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Volume 24, Number 3May/June 1973

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Portals of Arabia

Written by James Horgen
Illustrated by Penny Williams-Yaqub

In the older sections of villages and towns in central Arabia, houses tend to resemble small fortresses. Windows are scarce and entrances forbidding. Yet these same entrances provide lovely examples of Arabia's decorative art.

The forbidding aspect of these old portals reflects the traditionally defensive attitude of the townspeople towards the desert tribes who, until recent times, periodically swept in to attack and loot. Some of the doors, like those of the Musmak and Shamsiyah palaces of Riyadh, are massive and barred; others, like those of Jiddah and Hofuf, are tall and lofty. But all had the same basic purposes: to conceal the inner rooms from the view of a would-be raider and, if possible, keep him out.

But wherever possible these doors were carved with inscriptions, often a verse from the Koran—the "Ayyat al-Kursi" being one of the most popular—or a simple blessing for the owner. In some cases there was elaborate ornamentation, and bright paint was sometimes added if the original design seemed to be deteriorating.

The attention given to some carving suggests the high appreciation felt for the wood itself, which in Arabia has always been a scarce commodity. It is said that the Prophet Muhammad once had to resort to wood from a shipwreck in order to rebuild the Ka'bah of Mecca and that he employed an Abyssinian carpenter who had been on board the ship to do the work. Consequently, locally available tamarisk and palm wood and other imported woods were used sparingly and only for roof supports, doors and balconies.

The scarcity of wood provided little scope for the growth of local woodcarving skills and it is thought that much of this carving was inspired or performed by Muslim craftsmen who had come to Arabia on the pilgrimage or accompanied invading Turkish armies. But the motifs used, especially the geometric designs, interlaced vine and tendrils, are found in all Islamic art. And to the discerning eye, the beauty of the carving on the old Russian Embassy door in Jiddah and the Koranic inscription on the Qatif door compares favorably with that of the best Islamic woodcarving found on mosques in Jerusalem and Istanbul.

The style of houses and office buildings in present-day Arabia reflects the new industrial and commercial orientation of everyday life and the older combinations of limestone block, stone and wood are rapidly giving way to concrete and steel.

Some townsmen, recognizing the beauty of these richly carved doors and balconies, are taking steps to preserve them, but faced with the competition of new materials and the normal deterioration of wood carving after 50 years, it is now likely that the doors and the tradition that produced them will soon vanish forever.

James Horgen, formerly with Aramco's Arabian Research Division, is a writer on Arab history specializing in the Gulf region.

This article appeared on pages 2-3 of the May/June 1973 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1973 images.