I’ve spent the past few months searching for the threads of a disappearing world.
Syria’s textiles—richly textured in blues and yellows, reds and creams, often threaded with gold and silver colored threads, and with a quality that sometimes makes them seem to shimmer in the light—have long been the country’s pride. They have been treasured by travelers as far back as the Silk Road era, when cities such as Palmyra and Aleppo were critical stopping points on the route between China, India and the Mediterranean ports to imperial Rome. Silk textiles from Syria have covered everyone from mummies in ancient tombs in Palmyra to Pope Benedict in the Vatican. Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Druze in the region have prized the textiles for their religious costumes. But five years into the war in Syria, textile factories have been destroyed, essential travel routes transporting threads and other materials to weavers have been cut off, and workers have been displaced. In a recent interview with the AFP, Feras Taki Eddine, the president of the Syrian Textile Exporter’s Association, estimated that seventy percent of Syrian textile factories have been closed or destroyed because of the war.
“Syria was a beautiful world of textiles,” Widad Kiwar, one of the leading experts in Palestinian costumes, which once relied heavily on Syrian fabrics, told me wistfully. Perhaps more than any other craft from Syria, their textiles tell the story of what the country once was—a community of diverse people and histories threaded together into a unique social fabric– and of the worlds now lost, perhaps forever.
My journey in search of Syrian textiles is a deeply personal one, bound up in my own memories of Damascus, which was always awash in color due to the city’s vibrant textile industry. During the year that I lived there, my house was situated just off Straight Street, the main thoroughfare into the Old City since the Roman period. It was a magical street of textile vendors. Each afternoon as I walked towards the Umayyad mosque, I passed shop after shop displaying vibrant sheets of multi-colored striped fabrics and tablecloths, strung out in rows all along the way. The local work was recognizable because it often contained silver or gold colored thread hidden among the other reds and blues and yellows— giving the textiles the impression that they were shimmering in the afternoon sun.
Looking back now, I realize that while Roman ruins and historical mosques are most often celebrated about Syrian cultural heritage, it was their local textiles that formed the basis of much of what was aesthetically beautiful about the country. Furniture in houses and traditional restaurants was carefully covered in Syrian fabric— hammered on by hand in artisan workshops. Traditional robes and scarves were threaded in silk. It was customary, whenever anyone from Syria traveled abroad, to bring the delicately embroidered Aghabbani tablecloth as a gift—a long swath of solid background, hand stamped with wooden stamps and then decorated with intricate gold colored metallic threads, with the ability to transform any standard dinner party into an upscale affair. And if Damascus seemed clothed in color, Aleppo was even more impressive—a powerhouse textile center during the Ottoman period, where an entire quarter of the ancient Souk al-Madina was crowded with dozens of textile shops.
Today, those shops in the old city of Aleppo are gone, many destroyed by fire. Some say that the fires spread so quickly in the old city because the stores were full of fabric—their very richness aiding their demise.
The Christian Quarter, Jerusalem
From my vantage point in Jerusalem, I set out to search for what remains of the world of Syrian fabrics in the Middle East.
In the heart of the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem, I found textile vendor Bilal Abu Khalaf surrounded by spools upon spools of richly colored fabric. Tall and confident, with white hair, a moustache, and surprising blue eyes, moving easily between Arabic, Hebrew and English, it is at first hard to place where he is from. Born at home in the Silwan district of Jerusalem by a midwife in 1961, today he is the 3rd generation of textile vendors in the Abu Khalaf family specializing in Syrian textiles. And while his grandfather only arrived to this country in 1936—traveling from the Kurdish city of Zakho in what is now Northern Iraq—the Abu Khalaf family is famous in East Jerusalem as members of the Kurdish tribes who came with Salahadin in the 12th century to battle the Crusaders. They have remained in Jerusalem and Hebron ever since, so well known for their knowledge of trade routes that for many generations they coordinated the hajj for travelers to Mecca.
