ARAB HOMES, TOWNS AND VILLAGES

CITIES, TOWNS AND VILLAGES IN THE ARAB-MUSLIM WORLD


Arab villages have traditionally been composed of walled, mud-floored homes built of mud bricks. They have traditionally been seen as places where family bonds are nurtured and people secluded from strangers in the outside world.

Houses in towns and cities are often built on narrow streets. Some towns and neighborhoods in the Muslim world are easy-to-get -lost-in a mazes of buildings, alleys and steps. Recalling his first impressions of Tangier in Morocco, Paul Bowles wrote it was a “dream city...rich in prototypal dream scenes: covered streets like corridors with doors opening into rooms on each side, hidden terraces high above the sea, streets consisting only of steps, dark impasses, small squares built on sloping terrain so they looked like ballet sets designed in false perspective, with alleys leading off in several directions; as well as the classical dream equipment of tunnels, ramparts, ruins, dungeons, and cliffs...a doll’s metropolis.”

Zarah Hussain wrote for the BBC: A key idea of town planning is of a sequence of spaces. 1) The mechanical structure of the building is de-emphasised; 2) Buildings do not have a dominant direction; 3) Large traditional houses will often have a complex double structure that allows men to visit without running any risk of meeting the women of the family. [Source: Zarah Hussain, BBC, June 9, 2009 |::|]

Almost every town and village has a mosque and a noisy, recorded muezzin. Most towns and cities are organized around mosques and the bazaar. Around the mosque are schools, courts and places where people can meet. Around the bazaar are warehouses, offices and hostels where merchants could stay. The streets were often only built wide to accommodate two passing camels. Some cities have public baths or an area where government building were located.

In the old days, Jews and Christians and other minorities often lived in their quarters. These were not ghettos. People often lived there by choice because their customs differed from those of Muslims. Poor people often lived on the outskirts of town, where one could also find cemeteries and noisy or unclean enterprises such as butchering and tanning.

Websites and Resources: Islam Islam.com islam.com ; Islamic City islamicity.com ; Islam 101 islam101.net ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/islam ; BBC article bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam ; Patheos Library – Islam patheos.com/Library/Islam ; University of Southern California Compendium of Muslim Texts web.archive.org ; Encyclopædia Britannica article on Islam britannica.com ; Islam at Project Gutenberg gutenberg.org ; Islam from UCB Libraries GovPubs web.archive.org ; Muslims: PBS Frontline documentary pbs.org frontline ; Discover Islam dislam.org;

Arabs: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Who Is an Arab? africa.upenn.edu ; Encyclopædia Britannica article britannica.com ; Arab Cultural Awareness fas.org/irp/agency/army ; Arab Cultural Center arabculturalcenter.org ; 'Face' Among the Arabs, CIA cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence ; Arab American Institute aaiusa.org/arts-and-culture ; Introduction to the Arabic Language al-bab.com/arabic-language ; Wikipedia article on the Arabic language Wikipedia

Arab Homes


model of a typical Arab house

A traditional Arab house is constructed to be enjoyed from the inside not admired from the outside. Often times the only thing that is visible from the outside are walls and a door. In this way the house is hidden, a condition described as "the architecture of the veil"; By contrast Western houses faces outwards and have big windows. Traditionally, most Arab houses were built from materials at hand: usually brick, mud brick or stone. Wood was usually in short supply.

Arab houses have traditionally been designed to be cool, and well shaded in the summer. The ceilings were often vaulted to prevent humidity. In the ceiling and roof were various devices including pipes that aided ventilation and carried in breezes and circulated them around the house.

Traditional homes are often organized around separate areas for men and women and places the family welcomed visitors. They are built for an extended family. Some are organized so that people live in shady rooms around the courtyard in the summer then move to paneled first floor rooms, filled with oriental carpets, in the winter. Homew of the wealthy in the Middle East have living spaces and walkways that radiate asymmetrically from the inner courtyard.

