The Syrian carpet industry, steeped in history and tradition, has withstood the test of time, but it now faces modern challenges that threaten its very existence. For centuries, this industry has been an integral part of Syrian culture and heritage, producing exquisite carpets that are more than mere floor coverings—they are pieces of art, each bearing a unique story.
Historical Roots of the Syrian Carpet Industry
The roots of the Syrian carpet industry stretch back into the annals of history, with evidence of carpet weaving dating to centuries BC. The cradle of this craft was the Eurasian plains and Central Asia, where humans began weaving carpets as early as 500 BC. The oldest known carpet, the Pazyryk carpet, hails from this era and is a testament to the enduring artistry of carpet weaving.
Ancient Syrian civilizations, including the Kingdoms of Mary and Ebla, possessed a deep knowledge of textile production, which they passed down through generations. Evidence from archaeological excavations reveals that woven linen was used to clothe the deceased in these ancient cultures.
The city of Palmyra was renowned for its vibrant, multi-colored tapestries adorned with intricate geometric designs. Even today, the people of Badia al-Sham continue to create various daily-use textiles that carry forward this rich tradition.
One pivotal moment in the industry’s history was the acquisition of the Kixeru rug from Persians around 636 AD, making it one of the earliest historically recorded carpets. The industry continued to flourish during the Ayyubid and Mamluk periods, with some museums and private collections preserving Mamluk carpets, often referred to as Damascene carpets due to the involvement of Damascus textile workers in their production.
The Ottoman Empire further embraced this art form, fostering its growth in the Levant. Skilled weavers from Kerman, Damascus, and Cairo flocked to Ottoman territories. Even after the First World War, Armenians in Aleppo continued to contribute to the industry. Wool, cotton, and silk were the primary materials used in carpet making.
The Syrian carpet industry was handed down from generation to generation, thriving until the mid-20th century. However, in the mid-1960s, the Syrian government established “social units for the teaching of the hand-made carpet industry” in rural areas and small Syrian cities. By the end of the 20th century, there were over one hundred such units.
Despite the introduction of modern machinery, the traditional hand-made industry has managed to preserve its core characteristics. Syrian carpets, described by many as works of art, continue to captivate admirers with their exquisite colors and designs.
Carpets as Works of Art
One distinctive feature of Syrian carpets is the way they are viewed—many see them as intricate paintings rather than utilitarian furniture. This artistic perspective is evident in the carpets’ designs and patterns, which often feature depictions of Syria’s historical landmarks, such as the Palmyra ruins, the Umayyad Mosque, and the citadels of Aleppo and Damascus. These carpets serve as a canvas for portraying the country’s cultural and historical heritage.
Religious symbols and those inspired by nature are frequently incorporated into the designs, emphasizing the integral role that carpets play in Syria’s cultural heritage. In Syrian homes, regardless of their size or affluence, carpets are a ubiquitous presence, woven with stories that transcend generations. The transition from being functional floor coverings to expressive artworks further solidifies their place in the realm of creativity.
Diverse Environments, Diverse Carpets
The diversity of the Syrian landscape is mirrored in the wide array of carpets produced across the country. Variations in names, shapes, colors, and fabrics used result in a vast tapestry of carpet types.
Each type of carpet is unique in terms of design, with different names and colors. Iranian carpets are known for their simplicity, warm colors, and floral motifs. In contrast, Turkmen carpets feature consistent patterns, soft textures, and glossy finishes. Pegari carpets are distinguished by their dark colors, natural shapes, and cohesive textures.
These variations extend to the length of fur, the type of embossing, the carpet frame, and the final form. Raw materials for carpet weaving include wool, cotton, silk, or blends of these materials. The colors used have evolved over time, with traditional natural dyes derived from plants like true indigo, saffron, vine leaves, almonds, and the common madder plant being replaced by synthetic chemical dyes.
The Mamluk/Damascene carpets are recognized for their striking scarlet red, golden yellow, and navy blue colors, adorned with geometric patterns and straight branches or geometric shapes. In Damascus, carpets were typically red, while in coastal areas, they took on the hues of the sea, primarily in blue.
Different regions across Syria have their own distinctive carpet styles, reflecting local traditions and environments. Homs, Hama, Aleppo, and Lattakia are known for rectangular carpets with predominantly blue, red, and purple colors.
Challenges Faced by the Carpet Industry
Throughout its history, the Syrian carpet industry has grappled with numerous challenges, but it has managed to endure. In recent times, the most pressing challenge has been the fierce competition from cheaper industrially produced carpets. The allure of lower prices and wider variety has led many consumers to opt for mechanized carpets, potentially endangering the traditional hand-made industry.
Additionally, the mechanical carpet industry has faced its own set of challenges, including outdated machinery, limited color options, and poor planning. These difficulties have sometimes led to difficulties in marketing the products, causing excess stock and potential damage to stored carpets.
Despite these challenges, the Syrian carpet industry continued to adapt and produce exceptional carpets, maintaining the essence of its rich heritage.
The Uncertain Future of the Syrian Carpet Industry
As we look to the future of the Syrian carpet industry, the path forward remains uncertain, marked by factors beyond easy control. The industry has witnessed periods of prosperity and decline over the years, but today, it stands at a crossroads, facing the imminent threat of extinction.
Yet, the future holds a glimmer of hope. Craftsmen who inherited their skills from generations past still strive to preserve their traditions and the craft they hold dear. Their dedication serves as a testament to the resilience of this ancient industry.
The Syrian carpet industry remains a symbol of Syria’s rich history, artistic expression, and cultural heritage. While the challenges may seem insurmountable, the hope is that this industry will persevere, as it has for centuries, ensuring that these exquisite pieces of art continue to be woven into the tapestry of Syrian culture.