On the basis of a large (new) dataset of cities in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East in the millennium between 800 and 1800, we try to provide an answer to the question why, during this millennium, the urban center of gravity moved from Iraq (or more generally the Arab world) to Western Europe and to the shores of the Atlantic (during the 17th and 18th century) in particular. We study the characteristics of the European and Arab urban systems involved, amongst others focusing on the interaction between cities, and explain why one system was much more dynamic in the long run than the other. Also we assess the importance of various geographical, religious and institutional factors as the driving forces of urban expansion. Overall, we provide a better understanding of the dynamics of urban growth in the centuries leading up to the Industrial Revolution and an answer to the question why London, an economic backwater in 800, was able to overtake Baghdad, in 800 the thriving capital of the Abbasid caliphate, as the largest city in this part of the world.
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