Deep within our olden village cores, a number of dwellings, particularly those that have managed to remain unscathed by modern interference, feature quaint and sometimes curious adornments to their quite stark design. Usually reminiscent of some notable epoch in Maltese history, they bear witness to long forgotten customs and traditions, some indigenous but mostly borrowed from whichever civilisation happened to be ruling our nation at the time. One such quaint feature is none other than the ancient muxrabija, which only just a few days ago has hit the headlines. It has transpired that an old farmhouse on the road from Zejtun to St Thomas Bay, boasts one fine if dilapidated exemplar of the said muxrabija and thankfully will be soon restored to its former glory by heritage NGO, Wirt iz-Zejtun. The farmhouse is one of 36 buildings which include a muxrabija and granted Grade 2 protection by the Planning Authority in 2016.
But what exactly is a muxrabija? Where does it come from? To understand its origins and its adoption by the Maltese, one has to delve into our long and quite turbulent history and an era that had its beginning in AD 870 when the islands were conquered by the Arabs; a rule that spanned more than two centuries until AD 1090. It is widely claimed that Malta benefited and prospered enormously during this era in its history, with the most evident legacy being our native tongue, which is the only Semitic language in the world that is written in a variation of the Latin alphabet. It is probable that for almost three centuries of Arab rule, the islands were almost exclusively Muslim by religion. Many village names, as well as many family surnames know their roots within the Arab period.
Despite their long tenure on our islands, very little documentary evidence of the Arab presence exists and even more astonishingly, physical evidence in architectural form is highly lacking. There are no mosques, monuments, palaces or shrines which belie their occupation, with the exception of some graves in the Rabat-Mdina area. While this is surprising in itself, some scholars argue that the true heritage of Arab occupation lies in Malta’s vernacular architecture – the ordinary people’s homes; rural buildings, farmhouses and to some extent even townhouses, although, very little concrete evidence and even less solid documentation exist to support this theory. History commentators are grossly at odds over this and most studies regarding vernacular architecture remain hypothetical and inconclusive given the lack of substantial information.
However, despite the dearth of actual information, it is rather curious that the layout and design of many a Maltese farmhouse or ancient townhouse seems to fit a Muslim rather than a Christian European context; many dwellings were built in a style that is more North African in flavour than anywhere else; most having an inner courtyard ensuring natural climate control by trapping the cold night air, releasing it gradually during the day ensuring constant temperatures for the dwellers. Traditional Maltese dwellings do boast of several architectural features, some of which suggest a strong Arab influence. The muxrabija is a case in point; hinting at architecture of Islamic origin. From one end of the Arab world to the other, the muxrabija is a prevalent architectural feature in predominantly Muslim nations.
Created as a peeking box for Muslim women to enable them to look out on the street without being observed, ensuring total privacy, it was and still remains an essential feature of Arabic culture. Usually constructed with a lavish wooden latticework enclosure, although locally stone exemplars still exist, it is also deemed as an ideal solution to counteract problems of ventilation and extreme temperatures within a household.
As to the origins of the name there is still divergence between historians; one theory claims that the name was originally mashrafiya, derived from the verb ashrafa, to overlook or to observe. Over the centuries and through the evolution of the vernacular, the name slowly changed to what is spelt in the English language as mashrabiya. One extraordinary modern-day example of mashrabiya stands in the Central Atrium of the The Arab Organizations Headquarters Building, situated outside Kuwait City in the Desert of Shuwaik. A full nine stories high, the towering Egyptian mashrabiya dominates the Central Atrium. Over four million pieces of wood make up this lattice screen. The intricate woodwork is living testament to great skill and lavish craftsmanship, reputedly hand-crafted by ancient methods without glue or nails.
Our humbler version of the muxrabija is much plainer and basic in style and design. Earlier, stone-hewn examples are quite unremarkable in their aesthetic appeal and are usually featured as small stone boxes protruding from the façade, usually having slits or holes on the bottom and on both sides, affording the owners an ample view of their immediate neighbourhood, whilst ensuring total invisibility. Later variants are mostly made of timber, mounted high up on the façade, commanding the best view of the main door; the one in St Thomas Bay which is set to be restored, is one fine example. Like their stone antecedents, these serve the same purpose – that of a peeping box, where friends and enemies alike could be ‘snooped’ upon without their knowledge.
As is our wont, we tend to bestow a distinct local twist to everything we deem as too foreign, including names. The muxrabija is no exception; over the centuries, the name has been changed to nemmiesa derived from nemmes meaning to peep, kixxiefa from kixef meaning to expose, xerriefa from xiref meaning to look out of a window and more commonly used in the south of the island, sindikajra derived from issindika meaning to pry. All derivatives indicate the common purpose of the muxrabija – that of an observation post in times when due to privacy, climate and security issues, bleak and austere facades with the least apertures possible, were a must, which however, rendered the comings and goings in the street below impossible to observe without making your presence known.
The muxrabija along with many other architectural features that have been purposely built by our ancestors to alleviate the hardships of the mundane, have sadly been abandoned for far too long. Although ordinary and unremarkable in appearance when compared to the extravagant treasures so carefully curated in our museums, churches and cathedrals, features such as the muxrabija represent our true vernacular heritage; the real stories of our ancestors, their wealth of customs, beliefs and traditions. It is therefore a most commendable initiative by the heritage NGO, Wirt iz-Zejtun, that they have taken it upon themselves to oversee that one such ancient and historic feature is restored; a stance which prevents just one small legacy of our forefathers’ resourcefulness from being irrevocably lost, once and for all. So, kudos Wirt iz-Zejtun and may there be several others who follow your fine and noble example!
Photo credit: www.oldhousesmalta.com