November 06, 2020

Life Before Air Conditioning

How did people survive in the Middle East before air-conditioning? The answer is quite surprising and includes the use of tents, animal hair, limestone, mud, narrow alleyways, shading and non-mechanised air circulation.

Long before the invention of mechanical air-conditioning, desert inhabitants employed a variety of measures to keep their homes cool.

Traditionally, nomadic Bedouin tribes lived in the desert in black tents made from woven animal hair. The tents served as a shelter from the sun during the day. However, they were also made and structured to keep the inside of the tent cool. The structure of the tent, generally with three open sides, allowed air to circulate within keeping temperatures lower. The shelters black woven material absorbed heat during the day, and, as hot air rose above the tent, air from inside was drawn out, in effect creating a cooling breeze.

Urban dwellers, who settled in permanent housing on the desert's fringes, also used building materials, placement and design to keep their homes feeling fresher. Thick walls and natural, light-coloured materials, such as limestone and mud, were used to reduce the absorption of heat into the building.

Porches, balconies, courtyards, small windows and trees, as well as narrow alleyways between buildings, were all used to maximise shade and reduce the areas exposed to direct sunlight. Buildings were also designed to enhance air circulation. Internal courtyards were designed, not only to provide inhabitants with shade but to act as chimneys. Hot air rose up through the chimney-like structure and away from the building. Cooler air was drawn into the courtyard from the inside of the house - making the courtyard the perfect place to stay cool during the heat of the day.

Wind towers, or Burj Al Hawwa as they are traditionally known, were incorporated into building design. The vertical shaft, open on all sides at roof level, was designed to catch the wind and direct it into the rooms below. Even placed windows at differing levels within one room, and using lattice openings and wooden shutters rather than glass were used to create air circulation.

Main Image: John Grummitt/

Published: February 19, 2020
Last updated: November 06, 2020