The Silk In Syria
and Actual Situation
Since longtime, Syria was known by silk fabrication, once the brocade or the damas are mentioned, we think directly of Damascus and Syria.
The principal silk Road traverses syrian territory. Syria is the Most active state : it is the cross/road of commerce between East and West, North and South. Since Damascus is the principal access to Hijaz, Egypt, Antiochia and Alexandrette, all these countries delivered Asian merchandises to Mediterranean ships, to be transported to Genes and Venizia... In the second place there was Palmyra, with its eastern door open to Mesopotamia. Before this stage, the Extreme‑Orient people monopolised the silk fabrication and exportation and collected abundant profits. Afterwards, other people discovered the very precious material ; then the silk commerce passed to Greco‑Roman world who dominated directly this commerce.
In the Middle Ages, the Arabs have controlled this commerce till the Crusades in the 12th and 13th centuries.
In 555 A.D., two monks from Athos Mountain (or Nestorian monks) transferred silk to the Middle‑East. Then this industry expanded to Greece, Black‑sea region, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Iraq and Egypt too. The Arabs were interested in planting mulberry‑trees and cultivation of silk worms. Many arab cities flourished with silk workshops, particularly in Damascus. Arabs have contributed to expand this industry to Europe through Andalousia. The Omeyad calif Mouawiya bin Abi Soufian founded a workshop in his own Palace in Damascus in 665 A.D.
At the end of the Ayyoubid epoch and during the Mamelouk epoch, silk production was large, especially the golden silk. During Mamelouk domination and Ottoman afterwards, Damascus was renowned by silk products : more than 40 species of it.
In modem times, silk has widely expanded in the 17th century. The Maani in Lebanon encouraged this industry. Lebanon was a pioneer in this field. The silk fabrication was prosperous till the 20th century ; but unfortunately, it suffered serious regression.
In the 18th century, the Ottoman government imposed many taxes which subsequently caused real stagnation.
In 1915, the Chamber of Commerce in Lyon (France) sent a letter to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, encouraging the French government to occupy Syria (Syria‑Lebanon-Palestine...), rich with silk, and then must remain dependent of the Lyonees market, which imported yearly (500 Tuns) of Syrian silk.
During the French Mandate, in the thirties, the world wide economic crisis struck Syrian silk production, so many enterprises made bankruptcy.
The introduction to Syria of the European fashion late 19th century, and in the beginning of the 20th contributed to the regression of traditional silk fabrics ; add to that, the new mechanical looms at the dawn of the 20th century replaced the manual looms, and the degradation of the silk handicraft was clear to all.
Silk Worm Cultivation
Silk worm is cultivated in Syria in spring and autumn in west mountains, and along side of the Orontes River.
The Fabrication of Silk: the Traditional Method
The cocoons are dropped in huge basin of boiling water, and beaten with a long stick this operation is the first step in the silk‑mill.
Strips stem out of the cocoons, then introduced through a nick, forming in this manner a thread, which is formed by 45 to 60 cocoons.
The thread is winded around a little bobbin and conveyed to the drum, activated by hand. Consequently, we obtain a skein of silk. It measures 20 km.
In boiling soaped water, a solution of ashes is added, in order to soften damaged cocoons. Ash solution makes natural silk more brilliant. After drying these cocoons, women take the duvet to wind it on the distaff. The silk is then rolled around a reed winder, to form a spun silky skein.
The silky skein is winded, by a spinning‑wheel, on a stick, put into the weaver's shuttle. Weaving is then started on a hand loom, moved by 2 or 4 pedals.
The artisan put the silky skein on the support, which contains 4 vertical reed sides, with a stone base. She winds the skein on a reed winder of conic form, with 8 sides around a fixed axis, planted in the ground supporting the device. She keeps turning the axis by hand ; so the silk is reeled around the cone.
The throwster immerses the winded silky skein in cold water during 12 hours. Then, he winds it around cones of reed. He takes one thread from each cone and winds them on sticks fixed on a spool, moved by a wooden spinning‑wheel itself moved by hand.
The thread is so doubled. The throuwster fixes the sticks on the spool, in order to twist the double thread to make it stronger.
One hundred bobbins are put on the ground. The threads are attached to a wooden frame, crossing a metallic comb. 50 threads are attached in the upper part of the warping device, and another 50 threads are attached in the inferior part. The warping device is composed of 4 wooden bars, revolving around a fixed axis. Threads are winding around the bars. following the movement of the warping device. The complete tour of the warping device measures 7 meters and 82 cm.