As he pulled down reams of fabrics from the wall, Abu Khalaf described the very different world in which his grandfather traded Syrian textiles during the British Mandate Period in Palestine. In those days, Syrian fabric was more easily accessible, when trains connected much of the area between British Mandate Palestine and Syria. “When my grandfather came from Hebron he was carrying fabric on his back and going to houses, not only to the villages but also to the newly built Jewish areas such as Montefiore around Jerusalem,” he said. “Every place had different material that they liked. He was bringing many types and they would choose. Jewish men bought suit fabric from Syria and Jordan. Later, when my grandfather opened his store in the Old City, he would have stocked fabric such as the aghabbani textile.” In the late Ottoman and early British Mandate period, Syrian textiles found their full expression in Palestinian costumes. Villages outside of Jerusalem, in many cases wealthy due to their proximity to the city, demanded unique textiles for their bridal trousseaus: Lifta was the first village to incorporate silk into their traditional costumes by the elaborately embroidered aghabbani cloth. In the city, mukhtars would buy cream colored silk brocade for their qumbaz costumes, with belts of even more lavish and expensive material. In time, Abu Khalaf’s family opened a small shop in Souq al-Hawajat near the spice market in the Old City, moving to a shop in the Christian Quarter in 1952.
A Coat of Many Colors
Bilal studied political science at Ain Shams University in Cairo, but returned to Jerusalem and decided to join his father in the family textile business. By then, the landscape of textiles in Jerusalem had changed dramatically, as had the political map: the British mandate of his grandfather had transformed to the Jordan of his father and of his own childhood, and then after the 1967 war to its current state—a land claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians. Trade routes changed or were cut off. The Hejaz railway was a memory. But despite the seeming divides between different communities in Jerusalem, Syrian textiles remained part of their collective culture.
Over time, Abu Khalaf learned not only the trade but also the stories— legends of textiles that for locals link them to the days of the prophets in Jerusalem.
He says that the Patriarch Abraham himself was a cloth merchant from Iraq who always wore pure white cloth with stripes on it. He points to the section of Syrian fabrics he considers “Abrahamic,” a high pile of richly textured white fabrics, mostly from Aleppo. I mention that the name of Aleppo supposedly comes from “halib”—milk in Arabic– a reference to the fact that Abraham stopped there to milk his cow. Today, the white fabrics are still prized in the local Jewish communities for their purity. Yemenite Jews wear white with black stripes. Orthodox Jews favor white with blue stripes. Even during the First Intifada, when many Jews in Jerusalem were afraid to access the Palestinian sectors of the city due to ongoing tensions, Abu Khalaf delivered his Abrahamic white fabric to Mea Shearim, making the hand-off at a local gas station, so that local Jewish customers could purchase it.
He points to another striped multi-colored fabric from Syria. “Do you know the Prophet Joseph?” he asks me. “He was from Canaan, and when he went to Egypt he wore beautiful, multicolored clothes made of this fabric.” In the Biblical story, this “coat of many colors” earns the Joseph the jealousy of his brothers, leading them to abandon him in a well until he is rescued by traders on their way to Egypt. In the Quran, he is so beautiful that the women of Egypt who see him, distracted from their work of slicing fruit, accidentally cut open their hands. It was this turning point, of seeing the stunning Prophet Joseph in his brightly colored jellabiya, that would change the look of Syrian textiles for generations to come.
“After the woman saw Joseph, they wanted the same fabric for their dresses!” Abu Khalaf exclaimed. The multi-colored fabric became prominent in Palestinian dresses, and can still be seen in antique pieces found in museum collections. Abu Khalaf still sells it in his shop today.
