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January 21, 2022 | Jumada Al-Thani 18, 1443
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Historically the indigenous people used to get together at a central place/square for trading purposes. Silk route travelers from Arabia during their trade visits called the Trade Center as Souk (in Arabic).

Souk is a typical representation of the Silk Route trade culture. An open area accommodating hundreds of vendors offering spices, fruits, nuts, roots/herbs and live stock (sheep, chickens, pigeons), household items, clothing, jewelry, etc. Souk intoxicates its visitors with the fragrance of spices. 

It is fascinating to see almost every one selling very similar products yet sitting right next to each other and competing freely. A good demonstration of fair-trade and open market concepts which the post-modern world now claims to be one of it's marvels.

People come and shop with their vendors of preference and choice. A store is known by the vendor and his family. No store puts up any signage to draw customers. Same customers and vendors are dealing with each other through generations. Their relationship is based on pure mutually respected trust. Neither of them abandons each other for material reasons except when the trust is violated. Vendors and Customers both establish their relationships over time for the honesty in their transactions. There was neither any credit bureau then nor now. It all works well through the word of mouth.




The History of Sheesha

People from Egypt call it Sheesha while others from Syria, Lebanon & Jordan call it Argile. The equivalent of Sheesha in the West is Hubbly Bubbly or Water Pipe and it is Hookah in South Asia. 


Ancient people on every continent made use of smoke long before the Sheesha came along. Now with Sheesha smoking is smoother than ever. Sheesha didn't really catch on until tobacco was introduced to the Middle East. Prior to that, there wasn't much else there worth smoking. In the 17th century, however, tobacco made its way to the Middle East and Sheesha smoking became popular. Unlike their Western counterparts, the Turks had no interest in smoking plain tobacco. They mixed it with fruit, molasses, and even honey so the smoke was sweet and flavorful.




Breads: Muslims from Afghanistan have domesticated their bread making skills. Tandoor is part of the Saudi vernacular.  Bread is known as "Qoobz or Qubbaz" in Saudi Arabic. It is generally flat & comes in varied sizes. Some breads also comes with sesame and poppy seeds. A fresh hot bread with a bowl of authentic Yemeni "foool" or a "shawarma" to go, is an absolute delight & halal too!


Foool: Mixture of beans are boiled over a long period of time on a sustained moderate flame. Traditional pots have a large round base with a small opening mouth to keep the steam within. In Saudi Arabia, most of the foool cafes are owned by people from Yemen. A bowl of Yemeni foool with a dash of spices & some virgin oil is a treat. People eat this with fresh tandoor Afghani bread although both the 


Pilaff: Rice Pilaff is quite popular and cooked often. To show the love and respect for the guest the host slaughters a goat or two or more. Pilaff's main ingredient is rice and either meat or chicken with raisins and nuts (almonds, pistachio, peanuts), etc. 


Traditionally the meal is served in one big platter. Hosts & guests sit together around the platter in a circle and eat with hands. The dining process is simple. You pick some rice from the closest side of the plate to you and work your way. This age old tradition demonstrates & fosters brotherhood (Akhuwwa). This custom prevails across the gender lines. Men and women dine separately unless in a family. Arabs' hospitality is legendary. They invite everyone in the vicinity. Rich and poor all sit together and eat from the same plate, and this is a norm and not an exception in their culture.


It is common courtesy and decency not to criticize the food and their customs. Hosts, may they be a family, restaurant personnel or tour guides & drivers, may think the tourists are not civilized. Remember Arab culture is diametrically opposite to the Western pop culture and is tens of times older than the birth of what is now known as the U.S. of A.



With the birth of Islam in the seventh century, the pilgrimage, or hajj, took on an entirely new meaning, and the flow of pilgrims to Makkah expanded. Some pilgrims decided to settle permanently in the Holy City, building their houses in the valley surrounding the Kaba. The residential area of Makkah continued to grow, fueled by newcomers every year. Later immigrants built their houses on slopes and hilltops, due to a shortage of land in the valley and the problem of seasonal flooding, in those days, the height of buildings did not exceed two stories.

