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House Architecture of the Middle East: The Traditional Syrian Courtyard

posted on: May 18, 2022

By: Menal Elmaliki/ Arab America Contributing Writer

Syria is the soul of the Arab world and is nicknamed paradise on earth. It is the oldest civilization of the world, dating back to 700,000 years ago. It is a region rich in history and culture. Despite its complex political conflict and civil strife much of its ancient history remains untouched. 

The Veil: A Syrian Home

One of the most famous features of Syria is their architecture of the courtyard homes. In the old city of Damascus, Syria, lies centuries old houses that are a staple of Syrian historical architecture. Damascus is a city of rich history and beautiful and unique architecture. In Damascus houses that are centuries old remain, as many are in mint condition and are still in occupation.

I was first introduced to traditional Syrian architecture from the popular Syrian television show, Bab Al Hara which translates to “The Neighborhood’s Gate.” This show is the most popular series in the Arab world, its popularity is largely due to its anti-colonel rhetoric and a nostalgia for Arab traditionalism.

The courtyard house is a rumination of traditionalism that placed an importance on “family, religion, education, self- discipline and respect.” Its architecture reflected a simpler and more dignified time.

The side street of the famous Mandaloun Hotel. Streets are narrow allies and maze like, laced with rock and cobble, hiding the beauty of the courtyard houses.

The Islamic architecture is referred to as an “architecture of the veil.” In the past, houses were designed to be deceptive. What was beautiful was kept hidden, households in many parts of the Arab world were the mastery of illusion, they were made to look unappealing and plain on the outside to ward off the interest of those loitering with greedy eyes. 

Despite the grand allure of a courtyard house, it has become a rarity in contemporary Syrian architecture. What was once a essential part of Syrian culture is now slowly disappearing, shifting into a more minimal approach to life, nuclear household, as many families can no longer afford a large courtyard house. 

This traditional house most known for its distinct characteristics. As you open the door of a traditional Syrian house, it’s like you’ve travelled back in time. You are met immediately with a calming and surreal scene, the steady stream of water from a central fountain, lavish gardens made up of citrus trees, lemon and orange, roses bushes and delicate jasmine flowers.

The air perfumed with rich and sweet scents. It was a semblance of the outside world without being outside, a piece of nature growing in the middle of a house. Besides, the mimicry of nature, the courtyard was adorned with beautiful designs that add to the overall aesthetic appeal, the floors were woven with intricate geometric patterns and shapes. There is the famous black and whites’ stripes.

Some houses are more elaborate, columns and pillars were built. The architectural elements of the traditional courtyard were heavily influenced by cultural and social norms. Mahmoud Zein Alabidin, a historian and Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree in Architecture, writes:

“Courtyard housing is an architectural device with a long history first appearing in the buildings of Syria and Iraq three millennia ago. Arab nomads first made use of the concept of a courtyard during their travels and stay in the desert. They set up their tents around a central space, which provided shelter and security to their cattle. With the development of Arab-Islamic architecture, the courtyard became an essential typological element.” (END BLOCK QUOTE). 

Majority of old courtyard house in the Arab World are composed of 3 parts, keeping in mind houses vary with each country, The Basement, Al Salamlek, and Al Haramlek.
 
The Basement was the main attraction, it proved to be the perfect living space since it maintained even temperatures throughout the year. Before it became a place of leisure it was once used for livestock and storage for annual food supplies. 
 
Al Salamlek is the ground floor, comprising the main living space. Entering the courtyard, is the veil being lifted. Despite the very modest outside appearance of the house, the courtyard was highly decorated. The more decorated the courtyard the wealthier the family is. In each periphery the courtyard is adorned with detailed furniture, ornamented balustrades leading to the private courters. These courters were small apartment-like chambers which provided space and privacy for extended families. These private areas were called Al Haramlek, it comprised the bedrooms. Several houses were built with terraces, giving the private rooms on the 2nd floor an open space for fresh air and natural light. 
The Mushrabiya window of the old Mandaloun Hotel, Syria.

The Mushrabiya, is the name of the exterior window or exterior wooden balcony, located outside the house. Looking into the public, alleyways, it’s a screened balcony, that provides cool, fresh air, as well as allowing women to view public spaces without being seen

The internal windows were also highly decorated and enclosed with wooden louvres. Landscaping was the highlight/ feature of the traditional Syrian courtyard. Amidst the lovely gardens, the family would be entertaining and in the backdrop the playing of traditional music. In the center of the courtyard was usually a well or fountain and all other motifs would revolve or be on congruence with its center. The shade of trees in the yard, provided a subtle cool breeze during the hot summers.  The yard was surrounded by rooms, more private living rooms, bathrooms, and kitchens. 

The design of the ceiling, walls and floors of the courtyard are often neglected since the courtyard takes center stage. The walls are comprised of stone, and it was layered using a architectural technique called Al-Ablaq. Dark and light stone would be alternated. See picture below. This design is particularly characteristic of Syria/ Syrian homes, excessively used. The floors were marbled, the ceiling was patterned with animals, florals, or geometrics.

“The internal decorations are based on the following four types of patterns:

  • Calligraphy based on verses of the holy Qur’an or verses of poetry;
  • Floral patterns derived from stems and leaves of various plants;
  • Patterns derived from animal forms such as birds;
  • Geometric patterns derived from the combination of circles, squares, rectangles and triangles”

The old courtyard house in Syria has traditionally, the ground floor comprising the main living areas is called Al Salamlek and the first floor comprising “the private areas” are called Al Haramlek. 

The feature that stands, the standpoint of the historic house is the “central open courtyard.” The courtyard was designed to be an inside and outdoor space, here guests can cool off and entertain while having privacy. 

OLD IN THE MODERN WORLD

Syria’s architecture has adapted to its change in culture, and the old courtyard style though in decline, is still seen as a proud historical facet of Syrian history. Homes with an internal courtyard have become a rarity as Syria’s architecture has adapted to its change in culture. With modernity comes the dramatic change in tradition and culture.

The decline in courtyard houses was a result of modernization. Many women have started working and leaving the house, the need for a bigger house and courtyard doesn’t fit their more modern lifestyle, nuclear family. Less conservatism so me and women are mixing, no separation. The change from an extended family structure, with aunts, uncles, in-laws, many wives, living together under one roof to the “nuclear household type.”

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