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A Traditional Ancient Arab Structure Takes Root at Rice University and This Mudhif Is a Unique Teaching Tool

How an Entire Community Came Together to Build Something That Is Truly Special

BY Olivia Garza // 10.28.23
photography Henrich Perez

How do you introduce Texans to an ancient structure with five millennia of history, nearly 8,000 miles from its country of origin? Well, you build it.

Archaeology Now — the Houston affiliate of the Archaeological Institute of America — and the Arab American Educational Foundation teamed up to construct a traditional mudhif here in Houston on Rice University’s campus.

created by dji camera (Photo by Henrich Perez)
Drone view of the grand opening of the mudhif at Rice University. (Photo by Henrich Perez)

Originating from the Marsh Arabs of the Persian Gulf, a mudhif is a hut constructed entirely of reeds from the marshlands between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. This town hall structure is where Marsh Arab tribes in Iraq host community meetings, ceremonies and general gatherings.

Rice University’s mudhif serves a slightly different purpose — it is the focal point of Archeology Now’s Senan Shaibani Marsh Arabs Project. The project kicked off two years ago with the objective of telling an ancient story by preserving and shedding light on the endangered marshes of Iraq, details Archaeology Now executive director Becky Lao.

Lao explains that a Master Builder — a highly experienced mudhif builder — is at the core of construction. After facing difficulty bringing an Iraqi Master Builder to Houston, Archaeology Now commissioned the reeds to be harvested in their home source — from the marshes of Iraq. The reeds were built into components “like a Lego set,” Lao says, and then shipped to the United States. During Houston’s hottest summer on record, the USS San Antonio made land on Texas’ Gulf Coast with this special cargo.

The design of the mudhif allows for natural light to shine through during the day. The immersive experience allows visitors to connect to the ancient structure. (Photo by Henrich Perez)
The design of the mudhif allows for natural light to shine through during the day. The immersive experience allows visitors to connect to the ancient structure. (Photo by Henrich Perez)

Building the mudhif was a community effort. Volunteers from the Arab American Cultural and Community Center, the Arab American Educational Foundation, the Houston Museum of Natural Science, Baylor University, Christ Church Cathedral, friends from the Archaeological community and even the fire chief from Pasadena provided a hand.

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“Everybody just started showing up,” Lao says. “The people that volunteered with this project are now the carriers of this legacy.”

Houston’s mudhif, which sits next to Rice University’s Moody Center for the Arts, is the second to be built in the United States. The first was built in Philadelphia in 2021 to facilitate conversation between U.S. Veterans of the Iraq War and local Iraqi people.

The City of Houston awarded a grant to the Senan Shaibani Marsh Arabs Project to preserve and document this intricate and ancient architectural process via film. Rice University Film student Eli Johns-Krull will be producing the documentary, which will be available internationally and archived.

Immersive events will be hosted by Archaeology Now and the AAEF at the mudhif through December 5. Open houses, family days, concerts and even a 5,000-year-old dining experience will facilitate educational background about the mudhif’s ancient origins and its legacy of bringing communities together.

The Senan Shaibani Marsh Arabs Project’s events run through Tuesday, December 5. For more information and a full schedule, go here.

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