The elegant old town houses of Yanbu' al-Bahr are quiet now. The families that built them have long since departed for the suburbs that surround the city. Even the foreign workers who later lived in these cool, high-ceilinged rooms have drifted away. For the most part, only the handsome facades remain, reminders of an age when Yanbu' al-Bahr -Yanbu' by the Sea, 320 kilometers (200 miles) northwest of Jiddah - was one of the greatest of the Red Sea ports, with a merchant class wealthy enough to build some of the largest and most beautifully decorated houses in western Saudi Arabia.
The wealth came from trade with ports like Hodeida (North Yemen), Hadramut (South Yemen), Mogadishu (Somalia), and Suez. Peanuts and sesame came from the Sudan, textiles and vegetables from Egypt, sheep from Somalia, coffee, wheat, sorghum and sultanas from Yemen. Hundreds of dhows docked every day to unload or transship goods.
Trade prospered greatly in the late 19th century, and so did the merchants of the community. As traders, they thought little of importing the building materials they needed.
Muhammad Tahlawi's family comes from Yanbu' al-Bahr, and he is an unofficial historian of the town. "Of course, the coral rock used in the main construction came from the port of Yanbu' itself," he says, "but the insect-resistant, almost indestructible hardwoods used in the mashrabiyaat [wooden window grills] came from Southeast Asia, Java and India." The style of building, with airy, cantilevered wooden balconies and bay windows, or rawasheen, came from Cairo, as did many of the carpenters who practiced it - though some of the most renowned, including Abd al-Hamid Turi and Abd al-Rasul Khallaf, were from Yanbu' itself.
No matter where they had learned their trade, however, the carpenters spent some time in Yanbu', for the intricate mashrabiyaat and rawasheen took time to create. Khallaf, who designed and constructed those on the most beautiful and famous town house of all, that of Salim Babutayn, is said to have worked on them from sunrise to sunset for three years, for which he was paid 1.25 riyals a day - about 30 cents at today's rates.
"In those days, 50 to 100 years ago, every house was covered with mashrabiyaat," saysTahlawi, "and whole families lived together. When a son married, he brought his wife to his family home and of course they would take a bedroom, and usually another room as well. And when the children arrived, more rooms would be requisitioned."
If the family outgrew the house, an addition would be built or a nearby house rented or purchased. The Babutayn house was twice expanded in this way to engulf neighboring properties, Tahlawi says, with some party walls removed to make a unified floor plan.
Sometimes a new house was built, with more stories, more rooms and probably more decoration than the one before. The principal decoration, of course - and the element that makes the Babutayn house so special - were the magnificent wooden rawasheen.
"They were more than just bay windows. Often they jutted a meter and a half [five feet] into the street," says Tahlawi. In the fresh breezes that wafted through the lattice-work screens, family members worked or socialized, the men in one roshan, the women in another.
The upper floors of the typically four-story buildings were cooled by passing breezes, the lower floors more by the drafts created by the town's narrow streets, which were often only two to three meters (six to 10 feet) wide and deeply shaded as a result. And because the streets were such busy places, most houses were windowless at street level: Simple air holes served to ventilate the kitchen or other ground-floor rooms, with the windows and the rawasheen beginning on the first or second floor, and becoming larger and more elaborate on each successive story.
The doors, too, were objects of great craftsmanship. Often set in an arched casement, they were usually of teak and often carved in elaborate geometric patterns. They opened directly onto a reception area whose stone floor was frequently sprinkled with water for coolness. Rooms opening directly off the hall typically served as reception rooms for the men, with women's reception rooms on the higher floors.
Most rooms were simple. Cupboards were built into the walls, but the other furnishings, beds included, were usually portable and could be moved into the coolest or most comfortable room in the building. Any room in the house might thus be used for dining, sleeping or socializing and, normally, different rooms were used for different purposes at different times of the year. Rooms that faced north, for example, might be used in the summer, while those that faced south would be used in the winter, or one room might be used in the heat of the day and another in the cool of the evening.
As the rooms on the top floor were the coolest and airiest in the house, it was there that most of the family slept on hot summer nights. But summer or winter, there was always much coming and going of relatives, friends and acquaintances.
"There were few outside entertainments, and people socialized a great deal," explains Tahlawi, who speaks with some sadness of the passing of those days and of the construction, in the mid-1970's, of several new roads that left Yanbu' al-Bahr a backwater.
Nonetheless, many of the old town houses remain today: the former home of 'Abd Allah Ashur, once mayor of Yanbu'; the house of the al-Nahhas, a well-known seafaring family; the home of Ali Husayn Zari, known for his great interest in education. Some, like the Babutayn house, are in excellent condition; others are beyond repair. But there is still hope that at least a few of these homes can be saved in Yanbu' as they were in Jiddah. Muhammad Tahlawi hopes so.
"This is a personal wish," he says. "It is my wish that these beautiful old houses be preserved. They are a treasure that should never be lost."
Jane Waldron Grutz wrote television commercials in New York and London before moving to Saudi Arabia in 1971, where she writes for and edits The Arabian Sun.