Yemen has a long tradition of distinctive architecture. Its older buildings feature ancient crafts that ingeniously use available materials to cope with the country’s often-harsh environment. One such craft is found in qamaria, the intricately and ornately shaped and colored windows in traditional houses. They are a feature of Yemeni architecture that has changed little over the centuries.
These days, however, qamaria are in danger of becoming a lost art, a victim of modern window technology. Qamaria are both functional and aesthetically pleasing. Their intricately carved shapes add color and charm to a home, and they help illuminate the inside without exposing it to direct sunlight. “Qamaria create a kind of beauty and magic, with their colored apertures that diffuse light through the house,” says Mohmmed al- Olofi, a Sana’a architect.
They’re well-suited to Yemen’s hot climate because they allow natural light into a house even when the house’s clear windows and shutters are closed. The word “qamaria” derives from “qamar,” the Arabic word for moon. That may be because the light cast by qamaria resembles moonlight. Or it may be because of the windows’ circular shape, which resembles the full moon. In any case, the first qamaria were made by Yemeni Jews, who had a tradition of fine woodcarving. Their homes had intricately carved windows fitted with panes of colored glass.
Other Yemenis adapted the craft, substituting gypsum, a soft and easliy carved rock, for wood, says Abdul-Wahab al-Shami, a qamaria craftsman. “I have made qamaria since I was very young,” he says. “The village where I grew up, Bait al-Shami, Al-Saddah, has a tradition of making qamaria. It’s our heritage. But we don’t make many qamaria these days. There’s no demand for them.” The gypsum for qamaria comes from quarries far from Sana’a, in places such as Wadi-Dhahr and Al-Mahweet.
After the gypsum is milled, it’s mixed with water and left to harden. Then it’s placed in a wooden mold and cut to the proper shape and dimensions, using small knives and compasses. After drying for two days, the qamaria is placed on soft ground and fitted with colored glass. This is the hardest stage of the process, requiring the tools of a fine craftsman and the imagination of an artist. One of the craftsman’s most difficult tasks is choosing from among the many traditional Yemeni patterns. There are more than 150, with the most popular styles being Rommani, Yagoti and Zanjery. Few new houses are fitted with qamaria.
The homeowners tend to prefer modern aluminum window frames, saying they’re more durable and easy to clean. But Mohammed Barqug, an elderly resident of old Sana’a, remembers the days before aluminum windows. The qamaria he recalls were circular or semicircular and fitted with thin strips of translucent marble called baradi. Baradi marble was quarried in Gharas, east of Sana’a. Soft and easliy cut and shaped, Baradi marble was ideal for making qamaria. But by the 1930s, all the marble had been quarried, and it was replaced with clear and colored glass imported from Germany, India, and England.
The German glass is the most expensive and highly prized, because its colors are bright and long-lasting. A qamaria 120 centimeters wide and 70 centimeters tall and fitted with German glass costs about YR 5,000. A qamaria with Indian glass costs YR 3,000, and YR 2,000 with English. In theory, aluminum windows could be molded into traditional qamaria shapes, but that’s simply too expensive, says Faris al-Solehi, a worker in an aluminum shop.
“A window 140 centimeters wide and 72 centimeters high and shaped like a qamaria costs YR 11,000,” he says. And that’s using clear glass. With colored glass the price can climb to YR 25,000. Still, the qamaria craft lives on. Ramzi Eskandar, 15, makes qamaria with his brothers Ali and Bandar in Kawkaban, visiting Sana’a on holidays to hone his skills. “I enjoy this craft,” he says. “We sell at least six qamarias each day, so I guess some people still appreciate them.” And as long as they do, the ancient Yemeni tradition of qamaria will live on