that allows for the identification of significant underlying processes and perceptions of Roman urban life. During this time diverse building traditions, religious rites, iconographic conventions, topographical conditions, and social dynamics were at play. Due to its level of preservation, Annette Haug chose Pompeii on the Italian peninsula here as a central case. Gil Klein chose for the study of boundary making in the context of other cities the eastern Roman province of Palestine. Both together allow a complex comparative analysis.

Group discussion on Thursday, 17 November 2022. Image: Raghad Alrousan

The third part of the conference was planned as a presentation-series of case studies in two longer sessions. Here, 13 researchers presented their works in progress in short “lightning talks” and were discussed together, keeping in mind the common question and concepts of the conference. The contributors presented research results on case studies illustrating the multiple facets of urbanity from a wide range of disciplines including archaeology, history, sociology, ethnology, cultural studies, philosophy and linguistics.

The first session started with NORA LAFI (Berlin) and her paper about the nature of urbanity in several cities of North Africa during the Ottoman era. She challenges established vision that tend both to minimize the capacity of local societies to create the conditions for the existence of forms of complex urbanity and to attribute in an undiscussed way urbanity in its perceived local weak form to religion. She argues that reflections on the cities of North Africa in Ottoman times suggest a collective redefinition of urbanity at the interface between characteristics of coexistence in diverse societies, participatory governance and negotiated regulation of the use of urban spaces.

CARMEN GONZÁLEZ GUTIÉRREZ (Cordoba) researches the western suburbs of an Islamic city using the example of Madinat Qurtuba (Cordoba). Caused and encouraged by the proclamation of the Umayyad caliphate, the city grew significantly in the 10th century. This process of urban transformation is due to new religious impulses as well as to political interests. One of the most important changes was the emergence and flourishing of new suburban areas, sprawling neighbourhoods developed outside the city walls, but well connected to it by historic streets. She focuses on a specific area from those districts recently restored by urban archaeology. This shows the need to enlarge suburban areas to accommodate more people, although it needs to be further explored how these changes were operated legally or economically.

ZOÉ OPAČIĆ (London) presented an intersection of medieval ritual and urban setting on the example of two medieval cities, Nuremberg and Prague. She notes serious architectural changes in the urban structure of the cities within the 14th century. They developed novel ideas of urban decorum, deriving from, but nonetheless distinctive from Italian concepts of planned public spaces. She argues that cities have singled out the square as a configured space, which came to be through an interplay of architecture and social structure. The notion of a square as a space not only created by certain social groups and institutions to fulfil particular needs, but which also has a formative effect on them, resonates at Hauptmarkt of Nuremberg and its evolving scenography. The development of Prague’s Charles Square is crucial to understanding the transformation of a medieval square from a market place to a performative public space. From the 14th century onwards, Prague was not only defined by its iconic structures, fortifications and a growing skyline, but also by its open spaces.

KATALIN SZENDE (Budapest/Vienna) looks at religious sites and institutions that were decisive in the foundation and early history of Buda, Pest and Óbuda, with a special focus on Buda. Which factors were instrumental in shaping their urban spaces at the outset? The three cities and the settlements in their  vicinity  constituted  the  most  important  urban  agglomeration  in  the medieval  kingdom  of Hungary,  which  fulfilled  the function  of a  capital  city  from the  15th century until  the demise of the medieval Hungarian state. Szende proposes to use the concept of cospatiality to illustrate the  settlement divide on either side of the Danube, a river which was too broad for a bridge, but relatively easy to cross and binding enough for people living  there to share the same religious and social space. In her view, there was a very strong royal influence throughout the Middle Ages as a royal seat without a bishopric, both through varying policies of patronage and the coexistence with the king and his court.

LAURA VERDELLI (Tours) talked about Chennais riverine waterfronts. During the last decades, the city witnessed the (re-)emergence of popular interest in its waterfront. The  renewal  of  the  link  between  city  and  water  became  a  central  theme  for  the contemporary development and ‘modernisation’ of the urban system and for the enhancement of  its  identity.  The  results  of  the  research  show  that  economically  weaker  inhabitants  living  along  the  river that  are  more  prone  to  flood  risk,  undergo  authorities’ projects of  relocation  into  new  state-planned districts, legitimised officially by the risks, while, in fact, the relocation sites are not necessarily paying specific attention to this factor, and they are very far from the inner centre of the town and their jobs. The result is that these spaces are attracting more and more attention and are being configured as areas of urban influence which have a different connotation from other areas of the city and which are capable, at least for the time being, of offering spaces which meet increasing urban expectations.

AUSTIN COLLINS (Durham/Erfurt) gave an insight into his doctoral thesis about the city of Angoulême and how the civic leadership attempted to showcase their influence, history and relevance during a royal entry in 1565 by Charles IX. As the end point of the entry, the cathedral Saint-Pierre took on a prominent significance, which illustrates how religion and urbanity interact in the context of urban spaces. Not only the cathedral stood at the end of the royal procession, as in the case of Agen, but Angoulême Cathedral benefited from the burial place of John, Count of Angoulême. But they did never find success in having the monarch see Angoulême as being the centre of France. The history, people, sites, and tradition could not help Angoulême extend the centre of France to be part of their urban space. The civic leadership had so desperately tried to remain relevant, that creating this image of Angoulême became their identity.

