Syria’s last traditional boat makers preserve an ancient craft

Khaled Bahlawan hammers nails into a traditional hand-built wooden boat, toiling under the blazing sun on Syria’s Mediterranean coast to preserve an ancient skill that is disappearing.

“We are the last family to make ships and wooden boats in Syria,” said the 39-year-old on the beaches of Arwad Island near the city of Tartus.

“This is the legacy of our ancestors… we fight to preserve it every day.”

About three kilometers (less than two miles) from the coast, Arwad is the only inhabited island in Syria and a haven of peace in a country wracked by 11 years of war.

Hundreds of workers, residents, and visitors move in and out every day in wooden boats, most of them made by the acrobats.

But the demand for a craft dating back to ancient Phoenician times has fallen considerably.

The eight members of the Acrobat family are now involved in the business, making boats for fishermen, resorts, and passenger transport.

The tradition of building and repairing wooden boats has been in their families for hundreds of years.

Syrian craftsman Khaled Bahlawan (right) builds a wooden boat at his boatyard on the Syrian island of Arwad on the Mediterranean, July 24, 2022 (Photo by Louay Bishara/AFP)

Long power outages due to years of conflict mean that acrobat cannot use his electrical equipment.

Instead, he works using his grandfather’s hand tools, smoothing the wood by hand rather than using an electric plane.

“It’s a tough job,” he said, standing inside the hull of the boat and carefully tapping each nail.

Every day he heads to his cramped outdoor workshop near the beach, despite the lack of demand and modest resources.

We are doing our best to overcome difficulties,” said the acrobat, his face covered in sweat and scattered sawdust.

– ‘Historical responsibility’ –

Noureddin Suleiman, mayor of Arwad, said boat building has been a village tradition since the Phoenician era.

He pointed out that in the past, the majority of Arwad’s residents were boat makers.

“Today, only the Pahlawan family remains,” he said.

Thousands of years ago, the Phoenicians, famous for their ships and craftsmanship, laid the foundations of seafaring.

Skilled sailors and merchants roamed the seas, passing on their knowledge, crafts, and alphabet to other parts of the Mediterranean.

But Suleiman warned that now the traditional boating industry could disappear altogether, as young people migrate or look for easier and more profitable work.

Farouk Bahlawan, Khaled’s uncle, said his family has preserved the original shape and structure of the ancient Phoenician boats, with some modifications.

“We mainly make the ships from eucalyptus wood and berries from the Tartous forests,” said the 54-year-old skilled carpenter.

Young children played hide and seek in the hulls of the boats in the workshop, while an old man smoked in the shade of a large ship.

Nearby, more than 40 wooden boats docked in the port of Arwad.

“We used to manufacture four big ships and several boats every year, which we export to Cyprus, Turkey and Lebanon,” Farouk Bahlawan said.

“This year, we only worked on one ship, and it still needs a lot of work before it can be done.”

Staring at the beach where children run in the sand.

We must continue this journey,” he said in a voice filled with emotion. “We bear a historic responsibility on our shoulders.”

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