Arthur Goldschmidt, Jr. wrote in “A Concise History of the Middle East”: In the early Islamic period “houses were constructed from whatever type of building material was locally most plentiful: stone, mud brick, or sometimes wood. High ceilings and windows helped provide ventilation in hot weather; and in the winter, only warm clothing, hot food, and an occasional charcoal brazier made indoor life bearable. Many houses were built around courtyards containing gardens and fountains.” [Source: Arthur Goldschmidt, Jr., “A Concise History of the Middle East,” Chapter. 8: Islamic Civilization, 1979, Internet Islamic History Sourcebook, sourcebooks.fordham.edu]

Courtyards and the Organization of an Arab Home

A traditional Arab house is built around a courtyard and sealed off from the street on the ground floor except for a single door. The courtyard contains gardens, sitting areas and sometimes a central fountain. Around the courtyard are rooms that opened onto the courtyard. Multi-story dwellings had stables for animals on the bottom floor and quarters for people and grain storage areas on the upper floors.

20120510-Harem Women Feeding Pigeons in a Courtyard Gerome.jpg
Harem Women Feeding Pigeons
in a Courtyard by Gerome
Zarah Hussain wrote for the BBC: A traditional Islamic house is built around a courtyard, and shows only a wall with no windows to the street outside; It thus protects the family, and family life from the people outside, and the harsh environment of many Islamic lands - it's a private world; Concentration on the interior rather than the outside of a building - the common Islamic courtyard structure provides a space that is both outside, and yet within the building [Source: Zarah Hussain, BBC, June 9, 2009 |::|]

“Another key idea, also used in town planning, is of a sequence of spaces. 1) The mechanical structure of the building is de-emphasised; 2) Buildings do not have a dominant direction; 3) Large traditional houses will often have a complex double structure that allows men to visit without running any risk of meeting the women of the family; 4) Houses often grow as the family grows - they develop according to need, not to a grand design |::|

Courtyard House in Ottoman-Period Damascus

On a courtyard house in Ottoman-Period Damascus, Ellen Kenney of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “One entered the Damascene courtyard house from a plain door on the street into a narrow passage, often turning a corner. This bent-corridor arrangement (dihliz) provided privacy, by preventing passers-by in the street from viewing the interior of the residence. The passage led to an internal open-air courtyard surrounded by living spaces, usually occupying two floors and covered with flat roofs. Most well-to-do residents had at least two courtyards: an outer court, referred to in historical sources as the barrani, and an inner court, known as the jawwani. An especially grand house might have had as many as four courtyards, with one dedicated as the servants' quarters or designated by function as the kitchen yard. These courtyard houses traditionally housed an extended family, often consisting of three generations, as well as the owner's domestic servants. To accommodate a growing household, an owner might enlarge the house by annexing a neighboring courtyard; in lean times, an extra courtyard could be sold off, contracting the area of the house. [Source: Ellen Kenney, Department of Islamic Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Kenney, Ellen. "The Damascus Room", Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2011, metmuseum.org \^/]


Maktab Anbar, a courtyard house in Damascus

“Almost all courtyards included a fountain fed by the network of underground channels that had watered the city since antiquity. Traditionally, they were planted with fruit trees and rosebushes, and were often populated by caged song-birds. The interior position of these courtyards insulated them from the dust and noise of the street outside, while the splashing water inside cooled the air and provided a pleasant sound. The characteristic polychrome masonry of the walls of the courtyard's first story and pavement, sometimes supplemented by panels of marble revetment or colorful paste-work designs inlaid into stone, provided a lively contrast to the understated building exteriors. The fenestration of Damascus courtyard houses was also inwardly focused: very few windows opened in the direction of the street; rather, windows and sometimes balconies were arranged around the walls of the courtyard (93.26.3,4). The transition from the relatively austere street façade, through the dark and narrow passage, into the sun-splashed and lushly planted courtyard made an impression on those foreign visitors fortunate enough to gain access to private homes - one 19th century European visitor aptly described the juxtaposition as "a gold kernel in a husk of clay."

