|Reviving Bahrain's architectural past
Much of Bahrains architectural heritage was destroyed as modern cookie-cutter homes replaced traditional buildings. Now, there is a growing trend to reclaim past glories.
By Heather Anderson » When I first came to Bahrain, I spent a lot of time exploring Bahrains well-known sites and historical buildings. I was fascinated by Muharraq with its narrow streets and alleyways, the 19th century homes of former Ruler Shaikh Isa bin Ali and pearl merchant Al Siyadi, the Siyadi Mosque and many other buildings in the vicinity.
Outside of Muharraq, there were other architectural attractions. Al Jasra House, the birthplace of the late Amir, Shaikh Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa, was restored some years ago, and I still marvel at the beauty and simplicity of this former royal country residence built in 1907. The Awadiya area of Manama was another interesting locality to explore with some very impressive old merchant houses.
Sadly, some of the abandoned buildings that I saw nearly seven years ago have been demolished to make way for roads, new construction or because the buildings became unsafe to use. Yet so much has also been done to help preserve Bahrains architectural heritage, including the restoration of the Bahrain Fort, Arad Fort, the Shaikh Salman bin Ahmed Al Fateh Fort in Riffa and the Al Hedaya School.
Old houses have been bought by private individuals and restored to their former glory. There are also so many new houses being built everywhere in Bahrain which arent just concrete boxes or grander replicas of Californian-style homes, but which actually incorporate elements of Islamic architecture. Offices, shopping malls and other large buildings include traditional architectural features in their very modern designs; the Aali Shopping Mall and the Novotel Al Dana Resort are noted examples.
Dr John Yarwood, a British architect and specialist who worked in Bahrain in the early 1980s, was fascinated with the old buildings in Muharraq. Whilst living here some 20 years ago, he started to photograph and draw old buildings of note with their special architectural features. He referred to Muharraq as one of the last of its type on the south shores of the Gulf. Assisted by two young Bahraini architects, Dr Yarwood and his team walked every road, lane and alley of the old city sketching and photographing buildings and speaking to residents, as well as to the builders, masons and craftsmen, to learn as much as they could about the method of construction of these buildings.
He has since written a book, Al Muharraq Architecture of a Traditional Arabic Town in Bahrain. Dr Yarwood referred to Muharraq as, a traditional Arab city which reflects the evolution of extended families over several generations. He noted the courtyard style of design and the very private nature of the dwellings with their focus inwards rather than outwards, which provided a territory for private life, unlike the architecture of Europe and North America.
A number of local architects have also written about Bahrains architecture, including Ebrahim Issa Majed in his book The Traditional Construction of Early 20th Century Houses in Bahrain, published in 1988, which looked at three important Bahraini houses Bait Yousif Ali Reza, Bait Shaikh Salman and Bait Ahmed Khalaf. Another important and recent publication is Gulf Islamic Architecture, written by Farry Kazerooni and published in 2002, which features a number of houses here in Bahrain, including the Shaikh Isa bin Ali House, Shaikh Salman House, Siyadi House, the Haji Ahmed Khalaf building and the restoration work on the Salman bin Mattar House.
Kazerooni has a love of old buildings and traditional Islamic architecture and has written many articles about the need to preserve Bahrains historical buildings. According to him, traditional Bahraini architecture has only been around for about 200 years and has been influenced by architecture from, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and India.
He refers to the local type of architecture as Gulf Islamic architecture, as distinct from the Islamic architecture of Morocco, Turkey, Egypt and North Africa. Many of the building materials used date back thousands of years to ancient Dilmun times. The courtyard design predates Islam excavated remains of Dilmun dwellings with small L-shaped courtyards were found at the Saar archaeological site. However, the courtyard gained greater prominence and sophistication in design with the advent of Islam.
