Cairo's qamariya windows—also called shamsiyas —must surely be among the most beautiful windows in the world. Each morning as the sun comes up and touches the gloomy domes of mosques and dark walls of castles in the hidden corners of the city, they spring to life like masses of tiny jewels and splash pools of exquisite color across the shadowed texture of the mosaic floors below.
Like much art in the Arab East the qamariya, meaning "moon-like," and shamsiya, meaning "sun-like," had a purely practical origin. They were designed, in some cases, to keep out the intense heat of Egypt while admitting some light and in other cases to keep heat in while admitting light. But in adapting them to either use the craftsmen who designed them created an exquisite if little known art form which is still practiced in the Arab East but which reached its apogee about 200 years ago in Cairo.
In one sense this is not surprising, for the making of glass is as old as Egypt itself; Pharaonic glass, dull, green and opaque, is the oldest glass in the world. And yet the making of qamariya and shamsiya windows is not so much the making of glass—indeed any bits and pieces will do—as it is the skillful use of three simple elements: fragments of broken glass, fresh stucco and sunlight.
Craftsmen today make the process seem simple. They mix stucco powder with water, pour it into a frame, draw a pattern in the stucco as it sets, cut out the pattern with fine saws and thin files and glue bits of glass to the inside of the stucco pattern. As with all seemingly simple art, however, it is deceptive. From behind, for example, where blobs of plaster are applied to keep the glass in place, the window looks like an incomplete jigsaw puzzle; but from the front it appears as delicate white lace inset with flowers, spirals, rosettes, trees and, sometimes, abstract patterns of pure color. Furthermore the shape and slant of each segment is cut to a precise angle—an angle that will catch the rays of the sun and focus them into a dark interior. Because they are small—no more than a foot or two high by about 18 inches wide—and because they are usually installed high in domes and walls, they look to the viewer like clusters of jewels scintillating in the dark.
Qamariyas and shamsiyas are exactly the same, but as the effect varies according to placement they came to have different names. Shamsiyas are usually found, singly, or in twos and threes, in the walls of mosques and other great structures where the sun can penetrate. Qamariyas are more often found in residences where, by tradition, they were installed in lines of six or more immediately above the biggest and most finely carved mashrabiya , the delicate wooden screens which filter the sunlight but admit air. (Aramco World Magazine : July-August, 1974).
Together the effect is at once beautiful and mysterious: delicate patterns of the screen outlined in light and shadow and the equally delicate patterns of the windows outlined in pools of rich sunlit color. At night the effect is even more mysterious: the interior lights picking out the patterns of wood and glass in the darkness—perfect examples of a decorative art in which the Arab East once excelled and which it keeps alive to this day.
John Feeney, a resident of Cairo for 10 years, is a free-lance photographer and writer.