“The courtyards of Damascus houses typically contained two types of reception spaces: the iwan and the qa'a. In the summer months, guests were invited into the iwan, a three-sided hall that was open to the courtyard. Usually this hall reached double-height with an arched profile on the courtyard façade and was situated on the south side of the court facing north, where it would remain relatively shaded. In the winter time, guests were received in the qa'a, an interior chamber usually built on the north side of the court, where it would be warmed by its southern exposure.” \^/

Rooms and Features of an Arab Homes

Arthur Goldschmidt, Jr. wrote in “A Concise History of the Middle East”: “Rooms were not filled with furniture; people were used to sitting cross-legged on carpets or very low platforms. Mattresses and other bedding would be unrolled when people were ready to sleep and put away after they got up. In houses of people who were reasonably well-off, cooking facilities were often in a separate enclosure. Privies always were.” [Source: Arthur Goldschmidt, Jr., “A Concise History of the Middle East,” Chapter. 8: Islamic Civilization, 1979, Internet Islamic History Sourcebook, sourcebooks.fordham.edu]


room inside an upper class Arab house

Houses used by Muslims often have separate areas for men and women. In bedrooms, Muslims don't want their feet pointing towards Mecca. In some places people sleep on the roof of their house at night and retreat to the cellar for an afternoon nap. The main reception area has the best views and caught the coolest breezes.

Windows and wooden shudders or latticed woodwork are known as “ mashrabiyya”. Ceilings, interior walls, basements and doors are often elaborately decorated. Walls are stuccoed with floral designs and stone was used to construct works of calligraphy or floral motifs. Wood was a symbol of wealth.

Zarah Hussain wrote for the BBC: “Buildings are often highly decorated and colour is often a key feature. But the decoration is reserved for the inside. Most often the only exterior parts to be decorated will be the entrance.” Thick doors hung with heavy iron knockers in the shape of a hands, the hand of Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter, lead to sunny patios, sometimes with fountains.

In poor areas the toilets are often Asian-style squat toilets that are often little more than a hole in the ground. In nice homes and hotels, Western-style toilets often have a bidet, a contraption that looks like a combination sink and toilet is used for washing the butt.

Possessions in an Arab House

Arabs often remain close to their Bedouin roots in term of customs like eating and socializing on the floor. There has traditionally been little fixed furniture in a traditional Arab house other than cupboards and chests used for storage. People spend their relaxing time lying or sitting in rooms with carpets and pillows. Thin mattresses, cushions or pillows are often placed up against the wall.

In the old days, sofas were typically placed in reception areas and people slept on stuffed mattresses resting on stone and wood bases. Wall hangings covered the walls. Carpets covered the floors and the mattresses. Copper oil lamps provided light and copper braziers that burned charcoal and woods provided heat in the winter. Meals were served on large round copper or silver trays that rested on stools. Earthenware bowls and cups were used for food and drink.

Even homes with Western-style furniture are oriented towards the floor. Housewives with modern kitchens put a hot plate on the floor, where she prepares and cooks meals which are served on a rug on the floor of the living room. Alarm clock goes off at 5:00am to wake up for morning prayer.

Room in Ottoman-Period Courtyard House in Damascus


Arab-style tent-like interior

“On a residential reception chamber (qa'a) in a late Ottoman courtyard house in Damascus, Ellen Kenney of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “The highlight of the room is the splendid decorated woodwork installed on its ceiling and walls. Almost all of these wooden elements originally came from the same room. However, the exact residence to which this room belonged is unknown. Nevertheless, the panels themselves reveal a great deal of information about their original context. An inscription dates the woodwork to A.H. 1119/1707 A.D, and only a few replacement panels have been added at later dates. The large scale of the room and the refinement of its decoration suggest that it belonged to the house of an important and affluent family. [Source: Ellen Kenney, Department of Islamic Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Kenney, Ellen. "The Damascus Room", Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2011, metmuseum.org \^/]

“Judging from the layout of the wooden elements, the museum's room functioned as a qa'a. Like most Ottoman-period qa'as in Damascus, the room is divided into two areas: a small antechamber ('ataba), and a raised square seating area (tazar). Distributed around the room and integrated within the wall paneling are several niches with shelves, cupboards, shuttered window bays, a pair of entrance doors and a large decorated niche (masab), all crowned by a concave cornice. The furnishing in these rooms was typically spare: the raised area was usually covered with carpets and lined with a low sofa and cushions. When visiting such a room, one left one's shoes in the antechamber, and then ascended the step under the archway into the reception zone. Seated on the sofa, one was attended by household servants bearing trays of coffee and other refreshments, water pipes, incense burners or braziers, items that were generally kept stored on shelves in the antechamber. Typically, the shelves of the raised area displayed a range of the owner's prized possessions - such as ceramics, glass objects or books - while the cupboards traditionally contained textiles and cushions.\^/

