A mashrabiya or mashrabiyya (Arabic: مشربية) is an architectural element which is characteristic of traditional architecture in the Islamic world and beyond. It is a type of projecting oriel window enclosed with carved wood latticework located on the upper floors of a building, sometimes enhanced with stained glass. It was traditionally used to catch wind and for passive cooling. Jars and basins of water could be placed in it to cause evaporative cooling.: Ch. 6 It is most commonly used on the street side of the building; however, it may also be used internally on the sahn (courtyard) side. The term mashrabiya is sometimes used of similar lattices elsewhere, for instance in a takhtabush.: Ch. 6
It has been used since the Middle Ages, reached a peak during the Ottoman period, but fell into decline in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. However, interest in sustainable architecture has contributed to a revival of the mashrabiya and other elements of vernacular architecture.
Names and etymology
The term mashrabiya is derived from the triliteral rootŠ-R-B, which generally denotes drinking or absorbing. There are two theories for its name:
The more common theory is that the term was derived from the Arabic word, sharaba (meaning to drink) because the space was used for a small wooden shelf where the drinking water pots were stored. The shelf was enclosed by wood and located at the window in order to keep the water cool. Later on, this shelf evolved until it became part of the room with a full enclosure and retained the name despite the radical change in use.
The less common theory is that the name was originally mashrafiya, derived from the verb shrafa, meaning to overlook or to observe. During the centuries, the name slowly changed because of sound change and the influence of other languages.
The mashrabiya is known by different labels across the Arab world; takhrima in Yemen; barmaqli or gannariya in Tunis, shanashil or rowshin in Iraq and Jeddah. It is also called shanshūl (شنشول) or rūshān (روشان).[what language is this?]
Mashrabiyas, along with other distinct features of historic Islamic architecture, were being demolished as part of a modernisation program across the Arab world from the first decades of the 20th century. In Baghdad, members of the arts community feared that vernacular architecture would be lost permanently and took steps to preserve them. The architect, Rifat Chadirji and his father, Kamil, photographed structures and monuments across Iraq and the Saudi region, and published a book of photographs. Such initiatives have contributed to a renewed interest in traditional practices as a means of building sustainable residences in harsh climatic conditions.
Mashrabiya are vernacular architectural elements; a type of balcony or oriel window in the form of a small latticed opening encasing the second or higher floors of a building and typically overlooking an internal courtyard. They are usually cantilevered to add more square footage to the upper floors, as well as providing shade to the first-floor windows. The lattice work ranges from simple geometric shapes through to ornate patterns. Architecturally, they are designed to satisfy one or more of the following functions:
control air flow
reduce the temperature of the air current,
increase the humidity of the air current
Latticework designs differ from region to region, however the commonly used patterns include:
Hexagonal –a simple geometric design with repeating hexagonal patterns
Kanaysi or Church – long narrow balusters which are assembled vertically
Maymoni – mesh with rounded balusters in some sections and squared balusters in other areas
Cross - the short round balusters assembled diagonally, vertical and horizontally
Sahrigi (Cistern turnery) large balusters in a wide mesh, and it is typically used in the upper part of the Mashrabiya
Other – a variety of complex patterns using amalgamation of existing designs and repetition, used by skilled artisans
Effective ventilation and passive cooling could be enhanced by adding a water jar, also known as a qullah, inside the mashrabiya.
Most mashrabiyas are closed where the latticework is lined with stained glass and part of the mashrabiya is designed to be opened like a window, often sliding windows to save space; in this case the area contained is part of the upper floor rooms hence enlarging the floor plan. Some mashrabiyas are open and not lined with glass; the mashrabiya functions as a balcony and the space enclosed is independent of the upper floor rooms and accessed through those rooms with windows[dubious – discuss] opening towards it. Sometimes the woodwork is reduced making the mashrabiya resemble a regular roofed balcony; this type of mashrabiya is mostly used if the house is facing an open landscape such as a river, a cliff below or simply a farm, rather than other houses.
One of the mashrabiya at Hasht Behesht Palace in Isfahan showing a hexagonal lattice pattern
Maymoni pattern as used in mashrabiya
Cross pattern as used in mashrabiya
Sahrigi pattern as used in mashrabiya
Complex lattice pattern used in a temple at Luxor
Mashrabiya lattice in Cairo showing a mix of hexagonal and other patterns
A water jar or qullah might be placed in a mashrabiya for passive cooling
One of the major purposes of the mashrabiya is privacy, an essential aspect of Arab and Muslim culture.: 3, 5–6 From the mashrabiya window, occupants can obtain a good view of the street without being seen.
