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Takhrim: Stained Glass in Yemeni Architecture


Article # : 18262 

Section : CULTURE
Issue Date : 10 / 1990  2,852 Words
Author : David H. Ehrlich

       The glory of the Christian churches of Europe since the twelfth century, stained glass was introduced to Yemen from Syria in the early 1800s. The Ottoman Turks, who exercised loose control over Yemen at the time, urged Damascene merchants to bring samples of vibrantly colored red, yellow, and blue glass to San'a. The ruling imams (kings) were both entranced and intrigued by its decorative possibilities.
       
        The top stories of their places were formal areas where important visitors were entertained, and where the imams relaxed during the evenings. This design feature - of upper-level sitting rooms with commanding views - persists today in all but the most modern Yemeni houses. Typically, the design consists of a single large room, called the mafraj (from a root meaning "dispelling grief or anxiety"), that is furnished with expensive carpets, comfortable mattresses, and cushions. Seating is placed around the walls, often beneath the windows.
       
        Windows are located in three of the room's walls, each arranged with a lower square window below an arched higher one. Originally, both upper and lower windows were filled with sheets of translucent alabaster, about five-eighth inches thick, called qamariya, a word that relates to the moon. Set into wooden frames, the alabaster windows caused a warm amber glow to suffuse the room.
       
        But the possibilities posed by colored glass caused the imams to consider something far showier. Cutting the glass into small panes, or mullions, and constructing an abstract pattern separated by strips of gypsum allowed this alien ornamental technique to be adapted to Muslim tastes.
       
        Takhrim's Place in Traditional Yemeni Architecture
       
        The Koran prohibits the artistic representation of any living thing, warning that doing so will "take away that thing's soul," and so window designs followed the traditional geometric patterns of Islamic convention. Multipointed stars, crescents, squares, and diamonds, even passages from the Koran, were incorporated into the sign. The overall mosaic was then fitted into the frame and mounted in a fantail window in the place of the older alabaster, sometimes protected with an outside layer of alabaster (later glass).
       
        Because Yemen lies close to the equator, the sun's rays are harsh and penetrating. Yemeni stained glass effectively receives sunlight and diffuses it prismatically, repeating its patterns on interior walls coated with a white gypsum stucco called goss. The imams welcomed the relief from the direct sunlight and deemed the colored effects nothing short of magical. And, of course, when dusk fell and the mafraj's interior was artificially lit, the colors and glory of the takhrim (stained glass window) was illuminated for the world outside to enjoy.
       
        Easily incorporated into the traditional Yemeni architectural style (which has changed little in twenty centuries), takhrim soon graced the grandest houses in the country. And what was adopted in the grandest house soon became an integral element of dwellings of all kinds. Today, it is a very poor house indeed that cannot boast at least one stained glass showpiece. The takhrim has become a prized facet of Yemeni Architecture, one long remembered by those who have been privileged to rest in its
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