The dyer washes out all sediments accumulated on the row silk. This operation consists of immersing the silky skein in soaped boiling water, containing caustic soda or kali, during two hours or more. Then, the silk is immersed again in pure water ; the silky threads become smooth and bright. At this stage, the silky skein would have lost 25% its weight. Afterwards it is dyed. This operation is still manual in Damascus, Horns and Aleppo.
The dresser immerses the silky skein in a basin of cold water containing starch and glue of almond, to strengthen the threads.
At dawn, the verificator stretches, on rakes, 60 in. of threads, longing a wall in open air; walking to and fro to finish the whole ball ; trying to separate threads to avoid entangling.
The artisan (leaser) attaches the warp to a warp‑rail, attached itself to 4 pedals of the loom, pushing up the warp by the pulling rope in order to permit the entrance of the weaver's shuttle through the warps.
Damascus is renowned for her silk manufactory : the brocade, the damas, the aghabani (silk embroidery)... etc.
From the 11th century, the fabrication of the brocade was already well known in Damascus.
In modem times Antoine Mzannar was famous for his magnificent brocade, and he undertook the propagation and development of this industry in Damascus. In 1890, he founded a workshop at Bab Charky, near the eastern grand port of the old city.
The decorations of the brocade are inspired by the daily scene of life in Damascus, the arabesques and the Arab Muslim history, besides European tradition.
The nut, almond and roses, all of these are raised in the court yards of Damascus houses.
The influence of the dodecagon decoration in the Omeyad Mosque must not be neglected.
Similarly, there are the sites of battles fought by Saladin Al‑Ayyoubi ; Noah's ark inspired from religion, Romeo and Juliette from European tradition.
Mr. Antoine Mzannar diffused the butterfly motive, well known. called Pop , dear to all tourists, and composed of 7 colours. Love Birds, chosen by Queen Elizabeth the 2nd for her wedding robe, is nominated later the queen Elizabeth decorative motive.
Black and white are the most used colours in the warp. Red, green, blue and "beige" (clear brown) are used in woof. These colours are expressing splendour and passion of ardent life. The golden silk is also used in the brocade fabrics.
The Actual Situation of Silk in Syria
In the sixties of the 20th century, Syria interdicted the importation of foreign silk, and encouraged Syrian peasants to cultivate silk worms and plant mulberry‑trees to protect Syrian silk. The public section monopolised the production of silk ; consequently, the quality of the silk merchandise was not controlled enough ; add to that, the absence of private competition exaggerated bad quality.
At the end of the eighties and the beginning of the nineties, the private enterprises started again ; but a new problem surged after the fall of the ex‑Soviet Union. Silk of cheap quality from foreign sources, infiltrated illegally into Syria and influenced badly the Syrian row silk prices.
Syria could overcome this difficulty by the encouragement of competition between public and private sectors, in order to ameliorate quality. A sound policy aiming at the encouragement of young people to found private enterprises by private loans from the Industrial Bank would give good results.
Wide efforts to encourage Tourism will certainly facilitate the exportation of this precious merchandise, and other similar items.
This handicraft is an essential part of the cultural patrimony of people which asserts the personality of societies and their characteristics.
Many civilizations faded away or have been dominated by strangers, intenting to eclipse their history by changing the essential characteristics of their occupied country (Israeli occupation of Palestine, and demographic changes in the intention to erase salient features : example of Jerusalem).
Popular legacy, like handicraft, which is an important factor in the preservation of popular features, stand firmly against these tentatives of denigration and alienation. Ardent people are the safeguard of their civilization, deeply rooted, against any demolition.
In Syria, in general, and particularly in Damascus, many families have their names after their artisan activity in the silk fabrication. This shows how ancient is this profession among Syrian society and Syrian craftsmen.
Silk influenced Syrian daily life. Proverbs related to silk are common among Syrian public. “ Better cuff a prince and steal a silky fabric, rather than commit yourself with common people and cheap rags. ”
The church forbade common people to wear silk and particularly Monks ; it is the symbol of grand lux, while monks must show austerity in their daily life.
This attitude changed in the 5th century. and Monks are admitted to wear fine and silky garments. It is well known in Syria that priests and high ranking ministers of the church wear silky garments while celebrating the wholly mass.
Prophet Mohammed exhorted Muslims not to wear silky garments. insisting that who wear silk in their actual life, will be deprived of wearing it in future life in Heaven.
I would close this short presentation with a significant remark : those who weave these fine products do not wear any. Silk weavers are rather poor people, it is beyond their capacity to live in such a luxury.