Domestic and Secular Architecture
Domestic and Secular Architecture
Family Privacy . Muslim domestic architecture has historically been dominated by concepts different from those of modern western architecture. Whereas modern western homes are designed for nuclear families, Muslim homes have, whenever possible, provided an enclosure for an extended family, often consisting of dozens of people. While modern western housing is open to the outside via large picture windows and gardens that can be seen from the street, classical Muslim houses are built to ensure maximum privacy, closing off the outside world as completely as possible with solid walls on the property line, few or no windows at street level, and carved wooden screens on all windows, which are usually in the upper stories only. Through such screens, those inside can see out, but outsiders cannot see the interior of the house. Inside this enclosed space, rooms often open onto an interior courtyard, which sometimes contains a garden, a fountain, or both. The structure of Muslim houses was motivated principally by the social system of Islam, which discouraged contacts between outsider males and the women of the house. Another feature of traditional Muslim interior design is the separation of the semipublic space, where male guests can be entertained, from the private family space, which outside guests are not allowed to enter. This private space of the family consists of most of the house, and the guest room is usually a single room near the main entrance. This room is known by different names in Arabic, including qa’ah, mandharah, midyafah, and majlis. In grand houses the guest room might be quite elaborate, with carved decorations and a fountain in the center. In some cases it is located outside the family house entirely, even separated from it by a street, although such a situation is inconvenient for providing hospitality to the guests.
Ancient Roots . Although Muslim home-design concepts differ from modern western ones, they resemble premodern domestic designs from most areas of the world. Ancient Greek, Roman, Indian, and Chinese domestic architecture all favored houses built around courtyards, with maximum family privacy, and were designed to discourage male outsiders from mixing with the women of the household, unless a marriage was being negotiated. Examples of Muslim domestic architecture from before 1500 have survived less well than public religious and secular structures, so few medieval houses exist in anything like their original form. Those that remain are generally palaces that were inhabited by rulers or governors rather than ordinary people. While showing great diversity in design and decoration, such palaces generally follow the principles of Muslim house design, with interior courtyards and surrounding rooms as a principle architectural feature, but they are also not typical because of their grander scale and their semipublic functions. This difference in scale is especially apparent in the magnificent palace of the Alhambra (al-Hamra in Arabic) of Fountains in the Court of Lions and a double-arched window with muqarnas (stalactite) decoration and Arabic calligraphy at the thirteenth-century Alhambra palace in Granada, Spain
Granada in Spain, built by the Nasrid dynasty (1232–1492), mostly in the thirteenth century.
Public Lodgings . The other main kind of secular architecture surviving from the medieval period is that of caravanserais, the hotels of the Middle Ages. They were known by several names that indicate their various functions: khan, fun duq, wakalah, and rib at. Quite a few of these buildings, all of which are built around central courtyards, still exist in Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Turkey, and Iran. Because animals were the means of transportation and carrying of goods from place to place, these buildings were generally built with stables on the lower floor, as well as storerooms to hold trade goods. The upstairs, consisting of one or more floors, provided lodging for the traveling merchants and their employees. Such merchants would usually travel in caravans, sometimes quite large ones, for safety, journeying about thirty miles per day. Other surviving secular structures include fortresses and towers, city walls and gates, markets, bimaristans (hospitals), and baths. There are only a handful of examples of these secular structures, however, whereas the medieval masjids even in a single city can number in the hundreds. Medieval books and documents record many examples of domestic architecture that are no longer extant, including pictures and plans.
Jonathan Bloom and Sheila Blair, Islamic Arts (London: Phaidon, 1997).
David Talbot Rice, Islamic Art, revised edition (London: Thames & Hudson, 1975).