Houses of More than One Room

For those with the means, the house could move beyond the purely functional and could become a place of luxury and status. Rather than simply growing organically as necessity demanded and resources permitted these homes were designed to cater to the needs of the inhabitants. Of course even within this group the result would differ significantly between that of a prosperous craftsman and that of a king. For want of better classification these expanded dwellings are going to be discussed under the title 'houses of more than one room'.

Quite literally the center of a grander eastern home is the courtyard. Wight narrates that a two roomed home would be built with a room's width between the two rooms with an adjoining wall connecting the two rooms. The space left became the courtyard. A three room house would have the adjoining wall replaced with the front of the third room. Further ground-floor rooms would be added to the first and second away from the third room. The effect would thus be a U shape with the arms extending with the overall number of rooms. Smith states that the very grandest houses would have 'courtyards of courtyards' each surround by their own cluster of rooms. When this was the case the women often had their own courtyard. However for the purposes of simplicity I will continue to discuss these houses as if they were in the simple 'U' shape.

Across the 'open' end of the U is the door and gateway. These are essentially one and the same. The entranceway is fairly large yet blocked by an equally large and heavy gate which was opened only when need dictated. Set into the gateway was thus a smaller door which could be opened and closed rather more easily to permit the entrance of individuals. Privacy was usually enhanced further by building a small wall just in front of the door to prevent people in the street viewing the courtyard. If resources permitted then an individual would be nominated as the 'porter'; their job was to stand by the doorway and only permit entrance to those whose voice was recognized. Rhoda was probably just such a designated person on the occasion that she neglected to give access to Peter in her excitement[1]. Smith adds that in addition to vocal recognition it was not uncommon to have a projecting latticed window positioned above the gateway to allow for the inhabitants to see who was without. It is quite possibly one of these from which Jezebel looked in 2 Kings 9:30.

To the inhabitant of the house the courtyard served as an idealized 'outside world' onto which the house fronted. Thus whilst the outside of the buildings which fronted onto the street might be of a mean and lowly appearance the decoration inside the courtyard would be as much as the occupants could achieve. Smith states that in times of festivity they may even be carpeted. The courtyard could also contain trees, shrubs and flowers. This oasis naturally became the center of activity and would often be used for cooking and eating meals; in colder weather the hearth provided heat. It would have been such a hearth that Peter huddled around when denying the Lord.

One essential component of the courtyard was the cistern. According to Fausset these were essentially a bath set into the ground some four feet by two feet and maybe two feet in depth. Their purpose was to hold rainwater channeled from the surrounding buildings. It is probably one of these which hid David in 2 Samuel 17:18,19. The close proximity of water and fire and provision of privacy also explains why the courtyard could be used for bathing. Thus when Bathsheba bathed in her courtyard (2Samuel 11:2) she would probably have been screened from anyone that didn�t own a much taller building.

The lexicographers differ greatly with regard to the layout of the second and subsequent stories of the house. Smith views a 'veranda' stretching out nine feet from the second and subsequent floors; the illustration in Wight has a 'deck' covering a good portion of the courtyard. In contrast Fausset suggests that the upper rooms were one half of the width of the lower and that the remaining 'half' roof acted as a pathway between the higher rooms. Wight pictures stone steps leading from the internal courtyard to the roof: ISBE notes that very few stone steps have been found and suggest that wooden ladders were more probable. Given that we know of at least two people falling from windows[2] and we know of at least one collection of people supported on a verandah (Jdg 16:27) I think it is probable that both methods were employed depending upon the tastes of the owners. Eutychus falling from the 'third loft' and David's ability to see Bathsheba strongly suggests that houses of three stories were not unknown. Interestingly there is agreement that upper rooms had projecting windows; which may explain their somewhat lethal tendencies!

It is likely that if a second story existed then it would almost certainly be home to the 'guest chamber'. Considered the foremost chamber in the house the room would often have an open front and have a divan around the edge for people to sit. This would essentially allow the guest to 'hold court' from the center of the room with the assembled gathered around the outside. A room on the second floor may also be designated the 'summer house'; with the 'winter house' being more protected from the elements on the ground floor.

As may be expected the furnishings of a more affluent home would be plusher than those of a more modest one. We know that carpets and draperies were used widely; some even draped a shade-curtain over portions of the courtyard. Esther tells us with walls hanging with rich tapestries; albeit in a Persian court. We know walls could be plastered and Jeremiah 22:14 tells us they could be painted; Ezekiel 8:10-12 shows that these paintings could sometimes be idolatrous. Amos 3:15 tells us the houses could be paneled with ivory. Jeremiah 22:14 again tells us that ceilings of wood were hung below the roof; presumably to improve the appearance and to prevent leakage and the droppings of dirt to lower floors. Some of the very wealthiest were actually able to switch to hewn stone as a construction material of the walls: something which would improve the appearance but also structural integrity of the building[3].

Viewing multi-room houses, as with single-room ones, one must be aware that generalizations are dangerous. However I think we can safe say that there was a class of building where the owners had the means to build for what they wanted rather than what they needed. Typically this resulted in a collection of rooms surrounding a well maintained and important courtyard. This courtyard was considered part of the house and the privacy and entrance to it were guarded. The second floor provided much of the higher quality living accommodation when weather conditions permitted it to be used. Much as today, houses tempted people to indulge in creature comforts, something that some of them did very willingly.


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