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Volume 50, Number 1January/February 1999

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Doors of the Kingdom

Written by Maha Al Faisal and Khalid Azzam
Additional reporting by Sultan Ghalib bin 'Awadh Al-Qu'ati and Gray Henry

Sometimes there is nothing more pleasant or arresting than a door. The intriguing possibilities that lie beyond or behind it have inspired many Arab poets to use the door as a metaphor for both hope and denial, Islamic scholars also use the word, bab (door) to distinguish the various chapters of their books—for the door is, after all, the threshold between ignorance and enlightenment.

In a land known for its tents and its nomadic past, the 1996 Door Exhibit at the Heritage Center of the Nahda Philanthropic Society for Women in Riyadh, allowed us to stand before an array of entrances of such variety and beauty as to make us wonder why we nowadays have such dull doors. For this article, as with the book from which it is drawn, we chose to show not the Nahda collection of some 72 doors, but rather doors where doors actually should be—as part of an edifice. In doing so, we sought the full range of doors, from the elegant to the most common, recognizing that perfect workmanship cannot be easily found, since perfection demands discernment and therefore a complete vision. Thus it is not a search for such perfection, but rather for the soul behind the craft—the dignity arid truthfulness in representation—that moves us. Ultimately, since technology often only replaces inspiration with a tool and does not itself move us closer to perfection, all we can do with it is imitate and draw upon that which is already ours. Perhaps, looking at these doors, we will understand the limitations of our cluttered minds, hoping never to lose the soul that inspired and the vision that guided their form and color beyond chaos, toward infinity.

Malta Al Faisal, Director of the Heritage Center of the Nahda Philanthropic Society for Women.

Saudi Door Design in Islamic Art

Many works within the architecture of Islam are designed to lead a person from the distractions of the outside world to the peace of an internal space. It is an architecture which establishes a hierarchy of spaces, and which distinguishes each one from the others with a series of transitional zones. In Islamic architecture, the door of a house marks the transition from community space—city, town or village—to family space, the home. It is one of the most important thresholds in the daily life of the Muslim.

Doors are often the only form of artistic expression that the private life of the family projects to the outside world. The outer walls of these building are usually blank, with very few openings and with little sense of formal composition. The bright colors and bold patterns on the front door emphasize the point of entrance to the private world of the family and provide a glimpse of the richness that lies behind the uninviting elevations and thick walls.

Traditional Islamic architecture has always sought the integration of the constructed environment with its natural surroundings, and that of Saudi Arabia is a good example. From the smooth curves of mud-brick construction to the massive solidity of stone architecture, and from the crenellation of the skylines to the recesses and protrusions of the walls, we see varied traditional buildings that blend gracefully with their surroundings. Even the internal space of a building, the courtyard—which is metaphorically the heart of the building—is open to the sky.

The traditional architect's aspiration to reflect laws of nature is also seen in his use of decorative techniques that deflect attention from physical mass and draw it instead to a plane of color, geometric design, or biomorphic form. This decoration is not mere adornment but an essential element in the overall composition of the architecture. The architect, or the craftsman, consciously reproduces the forms, patterns, and rhythms he sees around him in nature to show that his work does not stand apart from, but rather with God's creation on Earth.

One of the most commonly discussed features of Islamic art has always been the prohibition of the portrayal of human figures. Some have suggested that this prohibition created a void which had to be filled and thereby caused the development of a more abstract art, in particular, geometric patterns and arabesque forms. However, these forms are not a compensation for the lack of images, but a positive contribution toward a perception of reality higher than material form, one in which the world is not a series of discrete images, objects or forms but one in which the disappearance of the human figure does not leave a void. In his Mirror of the Intellect , Titus Burkhardt wrote:

By transforming a surface into a tissue of colors or into a vibration of light and shadows, the ornament prevents the mind from fixing itself on any form that says "I," as an image says "I." The center of an arabesque is everywhere and nowhere, each "affirmation" being followed by its "negation" and vice versa.

The designs employed by the artisans of these doors convey concepts that cannot be expressed through mere physical form, while at the same time they understand and fulfill the meaning of form. Form that exists on the physical level has limits of time and space. The "abstract" interpretation of form in Islamic art raises one's perception of reality from the physical realm. It encourages a contemplative state of mind and a perception, through beauty, of the manifest unity in this world. An understanding of the meaning of traditional artistic form overwhelms the individuality of the artist without suppressing his creative instinct: It stretches his mode of expression beyond the realm of the individual, into the realm of timeless art.

Khalid Azzam practices architecture in Cairo and London, where he also teaches at the Prince of Wales's Institute of Architecture.

