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The intarsia craftsmen







Syrian handcrafted mother

of pearl inlaid custom furniture





Syrian handcrafted mother

of pearl inlaid custom furniture













Syrian handcrafted mother

of pearl inlaid custom furniture













Syrian handcrafted mother

of pearl inlaid custom furniture




Intarsia is a mosaic-like inlay of contrasting materials such as bone, mother-of-pearl, woods of various colours -and today plastic as well - set into a wooden object. The earliest examples of tints technique in the Orient are found in ancient Egypt. Objects with intarsia decoration are known from the tomb of Tutankh-Amun (fourteenth century BC)


The earliest examples from the Islamic period in the Museum for Islamic Art in Cairo can be dated to the ninth century, whileSyrian objects with intarsia decoration have survived from the tenth century. These early works are from the religious sphere, such as the panels of preaching chairs (minhar), Koran stands {rah la), and, more rarely, the doors of mosques, mcdreses and saints' tombs. The tech≠nique of intarsia spread westwards Irom Egypt and Syrian to Andalusia and Morocco, and eastwards to Iran and India.Syrian and Egyptian intarsias have retained their

unmistak-eable style and even today they are technically among the best examples of this ancient craft.


The early works from the eleventh and twelfth centuries show that the cabinet-maker's art was highly developed at a time when woodworking in medieval Europe was still at a crude early stage. This is true both in their decorative elements and in the construction of complicated and set compartmented parts, which are worked with unusual precision, and with polygonal frames and fillings.


At first sight this may seem surprising, since compared with the forested regions of northern and central Europe the Orient is very short of wood. On the other hand it should be remembered that several of the precious woods which have since become native, such as cedar, cherry and walnut, were introduced to central Europe by the Romans (Wohrlin, 1990).           


Craftsmen say that their works are in the Mamluk tradi≠tion both in their decoration and in die types of furniture made. This, however, is only partly true.In Syrian, as in the whole of the Orient, traditional furniture was relatively sparse. People sat on divans, cushions with brocade covers, which were arranged round the walls of reception rooms. The use of tables was not common; food was served on brass or copper trays placed on folding supports. In the homes of well-to-do citizens these supports were already decorated with intarsia work at an early period. Household equipment was kept not in cupboards but in wall niches, good examples of which may still be seen in the Azem Palace in Damascus. The only traditional pieces of furni≠ture were chests for storing textiles and possibly jewellery. In the countryside these usually only had carved decora≠tion, but urban diesis were generally decorated with intarsia work. Before the eighteenth century chairs and armchairs were only meant for important people. At the end of die eighteenth century and beginning of the nine≠teenth the growing, western-orientated, "bourgeois" class, following the example of Istanbul and Cairo, introduced a European style in rurrushing. Uctagonai, rouna or siar-shaped tables were produced, as well as chests of drawers and clipboards, massive armchairs, cradles, sideboards, folding chairs, screens and large mirror frames. It is impos≠sible to say whether all this products were made for theSyrian upper class, for Europeans living in Syrian or for export to Europe (again predominantly to France). The only clues are the occasional inlaid inscriptions. Besides these new products the traditional range of wares continued to be made. The most striking and best known of these are the high-heeled sandals, usually called "bridal shoes", though they were also used for visits to the baths. The ornamentation follows two different basic patterns:


1. A strictly geometrical tradition, modelled on the inlaid stone floors of Mamluk palaces of the four≠teenth and fifteenth centuries. These, for their part, had absorbed influences from Roman and Byzantine floor mosaics. This. style of decoration is mainly found in intarsia work in wood using various coloured woods, and in bone inlay.

(I would classify the typical early Islamic interlaced star ornament as a sub-group of this style. It is the most popular decorative motif for large surfaces, such as cupboard doors, screens etc., with mother-of-pearl inlay.)


2. A very simple all-over geometrical decoration (usually consisting of rhombuses), is combined with lavish vegetable forms, such as palmettes, foliage rinccaux, tulip, carnation and peony motifs, and vases. This style of decoration is based on theOttoman tradition. Pieces of this kind are decorated over the whole surface with mother- of-pearl and are therefore particularly expensive. Today this style is predominantly used for furniture intended for export to the Gulf region.

The decoration of the two basic types can be supple≠mented in rare instances by inlaid inscriptions in severe kufic or remarkably fluid and elegant naskhi.


In Damascus we had the opportunity to get to know the business run by Hassan Sami Sanadiki in Hariqa. We were able to ask Mr Sanadiki some questions and observe the work there. This is a family business which has been in existence since 1885. According to die owner, it is the only firm which has continued this craft without interruption even during the period of total disruption of this craft tradi≠tion between the two world wars. The present owner runs the firm as both craftsman and businessman. He knows his trade well and calls himself a master. The firm employs forty- two workers, who work six days a week, ten hours a day. Their training takes around six months.


