A house made of plinths
Posted by: Maria Atalanti
Published on: 06/06/2021Back to Blog
Chirokitia is the oldest Neolithic settlement in Cyprus. It was inhabited since the 7th millennium BC, perhaps even earlier. Today, several houses of this settlement are preserved, some of which have been rebuilt. They are circular with a stone base and the rest of the part of uncooked plinths (bricks) and flat ceiling.
The house I was born in, despite being in the city, has a stone base and the walls are built with uncooked plinths. The roof is made of tiles. More than 9 thousand years ago, people in this corner of the Mediterranean built their homes in the same way.
For those who do not know, the plinths are uncooked bricks, made with clay of soil and straw and dried in the sun. Ancient and quite simple method. People used to make them by themselves and then built their humble homes. The walls were covered with lime or plaster, the roof was made of tree trunks (volitzia in the Cypriot dialect), on top of knitted reeds and soil (this type of flat roof, it was called “doma”). In later constructions it was common to put tiles on sloping roofs and the house was ready. The use of uncooked plinths was more widespread in lowland areas. In the mountains were used stones that abounded in the environment. That is how every family housed their children and dreams. There, they faced the cold of the winter and the warm summers of the Mediterranean, with great success.
My family, like many others in the pre-1960s, was poor. They were people who left the countryside and came to the city to “find their luck”, to have a better chance at life. They kept shilling by shilling the little money they were getting, and their dream initially was to buy a plot of land and then build a house.
My mother had bought a plot of land in an area that was then remote and uninhabited. Today it is almost considered a city centre. I remember her telling me she did not choose the corner plot, so there would not have been heavy traffic and her kids would not be in danger from cars – when she would have kids – so she got the second one in the row. She had bought it, at the time, for around a hundred pounds, which she had collected with great deprivation and difficulties. But when she realized that her sister, Eleni, could not buy her own plot of land, she gave her half of her own.
So, around the 50s, they decided to build two identical houses (double house). The design of the house was done by a young man, who I think was not an architect, but wanted to study an architect, and basically it was a simple sketch that outlined the rooms and their proportions. They submitted it to the Land Registry and got permission to built the houses.
With the little money they had, they could not afford a contractor to build the house. That is how the whole family decided to put up their sleeves and act. The four sisters – Vassilia, Eleni, Susanna, and Elpiniki with the big brother Christos. There was another brother, Neophytos, but he was the charmer and world traveller of the family, with a completely different lifestyle. Maybe we will talk about him another time.
Well, Uncle Christos was not a builder, but that did not stop him from having the general command of the construction. He employed two young men, completely unskilled, and with all the sisters involved, they started the big project. Initially, using soil from the yard and straw, they made the clay, which was placed in moulds to form the plinths (the bricks), which then were placed in the sun to dry. I think at the time, my father had not appeared on the horizon yet. Then construction started, by my uncle and the unskilled young men.
They finished one of the houses first, my family home, and rented it to a family of English soldiers, to be able to get an income, and everyone else lived in the other house – that of Aunt Eleni – which was unfinished. There were of course the walls and the roof, possibly the floor. But there was no plaster on the walls, and the plinths shattered to small pieces that fell to the floor. Aunt Susanna, who was obsessed with order and cleanliness, solved the problem by lining the walls with old newspapers, like wallpaper. Today such a view may have seemed advanced artistic, but then it was the result of a lack of money. She told me this story by herself, when she had come back to Cyprus from Australia, on two occasions, to look after her two sisters, Vassilia and Eleni, when they fell ill with cancer.
Sometime, both houses were finished, both sisters got married and housed in their families, our house, which I can talk more about – at least as long as my mother was alive– was like a love hug and a nest for any acquaintance or relative who wanted somewhere to stay. I remember relatives and friends who stayed with us from time-to-time, either to do a job in the city, or because they had to visit the doctor etc. It should be noted here that our house was small, just two bedrooms and all of these people, had to sleep in the living room or in the kitchen. According to my mother: only the crazy ones do not fit in the places.
When my parents died, and I stayed alone in the house, there came a time when I had to decide what to do with it. Would I demolish it? Would I sell it? Would I renovate it? And while all the musings and arguments tended towards selling it, the heart began to argue and tell me the advantages of the house. In the end it won, and I managed to turn the humble family home into a small palace for me, maintaining the style and adding all modern comforts. Many times, when I open the door and visitors see the interior of the house, they make exclamations of admiration for what they face.
The occupants of the house next door, that of Aunt Eleni, passed away, in a tragic way one could say. The house was left empty and abandoned. Luckily, my sister had bought it before the last one of them died. Still, the circumstances were difficult, and the house seemed to have been surrendered to the merciless wheel of time.
Until Artemis, my sister’s younger daughter, decided to renovate it and make it her own home. Where everyone in the neighbourhood was waiting for a bulldozer to come to demolish it, the builders came, and they removed all the coatings from the walls and the plinths(bricks) appeared. Those plinths made by the young sisters, who arrived from their village, and with their own hands, were determined to build their dreams with clay and straw.
Lately I have been watching a show about an antique dealer travelling with his car into the UK and collecting furniture and artwork made in past centuries. They are sold, in quite high prices, to customers who wish to decorate their homes with objects, which have been engraved with the “patina” of history, on their surface. This love may signal peoples’ desire to bond with the past and steal, through material objects, energy and quality from the efforts and life of their ancestors.
To me, these plinths (bricks) are expensive antiques. They were not made by famous companies of the past, nor important craftsmen. They have their origin in Neolithic Chirokitia and their value in the sweat of the people of Cyprus, who through the centuries have managed to build life and homeland. Their timelessness has remained untouched, and they can – if we wish – connect us inextricably with our past, history and mostly our roots.