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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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

— Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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