Syrian mosaic suffers state neglect despite public interest 

A mosaic craftsman working in the Midhat Pasha Souq in the Old City of Damascus (Enab Baladi - Hassan Hassan)

A mosaic craftsman working in the Midhat Pasha Souq in the Old City of Damascus (Enab Baladi - Hassan Hassan)

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Enab Baladi – Amal Rantisi

The Syrian war has affected many jobs, including mosaic production in Damascus and Syria generally. However, this art was able to establish more presence abroad, such as Turkey and Jordan, carried by its craftsmen, mainly from Damascus, who are the original people of the mosaics handicraft.

In this report, Enab Baladi sheds light on the reality of the Damascene mosaic craft in Syrian regime-held areas to scout changes and difficulties and track mosaic-related success stories beyond borders.

Thirty years of his 42 were spent in the Damascene Mosaic world, the 700-year-old handicraft of inlaying mother of pearls in colored wood. Everyday, Mustafa moves from his home in the Syrian capital to the eastern suburbs, where his traditional workshop is located. 

“No doubt, the craft does not die, and It will not die,” says Mustafa (Enab Baladi withheld his real name over security reasons), while describing his passion for making ornate wooden boxes decorated with mother of pearls, for which the Damascene neighborhood of Jobar, from which he came from, was known to be good at.

Seventy Years in Jobar 

Jobar neighborhood was the largest marketplace where workshops and shops selling mosaics in Damascus were to be found, Mustafa told Enab Baladi.

“It was the source of this craft industry,” he said with pride that his family’s stores trading the craft, along with other stores since the 1950s, had been in the area.

However, the conditions of war and displacement have changed the status of this craft and its people, as Jobar has been subjected to violent battles between opposition factions and Syrian regime forces over the past years, causing huge destruction to the densely-populated neighborhood.

Afterwards, the workshops and exhibitions moved to the city of Jaramana, which was also famous for the turnout of craftsmen to learn the mosaic industry at the hands of Damascene teachers.

Mustafa moved his workshop to Jaramana, and the showrooms to Bab Sharqi neighborhood, the eastern gate of the Old City of Damascus, and Medhat Pasha Souq.

Mosaic is considered a special art in Damascus, and Jorji al-Bitar was the first to invent this industry, according to what was mentioned in the history books of the city of Damascus.

Al-Bitar made the first piece of mosaic in 1860 by collecting rods of naturally colored wood with a triangular or square cross-section, then cutting them in the form of chips and gluing them on wooden crafts.

Mustafa pointed out the importance of this profession, as it is a heritage of the city of Damascus and not quite traded in other countries. However, over the war period, some craftsmen were forced to transfer their workshops to Turkey, choosing to sell goods through a foreign market.

The Damascene mosaic industry 1950

The Damascene mosaic industry 1950

“Since the beginning of the 17th century, when last names began to be adopted in the Levant, families’ last names became indicative of the professions and crafts they inherited and excelled in, since they were a great source of income.

That included the mosaics craft, which was not yet one of the traditional professions and crafts. It was invented by Jorji Gabriel al-Bitar, who excelled in the Damascene Mosaic craft, a trade that now produces the most beautiful antiques that tourists come to Damascus.

From the blog of researcher and historian Joseph Zeitoun, entitled: “The Damascene Jorji Gabriel al-Bitar, the Creator of Mosaic Art.”

 

Local wood, imported shells

Making mosaic pieces requires basically colored wood that is later glued with shells, whether natural or artificial. Creativity has an important role in this craft, as it is craftily engineered to its forms. 

Going into the details of the work, Mustafa said that “the mosaic is a very wide field that naturally becomes like any ordinary craft with practice, but the love of work and creativity remains a key factor.”

According to Mustafa, several types of wood are used to manufacture a mosaic piece from the local wood available in Syria and do not need to be imported, such as walnut, lemon, olive, and eucalyptus.

He referred to the diversity of colors, saying: “The black color in the pieces is walnut, the red is close to eucalyptus, the burgundy is the color of roses, and the white color interspersed with it is the color of shellfish.”

 He continued, “These pieces are made in geometric shapes and with high precision that can only be mastered by professional craftsmen. In addition, our craft differs from the rest of handicrafts by being soft and polished, as equipment used plays an essential role in the making process.”

