Study – Mashrabiya

I have featured Mashrabiya on one of my post here in this blog (regarding the terms of Islamic architecture) and I would like to look into the subject matter a little more, since it is, even though not the most fundamental element in Islamic or Middle-eastern buildings, but quite famous as an aesthetic feature.

Rows of Mashrabiya on houses in Rosetta, Egypt.

Mashrabiya (Arabic : مشربية) is a term for projecting window enclosed with wooden latticework, often situated on the second floor or higher. In a general term, though, Mashrabiya is the term for pieced screens or latticework itself, made out of wood or some kind of stone, usually of marble. It is usually used in private homes and houses, but not uncommon that it is used in public buildings.

Since Mashrabiya is a feature commonly used in Middle-Eastern architecture, it is understandable why does the people of this culture have the need to have a wooden latticework window that is open to the elements outside : it is intended as a cooling contraption. It is a method of letting air in, and encouraging good air flow.

In India, it is also referred to Jaali, pieced screens with geometric designs or calligraphic scripts, usually made in stone and later inlaid with semi precious stones.

An example of the Indian Mashrabiya, Jaali.

Origins –

There are two theories of how the word Mashrabiya came to be

  1. Mashrabiya came from the root sh-r-b (Arabic – ﺷﺮﺐ) a verb meaning to drink. It is originally a shelf where pots for drinking water are stored. The shelves are covered with wood and situated at windows to keep it cool. It eventually evolves to become a part of a room, while retaining the name.
  2. It came from the name Mashrafiya  (Arabic – ﻣﺸﺮﻓﻴﻪ), from the verb Ashrafa (Arabic – ﺍﺷﺮﻑ) meaning to look or overlook – the actual usage of Mashrabiya. In time, the word Mashrafiya became Mashrabia as it was pronounced by the non-Arab people.

It is not clear on where the Mashrabiya first appeared. However, evidences suggested that it was first used in the twelfth Century in Baghdad during the Abbasid Caliphate.

Mashrabiya on display in the British Museum

Usage –

The main use for Mashrabiya is  for privacy – hence the usage in private homes. It preserves the privacy of the home dweller while he or she can observe the outside world without being  seen themselves.

Since it is wooden and pierced, air can freely flow into one’s home without disrupting their privacy or the need to open up. It also gave shade from the searing heat of the sun, all while allowing the air to circulate. It also gave shade to the streets below the Mashrabiya window, and cools the street down.

It also allows the homeowner to maximize their use of plots. Since homes in the Middle-East are mostly squares, and streets in the city (since Mashrabiya is a common feature mostly in urban areas) are haphazard, when one is building a square home, inevitably there will be some dead spaces and ends. By utilizing Mashrabiya they can maximize the potential of their home lots.

Mashrabiya on an old renovated house in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

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