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Toula: the humble village, setting new horizons in new times

5. Culture

The Maronite saint associated with the village is Saint Assia, and on the last Sunday of September, the village holds an annual Summer Festival in his honour.  At the festival, members of the village celebrate with an outdoor party, where the traditional meat dish of the village, called hrissi, is cooked and eaten, arak is drunk, and there is dancing and ringing of the bells of the church of Saint Assia.

Members of the village describe the preparation of hrissi as follows.   At the beginning of the day, the members of the village collect wood suitable for burning from the neighbouring forest.  At the same time, other members of the village position metal bases, which have a large opening at the front, upon which sits a dissit.  This is a large metal pot, whose diameter at the top is about 70 cm and has sides which taper upwards and two large handles under the rim.  The wood is placed inside the metal stands and is lit.  After being filled with water, the dissit is placed on top of the metal stand.

A person chosen from outside the village because of their special skills, assisted by others from the village, comes to slaughter the same number of lambs as there are dissits and to clean the lambs in preparation for boiling.  Each lamb is then cut into four or five large pieces and placed in the dissit to boil. While the meat is boiling, fat and other residues from the meat come to the surface and are removed through a filtering process. The meat is left to simmer for over four to five hours, before wheat is added, together with pepper, salt and other herbs, such as cinnamon.

The hrissi is left all day and night, for over 14 hours, to boil and finally to simmer, to about 3.00 am in the early morning.  At this time, when the ingredients are soft and meshed together, mixing of the ingredients further is carried out by large wooden stirrers.  It is then served hot on plates to all members of the village.  From about 3.00 am until about 10.00 am, people from the village eat hrissi and distribute it to their homes using smaller domestic pots.  Many visitors to the village, usually from overseas, also take some hrissi away with them.

The slaughtering of the lambs is done in remembrance of and thanksgiving to God and Mar Assia (Saint Assia), the patron saint of Toula.  Many of the villages in the Zgharta District, including the greater village of Zgharta, celebrate their patron saints in a similar manner through thanksgiving and the preparation of hrissi.

An object in the museum, which is also important for food preparation, that is, of the meat dish kibbi nayyeh, is the jirren el kibbi.  Dating from the first half of the 20th century AD, the bowl is made of red marble and has an octagonal outer edge on the top, a roughly finished rounded body and a flat base.  The rim of the bowl itself is flat and has a round inner edge and the cavity of the bowl is hemispherical with a smooth inner surface.  The mallet, which is used to pound the meat and the wheat in the bowl, is made of lathe turned wood.  The kibbi nayyeh bowl is made from a hard non-porous rock slab, which is flattened at the bottom and, by a long and hard process, a round cavity is hand-cut.   This cavity allows the pounding of ground meat against the hard stone of the jirren.  Many residences in Toula have owned and kept a traditional kibbi nayyeh bowl.

Kibbi nayyeh or raw kibbi is a well known Lebanese dish, made of minced raw lamb or beef mixed with spices and fine bulgur. Various species of wheat are used to make the cereal food bulgur, but usually durum wheat.  Green peppers and green onions, and mint leaves and olive oil accompany kibbi nayyeh at a meal.  It is eaten with pita bread and occasionally with a sauce of garlic, olive oil and lemon juice. A glass of arak is usually served with kibbi nayyeh.

Members of the village relate that to make kibbi nayyeh about one kilogram of fat free lamb or round steak is usually needed.  Other ingredients are bulgur, one green onion, pepper, salt, cinnamon, cumin, hot cayenne pepper and dried mint leaves.  Before being placed in the jerrin, the meat is cut and ground into fine pieces.  After the pounding has been completed, the meat is removed from the jerrin and mixed with the bulgur and other ingredients. It is returned to the jerrin to be pounded together. All of the ingredients of the kibbi nayyeh are then kneaded to produce a mash-like substance.  A lot of work is required to combine the grain and other ingredients with the meat in order to make the smooth paste-like mixture.   There are many people who believe that a food processor machine does not produce the same texture.  Source: Peter Zada, Monzer Farah and members of the village

Cedars of Lebanon are famous from the Bible, and this is the region where great monotheistic religions, which have influenced world history, have developed, such as the Christian church of which the Maronite Church is a significant part. The centre of village life is marked by church, the festival and this lovely tree, called the sindyeni, which is situated next to the church of St Assia.   Such trees are often the central feature of villages in the region, and indeed are found in villages in other parts of the eastern Mediterranean, such as in Greece. Source: Nicholas Hardwick, members of the village

The marriage festivals of the village are typical of those of the Maronite communities in the region.

The history and culture of Toula is characteristic of Lebanon itself.  The country has a rich history which is very influential on world history, being in an important geographical position in the eastern Mediterranean, which was significant in ancient near eastern, Greek, Roman, mediaeval and modern historical periods.  It explains why ruins of earlier civilisations, such as this Roman aquaduct*, are found in the region of Toula.

On the outskirts of the village, to the north-west near the village of Miziara, in the locality of Mehlet Al-Hkaily, ancient ruins were discovered which date to the Roman Period, including rock cut sarcophagi, and scattered stones with carved decoration.

Source: Toula Village, 2

Lebanon was the homeland of the Phoenicians, the ancient seafaring people of the Mediterranean.

Emphasising the importance of Maronite culture, the Maronite Heritage Centre has been established in Sydney at St Maroun’s Cathedral in Redfern.  The permanent and temporary exhibitions traces the history of the Maronite Church and culture from its beginnings, throughout its history in Lebanon and in Australia.  It includes a significant coverage, especially for the period c.1880-1930s, of Maronite culture in Australia, of which the community from Toula is a significant part.  The collection represents the design and manufacture of Maronite and Catholic religious material culture, and is thus of aesthetic significance.  It is strong on the provenance and documentation in relation to the Maronite clergy and families who settled in the area of Redfern.

Source: www.migrationheritage.nsw.gov.au/exhibition/objectsthroughtime/maronites/

The journal Marounia: the Magazine of the Maronite Eparchy of Australia was also first published by the Maronite Heritage Centre in Sydney in 20*, and it focuses on the history and culture of people with Maronite heritage and their activities in Australia, which includes those of Toula and of the museum. Source: Marounia, No. 26. May 2010, esp., p. 16.