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Volume 44, Number 4July/August 1993

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Homes of Old Makkah

Written by Bülent Uluengin and Nihal Uluengin
Additional photographs by Bülent Uluengin and Nihal Uluengin

According to Islamic tradition, Ishmael, infant son of the Prophet Abraham (known to the Arabs as Ibrahim), and his mother Hagar were left in a desolate valley in western Arabia. When their water supply was gone, tradition relates that a fresh-water spring miraculously burst forth at the feet of Isma'il in Arabic). Hagar (or Hajar) enclosed the spring, which later became a well. As word of the water source spread, Arab tribes began to settle in the area, and so was born the city of Makkah, destined to become one of the most important oases on the spice and incense routes, at the meeting point of the great south-north and east -west caravan trails.

The water of the well, called Zamzam, supplied the tribes. That settled there; in due course, it became known for its health-giving powers. The Ka'bah, the sacred house of God – and Makkah’s first stone building – was built near the well as a place of worship; it came to be revered by all the tribes and eventually became the center of pilgrimage.

Makkah’s first settlers were nomadic tribes who lived in tents dispersed around the well of Zamzam and throughout the valley. Eventually, however, to accommodate the growing number of pilgrims, the first permanent houses were built around the Ka’bah; these structures were doorless, to welcome the pilgrims.

With the birth of Islam in the seventh century, the pilgrimage, or hajj, took on an entirely new meaning, and the flow of pilgrims to Makkah expanded. Some pilgrims decided to settle permanently in the Holy City, building their houses in the valley surrounding the Ka’bah. The residential area of Makkah continued to grow, fueled by newcomers every year. Later immigrants built their houses on slopes and hilltops, due to a shortage of land in the valley and the problem of seasonal flooding, in those days, the height of buildings did not exceed two stories.

During the Ottoman period (1517-1924), housing and other construction in Makkah came under the influence of Turkish architecture. Palaces, forts and large houses were built on the hills and in the valleys of the Makkah area. Building s gradually grew taller, due to advances in construction technology and the land storage around the Ka’bah, and in time reached seven stories. After 1924, the traditional Makkan house was somewhat influenced by Western architecture, but remained relatively unchanged until the appearance of reinforced concrete as a construction material.

Generally speaking, Muslim architectural style in the Middle East – North Africa, Syria central Arabia and central Turkey - was characterized by one or two story houses built around a central courtyard house in Jiddah, Yanbu’, Madinah, Tayif or Makkah.

In Makkah, a variety of factors combined to give the Makkan house its own character. The City's strong ties to other Red Sea countries, through the nearby port of Jiddah, was one important factor; others were the functional requirements of the inhabitants, their desire to be close to the Ka'bah, the extreme heat of the "uncultivable valley," sometimes reaching 50 degrees Celsius (122°F), and the local topography of valleys between steep and rocky mountains. The Makkan house came to be distinguished by its large volume, compact floor plan and extroverted appearance. The jutting latticework windows called mashrabiyyahs (the Arabic plural is mashrabiyyat), whether small or large, simple or ornate, gave a certain depth and relief to the facades of the houses.

The old houses we surveyed in Makkah in 1982 looked very much like the structures described by travelers who have visited the Holy City over the centuries.

In the 10th century, Shams al-Din Abu 'Abd Allah al-Muqaddisi described Makkan houses as "built of black, smooth stones and also of white stones, but the upper parts are of teakwood and are several stories high, whitewashed and clean."

In the 12th century, Andalusian geographer Ibn Jubayr commented on the flat roofs of Makkah's houses: "We passed the nights on the roof of the place where we stayed and sometimes the cold of the night air would fall on us and [we] would need a blanket to protect us from it."

Joseph Pitts, an English convert who performed the pilgrimage in about 1684, wrote in an account of Makkah, "The inhabitants, especially men, do usually sleep on the tops of houses for the air or in the street before their doors.... As for my part, I usually lay open, without any bed covering, on the top of the house..."

Spanish traveler 'Ali Bey al-'Abbasi, who visited Makkah in 1807, wrote that "the houses are solidly built with stone, they are three and four stories high, and sometimes even more. The fronts are ornamented with bases, moldings and paintings which give them a very graceful appearance.... The blinds of the balconies are not very close, and holes are cut besides in different parts of them. The roofs form terraces, surrounded with a wall about two meters [seven feet] high, open at certain spaces, which are occupied by a railing of red and white bricks placed symmetrically, leaving holes for the circulation of the air. All the staircases are narrow, dark and steep. The rooms are well-proportioned, long, broad and lofty and have beside the large windows and balconies, a second row of smaller windows."

