The Glass Makers Of Syria Have A History As Old As Time
BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing writer
“Look! Look! See how the glass-blowers are making beautiful bottles and vases?” My daughter was excited as she watched the Syrian craftsmen fashioning delicate glass works of art at the Dubai Shopping Festival Fair in the United Arab Emirates. Day after day I would stop awhile and admire their creations until I became enamoured with these artisans and their products.
Now, a year later, I was in Damascus, the city which gave birth to glass-blowing, marvelling at how from melted-boiling sand the glass craftsmen were producing gems of exceedingly appealing lustre. A great variety of flasks, lamps, vases and other objects in bright blue, gold, green and red dazzled me with their appeal.
At the Tekiya Sulaymanieh handicraft market, near Bab Sharqi, and in other parts of old Damascus, I talked to these artisans who had inherited this skilful trade from their forefathers. All were proud of their handiwork and expected the demand for their products to continue. In the words of one of these craftsmen, “True, we are relics from the past, but we have not been thrown into the dustbin of history.”
Glass-making goes back to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. For centuries in these lands glass was made in imitation of precious stones. However, in the Syria of antiquity, the craft of hand-made glass evolved and became a well-established profession. Some 4,000 years ago, it is believed, the Canaanites, more commonly known as Phoenicians, in the city of Sidon on the Syrian coast, were the first to discover the art of making beautiful glass objects and, thereafter, Syria played an important role in glass-making throughout the world.
In classical times, a flourishing glass industry existed in Damascus, Sidon and Tyre and Syrian merchants and sailors were the chief transmitters in the spread of Glass-making along the Mediterranean shores. There is little doubt that Syria can lay claim to the discovery of glass and the art of gold-plating glassware – an art practised in that country long before Rome appeared on the world’s stage.
From Syria, glass-making spread to ancient China and to Europe during the time of the Roman Empire. With the demise of the Empire, glass manufacturing died out in all its former provinces except Syria. After the spread of Islam, glass-making in Syria was encouraged and thereafter the glass industry flourished during the Muslim centuries. Under the Umayyads (660-750 A.D.), Syria became the world’s prime exporter of glass. Damascus remained the top glass-producing centre in the world until Tamerlane, the Tartar conqueror of Asia, who destroyed the city in the 15th century, had its glass-workers removed to his capital, Samarqand.
The invention of the blowpipe by Syrian craftsmen at the beginning of the Christian era revolutionized the manufacture of glass. Up to that time, glass was poured into moulds to create objects. With blowing it became possible to create exquisite objects of lightness and transparency. Surprisingly, this art has remained unchanged until our times. Syrian glass-blown objects some 2000 years old appear to be amazingly modern.
After Islam, the Arabs in Syria, heirs to an old tradition, protected glass-making. They became renowned for their manipulative skills, famous for the production of mosque lamps and developed a characteristic style of glass-decorations. Bottles, vases and other objects were painted with figure subjects in coloured enamels, at times heightened with gold.
It was, however, the introduction of the Damascene glass manufacturing technique to Venice, which was to lay the foundation of Europe’s glass industry. Two Italian brothers who visited Damascus in the 13th century and learned the art of glass-making took the skill back with them to Venice – establishing the basis for what was to become the world-famous Venetian glass.
For years, the Venetian early products imitated and were hardly indistinguishable from their contemporary Syrian counterparts. By the 15th century, Venetian glass-craftsmen had mastered the Syrian process of enamelling and subsequently became the pathfinder in Europe of the Syrian prototypes in beauty, form and ornamentation.
Today, the hand making of glass products has not changed for over two thousand years – since the blowpipe was invented. Silica alloyed with alkali is heated at a high temperature to a brilliant red amorphous material. In the past, jift (ground olive pits) was used for fuel. However, nowadays diesel fuel and air compression are employed to boost the heat in a thermal brick oven.
In the soft pasty state of the amorphous material, the craftsman can blow, stamp and draw the material into fine threads, pour into drops or moulds, use to weld other glass pieces or cut the material with scissors. To avoid break-up of the finished product, cooling must proceed in stages through successive cooling chambers.
Through the centuries, the Syrians refined their creations and the hand-blown glass industry flourished. In the early 1900s, Aleppo alone had 1,200 glass-making establishments. However, in our times, except for a few craftsmen who inherited the trade and are still practising it for a living, the fine art of hand-made glass is disappearing. Some of the products of these remaining artisans are being exported, but a substantial portion is sold locally, mostly in the summer during the tourist season. Visitors form a large percentage of the demand for hand-made glass.
Nevertheless, all is not lost for the few remaining glass craftsmen, such as the al-Kazzaz (the Glassmaker) family who own a shop in Tekiya Sulaymanieh. These products are in demand at festivals and exhibitions both in and outside of Syria. Whenever they are featured like at the Dubai Shopping Festival, they draw huge crowds. Usually their products sell like wildfire – a true indication that Syria’s glassblowers will be with us for the foreseeable future. In the words of a glass-artisan who I watched working in Damascus, “Have no fear! We will be around for centuries to come.”