Geopolitics

Even In Wartime, Syrians Hold Tight To Ancient Mosaic Craft

A Syrian refugee living in a tent near the border with Turkey has lost his home, but he is preserving the family business of creating beautiful works of traditional mosaic art.

Even In Wartime, Syrians Hold Tight To Ancient Mosaic Craft
Ahmad Khalil

ATMA — Abu Mahmoud, a 67-year-old from Aleppo"s Maret al-Numan, is attempting to preserve his family's profession despite the hardships of war. A mosaic artist, he has brought his workshop with him to a camp near Atma, on the Syrian side of the Turkish border.

"It doesn't matter if I live in a house or a tent," he says. "What matters is that I keep doing this job."

The art of mosaic in Syria dates back to the Byzantine era, when the works covered buildings, churches, abbeys and cathedrals.

Before the conflict, the famously revolutionary northwestern city of Kafranbel was a hub for modern mosaic makers. Before the war, 700 people in the town practiced the profession full time, in 25 workshops. Today, only two of the shops remain, staffing 37 workers.

"Earlier, we made good money working in this profession," says Abu Ahmad, a 42-year-old manager of one of the two workshops. "A good worker would make up to $400 a month. An ordinary one would make $200. Now, each worker makes a maximum of $150, because our market is shrinking.

He says the export market has all but collapsed. "We used to export almost 70% of our artwork to different countries through Lebanon," he says. "The rest went to Turkey and the local market. We used to make fixtures for walls of churches, museums and universities. Today, we only work on small fixtures and clay jars."

Saria Abu Khaled, a 22-year-old mosaic maker still working in Kafranbel, never finished school. When he was a child, his father sent him to a workshop to learn the profession. He used to practice his craft in his hometown of Tayyebat al-Imam, but the workshops there closed as the war economy took over. He made the journey to Kafranbel to keep working.

"This is not only a job to me," Khaled says. "It is my identity, my history and my culture. The income is now much lower, but we keep working in order to preserve this art, which is more important than money. We don't want to lose it, like we lost half of our homeland."

Likewise, Abu Mahmoud learned the trade from his father, who ran the family workshop, when he was 13. Even in a refugee camp, he says, "We make outstanding fixtures that can't be found anywhere else in Syria. We try to merge the past with the present. We cut our stones by hand."

Now he's passing on the craft to the next generation. "I taught the profession to my children." Mahmoud says. "But when the fighting reached my town, I took my equipment and came to live in this tent. I'm teaching this profession to my family and to all those who want to learn in the camp. It could help them make some money to support their children."

But there is no real market anymore for his wares. Finished pieces sell to the occasional foreign aid worker or to buyers along the Turkish border.

"Most of the time, the price isn't proportionate with the effort and time we spent making it," he says. "But we have to sell what we can. We don't have any other way."

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