Architecture can be considered as the mirror of a society as it reflects various elements, including the environment, surroundings, as well as social and cultural beliefs. In the case of Islamic architecture, this complex relationship produced diverse innovations that should not be generalised without geographical and historical contexts, as Islamic architecture adapts to changes of time and location. The city of Cairo is characterised by its dry climate, low rainfall, and high levels of sunshine. Consequently, its traditional residential architecture adopted design patterns, elements, and construction methods in accordance with its climate, which gave form to its architectural creations. Its mashrabiyas (window screens) were designed to not only fulfil these functions but also emanated from a profound need for intimacy and seclusion in accordance with Islamic teaching. This paper argues that the mashrabiya was innovative, multifunctional and fulfilled both environmental and social concerns. Cairo’s Mamluk mashrabiyas will be analysed as a representation of Egyptian mashrabiyas to understand the irrefutable relationship between the environment, architecture, and social and cultural values.
This paper comprises of two parts. The first section explains the historical background and function of mashrabiyas in the Middle East in order to understand what makes Cairo’s Mamluk mashrabiyas distinct. In the latter part, the contrast between the historical usage and the contemporary applications of the mashrabiya will be investigated to understand how the knowledge of the past is being applied to the present by reinventing traditional practices for contemporary buildings.
Mashrabiya origins and terminologies
In origin and design, the mashrabiya is associated with the traditional architecture of Cairo and were typically found on the second story, or higher of a building. Initially applied during the Mamluk era (1250-1517) in Egypt, the mashrabiya designates a technique of turned wood that is used to produce lattice-like patterns that adorn windows in traditional domestic architecture. Mashrabiya were originally named in Egypt and date to the thirteenth century, at the beginnings of the Abbasid empire. Researchers have tried to identify and locate the origins of the name mashrabiya, but there is no one definite answer. One theory suggests that the term mashrabiya derives from the Arabic word sharab meaning “to drink”. This is supported by the fact that at first, mashrabiya referred to the place where a clay pot of water was stored and cooled through the vaporisation of the water caused by wind movement through the openings. However, another theory proposes that it was derived from the word mashrafiya, also Arabic in origin, meaning “to observe” as people could see through it. And that, Mashrafiya was changed and renamed later to what is known as mashrabiya.
According to Loredana Ficarelli, mashrabiya corresponded to the small objects in half-light used as the basis of support for the small jars as they needed to stay cool. He further explained that mashrabiya was a kind of balcony that was composed of small wooden elements that were assembled to create a grid. Though the certainty as to the naming of the mashrabiya is unknown, from these theories we can deduce that its naming may have related to its functions and make-up. Mashrabiya is also known under different terms according to the region. For example, in Saudi Arabia it is known as rawshan, which is derived from the Persian word rawzan which means windows. While in Iraq, it is known as shanashil, and kushk in Turkey and Syria, which means pavilion in Turkish. Thus there are several distinct types of mashrabiya, and their wooden latticework designs differ from region to region. However, the majority are sealed, in which the latticework is fixed (sometimes with coloured glass), and parts of these mashrabiyas can be opened like a window.
Mashrabiya and architecture
The main goal of Islamic religious architecture is to create a space in which humans can experience the presence of God. Therefore, Muslim artists used light, colours, and forms of objects to depict notions of the Koran to induce a sense of divine presence. Cairo’s style is based on the traditional Arab-Islamic urban patterns that is inspired by Islamic building standards. Its urban patterns were planned with narrow roads to provide balance to human scale and in medieval Cairo the compact hierarchy of narrow, winding streets contributed to the city’s aesthetics. Its Mamluk buildings were characterized by high-quality masonry work, monumental size, and carefully constructed facades. The most striking feature of medieval architecture in Egypt whether religious, commercial, or residential was its verticality. The principles behind the living units of Cairo at that time were virtually identical for large and small, rich or poor, with the only difference being in scale and decoration. Each dwelling had a living room or hall which was the main constituent of the house, with various dependencies attached to it to form a unit. Privacy was achieved for both men and women through the use of entrances, vestibules, and perforated wooden screens (mashrabiyas) on windows in the men’s quarters as well as in the harem (female quarters). Compared to other Islamic cities, residential architecture in Egypt was rather extraverted and wherever possible, provided with a view onto the street.
Mashrabiyas were generally featured in houses and royal residences and occasionally in open-air structures, and the system of orienting building spaces inwards resulted in the creation of two facades in Islamic houses. The first of these, the external façade which faced outwards towards the streets contained few openings which were covered by mashrabiyas. This orientation of the building’s façade influenced the size of the mashrabiyas openings, pieces, spaces, and overhang. In many cases, mashrabiyas were protruded from the exterior façade (although some remained flushed with the wall) to the street. The protrusion allowed the mashrabiya to face the airflow even if the airflow was parallel to the building’s elevation. With air coming from three sides, the mashrabiya had the ability to capture natural ventilation, even if the draught outside was parallel to the house’s façade and provide air movement. The second type, the internal façade surrounding the inner courtyard (which was the core of houses at that time) was also covered by mashrabiyas. The indoor courtyards fulfilled the essential roles of ventilating and providing a light source to internal rooms. Thus, mashrabiyas were used to enhance air circulation for indoor rooms as the air was drawn into the small openings of its lower section while hot air was drawn out through the large opening of its upper section.