A mashrabiyya is a type of window that allows you to see out, but not in. They are also called oriel windows, that are enclosed with carved wood latticework, usually located on the 2nd floor or higher of a buiding, sometimes having stained glass between the wood. The mashrabiyya has been in use for a long time, beginning in the Middle Ages up until quite recenty in the mid 1900s.
Since the main function was to allow vision out, but not in, it was usually used overlooking the street, though also sometimes it was used overlooking a courtyard as well. They were staples in homes and palaces in the Middle East/Arab countries, though they've also been known to have been used in other buildings like hospitals, schools, and government buildings. This type of mashrabiyya was mainly used in the Eastern part of the Arab world. Morocco and other areas in the Western area of the Arab world had similar, though somewhat different, windows as well.
Of the two theories behind the name, the more plausible is that it is a variation on the word mashrafiyya, which comes from the veryb ashrafa, which is Arabic for to overlook or observe. With time, and the assimilation of non-Arabis into the culture, the word evolved to become mashrabiyya.
In its "modern" form, the mashrabiyya can be traced back to Abbasic Baghdad and the 1100s. Most of what can be seen across the Middle East today was built in the late 1800s though.
Mashrabiyyas are often found beginning from the second floor of a building, with most buildings only being between 2 and 5 floors tall. Mashrabiyyas come in different types, differing based on region. The most common versions of mashrabiyyas are closed and the latticework has stained glass, with part of the structure opening like a window. Other mashrabiyyas aren't lined with stained glass, instead being open.
Mashrabiyyas were very popular with Arabs because of the privacy it afforded the families, as those inside could easily see out, without being seen themselves. Since they were more expensive to build, they were usually found in the homes of wealthier citizens.
As with many of the inventions of the Arabs, the mashrabiyyas were built with many details in mind. The mashrabiyya provides shade and protection from the sun, while still allowing cool are in for ventilation. The design usually has small openings at the bottom and larger openings on the top, allowing for a draft to be created, allowing the room to remain comfortable.
These beautiful mashrabiyyas are found in areas that have been well-preserved. In Egypt, they can be found in Old Cairo and Islamic Cairo, and especially in places like Beyt al Suhaymi and Beyt Zeinab Khatoun.
Last Updated: June 7th, 2011
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