Map Our Shared Past in the Mediterranean


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Lesson 3.1: What Does It Take to Make a City?


Lesson 3.1: What Does It Take to Make a City?


Topic 1: Population Patterns and Migration: Why Do People Leave Home?


This lesson asks students to compare and contrast many of the common elements of cities in modern times, and those of the Mediterranean—or within its sphere of influence—during the module time-frame. After brainstorming and listing physical elements of modern cities, students read selections from primary source descriptions of medieval Mediterranean cities and discuss similarities and differences.


Tom Verde


Our Shared Past in the Mediterranean: A World History Curriculum Project for Educators


Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies, George Mason University




2014, Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies, George Mason University, published under Creative Commons – Attribution-No Derivatives 3.0 License


One or two 45-50 minute class periods


• The students will identify the common features of medieval Mediterranean cities

• They will distinguish and compare unique characteristics of various cities in the lesson

• They will locate important Mediterranean cities on a map

• They will design an imaginary medieval Mediterranean city (optional)


• Student Handout 3.1.1, “Introduction to Mediterranean Cities”

• Student Handout 3.1.2, “Selections from Chapter 4 of The Muqqadimah: An Introduction to History by Ibn Khaldun.”

• Student Handout 3.1.3, “A most exact description of the Citie of Fez” by Leo Africanus

• Student Handout 3.1.4, “Genoa”

• Student Handout 3.1.5, Julia Clancy-Smith “The Times of Ibn Khaldun” (optional reading)

• Exercise 3.1.1 on page 2, Student Handout 3.1.1-“Design Your Own Medieval Mediterranean City”

• Notepaper, drawing paper, butcher paper or electronic drawing media.

Lesson Plan Text

1. Distribute “Student Introduction to Cities” (Student Handout 3.1.1). After students have read the handout, ask them to identify some essential characteristics of modern cities. Record student responses on the board and/or have the students record their answers in a notebook. Questions might include:

• How large is a city in area and population?

• How diverse or cosmopolitan is a city?

• What sort of commercial activity takes place there?

• In what kind of neighborhoods or quarters do people live in a city—in enclaves or mixed together? Why do people congregate in certain areas, and how do such places develop over time?

• Where do they congregate publicly in the city and why?

• What other activities take place in cities?

• How are cities provisioned with food and other supplies? Are they produced in the city’s immediate hinterlands, or must they be brought into the city from farther away? What groups of people supply the city and how?

• What evidence of government structures are found in cities? How are capital cities governed apart from national or imperial governance?

• Who maintains social order? Are there local as well as city-wide institutions, or formal and informal structures?

2. Have students read Student Handout 3.1.2 and ask them to identify the differences and similarities between modern cities and those described by Ibn Khaldun.

3. Have students read Student Handout 3.1.3, and ask them to identify some of the most striking details about medieval Fez described in the text (i.e. what surprised them? what did they recognize? what was unusual?) (Ask for at least 3-4 examples) Ask them to compare this description with Ibn Khaldun’s generic description of North African cities. Focus on common elements.

4. Have students read Student Handout 3.1.4, “Genoa.” Discuss ways in which Genoa is similar to/different from Fez and Ibn Khaldun’s generic city. Ask students to determine what the main focus of the Genoese economy was, and how this activity shaped the city. Use the map to investigate connections between Genoa and other places in the Mediterranean region, both on land and sea.

5. Extension: (optional) For more on Ibn Khaldun, distribute the chapter “The Times of Ibn Khaldun” by Julia Clancy-Smith.

6. Assessment (Optional Project): Have the students, individually or in groups, design their own centrally planned medieval cities, based on the features of cities described in the readings, and the instructions and questions on page 2 of Student Handout 3.1.1. Historically, leaders often established capital cities in their chosen locations, and designed them from scratch. Ask the students to begin by thinking about location—will it be on the coast? on a river? in the mountains? They must include a plan for access to drinking water, food supplies, and activities that would provide a basis for economic activity. Ask them to include resources the city will have and how they obtain them (trade, manufacture, etc.). Will their city’s layout be round? square? rectangular? How will the city be defended, and what kind of weapons and siege strategies will it likely encounter? Part of the activity is determining what factors to bear in mind based on their study of historical cities in this lesson.



Tom Verde, “Lesson 3.1: What Does It Take to Make a City?,” Our Shared Past in the Mediterranean: Teaching Modules , accessed August 3, 2020,