Mtein Square, Tradition and Change
It is the architectural heritage of a people that reveals its past history and all the riches of its culture. Traditional Lebanese architecture bears witness to a particular way of life that is a dialogue between man and nature. Mtein, a sun-bathed village in the Lebanese mountain, with its fine architectural features, palaces and dwellings from different periods, serves as a fine example. But what is typical of the village is best seen in its central square, known as the Midan.
Mtein, “Mother of the towns of the Metn” according to Father Martin in Histoire du Liban, 1888, is one of the oldest villages in Lebanon. Human presence there goes back at least to ancient Roman times, said Maurice Fevret in 1950. But only in 1616 did its public square become an import centre, when Alam ed-Dine Bin Billama, a Moqaddam, installed himself there. Later, in 1711 after the battle of Ain Dara, the Abillama family, being on the side of Emir Haidar Shehab, received the right to call themselves emirs, princes, as a sign of gratitude. They then divided the Mten district into three, Emir Mourad making Mtein his seat.
At this time four palaces were built surrounding the Square. This was an area of some five thousand square meters where all the festivities symbolizing seventeenth-century feudal power took place, and right down to the middle of the nineteenth century it was known as the Square of the Princes, Midan el-Umara. As its Arabic name indicates, it was reserved to the Emirs for major reunions, for military parades and for horse races. Three features distinguish it, the muqa’ed or stone seats for the Emirs, the kiosk for the princesses, and finally the platform at the porch of the Mir Mahmoud Palace near the Court of Justice where criminals were hanged.
After 1860, with the abolition of the feudal regime, the Abillama were unable to maintain their palaces, and found themselves obliged to sell them to the people of the township. In this way the Midan became the public square of Mtein and henceforth served as the center of village activity.
With the passing of time, local building construction marked the square off, reducing its unexploited space. The new architecture, whose style and forms grew up quite spontaneously, stood out from the context and style of the palaces. In 1975, 25% of the built-up area of Mtein already surrounded the square, which was served by the main road joining the two Metn districts as well as by two secondary roads and a foot walk.
Given its geographical situation and growing economic activity, the Square became the natural meeting-place for the locals. It was here that the seasonal festivities took place, such as the zajal (sung poetic contests), plays, musicals, official receptions and games – which explains the admittedly delayed setting up by the town council of a sports club, a music club and a town band in the surrounding buildings.
It is a fact that, given its present state, the general layout of the Square cannot be grasped straight away and also that the surrounding historic structures suffered much during the fighting of the 1980s, but there are still quite interesting features to be seen around. Here the entrance of a palace stands in an extension of a minor road, while over there a kiosk may be seen at a bend of the way between the branches of a tree. Everywhere you find a pleasant view or some unexpected feature, a place for leisure or a place to meet people.
Today the Square is rich in history and architectural treasures, offering many advantages for sightseeing and for commercial, cultural and social activity, and therefore deserves serious and special interest for the preservation of its architectural and urban heritage. While awaiting better days, is the old Midan of the seventeenth century, testifying to the birth of a true town planning, not worthy to serve as an example or at least as an inspiration now at the end of the twentieth century? (N.B., La Place de Mtein, text taken from the work of Architect Issam Salameh, Mtein Image d’une architecture Libanaise – 1999)
400 YEARS OF HISTORY IN MTEIN (MTAIN)
Nothing seems to me more appropriate that recounting the history of Mtein in order to work out the dialogue between spirit and matter that underlies the soul of my village.
Through that living tool the photograph, this chapter of our history will pass on part of our national heritage and prove to be an authentic witness to our Lebanese culture which unceasingly wages an interminable war down the generations to find itself one day where the peace brought by human culture can take root.
As against the general background of the history of Lebanon, the history of Mtein with all its feudal, rural, industrial, educational and national variety has never been thoroughly brought together. Its alternation of politico-social epochs reflects a rich moral culture and consequently a means of power with a consequent harmony between rural and architectural organization on the one hand and the social homogeneity of four centuries on the other. These two elements lead to a town plan perfectly in harmony with our values.
Several dates will serve as reference points for deeper study of the society and culture of Mtein.
The year 1616
First date in the recorded history of Mtein. The death of the first Emir Abillama of the Mourad branch of the Abillamas in the presence of the Kantar family.
The year 1711
The Battle of Ain Dara and the beginning of the feudal authority of the Abillama princes over Mtein.
The year 1790
The Akl and Kantar families face-to-face with the Abillama princes.
Beginning of Mtein’s educational role with the foundation there of St. Joseph’s monastery and school.
The year 1860
End of the feudal regime and beginning of the industrial period. Mtein becomes the agricultural, commercial and industrial center of the region, with seven silk mills and twelve wine presses.
The year 1914
First World War, during which Mtein lost two-thirds of its thousand inhabitants, half through death and half through flight elsewhere.
The year 1939
Rebirth of Mtein’s educational role, with at least four government and private schools.
The year 1975
The war in Lebanon ravaged Mtein, which lost many of its people and 80% of its buildings.
Mtein is one of the most extensive land survey and municipal areas in Lebanon
Mtein, a true lesson in architectural experiment, embraces the whole range of our building methods:
-The rectangular house with a beaten earth roof.
-The house composed of two rectangles, one with a tiled roof and the other with a beaten earth roof.
-The two-floored square or oblong house with a tiled roof.
-The house with gallery.
-The palaces in form of U or L or a square with patios.
These different kinds of construction express the culture of the village people who maintain their values in order to build their future and hew out their refuges to safeguard their bodies and souls in a rural setting reflecting their homogeneous community culture around Mtein Square.