When you walk into any Lebanese home built between the early 1880s and the 1940s, those intricately designed and colorful terrazzo handmade tiles underneath your feet are the first thing to catch your eye and heart. In a time before carpets were fashionable, these cement tiles were the chic way to give a home a unique identity and some color.
After being handed over a case filled with 12 brass molds and stumbling upon a jumble of colored tile fragments and exposed patterns from the 1800s in his family’s wrecked cement tile factory, retiree Edgard Chaya discovered the beauty of his family’s craft. Reviving Blatt Chaya, his family’s disused artisanal cement tile production in Lebanon, became a challenge that he took upon himself. It took him four years to make his first tile exactly the way his great-grandfather made it.
Blatt Chaya began in 1881 when Edgard’s great grandfather opened a factory in blatt, the outskirts of Beirut’s town center, to produce cement tiles with imported motifs that, at the time, colored the floors of several houses and apartments along the Mediterranean coast especially Italy, Portugal and Morocco. The family had a thriving tile production business but after 60 years of production, Blatt Chaya went through a down period marked by declining demands that lasted through Europe’s second world war and Beirut’s civil wars. All until Mr Chaya revived it.
The patterns often capture floral intricacies and geometric symmetry, while the choice of natural color pigments (moghra) create the mood. The interesting aspect of Blatt Chaya is that each tile is produced using artisanal and ancient practices, which gives it its human aspect with its tiny imperfections, allowing for a greater flexibility in the choice of colors and disposition of patterns.
Every tile is unique, each one is a piece of art created with devoted hands because the dyes are mixed each time so the color isn’t always the exact same hue, the molds are manually set, and even the sand used is sifted and laid out to dry by hand. The imperfections that result from this process are evidence that these pieces were made by a person.
With a small team of 12, the sand is first sifted through a netted strainer to remove all dust and impurities then washed with water five times. The wet sand is set out on fabric until it dries, resulting in a fine clean powder. Using the molds within a framing, colored cement is poured into the stencil and sealed. The frame is pressed to solidify the tile. After being dried and sanded down to a smooth finish, the environmentally friendly ingredients become immortalized works of art. Because terrazzo tiles have color within the cement mix, it withstands weathering and deterioration.
Those tiles, an imprint of our beautiful heritage that is being slowly destroyed, tell the tale of a time when products were handmade and artisans took pride in creating beautiful objects.
The lack of heat from the tiles of the floor of my house embraces me in the coldest love I have ever known and remind me of an artisanal craft that requires patience and pride. It takes passion and love for the earth to create from sand a piece of art that will return back to its destined place only more beautiful to blend in with its surroundings like old dreams blend in with our reality.
This land of cold floor tiles will adorn my house with beauty. Those tiles don’t change with the season. They grow old with it. They grow old with grace, style and exquisiteness, safeguarding a tradition that will always be forever Lebanon.
Here is small video about their production: