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Panoramic Views > Mount Lebanon > Jbeil-Byblos > Legends and Facts

Legends and Facts

I am going to talk about a place, a site, which I leave rather vague, an anonymous Lebanese village with its houses, its memories, its customs, and its old remains, all going back to a time which belongs to the past. I shall talk of odd nooks where we loved to go during our childhood but which modern trends have completely wiped out once and for all. In these places we used to live and carry on our traditions of births, baptisms, feast days, dances, internments, folklore, games, family visits, love and friendship, the four seasons, and harvest time.

“In 1936 two French archeologists, Mr. and Mrs. Dunand, were finishing an exhaustive dig at Byblos, when they made an important discovery: under the last levels where the ashes of twenty civilizations lay on top of one another, they were surprised to find the most ancient dwellings of stone blocks known in the world, dating from a time when Egypt and Chaldea knew to build only with brooks of baked earth. Here in Lebanon man dared to attack the hard rock.” (Charles Corm)

What was unusual about these ancient houses in Byblos was that each one in addition to hewn stone walls had seven pillars, of which three were enclosed on the right-hand wall and three n the left-hand wall, with the seventh standing in the middle of the dwelling in order to hold up the roof and consolidate the pillars in the walls by means of beams of wood which it bore horizontally. From the plan of such houses the emblem of the seven pillars of wisdom was derived.

For my paintings I have done a great deal of research and work on the theme of “the house and the village in Lebanon “.

The house and its inmates have a very intimate relationship, bearing on hospitality, respect for values. friendships, mutual confidence, patience, help to one another, generosity and customs, all of which is reflected in the simplicity of the environment of the dwelling. The concept of a house is simple but functional, with a cellar, a terrace and an “upper room”. The traditional house was occupied only in the evening, for in the morning and throughout the day its inhabitants were out in the fields working.

The terrace of the main room was held up by a stone column or by the large trunk of a tree, while the terrace itself was of puddled earth spread over boards and branches and well packed by a heavy roller so as not to let through the rain. Sometimes the houses had two or three rooms, including a large reception room.

Built into one of the inner walls of the large room was the famous youk (a Turkish word). This was a large space inset in the wall like a doorless cupboard where were stacked mattresses and blankets, which in the evening were spread over the floor as bedding. In the entrance or on the terrace was a stand for the water jars, with two large holes in which were stood the jars, with beside them a jug with a spout and perhaps a couple of cups so one could serve oneself with drinking water.. In the place where people ate there would be a small rectangular wooden table six to twelve inches high which would be placed in the middle for mealtimes. Everybody would sit around it cross-legged on the floor, stretching out their hands to serve themselves.

The fire was not lit indoors because of the smoke, but in a corner out of the wind, the sun and the rain. Bread was kneaded and baked in the cellar or some such convenient place.

In the Lebanese household work was distributed according to the seasons, most of it coming in August, September and October, with the harvests, the cleaning and the chopping of wood for cooking and heating. Above all there was the preparation of the mouneh, that is to say the winter provisions for man and beast; this comprised burghol (wheat crush and then dried in the sun), cereals, jams, tomato purée, sun-dried fruits, kishk (dried labneh – curds ground up with fine borghol), butter products, cheese, labneh, oil, distillations, and so on. Most important was peace of mind, understanding, a happy family life.

One such traditional house is still occupied on the north-east side of the village of Eddeh. The interior is formed of several arches, making it very picturesque. One can still see the youk. The main room is separated by a diwan where one can sit down or go to sleep. The house is simply furnished with the bare needs, nothing superfluous. One notices the serviettes hung on the walls and the carpets spread on the floor. The house gives an impression of cleanliness, of welcoming warmth and of repose, with delightful cheerfulness.

Another old house, on the south side of Eddeh, is no more than an empty ruin. But over the terrace there is still a vine laden with bunches of succulent grapes. Here also the interior is in the form of arches. One finds only one window left and that has broken glass, while the wood of the doors has all rotted. One feels that people just like ourselves have in the past lived here and loved the place. There is the ghost of a hearth where there are some ashes and fragments of wood. There is a broken jug and a reservoir into which water drips from the ceiling, in all of which memories linger. Yes, nostalgia lies heavy in the air and even the garden is abandoned and weeds push up everywhere.

One particular day, I went for a walk, going from Annaya to Ehmej, and found myself a little lower down at Kfaar Baal, a village opening on to a wide horizon. A valley stretched to where I saw a couple of isolated houses. The first one was occupied, furnished, and clean, with carpets on the floor, looking very agreeable. There was a large room divided into two halves. There was one corner for use in the evenings and another with a large table for receiving guests and for use as a dining room. The two parts of the room wee separated by a wooden cupboard behind which lay the kitchen.

In the interior were four columns, thick whitewashed tree-trunks, which supported the terrace. This also was composed of tree-trunks with branches and puddled earth compressed by a stone roller. I guessed this house to be a hundred years old but still habitable and breathing nostalgia. Such houses nowadays are not often to be found but in this case there was still life and movement with a feeling of warmth, so its occupants could consider themselves favored by fortune!

The second house was in good condition but more or less abandoned. It was occupied by an elderly peasant who did not wish to adapt himself to modern times. The main room was used as a store room, a dump. Were it to be restored, cleaned up and repainted, this house could be made as pleasant as the other one.

In both houses the emplacements of the youk and the divan were both visible. Our forefathers were not very demanding. The four houses I have spoken of are very rare examples and show that before the age of reinforced concrete and the new techniques people knew how to enjoy life and be happy.

Now the old relationship between the home and its occupants have been lost. Can this rich jewel be got back? Yes, surely it can! I remember how some fifty years ago I was offered tea on the terrace of this house which then was so clean and so full of life and movement.

Joseph Matar
Translation from the French: Kenneth J. Mortimer

- Kfar Baal old house 1: >> View Movie << (2017-10-15)
- Kfar Baal old house 2: >> View Movie << (2017-10-15)


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