Medieval Damascus: Was there no garbage problem ever?

Insides of a medieval German latrine

Reading two articles on Medium, one about rat kings and another about an early car named by its creator Horsey Horseless and which featured “a life-size replica of a horse head, down to the shoulders, and attaching it to the front of a carriage“, I got into thinking. I have to add here that I am no specialist in this field.

More specifically, together these articles made me wonder what did Medieval Damascenes do with their garbage and how did they avoid to have recurrent garbage crises? Obviously, they did not have to worry about plastic piles but the garbage they did have to worry about was still of a rather smelly nature. As the exhibit from the Frankfurt historical museum shows, there was a lot of other waste as well.

One main source of stinky garbage were domesticated animals used as mounts, for transportation, or in food and dairy production. At least for the nineteenth century, Jonah Berger observes in the article on the horse-car that “manure […] at the time was threatening to suffocate many major cities.” I reckon that the horse population of Damascus was somewhat smaller compared to that of nineteenth-century European metropoles but still. The Mamluks who had a strong presence in the city and, according to contemporary observers numbered in the low thousands, relied on horses in their claims to rule and warrior prowess.

According to Aḥmad Ibn Ṭawq other domesticated animals such as chickens, cows, donkeys, and mules were also bred and kept within city limits. Some stable lads of the governor allegedly even bred pigs in 887/1482 to sell them to the local Venetian colony – to some outrage amongst the population. And the governors had apparently more exotic tastes in animals. Ibn Tulun mentions that their menagerie was only dissolved by the seventh Ottoman governor, Lutfi Pasha. He “killed off the wild beasts kept at the Dār al-Saʿāda: panthers, peacocks, cranes, gazells, but keeping the pigs; it is said that he felt affection for the horses” (Iʿlām al-warā bi-man waliya nāʾiban min al-Atrāk bi-Dimashq al-shām al-kubrā, 259).

Another animal present in the city but not really domesticated were the large numbers of wild or semi-wild dogs. These probably provided one answer to the garbage question, if my observations from present-day Cairo are any indication. In the evening hours, in particular, you can see those half-starved creatures rummaging through the left-overs of street markets or through the garbage bags waiting to be taken away. Vegetable left-overs would certainly also be given to domesticated herbivores (or omnivores).

Concerning human waste, the river would certainly have played a part in its removal, and most houses at the time appear to have featured at least communally used latrines or dumps such as the one depicted above. Judging by current Lebanese custom, most other garbage might have been burned.

One curious case happened in Damascus in 923, when in the context of the construction of the new Ottoman Salīmiyya Mosque an old graveyard had to give way to the construction. The graves were emptied in the dark of the night, “fearing an outrage (kalām) from the people,” as Ibn Ṭūlūn tells it. Due to the clandestine nature of this business, we do not know where they left the remains of the corpses (Mufākahat al-khillān fī ḥawādith al-zamān, vol. 2, 72).

We do know, however, that reuse of building materials was common. I will not dwell on that aspect here but rather direct the interested reader towards this article by Iman Abdulfattah on the reuse of materials in sultan Qalāwūn’s complex in Cairo.

Coming back to the large mounts and pack animals, Camel waste is inflammable and was always used by Bedouins to make fires (see Bethany Walker’s article in MSR for the use of dung pies) . The same cannot be said for the leavings of cows, sheep, or donkeys. They might have been used as fertilizers but I have not yet come across a single instance indicating how it was transported to the fields or orchards that needed fertilizing. It might have been a task for those people who commonly appear as ʿammāl, ḥammāl, or ḥammār, day laborers, porters, or donkey drivers. Tasks as well as those undertaking them were usually beneath the interests of chroniclers or scholars in general.

Nonetheless, why there is not mention of a garbage crisis in all these works. Middle Eastern cities were large by contemporary standards. The population of Cairo is frequently given at around half a million before the Black Death diminished its size considerably. It seems reasonable that this time period, starting in the mid-thirteenth century, is most promising for further research into this matter. With a heightened awareness for public safety among authors as well as public servants, we might be able to trace it at least through its consequences in the decline of public health.

From all we know this treatment did not in general apply to paper products, however. Paper disposal was common but it was in no way similar to waste disposal. The Qubbat al-Khazna in the Damascene Umayyad Mosque was, as much as the better-known Genizah synagogue in Cairo, used for the disposal of paper (and parchment, papyrus – writing surfaces in general). Yet, the disposal seems to have had an almost ritual character. People were certainly ridding themselves off these papers but they were not throwing them away haphazardly. Rather, they stored them, theoretically for perpetuity, in a safe place where those papers were supposed to be safe from dirt and other dangers.

Konrad Hirschler has suggested in several presentations that these practices actually allowed for recycling or even upcycling of such papers (careful, this opens a video of his talk at SMS, Beirut 2017). In other cases, such upcycling was exercised by inheritors of documents, who used the paper in their own book production, thus inserting the documentary information into other, literary, academic, or devotional discourses. Again, this indicates an aversion against turning paper – or writing on paper – into garbage and instead a grasp for its perpetuity.

The only exceptions I can see are rare cases of book burning. Yet, they follow the same logic of perpetuity as well. Only, the burning serves to deny a text or book that existence, irreversibly breaking up the material object into its smallest parts. Those books are denied even the status of garbage.


Cite this article as: Wollina, Torsten, "Medieval Damascus: Was there no garbage problem ever?", in Damascus Anecdotes, May 13, 2018,

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