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Damascus's Living Art - Inlaying Wood

posted on: Feb 15, 2017

The Damascene wood mosaic is one of the oldest, most distinguished traditional handicrafts in Damascus

BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing Writer

I was amazed watching an expert mosaic craftsman at work, surrounded by thousands of tiny thin pieces of plastic and wood in a multitude of colours. With nimble hands, he fashioned them into patterns of geometrical inspiration for boxes, mirror and clock frames, chessboards and all types of furniture pieces. Like a creator of magic, each one of his handiwork was coming alive – fascinating in its appeal.

I watched absorbed as he skillfully created his beautiful mosaic products in a workshop in Damascus – the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. In this venerable metropolis of five million where Saint Paul once trod, inlaying of wood is only one of the many ancient handicrafts still practised as a living trade. Along Souk al-Hamadiyyah, The Street Called Straight, and the maze of connecting alleyways, the products of these craftsmen are exhibited in shops and, at times, hand-manufactured in front of the customer.

Artisans and their apprentices, like their fathers and grandfathers before them, work at inlaying furniture and all types of boxes. Next door, others pound silver into brass and copper trays, while not far away men and women ply other ancient trades as old as time.

Syrian mosaic wood box Syrian table inlaid with mother of pearl on walnut. Mosaic inlay Syrian arm chair

Inside the shops, there are breathtaking displays of beguiling Oriental handicraft. However, the first items which catch the visitor’s eye are the artistically scattered inlaid boxes, chairs, cupboards, divans and tables. Perhaps in the whole world there is no other furniture as attractive as these colourfully inlaid works of art. Truly exquisite creations, inlaid with mother of pearl and in the last few decades with plastic, they are much sought after by foreign tourists.

The craft of inlaying goes back thousands of years. Many museums around the world display inlaid objects of Assyrian and ancient Egyptian origin – some over 3000 years old. When the Muslims in the 7th century established Damascus as the capital of their empire, the Umayyad rulers encouraged the art of mosaics. Under their sponsorship in the early 8th century, the city’s Umayyad Mosque became the first structure in the Islamic world where the art of inlaying was practised on a large scale. From this first experience in inlaying, when mostly Byzantine artisans were employed, the art of mosaics developed in Damascus and became an honoured profession.

After the Ottomans occupied Damascus, the Arabs lost political power, concentrating thereafter on industry and the crafts. Among these vocations were all types of inlaying in metal and wood – trades for which the city remains famous.

The art of inlaying reached Europe through Moorish Spain and Sicily. The technique became known as intarsia – a name believed to have been derived from the Arabic tarsi’ (the act of inlaying, from the verb rassa’a – to inlay). Others derive the word from the Latin interserere (to insert). On the other hand, marquetry (a mosaic of veneers), another name used for wood inlaying, comes from the French marquetor (to mark).

Intarsia or inlays of contrasting patterns, still practised extensively in Damascus, are designs set into all types of wood. Forms are sunk into the wood according to a prearranged design. In the past, the hollows were then filled with pieces of different wood like ebony, lemon, oak, walnut or bone, and mother of pearl. Today, as a rule mother of pearl and material faithfully imitated by the plastic industry are virtually the only substances used in the long established method of inlaying.

Mother-of-Pearl inlaid

Yet, most of the mosaic boxes and products of today’s craftsmen which intrigue the tourist are pieces of plastic veneer glued on a wood foundation. Using modern methods, single plastic sheets or more than one bonded together under heavy pressure, are cut by power fretsaws into sticks that have a pre-defined shape. Various colours and types of these sticks, set to a pre-arranged design, are then glued together under pressure and allowed to thoroughly dry. The glued product is then sawn across the grain into thin pieces, each identical in pattern. These pieces are afterward cemented on wood furniture or other objects to obtain the desired design.

Many of these attractive wooden handmade products are original artistic creations by craftsmen who usually have amazing technical skills and great artistic ability. The talent of the designer is a decisive factor in the creation of the product. The art of mosaic demands accuracy, experience and patience.

Syrian Walnut Mosaic Jewelry Box with Mother of Pearl Inlay

In Damascus, most of the mosaic craftsmen ply their trade in the Bab Touma section of the city. Evolving with the times, they are always incorporating new ideas and designs into their products. Their creations are found in all the retail outlets frequented by tourists in the city. In the midst of other handmade merchandise, the eye-catching mosaic boxes and furniture, with their colour and dramatic appeal, enhance the other handmade objects, drawing visitors, especially from foreign countries.

Even though these mosaic articles are hand-manufactured, to some extent in Egypt, Iran and other countries, Damascus leads the world in the production of the same articles. During my world travels, I have seen these products on sale in the handicraft shops of Casablanca, Istanbul and even in Oriental stores in North America. However, it is in their homeland, Syria where they are found in abundance. Very reasonably priced, they are usually much sought after as souvenirs which, when brought back home by travellers, enrich their homes with an exotic touch of the East.