4 Aug, 2020

Mashrabiya

On a wall in my kitchen is this:

It’s a Mashrabiya, a latticework of wood, originally part of what we would call an oriel window. Projecting from the upper floors of Muslim houses or palaces or occasionally of public buildings, mashrabiya windows were features of traditional Islamic architecture.

As with the kammavaca a few days ago there’s no point in me trying to relay information that anyone can find by browsing, so I’ll just add this from a website:

The ancient mashrabiya merges cultural, visual and technical aspects.  The window screen is often found toward the street and allows cool air to pass through the facade.  The latticework offers the chance to see the environment but to remain unseen, thanks to the high luminous intensity outside and the fine dark screen on the inside. From a thermal point of view the traditional open structure promotes a constant flow of air to cool the interior as well as to cool pots of drinking water.

Less formally, mashrabiya structures overlooking the streets were also known as a ‘harem windows’. No need to research that!

The internet shows magnificent pictures, but decades earlier I’d seen beautiful examples of these intricate wooden ‘lace’ windows in situ, in Khartoum, Suakin (see blog 27 June), Cairo, Alexandria, Tripoli and Zanzibar, all protecting the occupants’ privacy while enabling people-watching from inside. And just occasionally one very much knew that one was being watched. Slightly thrilling. I hope they’ve been preserved since then.

I have two mashrabiyas. This one is the larger, about 1.5m x 90cm. The other one will appear another time. I bought them from a trader in Al Khobar, the Saudi Arabian town on the Gulf coast closest to the air base where I worked and the compound where I lived in the 1970s and 1980s.

No idea of their provenance. These days it might be illegal for a trader to sell such things. Possibly, given the shifting values over the years, I’d now resist buying such things myself. At that time however, this type of trading was normal and flourishing. Traders were anxious to sell.

For some years after leaving Saudi Arabia I owned an old stone cottage in a little Cotswold village. The living room with open fire had an alcove, and this mashrabiya fitted into it. A local handyman made a frame for it, applied sheets of something translucent behind it, and installed gentle, dimmable electric lights. There was a risk that it would look kitsch. It didn’t. The wooden structure, old, intricate and beautifully made somewhere in the East, was entirely at home glowing calmly in an old rough-hewn stone house, especially in the winters as the logs were burning. A lovely combination.

In terms of quality I don’t think they’re special. There’s no way of knowing where exactly they originated, or how long ago. I like them however. They’re now in London, my companions for 33 years, still attractive and still part of the memories.

4 Comments

  1. It looked great in the cottage! As did some other treasures you found on your travels x

    Reply
  2. David, I hope that the mashrabiya didnt mark out your Cotswold cottage as a harem – but then on reflection, why not?

    Reply
  3. Thank you, I couldn’t recall where these came from always loved them.

    Reply
  4. An inspiring object backlit or not! Thank you.
    They opened my eyes to appreciating the facade of Paris Institut du Monde Arabe and noting all other designs of oriel windows on my travels throughout the world
    In PV Mexico I’ve been watching a fascinating apartment block constructed, Rincon de Almas.
    It’s one big detached Mashrabiya!
    Most of the apartments enjoy a view only through the wrap-around fretwork, though having not entered the building I can’t comment if it’s one big detached harem!

    Reply

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