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Syrian Handicrafts - A World of Oriental Splendour

posted on: May 23, 2018


By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer

To one familiar with the machine-made products in the West, there is no more spellbinding sight than to see artisans at work in the ancient streets of Syrian cities.  A stroll through the souks of Damascus or Aleppo, the latter city before being partially destroyed by war, watching craftsmen producing their delightful works of art, is a picture postcard from bygone ages. Since the civilizations of Ebla, Mari and Ugarit, artisans in these two oldest cities in the world have inherited the skill of their forefathers. Through the centuries, generation after generation of these accomplished craftsmen have made Syria renowned for its fine hand-manufactured products.

At the onset of Islam, after Damascus became the capital of a vast Arab Empire stretching from the borders of China to the heart of France, Syrian craftsman took their trades to all parts of the Muslim lands.  The swords of Toledo, Spain became as celebrated as the famed swords of Damascus. The Syrian mosaic products, their pedigrees found in the 4,000-year-old ruins of Ebla, are still hand-manufactured in Granada.

In later centuries, after occupying Damascus a number of times, the Mongols carried back with them to Central Asia many of the best master craftsmen of Syria.  The beautiful medieval structures one sees today in Bukhara and Samarkand were decorated by Damascene artisans brought back by Tamerlane after he had destroyed Syria’s capital.

Today, in Aleppo and Damascus, Syrian craftsmen are continuing with the traditions of these illustrious ancestors.  In spite of modern industry which has destroyed much of the world’s handicrafts, the Syrian artisans have, to a great extent, held the machine at bay.  Their expertise, developed through the ages, has given them the edge to maintain a long traditional heritage. The products they churn out are as popular today as when the Phoenicians of Ugarit carried their hand-made merchandise to the edges of the then known world.

In the ancient covered souks of Aleppo, and in Damascus’s, Souk al-Hamadiyah, the Street Called Straight and the maze of connecting alleyways are the markets in which one finds these venerable products.  Craftsmen, like their fathers and grandfathers before them, work at inlaying tables and jewellery boxes. Others pound silver into brass and copper utensils or turn out striking mosaic furniture, while not far away, men and women weave, by hand, eye-catching brocades, carpets and tapestries.

In between, leather tradesman fashion florid slippers as they watch young men pass by hawking their showy handmade ceramic, pottery, stone or ornate straw products, in all styles and forms, as well as embroidered articles.  Appealing to the eye, the artisan shops are a scenic world – an irresistible invitation for passers-by to enter. Tourists stand spellbound witnessing these master craftsman, seemingly out of the ‘Arabian Nights’, at work.

Inside the larger markets, there is a breathtaking display of oriental seductiveness.  Central to the array of colourful merchandise are the artistically scattered backgammon and chess boards, mosaic boxes, tables and other furniture – masterpieces of handicraft art.  Truly exquisite creations, inlaid with bone, ivory, lemon and rose wood, pearl shell and, in the last few decades, with plastic, they are as much sought after today as in the past ages.  Around them are usually exhibited attractive brass and copper utensils, wall plates and trays, at times, inlaid with gold and silver wire – a very old Syrian handicraft.

Damascus Swords

Here and there, like glittering jewels, the hand-blown glass articles for which Syria has long been noted, give an aura of richness to the other artisan products.  This is enhanced by the hand-produced textile goods, the most renowned being Damascene brocade. A silky fabric interwoven with silver and/or gold threads in elaborate designs, it has been much sought after for hundreds of years.  Damascene merchants are fond of telling customers that the late mother of the present Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain, when she was crowned, ordered a gown made from this hand-made centuries-old brocade.

The most well-known type in the world of textile is damask – a fabric whose name is found in most European languages.  In English alone there are over 30 words derived from its name which is the Arabic appellation of Damascus, Dimashq.  Its appealing intricate, floral and geometric patterns has, since the medieval ages, made it much in demand in many parts of the world.

Glass Bowers

Besides brocades and damask, the hand-made aghabani, a cotton fabric embroidered with silk, and dima, a narrow cotton textile, are other types of cloth found in the souks.  Attractive village caftans and chic western dresses are made from these traditional fabrics.  In the ancient streets of Damascus and in the 12 km (8 mi) long stone-roofed medieval Aleppo souks, now partially destroyed, they are displayed in an inviting fashion.  Within the jumble of the labyrinth of alleyways, winding in intricate patterns in both cities, ladies’ deep crimson, blueish, and yellowish caftans, often hand embroidered and encrusted with rhinestones, make for a fantastic kaleidoscope of colours.

No less fascinating are the hand-made Syrian carpets, especially those made in Aleppo with their geometric patterns usually set in a red background – eye-catching artistic creations acclaimed not only in Syria, but by many visitors.  Every colour in these carpets, mostly woven by young women in simple workshops, has its symbols and its story. Often, on their surfaces, pictures of nature, holy places, folk heros and wise sayings give them an irresistible appeal.

Arab Chess

However, to the locals and many tourists, the epitome of Syria’s handicrafts are the gold and silver stalls – the landmark of the Middle East since the mist of history.  A showplace of wealth, they are always filled with men and women examining the hand-made jewellery. Their tasteful precious metal ornaments are modestly valued and with a little bargaining, great buys can be found. Government controlled prices allow for little exploitation of the buyers.

Perhaps, more than in any other country, Syrian tradesman are still plying their trades.  However, modern industry is taking its toll – gradually pushing the hand-made products from the markets.  Yet, in spite of this overpowering challenge, the traditional handicrafts have not been overwhelmed. One of the most distinguishing characteristics of Syria with a worldwide reputation, they have been declared a national treasure, hence, breathing new life into this world of oriental splendour.