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Volume 18, Number 6November/December 1967

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The Beehive Enigma

Photographed by T. F. Walters

In this day of leopard-skin bikinis, hip talk and high-priced abstract art, distinctions between the primitive and modern in dress, language and art have become notably fuzzy. In the realm of architecture, they have occasionally become meaningless—as the enigma of the beehive houses of northern Syria demonstrates.

The conical dwelling, putative ancestor of the beehive house, predates man's recorded beginnings by a wide margin. Certainly among the first such dwellings were those of the Urgup Valley of Turkey's central Anatolian Plateau, dating to at least New Stone Age times. They owe their origin to Mount Argaeus, which in the distant past blew its top, distributing a layer of lava in a 40-mile radius around its base. During the ensuing millenia, wind and water eroded the valley, but as always in nature, unevenly: hard basaltic rocks littering the valley floor protected he softer volcanic stone directly beneath, leaving conical pillars standing like sentinels as the surrounding plain weathered away. Early Anatolian man hollowed out the cones by patient chiseling with flint and copper tools, and they became snug and secure habitations for the Hittite, Phrygian, Lydian, Greek, Armenian and Turkish generations that followed. Some are still in use today.

It is unknown whether independent invention or cultural diffusion from Anatolia was mother to the beehive house j in neighboring Cyprus, but excavations reveal that they were being constructed there as long ago as 3,700 B. C. Remarkably like the Anatolian cones in size, form and function, Cyprus's so-called tholoi were, however, constructed of mud-brick or pise, on a low masonry substructure. They contained hearths, platforms for sleeping, pits in the beaten-earth floor for the storage of grain, and even provided that ultimate in modern living—the split level. Less advanced, at least by current standards of togetherness, was the Cypriot custom of burying their dead in the floor of the main chamber, but for which it might have been called the living room.

At approximately the same period, tholoi were also being built and used as temples in Jericho on the shores of the Dead Sea, at Tepe Gawra northeast of Mosul in present-day Iraq, on the Lebanese coast at the ancient trading city of Byblos, and on the plains of northern Syria, At Khirbet Kerak (in northern Palestine) the beehive form reached its highest development, being used for structures of truly monumental proportions. One temple area was surrounded by a lava-rock wall four meters thick, and the temple walls proper, constructed of basalt rocks, were up to ten meters thick. Sunk into the interior walls were stone circles measuring up to nine meters in diameter, above which reared conical domes which, according to the canons of architectural design, must have been considerably higher, though they have long since collapsed. A comfortably old-fashioned feature of the Khirbet Kerak temple was built-in furniture—the use of which had been standard in Anatolian house construction since the seventh millenium B. C.

This wide distribution of a single building style in the same Chalcolithic era suggests a passing fashion. And it was—save in Syria.

In Syria this type of structure has persisted down to the present day, concentrated in whole beehive villages in the region of Aleppo. Eminent traveler Julian Huxley describes them as built of "unburnt mud or clay, with the floor slightly raised above the soil outside." The typical house is "spotlessly clean, with a recess for cooking and attractive decorations in bright tinsel paper on the walls. Though only a few yards in diameter, its high conical roof gave it a sense of space." In short, a structure different in no important respect from those built in the same area for the past 10,000 years.

Are we to ascribe the beehive house's tenacious longevity to mere inertia, to a sterility of the Syrians' inventive powers, or to the known conservatism of rural communities? Any of these explanations might be plausible, were it not that they also apply to the other beehive-house cultures where, however, this type of man-made housing vanished completely centuries ago. A more convincing explanation for this seeming enigma may be sought in the architectural response of "primitive" man to his environment.

In the Aleppo region this environment is especially harsh and uncompromising. Summers approach desert extremes in heat, and the only shade is the shadow cast by one's own body; winters are dry and cold, usually accompanied by bone-numbing winds off the bare plains. And his building materials? No structural steel, concrete, glass brick, plastic panel, ceramic tile, aluminum sheathing, or quarried stone—and even wood to construct a roof is rare and beyond the reach of the common man.

Restricted choice of building methods and materials left the north Syrians few alternatives, mostly painful. Their houses had to resist the mechanical stresses of wind pressure and the minor shocks of the frequent earthquakes which afflict the region. Door and window openings had to be few and small to minimize the sun's glare and the entry of hot air during the day as well as cold air at night. And they had to have a high-heat-capacity roof to absorb the sun's rays during the day, and slowly reradiate it toward the interior during the cool night; the roof, furthermore, should have a continuous surface to provide a maximum of shade with a minimum of area exposed to the sun, and it should slope steeply to shed the occasional but torrential rains. All this—and it had to built of the only abundant material locally available: adobe brick.

The beehive house was the answer, and one that a computer could scarcely improve upon. Its conical shape presents almost no structural difficulties, requires no high-tensile-strength reinforcements, and can be built quickly by unskilled labor. Inside, its high dome serves to collect the hotter air, and outside to shed rainfall instantly, before the brick can absorb it and crumble. Its thick roof-cum-wall is an excellent low-velocity heat-exchanger, and keeps interior temperatures between 85° and 75° F. while outside noon-to-midnight extremes range from 140° to 60°. Nothing cheaper—nor more rugged, more efficient, and easily serviced—can, be built at the same site from local materials. The beehive house, moreover, attains that ideal that architects eternally seek but so seldom find: it combines functionalism with simplicity, elegance and beauty.

The Syrian beehive houses provoke more questions than they answer: Were they independent inventions or only copies? Do they predate their stone Anatolian analogues? How did their unlettered builders apparently achieve instant fulfillment of Frank Lloyd Wright's dictum that "form follows function"? Above all, how did the villagers of northern Syria—in a changing world that glorifies novelty for its own sake—have the wisdom of knowing when to stop?

This article appeared on pages 8-9 of the November/December 1967 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1967 images.