Essential Architecture-  Iraq

A traditional house in Basra.












Mashrabiya or Shanasheel (Arabic: مشربية or شناشيل‎) is the Arabic term given to a type of projecting oriel window enclosed with carved wood latticework located on the second storey of a building or higher, often lined with stained glass. The mashrabiy (sometimes shanshool or rushan) is an element of traditional Arabic architecture used since the middle ages up to the mid twentieth century. It is mostly used on the street side of the building; however, it may also be used internally on sahn side.

Mashrabiyas were mostly used in houses and palaces although sometimes in public buildings such as hospitals, inns, schools and government buildings. They are found mostly in the mashriq – i.e. east of the Arab world, but some types of similar windows are also found in the maghrib (west of the Arab world). They are very prevalent in Iraq, the Levant, Hejaz and Egypt. They are mostly found in urban settings and rarely in rural areas. Basra is often called “the city with Mashrabiyas”.

Etymology and History

Mashrabiya is derived from the triliteral root Š-R-B, which generally denotes drinking or absorbing. There are two theories for its name, the most common one is that the name was originally for a small wooden shelf were the drinking water pots will be stored, hence the name. The shelf was enclosed by wood and located at the window in order to keep the water cool. Later on, this shelf evolved until it became part of the room with a full enclosure and retained the name despite the radical change in use.

The second theory is that the name was originally mashrafiya, derived from the verb Ashrafa, to overlook or to observe. During the centuries the name slowly changed due to changing accents and influence of non-Arabs speaking Arabic.

There is no point in history that can be dated as the first time they appeared; however, the earliest evidence on use of the Mashrabiya as it currently is dates back to the twelfth century in Baghdad during the Abbasid period. Whatever is left in Arabic cities is mostly built during the late nineteenth century and early to mid twentieth century although some Mashrabiyas can be found that are three or four hundred years old. Unfortunately, very few are restored.

In Iraq in the twenties and thirties of the twentieth century, the designs of the latticework was affected by the Art Deco and Art Nouveau movements of the time. This was evident in Al Rasheed street Mashrabiyas up to the late sixties before most of them were demolished.

The Ottoman House

An Ottoman house was generally a large dwelling for an extended family and servants. Flanked by a narrow cobbled street on one side and by gardens on the other three sides, Ottoman houses were built of wood and usually were two to three stories high. Most houses had a projecting upper story where the main rooms were located to offer a breeze on hot summer days or to provide a view. For privacy, the street side of the house had fewer windows. These windows were covered with wooden lattices preventing outside eyes from peering in while still allowing air to circulate. The back of the house was much more open with windows and balconies which opened onto gardens filled with sweet-smelling flowers, mulberry, acacia, and cypress trees.

The interior plan of the house was simple. The lower floor contained the kitchen, servant quarters and storage rooms. Stairs led to a large hall on the second floor. At least two other large rooms opened to this central hall. One of the rooms was called haremlik (women's quarters) and the other, selamlik (men's quarters). Other smaller rooms opened onto these rooms or onto the entrance hall. Depending on the wealth of the owner, both the sizes of rooms and their numbers varied.

The main rooms of both the haremlik and selamlik were surrounded on three sides by divans (couches). Windows behind the divans opened onto the gardens. Cushions rested against the wall or were scattered at intervals along the divans. Finely embroidered with colorful silk and metallic threads depicting flowers, these cushions created another garden inside the house.

Shelves, made of wood or inlaid wood, were placed along the fourth wall or flanking the divans. These shelves contained objects such as supplies for the coffee service, which were not only ornamental but also useful. If the owner was wealthy enough to afford a summer and a winter room, the summer room contained a small fountain and the winter room had a fireplace. Fireplaces were often decorated with ceramic tiles or covered with richly embroidered textiles.