Majlis or Mejlis is an Arabic term meaning ‘a place of sitting’. It is usually used to describe various types of special gatherings among common interest groups. Generally used in the context of a council, it can refer to social and religious gatherings as well. The Majlis is an integral part of Islamic culture, and consequently architecture. In political places it was the space where the Ruler or Sheikh addressed and interacted with his people. Previously, there was a Majlis specifically for tradesmen, fishermen and sailors. In residences the Majlis is where the head of the family receives visitors. Traditionally, the visitors are served Arabic tea or coffee with dates.
Previously, a Majlis could also refer to a large open space under the shade of a tree where people can gather in large numbers. Bedouin camps would set aside separate tents to be used for meeting and receiving visitors. With the influence of modernism and development of architecture, the notion of Majlises have moved toward large indoor halls. Though the architectural character of the Majlis has evolved over the years, the concept is still alive in Islamic Culture. Even today the Sheikh’s palace in the different Emirates consists of a Majlis where the ruler interacts with people. Every household has a room where visitors are greeted and entertained. Usually, there are two Majlis’ – one for men and the other for women. In the absence of a second Majlis, men usually occupy the Majlis while the women gather in the living room. In larger houses, the Majlis is sometimes detached from the rest of the house. (See graphics below)
Bait Al Mutwahid, Ras Al Khaimah
We came across a Majlis in Ras Al Khaimah that vaunts about its drive to foster closer relationships within the community. Bait Al Mitwahid is a Government initiative that began with the vision of the founding father, the late H.H. Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan. A number of community gathering spaces have been set-up all over the country with a vision to bring people together. The first one in Ras Al Khaimah is built in the residential district of Al Dhait occupied mostly by UAE nationals. Attached to a daily local mosque, the space is open to all and is used on a daily basis by people living close by. Every weekend people from the community, generally male, gather for a casual dinner and chat about daily life. ”Whenever you haven’t seen someone for a while, you can be sure to catch up with him here”, says Essa Abdullah Muhammed Al Tamimi, the Council Head. Apart from this, one can also hold events and gatherings on the premises. Bait Al Mitwahid celebrates days of national importance to strengthen bonds to the culture and traditions of the nation.
Inside the Majlis
The welcoming open front yard leads to the building that consists of the main hall. The building is almost undistinguishable from any of its neighbors except for the large outdoor front yard and low boundary walls. Outdoor seating in the front yard is on either side of the entrance. Seating in the Majlis building is arranged against three walls in a U-shape with the center of the room left vacant. On a daily basis, people sometimes catch up here after the evening prayers. Traditional black tea or coffee is served to anyone who visits the place.
Due to the harsh climate for most part of the year, public gatherings are almost always associated with a built space which are these Majlis’. This building is an example of a space that encourages customary practices to be followed even in today’s time. It promotes community spirit and illustrates public spaces of the traditional kind. Architecturally, it is an important case to be studied to understand the social and cultural aspects of the region. The space is as solemn as the close-knit society it serves.