In Damascus, one of the last silk masters wants to pass on the knowledge and experience of his ancestors

On a rooftop in the old city of Damascus, Mohamed al-Rihaoui prepares to dye the silk threads used to make Damask brocade. This country has been known for centuries as one of the largest centers of Arab craftsmanship. But with the war, “Nobody dyes silk anymore, there are probably two or three of us in all of Syria,” laments the fifty-year-old.

However, his activity is important: without these masters, there would be no more Damask brocade, that fabric that is the pride of the Syrian industry, hand-woven with natural silk and gold threads. The fame of Syrian artisans is worldwide. Urban legend says that in 1947, the then president, Shukri al-Koutli, offered a piece of this fabric to Queen Elizabeth II, who would use it to make her wedding dress.

Mohamed al-Rihaoui looks at his silk threads after dyeing (LOUAI BESHARA / AFP)

“The craft is fighting death. These threads are the basis for the production of damask brocade, and without them, the brocade will also die,” indicates Mohamed al-Rihaoui, employed on the roof of Damascus in his small workshop simply protected by a tarpaulin. “We no longer have any tourists or foreign visitors,” laments this 53-year-old craftsman. It is a devastating war that has been ravaging Syria since 2011, in a country known for centuries as one of the largest centers of Arab craftsmanship.
Together with his 15-year-old son Nour, Mohamed al-Rihaoui lifts large wooden sticks on which white silk threads are laid, which are dipped repeatedly in boiling water to remove impurities. The threads are washed in a basin of cold water before they are arranged in a ball and hung from the ceiling, where they will dry for an hour.

Mohamed al-Rihaoui washes his silk threads to remove impurities (LOUAI BESHARA / AFP)

He hesitates in front of small pots containing natural powdered color pigments: yellow, red, green. Then mix in some water. Pour everything into a container where the threads will soak to absorb the dye. The result: a ball of bright green thread with great flexibility.

Mohamed al-Rihaoui prepares his silk threads before dyeing (LOUAI BESHARA / AFP)

His day is over, he looks at his calloused hands covered in green, damaged from years of handling wooden bars. “My hands will remain beautiful as long as they are wrapped in silk,” he says, smiling broadly.

Fleeing the violence, he left his post of Ain Tarma, east of Damascus, in the rebel stronghold of Eastern Ghouta in 2011. Since then, the sector has fallen back into the hands of the regime. There he owned a multi-room, richly equipped workshop and employed 14 people. Today, they all fled the country during the war or were drafted into the army.

Mohamed al-Rihaoui soaks a silk fabric in a dye bath (LOUAI BESHARA / AFP)

“Before the war, I worked every day of the week, and now we sometimes only work one or two days, because the demand is low,” laments this man who, in order to survive, partly transformed himself into an ironer. “Nobody wants to learn the trade anymore, it doesn’t bring much,” he laments. “The current generation is no longer interested in manual work, which requires patience and meticulousness,” he said, firmly instructing Nour, who is working alongside him.

Silk threads that were once produced in Syria are now imported from India or China because of the conflict. The war dealt a heavy blow to the business, which was already in decline. Before 2011, artisans were present everywhere in Syria, especially in Aleppo, known for its silk and textile merchants.

“This business is an old man waiting to die, and we are doing everything to revive it,” says the 50-year-old, explaining that he wants to pass on his knowledge of ancestors and accounts to his son. Nour download.

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