A Shared Fabric
During the Ottoman era, when Syrian textiles thrived, the area that is now Syria was one of diversity. Aleppo held a large Jewish community, and that community kept the Aleppo Codex— considered the most perfect copy of the Hebrew Bible in existence. It also contained a vast Christian community, and a landscape dotted with monasteries and churches—including communities that still spoke Syriac, a dialect of the language of Jesus. There were Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and Druze who lived in the South— only to mention some of the many communities who found a home there. Damascus—also a textile center—had a large Jewish Quarter that actively participated in the textile industry.
Though every community had its own identity, all of them were bound up in the textile industry. I asked my friend Maan, a bookstore owner in Damascus now in exile (who asked that only his first name be used), whose family had been in Damascus for generations, what he knew of the local textiles. It turns out that he also had a grandfather who came to Syria as a textile seller, traveling from what is now Gazientep. For him, his grandfather’s work in textiles symbolizes a world that has vanished. “My grandfather was a Turkish soldier, and when he retired, he began working in trading clothing between Turkey, Aleppo, Damascus and Palestine,” he told me. “In Damascus there’s the Jewish area in the Old City, and he used to take the textiles to them with the wooden stamp for printing patterns. They would take them and stamp them—and then he would sell the textiles to Palestine, or to Turkey. My grandmother used to cook the dye from pomegranate peels and other plants to make the colors, before my grandfather would give it to workers to dye and stamp.”
Though much of these relationships between communities are now gone in Syria—and if not, they are disappearing quickly in the war—the Syrian textiles in Abu Khalaf’s shop are one of the last legacies of how textiles bound different communities together.
He displays shining liturgical garments he imported from the store of Khalil Dayeh in Damascus. The shop has been operating at Bab Sharqi since 1936, on Straight Street, just next to the chapel where tradition says Ananias cured St. Paul from blindness and baptized him after he fell from his horse. The Quarter is home to one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, and used to be directly next to the Jewish Quarter— until the Jewish community left. The shop still hand makes liturgical garments with gold and silver colored threads for Christian clergy throughout the Middle East, though these Christians are now also leaving in alarming numbers. Now Abu Khalaf says that Bab Sharqi has become too dangerous to access.
Abu Khalaf now moves on to an entire section of his stock dedicated to pure white fabrics made in Aleppo— used by Jews in Jerusalem on days requiring white clothing, such as Yom Kippur and Rosh Hoshanah. He shows me the malak, or “royal” fabric long treasured by both Muslims and Christians for their wedding dresses. He has even provided special garments for the Druze community that lives in the Golan. “Before a Druze sheikh needed a special Syrian Abaya, made from black wool—and I brought it for him,” he told me. Traditional Druze leaders required hand-woven material, a practice of textile making still maintained in the Jeramana neighborhood outside of Damascus.
A Country Unravels
Today, the story of Syrian textiles is one of slow unraveling. Many of the places that are the source of Abu Khalaf’s fabrics are now names synonymous with war. He is no longer purchasing new material, but only selling what he has. Aleppo is now impossible to access, and even Damascus has become difficult for trading. He points to his remaining stock of the special wazra fabrics made in Hama that were used for towels for the public hammams in Syria. More recently, Hama has been the site of intense battles between the Syrian government and opposition.
Palmyra has long been famous for textiles: during the Roman period it served as an essential trading post for caravans from Asia, India and China bringing silk along the Silk Road. One of the largest caches of ancient textiles in the world was discovered in Palmyra, 2000 fragments of silk cloth used to wrap mummies prepared for burial.
His most prized textiles are small squares of fabric from Palmyra called “art textiles”. A mix of silk and gold thread, they are the last of what remains of the fabric he bought from the Mattini family who traded in textiles there for generations. The family disappeared in the war: he has not heard from them in four years.