During the Ottoman period (1517-1924), housing and other construction in Makkah came under the influence of Turkish architecture. Palaces, forts and large houses were built on the hills and in the valleys of the Makkah area. Buildings gradually grew taller, due to advances in construction technology and the land storage around the Kaba, and in time reached seven stories. After 1924, the traditional Makkan house was somewhat influenced by Western architecture, but remained relatively unchanged until the appearance of reinforced concrete as a construction material.

Generally speaking, Muslim architectural style in the Middle East – North Africa, Syria central Arabia and central Turkey - was characterized by one or two story houses built around a central courtyard house in Jeddah, Yanbu, Madinah, Taif or Makkah.

In the 10th century, Shams al-Din Abu 'Abd Allah al-Muqaddisi described Makkan houses as "built of black, smooth stones and also of white stones, but the upper parts are of teakwood and are several stories high, whitewashed and clean."

In the 12th century, Andalusian geographer Ibn Jubayr commented on the flat roofs of Makkah's houses: "We passed the nights on the roof of the place where we stayed and sometimes the cold of the night air would fall on us and [we] would need a blanket to protect us from it."

Spanish traveler 'Ali Bey al-'Abbasi, who visited Makkah in 1807, wrote that "the houses are solidly built with stone, they are three and four stories high, and sometimes even more. The fronts are ornamented with bases, moldings and paintings which give them a very graceful appearance.... The blinds of the balconies are not very close, and holes are cut besides in different parts of them. The roofs form terraces, surrounded with a wall about two meters [seven feet] high, open at certain spaces, which are occupied by a railing of red and white bricks placed symmetrically, leaving holes for the circulation of the air. All the staircases are narrow, dark and steep. The rooms are well-proportioned, long, broad and lofty and have beside the large windows and balconies, a second row of smaller windows."

Many other visitors described similar structures. Actually, not a single house survives from al-Muqaddisi's or Ibn Jubayr's time but the descriptions still apply to the existing traditional houses in Makkah. Clearly, the internal configuration of the traditional Makkan house has suited the long-term requirements of the city and its inhabitants.

From the street, one enters the house through an elaborate doorway and steps into an entrance hall known as a dihliz. The ground or entrance floor is reserved for men, and one never risks meeting an unveiled woman there. The upper floors belong to the women, and a visitor cannot go upstairs without an escort. The entrance hall floor is covered with sand or a kind of mortar called tubtab. On one or both sides of the entrance hall are raised benches where the master of the house sits and receives casual visitors, drinks tea with them and smokes his water pipe, or shishah.

On either side of the entrance hall - sometimes on both sides - and raised above floor level, is an important sifting room called the maq'ad, which serves as a business office, or reception room for intimate friends. It may also function as a sleeping room during hot summer afternoons, or as a storeroom for merchandise or luggage during the pilgrimage season. Even in the most modest of houses, social activities play an important role; therefore the maq’ad is usually spacious, well-decorated and with high-ceiling.

In older, wealthier houses, the maq’ad is replaced by an even more luxurious room known as the diwan, with carpets on the floor and cushions for sitting or reclining along the walls, where the men meet for receptions, take their dinner and talk business. In addition to these rooms, a water closet, called bayt al-ma' or taharah, is also found on the entrance floor.

The main sitting room, or majlis, overlooks the street. Its floors are covered with carpets; along the walls are low, firm cushions to sit on and recline against, like couches without legs or frames. Cupboards with ornamented wooden doors adorn the walls. Windows with decorated wooden shutters - mashrabiyyahs or rawashin - project out over the street. To enter the main sitting room, one must pass through a smaller room called the suffah. Another room, a storage chamber known as the khizanah, adjoins the majlis as well.

