By Dr. Amine Jules Iskandar Syriac Maronite Union-Tur Levnon
When Lebanon experienced its economic and cultural boom under the Governorate of the Mountain between 1860 and 1914, all Lebanese architecture underwent a redefinition. Through the trade between Mount Lebanon and Lyon, through the ports of Beirut and Marseille, new materials and new techniques were introduced to the Mountain. The autonomous status, the protection by European powers, the decades-long state of security, the prosperity of the port city of Beirut, all these contributed to the development of industry, schools, universities, which, in turn, were reflected in the architecture. The houses, whose medieval style had survived until then, were crowned with new floors topped with light tiled roofs. This lighter construction allowed for the use of larger bays, allowing more light to enter and adding refinement to the facade. With all these transformations, the silhouettes of the villages enhanced. Higher houses with more floors and more height per floor, and they all got a pyramid-shaped roof.
In this new reality, the traditional ‘hayklo’ (sanctuary), the charming Syriac Maronite church equipped with a small bell, lost its importance and presence. Not only could the hayklo no longer contain the growing number of parishioners, but it disappeared from the skyline because it was swallowed up by the new, higher, arcaded houses with elevated tiled roofs.
The basilica model
The response of the architects of the time was not long in coming. They took advantage of the same techniques and materials that had transformed secular architecture. They redesigned the Syriac Maronite church based on new realities. On the one hand, they took into account their Latinized culture, which emerged after the founding of the Maronite College in Rome in 1584, and which was modernized with the new Mountain schools. On the other hand, they benefited from new possibilities offered by the lightness of the tiled roof. These two developments directed them towards a new ‘basilical’ model which came to be known in the villages under the name of béghdédé.
This new ‘basilical’ Maronite church comes up everywhere and starts to dominate the silhouette of the villages again. Its new proportions allow for a considerable number of parishioners and its height imposes it again on the landscape. Its bell tower, inspired by the Latin world, no longer weighs on the roof, but rises from the ground expressing its verticality to rise high up to the sky.
What allows us to understand these new construction possibilities is exactly the curious term of béghdédé. The term refers to a technique used in houses to build light ceilings under a sloping roof. Its structure is made of straw and reed, coated with earth, lime and plaster. Nineteenth century architects then started using it to create the vaults of churches. Surmounted by the tiled roof, the church vaults became only decorative, not structural. Their lightness allows them to be higher and cover larger spans. The lighter side walls could also be decorated with larger windows and therefore accommodate the new technique of stained glass.
These béghdédé curves did not create an effect of shock or discontinuity, because in the nineteenth century the vaults of the churches of Lebanon were still clad and painted sky-blue. Everything was then enriched with gold and silver stars, or still with white stars for the more modest ones. This tradition of painting the roof sky-blue made it impossible to distinguish between stone and plaster vaults.
The canons of Syriac Maronite sacred architecture
During the period of the Governorate of the Mountain, the Maronite church called ‘basilica’ develops, at the same time as the Lebanese house with a central hall. And like this emblematic house of Lebanese architecture, the basilica is a typical expression of our heritage. It is unfairly considered a Latin import and it has never received the recognition it deserves. And yet, it could not be more in line with the Syriac Maronite tradition up to its smallest detail. Contrary to the prowess of our skilled and modern architects, the basilica-type church respects all the canons of our liturgical architecture in all aspects: its orientation, its apse flanked by two apsidioles, its steps leading up to the choir lined with a balustrade with its three doors and two lecterns, and its step towards the stone altar. On entering there is the baptistery on the left and the stoup on the right, both in noble material; there is a tabernacle behind the altar or in the left apsidiole, and finally the 14 Stages of the Cross still visible and in figurative form to catechize the faithful. And of course, we must mention the typical confessional, very characteristic in the east of the Syriac Maronite and Latin churches.
As the name sacristy (sacristia) itself gives away, it hints at the influence of Rome, while the top of the bell tower, often treated as a baldachin, perpetuates Syriac tradition. The Maronite basilica may have one or two bell towers, sometimes even three. They are covered with domes or pitched roofs of stone or tiles, sometimes conical, sometimes pyramidal.
Many examples in Lebanon
The variants of this model are many and its wealth is in its flexible customization. We find them in Saint George of Aqoura, Saint Séba and Our Lady of Bcharré, Our Lady of Beit Shbéb, Saint Estéphanos of Batroun, Saint Eli of Aleppo, Saint George of Kormakitis (Cyprus), Saint Peter and Paul of Qornet-Chehwén, Heart-of-Jesus in Qornet-Hamra, Saint Thècle of Bkessine and so many others across Lebanon.
The church piazza
One of the essential elements of this architecture, and which contemporary builders no longer care much about, is the church piazza. Today the piazza is replaced by car parks in front of the door, but this space used to be part of the ritual both in the daily approach and in its function as a place of processions (‘ziyéh’ in the Syriac language). The square emphasizes both the sacredness and the monumentality of the building and provides a place for socializing.
We do not notice these churches because they blend into our landscape. The architect of the time managed to step aside and spare us his prowess and virtuosity. It is in this that this church remains true to the spirit of the medieval hayklo. It is an essential feature of Maronite architecture and refers to an ascetic tradition based on humility.
The importance of these basilica-type Maronite churches is that they leave no doubt about their function as places of worship and about their Catholic and Maronite identity. Their persistent and accomplished concept, as well as their multiple variants, can thus form the model so sought after for the elaboration of a sacred Syriac Maronite architecture in Lebanon and in the diaspora.
Dr Amine Jules Iskandar is an architect and the former president of the Syriac Maronite Union – Tur Levnon. Amine 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 Beyrouth. For the article in Spanish see Maronitas.org.
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