Delve into the history and cultural linkages of courtyards.

Courtyards, rooted in diverse cultures across the SWANA region, have transcended time to become enduring architectural subjects. From the nomadic origins of Arab enclosures to the grace of Andalusian patios, these open spaces have significantly influenced the aesthetics and lifestyles of communities.

Origins and Evolution: A Balancing Act

Source: Aqso Architecture

The origins of courtyard spaces can be traced back to the early homes of nomadic Arabs, where central open spaces emerged within protective enclosures. Over time, Islamic and Eastern architectural traditions embraced courtyard designs, utilizing landscaping for ornamental and theological purposes. Trees, shrubs, and intricate elements provided not only shade and coolness but also created microclimates, connecting this well-thought-out architectural element with nature.

Courtyards represent a delicate balance between nature and protection, function and aesthetics, modesty and pleasure. These spaces offer both privacy and communal ties, showing the importance to achieve personal retreat within a closely-knit community. Originally, in Islamic architecture, courtyards symbolize the pursuit of tranquillity and peace on both spiritual and urban levels, drawing inspiration from the Qur’an’s descriptions of paradise.

Architectural Features of a Courtyard

Source: Mariam Kamara

Traditional courtyards are a blend of practical and symbolic features. Elements such as Musharrabiya offer cool and private spaces, reflecting the need for seclusion in Arabian architecture and in hot climates. The choice of materials, including locally available stone, wood, and marble, reflects not only technical considerations but also cultural preferences and personal taste.

The external facade of these courtyards deliberately remains unornamented, emphasizing modesty and security. But, the interiors stand in stark contrast, with intricate geometric patterns on balustrades, furniture, tiling, and window corniches. Landscaping, featuring climbing jasmine and rose bushes, contributes to creating this atmosphere of seclusion, making courtyards an ideal resting spot, or a space to have private discussions. 

Ceilings also contribute to this atmosphere, with their highly decorated wooden panels and gold-plated motifs. Calligraphy, florals, animals, and geometric patterns create a harmonious visual experience, extending the aesthetic allure to every corner of the house. The detailed layering technique known as Al-Ablaq, alternating between light and dark stone, is also a distinctive feature of courtyards.

Despite changes in family structures and housing affordability, the courtyard remains a source of inspiration for architects seeking to harmonize tradition with contemporary living. Courtyards continue to be incorporated into contemporary designs, offering practical benefits such as increased natural light, improved ventilation, and direct access to the outdoors. This enduring legacy of Islamic architecture adds an authentic touch to newly built compounds or residential layouts, ensuring that the principles of cultural identity, and utilitarianism are still prevalent within the region. 

Iterations: Courtyards in Different Cultures 

Courtyards exist in multiple architectural traditions, each representing its unique iteration.

  • Andalusian patios in Seville showcase the enduring legacy of Andalusí architecture. These open courtyards adorned with plants have not only influenced local architecture, but also inspired renowned figures like Le Corbusier in his modern city concepts.
  • In Africa, courtyards take diverse forms, from the Akan people’s sun-dried mud brick dwellings in Ghana to contemporary projects like Mariam Kamara’s Niamey 2000. The courtyard remains a central element, preserving community and privacy.
  • China’s siheyuan, with a history spanning 2000 years, reflects traditional Chinese morality in its layout. Despite threats and gentrification, these courtyards endure as symbols of China’s architectural heritage.
  • Islamic courtyards, or sah, hold a special place in both secular and religious structures. In Dubai, stone palaces with courtyards stand as symbols of wealth, reflecting the city’s economic history shaped by merchants and classes.
Source: Areesha Khalid

In the broader MENA region, the fusion of old-style Islamic architecture with modern innovation is creating a new era of urban landscapes. Courtyards are reimagined as conscientious eco-sanctuaries, blending geometry with sustainable landscaping and smart technologies. Contemporary courtyards extend beyond residences into exclusive hotels and palaces, transforming into immersive sanctuaries and spas.

Yasmine is a Tunisian-Italian freelance writer based in Amsterdam. Her writings are strongly inspired by her North African upbringing and culture, and her thoughts on identity and diasporic nostalgia. You will mostly find her reporting on societal phenomena in the MENA region, often in relation to digital culture, art, and fashion