As the blazing summer sun envelops the northern hemisphere, contemporaries often take refuge in the cool breeze of air conditioning. Yet when we think back to the ancients, particularly in the hottest regions such as the Arab world, a compelling question arises: How did they endure the unrelenting heat without the luxury of air conditioning?
The answer lies in the way Arab houses are traditionally built.
It’s all in the architecture
At first glance, these houses may appear like any other, but they’re marked by inward orientation, which is more than just a cultural preference. Instead of facing the street, Arab houses look towards a central courtyard, and this layout has a purpose that goes beyond aesthetics.
The mechanics behind courtyard cooling are deceptively simple, yet effective. The thick exterior walls play a crucial role. As the sun’s rays beat down on the walls, they absorb and store the heat. As the day progresses, the trapped heat inside the walls rises, creating a temperature difference between the exterior and the central courtyard. This temperature gradient initiates a process called thermal convection. Warm air, being lighter and less dense, starts to ascend, setting up a vertical within the house.
Courtyard in Damascus, Syria. pic.twitter.com/OGlKuopqR9
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An ingenious design
Here comes the magic of the central courtyard. As the warm air rises, it creates a slight pressure difference, pulling in cooler air from outside through openings like windows, doors or vents at ground level. This natural ventilation process, akin to a gentle breath of fresh air, replenishes the interior, keeping the rooms colder.
But the courtyard’s role doesn’t end there. When the sun begins its descent, and the temperatures start to drop, the cycle reverses. The warm air inside the house cools, becoming denser and heavier. This cool air moves downwards and flows towards the central courtyard. As it does so, it displaces the warmer air, pushing it to escape through other openings.
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Beyond its practical cooling benefits, the central courtyard, a characteristic of traditional Arab houses, is a hub of family life, as it is a gathering place for sharing meals, stories, etc. This inward-focused design reinforces the importance of family ties that are very foundational in Arab culture.