The firm restores old pieces of furniture and makes new ones from the catalogue or after consultation with the client. Here again the models are from the catalogue of the Paris World Exhibition of 1897, which is kept under lock and key and is guarded as a trade secret. Only intarsia work in mother-of-pearl and bone is made .


The production process involves much division of labour. The owner transfers the ornaments onto the of the     piece of furniture using work plans drawn computer. According to him his father still worked c without models. Some intarsia works are made w pieces outlined with tin strips, and some have no set) the mother-of-pearl inlays. In a third  variant the n of-pearl inlays are surrounded by a wood paste coloured  brown, which strongly emphasizes the outlines | ornament. The assistants specialize in various  processes One, for example, beats in the tin strips; the next cuts up  the shells into manageable pieces for polishing; another polishes the pieces with precision using an electric \. in order to make them fit their positions in the inlay assistant then inserts them. In the past the individual  processes were performed in separate workshops. The advantage of this was that no worker knew the complete g don process, and the master was not training any o don for himself. Today he complains that his well workers move away or set up their own business, precisely because they know the whole production process .A beginner should be able to inlay about ten pieces in a ten-hour shift, while a very good worker can finish five hundred pieces in ten hours, after about two years' experience. The grilles made of turned wood for insertion into tables or chests, for example, are made by a s workshop. They are now manufactured on electric lathes, and their quality in comparison with older pieces was declined considerably. The most important w furniture is walnut, from the countryside Damascus. For the turned grilles rosewood, lemonwood or beech wood is used.

There are considerable differences in the quality of mother-of-pearl. Cheap mother-of-pearl, with texture, is obtained from Deir ez-Zor and comes Euphrates, while shiny, expensive mother-of-pearl from Lake Tiberias. Today mother-of-pearl is imported from Japan and the Philippines; it usually has a greenish sheen. The bone inlays were formerly made of camel but today mainly compressed bone powder is used

Brocades produced in Damascus are used for covering upholstered furniture. The small patterns of these brocades

were in fact patterns from textiles intended for clothing.in the past considerably more robust upholstery textile especially made in Lebanon were used. Their patterns reminiscent of art nouveau textiles.


The quality of intarsia work has not suffered because of the technical rationalization of the work processes. on the contrary, the introduction of electric polishers has meant striking improvement in the precision of the polishing of the mother-of-pearl inlays in comparison with similar pieces from the middle of the last century. Despite this the picture of present-day production has changed considerably in comparison with that of nineteenth-century pieces. Mother-of-pearl can now be imported in any quantity needed and is used as a decorative element in a far more extravagant way than it was in the past. The very fine simple geometric and vegetable relief carvings (especial foliage rinceaux and trefoils), arranged in deliberate alternation; can be produced only by painstaking and time-consuming manual work, and have therefore almost completely disappeared.


On close inspection therefore the "typical tradition

Syrian furniture" produced today differs considerabi from its predecessors in the nineteenth century. The main purchasers of the modern products are the upwardly mobile Damascene middle class, as well as citizens of the Gulf Stages, and to a lesser extent tourists. Direct export to Europe plays practically no part at all any more.



The Production of Wood Intarsia

We were also able to observe this production process in a Damascene .workshop. It has been even more rational≠ized than the others. Wooden or plastic rods with a trian≠gular, rectangular or rhomboid shape and with edges meas≠uring about 3-8 mm are bundled together in a pattern about 80 cm to one metre in length, and glued together in rigid wooden casings. After the glue has set, these packets, with a rectangular, square or triangular cross-section, are taken out of their wooden casings and cut on motor saws with very fine blades into slices about one millimetre thick. The outline is tlien incised to the depth of the thickness of the inlay with a chisel on the object to which it is to be applied. The inlay is applied in one piece and glued on. Then the object is rubbed down with fine sand paper and given a glossy coat of varnish. The differences in quality are mainly due to the materials used. Pieces with real wood are more expensive than those made with plastic as a wood substitute, although to the layman they are mostly indistin≠guishable. Pieces are considered particularly valuable if they have small mother-of-pearl triangles or rhombuses inserted as well as the wood intarsia. This sort of inlay work cannot be included in the rationalized process of producing wood intarsia described above, since each piece of mother-of-pearl has to be polished and inserted indi≠vidually. This means that, even though most of the workers in this branch of the process are children and young people, it still involves a considerable extra cost. The process described here is used to make boxes of almost any size required. These are mostly sold in the many souvenir shops. For the domestic market and tourists taula (back≠gammon) boards are made. Next to cards taula \g, one of the most popular leisure activities for men in the coffee≠houses. Less common is the production of table tops and supports. The use of mother-of-pearl or bone and wood intarsia side by side for the decoration of furniture seems no longer to be common, though they can be found side by side on pieces dating back to the nineteenth century.




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