“A Pile of Stones is Better Than a Pile of Gold”: Glimpse into Lebanese Vernacular Architecture
Typically the Mediterranean is associated with a vast warm climate. Many of my friends, whom I personally asked “what is the first thing that came to mind when I say Mediterranean” they usually respond with something like “Greece, my next vacation destination, warm, or someplace they want to run off to and escape the perils of work”. Verbatim, that is what they said.
So when I was tasked to talk about the vernacular architecture in Lebanon, I quickly thought about the Mediterranean and the same things came to mind as my friends thought of. Is that too blatantly stereotypical of the region? Well it turns out… yes it was. But I didn’t know that at first until I turned to my fellow Go UNESCO intern partner Martine Zaarour who currently lives there and brought a little insight to her heritage and vernacular architecture.
The geography in Lebanon is quite dramatic. With 2 mountain ranges and an altitude ranging from 0 to 3000 meters in an area that can be arid, hot, and rainy all year round you wonder how you can build anything around this unique climatology. After doing some research about the area (I’ve never been able to visit Lebanon myself just yet) I’ve noticed that much of the architecture not relating to residential had a lot of influence outside of the region mainly from the ancient romans. What I wanted to try to focus on, and what seemed to be the more traditional setup for Lebanese culture, was the residential houses that seemed to be unique to the area and also extremely beautiful when pictured.
In the early days, building a house was a huge achievement in their lives. It didn’t matter the social class you were in, to build a house was a sign of wealth and power. Many proverbs still exist around this idea. “ A pile of stones is better than a pile of gold” and “The house is the first shelter and the last sale. According to a few texts, there are still many rituals relating to the building of a house that still exist today. One would slay sheep and pour its blood over the earth before putting in the first foundation stone, or slay the sheep when they reach to building the roof. Essentially one would slay a sheep during the process of the build in order to feed their neighbors as historically speaking the neighbors would help to build the house and the owner of the house would use the sheep to feed them. Honestly, that sounds like something that we do here in the United States but we modernized a bit by tricking our friends into helping us move our furniture but repaying them in the form of food, but I digress, I really just wanted to point out that traditions like this are still done today. In Lebanon its still common to also place talismans placed discretely around the house for good luck and as protection from the evil eye.
The houses themselves we built from stone found in the area as it was cheap to use and proved to have good thermal properties in the extremely different weather conditions associated with Lebanon. The roofs were high but the buildings themselves were simple and square and ranged from a single room to multiple rooms divided equally. As the years went on the houses became slightly more elaborate ranging from 1 to 2 stories, large arched doorways and windows, which would allow for a breeze to flow through the building. The red tiled roof was thought to be an inspiration from the Italians but was thought to be a source of pride for its owners.
The beauty of the Lebanese residential architecture is in its simple but effective style that resonates throughout the region. It takes inspiration from not only its land but also from the roman conquerors of the past. Just like many families around the world, the house is a source of pride for the family and building one would multiply that pride ten-fold. Its inspiring to see that history and masonry has been able to be passed down from generation to generation and it inspires me to come visit Lebanon to see these beautiful works of architecture first hand.
Alamuddin, Hana. THE LEBANESE HOUSE… (n.d.): n. pag. Web. 4 Sept. 2016.
HAIDAMOUS, T. “TOWARDS AN EVOLUTIONARY DESIGN IN LEBANESE VERNACULAR DWELLINGS.” Thesis. University of Venice, 2014. Web. 4 Sept. 2016.
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