Syriac Identity of Lebanon – Part 10: Architecture and the Lebanese Mandaloun

By Dr. Amine Jules Iskandar President of the Syriac Maronite Union–Tur Levnon

The Mandaloun is a very typical feature in Lebanese architecture. It can be seen everywhere on our houses and monasteries. What is it and why is it called Mandaloun? Is it imported to our country or is it an ancient heritage?

To analyze architecture it is always necessary to consider art as a whole. To analyze Lebanese architecture let us again turn to the manuscript of Rabula or Codex Rabulensis. This Book of Gospels was compiled in Syriac in the year 586 AD. It contains one of the most interesting collections of Christian miniature paintings. It was moved from Cannobin’s Syriac Maronite patriarchate to Florence in the early 16th century. It was later studied by Syriac Maronite scholar Yusef Assemani who analyzed its miniatures and arcades.

While admiring the Codex Rabulensis we notice the presence of double arches separated by a thin column (Image 2). This feature is very common in Lebanese architecture. Next to this double arcade we also notice a niche with a person on each side. This person is dressed in a long Roman-style tunic.

The exact phenomenon is obesrved in a monastery in Bsharré (image 3). We can see the Mandaloun or double bay. And next to it we see the niche containing the sculpture of Saint Joseph, dressed in a long tunic similar to the example of the year 586. So our Mandaloun appears on 19th century architecture and in the 6th century manuscript. But not only there. It actually spread across Lebanon, mainly during the Middle Ages. And this is where it got its name.

At that time, Lebanon was immersed in Latin or Franc culture. The southern half was part of the Royaume de Jerusalem (the Kingdom of Jerusalem) and the northern half was part of the Comté de Tripoli (County of Tripoli). Lebanese villages where constantly visited by musical bands called Troubadours. They were moving from mountain to mountain, from village to village, singing and playing music. Their most common musical instrument was called the mandolin (Image 6).

If we take a closer look at the instrument, we notice that the strings are duplicated. Always two strings instead of one. This duplication is identical to the duplication of the arches in architecture. Therefore, the mandolin gave its name to the double bay and it became the famous Mandaloun.

If we observe the details of the Mandaloun of the 6th century in the Codex Rabulensis, we notice the presence of an arch above the double bay (Image 7). This detail is present because this is an image of real architecture in which the thin central column by itself cannot support the weight of the wall above it. It is called a relieving arch and it is there to deflect the weights to the sides. So, there is a perfect correlation between the Syriac miniatures and architecture. In fact, the space in between the double bay and the relief arch above it carries nothing. It could be made lighter than simple masonry. So the Codex Rabulensis shows us how it is hollowed by a rosette exactly under the center of the arch above the little arches. It makes it become lighter.

This relieving arch and this rosette are found identically in Lebanese architecture, as seen in the Beit Merré palace of the Bellama dynasty (Image 8). Everything here is identical to the Syriac miniature. And as we continue our observation and look closer into the details, we notice a bird on top of the relieving arch (Image 8). It is a lateral view of a bird sculpted in yellow stone.

Beit Merré has another Bellama palace (Image 9). Here is a second Mandaloun with relieving arch, its rosette, and, in this case the bird is in front view.

Why the birds? Always the birds? Once again, the secrets to Lebanese architecture are hidden in Syriac manuscripts. The Codex Rabulensis once again provides us the answer by showing the importance and origin of this decorative motif. It shows birds above the two arches of its Mandalouns or triple arches.

In some miniatures of the Codex Rabulensis, the birds are moving to the top of the composition.

Codex Rabulensis: birds

In Lebanese architecture we find them everywhere. In Hadat Gebbé, a dove is flying over the central arch.

Hadat Gebbé: bird

In the Mokhtara palace, we see one standing on top of the cornice.

Mokhtara bird

Also in the same palace, there is an eagle sculpted above the entrance. It spreads down its heavy wings.

Mokhtara eagle

This posture was typical of Phoenician architecture, as mentioned and illustrated by Ernest Renan in his “Mission de Phénicie” (picture below). We notice the weight of the wings hanging down again.

Phoenician eagle

The most common theme in antiquity is the one displaying two animals facing an urn, a plant or a fountain. As in the example below of a Byzantine mosaic from Khaldé near Beirut, the Codex Rabulensis used this composition for its birds. We can see the birds here facing a tree of life, on top of a relieving arch. Syriac Maronites have perpetuated this artistic theme for centuries, as evidenced by one of the frescoes of the Cannobin Monastery.

But if we go back to the Bellama palace in Beit Merré, what else do we see on its Mandaloun? In the example with a front view bird, we notice the alternation of two colors of stone. And the tracery style of design inside the rosette. Same effect is in the Mandaloun with the lateral view bird. Again, the amber colored stone alternates with the simple white masonry. And again the tracery inside the rosette. Once more, the Syriac manuscript is the source of inspiration.

Syriac Maronite Manuscript

A Syriac Maronite manuscript, with an art style with Latin influences on one page, can show pure Syriac heritage on the other. The page with the traditional Syriac art is extremely interesting and enriching for our architectural knowledge. It offers an alternation of red and black ink, similar to what we can see in the stone. But it also shows the art of tracery under the cross, identical to the ornamentation found in architecture.

Bellama palace, Salima: tracery

The Bellama palace in Salima is a successful example of this tradition. Constructed entirely in this alteration of amber color and white limestone, it is enriched with a frame made of tracery. The same kind of tracery embellishes the Syriac books and manuscripts. It encircles our beautiful Estranguélo Syriac script and develops from there all the way to the cross through different kinds of stars and pyramids.

This rich artistic legacy, reflecting our history, spirituality, language, and culture is an invaluable treasure that we need to be aware of, and learn to appreciate, love and respect. Because our schools no longer teach us these values, we tend to ignore them. The absence of language, culture and identity leads to the death of heritage and legacy.


Two interesting buildings in Paris and Beirut, show prodigious similarities. The Parisian example (left) is in the quartier du Marais, while the Lebanese one (right) in Beirut, Place des Canons, is today’s Martyrs Square. The “Place des Canons” has disappeared, along with its beautiful architectural treasures. But some old photographs can help us analyze its importance and valuable message.

* Both buildings have one front facade and one left facade;
* Both buildings are composed of three levels and only one span in the width;
* Both have corner stones on the corners;
* Both have a large rectangular door on the ground floor, a horizontal rectangle above the first floor window, and decorations on the sides of the second floor window;
* Both have a pinnacle on top of the second floor, even if in Paris this floor is integrated into a mansard roof, while in Beirut, the mansard is symbolized by the choice of blue paint over the facade.

Everything is identical. Everything except the first floor window. The Lebanese architect could not be satisfied with a simple rectangular opening. He had to implant his tradition by adding a central column, hence generating a Mandaloun. The Mandaloun is the expression of the relation between the inside and the outside. The flat opening becomes a space revealed by the presence of the column. This space is enlarged by a flower balcony, traces of which are still visible here in our example. The Lebanese architect needs to transform the stone skin of the facade into a third space, a buffer space between the in and the out.

This architectural testimony to our past, identity, and sensibility has disappeared forever because a people who no longer dare to defend their language, are ripe and ready for slavery (Rémy de Gourmont).

Amine Jules Iskandar is President of Syriac Maronite Union-Tur Levnon

From the book: “La dimension syriaque dans l’art et l’architecture au Liban”, Amine Jules Iskandar, CEDLUSEK, Kaslik, 2001

For the article in Spanish. You can also watch episode 10 of the associated TV-series as broadcast by Nour Al-Sharq Tv.