The emergence of a traditional Bahraini and Gulf style of architecture arose as people migrated to Bahrain with the growth of the pearl trade. With newfound wealth, the merchants built houses of note in the 18th and 19th centuries. The people of Awaz in Iran, for example, came and brought with them new architectural designs, including the distinctive wind tower which can be seen so prominently in the Awadiya area and elsewhere in Bahrain. This distinguishing feature changed the face of the Gulf, according to Kazerooni, and was adapted locally with its own distinctive decorative motifs. The wind tower, an early and very effective form of air conditioning, has in fact been around for about 500 years and was developed from the early Wind Scoops first built about 2,000 years ago in Iran.
It is to the architecture of Muharraq that I am drawn to and which also has a number of wind towers. This town was described by Dr Yarwood as low rise, high density and low energy, with narrow streets that are pedestrian-friendly, almost the complete antithesis of modern high rise cities. In Muharraq and also in parts of Manama there are many buildings, which are no more than two storeys high and houses built with natural ventilation, using wind towers and badghirs, the devices for speeding up the flow of air and which consists of horizontal slats in the lower part of the walls. Badghir means wind trap and is also the word used to describe the wind tower.
Shade and shadow orientation are also important considerations in the harsh, hot and humid climate of Bahrain and the Gulf region, together with the careful choice of building materials. The walls are thickly built, extending even up to one metre in some buildings, to keep the interiors cool in summer and warm in winter. The traditional building materials have included coral rocks from the sea, rough pieces of local stone known as farush, rubble, and gypsum mixed with lime used as cement and for decorative features. Apparently there used to be a well-known gypsum suq in Muharraq and some of the ancient burial mounds in Aali were used as lime kilns.
Palm tree trunks were used as beams and support for the walls and roofs to strengthen the structures, together with imported mangrove poles and local palm fronds coloured for the decorative ceilings. The choice of cream/beige colour for the buildings was obtained by mixing gypsum with lime and this helped to reflect the hot sun. Small windows also kept the houses cool and shaded.
For Dr Yarwood the visual and spiritual impact of art and the craftwork was visible in the buildings. The carved gypsum plasterwork with repetitive geometric motifs and Arabic calligraphy is very prominent in Islamic art, and can be seen in wall panels both inside and outside buildings. In some houses, cut or perforated gypsum panels were also used for ventilation purposes as in the Siyadi House. Also prominent above the main entrance door of buildings were decorative gypsum panels and Shaikh Isa bin Ali House is a noted example.
The louvered wooden balcony shutters, which originated from Iran, and the more intricate mashrabiya, which came from Egypt, provided filtered light, shade and privacy and can be seen so distinctively at the Ali Reza House in the Awadiya area of Manama and even as purely decorative features on the Batelco building in Manama and in the Aali Mall. The word mashrabiya means the place for drinking and was the shaded place where water was kept cool in clay jars. Other distinctive features include the Islamic arch designs, corbels or projections from the wall which provide decoration and support for the beams and joints, the merlons or decorative features found on the roofs, the brackets, panels, merzam or timber gargoyles used for the drainage of rainwater, and wrought iron grilles on the windows. Stained glass fanlight windows are also common features and provided soft coloured light.
The large heavy doors with carved Islamic artistic motifs made of hard wood, like teak, were sturdy enough to withstand the harsh Gulf climate. The separation of the sexes could be seen with the majlis or mens meeting place, with its own entrance from the street. In some of the larger houses a womens meeting place or magaad was located in another part of the house with its own separate entrance.
It was very apt that the lecture I attended by Dr Yarwood back in 2002, on Bahrains traditional architecture, should have taken place at the Shaikh Ebrahim bin Mohammed Al Khalifa Centre for Culture and Research in Muharraq. This is a new building with a traditional façade in the heart of old Muharraq. The house was built on an empty plot of land which had originally been part of the house and forum of Shaikh Ebrahim in the early part of the 20th century and which is now used for lectures, cultural events and meetings.