Architectural Styles in the Four Major Regions of Saudi Arabia

Differences in climate, topography, vegetation and social conditions throughout what is today Saudi Arabia have produced regional approaches to architecture that can be grouped loosely according to the four major regions of the country: the central region, or Najd; the Eastern Province and Arabian Gulf coast; the western region, or Hijaz, and the southern mountain region, 'Asir. (See Aramco World, July/August 1998.)


This region is characterized by both fortress and residential architecture. One of the best examples of the fortress style is Masmak fort, built in the late 1860's, captured by 'Abd al-'Aziz in 1902 and fully restored in the 1990's. In it as well as in Najdi homes, one of the most distinctive features is the use of triangular perforations on both inner and outer walls, which serve not only as decoration, but also for ventilation, light, and the deflection of rainwater. (See previous spread.) The traditional decorative patterns were composed of rows of such triangular as well as rounded fruit designs; they adorned front doors, lintels, structural beams and occasionally the lower portions of the wall of the majlis (a reception and conference salon). The fortresses were decorated predominantly in blues, reds and yellows derived from gum, gypsum, powdered rock and charcoal.

Najdi houses were often built around a central courtyard, with only a few openings to the street, thus ensuring privacy for the family. Entrances to the houses were closed by large rectangular wooden doors, geometrically decorated by varied combinations of burning, carving and painting. For the sake of privacy, front doors were never directly opposite one another. The inner vertical slats of a door were of palm wood; the outer ones were of hardwood. Early 20th-century doors were sometimes made from imported tea chests and packing cases. Large doors had a diagonal hardwood brace across the back.

Eastern Province

The doors of this region were often decorated with a delicate white lacy pattern on a black background. Sometimes doors were decorated with round metal studs set in simple patterns and had a carved central jamb, referred to as "the nose of the door." This jamb often had marvelous designs. Metal studs set in similar patterns are also found on large chests formerly in use in this region and other areas of the Gulf.

A number of designs that one meets a little inland from the Gulf coast—right up to the edge of the Najd plateau—have roots in the Sumerian, Akkadian and Babylonian cultures, and they have survived relatively unchanged in the isolated desert region. Along the coast, refined post-Islamic Persian and Indian influences have been superimposed on these earlier Mesopotamian traditions. Indian influences appear to have been strongest from the 18th to the mid-20th centuries, whereas Persian and other neighboring Islamic regions have had a longer, more ongoing effect that is still perceptible today.


The Hijaz region includes the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah, which have been pilgrim destinations for centuries. Pilgrims traveling to these sites, especially those who afterward settled in the Hijaz, brought with them aspects of their craft and culture from their countries of origin.

Doors with floral, ornate, and elliptical patterns are generally from the Indian subcontinent—especially those which are set with or framed by Moghul, Gujarati (Pathan), or Rajasthani arches (with the exception of the horseshoe type that reveals North African-Andalusian influences). Geometric motifs tend to originate in Syria, Egypt and North Africa. Strong European influences from Ottoman and other Islamic lands under European rule are also found. Some affluent houseowners imported carved doors and wooden pillars from Egypt, India, Java, East Africa and other regions.


In contrast with the sobriety of architecture and decoration in the rest of Arabia, exuberant color and ornamentation characterize those of 'Asir. The painting extends into the house over the walls and doors, up the staircases, and onto the furniture itself. When a house is being painted, women from the community help each other finish the job. The building then displays their shared taste and knowledge. Mothers pass these on to their daughters.

This artwork is based on a geometry of straight lines and suggests the patterns common to textile weaving, with solid bands of different colors. Certain motifs reappear, such as the triangular mihrab (or niche) and the palmette. In the past, paint was produced from mineral and vegetable pigments. Cloves and alfalfa yielded green. Blue came from the indigo plant. Red came from pomegranates and a certain mud. Paintbrushes were created from the tough hair found in a goat's tail. Today, however, women use modern manufactured paint to create new looks, which have become an indicator of social and economic change.

Sultan Ghalib bin 'Awadh Al-Quati is a scholar of Islamic history and Arabian studies. He has written a history of the Hadhramawt region of Yemen, as well as essays on poetry, literature and commerce.

Gray Henry directs the US branch of Dar Nun, a Riyadh-based publishing house dedicated to transmitting and preserving Islamic heritage and culture through books for children.

Photographer Haajar Gouverneur  holds a degree in journalism from the American University in Cairo. She has worked at Arab Radio and Television in Italy, and is presently photographing the treasures of Egypt's National Library in Cairo.

This article appeared on pages 68-77 of the January/February 1999 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1999 images.