Vernacular Architecture and its Significance as Cultural Heritage

About Eritrea - History & Culture

The term vernacular architecture commonly refers to structures built by people whose design decisions are influenced by traditions in their culture.

The Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (2000) describes vernacular architecture as “unpretentious, simple, indigenous, traditional structures made of local materials and following well-tried forms and types”.

The vast spectrum of the world’s climate, terrain, and culture has necessitated diverse forms of vernacular architecture which contains inherent, unwritten information about how to optimize buildings’ energy performance at low-cost and through using local materials. Vernacular dwellings have evolved throughout the course of human history in response to challenges of climate, building materials, and cultural expectations in a given place. Traditions inherent to vernacular architecture reflect the ingenuity of local builders who possess specific knowledge about their place on the planet.

Man has always sought to provide shelter for himself by using local materials and techniques in ways that are best suited to meet his own individual, socio-cultural needs and also fit into the existing climatic conditions. Yet, vernacular architecture has often been depicted as local, primitive, unattractive, and unworthy of being preserved. Apparently, this part of cultural heritage has faced neglect due to the aforementioned factors. However, despite this portrayal of vernacular architecture, a close examination of it gives insight into the ways that traditional builders used local materials and techniques to display technological sophistication and ingenuity in these structures. An appreciation and preservation of vernacular architecture is crucial to understand how local communities and societies communicated a sense of communality and representation into their buildings and settlements.

For many years, a large number of fascinating examples of vernacular buildings survived in Eritrea. Many of these structures are in villages, while a representation of their parts is, to a certain extent, incorporated in modern buildings located in towns and cities. The structures are either unique to the Eritrean landscape or could have similarities with other structures elsewhere in the Horn of Africa. Typical examples of contemporary vernacular architecture in Eritrea are provided from the Hdmo and Agdo vernacular structures, as well as the wooden architectural features along coastal towns of Eritrea. While emphasizing that these contemporary structures reflect cultural and symbolic representations of the communities in Eritrea and thus elements of our cultural heritage, much of the emphasis in this article is given to what is deemed to be a representation of domestic (vernacular) architecture in the archaeological and historical record of Eritrea. Representations of vernacular architecture in our archaeological record are prototypes of the existing forms and an attempt is made in this article to highlight the archaeological and historical significance of these architectural features.

To date, the earliest evidence of the indications of vernacular architecture (related to permanent settlements) in Eritrea comes from the mid-2nd millennium B.C. to the 1st millennium A.D. archaeological sites. This period coincided with the flourishing of agro-pastoral settlements over much of the country and is characterized by the rise of permanent villages and urban precursors in the Horn in the 1st millennium B.C. and the subsequent flourishing of urban centers by the 1st millennium CE. Residential units, village ensembles, and urban centers with remarkably significant reflections of domestic architectural features appeared over the span of the millennia and become references for understanding the evolution of vernacular architecture in the Horn of Africa. As far as permanent settlements are concerned, the first archaeological evidence to date comes from the sites of Sembel and Mai-Chihot in the Asmara plateau. These date from the 8th to 4th centuries B.C.

Wall features reminiscent of vernacular architecture were exposed during excavations around the sites. The distinctive features of these architectural units revealed that the vernacular examples, in the form of stones assembled in mud mortar, were unique to the settlements that flourished in the Horn during the 1st millennium B.C. Several hypotheses have been suggested for the reconstruction of these architectural features in comparison with contemporary forms. The elaboration of the vernacular architecture became more visible with the rise of urban civilizations in the Horn by the 1st millennium B.C. to the 1st millennium C.E., where the architecture showed a regional pattern and distribution across many of the renowned archaeological sites. The typical monumentality that appeared in the region during the period was accompanied with the elaboration of what is commonly called the “domestic architecture” of the era, quite visible in residential units, urban ensembles, and peripheral areas of sites like Matara, Qohaito, and Adulis.

The ingenuity in local architecture can be discerned from these archaeological sites. Following the demise of these urban centers, the visibility of the vernacular architecture is witnessed in the medieval period where evolved techniques, such as the “monkey head” building techniques have been fully incorporated in the construction of ancient churches and monastic complexes. Local features of construction are also witnessed across the coast and in centers like Dahlak Kebir. Similarly, the blending of vernacular architecture with external influences became quite visible. Towards the beginning of the colonial period, local elements became fully blended with external styles of building. This phenomenon is quite pronounced in urban settings and along coastal towns and cities, while prototypes and contemporary vernacular architecture dominated much of rural Eritrea. A systematic study of the evolution of the vernacular architecture and its transformation amid the influences of modernity that spanned over a millennia is, therefore, an important aspect of studies in the cultural heritage of Eritrea.

At present, most of these vernacular buildings are in a state of disrepair and they suffer from neglect. Their preservation is not only a cultural requirement, but also an economic and development consideration. The vernacular building tradition inherent to the Eritrean landscape, which makes such ingenious use of natural resources without the consumption of additional power, is still alive and there is also much to be gained from understanding such an elaborated building tradition.

Vernacular architecture has undergone a number of changes over the years as a result of the influence of modernity. This has led to the emergence of contemporary approaches to building in the society. Values of the vernacular, however, can still be very relevant to our contemporary buildings. For instance, vernacular architecture uses local eco-friendly materials to address local climatic conditions. Currently, with the growth of climate change and global warming, it is becoming increasingly clear that there is a need to revisit the use of our local building materials. With some improvements, our local materials can function as effectively as modern materials, yet with the advantage of not harming the environment. Values, ethics, family living, and cultural practices define vernacular architecture. Creative means of expressing culture should be encouraged in our contemporary buildings in order to allow the preservation of this important aspect of our cultural heritage.