14 October, 2011

Hadhramaut and its Mud Bricked Houses

In spite of the last devastating rains in Hadhramout, which destroyed many houses especially in Wadi Hadhramaut - most people in the very fertile valley are still using mud bricks to build their houses. Mud bricks which the people of the wadi have used for centuries and which has served them very well. Any one who has been to Wadi Hadhramout or Wadi Do'an will notice mud brick houses. Every where. Many, already built. And many, still under construction.

The hadharrem have perfected the building of the mud, brick houses like no other people. So sophisticated are the techniques used, that they constructed the oldest city of skyscrapers in the world: Shibam, centuries ago. Not forgetting the fabulous structures of Al Khurayba.
The few houses that are painted from the outside, are mainly of white with whitewash and some light blue/green or dark brown on the windows and top of the roofs. Note: along the coast of Hadhramaut, due to the cooler, humid climate - mud bricked houses are few.
Whitewash is made from a mixture of slaked lime, chalk, water, and an assortment of a variety of other ingredients.
The slaked lime is made by heating limestone at high temperatures, turning it into calcium oxide, and then adding water to the mixture to make calcium hydroxide. Typically chalk is added as a whitener. The base materials can be mixed with a wide range of ingredients like milk, ground rice, glue, egg whites, salt, flour etc..
These hadhrami mud houses can be difficult and expensive to maintain. The walls and those with whitewash, need frequent repairs and maintenance especially after rains. The roofs are some times water proofed by plastering them with qudad - an ancient, lime based plastering technique.
Most of the houses are built on high grounds, very close to the hills and cliffs. This is so due to rain waters which flood the valleys when there are heavy rains. 
Water can easily wash away these traditional mud, bricked houses. Many of these houses that have been built on lower grounds, have been washed away by floods. And many, lose their homes, livelihoods and even lives due to rains and floods.
Knowing the dangers that rains and floods can bring, when it rains or when people know their have been rains up in the mountains which could mean floods, hadharem in the wadi keep vigil on rooftops and near the houses - removing water from the roofs or making sure that no water is around the ground near their houses.
One might wonder: why build such delicate houses which need continuous maintenance and care? The people of Wadi Hadhramaut cherish the mud, brick houses because: they are very convenient in the valley which experiences extreme temperatures in summer (very hot) and in winter (very cold). These mud, brick houses stay either cool during summer or warm during winter. And due to the readily available earth, it is comparatively cheaper to build using mud. 
The hadharem also cherish their culture and tradition which are also expressed in these unique houses. Unique mud, brick houses which require special techniques to construct. Techniques which have taken ages to perfect and give such sophistication.
Experienced masons, carpenters and master builders who have long experience and have practiced for long (some times for up to 60 years) in the art of building using mud bricks - aren't many these days. The master builder (called locally as ma'allim) in particular, are very few. It needs a minimum of about 30 years experience for one to become a ma'allim.
It is believed that about half of the world's population rely on earth for constructing their houses. But none of the methods used in other parts of the world in the construction of houses, is as sophisticated and complex as that which is in Hadhramout.
Houses made of earth and mud are normally associated with poor people. In Hadhramaut, these mud houses are preferred and used by all: the poor and the rich.
The only thing that differentiates on the economic status of the owners of these houses, is how elaborate the inside and the outside have been built and decorated. Most of those who are well off, spend much in decorating the interiors and exteriors of their houses. The mosque nearby, is also built of mud bricks.
Many of the houses that look plain and bland from the outside, are exquisitely and very well built and decorated from the inside. Walk inside some of these houses, and you might be surprised by how beautiful and magnificent they are.
Note how well and beautifully the houses blend with the arid surroundings and nearby hills and cliffs. The unpainted mud houses seem to grow from the ground.
Almost all the houses that are on top of high hills or cliffs, are old. They were built so, so as to protect their inhabitants from floods; and - in the olden days - from marauding bandits and tribesmen. In many villages, old ones in particular, many houses are clustered close to each other on top of high grounds or in valleys due to the same reason of offering security to its people - like the village below.

The architectural heritage of Hadhramaut is one of the oldest in the world and one of the most developed and sophisticated in the Arab World and the Middle East. Very unfortunately, due to recent heavy rains and floods and the availability of modern methods of building, using cement, steel and other modern forms of paints - this very old method of using mud, lime and whitewash is disappearing. More and and more people are opting to using modern, foreign methods for building houses.