Back to overview

Mother of Pearl A Traditional Palestinian Craft

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 04.05.2007:

By Saleem Zougbi

Although traditional Palestinian artefacts focus on embroidery and olive wood, mother of pearl artefacts belong to the more skilled domain of handcrafts produced by Palestinians in the Holy Land.

Most sea shells include a certain material that is luminous. These shells are from mollusks such as the green snail, the nautilus and sea-ear – aquatic animal species found in warm fresh and sea waters. The civilizations of India, China and the Far East have cultivated these creatures for their hard outer coverings. The shells were artistically cut into pieces of exact dimensions and shapes in order to form mosaic images. The pieces were affixed using adhesive materials to eventually become plates, trays, covers of jewellery boxes, etc. One could track mother of pearl artefacts from as early as the Bronze Age of the Shang Dynasty of China (ca. 1600-1050 BC). This handcraft flourished particularly under the Ming emperors (1368-1644 AD).

Mother of Pearl in Palestine

In the Middle East, mother of pearl was observed as early as the ancient Egyptians. The treasures of the Pharaoh Tutankhamen included many beautiful pieces of art that included or were based on mother of pearl. The Red Sea, with its rich marine life, has always provided a rich source of shells and mother of pearl. In fact until today, one major source of shells for the mother of pearl industry in Bethlehem is the Red Sea coast of Sinai.

The treasures of King Richard the Lion Heart included shells and mother of pearl pieces such as crosses and other religious shapes. In 1220 some Christian leaders who were on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land brought back with them crosses and beads made of olive wood and others of raw and simple shells. However, since the presence of the order of St. Francis of Assisi in the Holy Land around the late 1600s, religious artefacts gained more importance in terms of the economic market. This was spurred by greater demand for religious pieces ranging from the simple and cheap to the complex and expensive.

The vaults of the Vatican include many boxes and cabinets that contain excellent mother of pearl works made by Palestinians in the Holy Land during the past three centuries. This craft has developed greatly during the 19th and 20th centuries. The role of craftsmen from Genoa and Damascus was well recognized historically, but during these two centuries Palestinians mastered this art and passed it on from one generation to the next. These beautiful products include crosses, frames, boxes, models of religious monuments and many other forms. Shells used in this craft are still imported from as far as Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and Brazil. The entire production process is based on cutting, designing, gluing and polishing. This is carried out in local workshops mostly in the Bethlehem area.

The Craft of Mother of Pearl

Since 1850, Bethlehem has witnessed major development in the industry of mother of pearl, encouraged by the presence of pilgrims and religious persons due to the relative stability and increasing good relations between this area and Europe.

During the following 100 years the industry developed in several directions. One was the simple souvenir industry whereby small pieces of religious and traditional nature were manufactured with mother of pearl and often mixed with olive wood. These items were destined for the pilgrim and tourist markets and included rosaries, crosses, small icons, boxes, covers of holy books, etc.

The higher calibre craftsmen focused on large pieces. These were mostly icons on Christian themes decorated with mother of pearl carefully cut and shaped and colourfully glued in a mosaic format.

The other development was the exceptional work of large models and art pieces. These are usually done on demand by governments as gifts to royalty, rulers and high-ranking religious personalities. These included, for example, a large model of the Dome of the Rock that was made as a gift for King Farouk of Egypt in the 1940s, a model of the Church of the Nativity in 1930s sent to the Vatican, and one of the Holy Sepulchre sent to St. Petersburg. Many of these pieces are found today in the Vatican Museum, the British Museum, the Hermitage, and other museums in Austria, Greece, Chile, Colombia, India, and Kashmir.

Working with mother of pearl requires simple tools such as cutters. Certain chemicals are used to glue the mother of pearl pieces which are then polished not only to make them look better, but also to preserve them for a long time. The work is time-consuming and requires skill and patience. The introduction of modern tools in the second half of the 20th century, such as small motors and tools for carving, made things easier of course. Nowadays in workshops in Bethlehem, Beit Sahour and Beit Jala one can see industrial tools that copy figures and carve them.

Palestinian Artists of Mother of Pearl

The young generation of mother of pearl craftsmen is to be found nowadays mainly in the Bethlehem area. Although most of them have automated workshops, they still use their talents or design and fine adjustment.

Prior to the 1800s, there was little documentation as to names of Palestinian mother of pearl craftsmen. Although many of their works existed in European museums, churches, and private collections, the works were often unsigned.

The important Palestinian artists in the field include Elias S. Dabdoub, Suleiman Dabdoub, whose work of the Dome of the Rock exists in the Top Kapi museum in Istanbul, Suleiman Roc (1831-1906), Hanna S. Roc (1863-1941), Yousef Jidi (1864-1934), Mikhael Lama, Butros Lama, Hanna Tabash, Elias Giacaman, Jamil Musallam, Saleh Abu Ayash, and others from the Salameh, Freij, Izmeri, Handal, Hazboun, Ballut, Shehadeh and Asfura families.

The Zougbi family was well known for its skill in working on large models. Issa Mikhael Zougbi was a senior member of the community in Bethlehem; his sons, mainly Bishara (1863-1934) and Yousef (1878-1964) were the main artists in this field of mother of pearl. Bishara became the Mukhtar Al-Makhateer (chief dignitary) in Bethlehem, but he never quit the mother of pearl workshop. His workshop was maintained and developed further by his son Gregory (1908-1994). One of his other sons moved to Mexico and had a mother of pearl workshop for some time there.

Bishara enjoyed international recognition and received decorations for his work. The works of his brother Yousef were well known in many European countries. Gregory was highly appreciated by the Jordanian court, which would commission him for large mother of pearl works. Normally these were either the coat of arms of the country of a visiting dignitary or replicas of the Dome of the Rock or Christians churches, and sometimes the figures of the visiting royal or leader and their family members. Such works included many art pieces for the likes of Czar Nicholas, the King of Greece, Popes, the King of Spain, the Emperor of Austria, King Abdul Aziz, King Mohammed V, the Emirs of Kuwait and Bahrain, the Shah of Iran, the Maharaja of Kashmir, the Emperor of Ethiopia, King Farouk of Egypt, and many others. The last piece, a large replica of the Dome of the Rock, was commissioned by Queen Nour of Jordan for her ailing husband the late King Hussein.

The legacy of the mother of pearl craft in the Bethlehem area has maintained the artistic vision and tradition of the Palestinian community and provided some economic stability and independence. The workshop of Gregory Zougbi closed down formally in the early 1970s. In 2003, the Israeli army shot at its shuttered doors. It sounded as though they were trying to shoot down anything associated with art, traditions and our heritage.

Based on the book, “Nacar di Palestina” by Enrique Jidi, Colombia


This Week in Palestine, May 2007

There are no comments. Add one!