Image courtesy of Dewan Architects + Engineers

ARound: Najaf and its traditional house architecture

In part three of the ARound: Najaf series, Paris-based Iraqi architect Turath Jamil discusses the traditional house architecture of Najaf.

The old downtown area of Najaf contains different architectural treasures. In addition to the mausoleum of Imam Ali, located at the core of the city and dominating the overall region, beautiful schools, houses, mosques and khans further make up the local urban fabric. These buildings are situated along the downtown’s narrow zig-zagging streets, and because all of the construction projects in this area have very sober elevations and simple entrances (a local custom so as not to display any signs of wealth), they can be difficult to spot. Thus, the architecturally-rich area is disguised by its poor street elevations, and we can consider this as one of the city’s main characteristics.

The narrow, shaded streets of Najaf

The only way to identify the city’s important buildings that reflect the local architectural language in its best form is by consulting the listed buildings in the antiquities directorate of Najaf, along with the archives that document those in ruins or which have disappeared. Starting in 1980, local authorities listed around 250 buildings which were deemed notable for their architectural and decorative value. However, without any protection or conservation programme put in place, the number of the listed buildings dropped drastically to 38 in 2010. The local government destroyed some of these buildings, while others were torn down by their owners in efforts to construct modern structures in their place. While architecturally valuable buildings are vulnerable to these practices, there are individuals working to save the area’s architectural heritage by conserving buildings at their own expense.

One strange concept applied in Najaf is that even if a building has been reconstructed or rehabilitated, it retains its status of architectural heritage, even if the project did not follow the regulations of conservation. Therefore, visitors to the area can witness a newly constructed mosque or school that features modern materials and design, but that still has its status and listing. Because of this, it can be concluded that the listing process is more so intended for the name and historical or spiritual heritage rather than the building itself.

The majority of the buildings in the downtown area of Najaf are residential. In 1986, the housing units covered nearly 76 percent of the city, comprising 4,250 houses split across the four main neighbourhoods of the city. By 2016, the housing units covered 39 percent with 1,295 houses. This is due to the immigration phenomena that started at the beginning of the 20th century, and which pushed locals to relocate outside the downtown area, where new neighbourhoods were built and equipped with services and wide streets, allowing for the use of vehicles.

Today there are less than 10 houses that are still in use and that were listed in the 1980s; many listed houses are either now in ruins or otherwise uninhabitable. After visiting a few of these buildings, we witnessed the great architectural heritage that Najaf once held, which could be restored if the will is there. 

The first aspect of Najaf’s traditional housing unit is the simplicity of its elevation. It should be mentioned that in the traditional urban tissue of the city, most houses have only one elevation, and two if they’re on a corner. This elevation is simple and consists of a wooden door with no window at the ground level. The houses generally have one or two levels above ground and at least one level underground. Even so, it is very rare to find a trilevel house, but it is very common to have several underground levels locally called sirdab. The population uses these levels and floors to have a cooler environment in the hot summers. The sirdabs contain one well, which, at the least, are for secondary use. Throughout history, the sirdabs of Najaf were connected via the wells, creating a hidden web of communication, which enabled the locals to hide or attack invaders or authorities.

The levels above ground are composed of several rooms formed around a rectangular or square courtyard named locally al-hawsh. The entrance to this courtyard from the street is L-shaped preventing direct views into the house.

The courtyard its multifunctional, like any other space in Najaf’s traditional houses. It’s used mainly as the central hub that is connected to all the other areas including the staircases, as well as a space that allows the air to circulate within the rooms, reducing the heat of the home and managing its climate.

Generally, the houses are divided into two sections: a private one for family use and a public one for guest use. In more sophisticated buildings, there are two courtyards as well, which follow the same principles (i.e. one is public and the other private). The rooms of these sections are generally multifunctional too, and are used for gathering, eating and sleeping. In some homes, there is a room located at midlevel named ursi, while in others, there is a room on the upper level that boasts views onto the courtyard via wooden screened windows, known as shanashil. If the upper room is constructed above the courtyard, it’s supported by two wooden columns named al-dalak.

The Najaf house is usually a functional unit, built with bricks and sometimes covered with gyps. Some houses are very sophisticated and decorated beautifully to reflect the social and economic status of its owners. These houses belong to the religious leaders, high profile merchants and chiefs of localities. One common element between all of the houses, regardless of the tenants’ stature, is that the homes are decorated from the inside with no indication whatsoever of their wealth on the exterior.

All of these elements were developed in the traditional Najaf house to serve a social purpose and manifest a particular environment, while also catering to the basic needs of a family. However, today, traditional houses across Najaf are disappearing due to the changing social environment and lifestyles of the locals, which has led to a prevalently used tactic of intentionally neglecting the houses, forcing them to fall into ruin with their plots later used for modern hotels or commercial buildings.

An ‘ursi’ room with coloured wooden windows

It’s obvious that the development of the city is inevitable and necessary; however, this can be done while considering and preserving the architectural character of the historic city. One of the houses, for example, was recently rehabilitated by reconstructing the majority of the building to perfectly match its original form and transforming it into a museum. Such local initiatives began resonating with local authorities and led to policy-making regarding the conservation of these buildings – a milestone in the celebration of Najaf’s architecture. As a result, new projects have recently launched to protect what can be saved in the city, all within the framework and standards of proper conservation.

Read more: ARound Najaf

This article was written by Turath Jamil, a Paris-based architect originally from Baghdad, Iraq, and is originally part of his ongoing PhD thesis research. He works with Fevre et Gaucher / 5-cinq, and is a PhD candidate in art history at Sorbonne University. He is also a coordinator for Tamayouz Excellence Award and oversees the Iraqi Graduation Projects Award.