Mustafa noted that each piece has its own way of work and its unique art in regard to the drawings in it.

For example, every hundred pieces of a medium-sized wooden box, which Mustafa called “Khaskar” (every hundred pieces), takes 15 to 20 days to be ready for display and sale, if labor is available.

In regard to the imported raw materials, Mustafa indicated that the shells used in the final stages of wood grafting come from abroad, and it has become difficult to import them because of the high prices and the monopoly by traders.

“Import prices were previously acceptable, but now they are expensive (high) because of the economic conditions.” He added that “among the basic raw materials are types of plastic such as granules, and a type of shell called (Rahaj seashell).” 

A mosaic showroom in Midhat Pasha souq in the Old City of Damascus (Enab Baladi - Hassan Hassan)

A mosaic showroom in Midhat Pasha Souq in the Old City of Damascus (Enab Baladi – Hassan Hassan)

One of the main machines on which the manufacture of mosaic depends is the ‘Shelleh,’ a machine on which wood is cut to obtain the required geometric shapes. Also, a machine called ‘al-Hassassa’ is used to soften the final product, in addition to the “rabob” machine to harmonize the wood.

These machines were previously available to anyone wishing to practice the craft, but today, there are difficulties securing them due to high prices. In addition, mosaic craftsmen are financially burdened due to continuous power outages and reliance on private power generators, which disrupt production and increase costs, according to what Enab Baladi monitored from several interviews with mosaic craftsmen.

Mosaic vs. economic burdens

In an interview with a professional mosaic maker in Midhat Pasha traditional marketplace, Abu Mohammad (pseudonym for security reasons), said the high prices and the high value of shells have caused a decline in mosaic work.

A kilo of seashells is currently at about 200,000 Syrian pounds (55 USD), which is high compared to before 2011. The price of a kilo was 1,300 Syrian pounds (about 26 USD) in 2011.

A small mosaic wooden box is sold today at around 16,000 Syrian pounds (approximately 4.4 USD), according to Abu Mohammad.

Fifty-something-year-old Abu Omar, a mosaic craftsman who asked Enab Baladi not to mention his real name for security concerns, said that economic hardships, the declined purchasing power of Syrian citizens, and the lack of labor are among the reasons why the mosaic craft trade has declined.

Abu Omar, who has been working in mosaic craft for 35 years, added that the local demand for the local sale of products does not exceed 30 percent, and the rest is exported to the Gulf countries, Lebanon, or even European countries.

He added: “Previously, tourists in Damascus used to buy mosaic pieces a lot.” Relying only on the local market, “mosaic has become a luxury,” and many craftsmen moved their activities to other countries, including Turkey, “because there is a bigger market for it abroad.”

Abu Omar said that the Covid-19 pandemic affected the profession due to the lack of exports, as the remaining craftsmen in Syria depend more on the foreign market than the inside.

The other reason that threatens the handicraft is the lack of manpower. Most of whom used to work in this profession and were described as the mosaic craftsmen migrated out of the country due to the war’s conditions and aftermath, and the demand for the craft weakened due to low wages.

Concerning mosaic craftsmen, Mustafa said: “Nowadays, we strive a lot to attract young people to teach them the craft, and there are many unemployed young people who refuse to learn the mosaic craft because of the low wages.”

“The craft does not pay off well for a long time,” Mustafa set the example that he himself could not open his own shop until ten years after he started practicing this profession.

“Since I was ten years old, I have been learning the craft, and this work requires very great experience so that the wage becomes remunerative,” he added.

Mustafa was teaching his son this craft from a young age, hoping that it would constitute an acceptable source of income for him in the future.

Fouad Arbash, the Sheikh al-Kar of mosaic craft in Damascus, warned of the danger of the extinction of this profession that distinguishes Damascus and talked about the difficulty of preserving it.

In an interview with the state-run Tishreen newspaper on 19 December 2021, Arbash said that the number of workers in this craft decreased from thousands to dozens after many younger men traveled to Egypt and Germany due to the effort this profession requires. The preparation of the piece takes from two weeks to a month, the high costs of its manufacture reach tens of millions and the difficulty of marketing its products.

Arbash added that there are no longer young people willing to learn the craft, as the wages now range between 150 and 200 thousand Syrian pounds (about 45 USD), “which is not enough to secure their life requirements, and those who are present have become elderly people, who have stopped working.”