The majlis is a multi-purpose room, according to the changing needs of the family: a sitting room during the daytime, a place where women gather when men guests are downstairs in the maq'ad or diwan, a bedroom at night or a rented room for pilgrims during the pilgrimage season. The adjoining khizanah is used either as a storeroom for extra mattresses, pillows and blankets, or as a kitchen when rented out to pilgrims. Large houses have another small sitting room known as the mu'akhkhar, which overlooks the back street or opens onto a minwar, an air shaft that admits sunlight. Finally, there is a toilet on every floor, either on the staircase landing or opening off the living quarters.



The floors were made of wooden logs laid about 30 to 40 centimeters (12 to 16") apart soon after the lintels of the mashrabiyyahs were set in place. Palm-frond ribs were laid diagonally across the beams, in two layers, and tied to the beams. A layer of closely woven palm matting was then laid over the ribs and covered with a layer of sand and loam, on top of which was applied a flooring cement about 15 centimeters (six inches) thick. Terrace floors were constructed the same way, with a thicker layer of plaster cement and a slight outward slope to drain away rainwater. Wooden waterspouts, often hollowed out of palm trunk, kept the rainwater away from the walls. Terrace walls were made of decorative brick, as described earlier.

Despite the scarcity of good timber in the area, the traditional houses of Makkah are noted for their beautifully decorated woodwork. Imported teakwood was used mainly for mashrabiyyah or recent examples of which may cover the whole facade  of a building - as well as for elaborately carved exteriors doors and for latticework called shish, found in window openings or as internal partitions.

The oldest type of mashrabiyyah is a large window that projects out over the street and consists of a base, a central section and an upper section. The supporting  base projects from the wall onto which the actual mashrabiyyah is built. It is supported by wooden brackets and is sometimes with beautiful floral paintings and carvings.

The central section - the true mashrabiyyah – bears the shutters and is the most heavily decorated. The shutters and the fixed parts have beautifully carved panels of wood with geometric or floral patterns. The upper section projects out even farther than the central part, to provide shade, and bears floral patterns or inscriptions.

In later examples of mashrabiyyah covering entire facades, the base of each segment, corresponding to one story of the building, is ornamented with floral or geometric carvings and the shutters are louvered to provide air circulation.

Windows - shubbak in Arabic - are related to mashrabiyyah in design, but are less complex. The base paneling bears geometric or floral patterns, the shutters are blinds in older types and made with louvers in more recent versions, and the top portion features latticework grilles to ventilate the room.

The street doors of Makkan houses are made of plain teakwood paneling with beautiful geometric or floral carvings. The right-hand door panel has a smaller door set into it for the daily use of the inhabitants, since the main doors, generally surmounted by arches in the wall, are opened only to admit large loads. Internal doors and cupboard doors are of lighter construction and sometimes carved or decorated.

Shish latticework grilles served to circulate cool air and at the same time ensure privacy. Normally employing crisscross, notched or slatted patterns, the grilles were often simply small rectangular insets in a larger pattern of panels, but were sometimes large enough to cover a whole window or the top of a mashrabiyyah.

Woodwork was also used on the frames of doors and windows, on internal archways, ceiling bosses, ceilings, external mashrabiyyah cornices and base-brackets.

Ambitious renovation and extension projects have been implemented and great changes have occurred in traditional Makkah in the last decade. No doubt the city's architecture will continue to evolve, creating new styles that seek to harmonize old and new.

The traditional architecture of Makkah - an important strand of Saudi Arabian culture and tradition - deserves to be reevaluated, rediscovered and protected, rather than demolished. Its outstanding qualities can inspire new designs for contemporary construction. A few of the city's buildings are being preserved as historical monuments, and more should be; they can either be adapted to today's comfort requirements or converted to new uses. The transmission of this unique architectural heritage to future generations would be a valuable victory for Saudi Arabia's cultural preservation efforts.


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