Mashrabiyya – مشربية Tradition, Design and Sustainability

A mashrabiyya مشربية or oriel windows, also called shanshūl (شنشول) or rūshān (روشان), is a traditional arabic architectural element used in public buildings and residences.

It replaces the role of a window made with the purpose to see outside and preserving the indoor privacy at the same time. It protects the living space and also provides shade and protection from the sun. It is a carved wood latticework, usually located on the upper floor or higher of a building, sometimes with stained glass between the wood.

Etymology

There are two main theories about the origin of the term mashrabiyya

The first one is that it is a variation of the word mashrafiyya, which comes from the verb ashrafa, meaning overlook or observe. With time, and the assimilation of non-Arabic into the culture, the word evolved to become mashrabiyya.

The second theory is more common and claims that mashrabiyya is derived from the triliteral root ŠRB, shariba (to drink). The space was used for as a small wooden shelf where the drinking water pots were stored. The shelf was enclosed by wood and located at the window in order to keep the water cool.

Age

The first mashrabiyya windows are dated back to the 12th century in Baghdad, during the Abbasid period, over the centuries up until quite recently in the mid-1900s. Mashrabiyas, along with other distinct features of Arabic architecture, were being demolished as part of a modernization program across the Arab world from the first decades of the 20th-century.

Geography

Mashrabiyya comes in different types, depending on the region.

They exist in Mashriq and in Maghreb. Most of them in Iraq, Iran, the Levant, Hejaz and Egypt. Basra, is also known as “the city of Shanashil because it has more of 400 hundred traditional buildings.

Social Use

Mashrabiyyas were very popular among Arabs because of the privacy it provided to the families’ sphere, as those inside could easily see out, without being seen themselves. Since they were more expensive to build, they were usually found in the homes of wealthier citizens. Mashrabiyas were mostly used in houses and palaces although sometimes in public buildings such as hospitals, inns, schools and government buildings. They tend to be associated with houses of the urban elite classes. they are considered an ornament of the rich because the production of mashrabiyya is time and cost intensive.

Figura 1 Hassan Fathy, Dar al-Islam,  in Abiquiu, New Mexico.

The influential Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy helped mashrabiyya to a revival in Egyptian post war modernism and to make it known worldwide.

Art and Design for a sustainability architecture

The prohibition of the images especially referred to representation of God, the Prophet, humans and animals led to the necessity to develop other forms of art and decoration, which are translated into complicated and regular geometrical shapes, floral images and as told, in interior design as in the case of mashrabiyya.

The Prophet, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, said; “The angels do not enter a house in which there is an image.” We are to understand from the further explanations of his companions that Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, meant the images of creatures that have souls, so artists are warned against painting, drawing or sculpting people or animals that appear too life-like. With its geometrical motifs, it creates a world of light and shadows that gives free rein to dreams.

The designs of the latticework usually have smaller openings in the bottom part and larger openings in the higher parts, hence causing the draft to be fast above the head and slow in lower parts. This provides a significant amount of air moving in the room without causing it to be uncomfortable. The air-conditioning properties of the window is typically enhanced by placing jars of water in the area, allowing air to be cooled as it passes over the jars.

To save permanently the art and architecture of middle-east, some members of the art community  in Baghdad took steps to preserve the vernacular architecture as done by the architect, Rifat Chadirji and his father, Kamil, who took photos of structures and monuments in Iraq and the Saudi region or as the english artist Lorna Selim, who gave a huge contribution in spreading the decorative mashrabiyya in order to appreciate their importance.


Nowadays the mashrabiyya system is a functional architectural element appreciated as an example of elegant design reminding the tradition of the middle east and considered among the most innovative projects of the residential apartments’ system, for its sustainability, allowing the entry of the sun, and easing the heat at the same time.
While the sunlight enters appropriately, the hot temperature is mitigated, so the design of mashrabiyya seems to be a good balance between the treatments for the hot humid and harsh environmental climatic conditions and a renewed interest in traditional architecture.

Mashrabiyya in the desert Dj Snake, J. Balvin, Tyga – Loco contigo

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