The Splendor of Syrian Handicrafts

text and photos by Habeeb Salloum

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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 world’s 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.

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Tags: Syria Cultural Identity Village life Art