John Fryer Keane, who visited Makkah in 1877, found that many of the houses "are of great height, large and factory-like, full of little windows, seldom two adjacent houses face the same way or are the same height.... There was also a six-feet by four-feet [1.8- by 1.2-meter] window, with open teakwood shutters, roughly carved in an elaborate pattern, of very unfinished but substantial joinery."

Many other visitors described similar structures. Actually, not a single house survives from al-Muqaddisi's or Ibn Jubayr's time - and there are very few from Pitts's time - but the descriptions still apply to the existing traditional houses in Makkah. Clearly, the internal configuration of the traditional Makkan house has suited the long-term requirements of the city and its inhabitants.

Serving the pilgrims' needs for guides, food and transportation has always been Makkah's chief local industry In pre-modern times, Makkah had no hotels; many Makkans provided accommodations for pilgrims during the hajj season, renting out a room, a floor or even an entire house. Therefore, when building a house, Makkans generally thought in terms of a bifunctional structure, serving as both home and hotel.

Typically, traditional Makkan homes are seven stories high, with wooden latticework on their facades and colored brickwork around the terraces of the upper stories. Privacy is the main factor determining use of space.

From the street, one enters the house through an elaborate doorway and steps into an entrance hall known as a dihliz. The ground or entrance floor is reserved for men, and one never risks meeting an unveiled woman there. The upper floors belong to the women, and a visitor cannot go upstairs without an escort. The entrance hall floor is covered with sand or a kind of mortar called tubtab. On one or both sides of the entrance hall are raised benches where the master of the house sits and receives casual visitors, drinks tea with them and smokes his water pipe, or shishah.

On either side of the entrance hall - sometimes on both sides - and raised above floor level, is an important sifting room called the maq'ad, which serves as a business office, or reception room for intimate friends. It may also function as a sleeping room during hot summer afternoons, or as a storeroom for merchandise or luggage during the pilgrimage season. Even in the most modest of houses, social activities play an important role; therefore the maq’ad is usually spacious, high-ceilinged and well-decorated.

In older, wealthier houses, the maq’ad is replaced by an even more luxurious room known as the diwan, with carpets on the floor and cushions for sitting or reclining along the walls, where the men meet for receptions, take their dinner and talk business.

In addition to these rooms, a water closet, called bayt al-ma' or taharah, is also found on the entrance floor.

From a corner of the ground floor opening on a vertical air-shaft, a staircase with four landings lead to upper floors. The staircase winds around a central pier and is enclosed all the way up with solid walls. This is one of the reasons for the strengths of Makkan buildings:

The staircase acts as a kind of massive, hollow column supporting the entire building.

The layout of rooms on the next two floors is similar: A carved door on each floor's landing opens onto an entrance hall around which the rooms are grouped.

The main sitting room, or majlis, overlooks the street. Its floors are covered with carpets; along the walls are low, firm cushions to sit on and recline against, like couches without legs or frames. Cupboards with ornamented wooden doors adorn the walls. Windows with decorated wooden shutters - mashrabiyyahs or rawashin - project out over the street. To enter the main sitting room, one must pass through a smaller room called the suffah. Another room, a storage chamber known as the khizanah, adjoins the majlis as well.

The majlis is a multi-purpose room, according to the changing needs of the family: a sitting room during the daytime, a place where women gather when men guests are downstairs in the maq'ad or diwan, a bedroom at night or a rented room for pilgrims during the pilgrimage season. The adjoining khizanah is used either as a storeroom for extra mattresses, pillows and blankets, or as a kitchen when rented out to pilgrims. Large houses have another small sitting room known as the mu'akhkhar, which overlooks the back street or opens onto a minwar, an air shaft that admits sunlight. Finally, there is a toilet on every floor, either on the staircase landing or opening off the living quarters.

As one goes upstairs, some of the spaces that were rooms on lower floors become expansive open-air terraces. Generally, three terrace floors provide living space for the women and children of the family. Even during the hajj season, these floors are not rented to pilgrims, so the main kitchen and family bathroom are found on these levels. The terraces are used for hanging out laundry, for simply enjoying the cool of the evening, or for sleeping under the stars on hot summer nights.

For these reasons and for privacy, the terraces are surrounded by brick walls about man-high, with spaces between the bricks to let the air through. The outside faces of the bricks are painted white, red, yellow and blue, and present an attractive view from a distance - one of the special features of houses in the city of Makkah. On the first terrace floor is a small living room known as the mabit, used by the family for eating, living and sleeping purposes during the pilgrimage, when other floors are rented to pilgrims.

