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Textile Stories

 

Brocade, atlas and damask - these costly fabrics have been directly related to Syria's textile luxury. The wealth and reputation of Syrian cities and their suqs were based on them, and their variety and fine quality have aroused admi­ration and enthusiasm in visitors of all periods. read more

Besides textiles made in Syria itself, fabrics fabrics from a great variety of countries were also imported, enriching the selection available. The cities were located at major inter­sections and their existence was based on their role as centres for long-distance trade between India, the Far East and the Mediterranean. Until the beginning of the nine­teenth century trade relations with Europe were of equal importance to those with -Mesopotamia, the Arabian Peninsula, Persia, Egypt and the more far-reaching links with Africa, India, Central Asia and the Far East.

Volney, who stayed in Syria at the end of the eighteenth century, describes Aleppo as the most important entrepot for trade with Armenia and Turkey. Caravans were sent from Aleppo to Baghdad and Persia. The connection with India was via Basra and the Persian Gulf, and with Egypt and Mecca via Damascus. Aleppine trade with Europe went through the ports of Alexandretta and Latakia. Among the most important trading goods mentioned by Volney are textiles of wool or other native yarns, coarser fabrics, which were woven in the countryside, fine silk cloths made in Aleppo, cotton from India, muslin from Iraq and scarves from Kashmir. Other travellers in their turn praise the brocades from Damascus.

Textile production, with all the supply industries connected with it, was always the most important economic sector not only in the Syrian cities but also in many other cities throughout the Islamic world. The great demand for textiles of all sorts arose from the special importance that textiles had and still have in the material and social context in the Islamic world. Considering the range of fabrics and die manner in which they were used, it is tempting to speak of a "textile culture". There was an enormous demand for fabrics not only from the court and the palaces, but also from the urban population, especially the upper class. This was not only for clothing but. also for interior decoration, which mainly consisted of textiles. When Browne visited Damascus at the .end of the eight­eenth century he described houses with "divans and large sofas of the richest silk ornamented with beads" (Browne 1800: 568-69).

This demand for textiles was matched by the demanc for labour. A large part of the urban population earned their living by working in the textile sector. Browne remarks of Damascus: "Damascus is the seat of a consider­able trade and its manufactures feed a large number of Mohammedans and Christians. They produce silk and cotton goods..." (Browne, 1800: 552)

The history of textile production in Syria goes back a long way. It was determined essentially by two factors. One was Syria's geographical position as a bridgehead between the Mediterranean world and the Near and Middle East, which determined its historical and political destiny. This meant that, except for a few periods, it was always part of the great empires or a bone of contention. between them. Until the Arab Conquest and the establish­ment of the Umayyad Caliphate in the seventh and eighth centuries textile production in Syria was dominated by Hellenistic, and later Byzantine and Sassanian traditions:

heavy Persian and Byzantine fabrics, silks from Antioch, purple textiles from Tyre and fine Alexandrian fabrics were much in demand. Trade in textiles between Byzantium and the Sassanians was, however, under strict supervision, and the export of embroideries from Susa, for example, or of Byzantine purple fabrics was restricted. The Arab Conquest, the spread of Islam and the establishment of the Caliphate meant the disappearance of frontiers, restric­tions and controls. An open market in culture and trade extended from the Mediterranean to India and Central Asia. Within it craftsmen, goods, techniques and styles could circulate freely and influence each other. Textile production was determined by new markets and new requirements. Islamic textiles brought together the lega­cies of Byzantium and the Sassanians, and absorbed influences from India and Central Asia, as well as from China. At the same time they developed their own very individual style. With the Arab Conquest Syria became an important centre for the production of textiles in the Islamic world.

The second determining factor for textile production in Syria was (and is) the access to raw materials. Two of these, linen and wool, had been available since time immemorial. Linen was mostly imported from Egypt, and wool was supplied by the nomads of the Syrian steppes and deserts. Silk and cotton, on the other hand, were raw materials new to the Mediterranean world and for a long time they had to be imported. The control of raw materials and the trade routes along which they were conveyed was a major political concern. Silk, especially, and the luxurious fabrics made from it, was not only a necessary accessory for the whims and lifestyle of a particular social class, it was also of decisive economic and political importance.