The mashrabiya was an integral part of Arab lifestyle. Typically, people did not sleep in any assigned room, rather they would take their mattresses and move to areas that offered the greatest comfort according to the seasons: to the mashrabiya (or shanashil) in winter, to the courtyard in spring or to vaulted basements in summer.
The wooden screen with openable windows gives shade and protection from the hot summer sun, while allowing the cool air from the street to flow through. The designs of the latticework usually have smaller openings in the bottom part and larger openings in the higher parts, hence causing the draft to be fast above the head and slow in lower parts. This provides a significant amount of air moving in the room without causing it to be uncomfortable. The air-conditioning properties of the window is typically enhanced by placing jars of water in the area, allowing air to be cooled by evaporative cooling as it passes over the jars.
The projection of the mashrabiya achieves several purposes: it allows air from three sides to enter, even if the wind outside is blowing parallel to the house façade; it serves the street, and in turn the neighborhood, as a row of projected mashrabiyas provides shelter for those in the streets from rain or sun. The shade in normally narrow streets will cool the air in the street and increase the pressure as opposed to the air in the sahn, which is open to the sun making it more likely that air would flow towards the sahn through the rooms of the house; the mashrabiya also provides protection and shade for the ground floor windows that are flat and usually unprotected.
One of the major architectural benefits is correcting the footprint shape of the land. Due to winding and irregular streets, plots of land are also commonly irregular in shape, while the house designs are regular squares and rectangles. This would result in irregular shapes of some rooms and create dead corners. The projection allows the shapes of the rooms on the upper floors to be corrected, and thus the entire plot of land to be utilised. It also increases the usable space without increasing the plot size.
On the street side, in addition to their ornamental advantage, mashrabiyas served to provide enclosure to the street and a stronger human scale.
Mashrabiyas were mostly used in houses and palaces although sometimes in public buildings such as hospitals, inns, schools and government buildings. They tend to be associated with houses of the urban elite classes. They are found mostly in the Mashriq – i.e. the eastern part of the Arab world, but some types of similar windows are also found in the Maghreb (the western part of the Arab world). They are very prevalent in Iraq, Iran, the Levant, Hejaz and Egypt. In Basra, where they are very prevalent, they are known as shanasheel (or shanashil) to the extent that Basra is often called "the city of Shanashil." Some 400 traditional buildings are still standing in Basra.
In Malta, mashrabiyas (known as muxrabija) are quite common, especially in dense urban areas. They are usually made from wood and include glass windows, but there are also variations made from stone or aluminium. They could possibly originate from around the tenth century during the Arab occupation of the islands. The modern word for it in the Maltese language is "gallarija", which is of Italic origin. Recognised as being the predecessors of the iconic closed balcony, or "gallarija", in 2016 Maltese authorities scheduled a total of 36 ancient mashrabiyas as Grade 2 protected properties.
Al Bahar Towers in Abu Dhabi – twin towers that use the principles of mashrabiya for effective thermal control
Institut du Monde Arabe – a contemporary building inspired by traditional mashrabiya façades
Doha Tower, Doha, Qatar, UAE
Entrance to the Louvre Museum in Abu Dhabi, showing the dome and its geometric pattern
In literature and art
As a distinctive element in vernacular architecture with symbolic associations, the mashrabiya has inspired many poets, artists and writers. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, Western travellers and adventurers, travelled overland from Aleppo to Basra, along the route known as the Great Desert Caravan Route, leaving behind journals of their journeys. Their accounts often include commentary on local architecture encountered, including window treatments and mashrabiya. Some of these writers include: the Portuguese explorer, Pedro Teixeira (who travelled in the 1580s), the Danish explorer and cartographer, Carsten Niebuhr (1733-1815), the English traveller, John Jackson (d. 1807), the German architectural historian, Oskar Reuther (1880-1954) and the English artist, Tristram Ellis (1844-1922).
The absence of ground floor windows at street level was a theme taken up in many travellers’ accounts. William Beawes who travelled the route in 1745 considered the absence of street facing windows to be “very disagreeable to Europeans”, while John Jackson, who travelled the same territory thirty years later remarked that homes resembled “prisons”. Carsten Neibihr, the Danish cartographer, who travelled the route in the 1760s, noted that, in hot countries, glazed windows were a rarity; instead latticed window openings provided ventilation and light. Tristam Ellis, writing in 1881, provided a detailed account of shanshil in Baghdad:
It is always on the hareem that the greatest efforts of ornamentation are expended. The walls from the floor to the ceiling, as well as the ceiling itself, are covered with every colour of the rainbow in elaborate arabesque patterns…windows appearing above this for the purpose of introducing air and light… When all the windows are open this system allows the free circulation of air during the hot weather, but enables secrets whispered in one room to be heard in all the rest. The windows overlooking the street are overhanging, supported on brackets, and carrying a settee all round. The upper part of the windows is ornamented with coloured glass, introduced in small pieces in a pierced wood pattern, which is painted black or a dark colour. The inhabitants of Baghdad are extremely proud of this form of ornamentation, which they consider belongs entirely to themselves, though its origin is no doubt Persian.
