Sunday, November 5, 2023

Syria’s Historic Adobe Houses at Risk from War & Displacement


Traditional Mud-Brick Houses in Northern Syria at Risk of Disappearing

Umm Amuda Kabira, a village in Aleppo province, Syria, is known for its traditional mud-brick houses, also called “beehive houses.” These conical adobe structures have been a part of the region’s architecture for thousands of years. However, due to 12 years of war and conflict, these unique houses are now at risk of disappearing.

The mud-brick houses are designed to withstand the harsh desert climate. Their thick walls help keep the interiors cool during scorching summers and retain warmth in the winter. The villagers of Umm Amuda Kabira have long relied on these houses for shelter and protection from the elements.

Unfortunately, the village has suffered greatly during the war. Once home to 3,000 to 3,500 residents and around 200 mud houses, Umm Amuda Kabira now stands deserted. The heavy fighting and occupation by Daesh group jihadists forced the villagers to flee their homes. Aleppo province witnessed intense battles between Syrian government forces, rebels, and extremists from 2012 until Russian-backed government forces gradually regained control.

Although the violence has subsided in the area, instability and economic hardships persist throughout Syria. Only a fraction of the original population has returned to Umm Amuda Kabira, leaving the mud-brick houses abandoned and in disrepair. Weeds now grow out of the roofs, and the walls are riddled with cracks and holes.

Mahmud Al-Mheilej, a schoolteacher in his 50s, laments the state of his village. He explains that there is no one left to take care of the houses, leading to their decay. Without intervention, these historic structures will eventually vanish without a trace.

The war in Syria began in 2011 and quickly escalated into a devastating conflict involving foreign powers and jihadist groups. The ongoing fighting has resulted in the deaths of over 500,000 people and the displacement of millions. For many Syrians, like Jamal Al-Ali, 66, the mud houses hold deep sentimental value. They were born and raised in these traditional dwellings, which provided comfort and protection throughout the seasons.

The war has not only displaced the residents but also disrupted the knowledge and skills required to build and maintain these unique structures. Local masons fled the fighting, leaving the region without their ancestral expertise. Issa Khodr, 58, who sought refuge in Lebanon, is one of the few remaining Syrians with the knowledge of building mud-brick houses. With support from the local charity Arcenciel, he has been able to recreate these rustic dwellings in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, which is home to a large Syrian refugee population.

The project aims to preserve and pass on this traditional knowledge among the refugees so that when they eventually return to their devastated homeland, they can rebuild their own homes. Lebanese architect Fadlallah Dagher explains that the construction technique used in these mud-brick houses is believed to have originated during the Neolithic period around 8,000 years ago. By teaching the refugees these skills, they can contribute to the reconstruction efforts in Syria, which lacks resources.

The plight of the mud-brick houses in northern Syria highlights the devastating impact of war on cultural heritage. These unique structures not only provide shelter but also represent a rich history and tradition. Efforts to preserve and revive this architectural heritage are crucial for maintaining the cultural identity of the region and ensuring that future generations can appreciate and learn from these ancient techniques.

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