Some years ago when Shaikha Mai bint Mohammed Al Khalifa was researching the life of her grandfather, Shaikh Ebrahim bin Mohammed Al Khalifa, she came across this empty plot in Muharraq, part of which had been the majlis of this intellectual and man of letters. I had never ventured to that part of Muharraq and I was amazed when I walked the quiet narrow streets.
Shaikha Mai was able to envisage the potential of the land for a cultural centre. I could imagine how it would look and how it would be furnished. So she bought the land, and although many thought that nothing could be done with it, Shaikha Mai persevered. Construction work was difficult in the narrow alleyways of Muharraq. Lorries and large vehicles could not gain access but the neighbours were very tolerant whilst construction took place.
The building which blends in well with the local houses and the Bin Nasser Mosque opposite was completed and opened in January 2002. Although it is a totally new building, the architectural design incorporated a very traditional façade with a large Islamic arch, mashrabiya and gypsum panels with Arabic calligraphy, but with a modern functional auditorium in the interior for the holding of meetings and lectures. Traditional features in the interior are also used and married with new ones. There is a small majlis for meetings, an office and an upstairs library with mashrabiya panels used very effectively on the staircase.
Renovation work is currently in progress on the house of famous Bahraini musician and composer, Mohammed bin Faris. It was bought and donated by Shaikha Hessa Al Sabah from Kuwait, who has already bought and restored two houses in Muharraq, and the restoration work is being funded by Batelco. The house will be restored and developed as a small museum to bin Faris and Al Sout music and as a centre for music heritage. The art of Al Sout or the sound is believed to have had its origins 900 years ago with lyrics based on poetry. Bin Faris was a pioneer in the art of Al Sout; a composer and musician who was an exceptional oud player and singer.
The house in which Ebrahim Al Arrayed, the noted Bahraini poet and intellectual lived for about 30 years is in Manama, off Old Palace Road near the Hoora School for Girls. The house is different from the other houses renovated by Shaikha Mai, as it was built later in the 1940s and in the colonial style. The house has been bought by Shaikha Soad Al Sabah, from Kuwait, a poet and author who has written a book about Al Arrayed. The renovation work on the house will be funded by the Kuwait based Arab Development Fund and it is expected that work will be completed by January 2006.
When Shaikha Mai bought the first plot of land for the Shaikh Ebrahim Centre, she had no grand plan or thoughts about buying or restoring other properties. I didnt plan the whole thing. However, it is now clear in my mind what I want to do. I want to try and encourage people to buy old houses and to invest in them and restore them, and to use them as homes or as cultural centres.
Where Shaikha Mai has led, others are now following. The success of the first project has brought sponsorship for new projects, as sponsors see that projects can be realised and in a relatively short period of time.
Shaikha Mai has a quiet and modest enthusiasm for what she does. She is trying to set an example of how the old can be preserved and used to suit the present. The focus of the renovation work is to keep the original style but with modern touches for todays living. In many other countries of the world, one can certainly see how the houses and birthplaces of noted historical figures have been preserved as museums and places of national interest to protect and preserve the cultural heritage of the country.
Shaikha Mai has now completed two house restoration projects, with two more underway, and there are also plans to renovate two very small buildings in Muharraq for use as extra space for art and cultural exhibitions. The houses are open to the public and are also being well used for lectures and cultural activities. I am grateful and thankful to the people and the institutions that have helped me to realise these projects. The difficulty for the future will be to keep the programmes going, as well as the need to fund publications, annual maintenance, upkeep and running costs of the buildings. Shaikha Mai hopes to set up a trust fund to meet these costs in the future.
Like Shaikha Mai, many others including local architects, officials and interested individuals are working to help preserve Bahrains precious historical, cultural and architectural features. Kazerooni is optimistic that, given the chance, the younger generation and young architects could help revive the culture and architecture of earlier generations and bring back a re-identification with Islamic architecture and its architectural features.
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