A Damascene Jew is Syria’s finest metal craftsman in modern times

Speaking to Forward from his new home in Canada, metal craftsman and son of Damascus, Maurice Nseiri, tells us of a shared history of Jewish metalwork and crafts that once flourished in the Syrian capital. Born and raised in Talea al-Fidda before leaving Syria in 1994, Nseiri is one of the finest metal craftsmen Syria has produced in modern times.

What may be surprising is that the Syrian capital’s Jewish community played a major role in the important craft of metalwork and design in the last century. Historically, Syrian Jews may be divided into two groups: those who inhabited Syria from early times and the Sephardim Jews who fled to Syria after their expulsion from Spain in 1492. There were large communities in Aleppo, Damascus, and Qamishli for centuries. In the early twentieth century a large percentage of Syrian Jews emigrated to the US, Central and South America and, chiefly, to Israel.

The tradition and craft of copper- and brass-making in Syria, the authentic art and craftsmanship was originally mastered by the Mamluk dynasty in Egypt. This trade was also present in Syria, but in the early 1900s the trade from Egypt changed its production of real works of art as the Syrian craftsmen and women continued. The trade did not stop in Egypt, but took a turn toward commercialism, reproducing older pieces without much innovation. The real craftsmanship and artistry was mostly confined to Damascus and almost rivaled the level or artistry during the Mamluk period, a time when the Damascus sword was famous throughout the known world for its strength and style.

“I credit my success in the myriad of pieces I have designed and produced in my research and in my learning of the art form of the Mamluk period. They were not just masters in the craft, they were also masters of design,” says Maurice.

The Mamluks ruled Egypt and Syria from 1250 to 1517 and whose descendants survived in Egypt as an important political force during the following Ottoman occupation. It was during this period that refined metalwork flourished in Damascus, on the back of high demand from notable and noble families in the city. At this time, engraving of metal pieces became almost the only form of decoration, but only to serve as a basis for the yet richer technique of inlaying, which even became known as ‘Damascening’ – the imposition of small silver plates and wires – because of its association with the Syrian capital.

A very simple way to tell a piece that was made by the craftsmen and women from the Jewish community is by looking at the detail, states Maurice. The design and the engravings were a lot more detailed in the work of the Jewish craftsmen. “The type of pieces produced by workers outside the Jewish community were utilitarian items for daily use like coffee pots, trays, and so forth. On the other hand, pieces produced by the Jewish community were more ornamental in nature,” he says. “Another major point of difference is the technique used by the Jewish community, a technique that allowed such fine detail. When working with brass or copper, and in order to get the fine details, there was a lot of physical pressure exerted on the material.”

There are many steps to produce a piece of metal art, first the design and the hand drawing using Chinese ink had to be finished. Second, the engraving using very hard and very fine tools made of steel took place. Third, the craftswomen took over and inlaid the silver. The silver was made out strands of about one millimeter in thickness and were inlaid one strand beside the other. Forth, the piece went back to another craftsman where the much finer engraving on top of the silver was done. Maurice says his greatest achievement remains his success in creating unique arrangements of the drawing and the ornamentation.

A mix of ingredients was necessary to produce top quality works of art. Sheets of copper and brass were imported from Italy, Yugoslavia and other countries. The silver was mostly old jewelry that was melted down and refined to 0.995 purity, which was done locally in Damascus. The silver had to be .995 purity – any lower grade would not work and would break during the inlaying process.

According to Maurice, most craftsmen outside the Jewish community used to fasten the pieces against a hard piece of steel, which allowed them to do only limited detailed work. The craftsmen from the Jewish community used to affix a piece to a 10-centimeter-thick layer of boiling tar, which used to be poured on the back of the piece, thus heating it up and then allowing it to be molded into shape.

“Tar is a lot softer and allowed the piece to be worked on and manipulated with an unbelievable level of detail in the engraving. Of course, that level of detail required a great deal of effort, time and patience,” he says.

Today in the Old City of Damascus, metal ornaments on sale are numerous. Hanging from shop walls and outside stores in Bab Sharki and elsewhere, these examples of metal work anger Maurice for their lack of detail, and more especially, heart. The Jewish community, based in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, has largely gone. Today, what remains are boutique hotels, restaurants and private homes.

“The soul of any piece of art is how the different parts of the arrangements come together and create something that is pleasing to the eye,” believes Maurice. The arrangement of ornamentation, the proper use of Arabic calligraphy – which was renown in Damascus for its quality during the mid-20th century – the distribution of color from brass, including copper and silver were all important components of a piece of art. This influence can be seen in pieces that were produced in the mid to late seventies.

