The old quarter of the ancient city of Sana’a, Yemen, is a marvelous architectural monument at any time of day – but at night it becomes a stunning, luminous wonder. The difference is the ubiquitous stained-glass “Qamariya” windows – the “windows of the moon” in Arabic translation.
First-time visitors to old Sana’a marvel silently at the sight of the world’s oldest skyscrapers, built by hand from brown stone and mud-brick and decorated with whitewashed geometric designs and patterns. The effect is so unique in the world that it is hard to describe; terms like “gingerbread” and “Aztec” and ”Abyssinian” come to mind, but don’t quite describe it.
It is no surprise that old Sana’a became one of the first United National World Heritage Sites in 1986. The current version of old Sana’a dates from the first days of Islam in the 7th century, but it has been a major city for at least 2,500 years. Some claim it was a stronghold of the Queen of Sheba of Biblical history. Many of the building designs and detail may date from at least that age.
The Qamariya windows come out at night, of course. They are virtually always used as transom windows – a small decorative window above a main window. Their rainbow colors of stained glass are built in what seems an infinite variety of shapes and patterns. I have seen hundreds, but by no means all of them, and I have never seen two identical.
At night, when they shine out of on the tall buildings and narrow stone alleyways of the old city, the Qamariya windows transform this old mountain fortress and its Afro-Arab people into a lively market town with an artistic and esthetic overlay. It is a calming experience just to walk the streets and take in the multicolor glows.
Some think that windows’ reference to the moon reflects an Islamic tradition, but it actually goes back much further than that. The juxtaposition of the crescent moon and star was also popular in ancient Greek and Byzantine culture, and did not become associated with Islam until advent of the Ottoman empire. Qamariya windows were common much earlier than that.
The windows are hand-made by craftsmen who learned the trade in traditional apprenticeships. The bits of colored glass were initially encased in gypsum-based stucco, due to its availability and affordability. In the last few decades, metal fixtures have become more common for greater durability. The Qamariya window tradition extends to many other countries in the region, notably Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Feeny, J., Saudi Aramco World, Saudi Aramco Corp., pgs. 2-3, Vol. 26 no. 4, July/August 1975
Berer, J., Nomad Out of Time (a journal of islamic art), accessed 4/4/17 at https://joshberer.wordpress.com/2009/10/05/the-qamariya/, October 5, 2009