The second session of case studies started on the third day with two related presentations about rulers’ seats and urban topography. BABETT EDELMANN-SINGER (Würzburg) was the first to start with her studies on imperial funerals and concepts of urbanities in Rome and Constantinople. Regarding the example of imperial burials in Rome like the mausoleum of Augustus and the one for Constantine in late antique Constantinople she pointed out, that ideas about what constitutes “the urban” are long-lived and shaped by tradition. This applies even more so to the idea of the urbanity of a capital or metropolis. Concepts of urbanity are often linked to a founding figure like Romulus to whom Augustus regularly referred.

JÖRG OBERSTE (Regensburg) continued the thoughts about urban centres as religious centres with his contribution of royal funerals and Saint’s topography in Merovingian Paris. He focused on the question of how Paris acquired metropolitan significance as early as the 6th and 7th centuries through the presence of rulers and important saints, although the city did not historically occupy a prominent position among other cities in the Merovingian period. In these two centuries, he sees a close topographical and symbolic connection of residence, royal burial and veneration of saints emerging – a connection constitutive for the dynamic development of Paris throughout the Middle Ages. He quotes the so-called Fredegar Chronicle from the second half of the 7th century, which speaks of Paris as an “outstanding place of saints” (precipua loca sanctorum) in France on the occasion of the penitential pilgrimage of a high nobleman.

NIMROD LUZ (Sea of Galilee) discussed a view from Tel Aviv urban religion as a case of contemporary urbanity in relation to religious sites. He stresses the persistent role of religion is shaping cities and underline on the power of informality. He explore struggles and conflicts over sacred places while engaging with Lefebvre’s notion of the right to the city. For Luz, this is achieved by harnessing his post-Marxist approach to the realm of symbolic goods and exploring the sacred as a resource in the urban sphere. He offered a more expansive understanding of how cultural-political analysis of the sacred, and heavy engagement with matters of control and ownership, may benefit from introducing the ways in which people experience the landscape, and more specifically, matters of belief and religious objects.

NAVEEN KANALU (Paris) presented an aspect from his research project about mapping imperial privileges and property claims in Mughal India. In his case study, he focused on the practice of Hanafi law in Mughal Delhi’s suburban agglomerations. He examines the nature of urban expansion in the imperial capital, Delhi and its impact on the interaction between state, communities, and individuals in everyday city life. Suburban growth was supported by imperial privileges granted to the military elite to settle agglomerations with merchants and artisanal communities. Based on newly discovered documentary evidences and the analysis of Hanafi law, he argues for a fresh assessment of Mughal imperial authority’s central role in legally administering urbanity in precolonial South Asia.

SUPRIYA CHAUDHURI (Kolkata) contributed her case study of the historically layered site of the Alamgir mosque in Varanasi, built by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb in 1669 after demolishing the Bindu Madhav (Vishnu) temple that had stood there earlier. The temple was subsequently rebuilt as a modest structure nearby, at the Panchaganga ghāt, a broad series of steps leading from the mosque to the river. The complex is an intersection of mosque, ghāt and temple at this site and the temporality that binds them in a narrative of obliteration and renewal, forgetting and re-invention, characteristic of urban space in Varanasi.

CHRISTINA WILLIAMSON (Groningen) examined in her case study how temporal dynamics interacted at the shrine of Asklepios near the ancient metropolis of Pergamon. She briefly presented a timeline of the shrine, across its 700 years of functioning, and then focused on the second century AD, when the sanctuary acquired a form that made it one of the wonders of the ancient world, and became the most famous healing center of the Roman empire. In her opinion, the shrine of Asklepios thus came to embody the urbanity of Pergamon, particularly by being the locus of the values that it prized most highly – culture, empire, and of course good health. She showed a bronze coin from the mid-second century AD that depicts the hero Pergamos crowning Asklepios with the emperor Antoninus Pius on the front side, what displays the triangulated relation between empire, the city and its primary god.

MARLIS ARNHOLD (Bonn) is working on Macedonian cities and the question of urbanity. She presented some of the smaller cities of Hellenistic Macedon. They were players within the wider Hellenistic world. Although mostly small in size, their  connection  to  members  of  the  social,  political  and  all  the  same military elite and the kings ensured a constant influx of knowledge and ideas, as well as of elements of material  culture.  This was driven by the focus of self-presentation within Macedonian society on practices that involved high numbers of precious objects. This habitus of the upper social circles thus became urban and defined life in the cities to a certain extend even though many details of the latter elude us.

Susanne Rau and Sara Keller chaired the closing discussion which added some points about the major outcomes of the conference, such as:

  • Focusing on urbanity, rather than only the city, opens up the discussion to a meta-level,
  • The entangled nature of cities and urbanities, i.e. we need both the concepts, and
  • Urbanity has a strong aspirational nature, although it is also felt, experienced and reflected upon.

Together they pointed out the potential of the non-locality of urbanity, with striking examples of urban experiences outside the city, such as the Asklepieion of Pergamum a sacred complex within a wider urban infrastructure or the peri-urban neighborhood of Umayyad Cordoba and Mughal Delhi. On the other hand, the discussion addressed the question of small towns and how the larger cities radiate to them. In addition, the power of funerary monuments and how they bring fame and glory to cities – an aspect that can be mirrored in the projects on the urbanity-producing impact of cemeteries in medieval and early modern cities. Projects on water structure and its correlation with urban and religious systems were examined. And last but not least, important theoretical ideas were discussed and applied to many of the projects so we can be curious how they will develop further.

For further information please consult the virtual collected issue on urbanity as well as the conference blog post.

Image: Raghad Alrousan

Aileen Becker has joined the UrbRel group in November 2022 as Doctoral Fellow.

Cite this blog post
urbrel (2023, January 9). Conference report: Urbanity. History, Concept, Uses. Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations. Retrieved March 4, 2024, from

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