The following description of building with mud comes from the book “Hawks of the Hadhramaut” by PS Allfree, published by Robert Hale Ltd in 1967. Mr Allfree had a military career before going to the East Aden Protectorate in what is now South Yemen. On p 145 he described the method of building with mud which he had seen between 1955 and 1957, as follows :
“Take several dozen donkey-loads of dry earth : a camel-back or two of straw. Add water. Knead well with the feet to make a porridgy paste, spread paste two inches thick on the ground, slice it with a wooden board into twelve-inch squares and leave to dry. The result : bricks.
Meanwhile the ground-plan, sketched by the client on a rough scrap of paper, has been transferred to the building site by means of pegs and stretched string. Two-foot trenches are hacked between the guide-lines by men with mattocks, and filled in with chips of stone bound with cement.
When the foundations have risen a few inches above ground level, the bricks – by now hard and firm – are brought along on coolies’ heads from the stooks where they have been baking in the sun. Stuck together with mud and levelled by the same useful pieces of string, the brick courses go up until the foreman thinks the walls are high enough, leaving holes here and there for doors and windows. Hadhramaut builders have been known to forget one of these until the ceiling is ready to go on. No matter : a few pokes with a crow-bar, a few slaps of mud, and all is well. Lintels ? Two or three split pine-logs or thorn branches, with grass or twigs stuffed in between to stop the upper layers of brick from crumbling through.
For the ceiling, the same material serves : logs or timbers laid across from wall to wall, close together, and wadded with various bits and pieces of vegetation. If pillars have been indicated, by blobs or dots on the scribbled plan, all we require is a few dozen lumps of rock from the base of the cliff, a mason’s hammer, and a mason. Chipped into drums, piled one upon the other, pointed with cement, they will stand like the columns of the Parthenon.
Building up from the simple rectangular plan, it is generally easiest to proceed by a system of diminution. For the first storey, delete the corners, leaving a cross-shaped superstructure and four square balconies. For the second floor cut off the arms of the cross, leaving another but smaller replica of the ground floor. And so on : this process can be repeated until the top of the pile is a small central turret.
But so far the future palace (or school) is merely a rough hollow cake of dried earth. For the icing we need a pile of chipped limestone from the cliff-side, a kiln well-stoked with straw and palm-trunks, and a modicum of sugar. We burn the limestone, take it out of the kiln, lay it in the sun and bash it with massy clubs. We mix the pulverised lime with water and smear it on the outside of the building, several layers thick. It looks like plaster of Paris.
Now comes our master-stroke. Using just the right proportion of sugar, and one or two secret ingredients of our own if we are “cordon bleus”, we concoct a plaster which is diamond hard and glaring snow-white. We spread this resplendent preparation throughout the inside, on walls, floors and ceiling; we paint it thick on the crude stone pillars, transforming them into sheer marble columns; and then we take in our practised hand a large round pebble and rub it all over, like a Guardsman boning his boots, to produce a surface of pure porcelain. If we now hire an artist we can have the glittering interior picked out in pink, blue and gold, like the Sultan’s Summer Palace, whirling tendrils and bursting buds all over the place; and if we employ a specialist in decorative confectionery he will fashion knops and coigns, balustrades and finials, all from the same plaster, until the whole thing resembles a mad millionaire’s dream-house – which is precisely what some of them are.”