He demanded that the craft products be exempt from taxes and fees at a minimum until the craft revives again, “pending the country’s recovery and the return to the normal tourism traffic.”

 Who is “Sheikh al-Kar”?

The Syrian term, which has Persian root, means to denote the rank of president of a professional craft or traditional profession and industry. It is paralleled in modern terms by a union president or captain. 

Sheikh al-Kar should have good morals and a good reputation, be skilled and knowledgeable in all the details of his craft, and be ahead of others in his professionalism. To be elected as Sheikh al-Kar is not necessarily to be the oldest of your fellow craftsmen.

In some trades, Sheikhdom is inherited from a father to a son, which does not violate the rule of election, because he would not become a sheikh without the permission of the sheikhs of the craft or (the Kar), taking into account the services of the Sheikh fulfilled, according to “A Historical Brief on the Damascene Crafts” book by Elias Abdo Qudsi.

 

 Abandoned by the government

ICOMOS member (the International Council on Monuments and Sites), who is also affiliated with the Industrial Heritage Project in Egypt and Technical University of Berlin, Mohammad Martini, told Enab Baladi that the absence of government interest is what threatens full attention to traditional professions, but there is certainly a popular interest in them.

Martini considered that big companies took advantage of this craft and made commercial investment in it by purchasing products to furnish the palaces of princes in several Arab countries, in addition to the companies that do the furnishing for Damascene soap operas.

The mosaic craft is linked to the memories of Syrians and their cultural and heritage figures, as “we furnished all the old and modern houses with Damascene mosaic furniture,” according to Martini, who believes that the loss of this craft could cancel out a very important component of the Syrian heritage.

A mosaic craftsman working in Midhat Pasha Souq in the Old City of Damascus (Enab Baladi-Hassan Hassan)

A mosaic craftsman working in Midhat Pasha Souq in the Old City of Damascus (Enab Baladi-Hassan Hassan)

Mosaic history

Maher Hamid – researcher in the history of eastern civilizations

If we ask about the history of “mosaic,” we will get different answers, but it is usually said that its history goes back 150 or 700 years. There are also many accounts as to who invented the art and craft of “mosaic” first.

If we go back to ancient history, we will find that this art dates back to the end of the Stone Age and the beginning of the Copper Age.

The vessels discovered from the Tell Halaf period carried the first geometric and plant decoration and combined them into one subject. 

Man of that period did not possess the required tools and materials, but he possessed the oriental, abstract thought, which tends to express his idea and his vision of the world through artistic abstraction, away from the diagnosis that represents the conformity of the bodies to be expressed.

An ancient plate from the “Tell Halaf” era - Archeologist Max Mallowan 1933 - acquired in the “Baghdad” Museum, No.: 17387 A.D.

An ancient plate from the “Tell Halaf” era – Archeologist Max Mallowan 1933 – acquired in the “Baghdad” Museum, No.: 17387 A.D.

Looking closely at the plate from Tell Halaf (above), which dates back to about 7000 years, the idea of mosaic seems to have originally begun with drawings on pottery using the means available to humans of that deep period in history.

The maker of this piece was able to use the accurate calculation to divide the circumference of the circle into 70 equal parts and divide the circle’s area into seven bands surrounding the chamomile flower.

The number seven is a sacred number, as well as the chamomile flower, being a symbol of goodness and development. In comparison with most pieces of contemporary Damascene mosaic, we could see that it is not very different from this design, as the geometrical rose took place at the center surrounded by several decoration belts.

A Damascene mosaic shows the rose that took a geometric shape at the center.

A Damascene mosaic shows the rose that took a geometric shape at the center.

We cannot possibly link this art to any particular period or maker as it is said to be. Rather, it is a continuous legacy that was developing according to economic conditions and international exchanges, and its golden age was in the Ottoman period when the rich flocked to acquire it, as it is a representation of excellence.

Moreover, many craftsmen made many additions to it, starting from the Copper Age by mixing wood or marble with precious stones in one work to the Damascene mosaic, which represents the culmination of the hump of an art that had begun as sacred and carries divine symbols for its makers, through the decorations The Assyrian and Raja Ibn Haywa, the architect of the Dome of the Rock, and to the current mechanization.

 

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