Possibly the most distinctive decorative feature of Yemeni architecture is the qamariya, the multicolored stained-glass windows that grace Yemen’s buildings. The geometric patterns formed with colored glass sit above the windows and cast their patterns on the room. It is the symbol of Yemeni architectural culture, and adds a great beauty to Sana’a’s distinctive gingerbread skyline. All those who have walked through the Old City’s streets at dusk can testify to the fairy-tale beauty given by hundreds of illuminated qamariya to the city itself. Inside, the whitewashed walls are sprinkled with dots of colored light that creep down the walls as the sun falls in the sky.
In Arab culture, the moon is equated with beauty. The qamariya, which comes from the word qamar, meaning moon, is said to let light reminiscent of the moon’s beauty into the house. In one form or another, these patterned windows have have been a feature of Yemeni architectural embellishment since pre-Islamic times. Then, as today, windows consisted of two parts, the main window which could open to let air in, and then a secondary, patterned pane set above the window and separated by a lintel. The bottom part of the window often was covered by a shubaq, a wooden screen that allowed women to look to the street without being seen by strangers. This is still present today. The original style of patterned window that eventually evolved into the qamariya was made with thin, circular panes of translucent alabaster that had been hewn down to a thickness that allowed light to penetrate. This way, rooms could be lit by natural light but still retained an opacity that prevented strangers from seeing into the house. These alabaster windows can still be seen around Sana’a and in the Hadramawt, but the practice has faded from popular usage.
The process of creating a single qamariya takes the craftsmen just two days from start to finish. At the shop of Yahya Abu Ali in the neighborhood of Sa’awan in Sana’a, four craftsmen (all his sons) work daily on qamariya production, and the building boom that Sana’a is experiencing as people move out of their villages to the city ensures that Yahya and his crew’s work is in high demand. He has been in the qamariya business for more than 30 years, learning the trade from his father, who in turn learned it from his father. He has been in his current location on Sheraton Street for more than 15 years. He sells an average of 30 windows per week to both private individuals and corporate contracts who buy in bulk, and has a large stock of qamariya skeletons that are waiting for customers to decide their final colors. He also has a pattern book that allows his clients to custom-choose their qamariya, and can easily retrofit or custom-make a qamariya to the specific desires of his clients. A large, intricate qamariya costs between five and six thousand riyals, while a smaller, square one goes for around three thousand. Small, porthole-style windows cost a thousand riyals. In addition to windows, Yahya and his sons also make intricate gypsum moldings that adorn sitting rooms and receiving areas in traditional Yemeni homes.
The qamariya, also known as takhrim, ‘lace-work’ from the verb kharrama meaning to pierce, or make lace, is made by simple four-step technique that takes a trained craftsmen just a few hours, divided over two days. First, gypsum plaster is poured onto a wooden board and smoothed out to a thickness of 3 to 8 centimeters. It is allowed to partially dry, until it can be cut but retain its integrity and shape. Designs are then cut into the plaster with the help of stencils, and the cut edges polished with sandpaper. The cut plaster is removed from the wood and placed in the sun to fully dry.
The following day, glass sections are cut to match the spaces in the plaster, and laid out in place on the floor. A second layer of plaster is then poured over the back of the qamariya, securing the glass in place. When that layer dries, the plaster that covers glass areas that are meant to let light in is scraped off, and the qamariya is ready for use. When installed, it is customary for the windows to sit double-pane. Often a light bulb will be installed between them, illuminating the room at night time with soft colored light.
The rise of the stained-glass qamariya began on a small scale during the Ottoman period, with traders bringing patterns and craft styles to Yemen from throughout the Islamic world, particularly Syria. Ottoman authorities encouraged traders to introduce colored glass to Yemeni architects. The practice of embellishing a diwan, or sitting room, with colored light started in Sana’a and then moved to other parts of Yemen. Today, the qamariya can be found in every city and village in Yemen. Even modern buildings that retain no other traditional features of Yemeni architecture include qamariya windows. All qamariyas are hand-made; there are no qamariya factories. The majority of qamariya production is done at small, family-run operations like Yahya’s.
In Western Europe during the medieval period, light was seen as an allegory to God’s presence. Therefore, colored light was an even fuller and more glorious depiction of the magnificence of God, hence the prevalence of stained glass windows in churches and cathedrals. If we can make a cultural parallel, then Sana’ani architecture is an entire city devoted to glorifying the greatness of God through colored light. In a city of more than 300 mosques from which the faithful broadcast supplications throughout the day and night, it only makes sense that the glory of God should be manifested physically in the very composition of the city. Sana’a is a strikingly gorgeous city, and the ubiquity of the qamariya only intensifies and completes that beauty.
All photographs by Rachael Strecher