Last update:
8 November 2009
20 Thu AlQe'da 1430

Handicrafts in Tripoli Lebanon

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Introduction

Tripoli has long been known for its sweets industry which attracts visitors from all regions of Lebanon. The city is also famous for its olive oil-based soap production and copper crafts. The old city had its own copper souk until a new road construction forced the industry out of the area. Few of these craftsmen remain there today.

Mr. Badr Hassoun working in traditional soap making

Perfumed Soap

History: In workshops in Khan el-Misriyyin and al-Saboun in Tripoli, artisans continue to make olive-oil based soap just as they have for the last few centuries. Some historians indicate that Tripolitan chemists were the first to process soap. They made different classes of soap such as: daily soap, soaps in geometric shapes decorated with various floral motifs, kings' perfumed soap, round colorful soap, etc. Historically, a bride was presented with a collection of these decorative soaps before leaving for her marital home, since soap was considered as a symbol of purity. Later on, ornamental soaps became typical wedding presents but as these traditions began to die out, so did the soap-makers.

Ingredients: Tripoli soap is made from natural ingredients, which gives it traditional attraction. Tripoli soap is made using olive oil. The rich hues come from natural dyes. Red, for example, is derived from a herb traditionally used to treat cuts. Saffron is used to stain soap orange and yellow.

Making the Soap: Tripoli soap production is labor intensive and time consuming. The olive oil must be boiled and stirred for six hours in a large cauldron. The other ingredients are added and heated briefly to achieve a creamy paste. The artisan then adds the perfumes and puts in the colors he has chosen. Each soap reflects and idea. Black, blue, and white become a winter sky. Spring is announced with a mix of pink, yellow, and green. The molten soap is then left to congeal overnight before being sliced into blocks or shaped into balls, which are aired for a month. To make the characteristic brightly colored balls of soap, the artisan begins that dance of the hands, the brushing that polish the surface. A final buffing gives the soap additional shine.

Aroma Therapy: In the old days, the attar (perfumer) and the ashab (herbalist) worked together to prepare unusual soaps infused with herbal remedies. Through the prescriptions of a physician the essential oils cultivated by the attar are mixed with medicinal herbs classified by the ashab. Such special soaps were used to treat dandruff, acne, eczema, hair-loss, and leprosy. A famous traditional soap maker in Tripoli, Mr. Badr Hassoun, believes that these mild soaps have an advantage over modern remedies, because they are less likely to cause allergies or side effects. But the modern craftsman understands the importance of tailoring his products to contemporary tastes. Noting the increasing popularity of aroma therapy over the past decade, Hassoun has developed his own range of aromatherapeutic soaps, including relaxing jasmine-scented soap, sensual musk and amber soaps, and rejuvenating lavender soaps. These rare soaps are handmade using olive oil, glycerin and honey. Honey is used since it helps the fragrance soak into the skin which ensures that the therapeutic effects are longer-lasting.

Piles of Casted Soap.
Traditional Soap Making.

Copper

Working in Tripoli, artisans make copper, brass, and silver objects using four methods: hammering, embossing, and filigree. Tripoli is still the traditional home of many copper and silver workers.

Equipped with an anvil to support his work, a hammer and chisel, the artisan spends many long hard hours stooped over his task, transforming shiny metal into a multitude of articles.

One can admire an Omayyad oil lamp, where the copper, paired with blown glass, hints at great celebrations of the past. There is also the beautiful tapered spear decorated in the 'naksh' style, or the samovars that take pride of place in grand salons. Smaller objects are the incense holders, carafes, platters, covers for plant pots - all decorated with circular borders interlaced with engraved medallions or with designs of plants or flowers alternating with Quranic verses and philosophical quotations. These are made by chiseling the copper.

Embossed copper, decorated with reliefs formed with the help of a wooden anvil, is easier to do. The relatively soft wood of the anvil allows the copper to move freely. A less common technique is perforated copper or filigree work, which allows light to filter through and heat to diffuse. Filigree is used for chandeliers, lanterns, and samovars. Here a sharp piercing tool makes the holes that form the design.

No matter which technique is used, certain steps are always followed. The artisan heats the copper, then bends, folds, and polishes it. There follows the application of the design, the complexity and the fine details of which determine the value of the work and the standard of the artisan.


Sculpted Wood

In workshops in Tripoli, the carpenter perfects and refines his technique. The first step involves carpentry: he prepares the sketch, cuts the wood and assembles the parts. Then, guiding the gouge with the palm of his hand and a mallet, the artisan digs out the background, hollowing out the wood to enhance the various decorative elements. Finally, he models and refines each detail. Tripoli has a famous furniture industry, that is competitive with the Italian ones and is exported in large quantities.

Traditional wooden stools and molds for sweet making (Ma'amoul).

The Naddaf: Bed and pillow stuffing.


Traditional carpenter.

Small-Sized Handicrafts and Products

Tripoli (and North Lebanon in general) are well-known for a modest Lemonade juice industry. Some small factories producing orange flower extracts are also present. These extracts are well known for their medical applications (Herbal Medicine) and as additives to sweet products (for adding taste). Carob juice production is also present.


Products to be Supported/Developed

If we take soap-making as an example, we see that one of only five shops for traditional soap are open in Khan al-Saboun. About 15 others lie abandoned. Fragmentation as a result of local inheritance laws means that the khan is now owned by dozens of descendants of earlier owners. Many of them no longer have a commercial interest in the khan, and the 500-year-old building has fallen into disrepair and the soap-making tradition almost faded away.

Similarly, other small crafts are fading away in Tripoli and need support and development. Some of these activities are: (1) Traditional dress making, those were and should be practiced in the Khayyateen (Tailors') Bazaar. (2) Horse saddle making and Chevaliers necessities. These were and should be practiced in al-Dabbaghah (Leather Painting) and al-Barraniyyeh districts in Tripoli. (3) Blacksmiths crafting, especially products related to agriculture (sickle production, etc.). (4) Plumbing, bed and pillow stuffing, metal cleaning, knife production and others.


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