“Ordinarily, the windows facing the courtyard were fitted with grills as they are here, but not glass. Shutters snugly mounted within the window niche could be adjusted to control the sunlight and airflow. The upper plastered wall is pierced with decorative clerestory windows of plaster with stained glass. At the corners, wooden muqarnas squinches transition from the plaster zone to the ceiling. The 'ataba ceiling is composed of beams and coffers, and is framed by a muqarnas cornice. A wide arch separates it from the tazar ceiling, which consists of a central diagonal grid surrounded by a series of borders and framed by a concave cornice.\^/

“In a decorative technique very characteristic of Ottoman Syria known as 'ajami, the woodwork is covered with elaborate designs that are not only densely patterned, but also richly textured. Some design elements were executed in relief, by applying a thick gesso to the wood. In some areas, the contours of this relief-work were highlighted by the application of tin leaf, upon which tinted glazes were painted, resulting in a colorful and radiant glow. For other elements, gold leaf was applied, creating even more brilliant passages. By contrast, some parts of the decoration were executed in egg tempera paint on the wood, resulting in a matte surface. The character of these surfaces would have constantly shifted with the movement of light, by day streaming in from the courtyard windows and filtering through the stained glass above, and by night flickering from candles or lamps.\^/


inside an upper class Arab home

“The decorative program of the designs depicted in this 'ajami technique closely reflects the fashions popular in eighteenth-century Istanbul interiors, with an emphasis on motifs such as flower-filled vases and overflowing fruit-bowls. Prominently displayed along the wall panels, their cornice and the tazar ceiling cornice are calligraphic panels. These panels bear poetry verses based on an extended garden metaphor - especially apt in conjunction with the surrounding floral imagery - that leads into praises of the Prophet Muhammad, the strength of the house, and the virtues of its anonymous owner, and concludes in an inscription panel above the masab, containing the date of the woodwork.\^/

“Although most of the woodwork elements date to the early eighteenth century, some elements reflect changes over time in its original historical context, as well as adaptations to its museum setting. The most dramatic change has been the darkening of the layers of varnish that were applied periodically while the room was in situ, which now obscure the brilliance of the original palette and the nuance of the decoration. It was customary for wealthy Damascene home-owners to refurbish important reception rooms periodically, and some parts of the room belong to restorations of the later 18th and early 19th centuries, reflecting the shifting tastes of Damascene interior decoration: for example, the cupboard doors on the south wall of the tazar bear architectural vignettes in the "Turkish Rococo" style, along with cornucopia motifs and large, heavily gilded calligraphic medallions.\^/

“Other elements in the room relate to the pastiche of its museum installation. The square marble panels with red and white geometric patterns on the tazar floor as well as the opus sectile riser of the step leading up to the seating area actually originate from another Damascus residence, and date to the late 18th or 19th century. On the other hand, the 'ataba fountain may pre-date the woodwork, and the whether it came from the same reception room as the woodwork is uncertain. The tile ensemble on the back of the masab niche was selected from the Museum collection and incorporated in the 1970s installation of the room. In 2008, the room was dismantled from its previous location near the entrance of the Islamic Art galleries, so that it could be re-installed in a zone within the suite of new galleries devoted to Ottoman art. De-installation presented an opportunity for in-depth study and conservation of its elements. The 1970s installation was known as the "Nur al-Din" room, because that name appeared in some of the documents related to its sale. Research indicates that "Nur al-Din" probably referred not to a former owner but to a building near the house that was named after the famous twelfth-century ruler, Nur al-Din Zengi or his tomb. This name has been replaced by "Damascus Room" – a title that better reflects the room's unspecified provenance.”\^/

Urban Life in the Arab-Muslim World

In 1900 an estimated 10 percent of the population lied in the cities. In 1970 the figure was 40 percent. Percentage of population in urban areas in 2000: 56 percent. Predicted percentage of population in urban areas in 2020: 66 percent. [Source: U.N. State of World Cities]


roof top party in Jerusalem

The history of the Middle East is primarily the history of its cities. Until fairly recently most of the populations was made of peasants who worked land either owned or controlled by absentee urban landlords.