Syria's geography was favourable for the introduction of silk at the beginning of the sixth century in the northern regions and the Orontes plain, as well as the cultivation of cotton, particularly in the region between Hama and Aleppo and on the upper Euphrates. A typical product of Syria was, therefore, a mixed weave of cotton and silk, often an atlas fabric with stripes running lengthwise, such as alepin, which is still produced today.

Just as important as the raw materials for the textiles were dyes. Before the age of chemistry the procuring of natural materials for the production of dyes was time-consuming and expensive. Dyeing was part of the enhancement of textiles and recipes and dyeing techniques were guarded as jealously as the secret of silkworm cultiva­tion. The emergence of the Islamic world changed and improved things considerably regarding access to raw materials. The expansion of trade in the Islamic world and the opportunities it opened up are illustrated by an anec­dote told by Saadi when lie describes his meeting with a rich merchant on the island of Kish (quoted in Lombard 1978:162). The merchant confided to Saadi: "I would like to take Persian saffron to China, where I have heard one can obtain a good price for it, and then Chinese porcelain to Byzantium, Byzantine brocade to India, Indian steel to Aleppo, Aleppine glass to the Yemen and striped Yemeni textiles to Persia."

Silk: Wealth and Power

In antiquity silk was still a rarity. For a long time people

did not even know exactly what silk was, since China kept silkworm breeding and the production and processing of silk a strictly guarded secret. It is not surprising that people made concentrated efforts to discover this secret, or at least to control the trade routes along which the silk came. Two important trade routes, branches of the Silk Road, ended in Syria: one of the overland routes ran from Central Asia via Persia and Iraq to Aleppo and on to Antioch. The other was a sea-route from India across the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf to Basra from where a land route could be taken either via Baghdad and Mosul to Aleppo, or through the Syrian desert to Palmyra and thence to Damascus and Tyre. from Syria the silk trade was continued into the Mediterranean and Europe.

Rome imported its silk from Syria and the Lebanon. The silk-dealers, or sericarii had their own quarter in Rome. To wear silk garments caused a sensation, and the response was not always enthusiastic. For a time it was forbidden to wear silk garments in the Senate, since they were regarded as feminine and therefore restricted to women. The Christians in Rome were even more unambi­guous, declaring that a true Christian does not wear silk. But the seductive character o( the material was too great for these puritanical attitudes to prevail. The wearing of silk garments soon became habitual, for the rich and powerful. When the Syrian potentate Heliogabalus from Homs visited Rome at the beginning of the third century he is supposed to have been the first man to wear clothes made entirely of silk.

For Rome the silk trade became an important source of revenue, but it remained dependent on Persia. When Diocletian made peace with Persia in 297, the border and ;customs post at Nisibis became the hub of the silk trade between the two empires. In 301 Diocletian fixed taxes and prices for silk.

Palmyra, too, owed its rise to the silk trade. Situated in the middle of the Syrian desert, it was the most important entrepot for the caravan trade between the Euphrates and :he Mediterranean. During the energetic rule of the legen­dary Queen Zenobia, in particular, this desert kingdom

ruled from Palmyra achieved wealth and political impor­tance. There was trade not only in silk fabrics made in china, but raw silk was also imported to be spun, woven, dyed - and, of course, worn. Evidence of this is provided by fragments of textiles, including silk damask, found at Palmyra. The style of clothing (above all the women's ;costumes) and jewellery seen in statues have in part persisted to the present day. But with the shift of trade "outes due to wars and the resulting insecurity of the "outes, Palmyra's heyday came to an end, and like so many places in Syria it became a "dead city"; bedouins now rest in the shade of its majestic ruins.

There are many stories about how silk was smuggled out of China. One of them tells how a Chinese princess, when she married a prince from Khotan, took silk cocoons across the border in her bridal coiffure to give them to her future husband as a present.

