Book Review: Minaret Building and Apprenticeship in Yemen [Archives:2002/04/Culture]

January 21 2002

Trevor J Marchand
Curzon Press, London, 2001, Pgs 285
Reviewed by:
Karen Dabrowska
Changes in perspectives toward authority, and increased opportunity to investigate, discuss and challenge traditionally guarded realms of knowledge will eventually lead to the demystification of the master builder’s expertise in the minds of the public.
This is the conclusion reached by Trevor Marchand who worked with a team of traditional Yemeni builders, the Bayt al-Maswari, specialists in the construction of mosque minarets in and around the Sana’a for the past two decades.
“Revelations about ‘how he [the masterbuilder] knows’ and ‘what he knows’ will serve to undermine his real power and consequently threaten the existence of the distinctive teaching-learning method and inter-personal relations supplied by the traditional apprenticeship system. This does not necessarily equate to the eradication of the building crafts as a mode of reproducing traditional objects and buildings, but the very nature of the trade knowledge (‘ilm and ma’arifa) as well as the manner in which it is both passed along and embodied, will be significantly and perhaps irreparably modified.”
The book analyzes the teaching-learning processes at various stages of the training of a master-builder including those that inculcate disciplined conduct and practice, an understanding of building techniques and a mastery over spatial conceptualization and design.
Its four chapters trace the apprenticeships mastery of his craft. After an introduction to Sana’a, and the building trade, Chapter one deals with The Addil Minaret (reconsidering the role of the mosque minaret in Sana’a). It focuses on the mosque minaret as a building form in the history and urban context of Sana’a.
Chapters two to four (Foundations – training laborers in a traditional apprenticeship system, Making it above the grade – apprenticeship and learning to ‘make’ – and Completing the dome – the master builder) are divided into two main sections. The first and shorter section provides a technical description of the various stages involved in the erection of a minaret and the second constitutes an analysis of the teaching-learning process involved at the different stages in the training of a traditional master builder.
Both sections in all three chapters have been arranged to simulate both the chronological progression of a minaret project and the progression of a builder’s career and his acquisition of an expert knowledge.
The author has metaphorically linked the succession of the building phases with the advancement of the craftsmans training: building the structures foundation has been affiliated with the inculcation of basic discipline in the laborers simple practices and performance; erecting the brick tower above the stone base and reaching the height of the calling platform has been compared with the apprentices reaching a plane of understanding through the processes of making; and completing the dome and installing the hilal, or crescent moon has 
been linked to the builders achievement of mastery over his trade performance and intentionality, and his ultimate recognition as an usta, or master builder.
Trevor Marchand studied architecture at McGill University and received a PhD in anthropology from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) University of London. He has conducted research on apprenticeship and spatial cognition with traditional builders in West Africa. Currently he is a lecturer in social anthropology at SOAS and remains active in the field of architecture.
When he conducted his research in Yemen, Marchand worked with the al-Maswari family esteemed Sana’ani craftsmen descended from the master builder Usta Ali Said al-Maswari. The minaret project he studied was directed by two of al-Maswaris surviving sons, Muhammad and Ahmad. The success of the familys first minaret commissioned in 1980 led to their subsequent building of more than twenty of these towering structures by the time of Marchands study in 1996. He points out that the Bayt al-Maswari and their patrons had been largely responsible for the renaissance of lofty minaret towers that have pierced the skyline of the newer city quarter in the last two decades.