by Estibaliz Sienra Iracheta
The historical, economic and cultural significance of traditional textiles in Syria represents invaluable material and intangible heritages, bestowing people with a sense of identity and continuity through time. Unfortunately, like most textile traditions around the world, the loss of these ancient knowledges and crafts begun a downward spiral into their disappearance.
The rapid vanishing of traditional textiles in Syria began with the turn of the 19th Century, as a result of the economic trade agreements between the Ottoman Empire and European markets. This overflowed the suqs with cheap British fabrics, producing a shortage of local raw materials and an increase in the prices of handmade products. It is estimated that by 1850, the manufacture of traditional textiles had been reduced by half, with the use of traditional garments falling by almost three quarters, as people in cities and towns began to wear European style clothes. This decline affected the markets and initiated a halt in the generational transmission of textile knowledges.
After World War II, the independence of the country had brought modernisation and industrialization to the region, prompting the introduction of cheaper materials and mechanised tools that simplified the processes, reducing time and production costs. This led to the irremediable replacement and eventual loss of many of the laborious textile crafts of Syrian. Changes in the political spheres, as well as in climate conditions, worsen by the over-grassing of herds, had also led to a dramatic decline in the number of active nomad communities, and their traditional ways of living (Gillow, p.96).
Research by investigator Maria Zernickel (1992, p.194) suggests that before World War I, up to 60 workshops of indigo dyers were operating in Aleppo. By 1992, only two or three of them remained. In 1973, it was estimated that up to 3,500 weavers were working in the city, but two decades later, only around 200 of them still worked with traditional looms. At the time of the research, resist dyeing workshops were hardly to be found, since the family trade had been replaced by factories producing printed fabrics. The circumstances were further affected by the poignant lack of generational relay, as the dyers and weavers were all older men. With a disappearing business, younger people began to lose interest in learning the skills to produce crafts. According to textile designer Annegret Lembcke, the Zâhir brothers, Ilias and Gorgi, who were renowned for their production of ikat, died before her last trip to Aleppo in 2007. The Zâhir brothers left no relay to their ancient trade.
If the survival of Syrian textile traditions were highly endangered by the end of the 20th Century, the escalation of the armed conflict in the region since March 2011 has taken a serious toll on the production of traditional textiles. Even the industrial manufacturing of the country, which had previously affected the ancient trades, has been devastated by the war, with factories destroyed, workers displaced and restrictions hampering trade (AFP, 2016). All of these circumstances draw to the general and devastating assumption that most textile traditional expressions in the country are close to extinction.
Mohamed Fllaha, one of the youngest tarbit producers and weavers of Aleppo was forced to flee the city with his family as the conflict escalated. He currently resides in Turkey and hasn’t been able to weave in close to a decade. Several businesses and NGOs have established social projects with Syrian refugees in countries like Jordan and Lebanon, providing small groups of people with training and a trade to economically support themselves. However, the lack of funding for promotion and implementing larger scale projects has been noticeable. Additionally, the unfeasibility of accessing certain regions of Syria to evaluate the condition of the textile crafts, in order to develop and implement crucial safeguarding and promotional strategies is still not considered a priority. But without vital attempts to protect Syrian tangible and intangible heritages, centuries of knowledge, beauty and culture will forever disappear. Syrian textiles could be forgotten in the sands of history, vanishing in the blood-dyed fabrics of war.
Estibaliz Sienra Iracheta is a Doctorate candidate in World Heritage Studies at Brandenburgische Technische Universität Cottbus, and is a promoter and expert in traditional textiles. Estibaliz previously worked in the Ruth D. Lechuga Folk Art Collection of the Franz Mayer Museum and as a teacher at the Textile Restoration Workshop of the National School for Conservation, Restoration and Museography of the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico.