To Western eyes there was always a magic to the mashrabiyas, those handsome wooden screens that once masked the exteriors of buildings throughout the Arab East. Delicate and beautiful, like silken masks drawn discreetly across the faces of comely maidens, they came to symbolize the legendary mystery of the Orient.
In a sense this is not an altogether incorrect impression. Mashrabiyas were veils drawn against the outside world and behind their cool shield of latticework those inside did recline in shaded privacy while gazing out at the tumult of the streets below. And yes, they were also a haven for women whose need for privacy in older cultures did give rise to the exotic, if exaggerated, legends of the hidden harem.
Yet the origins and functions of the mashrabiya are far more prosaic—as their Egyptian name suggests. The word "mashrabiya" comes from an Arabic root meaning the "place of drinking," which was adapted to accommodate the first function of the screen: "the place to cool the drinking water."
As indeed it was. The shade and open lattice of a mashrabiya provided a constant current of air which, as the sweating surfaces of porous clay pots evaporated, cooled the water inside. This was such an important function that sometimes a small screened platform large enough to accommodate two or three pots of water was built out from the main screen to catch additional air and cool more water. From this beginning the mashrabiya developed into an eminently practical architectural feature that for centuries served, at one and the same time, as window, curtain, air conditioner and refrigerator. Shrewdly designed, it not only subdued the strong desert sunlight but also cooled houses, water and people in lands from India to Spain where, at certain times of the year, people hide from the sun as others seek shelter from rain.
In Egypt, however, and especially in Cairo itself, mashrabiyas began, in the 14th century, to evolve into something more. In the skilled hands of craftsmen to whom wood was a treasure to be imported from Lebanon and Asia Minor, and lovingly handled, the screens gradually came to encompass balconies to cool people as well as pots. Later, as they were fitted with cushioned beds running the length and breadth of the screen, they became comfortable havens in which the occupants could recline in cool privacy while gazing down at the streets or courtyards below and, unseen and unheard, share in the life of the outside world. Because they were expensive they were at first limited to the palaces of rulers and the homes of the wealthier merchants as an outward sign of success.
In the hands of Cairo's craftsmen the techniques improved. Over the centuries the craftsmen had developed special skills with wood. They knew, for example, that in intense summer heat even the best wood would shrink, warp and split when exposed to sun and air. But they also knew that very small pieces of wood dovetailed one into the other without the use of glue or nails allowed wood to expand, shrink and adjust itself without upsetting the overall assembly. From earliest times, and especially in the era of Coptic Egypt, this was how wood had come to be used, and it suited the mashrabiya beautifully. Carved screens could be divided and subdivided into smaller and still smaller pieces of wood, each piece fitting into the next, the whole screen, sometimes of huge proportions, being held together without the use of a single nail. Later, as techniques were perfected, as many as two thousand individual pieces of wood—including tiny, perfect wooden balls and links—would go into the making of a single square yard of finely made mashrabiya, each piece turned and smoothed by hand and then assembled like masses of interlaced strings of beads into ever varying patterns.
Such fine work demanded immense toil and patience, particularly since the craftsmen worked within the strict limits imposed not only by the difficulties of the art itself but also by the prohibitions of Islam against representations of any living being. Yet the artists of the mashrabiya continued to search and find new patterns. They were certainly simple patterns—sometimes calligraphy from the Koran, sometimes merely a water ewer or a hanging lamp—but so painstakingly worked into the screen that they appeared against the light as exquisite designs in silhouette.
As the art improved the mashrabiya became fairly common in Arab cities (Aramco World, September-October 1971). But in Cairo they were everywhere. As recently as the late 1900's, entire Cairo street fronts were still embellished with row upon row, level upon level of mashrabiyas. Splendid examples were also to be found in houses surrounding Ezbekiya Lake, one of a chain of lakes left by the receding Nile. Others graced great houses lining the old Khalig Canal, part of an ancient waterway linking the Nile to the Red Sea. Engravings made in the last century show the "Khalig" to have been something of a Venetian waterway served by poled barges and lined by fine Cairene houses with vine-covered pavilions overhanging the water.
