Arab Artisans Create Dazzling Mosaics
Essa Bitar deftly shuffled a bundle of multicolored slivers of wood in his fingers and displayed a star-shaped design at its tip, a building block for a modern craft rooted in centuries of Arabic tradition.
The intricate mosaic veneers made by artists such as Bitar for the past century have become some of the most famed handicrafts in this ancient city that is celebrated for its many arts.
Tiny bits of wood and plastic or bone form swirls and stars that dance in arabesques with tiny checkerboards, crosses and triangles atop tables and chairs, on jewel boxes, picture frames, clocks and game boards.
In the stalls that overspill into the twisting alleys of Damascus’ medieval marketplace, a few dollars will buy a flashy gift box adorned with little star patterns, intricate but easily made and with as much plastic as wood.
Well over $1,000 might be asked for an antique chair rich in delicate, interwoven lines of bone and rare woods, and spangled with mother-of-pearl inlay.
Bitar and others say the craft originated about 1890 when a carpenter named George Bitar was pondering the ornamental inlaid stonework that has been a feature of Islamic and Arabic architecture for more than 1,000 years.
“He thought why didn’t he try it on wood?” said Bitar, who is only distantly related to the craft’s founder.
Today, several thousand craftsmen turn out the mosaics, which seem ubiquitous in the Syrian capital, often in offices and homes as well as in tourist shops.
The craftsmen use woods of different colors to form their designs: yellow lemon wood, green from the pistachio tree, red from rosewood, browns from apricot and walnut. White, which once came from cow and camel bones, is now more often plastic.
The woods are cut into long, angular pieces sometimes thinner than a match stick, then glued together in bundles or blocks to form designs.
When a block has dried and hardened, it may be glued to others to form a larger pattern. Thin pieces are shaved off this mother chunk and inlaid alongside others on the furniture or box, with some pieces applied individually.
Cheaper pieces today are almost mass-produced, with entire surfaces covered with slices from one or two mother blocks. Finer work tends to have less plastic, more intricate patterns and greater hand inlay.
Multiple strips of wood may line the mosaics and twist off into arabesques of their own, often complemented by individually set pieces of mother-of-pearl.
Many Damascus artisans also practice the older craft of inlaying mother-of-pearl and ivory, products which are often more costly than mosaic work because of their ingredients.
“Look at these lines,” said Bishara Awad, pointing to the entwined bands of mosaic inlay dotted with mother-of-pearl decorating an antique picture frame on the wall of the 124-year-old S. G. Nassan handicrafts factory.
“There aren’t more than three or four people now who are making these designs.” Awad has worked at Nassan’s for 35 years.
The very term arabesque (a decorative design scheme) for entwined floral or geometrical designs shows how closely that style has been identified with the Arab world.
Mosaic and inlay are also rooted in the centuries. The 200-year-old Azem Palace in Damascus’ old city displays stonework patterns on fountains and walls that are echoed in the designs on wooden boxes in tourist shops nearby.
The Christian Byzantine Empire that ruled the region before Islam’s conquest in the 7th Century left a legacy of intricate stone mosaics, often illustrating Bible stories, on floors throughout the Middle East.
And the National Museum holds an inlaid ivory panel carved some 4,000 years ago by a craftsman in Mari, in present-day Syria 260 miles east of Damascus.