Byzantium's most important suppliers of silk were central Asia and Persia. Duties and taxes made silk an expensive raw material that was difficult to obtain. In order to cater for the demand of the Byzantine court, Justinian istablished a monopoly of silk processing, which was pracised exclusively in the state gynaecea (textile factories). private silk weavers were forced onto the black market. When in 540 the war with Persia cut off the supply of silk, many Syrian and Lebanese silk-weavers emigrated immediately to Persia. After their victory over Byzantium the Persians finally gained control of the silk supply, which led to a crisis in textile production in the gynaecea.

The secret of silk production was brought to Byzantium by two Nestorian priests around 553. After a visit to their co-religionlsts in Central Asia they returned across the border with the eggs of the silkworm moth concealed in their walking sticks.

           The leaves of the white mulberry tree, which grows in the Syrian and Lebanese mountains, are the staple food of the silkworms. Silk-spinning factories sprang up in Beirut, I Homs and Hama. Since this period the production and processing of silk has been one of the most important factors in the economy of the Syrian and Lebanese region.

When the Muslim armies under Khalid bin al-Walid conquered Damascus, lie seized three hundred camel-loads of silk. The tribute paid to him amounted to 10,000 gold pieces and 200 silk garments. Like the early Christians in Rome the first Muslims regarded the use of silk as a luxury that was detrimental to true religion, but in fact silk now became indispensable for the Umayyad court, just as it had been for the Roman emperors. This was often disap­proved of: a Bedouin princess from the Euphrates region is said to have told her husband, Muawiya, that wearing a Bedouin cloak in the midst of her relatives would make her happier than all the silk at the court of Damascus.

.The conquest of Persia not only made the Islamic world a serious rival to China in silk production, it also meant that it controlled the most important routes of the Silk Road, giving it the monopoly of the silk trade. Like the Byzantines before them, the caliphs and later Muslim rulers established state workshops for their own requirements, but without closing down the private workshops. The general name given to the textiles made in these workshops is tiraz. Fatimid Egypt was famous for them. Textiles played an important role in the politics of gift-giving of the Muslim rulers. Honorific garments were bestowed and precious cloths were horded. Garments and valuable cloths were passed down from generation to generation together with the stories of how they were acquired. The detailed knowledge about the variety and provenance of textiles as well as the need for luxury textiles is very marked: "May God cover me with striped cloaks from the Yemen, with linen cloths from Egypt, brocades from Byzantium, with silk from Susa and China, Persian garments and capes from Isfahan, with atlas silk from Baghdad and turban cloths from Ubull,... with Armenian breeches... and with velvet from Merv. May God load me with carpets, with large carpets from Qaliqala and Maisan, with mats from Baghdad." Such was the desire of a well-to-do Muslim in the eleventh century (quoted in Eombard, 1987: 180).

The terms used for the cloths and garments made from them give an idea of the wide range of textile production. The names refer to the places where the textiles were made, or to the materials, their weave, embroidery, and much more. Tins information can be used to trace the place of origin of particular cloths and techniques as well as their distribution (and imitation). Talented 'artisans with the necessary knowledge were very much in demand and were requested to work for the courts. Their skill was often their undoing. After wars the victors very often took them by force to their courts. This explains the sudden appearance or disappearance of particular fabrics and techniques in various regions of the Islamic world. Lor example, Chinese silk-weavers were brought to Kufa by the Abbasids (Chehab, 1967). After his campaign in 1401 Timur "confiscated the damascene silk-weavers and other artisans and took them back with him to Central Asia (Lombard, 1987).

 Much care was expended on the production of the raw material and the control of the finished product. In sources from the end of the twelfth century we find instructions on the cultivation of- cotton and flax, silkworm breeding, dye making, etc. Manuals for market overseers contain detailed information of procedures in the case of falsification of fabrics and dyes. Kremer noted in the mid-nineteenth century that "silk is weighed under judicial, supervision" (1855:8).

