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  The rise and decline of urban handicrafts between the beginning of the nineteenth century and today reflects the chequered history of the region, the success of competition from cheap European mass-produced imported items, and the progress made in the industrialization of Syria and Its integration into modern world trade. On the other hand,when "Orientalism" was in vogue in Europe towards the end of the nineteenth century, it breathed new life into almost extinct crafts producing luxury goods such as inlaid metalwork and wood Bedroom furniture and living room tables  with intarsia decoration, But between the two World Wars, even die production of such luxury goods declined. Since the oil boom in the1970s the craftsmen of Damascus have found new markets in the Gulf States. the manufacture of goods for the tourist market and for export to Europe (mainly, it seems, to France, Italy and Spain) is increasing, and among sections of the Syrian upper class and die rising middle class it is becoming chic to furnish one's home in the "traditional Syrian" style. Craft skills are still available. Expensive raw materials which are hard to obtain, such as precious woods and bone, have sometimes been replaced by plastics or  materials dial: are easier to work, such as wood paste made of sawdust, and bone paste composed of powdered bone .The"working methods which we have observed make clear that, despite the continued low wages for craftsmen (approximately 150-200 DM a month), the production processes are being rationalized In the face of increasing pressure from competition. But this can only be ascertained where modern machinery has been introduced, since there are no descriptions of production processes an earlier period. Unfortunately most of the travelers' accounts in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries provide only incomplete lists of the various crafts.  Three travelers' reports illustrate the changing history of Syrian handicrafts. W.G. Browne, who traveled Syria in 1795/96, found trade and industry booming; "The manufactures are in a flourishing state being carried on with great spirit both by Christians and Mohammedans; silk and cotton are the chief articles...whereas after his journey in 1852/53, H. Petermann wrote "Aslong as the rule of Ibrahim Pasha continued, trade and industries flourished - now everything is laid low." Oberhuinmer and H. Zimmerer (1899) also described general decline of handicrafts in Damascus, but, compared with the situation in the middle of the century, production seems to have increased again: "Apart from .splendid saddlery, almost the only pieces of art handicraft still  crafted were the well-known wooden slices inlaid with bone and mother-of-pearl, small tables and pedestals, and beautiful brass plates and jugs. In the goldsmiths' bazar one also finds a wide range of pretty Items of jewellery  such as silver brooches and pendants, which are worked  with great diligence and are not dear." Oberhuinmer and Zimmerer go on to say that everything else came from Istanbul or Persia. The same authors also report from Aleppo that (p. 89) "the bazaars are overflowing with European goods; Marseilles in particular is a channel for  the import of materials, cloths and colonial, goods. In the years since 1980, especially in Damascus, witnessed a diverse and at times even contradictory development.  Crafts which arc regarded as typically Syrian  increased in importance. These include the production of  inlaid  wood Bedroom furniture and living room tables, small boxes and board games, brass and bronze objects inlaid with silver and copper, and also  sword blades inlaid with gold or the application of inlay to  old blades. The craftsman uses antique pieces in the  museums as a model, besides making use of old catalogues  of work produced for the Paris World Exhibition in 1897 .

(these catalogues are treasured by the proprietors of the firms and jealously guarded) and postcards dating from the turn of the century.

Some pieces come close to forgery. New styles have been developed as a result of customers' demands, and the taste and creativity of the head of the particular firm. The aesthetic merits of some of these are very debatable.

A similar development can be observed in architecture -particularly among stonemasons, who imitate mosaics in the style of the Mamluks, and among specialists who paint ceilings and wood panelling in the style of Damascene houses of the well-to-do of the period between c. 1750 and 1900. Through the initiative of the Society of Friends of the f Old Town of Damascus, and private citizens, many old .houses have been renovated. This process involves an. enormous amount of in-filling, because the houses have been neglected for such a long time and have been ruth­lessly gutted by astute art and antique dealers.

Generally restorers do not stop at die restoration of extant or damaged parts. They also create very good copies, if patterns are available or if the motifs can be recon­structed from what survives. If this is not possible then something new is made in an appropriate style.

An increasing demand for handicrafts connected with architecture stems from the Damascene upper class, tourist hotels and authorities in charge of public buildings. The nouveau riche Gulf Arabs create a complete "genuine Arab" identity for themselves, with the help of architec­tural decoration, wood Bedroom furniture and living room tables, inlaid metalwork, arms for display, traditional textiles and so on. These crafts are supported by the government - mainly because they bring in foreign currency.

 

 

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