The Architecture of the Traditional Arab House
In many parts of the Arab world, one can realise many distinctive examples of traditional architecture, including religious, educational, commercial, and mainly houses. The remarkable traditional houses of medieval Cairo, the stylish facades of Jeddah’s townhouses, the wind-catcher (badgir) of the houses of Dubai’s Bastakia district, and the courtyard houses of Yemen, are all evidence to the rich wealth of the Arab residential architecture. The traditional Arab house is characterised by its structural clarity and subtle beauty, which can be visualized as being generated from its plan and scaled by the human body. In fact the forms and spaces of the Arab house were dictated by the habits, traditions, and culture of its inhabitants. Although there were socio-cultural differences in each region, the architecture of the Arab houses retained a common architectural vocabulary, which expressed an outstanding response to both the climate of its specific region as well as the common religious needs.
Image credit: Traditional Arab House
The regions of most of the Arab world such as Egypt, Iraq, and the Gulf area are hot arid zones. However, unlike most of the European houses, which are extroverted to enjoy the maximum amount of the sun-heat, the Arab house is introverted, where family-life looked into a courtyard rather than looking out upon the street. However, the architectural vocabulary which governed the design concept of the Arab house and highlighted its distinctive characteristics were, the majaz (entrance), the courtyard, the combination of the qa‘ah (reception area) and the malqaf (wind-catcher), the takhtabush, (a sitting area between to courtyards) and the mashrabiyyah (wooden lattice bay window).
Every architectural element in the Arab house represented a solution or an answer to a different problem that appeared according to a specific condition. They were a sequence of related problems, which were met successfully to achieve a unified and a harmonious house. In fact, the beauty of these traditional houses represents an art form that has resulted from an understanding of a unique mode of religious and cultural human life. For example, the privacy of the family was an essential element which affected the shape and the plan form of all traditional Arab houses, to be clearly defined as public, semi-public and private spaces. However, the design concept of the house tended to generate an inward-looking plan with plain external walls. These plain and thick walls were designed to discourage strangers from looking inside the house as well as to protect the house from the harsh climate of the region.
The majaz (entrance) of the house was designed to open into a blank wall to obstruct views into the inside from outside in order to preserve the privacy of the family or to open into a for-courtyard, which leads you to the entrance of the house. Al-Suhaymi house in Cairo is an outstanding living example from the mid 17th century. It expresses the relationship between the main entrance and the courtyard.
The entrance opens into the courtyard, Al-Suhaymi house, Cairo, 1648
Image credit: Entrance to Zeinab Khatoun showing the only Mashrabeyya on the exterior façade, 14th century
Another essential feature of the Arab house is the courtyard, which represented the core of all Arab houses, specifically in hot arid regions. The courtyard was used, not only to achieve privacy, which is a necessity in Arab society, but also to enhance the thermal comfort inside a house. The courtyard is an effective device to generate air movement by convection. In hot dry zones the air of the courtyard, which was heated by the sun during the day, rises and is replaced by the cooled night air coming from above. The accumulated cool air in the courtyard seeps into and cools the surrounding rooms. During the day, the courtyard is shaded by its four walls and this helps its air to heat slowly and remain cool until late in the day.
Image credit: A courtyard in a traditional Tunisian House
Image credit: A courtyard in a traditional Moroccan house
In the early Arab houses the courtyard also represented an intermediary space between the entrance and the guest area. Meeting people who are not relatives, always took place in the takhtabash, a type of loggia. It is a covered outdoor sitting area, located between two courtyards; one is an unshaded, large paved-courtyard and the other is planted. The takhtabush has one side opening completely onto the paved-courtyard and through mashrabiyyah (wooden lattice-work bay window) onto the back garden. Air heats up more readily in the unshaded courtyard than in the back garden creating an area of low air pressure. However, the heated air rising in the courtyard draws cool air from the back garden of the takhtabush, creating a cool draft.
Al-Suhaymi house, Cairo, 1648
Image credit: Takhtabush facade of the Suheimi House, Cairo, 1648
In the Mamluk period in the 12thcentury, a change in the style of the house took place that involved the covering of the courtyard, and the introduction of the qa‘ah as the main reception hall in the house. The qa‘ah consisted of the durqa‘ah (a central part of the qa‘ah with a high ceiling covered by the shukhshakhah (wooden lantern on the top) and two ’iwans (sitting areas) at a higher level on both the north and south sides. The lantern is provided with openings to allow the hot air to escape. With the covered courtyard, a new system of ventilation was invented to achieve thermal comfort inside the qa‘ah. This was the malqaf (a wind-catch). The malqaf is a shaft rising high above the building with an opening facing the prevailing wind and constructed on the north ’iwan (sitting area). It traps the cool air and channels it down into the interior of the building.
Wind-catcher, Bastikia district, Dubai. (Author)
However, this new system of ventilation combined the malqaf and the lantern in one design to assure a good circulation of cool air in the qa‘ah. The fourteenth century Muhib Ad-Din Ash-Shaf’i Al-Muwaqqi house in Cairo is a good example to illustrate this combination.
Section of the Qã'a of Muhib Ad-Din Ash-Shãf'i, 1350, Cairo
Qã'a of Muhib Ad-Din Ash-Shãf'i, 1350, Cairo
The mashrabiyyah (wooden lattice-work bay window) is another important device which was used to cover openings as well as to achieve thermal comfort and privacy in the Arab house. It is a cantilevered space covered with a lattice opening, where water jars were placed to be cooled by the evaporation effect as air moved through the opening. The form and function of the mashrabiyyah has changed to become a wooden lattice screen. The mashrabiyyah was designed to fulfill number of environmental functions including, controlling the passage of light and the air flow, reducing the temperature of the air current, increasing the humidity of the air current and ensuring privacy. To control the amount of light and air and to graduate the contrast between shade and light, the size of the interstices and the diameter of the balusters are adjusted.
Image credit: Mashrabiyyah, Al-Suhaymi house, Cairo, 1648
The most outstanding characteristics of the Arab house come mainly from its array of elements that were tested by people’s traditions and culture, and environmental needs. Undoubtedly, the subtle architectural quality of these houses and the positive effect of their images do not only come from its deliberate plans, but also from their imposing exteriors. However, the aesthetic of the Arab house comes from the harmony of putting the architectural elements together as well as juxtaposing them in order to provide variety and visual interest through change in their size and scale as well as maintaining a coherence and unity between inhabited space, construction and landscape.
Hassan Fathy, Natural Energy and Vernacular Architecture: Principles and Examples with Reference to Hot Arid Climates. Chicago, 1986, PP. 46-47, 57-59, 62-67.
Alkhateeb, Sharief, Arab Architecture for Those Who Can Really Live in Style. Saudi Gazette, 19 September 1979, p. 5.
Steil, Lucien, Tradition & Architecture. Architectural Design, v. 57, no. 5 / 6, 1987, p. 53.