Healing Power of Crafts in Times of War

The recent atrocities in Aleppo are destroying every shred of the city and its culture leading to the extinction of several of their crafts including the ancient traditional Syrian Mosaic Inlay art form which is only indigenous to Damascus.

Damascus is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Syrian Mosaic Inlay tradition was started by a Damascene named Girgis Bitar in 1860, who was a professional cabinetmaker trained in the Damascus school of wood, ivory and mother of pearl marquetry.

Even then Syria was amidst a civil war, irrespective of the conditions Bitar created a new art form, the Syrian wood and mother-of-pearl mosaic. Bitar unified marquetry which is the art of applying pieces of veneer to a structure to form decorative patterns, designs or pictures. These artworks are commonly found in churches which are clad in Islamic motifs in mother-of-pearl inlay. By creating this art form in a crucial period of Syria’s history he brought light in times of darkness and fear. Which led to employment of over 2,000 people in Syria in an artisanal capacity with many others who benefited.

Every traditional product is made from various kinds of woods namely Lemon wood, Olive wood, Rose wood,walnut wood and mother-of-pearl. A design is laid out for the geometric patterns following that the wood is cut in the required geometric shapes and blocks which are then fused together in a solid cube which is then placed on top of the required product which could range from flat top furniture pieces to Backgammon,Chess, Checkers boards etc. The last step is applying layers of polish the traditional process is applying numerous coats of a polish mixture made out of natural shellac. Shellac is a resin secreted by the female lac bug, on trees in the forests of India and Thailand.

shokunin syrian artisan crafts handmade marquetry backgammon wooden box

Source: Syrian Mosaic Inlay Backgammon Board

In July of 1860, a series of massacres were carried out in Ottoman Syria and Lebanon because of the civil war. In Damascus, the main christian quarter was burned. Bitar safely conducted priests and nuns under his care during these times of turmoil. Restoration of peace took place a year later the priests and nuns in an act of gratitude, commissioned Bitar to design and decorate their private oratory. Bitar refused to get paid and dedicated most of his profits for rebuilding Damascus.

shokunin artisan syrian crafts islamic art jesus private oratory peace through crafts

                     Source: Private oratory designed by Girgis Bitar

Preserving Syrian crafts abroad:

In hopes of celebrating the artisanal culture from Syria, a shop owner named Khaldoun Alghatrif and his brother decided to open Syriana Cafe & Gallery, a store based in Ellicott City, Maryland dedicated to selling imported handcrafted goods from Damascus. Alghatrif and his family immigrated to the US several years ago and have adopted Ellicott City as their home since 2015. Syriana offers a wide selection of goods including textiles, metalwork, tile, mosaic and mother-of-pearl inlays. Alghatrif plans to expand Syriana to become an integral part of rebuilding the Syrian craft community. Part of this plan includes expanding into a non-profit that offers workshops in Syria to train young artisans in their own homeland, while establishing a market for their products in the US. To support the non-profit Alghatrif wants to open a cafe as an extension to the Gallery, that will sell Arabic coffee, sandwiches and ice cream.

shokunin syrain artisan crafts marketplace buy handmade

Source: The Baltimore Sun: At Ellicott City's Syriana Gallery, an immigrant shares the beautiful side of a war-torn country

Another example of building a better future for Syrian refugees is the non-profit known as “The Refugee Career Jumpstart Project” based in Toronto, Canada. This non-profit focuses on building a transition for new Syrian refugees into the Canadian job marketplace and education system. RCJP has also created a social enterprise called The Artisans of Syria that enables Syrian women artisans to practice their traditional handcrafts. While the workspace and cost of goods is shared equally amongst the community of women, revenue after cost of materials is given directly to the individual artisan. Groups like this give Syrian women refugees in Canada hope towards building a future life for their families and creates a community for them to share and find a sense of solace.

Syria is more than just a country disrupted by war. There exists a rich cultural intricacy that breathes life into its fine artisan crafts, its extensive heritage and its people who struggle to maintain their identity alive.

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