An elaborate mashrabiya could signal wealth and status. In the poem, The Shanasil of al-Chalabi’s Daughter, the Iraqi poet, Badr Shaker Alsyyab (1926-1964), describes his lover, al-Chalabi’s daughter, coming into view from behind the shanashil or mashrabiya. The poem includes references to the social status of the lover’s family who reside in the town’s largest house complete with sophisticated mashrabiyas.
The mashrabiya, with its concept of secluding women from public view, played into the erotic fantasies of European male audiences.John Frederick Lewis painted both interiors and exterior views of the mashrabiya in works such as: The Courtyard of the Coptic Patriarch's House in Cairo (1864); The Reception (1873), The Midday Meal (1875), and The Siesta, (1876). Other paintings that feature mashrabiya include Walter Charles Horsley's Women and an Old Man in the Harem (1883), Arthur Von Ferraris’ The Coffee House (1888) and Jean-Léon Gérôme's The Horse Market, (1867).
Certain 20th century artists and photographers, such as Lorna Selim and Rifat Chadirji were prompted to document mashrabiyas for very different reasons. They feared that traditional architectural elements were in danger of being lost to ‘modernity’ and sought to document them for posterity. The British artist, Lorna Selim, who married an Iraqi sculptor, was fascinated by vernacular architecture, especially that along the Tigris. Not long after her arrival in Baghdad, the city underwent a period of "modernisation," during which many traditional houses were being demolished. The architect, Rifat Chadirji and his father, Kamil Chadirji, used the camera to document traditional architecture across Iraq and Syria in the mid-1950s.
The Reception by John Frederick Lewis, (1873)
The Courtyard of the Coptic Patriarch's House in Cairo by John Frederick Lewis (1864)
The Midday Meal by John Frederick Lewis, (1875)
The Siesta by John Frederick Lewis, (1876)
The Horse Market by Jean-Léon Gérôme, (1867)
Street Scene in Cairo by Tony Binder, (1912)
Use of the mashrabiya became widespread during the Ottoman period (1517-1805). However, by the late 19th century its use was in decline. The reasons for its decline are complex, including both cultural and practical considerations such as the emergence of modernism and the availability of new technologies and materials, the high cost of the labour-intensive work of producing lattice and concerns about fire danger.
In the second half of the 20th century, the use of vernacular architecture, including mashrabiya and badgir (windcatcher), have undergone a revival. Contemporary architects have recognised the environmental value of traditional designs as a means of providing natural and efficient solutions to cooling problems in hot climates.
The revival of vernacular architecture in the Middle East is due, in large part, to the work of the Egyptian architect, Hassan Fathy (1900-1989) and the Iraqi architect, Rifat Chadirji (1926-2020), both of whom championed the integration of traditional materials and designs and worked to reconcile tradition with contemporary needs.
Cairo Streetscape, showing prevalence of mashrabiya
Street scene in Valletta, Malta showing mashrabiya, 1967
Street scene in Basra, Iraq in the 1950s.
In Iraq, the balcony window is known as a shanasheel
^Jaccarini, C. J. (1998). Ir-Razzett - The Maltese Farmhouse. Malta. p. 94. ISBN9990968691.
