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The Art of Woodworking in the Arab World

posted on: Jun 3, 2021

The Art of Woodworking in the Arab World

By: Lindsey Penn/Arab America Contributing Writer

Arabs are well-known for their artisan work, including cloth, leather products, furniture, and more. In that same vein, woodworking is one of many talents that Arab artisans can boast. The art of woodworking in the Arab world is rooted in history and traditions, going back to Biblical times and continuing to today. Developments (such as intricate details or inlays) in woodworking were possible because of the engineering feats and architectural designs of the Muslims.

The History of Woodworking

The Art of Woodworking in the Arab World
Hieroglyphs showing wood carving.

Woodworking in its most basic sense goes back to the Ancient Egyptians. They invented wooden tools, such as the lathe, despite being in a literal desert. By importing the wood from places with more forests (e.g. modern-day Lebanon), the Ancient Egyptians were able to use the wood to create tools, build furniture, and other objects, some for decor, some for utility. They also started techniques such as varnish by mixing resins with solvents. The evidence of these tools and furniture has been discovered in the tombs of many Ancient Egyptian royals. Some of the tombs had a sarcophagus made from wood. There are also hieroglyphs detailing the woodwork as well. Many wooden objects in tombs have shown techniques such as carving, mitering, inlay, and advanced joints such as tongue-and-groove or butterfly joints.

The Art of Woodworking in the Arab World
A Mamluk serving tray from the Medieval age.

That being said, the Islamic world is better known for intricate inlays and carving details in woodwork. Much of the woodworking techniques involved precise geometry and math, creating sophisticated and beautiful geometric patterns in the wood. Some of the woodworking pieces displayed in the Museum for Islamic Art in Cairo date back to the 9th century. In the 11th and 12th centuries, most Europeans were still fairly primitive in woodworking, cabinet-makers in the Muslim world used highly refined and complicated techniques.

As Islam spread throughout the world, they brought their techniques and designs for woodworking with them. For that reason, you can find the Islamic woodworking techniques in the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe, when the Moors in Spain spread it first within Spain, then to other countries such as Italy. In ancient Persia, khatam is the most well-known technique. Another woodworking technique in Islamic art is intarsia, which comes from the Arabic word tarsi, or “inlay work”.

Khatam

The Art of Woodworking in the Arab World

With this technique, the woodworker cuts the wood into small pieces and assembles them in a geometric pattern. This step is laborious, as there is a lot of math that goes into the pattern, and a small mistake could mean that the pattern will not fit together. They place those small pieces into a larger wood piece, which becomes the base for the larger piece. To make the pieces of wood stand out and create the pattern, typically the woodworker will use different types of wood. This creates different textures and colors that will create a geometric pattern.

Intarsia

The Art of Woodworking in the Arab World
The process of intarsia.

The art of intarsia is making decorative patterns by inlaying materials into a solid base of wood. Unlike khatam, the materials that intarsia uses for inlays are precious, such as pearl, ivory, shells, metals, and more. So instead of just having different types of wood like khatam, intarsia uses different types of wood in addition to those materials. The woodworker cuts the pieces of wood into geometric shapes and shapes the inlays precisely to fit the pattern. To put the inlays and entire piece together, woodworkers use animal glue and put constant pressure on the pieces to ensure that the pattern fits together and no pieces will fall out. Inlay sticks are the product of this process. Once they complete this process, they are ready to trim and stack the inlay sticks, creating the overall geometric pattern.

Where can You Find These Techniques Today?

The Art of Woodworking in the Arab World
Khatam design in a mosque.

As mentioned before, these techniques have spread and become popular around the world. Many of the woodwork pieces with these styles, though, are present in mosques. Almost every space inside mosques are decorated, and woodwork is a classic choice for this. For example, khatam designs specifically are seen in doors, ceilings, walls, and panels in mosques. Khatam is also in households. Although, people tend to use it in older and traditional houses as they build modern and new houses in different styles.

The Art of Woodworking in the Arab World
Mashrabiyya screen.

Another example of khatam design is mashrabiyya screens (also shanshul or rushan), which is a wooden cover for windows. People use mashrabiyya in all different types of buildings, not always mosques. People can see out of these windows, but not in, providing privacy while still being incredibly detailed. There are different designs for mashrabiyyas in different regions, and each is beautifully designed.

The Art of Woodworking in the Arab World
Intarsia chair.

As for the intarsia design, that is commonly in wooden panels in mosques as well. However, this technique is also common in furniture in households. This can include chairs, small tables, and more. Depending on the mosque, both khatam and intarsia designs are in rehal in mosques or the stand that holds the Holy Qur’an.

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