Learn earthen architecture of the Middle East

earth architecture, oman, getty

Getty Conservation Institute partners with Department of Culture and Tourism-Abu Dhabi to teach conservation best practices

Local and international experts will gather in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates and Nizwa, Oman from October 22 to November 19, 2022 for the International Course on the Conservation of Earthen Architecture. This follows a similar and recent course on mosaic restoration.

This one-month training course will use Al Ain, UAE as an open-air laboratory for participants to learn practical, hands-on methods for preserving earthen buildings and archaeological sites. On a study trip to Oman, participants will carry out an exercise on the conservation of urban settlements made of earth in Nizwa’s al Aqr neighborhood, an ancient, fortified city built with earthen bricks.

Earthen Architecture Course topics include:

  • Conservation theory and principles
  • Laboratory and field analysis of earthen materials
  • Earth as a building material—use and construction techniques
  • Mechanisms of decay—material and structural
  • Methods of recording for documentation and analysis
  • Conservation methodology—Planning of conservation and rehabilitation interventions
  • Practical conservation methods—structural and non-structural
  • Conservation of earthen archaeological sites and decorative surfaces
  • Maintenance and preventive conservation
  • Developing rehabilitation and adaptive re-use projects for earthen buildings

A study trip to Oman where participants will carry out an exercise on the conservation of urban settlements made of earth (Manah village, near Nizwa, Oman)

A four-story castle made from mud and sand

Manah tower, oman, earth architecture

Al Faiqain Castle is a 4-story mud tower in the Manah village near Nizwa, Oman via Times of Oman

Earthen architecture is one of the oldest and most widespread building types in the world. Despite its long history, however, it faces many threats to its preservation. It’s also not earthquake proof.

In the Middle East and North Africa region, earthen buildings are under threat from a variety of factors including abandonment and population displacement, earthquakes, and climate change.

Unreinforced buildings made of earth can be extremely vulnerable to earthquakes, subject to weakening and even collapse, especially if they are poorly maintained. Similarly, climate change and erratic weather events such as monsoons and floods are especially destructive to earthen structures and settlements.

Located in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, Al Ain is known as the “Garden City” of the United Arab Emirates. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a 5,000-year history of settlement in oases, archaeological sites and buildings constructed with earth.

earth architecture course, middle east

Sites that will be visited by participants include Al Jimi and Al Qattara Oases and Hili Archaeological Park.

“Al Ain is the ideal setting for the earthen architecture course because of its rich heritage, central location in the region, and the expertise of DCT Abu Dhabi in heritage management and conservation,” said Susan Macdonald, head of Building and Sites at the Getty Conservation Institute. “Participants will gain theoretical and technical experience needed to preserve their home country’s earthen heritage.”

Yemen’s mud city of skyscrapers

Yemen, for instance, is home to one of the most impressive, one of the oldest and also one of the tallest mud cities in the world. Before the city scrapers of New York, the city of Shibam had built high rise apartments out of mud which tower to over 100 feet and are between 5 and 11 storeys high.

shibam, mud city, earthen architecture, yemen

Shibam, mud skyscrapers, Yemen

Dating back to around the 2nd century CE, the city was built using local clay and is still home to around 7,000 residents who live in the fortified city.

Although it is over 2,000 years old, rain and erosion necessitates constant maintenance, which efforts are now supported by restoration and urban development programmes. Nicknamed Manhattan of the Desert, the city is testament to the durability of mud not just for single structures but also for modern high-rise living.

hassan, hasan fathy, Egypt, green sustainable architect

Modern earth architect Hassan Fathy

While attendance for this class is now closed, be in touch with the Getty Institute to learn about future earth architecture opportunities. If you want more inspiration from the Middle East, see more on Iran’s Nader Khalili, and earth architect Hassan Fathy. If you are in the United States, learn more about local straw building through Bill and Athena Steen. I had the pleasure of staying with them for a week about 20 years ago. Their strawbale building projects at Canelo are still going strong. And are more relevant than ever.

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