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RIYADH: Nestled among mountain peaks, the historic buildings of the Asir region stand as eloquent witnesses to a rich heritage, woven together by craftsmanship and artistic decor. They boast diverse architectural designs and a palette of seven natural colors, narrating a compelling story of cultural opulence. 

The coordinated shades take on unique characters depending on the location of each house, be it down in the valleys, on a plateau, on the Sarat heights or the Tihamah plains. The people of the Asir region use pigments sourced from plants, clay and stone oxides to paint intricate designs and decorations on their homes.

At the heart of this artistic expression is Al-Qatt Al-Asiri, an indigenous art form that has graced the walls of buildings across the region for hundreds of years. It achieved global recognition when it earned a spot on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2017.

Ali Marzuq, professor of archaeology and Islamic arts at the history and archaeology department of King Khalid University, said Asir stood out for its abundance of artistry and rich visuals, a testament to its residents’ creativity.

External embellishments are crafted by men, while women take on the interiors. The varied decorations and murals incorporate straight lines, triangles, circles and squares. Drawing inspiration from the local culture, Al-Qatt Al-Asiri embraces intricate geometric patterns that mirror the landscape and the vibrant colors of nature.

The Arabic term “qatt” translates to “line, carving or cutting,” symbolizing the detailed work carried out by women inside the buildings. Colors flow gracefully from their hands in a way known as “qattatah” that creates formations and styles based on the nature of the surface.

These skilled artisans harness colors derived from limestone, colored clays, natural plants or ready-made powders. They prepare them personally with stabilizing and glossing agents, with primary red, yellow and blue complemented by shades of green, orange, white and black. 

Colour production, like design, is intricate. Pigments and materials are taken from nature, adding a note of sustainability.

Green is sourced from the alfalfa plant, which is pounded with a wooden mallet before being applied by hand. Sometimes it is rubbed directly onto walls, as green is a color commonly used for the lower section.

Producing black involves three distinct methods. Initially, it is sourced from the trunks of the al-Atm tree (Olea europaea) and undergoes a distillation process that transforms it into tar. This is then used on doors and window frames as a protective layer against corrosion and the elements.

The second technique involved charcoal grinding combined with plant resin from specific species of tree. This additive enhances the pigment’s cohesion and stability.

The third method involves pounding alfalfa to extract its essence, which is then filtered. A plate or similar item is placed over a flame to produce a black residue which is mixed in.

Similarly, making red involves distinct processes. Red stones, abundant in iron oxide, are crushed and mixed with plant resin; another source is the local red clay, known as al-Hamra, which is crushed and mixed with water. The shade is popularly used for ceilings.

Blue is derived from a powdered sedimentary bedrock component to which water is added. Folk artists in Asir utilize this pigment to adorn their wall decorations, incorporating plant resin to ensure stability. It is often used in the areas around windows.

The fifth color, orange, holds a special place among Asir residents’ hearts and offers warmth to counter the cool climate. Historically imported in powdered form, it is mixed with water and resin. Yellow, extracted from natural sulfur powder known as “safra,” adds a lively touch and is sourced from mountains and hills, or sometimes derived from pomegranate peel. 

In the rich architectural heritage of Asir, the timeless presence of neutral white remains unyielding. Commonly known as “gypsum” among the locals, it features prominently on the exteriors of mud homes and interior walls. Its widespread use is attributed to its easy accessibility and practical versatility.

First, the material — gum from specific acacia trees — is immersed in water. It is then pounded until softened before it is blended with the refined gypsum to create what is locally termed “al-Shawit.” The gum-like compound imparts a sleek, lustrous and radiant white finish. 

These unique artistic expressions of Asir are deeply rooted in the community’s belief in the significance of adorning their traditional abodes. Drawing inspiration from nature’s intricate patterns and motifs, the decorative styles manifest in a diverse array of popular designs, spanning geometric, botanical, abstract and calligraphic elements.