DAMASCUS, (AFP) – Buffeted by economic realities that have forced farmers to replace mulberry trees with olive groves and fruit orchards, Syria’s once-famous silk industry is these days hanging by a very fine thread.
In the green mountains of Deir Mama in western Syria, near the imposing Masyaf citadel, Mohammed Saud and his family however still raise silk worms in the spring and still spin the loom in the autumn, determined to keep the ancient tradition alive.
“We are in this from A to Z. From raising the silkworm to making the shawl,” said Saud defiantly, even though he would make more money simply by selling his cocoons.
He knows the odds are stacked against him. While the Levant once enjoyed world fame for its silk production, the past century has seen the demand for the luxury product slump and the numbers of mulberry farmers dwindle.
“Sales are not enough to cover our efforts and expenses but we are convinced that this ancient and beautiful craft should continue,” said Saud.
Today only 16 villages and 48 families work in sericulture. Saud blames the rising cost of living which over the past two decades in particular has pushed farmers to diversify into olive and fruit production.
Cocoon harvests have dropped from 60,000 tonnes in 1908 to just a couple of tonnes in the past few years.
Saud and his family harvest around 35 kilograms (77 pounds) of cocoons per season. From the end product, shawls, they earn around 8,000 Syrian pounds (120 euros/166 dollars) annually, less than the average monthly salary here.
While the shawls sell at high prices – from 3,000 to 8,000 Syrian pounds (47 to 125 euros/65 to 172 dollars) – sales are low as travellers mainly come for the medieval castles in the area.
And foreign tourists are the only ones tempted to shell out for the high-quality shawls.
“Only the foreigner understands the value of silk,” said Saud. “Our marketing is all done by word of mouth.”
There is some hope – the ministries of agriculture and tourism launched a scheme two years ago in a bid to revive the moribund silk industry.
Under the scheme, mulberry farmers such as Saud now get 250 Syrian pounds – nearly four euros – for every kilo of cocoons produced, regardless of whether these sell or not.
The initiative is credited with boosting cocoon production from 2.6 tonnes in 2009 to 3.1 tonnes in 2010.
“It was an important and necessary step,” said Saud. “Syria’s silk production — and especially cocoon production – was dropping fast.”
The scheme offers the hope that Syria will be able to continue to carry out all stages of silk production, the only country left in the region able to do so.
Industry veterans and academics pin silk’s century-long decline on the fixed pricing of cocoons, the mechanisation of production, state monopolisation and malpractices that put private factories out of business in 1975, plus a plunge in global demand.
The industry leader –a state-run factory in Dreikish, near the port city of Tartous – collapsed in 2008.
The Mezannar factory in Damascus, which put Damascene brocade on the map, was shut down this summer to make way for commercial development on the eastern edges of the old city.
“It was a beautiful factory, part of the national heritage,” said Hubert Mezannar, who relocated ancient machines and a handful of committed workers to the industrial suburb of Daraa.
“I left like a defeated army: machines broken, product stolen.”
His father had opened the factory in 1890. It quickly became a gateway for Lyonnais labour, which brought design and weaving techniques into the Levant.
Mezannar took over the factory after completing his studies at the school of weaving and textile industries in Lyon in 1953.
The factory focused on brocade, a tissue of oriental designs made from silver and gold silk threads. Some of the designs are now on display at the Lyon silk museum.
“Despite all the discoveries,” says Mezannar, “the most beautiful and expensive fibre is still natural silk. It’s not me who says this. It’s the world.”
Historians say strong commercial links between Lyon and the Levant played a key role in the establishment of a French mandate in Syria and Lebanon after World War I. About 90 percent of the silk produced by these two countries ended up in France.
During World War II, Levantine factories – including Mezannar’s – worked day and night to supply Britain with large silk sheets needed to make parachutes.
But the factory’s production did not peak until the sixties when Syria was the lead silk exporter in the region.
Mezannar says the factory used to produce thousands of metres (yard) of silk a month.
Now it only produces a few hundred and sells its products in his son’s shop in the silk souk of old city Damascus. He says pro-tourism policies help but factories also need lower taxes and greater access to the international market.
“Today our production is minimal, artisanal,” he told AFP. “It is not the end of silk but the industry is agonising.”
Syrian author Maya al-Kateb is battling to revive interest in this craft in a book entitled “Syrian Silk: Portrait of a Living Cultural Heritage” to be released in
She says marketing and tourism are the two forces that can save Syria’s natural silk production by connecting local farmers to foreign buyers.
“There are no major industries so every small industry is important,” she says. “We need to save Syrian silk because of its historical and cultural value.”
Syria was a Western terminus of the ancient Silk Road, an intercontinental commercial and cultural network that connected China to Mediterranean markets via Central Asia and the Levant. Archaeological findings show silk was already woven in the ancient city of Palmyra, in central Syria, in the first century AD.
French author Florence Ollivry emphasises that silk know-how travelled east-west as much as it did west-east.
“The history of Mediterranean textile exchange shows that Orient and Occident are inextricably interwoven as warp and woof,” she says.