by Mohamed al-Dbiyat
The village of Shaykh Hilal is located in the province of Hama on the edge of the Badiya (steppe), 55 km northeast of the town of Salamiyya. It is located on the important connecting road to ar-Raqqa, which leads from central Syria to the Euphrates region and the Jazira, in north-eastern Syria. The village is situated in a semi-arid area with an average rainfall of 200mm, which forms the western border of the steppe. Historically, the village lies on the ruins of a Byzantine town that flourished until the 9th century AD. The ruins are located in the eastern part of the village and can still be seen today through mounds of earth. The archaeological remains scattered here and there and the archaeological hill (Tell?) called “castle” by the inhabitants recall the ancient historical past of the former town. According to a field study by our “Association of Friends of Salamiyya”, the current village of Shaykh Hilal had about 700 inhabitants (150 families) in 2007.
Resettlement of the village
The Mongolian invasions of the 14th century led to the exodus of the urban population from the edge of the Badiya. Only after the area was conquered by nomadic tribes in the 18th and 19th centuries did resettlement to the villages begin again, as contemporary travelers report.
At the end of the first half of the 19th century, the Ottomans promoted the settlement of the Badiya, the Euphrates and the Syrian Jazira in order to strengthen the rule of the Ottoman Empire and expand grain cultivation to the east. As part of this policy, in 1920 migrants of the Ismailite faith from the coastal mountains (mainly the towns of al-Qadmus and Masyaf) settled in the village of Shaykh Hilal. Among them were mainly poor farmers who wanted to settle down on their own land.
The new settlers adopted the mud-brick construction method that had been widespread in the Syrian village landscape since ancient times due to the suitable soil conditions in this area. It is still typical for the construction of the domed houses. The inhabitants also used the stone remains of old houses to build their new accommodations.
The urban structure of Shaykh Hilal consists of houses with flat, conical or vaulted rooms, all made of mud bricks (made of hay and clay). The distribution of the houses is based on the chessboard pattern. In a way, this corresponds to the layout of an ancient city. The rooms or domes of the houses are located around a closed courtyard. This is large and spacious and is equipped with a well, a small garden or enclosed areas for the rearing of sheep or poultry.
According to the survey carried out by the Association of Friends of Salamiyya in 2007, the village had 348 domes (means rooms) of which 30% were in good condition and whose houses were habitable. Of the 133 houses in the village, 45 were abandoned. Due to the climatic, ecological, economic and social conditions, the building style – mudbricks on old stone foundations – is very common in poor areas.
The design of the domes varies in size, height and appearance. The height of some domes can be up to 5 meters, with a wooden door and small openings at the bottom to allow natural ventilation. On the outside of the dome, flat stones are highlighted at regular intervals. During periodic maintenance and restoration work, where the dome is covered with white lime to protect and beautify it, these facilitate access to the upper area. All in all, most of the houses are modestly furnished both inside and out. Exceptions are some large houses. They have one or two rooms made of cement or stone.
Economic life in Shaykh Hilal
The village extends over an area of approx. 3,300 hectares. The economic activity of the villagers (barley cultivation) depends on rain-fed agriculture and artificial irrigation, which has encouraged the settlement of the area.
The three underground water pipes (also known as Roman canals and known as Foggara irrigation in the Arab Maghreb), dating from the Byzantine and Abbasid epochs, were used to irrigate the fields. Regular cleaning and maintenance by the villagers enabled the pipes to be used until the end of 1940. The use of mechanical pumps ended the collective, environmentally friendly use of groundwater by the village community.
Livestock and sheep breeding was another important branch of the village’s economy.
The agricultural use of the Badiya was banned by the Syrian government in 1995, as it is believed to be the cause of the continuing desertification.
This led to a population decline of half. In 2007, the working population in public institutions (schools, pharmacies, municipal administration) or other state institutions in the Badiya only included the 700 inhabitants in the village. In order to improve the livelihood in Shaykh Hilal, the “Association of Friends of Salamiyya” (founded in 2006) started a development project in 2008. The idea was walcomed by the villagers and sponsors as well, in particular the Swiss Development Agency (DEZA) and the french Catholic Association to Combat Poverty.
A unique project
The focus of the project was on solidarity tourism, supporting smaller projects and protecting the architectural heritage of the village. Thanks to its geographical location on the border of the desert steppe and the beauty of its mud-brick architecture, the area is very popular with tourists. The project began with the renovation of 12 domes in 6 houses, which were also equipped with modern bathrooms. This encouraged the villagers to take care of their architectural heritage. During the first three years (until 2010) the village received 537 Syrian and foreign tourists (mainly from France and Italy). At the beginning of the project, 6 families provided their domed houses in which visitors spent 757 nights during the first six months of the project (2007). The number of tourists has increased continuously since 2008: 41 visitors in 2008, 158 visitors in 2009 and 335 visitors in 2010. Due to the tragic events in Syria that continue to this day, the project was closed in 2011. After the area became the scene of the conflict between the different forces, the population left the area, although the conflict did not directly reach the village and the houses were not damaged.
The village of Shaykh Hilal is an important example of the development of mud brick architecture in central Syria and shows that the cultural heritage of ancient civilizations is still alive. The development program launched by our institution includes the attempt to develop a new building with high environmental quality, based on the use of local materials, reviving old experiences and traditional building techniques. The choice of mud as a building material and its introduction to the building process illustrate the numerous advantages of this material: the creative integration of modern and traditional techniques, the possibility of enhancing the clay architecture accessible to all, the respectful treatment of nature and to meet the demands of aesthetic and modern life.