However, the future of this truly invaluable cultural trade, a symbol of Damascene history, is in jeopardy and even at that time the demand for this kind of work was very low, he says.

In early 1940s, there were very large numbers of people that understood the trade and had the vision and artistry to keep this tradition alive. One in particular was Maurice’s father, Sion Nseiri.

“Sion had a real love and belief in this art. While most in this trade moved on to other professions, or moved out of the country, Sion always said it would be a great shame for the trade to die in Damascus. He fought for years to keep it alive without any help,” he added.

It was in 1965, when Maurice took over his father’s workshop and adopted the same philosophy, that when the art of Damascus metalwork stayed alive for another generation.

Outside of Damascus, there were some production of brass and copper in cities like Aleppo and Homs. However, it was very different from the Damascus art; it relied more on primitive techniques and produced very coarse ornamentation with very little fine detail. “You can take the famous Damascus jasmine flower and plant it anywhere in the world, but it never smells as beautiful as one from the soil of Damascus,” he laments.

The biggest breakthrough in his work, says Maurice, happened between 1980 and 1994 when he decided to take on a new approach to the whole industry by combining ancient art with modern design. He says this revolutionized the whole profession.

“Not every home had a traditional Damascene décor. The idea of a coffee table made with brass inlaid with silver with very traditional engraving that went along with the décor of a modern home was unheard of. The idea for a whole door, made from brass and inlaid with silver, also did not exist before then,” he says. To the eagled-eye observer, these doors can still be seen in churches and synagogues in Damascus, especially in the Old City. Furthermore, Maurice’s work is on display at hotels around the city. Further afield, palaces in Saudi Arabia still hold examples of his work. In many homes of renowned families in Damascus, one can see this incorporation of modern design along with beautiful pieces of Damascene art.

When asked if he keeps in touch with those he worked with during his days in Damascus, his answer is curt.

“No one in this trade stayed in Syria, all moved abroad and moved on to other professions. There is no appreciation for this artistry in North America. The majority of Jewish workers either worked for me directly or were contracted by me for piece by piece work. The real sad part of the story is that they did not just pack up their material belongings on the planes from Damascus, they also packed up a piece of Damascus history, culture and art – an art that is now lost,” he says.

“There are still people still working in this trade. Some even in Egypt, but from what I have seen, all what is being done is copying pieces from the past without the fine details and the feel of true art. Unfortunately in Egypt, they have substituted the silver inlaying with aluminum. It may look the same to the untrained eye, but it makes a mockery of the real art that was. I really do not believe there is a bright future for this profession; this is not an art you can just learn.”

The reason the metalwork trade developed to the high level it had reached is because it was “bred into the soul of each individual;” it was passed on from father to son over many generations, says Maurice. “To really be able to create and understand this art you have to be raised in the old quarters of Damascus. There are stories with every design of a window, arches, ceilings, door or door handle in the Old City. There is a spirit that is Damascus that you just cannot teach; you have to live it to understand.”

According to Maurice, one of the best examples in the expertise of Damascene art is Ghayas Akhras.

“I worked with him for a long time. In every piece I produced, I always tried to keep true to the legacy and the heritage of real Damascene art. This is what he saw in my work and it was him who insisted that all the brass work for the People’s Palace in Damascus should be done by me. We worked together on the design and we were able to really produce true masterpieces that were worthy of the palace. We also worked on a number of projects together in Morocco and Saudi Arabia,” says Maurice.

In Canada, Maurice finds appreciative audiences hard to come by. “Westerners do not appreciate this art. The people that really appreciate it are the Syrian people, people from Saudi Arabia, the Gulf region, Lebanon, Algeria and Morocco,” he states.

A major part of his production can still be found in Syrian homes, homes of families who really appreciate what Damascene art is. “The biggest testament to my work is when a family came to me and said we are looking for door, a table or chandelier. They left all the design to me with all confidence they returned a few weeks later to find a unique, breathtaking piece of art that they instantly fell in love with and were proud to say this was a ‘Maurice piece’. This happened all the time.”

However, he is downbeat for the future of the art in Syria.

“I doubt very much that the torch was carried by anyone in Damascus after we left. Also, no one outside of Damascus was ever able to produce pieces with the same type of artistry and detail. I think it is a lost art, which is confined to the past,” he laments.

Maurice holds out little hope of returning to Syria. “It is very hard to return home after so many years. Sham is my lover, and always will be.”

Forward Magazine, October 2010