^Abdullah, R.J. and Abadi, E., Merchants, Mamluks and Murder: The Political Economy of Trade in Eighteenth Century Basra, SUNY Press, 2001, p. 23
^Pieri, C., "Baghdad 1921-1958. Reflections on History as a ”strategy of vigilance”," Mona Deeb, World Congress for Middle-Eastern Studies, June, 2005, Amman, Jordan. Al-Nashra, vol. 8, no 1-2, pp.69-93, 2006
^Al-Khalil, S. and Makiya, K., The Monument: Art, Vulgarity, and Responsibility in Iraq, University of California Press, 1991, p. 95
^Chadirji, R., The Photographs of Kamil Chadirji: Social Life in the Middle East, 1920-1940, London, I.B. Tauris, 1995
^Edwards, B., Sibley, M., Land, P. and Hakmi, M. (eds), Courtyard Housing: Past, Present and Future, Taylor & Francis, 2006, p. 242
^Richard Bordeaux Parker, Caroline Williams, Islamic Monuments in Cairo : The Practical Guide, American University in Cairo Press, 2002, p. 68
^Reem, A., & Park, J.-H., “The Evolving Transformation of Mashrabiya as a Traditional Middle Eastern Architecture Element”, International Journal of Civil & Environmental Engineering, vol. 17, no.1, 2017, pp 15-20,
^Özsavaş Akçay, A., & Alotman, H., A Theoretical Framework for the Evaluation from the Traditional Mashrabiya to Modern Mashrabiya”, Journal of History Culture and Art Research, vol. 6, no. 3, 2017, pp 107-121 http://dx.doi.org/10.7596/taksad.v6i3.962 Online:
^See, for instance, Pedro Teixeira (trans. William Sinclair), The Travels of Pedro Teixeira, Hakluyt Society, Hurmuz, Iran, 1802, p. 65; William Beawes, “Remarks and Occurrences in a Journey from Aleppo to Bassora, by the Way of the Desert”, in: Douglas Carruthers (ed), The Desert Route to India: Being the Journals of Four Travellers by the Great Desert Caravan Route Between Aleppo and Basra, 1745-1751, Asian Educational Services, 1996, p. 108; Jackson, J., Journey from India, towards England in the year 1797: By a Route Commonly Called Over-land, through Countries not much Frequented, and Many of them Hitherto Unknown to Europeans, T. Cadell, Jun., and W. Davies, London, 1799, p. 32, p. 91 and p.93; Niebuhr, C., Voyage en Arabie et en d'autres Pays Circonvoisins, Chez S J Baalde, Amsterdam, 1776, pp 118-119
^William Beawes, “Remarks and Occurrences in a Journey from Aleppo to Bassora, by the Way of the Desert”, in: Douglas Carruthers (ed), The Desert Route to India: Being the Journals of Four Travellers by the Great Desert Caravan Route Between Aleppo and Basra, 1745-1751, Asian Educational Services, 1996, p. 108
^Jackson, J., Journey from India, towards England in the year 1797: By a Route Commonly Called Over-land, through Countries not much Frequented, and Many of them Hitherto Unknown to Europeans, T. Cadell Jun., and W. Davies, London, 1799, p. 32, p. 91 and p.93
^Niebuhr, C., Voyage en Arabie et en d'autres Pays Circonvoisins, Chez S J Baalde, Amsterdam, 1776, pp 118-119
^ Ellis, T. J., On a Raft, and Through the Desert: The Narrative of an Artist’s Journey through Northern Syria and Kurdistan, by the Tigris to Mosul and Baghdad, and of a Return Journey across the Desert by the Euphrates and Palmyra to Damascus, over the anti-Lebanon to Baalbek and to Beyrout, Vol. 2, Field & Tuer, London, 1881, pp 11-12 https://archive.org/details/onaraftandthrou01elligoog/page/n34/mode/2up Online:
^Fahad Zahir al-Asadi, S. (2009). Flames of concern in the al-Sayyab's poem “Shanashil Ibnati al-Chalabi”: A case study, Journal of Basra Studies, vol. 34, no. 1, 2009, pp 45-62
^The poem, written in Arabic, is included in the Bdr Shakir’s collection Shanashil Ibnat al-Chalabi, Beirut, 1965 (2nd ed.), p.7. Note that the poem’s title is sometimes translated into English as the "Balcony of al-Chalabi’s Daughter”.
^Mary Roberts, Intimate Outsiders: The Harem in Ottoman and Orientalist Art and Travel Literature, Duke University Press, Durham, 2007, p. 11
^Pieri, C., "Baghdad 1921-1958: Reflections on History as a “strategy of vigilance”, Mona Deeb, World Congress for Middle-Eastern Studies, Jun 2005, Amman, Jordan, Al-Nashra, vol. 8, no 1-2, pp.69-93, 2006
^Al-Khalil, S. and Makiya, K., The Monument: Art, Vulgarity, and Responsibility in Iraq, University of California Press, 1991, p. 95
^Akbar, S., “The Diminishing Role of Windows from Traditional to Modern”, in: "Proceeding of the International Conference on the Role of Windows in Saudi Arabia", Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, 1994, pp 16-21
^Reem, A., & Park, J.-H., “The Evolving Transformation of Mashrabiya as a Traditional Middle Eastern Architecture Element”, International Journal of Civil & Environmental Engineering, vol. 17, no.1, 2017, pp 15-20
^Almerbati, N., Ford, P., Taki, . Li-Onel, D., “From Vernacular to Personalised and Sustainable: The Value of Additively Manufactured Window Screens in Middle-Eastern Dwellings,” in: F. Madeo and M. A. Schnabel (eds.), Across: Architectural Research through to Practice: 48th International Conference of the Architectural Science Association, 2014, The Architectural Science Association & Genova University Press, 2014 pp. 479–490