by Houda Kassatly
The war in Syria caused irreparable damage to ancient towns and many archeological sites. Further, it threatens to destroy specific architectural traditions of intangible heritage. Who ever had visited the region since more than 200 years, was impressed by the beauty and the sophisticated construction of the dome houses. Built from sundried bricks of local mud they consist also of a sustainable development.
In large parts of Syria, dome houses have been common during the 19th and 20th century. They spanned from East of Homs, to the south of Aleppo near the salt lake of Jabbul, from Raqqa on the Euphrates North to the Kobane-Region and the Turkish region of Harran. Even close to the Syrian Desert, villages like Shaykh Hilal in the East of Salamiyya consist of dome houses. Farmers and settled nomads live in these regions, where they arrived to establish a modest agriculture. Since about nearly fifty years inhabitants leave the regions for better income and many other reasons. As their houses were empty and not maintained any more, they become ruins. Other houses are still inhabited. The knowledge of building such houses is going to vanish, although this type of construction has a several thousand years old history in the Near East.
When I travelled to the rural regions South of Aleppo in March 2018, I discovered abandoned more ghost villages, than I had known before the war. Dome houses fall apart as victims of a conflict that lasted eight years. Through my observations, I concluded that a strategy to safeguard this specific type of housing is highly urgent, and I decided to create a building site for a dome house with two goals. First, it will preserve and document knowledge about this type of housing. Second, it will demonstrate that the architecture of dome houses can be adapted to contemporary needs.
For obvious security reasons I necessarily installed the construction site in Lebanon and at the project-center of the NGO “arcenciel” in Taanayel located on the Beqaa plain. There, we built a dome house with the support of experienced Syrian masons.
During the first phase of the project’s implementation, we struggled to find a master mason, who would still possessed knowledge of traditional construction techniques and the skills needed to complete construction. Before setting up the building site, a thorough process of investigation and interviews was necessary. In Lebanon, the Syrian refugee camps are divided into different departments, depending on the regional background of the tent dwellers. They were our most important source of information as we gathered hands-on workers for the team. The team consisted of individuals familiar with this specific type of construction and also capable of implementing the project because they were committed to the traditional building practice.
By the end of October 2018, a house with two corbelled domes was completed and unveiled. Financial support came from the Cultural Protection Fund of British Council. Design and implementation required the generous cooperation of two architects, an ethnologist, a master mason and ten contract workers. Our team currently is writing a construction manual, which will be published and distributed on the website of “arcenciel”. It will be a guidebook to everyone who wants to repeat undertake similar efforts.
Although the outcome of this project has eliminated any doubt concerning the value of this kind of work, future applications should consider some pragmatic questions in regard to the future of this type of architecture.
In the event that refugees return to Syria, they will face many different problems. First, some refugees may not be able to return because they may no longer enter Lebanon. For families, it is likely that individuals will return in advance in order to secure housing for the entire family. For some, a return may occur only after a political solution is reached that permits the return of opponents to the regime and after the region is demilitarised. Generally, I fear that the architectural form of the dome house will not be considered or reintroduced. Additional pragmatic reasons include difficulties in securing the expertise needed for construction. The conflict has augmented to disruption the transfer of expertise between master mason and apprentices. The few remaining experts familiar with this type of architecture have disappeared. Further challenges may arise during the construction of the domes. It is also possible that an emotional distance exists for those who have been separated from their cultural heritage for so many years and who have become familiar with different types of environments. The children come of age are without any personal experience with traditional architecture. They might likely not identify with traditional architectural forms and spaces.
Of course, at the moment, such future possibilities are merely hypothetical, and Syria’s future remains uncertain. Relocation for returning refugees will probably occur under difficult and deplorable conditions. Many refugees, for example, will not have the financial resources to acquire needed construction materials. The pressure to find any accommodation will be high, and these returning refugees will need to make do with local materials. Such construction materials are composed of mud and may be the only resources for providing housing. Building mud houses may be born out of necessity. If construction experts will suggest solutions and applications adapted to contemporary needs, living in these houses need not be seen any as problematic. Instead, mud dome houses may be appreciated as an appropriate solution to the inevitable housing crisis. The traditional Syrian dome house may answer to some important challenges of our time.