Sources describing the specific contexts in which textiles were used show why textiles play such an outstanding role in Islamic culture. It is in the nature of the sources that they concentrate particularly on the courts and the urban upper class. They tell us about the fashions and practices at the courts, the requirements of the urban population, the circulation of textiles in social contexts, such as weddings or on special occasions, and the distribution of textiles as a sign of recognition or expression of benevolence from the powerful to their subordinates (Scarce, 1989; Lombard, 1987). Certain fabrics, patterns and dyes were reserved for the Muslim rulers; the court and dignitaries, particular social groups and religious minorities had their own turban cloths and were governed by precise dress regulations. Particularly in the urban milieu clothes regulations were a concrete expression of social relationships, a reflection of traditional norms and values, as well as of the fashions of the time. The issuing of such regulations was a political instrument whose power should not be underestimated. All this demonstrates the value Islamic culture attached to textiles, both materially and spiritually. But not only was the use of particular textiles integrated into a cultural pattern of life, this was also true of their production. The organization of work was determined by the old crafts. Tills resulted in the interdependence of the various indi­vidual craftsmen involved in the making of a textile, and thus in the emergence of close, social and work relation­ships, and in a necessary sense of solidarity. The economic life of the craftsmen and hence of a whole social fabric is thus dependent on the continuity of a whole cultural pattern in which the textiles have their place and which gives these objects their social and cultural character. It is only against this background that the scale of the changes which set in at the end of the nineteenth century can be gauged

The integration of Syria into the expanding European markets in the second third of the nineteenth Century, marked the beginning of far- reaching socioeconomic changes which were to have repercussions particularly on die textile industry. Syria was discovered as a new market for European industrial fabrics, and the treaties concluded after 1838 between several European states and the Ottoman Empire ensured very favorable export condi­tions for their goods. The European consuls had the right to observe the market situation on the spot, defend the interests of their governments and grant a number of special privileges to the local Christians in order to secure and deepen business contacts. At the same time Syria became an important supplier of silk as a raw material, especially for the French silk industry in Lyon. The region that is now Lebanon was the principal supplier for the French market, and silk was the staple commodity in the port of Beirut, whence it was shipped to Marseille. Silk once again became a political issue. In Syria the number of newly planted mulberry trees increased rapidly, and in regions which had been regarded as1 secondary silk-producing areas, such as the district around Safita, produc­tion was intensified. At favourable altitudes many peasants began to plant mulberry instead of their olive or fruit trees. But after 1930, when the demand for Syrian (Lebanese) silk collapsed and the silk industry in Lyon went into decline, many peasants who had switched to sericulture faced financial ruin. The reeling of the silk, in so far as it was done in Syria at all, was mechanized. Many Armenian women worked in the silk spinning workshops. Much French capital was invested in these enterprises and the machinery needed was imported from France. A number of Syrian businessmen who were in close contact with Lyon founded factories or mechanized their textile production. Some of the factories still use machines from this period. The flooding of the market with cheap British fabrics, as well as the shortage and increased price of raw materials for the traditional sector led to a drastic decline in Syrian textile production: in Damascus, between 1830 and 1850, it was reduced by almost a half, and the production of traditional articles fell by almost three quarters. Kremer (1854:21) lamented (somewhat inaccurately): "The diwans which were formerly covered with brocade, which, however, became famous under the name of damask, are now covered with Lnglish calico." In the towns people began to wear European dress.

Nevertheless, the Syrian textile Industry still managed to defend as share in the market. It was able to do so by increased concentration on the local markets, by supplying them with customary fabrics, by introducing cheaper imitations of traditional cloths, by making structural changes, such as processing industrial raw materials (e.g., yarns) imported from Europe, and by establishing special­ized centres of production in the cities. Aleppo, for example, switched to the production of cheaper varieties of traditional striped materials, to processing more cotton, and it remained the centre of dyeing in Syria. Damascus specialized on the making of expensive textiles such as gold brocade and silks, and concentrated on wool, some of which was used for making Bedouin cloaks. In Homs, on the other hand, the typical heavy silk cloths with patterns in gold and silver threads were still woven for the peasant and nomad clientele.

The second serious setback for the traditional textile sector in Syria was a consequence of the Second World War and, more generally, of the modern development and industrialization of Syria which came with independence .

 

 

 

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