Abu Khalaf’s small squares are a hint the majestic legacy they reflect—more reminiscent of Chinese silk carpets than of ordinary fabric. One square, in a pattern called Arabesque, has geometric patterns of gold, blue and green—a design that Abu Khalaf says reminds him of 1001 nights. Another shows a hunting scene against a backdrop of pure gold, a third, a scene resembling butterflies. On another, lovebirds kiss against a perfect red backdrop. Finally, a few fragments illustrate a scene of Salahadin and his soldiers fighting the Crusaders in the Battle of Jerusalem— the very same battle that brought the Abu Khalaf family to the region. It is not an exaggeration to say that if Bilal Abu Khalaf looks deeply enough into his Syrian textile collection, he will find his own past.
And of the future? He spoke to his Aleppo contacts for the last time four and a half years ago,
He has two Aghabbani tablecloths left from his Damascus collection. He keeps his ticket from the last time he took the train from Aleppo to Damascus in 2011, so that he won’t forget.
From Jerusalem, I crossed the Allenby bridge and traveled to the markets of Amman in Jordan in hopes of finding out more about the fate of Syrian textiles. It was only recently, in 2015, that the northern border between Jordan and Syria closed, and I expected to find the market still awash in Syrian products. But when I went searching for textiles in the old markets around the Husseini mosque, there were none to be found. Textile stores were stocked with fabric from China and India. In a single store, I found a pile of Aleppo soap in its signature olive green color. The merchant told me that he sold it mostly to the Syrian refugees who were homesick.
It was only after an hour of questioning that I finally arrived at Mazen textiles, a Syrian shop in the heart of the city, a few streets away from the mosque. I recognized the brightly colored reams of fabric with their metallic threads immediately. Though it is much smaller than the Abu Khalaf store in Jerusalem, Mazen is literally stocked from floor to ceiling with Syrian textiles, in the same astonishing, multi-colored stripes for which they are famous. A few mannequins were dressed up in Ottoman costume of broad black pants and shirts of shining stripes.
I found Mahmoud al-Shoukre, a Palestinian whose family originally came from Tulkarem, patiently manning the store. He said that now that the border was closed, the fabrics took three months to arrive from Aleppo instead of a few days. They came much of the way by sea.
I asked him who still purchased these fabrics, expecting him to tell me that wealthy Syrians in exile bought them, or collectors still hoping to furnish their houses with the last remaining Syrian textiles. I had heard stories of foreigners paying exorbitant prices to snatch up the famous wooden and mother-of pearl Damascene furniture while they still could.
Instead, his answer astonished me.
“Palestinians buy them,” he said.
He led me over to the ream of striped fabrics Abu Khalaf referred to as “Joseph” fabrics, once prized in the costumes of Palestinians around Nablus and Tulkarem. In the Mazen store, they were still popular, he insisted, purchased by Palestinians in Jordan for their traditional costumes.
I learned from Al-Shoukre that Palestinians in Jordan have spent the last decades holding onto the traditions of the villages and cities that they left behind in 1948 and 1967—especially the traditional dress. For special occasions, despite the decades that had passed, they still sewed the patterns of their native villages in Palestine. That included finding the original Syrian fabric that was once used by their ancestors, before the trade routes were cut off. A world that I was sure had vanished still existed in Jordan, manned out of a tiny store in the old city.
Al-Shoukre took me through the collection, piece by piece. Here was a multi-colored, striped fabric used to make the pants of Tulkarem. He himself had dressed in the traditional clothes on his wedding day, though he had never been to Tulkarem in his life. He pulled down the fabric for the robes of the people from Nablus: White with a thick stripe of gold, blue and maroon on the edge. In a separate bag, he held the maroon and green plaid for the belt.
On a high shelf I recognized the cream and gold Aghabbani textile—changed certainly, but still holding the unmistakable shadow of the textile used on the backdrop of the dresses of Lifta, long ago. Beside it, newer Aghabbani fabric from Aleppo with more vibrant colors. I wondered if the textile factory that made it still remained.
It was a single store, but it was somehow holding two different worlds in balance— a Palestinian landscape that had forever changed in the last century, and a Syrian landscape in the process of vanishing. But in a fabric store in Amman, at least for now, both were still there.