Syria has always been a nurturing cradle of civilizations from time immemorial. Its prosperous cities of Damascus and Aleppo are no strangers to the pages of history, either as a centre stage for major world events or an important point in ancient trade routes. Waves of ideas and inspiration arrived here transforming the Syrian way of life into a unique and multi-faceted culture and its hospitality ever welcoming and warm. Whenever, I ask my Syrian friends about home, a blanket of nostalgia would surround them. With a smile they would talk about the old streets of Damascus, with its air filled with the sweet fragrance of jasmine and freshly baked breads glazed with olive oil and zataar, people relaxing in old coffee houses, the hamams and souks selling almost everything one needs. A picture worth living.
The city of Damascus is famous for its crafts, to a level that it has literally stamped its name on many of them. The famed blades of ‘Damascus steel’ with markings of flowing water were forged here, with wootz or iron ingots bought in from India. The inlay work in metal with intricate foliate patterns and calligraphy came to be known as damascening work, which later travelled to India and played an influential role in surface ornamentation of Mughal arms-armours and decorative arts. In India this elaborate work in gold that decorated the surfaces of many exclusive articles, came to be known as teh–nishan or teh–buland (true damascening) and koft–gari (false damascening). The luxurious damask (again owing its name to the city), woven in silk or brocaded, is also a product of the gifted weavers of this city. Another important craft which the city is attributed to and the main focus of this entry is wood intarsia, known far and wide among art connoisseurs.
Inlaying wooden objects using techniques of intarsia and marquetry with various shades of wood, mother of pearl, bone or ivory, and plastics (commonly used today) is an age old tradition in Syria. The earliest examples are found in the artefacts recovered from the tombs of the Pharaohs in Egypt. In fact, Syria and Egypt not only were the originators of this craft but also retained its own unique style and characteristics. It is from here, that the craft travelled westwards to Spain and Italy and eastwards to India via Iran.[i]
A host of products were made ranging from boxes of varying sizes and shapes, rehls (Qur’an stands), pen stands, mirror frames, tables and furniture. The surface is entirely covered with a strict geometric design and layout, with rhombuses and elaborate arabesque. Although, bigger artefacts do display intricate floral and foliate design, with cypress trees and vines (eslimi). Two types of process can be applied owing to the nature of the product. For a rather cheaper souvenir market, a faster process of marquetry is applied wherein rods of different coloured wood and plastic are arrange into a singular bundle with a pre-conceived design and glue together. Then it is cut using a motor saw into thin slices or veneers which are glued to surface of the wood. After which the prepared surface is rubbed with a sand paper and applied a coat of varnish. The other method a more time intensive process is generally used for expensive furniture and trunks. This involves each perfectly calibrated piece of wood, mother of pearl or bone to be delicately inserted individually into the design that is carved out on the surface that is to be ornamented.
Syrian marquetry and intarsia is a pride of the nation, often gifted to guests and friends as a small of token of their rich culture. Its beauty and intricacy is admired all over, although with the ongoing conflict and displacement of people among who are also craftsmen practicing this ancient craft, the future appears dark. Skill once lost can never be replaced, so one can only hope for a faster peace process in this god gifted country.
In Iran, this craft came to be known as khatam-kari or hatam-bandi, which was employed for the elaborate qalamdans (pen boxes) and other boxes with central cartouches displaying princes in leisure or engaged in chaugan–bazee (game of polo). From here, this craft migrated to India, believed to have been brought by the Parsis. The Pettigaras of Surat are engaged in making the most exquisite boxes called the Petigara pettis with surface decorated with marquetry technique locally called sadeli. The craft of inlaying wood is also practiced in Hoshiarpur in Punjab and Mysore in Karnataka.
I dedicate this entry to my dearest friend, Mudar, for making me see and experience his beautiful country through his eyes. I also pray that this state of unrest, a maddening nightmare, that has engulfed Syria and its people come to a sooner end.
[i] Johannes Kalter. “Urban Handicrafts” in The Arts and Crafts of Syria, Collection Antoine Touma and Linden-Museum Stuttgart. (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1992), 72.
Other References: (For Indian Marquetry)
Chattopadhyay, Kamaladevi. The Glory of Indian Handicrafts. New Delhi: Clarion Books, 1985.
Jaffer, Amin. Luxury Goods from India: The Art of the Indian Cabinet-Maker. New Delhi: Timeless Books, 2002.
Ranjan, Aditi and M.P. Ranjan, eds. Crafts of India: Handmade in India. New Delhi: Council of Handicraft Development Corporations, COHANDS, 2007.
Saraf, D N. Indian Crafts: Development and Potential. New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House Pvt. Ltd., 1982.