For a contemporary Maronite ecclesiastical architecture (I)

This article was originally published in French by Ici Beyrouth on April 9, 2022. The original can be found here.

By Dr. Amine Jules Iskandar Syriac Maronite Union-Tur Levnon

It often happens that in Lebanon, we pass in front of curious buildings resembling a factory or sometimes an airport terminal in the heart of a picturesque landscape, surrounded by small houses and cypresses. This architectural brutalism does not fail to attract the attention of the visitor intrigued by the exaggerated scale and the finishing material of this intruder. With a little effort, you can guess the presence of a steeple here and see a cross there. It is a Maronite church. It poses pretentiously next to the humble chapel that it humiliates, or sometimes more frankly, that it replaces as at Our Lady of Hadat.

The urbanized hills of Lebanon are embellished with new Greek and Armenian churches, each of which has assumed its own architectural identity. Domes for the Greeks and cones for the Armenians draw the silhouettes of the landscapes harmoniously expressing their nature as places of worship. What happened to the Maronites that they got lost in immature interpretations from Notre-Dame de Ronchamp to the Convent of La Tourette, to Chandigarh and all forms of Corbusean modernism?

The hayklo (church-chapel)

Maronite history has bequeathed to us a form of church-chapel designated by the Syriac term hayklo meaning sanctuary. It is a medieval tradition which paradoxically survived until the 19th century. It consists of humble, ascetic and very austere vernacular architecture. A simple stone parallelepiped surmounted by a steeple placed delicately on its roof. This heritage is overwhelming by its monastic expression, mountaineer spirit, and bearer of the sacred. Despite its small size, it gives an impression of monumentality through the imprint of the centuries that shapes it. Its small portal is reinforced with megalithic stones recovered from the Phoenician temple that precedes it. Its apse, its oak tree and the thickness of its vault give it an air of serenity and an impression of exaggerated antiquity that exceeds its real age. The bell was sometimes hung on the nearby oak tree, sometimes placed between two vertical stones on the roof. At certain times, an arch or a dome protects this bell giving rise to an embryo of a bell tower. This model kept on developing, sometimes enriched with a Western-style bell tower, sometimes with a tiled roof, but always keeping its medieval flavor immersed in its Syriac mysticism.

The dilemma of the size of new churches

The Maronites are particularly fond of the architectural model of the hayklo. The problem is that its evolution remains limited by maximum dimensions not to be exceeded. Contemporary architects thus find themselves faced with a dilemma. How to reproduce the Maronite traditional ecclesiastical architecture while meeting current needs? The mountains have become urbanized and their demography has exploded. Villages and hamlets have turned into towns or suburbs.

Modern and contemporary prowess

In a country that still refuses to teach its history, professionals have flocked to international architecture journals in search of purely formal examples. The phenomenon continues today with the showers of images from the internet. Places of worship become at best, theaters. At worst, their unusual shapes do not allow any activity whatsoever to take place. They are expressions of the virtuosity and megalomania of the architect who seeks to impose himself at the expense of the work. The sculptural and narcissistic forms leave no room for spiritual welcome or devotion.

Architecture, like the Christian image, is meant to fade behind its message. It must be made transparent to allow the spiritual welcome of the Absolute. It is intended to be the place and not the object of worship. In it, the encounter with the Divine happens. Its role is to ensure an atmosphere of contemplation and renunciation. It is here that a horizontal communion takes place between the faithful who prepare themselves for vertical communion with the Man-God. Christ descended to the human condition, in all but sin. He humbled himself in order to redeem man and save him from his pride. Therein lies the secret of Christian architecture and art in general, and in the Syriac tradition in particular. And within the latter, no Syriac branch has experienced ascetic self-denying as deeply as the Maronite Church.

Current architectural exploits are so poorly designed that they are not even able to provide a minimum for the needs of the liturgy. Crucial elements of Maronite architecture are missing. There is no longer an apse or apsidioles. The space behind the altar has become unsuitable. Natural and artificial light is aggressively exaggerated leaving no room for the mystery of shadow and the reveal of candlelight. The ingenuity of the acoustic shapes and volumes is replaced by cardboard veneers. Sometimes even, because of this recklessness, the place of the celebrant priest is encumbered by a central pillar supporting the entire structure of the roof. Narcissism celebrates itself as a goal, as an object and not as a place of worship, even less, of welcoming the Spirit of God.

The traditional model of the end of the 19th century

To justify themselves, the architects will explain that the conditions have changed, and that the modest medieval church full of charm can no longer receive the current crowds, nor ensure the large filmed or televised celebrations. They have to reinvent the sacred Maronite form which, according to them, has never achieved its architectural revolution since the Middle Ages. And yet, this pretext is incoherent because, as always, the solution is here, before their eyes. Our 19th century had done its work of re-evaluation and conceptualization. It has drawn in its local traditions and its Eastern and Roman streams in order to reinvent itself and plan its future on healthy and serene foundations. It is there, in our great churches of the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, that we should seek contemporary inspiration, and be influenced above all by its spirit rather than by the formalism of its final product.

Dr Amine Jules Iskandar is an architect and the former president of the Syriac Maronite Union – Tur LevnonAmine Jules Iskandar has written several articles on the Syriac Maronites, their language, culture, and history. You can follow him @Amineiskandar2

For the article in French see Ici BeyrouthFor the article in Spanish see Maronitas.org.

Also read from the same author:

The Trifora of the Lebanese House (I)

The Trifora of the Lebanese House (II)

The Christic Cycle on the Facades of Maronite Churches

About the origin of the Lebanese language part I and part II

Toponyms of Lebanon