Syrian metalworker fashions intricate designs. (photo: Habeeb Salloum)
The Shoemakers Bazaar in Aleppo. (photo: Habeeb Salloum)
A Damascene wood carver. (photo: Habeeb Salloum)
To stroll through the souks of Syrian cities such as old Aleppo or Damascus and watch craftsmen producing attractive handmade works of art is to enjoy the sight of industries from the bygone ages. In these two ancient cities, since the dawn of history, generation after generation has inherited these skills. From the epochs of Ebla and Ugarit the markets of the Middle East have been supplied with the beautiful handiwork of these talented artisans. Historians have indicated that from these eras of early civilizations, Syria has been renowned for its fine handmanufactured products.
Since the seventh century, when the influence of Islam stretched from the borders of China to the heart of France, Syrian artisans took their crafts to the far corners of these Muslim lands.
Those who settled in Arab Spain made that country famous for its handiwork. Toledo became renowned for its Damascene brass, copper, silver, and steel products. The swords of Toledo were as celebrated as the famed swords of Damascus. Even after the defeat of the Moors, the artistic skill which fashioned such metal products did not die out, but has continued in Toldeo until our time. Further south in Granada, Syrian artisans established a mosaic industry. Today, their descendants still produce artistic inlaid goods, in some instances employing Arabic script for decoration.
The influence of Syrian artists in central Asia has been only slightly different. When the Mongols occupied Damascus, more than once they carried off many of the best master tradesmen of Syria. For instance, when Tamerlane destroyed Damascus, he brought back Damascene artisans, who decorated the majestic medieval buildings of Bukhara and Samarkand.
Today in Aleppo and Damascus, the Syrian craftsmen continue the traditions of their illustrious ancestors. Despite modern industries which have undermined much of the worlds handicrafts, they have, to some extent, held the machine at bay. Their products are in demand and as popular as they were in past centuries.
In Damascus these expert workmen and their products are easy to find. Souk al-Hamadiyah the Street Called Straight and the maze of connecting avenues are the places to explore. There and amid the connecting back alleyways, artisans and their apprentices continue their ancient crafts. Like their fathers and grandfathers before them, they might work at inlaying tables and jewelry boxes. Others pound silver into brass and copper utensils, while not far away men and women weave carpets and brocades. With goods on walls lining the street, merchants stand in their doorways and invite passersby to enter.
Their inlaid tables are masterpieces of art. Exquisitely decorated with bone, ivory, or in the last few decades plastic, they are as sought after today as they were in previous ages.
Complementing the inlaid wood products are the brass and copper utensils, wall plates, and trays engraved and, at times, inlaid with silver. Master artisans pound silver wire into the brass or copper artifices.
Glassblowing is another skill of Syrian artisans. From before the birth of Christ, Syria has been noted for its glass industry. In Roman times, the countrys creators of delicate glass articles took their trade to all parts of the empire. In the Middle Ages, the glassmakers of Venice developed a reputation for the quality of their art, which they learned from the skilled workers of Syria. Through the centuries, the Syrian glass producers refined their creations and, with the passing years, the number of their workshops increased. In the early 1900s, Aleppo alone had 1,200 glassmaking establishments. Today, Syrian glass of all colors, shapes, and designs is perfected by hands whose skills have developed since antiquity.
Vying with the glass and inlaid articles as Syrias most important artisan products are the hand-produced textile goods, especially Damascene brocade. A silky fabric interwoven manually with silver and gold threads in elaborate designs, it has been much sought after through the ages. Its appeal has not diminished even in our modern world.
Equally a specialty of the artificers in Damascus is the fabric damask, whose Arabic name is found in most European languages. In English alone, over thirty words are derived from the word, which is the Arabic name of Damascus. With its intricate floral and geometric patterns, the fabric is in demand in many parts of the world. In the past, it was woven exclusively of silk. Today, however, it is made from all types of fibres.
In addition to the renowned Damascene brocade and damask, there are numerous other handwoven fabrics produced in the urban centers of Syria. Among them are Aghabani, a cotton fabric embroidered with silk, and dima, a narrow cotton cloth.
Attractive village kaftans and chic western dresses are made from a number of these handmade fabrics. Throughout the old streets of Damascus and the eight miles of stone-roofed Aleppo souks, countless types of dresses for both men and women reveal the beauty and versatility of these colorful fabrics. In the labyrinth of avenues winding in intricate patterns in both cities, the different hand-embroidered village clothing testifies to skills from every part of Syria. Within the jumble of ancient souks, ladies deep crimson, bluefish, and yellowish kaftans are encrusted with rhinestones and decorated with gold and silver threads, presenting a kaleidoscope of colors.
In tiny, always crowded stalls lining the goldsmith and silversmith souks, men and women bargain for handmade jewelry. A showplace of wealth, these shops with tasteful gold and silver ornaments have been the landmark of the Middle East for centuries. A few yards away from the world of precious metals, richly colored carpets and tapestries are displayed near leather craftsmen busy fashioning florid slippers. In nearby shops young men hawk their showy handmade pottery while others sit on stools offering their ornate straw products for sale scenes of activities and colors that have existed here for centuries.
More than in other countries, in Syria artisans still ply their trades. Still, modern industry is taking its toll. Machine-made brocades, carpets, glass, and other articles are gradually pushing the handmade products from the markets. Yet, in spite of this overwhelming challenge, the traditional handicrafts have not been overwhelmed. Declared a national treasure, these handicrafts will survive as a world of ancient oriental splendor as long as the Syrian artisans pass their skills down to each succeeding generation.
Habeeb Salloum is a freelance writer living in Don Mills, Ontario. He also lectures on the Arab world.