Mashrabiyas were introduced into mosques too, often on a much larger scale, but serving the same purpose: filtering the intense sunlight flooding into the traditional courtyard and providing a cool shaded interior conducive to prayer and meditation. Others were created for large semi-public buildings like the wakalah, or caravansary, of el-Ghori, built in the 16th century to accommodate merchants coming into Cairo with caravans from the Red Sea. But the best examples were found in the great homes of Cairo, homes like el-Kretiliya, hard against the ninth-century walls of Ibn Tulun's great mosque, and el-Seheimy house, built in 1645.
El-Seheimy's was probably typical of the great homes: drab outside—often with flat, windowless walls that provided a defense against attacks as well as against the noise, dust and heat of the streets—but opulent inside, with marble floors, splashing fountains and hanging lanterns.
To reach the interior of el-Kretiliya house—which exists to this day—visitors in those times had to follow a narrow medieval lane to a heavy wooden door that opened onto a passageway which, deliberately, twisted away from the door to prevent the passerby from seeing into an inner courtyard. The courtyard, green with trees and vines, was dominated by three levels of mashrabiyas, beneath which was a takhta-bush, a loggia lined with cushioned seats. There the master of the house received tradesmen, members of his staff and others whose rank or errand did not merit an invitation into the house itself, but whose visits, nevertheless, were a delight to the ladies of the house who, behind the screens, could see and hear the visitors without being seen themselves.
Inside, el-Seheimy house was even more beautiful. There was a great mandara—a ground floor reception hall—an inner courtyard luxuriant with palms and trellised pavilions, halls lined with blue Damascus tiles and, in discreet privacy above, the bab al-hareem, beloved of legend but actually little more than a private sanctuary to which the master and his family could retire in closely guarded peace and quiet.
Not much is left today of el-Seheimy's interior furnishing, yet at the far end of the mandara is one of the most visually exciting mashrabiyas in Cairo. Reaching from wall to wall and nearly from floor to ceiling, it is an immense carved screen that looks out on an inner garden. From inside it resembles a giant lantern with shafts of sunlight and shadow tracing filigree patterns on the floors and walls and evoking silent echoes of slippered feet brushing the mosaics with its pattern of shadows and light. It is a vision really of another age and in its beauty is the reason why the magic of the mashrabiya has long outlived the reality.
There are remnants of the vision, certainly. In the el-Seheimy house and in el-Kretiliya, and—a magnificent example—in the early 15th-century mosque tomb of Sultan Baruk, a triumph of Mameluke craftsmanship. But the great days are over. As the centuries passed, Lake Ezbekiya was filled in—it's now the site of Ezbekiya Gardens and Midan Opera. So, because it bred insects and smelled appallingly, was the Khalig Canal. In the meantime the mashrabiyas lining the streets had become a dreaded fire hazard. Tinder dry, and in some very narrow streets nearly touching, like balconies in medieval Europe, they caught fire easily. There are terrible accounts of fires leaping from window to window at frightening speed. As a result many were removed, the art swiftly began to decline and, a few years ago, with the death of Hassan Abu Said, all but expired.
Hassan Abu Said was probably the last of the great mashrabiya craftsmen. In a small shop in a narrow lane he continued his work up until just a few years ago. His reputation was such that when Islamic architects ordered thousands of intricately carved pieces of wood for the minbar, or pulpit, of a mosque in Washington, D.C. (Aramco World, May-June, 1965), they not only commissioned him to carve them but also flew him to Washington to assemble them. No one else knew how to put together the hundreds of interlocking pieces.
But even then the end was near and Hassan knew it. He took me one day to the roof of his shop and sadly waved at me to look around. On the roof was a mountain of mashrabiyas. Large ones, small ones, crude ones and beautiful ones. Leading me around Hassan proudly pointed out that although many of them were centuries old and had been lying on the roof in the full heat of the Cairo sun none had warped, shrunk or split. He had collected them, he said, from the scores of old buildings being torn down all over Cairo. He wanted, he said, to preserve them just a little longer. Which he did. But a few years later he died and the screens disappeared—along with the traditions of beauty and mystery that they represented.
John Feeney is producer and director of several films on the Middle East, and also a free-lance photographer and writer.