Traditional Houses in the UAE

Lifestyle, climate and available building materials are major influences in the architectural style of traditional houses everywhere in the world.

The Bedouin, nomadic by nature, used to live in tents woven from goat or camel hair during the winter, and arish shelters during the hot summer months. Using looms, yarn was woven into long strips of cloth which were then sewn together to create the walls of their tents. These tents were rectangular in shape and supported in the centre by two or three wooden poles. Wood such as that from the date palm and ghaf tree was used. The wool used to make these tents were traditionally black or brown and decorated with colourful tribal patterns. Inside, a mehrem or privacy wall separated the men and women.

The palm frond shelters were airy in summer, as it allowed for ventilation and were either square or rectangular with flat roofs, or triangular tent-like structures. Palm fronds, an abundant local resource and extremely versatile, have also been used extensively in the fishing, pearling and trading settlements on the coast. Barasti or arish houses were built by first constructing wooden frames of mangrove poles, split-palm trunks or any other wood that was available. The palm fronds were then used in two different ways: as straight poles with the leaves stripped off for creating screens (allowing airflow), and with the leaves still on as roof thatch.

Houses made from coral and coral rag were built on the coast by the rich from the late 19th to early 20th centuries, when the popularity of pearls brought an influx of money to the area that was then known as the Trucial Coast. Coral rag is limestone composed of ancient coral material that was cut into blocks and cured to become hard, before it was use. A lime mixture made from sand and ground seashells and coral was usually used as mortar, as well as plaster for the walls. This mixture or juss had to be burned, crushed and mixed into a paste before it could be used. The coral blocks, being porous, absorbed the sun’s heat during the day, stored it, and radiated the heat back during the cooler hours of the night. The use of these natural materials allowed for the walls to breathe as they expanded and contracted with the variation in temperature.

Traditional House in the UAE built from coral

Mangrove poles, imported mainly from East Africa (local mangroves yielded poles that were too short), were used extensively in the construction of coral houses. Not only were they used to strengthen the walls, but they also served as roof beams. These poles had a length of 3.5 metres, which imposed a rigid geometry on these coastal houses. The ceilings resting on the mangrove poles were usually made of planks cut from date palms or poles from palm fronds that had their leaves stripped off, while the roofs were flat and thatched with palm fronds and sealed with plaster. Chandal wood beams, another building material widely used, had a maximum length of 4 metres, again dictating the dimensions a house could have, were imported from India. Palm trunks were also often used as lintels.

Inland, houses were built from stone gus (a mud mixture made into blocks) or stones. The lower section of these houses usually consisted of stone blocks or stones to strengthen the buildings and help against erosion. These were bonded together with sarooj mostly made from a blend of Iranian red clay and manure.

In the mountains irregular shaped stone blocks were used to construct buildings. While no mortar was used, the inside walls were plastered with mud, and the flat roofs were covered with palm fronds, wood or mountain bushes. Gravel was also sometimes used for the roof, and as such, these dwellings appeared to melt into the landscape. Although the houses mostly had flat roofs, they could also be pitched. Occasionally built half into the ground, these houses were mostly rectangular, with the odd round one.

In an environment with extremely hot and humid summers, ventilation is of the utmost importance. An ingenious design and distinct element that was introduced in the area during the early part of the 20th century were the wind towers or barajils from Iran. Excellent examples can be seen in Dubai’s Bastakiya neighbourhood (renamed Al Fahidi in recent years), so named because most of its original immigrants came from the town of Bastak in Iran. These towers encouraged and regulated a downward flow of air and water was sometimes sprinkled at the bottom of the tower to cool down the ambient temperature within the house. Although the wind tower is Persian in its origin, Indian immigrants brought Mughal inspired architecture with them, as can be seen in the unique round shape of at least one wind tower in Sharjah.

Another important influence on the architecture was the Islamic teachings that promote modesty and privacy. Courtyards were the anchoring element, and the living quarters with verandas all opened up onto the interior courtyard, which not only shielded daily activities from outside eyes, but encouraged wind circulation. The central courtyard was for the use of the family and cooking facilities were placed to one side. The majlis or meeting rooms where male members of the family entertained their male guests were placed separate from the spaces inhabited by the women so as not to violate their privacy. A wall was often placed immediately behind the entrance gate of a house to prevent passersby a glimpse inside. The exterior walls only had very small openings high up to help with ventilation, and to ensure ultimate privacy. This further enhanced an interior that was shielded from the harsh sunlight, and in combination with the thick walls it created a cool, dark womb-like space. Decorative details included ornately carved wooden outer doors (an Indian influence), mashrabiya –  intricate wooden lattice-work on windows or pierced gypsum modesty screens, and patterns on the walls that were modelled on traditional Islamic designs. The mashrabiya fulfilled several functions: allowing light into a space, providing privacy, regulating airflow, and cooling the air.

Examples of traditional houses can still be found all over the UAE in various states: from crumbling to newly restored.

For additional information and photographs relating to traditional houses, as well as archaological sites, click on the following links:

** Ras-al-Khaimah’s Old Houses

** Wadi al Helo

** Wadi Sur

** Sheba’s Palace

** Dhayah Fort, Wadi Haqil Pottery Kilns, Wadi Suq Tombs

** Jazirat al-Hamra

** Bastakiya