What’s stronger than the African sun? Probably particles of sand and salt. 

Coincidentally, the intuitive Egyptians encountered a native soil at the edge of the saline water bodies of the desert, a soil worthy of craftsmanship satiating their survival in the arid desert of the African continent. The locals transferred the tacit knowledge orally, the making of ‘Kershef’ a vernacular invention of the desert. The sand and dehydrated salt from the water bodies unified to produce a building material in the form of unfired bricks to construct shelter against the harsh weather settings.

The mud architecture of the desert passively equilibrates the temperature inside the houses. The volumetric walls smoothened to human scale help delay the heat transfer long enough to later release the warmth for the cold Egyptian nights. The word ‘Vernacular’ has Latin origins stating something home-born or native. The indigenous people projected wisdom sympathetic to the surroundings through experimentation to survive weather specific to the geographical limits.

Desert architecture: Egypt

Since the days of the Pharoah’s rule, Egypt chose earth to render homes until they reached the sophistication of manifesting their living conditions with attempts to upgrade. The houses stood squeezed, surrounding either an oasis or flourishing along the trail of river Nile. The compaction between the Egyptian housing allowed narrow alleys which were self-shaded by the adjacent structures or preferably covered by their habitats. Wind towers and atriums are salient features of Egyptian houses—the fewer openings, the better to prevent sand and exposure to direct radiations. The roof is prepared from palm or olive trees, their ribs, and reeds made into terraces to facilitate sleep during summers.

Vernacular architecture in Egypt eliminated the stress to transport materials to build dwellings. Ideally, new homes are built in late winters or early autumn as summer would bring cracks to the mud bricks due to excessive humidity absorption. The bricks come in 30x15x15 or 25x15x12 dimensions. A half-meter wall demands a week to begin the next layer of earth. A Typical two-storey house is ready to move in condition within a year.

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Ancient mud house near Siwa Oasis in Egypt’s western desert_©Dnebuzz

13th Century Vernacular Earth Town

Shali is an organic mud-brick fortress of the 13th century, built from the local dehydrated mud bricks from the saline soil of the Siwa lake outside the labyrinths of the ancient city. The 1926 rainstorm in the desert gushed the people out of the limits of the clustered fortress to build newer dwellings with electricity and running water. Following thunderstorms in 1930, 1970, and 1985 forced the remaining inhabitants into satellite settlements outside the concentrated city center. Restoration of the vernacular structure has been a successful attempt but is still ongoing.

The earth town Shali laps a pyramid of dwellings, some as high as five-storey. The narrow paths aim at the oldest Mosque that has a chimney-shaped minaret. Every Kershef involved in the building is bonded with ‘Tlakh’, a fermented mud mix to allow the load-bearing structure to soar that high.

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Fortress of Shali; an ancient city at the center of Siwa town_©Dnebuzz
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Mosque built with Kershef in 1203 restored post several rainstorms_©Aliza, Rambulatory

Vernacular architecture around the Oasis

Sometimes mistaken with mirage, the Oasis in the desert is popular amongst travellers as a resting place. This started the concentration of dwellings around the Oasis found in the western desert of Egypt. Dakhleh oasis is a treasure house to understand vernacular living. A scientific research project runs at present to uncover the native wisdom swallowed by the desert. The research fills in the gaps of people’s movement within the desert and the advent of their vernacular journey. 

Siwa Oasis is an agricultural Oasis; the fossiled salt settling on the salt-water lakes comes in handy to maintain a legacy of the vernacular architectural heritage. However, excessive digging of wells for agriculture has brought the shallow kershef foundations to sink within the desert sand. The current Egyptian have begun to reconsider their construction materials, slowly escalating to an architecture anti-vernacular to the deserts.

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Restored Siwan house_©Cairo construction
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A shaded pathway in Siwa oasis covered by an interconnected passage_©Khaled Elkhateeb

Nubian Nomadic Vernacular 

Nubian Nomadic architecture involves ornamentation and innovation. The kershef mud brick after plastering is rendered with hieroglyphics. The dwellings have a courtyard where all the windows open internally, a passive cooling strategy of the ancient. The courtyard allows shaded cooling to the arid desert air. The Nubian structures use arches and barrel vaults instead of flat roofs to prevent direct sun angles from covering the surfaces. The windows have a triangular slot above every opening, also known as pigeon holes. 

The Nomads were forced to displace due to Aswan’s high dam construction. Post shifting, fewer Egyptians maintained the vernacular legacy while others superseded the sand and salt.

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Nubian house in Aswan_©Kebina G

The vernacular heritage is a collective wisdom of experimental knowledge gradually passed on to multigeneration. The Mummification of this native heritage will help to fight back the climatic crisis by rekindling the faith of Egyptians in the versatile elegance of the desert soil.

Shali Fortress_©Marsaalamtours

References:

  1. Mohamed, S. (2020). A visit to Siwa, the land of peace. Dne Buzz. Available at: https://dnebuzz.com/2020/01/25/a-visit-to-siwa-the-land-of-peace/ [Accessed 01 March 2022].
  2. Reuters. (2012). Modern building threaten Egypt’s Siwa oasis. Alarabiya News. Available at:  https://english.alarabiya.net/articles/2012%2F11%2F19%2F250567 [Accessed 01 March 2022].
  3. Aliza. (2018). Exploring the Shali, the central landmark of Siwa Oasis. Rambulatory. Available at: https://rambulatory.com/2018/04/08/exploring-the-shali-central-landmark-of-siwa-oasis/ [Accessed 01 March 2022].
  4. Fortress of Shali. Lonely planet. Available at: https://www.lonelyplanet.com/egypt/western-desert/siwa-oasis/attractions/fortress-of-shali/a/poi-sig/495954/355278 [Accessed 01 March 2022].
  5. Elsabae, A.(2015). International Journal of Social Sciences Arts and Humanities.CRDEEP. Vol. 2 No. 4. Pp. 89-99. Available at: http://www.crdeepjournal.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Vol-2-4-6-IJSSAH.pdf [Accessed 01 March 2022].
  6. Dabaieh, M. (2013). Earth vernacular architecture in the Western Desert of Egypt. In M. Markku (Ed.), VERNADOC RWW 2002. Available at: https://lucris.lub.lu.se/ws/portalfiles/portal/6230116/4437130.pdf. [Accessed 01 March 2022].
  7. Bayfield, S.(2009). Temple of Remeses 3. WordPress. Available at: https://egyptsites.wordpress.com/2009/02/08/temple-of-rameses-iii/  [Accessed 03 March 2022]
Author

Nikita believes in constantly feeding all her curiosity by learning, unlearning and relearning. Being deeply passionate about trying things first hand, nothing thrills her more than adventures and new experiences refusing to missing out things in life. When in her me time she enjoys reading fictions and expresses through poems.

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