The Carpets of Syria - A Mirror of the Country’s History
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
Carpet making is one of the traditional artisan crafts of Syria and despite the invasion of the machine and modern technology on this craft, many small workshops in Aleppo, and almost every other Syrian city are struggling to preserve the original identity of this handcraft. Hand-made Syrian eye-catching carpets are artistic creations acclaimed not only in Syria but by many foreign visitors.
The souks of Aleppo, 12 km (7.5 mi) of stone-covered medieval streets called by some the ‘Mother of all Souks’, and the Souk al-Hamadiyah and the Street Called Straight in Damascus are filled with carpet merchants. Even though much of what they sell are foreign-made rugs, mostly from Iran and the Indian sub-continent, there is a fair amount of home production.
Every color in these carpets, mostly woven by young women in simple workshops, has its symbols and its stories. Often, on their surfaces, pictures of nature, holy places, folk heroes and wise sayings give them an irresistible appeal.
Al-sadah (the art of wool-weaving) established itself in the Syrian deserts and steppes as art long before the advent of Islam. One of the fine artistic heritages closely linked to the Arabs, it is a traditional handicraft well known among the Bedouin. The black tents of the desert and their interior furnishings and carpets, decorated with beautiful geometric figures, animals, and plants have for thousands of years been woven from camel hair and woolen threads by tribal women. The bright colors of the rugs, the most important woven article in the tent, created an atmosphere of vividness which helped cope with the harshness and monotone aura of the desert environment.
The history of hand-made carpets goes back to the ancient civilizations of the Middle East and continued into the Roman and Byzantine periods. It is known that in the early Christian era, tapestry, woven textiles, and thick intricately patterned fabrics were produced in Syria. Peter Collingwood in his book, The Technique of Rug Weaving, maintains that the wool-weavers in Syria were the first people in the western world to add an extra shaft to a two-shaft horizontal loom, therefore, making possible the simplest twill weave.
From evidence of shreds of textiles that still exist, the loom was known in Syria before 256 A.D. while the loom was only mentioned in European sources dated about 1000 A.D. Archeologists have found from rug-like fragments of textiles discovered that the Senna loop technique was in use in early Christian Syria, at Dura Europos and Auja el-Hafir in the north-eastern part of the country. By cutting these loops, these early Syrian craftsmen were able to produce cut-pile rugs.
For centuries, Damascus has been an important center in the rug trade. This was especially true during the Mameluke era when the city was the second capital for that dynasty. Even in our times, Damascus is famous for its Compartment Rugs (rectangular or interlocking ogival shapes of floral motifs) that are found in many collections throughout the world.
Today, manual looms driven by the clever hands of the Syrian artisans, both men and women, continue to generate thousands of square meters of carpets every year. A square meter takes from 4 to 6 months to produce and usually includes one million knots. Proud of their works, the carpet craftsmen say that their carpets last for a lifetime.
Most of the carpets varying in sizes are, in fact, attractive paintings, reflecting the country’s legacy and heritage. Art researchers have described these handmade carpets, in daily use by the people, as ‘paintings dealing with cultural issues and satisfying the viewers need for aesthetical pleasures’.
If authentic, these handmade carpets are woven from natural cotton, wool, and silk threads and are also colored with natural dyes. In fact, for this specific reason, Syrian hand-made carpets are relatively expensive. The best, designed to be hung on walls as murals, display historical heritage motifs, and archaeological themes.
Aleppo has been for centuries and is still today, noted, especially at the end of the 19th century, for its kilims – used as curtains and wall hangings. It has also for years been a collection point for all types of rugs woven by some Kurdish and Turkoman tribes.
Kilims, to a lesser extent, are made in Palmyra and other parts of mid and eastern Syria. Some of the other brands found in the country are the zara wool type rugs, common in western Syria and the wool and cotton ershadi and maloza, made in other parts of the country.
Perhaps, more than in any other land Syrian tradesman are still plying their trades – a good number in the hand-woven carpet industry. At the same time, Syrian rug-weavers are continuing with the traditions of their illustrious ancestors. The expertise of these artisans, developed through the ages, has given them the edge to remain an ongoing concern. Tourists stand spellbound, like in the Takiya Sulaymanieh, a handicraft craftsmen market in Damascus, witnessing these master weavers, seemingly out of the ‘Arabian Nights’, at work. Mikha’il Warda, who has a shop in the Takiya and who has been weaving rugs for 40 years, explained that for the last three to four decades the art of hand-making carpets has been revived – mostly for the tourist trade.
This colorful scene in the souks is enhanced by hand-produced textile goods such as the fabrics aghabani, dalha, and dima, but above all, the most renowned, 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 crowned, ordered a gown made from this hand-made centuries-old brocade.
During the past few decades, with modern industry and imports gradually pushing the hand-made products from the markets, the art of hand-weaving carpets almost died out. Yet, in spite of this overpowering challenge, the traditional handicrafts have not been overwhelmed. With the encouragement and help by the government, the industry has gradually recovered. Schools have been established in Idlib, Palmyra, Sweida and other towns where students are taught the art of making handmade carpets.
One of the most distinguishing characteristics of Syria, they have been declared a national treasure. To this colorful world of oriental splendor, hand-made carpets are a prominent feature.
Habeeb Salloum, M.S.M.
Collingwood, P. The Technique of Rug Weaving, London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1968
Dimand, M.S. and Jean Mailey, Oriental Rugs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1973
Ellis, C.G. Oriental Carpets in Philadelphia Museum of Art. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1988
Stone, P.F. The Oriental Rug Lexicon, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997