In the Arab and Muslim world, as is true everywhere in the world, there has been a large migration to the cities. The cities have traditionally been occupied by merchants, landlords, craftsmen, clerks, laborers and servants. Migration has brought many peasants seeking a better way of life. New arrivals are often helped by members of their tribe or religion. Villagers have brought conservative Islam with them.

Arabs living in the cities and towns generally have weaker family and tribal ties and are unemployed in a greater variety of occupations than those who live the desert or villages. Women generally have more freedoms; there are fewer arranged marriages; and their fewer pressures to conform to religious practices.

People living in towns are less bound to traditional norms than those in the villages but are more bound to them than people in the cities. Town dwellers have traditionally looked down on villagers but admire the values of nomads. Urban dwellers tend to be more concerned with education rewards and prosperity and less concerned with kin networks and religion than town dwellers. The same pattern is true between towns people and rural people .

Representatives of the government—tax collectors, soldiers, police, irrigation officers and the like—have traditionally been based in the towns. Rural people that dealt with these representatives usually came to the towns to deal with them rather than visa versa unless there was some kind of trouble.

Urban Mentality in the Arab World

In the Arab and Muslim world, as there are everywhere, there are major differences between the people of the cities and the people of the countryside. Describing the mentality of urban Arabs Saad al Bazzaz told the Atlantic Monthly: “In the city the old tribal ties are left behind. Everyone lives close together. The state is part of everyone’s life. They work at jobs and buy their food and clothing at markets and in stores. There are laws, police, courts, and schools. People in the city lose heir fear of outsiders, and take an interest in foreign things. Life in the city depends on cooperation, in sophisticated social networks.

“Mutual self-interest defines public policy. You can’t get anything done without cooperating with others, so politics in the city becomes the art of compromise and partnership. The highest goal of politics becomes cooperation, community, and keeping peace. By definition, politics in the city becomes nonviolent. The backbone of urban politics isn’t blood, it’s law.”

On some places, while Western-influenced elite become richer and more secularized, the poor, embracing more conservative values, become more reactionary and hostile. The material and cultural gap lays the foundation for jihadism.

Rural Life in the Arab World


In village and pastoral societies, extended families have traditionally lived together in tents (if they were nomads) or homes made from stone or mud brick, or whatever other materials were available. Men were mainly responsible for tending the animals while women took care of the fields, reared the children, cooked and cleaned, managed the household, baked bread, milked goats, made yogurt and cheese, gathered dung and straw for fuel, and made sauces and preserves with grapes and figs.

Village society has traditionally been organized around the sharing of land, labor and water. Water was traditionally divided by giving landowners a certain share of water from a canal or redistributing plots of land. Crop yields and harvest were distributed in some way based on ownership, labor and investment.

Describing the Arab tribal mentality the Iraqi editor Saad al Bazzaz told the Atlantic Monthly: “In the villages, each family has its own house, and each house is sometimes several miles from the next one. They are self-contained. They grow their own food and make their own clothes. Those who grow up in the villages are frightened of everything. There is no real law enforcement or civil society, Each family is frightened of each other, and all of them are frightened of outsiders...The only loyalty they know is to their own family, or to their own village.”

Roads have decreased isolation and increased contacts with outsiders. Radios, television, the Interent and smart phones bring new ideas and exposure to the outside world. In some places, land reform has brought a new system of landowning, agricultural credit and new farming technology. Overcrowding and lack of opportunities has prompted many villagers to migrate to the cities and towns.

“Village values stem from the ideal values of the nomad. Unlike the Bedouin, villagers relate to nonkin, but loyalty to the group is as strong as it is among the tribesmen...The villager lives in an extended family environment in which family life is tightly controlled. Each family member has a defined role, and there is little individual deviation.”

see Agriculture

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Arab News, Jeddah; Islam, a Short History by Karen Armstrong; A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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