Three types of materials were used in the traditional houses of Makkah: stone, brick and wood.

The stone was quarried locally or from nearby areas and was used in foundations and in load-bearing walls, both inside and out. The stone walls, some 60 to 75 centimeters thick (24 to 30") on the basement level and about 35 centimeters thick (14") on upper floors, were   constructed with a mud-based mortar, plastered on both sides and then painted with a lime wash.

The brick, also locally produced, was used only on the upper levels of the house, including the terrace levels where the walls needed to be lighter and thinner.

Two kinds of wood were used in Makkan houses. Locally produced lumber, from palm and other trees, was used for ceilings and floors, as framing for windows and doors, or as reinforcement in stone walls. Imported hardwood - teak from India or Java - was used for the inner and outer doors themselves, and for the windows, especially mashrabiyyahs.

Traditional Makkan homes are deep row houses, sharing their longer wails with adjoining units. The foundations were laid on solid rock and the bearing external walls, up to the terrace level, are of stone. The internal walls are also of stone, but are thinner than the external ones.

The floors were made of wooden logs laid about 30 to 40 centimeters (12 to 16") apart soon after the lintels of the mashrabiyyahs were set in place. Palm-frond ribs were laid diagonally across the beams, in two layers, and tied to the beams. A layer of closely woven palm matting was then laid over the ribs and covered with a layer of sand and loam, on top of which was applied a flooring cement about 15 centimeters (six inches) thick. Terrace floors were constructed the same way, with a thicker layer of plaster cement and a slight outward slope to drain away rainwater. Wooden waterspouts, often hollowed out of palm trunk, kept the rainwater away from the walls. Terrace walls were made of decorative brick, as described earlier.

Despite the scarcity of good timber in the area, the traditional houses of Makkah are noted for their beautifully decorated woodwork. Imported teakwood was used mainly for mashrabiyyah or recent examples of which may cover the whole facade  of a building - as well as for elaborately carved exteriors doors and for latticework called shish, found in window openings or as internal partitions.

The oldest type of mashrabiyyah is a large window that projects out over the street and consists of a base, a central section and an upper section. The supporting  base projects from the wall onto which the actual mashrabiyyah is built. It is supported by wooden brackets and is sometimes with beautiful floral paintings and carvings.

The central section - the true mashrabiyyah – bears the shutters and is the most heavily decorated. The shutters and the fixed parts have beautifully carved panels of wood with geometric or floral patterns. The upper section projects out even farther than the central part, to provide shade, and bears floral patterns or inscriptions.

In later examples of mashrabiyyah covering entire facades, the base of each segment, corresponding to one story of the building, is ornamented with floral or geometric carvings and the shutters are louvered to provide air circulation.

Windows - shubbak in Arabic - are related to mashrabiyyah in design, but are less complex. The base paneling bears geometric or floral patterns, the shutters are blinds in older types and made with louvers in more recent versions, and the top portion features latticework grilles to ventilate the room.

The street doors of Makkan houses are made of plain teakwood paneling with beautiful geometric or floral carvings. The right-hand door panel has a smaller door set into it for the daily use of the inhabitants, since the main doors, generally surmounted by arches in the wall, are opened only to admit large loads. Internal doors and cupboard doors are of lighter construction and sometimes carved or decorated.

Shish latticework grilles served to circulate cool air and at the same time ensure privacy. Normally employing crisscross, notched or slatted patterns, the grilles were often simply small rectangular insets in a larger pattern of panels, but were sometimes large enough to cover a whole window or the top of a mashrabiyyah.

Woodwork was also used on the frames of doors and windows, on internal archways, ceiling bosses, ceilings, external mashrabiyyah cornices and base-brackets.

Ambitious renovation and extension projects have been implemented and great changes have occurred in traditional Makkah in the last decade. No doubt the city's architecture will continue to evolve, creating new styles that seek to harmonize old and new.

The traditional architecture of Makkah - an important strand of Saudi Arabian culture and tradition - deserves to be reevaluated, rediscovered and protected, rather than demolished. Its outstanding qualities can inspire new designs for contemporary construction. A few of the city's buildings are being preserved as historical monuments, and more should be; they can either be adapted to today's comfort requirements or converted to new uses. The transmission of this unique architectural heritage to future generations would be a valuable victory for Saudi Arabia's cultural preservation efforts.

Nihal Uluengin, an architect with a Ph.D. in restoration, is an associate professor at Yildiz Technical University in Istanbul.

Bülent Uluengin is a free-lance architect specializing in restoration, and a guest professor at Istanbul's Mimar Sinan University.

This article appeared on pages 20-29 of the July/August 1993 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1993 images.