22 February 2021

Farasan former Pearl Merchants House – Farasan Islands

It is not clear when pearling began in the islands. A recent re-examination of two Latin inscriptions found in Egypt’s Eastern Desert suggests that pearl diving was already under way in parts of the Red Sea, in the Roman period. A more recent pearling boom of the 18th and 19th centuries has left its legacy in oral history and the architectural heritage of the islands. Following their absorption of the Farasan Islands into Saudi Arabia in the 1920s, the islands suffered economically from the collapse of the pearling industry in the 1930s and 1940s which led to the ruination of the pearl merchants houses. The former pearl merchants houses in the Farasan Islands have geometric and floral designs of the carved patterns adorning the houses and arched gateway. The best preserved house is the Rifai house, built by wealthy pearl merchant Munawwar Al Refai in 1922, but it is closed and locked and can only be viewed from the outside. Fortunately there is a near-complete but dilapidated example directly opposite the Refai house where the entrance arch and exterior of the house of ‘Uthman al-Rifa‘i, has a stunning carved portico entrance that welcomes the visitor into an area where the rest of the property remains hidden. After walking through a low archway that ensures any visitor enters bowed in a state of humility, the house comes into full view. Almost every house here has a grand arched gateway, giving the neighbourhood an almost regal feel, like no other historic area anywhere in the country. The houses are built from coral rocks retrieved from the Red Sea and then covered in plaster before being carved by master artisans. The ceilings are made of timber and many houses also had coloured glass called kamaryat decorating the upper edges. Most of the surviving houses date from around the 1920s.