Scholars have long sought to understand when and why the Middle East fell behind Europe in its economic development. This article explores the importance of historical Muslim trade in explaining urban growth and decline in the run-up to the Industrial Revolution. The authors examine Eurasian urbanization patterns as a function of distance to Middle Eastern trade routes before and after 1500 CE – the turning point in European breakthroughs in seafaring, trade and exploration. The results suggest that proximity to historical Muslim trade routes was positively associated with urbanization in 1200 but not in 1800. These findings speak to why Middle Eastern and Central Asian cities – which had long benefited from their central location between Europe and Asia – declined as Europeans found alternative routes to the East and opened trade opportunities in the New World.