The Beauty of Copper

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The discovery of copper marks the beginning of the metal era in the Orient. Copper was first used as an alloy in the composition of bronze, and hence in the production of weapons like daggers, spears, arrows and swords. It was also used in the manufacture of household utensils and even in some jewelry.

It is also believed that the elders used bronze in the production of chiseled and engraved dishes of which we unfortunately have no traces. On the other hand, the variety of gold dishes found in Phoenicia provides significant proof that Phoenicians mastered the art chiseling and engraving metal perfectly. The latter dishes were generally decorated with hunting scenes or geometrical designs.

This metal crafting art was perpetuated in Lebanon although the decorative subjects changed over time. For example, during the Byzantine era, the patterns engraved on silver plates were mostly religious and inspired from the holy Bible and the Gospels. Whereas during the Islamic era, the engraving became purely calligraphic and decorative as craftsmen privileged the transcription of verses from the Koran.

As for the church bells industry, it was imported by the crusaders during the 12th century and is therefore considered to be relatively recent in Lebanon. This technique is exclusively perpetuated in Beit Chabab.

The handmade process for crafting a bowl or plate is the same today as it was hundreds of years ago. The design is drawn or traced onto a polished, flat copper disc imported from India or Africa. The disc is beaten into shape using a hammer and a vertical iron rod, which sticks up from the floor. Once the shape is satisfactory, the pattern is indented using a variety of thick and thin edged iron pins, which are hammered against the surface with varying degrees of severity. It is then polished to within an inch of its original thickness. An experienced worker can finish a plaque in 30 minutes.

Lebanese workshops continue to produce different metallic objects although some of their characteristics have evolved throughout the centuries. Dishes are produced in larger sizes sometimes reaching a diameter of 70cm and the metal used is either bronze or an alloy of copper and pewter or even pure copper. Engravings have also evolved into the print of folkloric proverbs or quotations glorifying the beauty of the Lebanese scenery.

The craft of copper is perpetuated in workshops concentrated in Tripoli, Qalamoun, Beirut, Zahleh, Sidon and Baalbek. In past times in Tripoli, in the heart of the old souk, on Nahasin Street, the deafening sound of the pounding of hammer on metal would be so loud that it would occupy the whole area.

Whilst the cities of Tripoli and Qalamoun hold a prominent place in the craft of copper, Dora, near Beirut, is where most of its produce is commercialized.

Craftsmen, armed with a hammer and a chisel, spend many long hard hours stooped over this task, transform the plain flat golden or silver metallic sheets maintained on an anvil into a multitude of objects. They deliver Omayyad-inspired oil lamps, elegant and tall water pitchers enriched with a beautiful naksh (design that is hammered on), or splendid samovars destined to be the centerpieces of majestic Arab lounges. They also produced more common objects like carafes, thuribles (metal censers), trays, etc… All of these delicate pieces were ornamented with circular strips or engraved medallions in which floral and vegetal patterns alternate with verses from the Koran and philosophic quotations.

Pushed back copper is characterized by the relief of the motif obtained with the use of a wooden anvil. On the other hand, perforated copper is used in the production of lanterns or samovars where the perforations allowed for light and heat to diffuse. In this technique, the craftsman uses a sharp stylus to puncture the metal and draw the motif.

Whatever the chosen technique some preliminary steps are essential. Indeed, the craftsman must first heat the metal sheets to bend and shape it, then polish it. Then comes the elaboration of the drawing, knowing that its beauty, complexity and craftsmanship determine the final value of the object.

The craft of Beirut’s lanterns is a delicate one. The craftsman starts by cutting out the copper, cutting the glass and developing the frames. Mounting and assembling the lanterns is a delicate step as the glass often breaks. Then comes the welding of the different components of the lantern, which required a rigorous knowledge of measures and angles.

One can understand why the beauty of a lantern reflected the genius of its craftsman and had to demonstrate perfect harmony between volumes, shapes and colors.

There are four techniques used by the artisans to manufacture copper, brass and silver articles: hammering, chiseling, embossing and filigree. After spending long hours of concentrated work, metal is transformed into articles like oil lamps, tapered spears, carafes, platters covers for plant pots, oriental lamps and chandeliers.

If not for the tiresome work of those artisans with stained black hands, copper would always be just copper. It’s true that everything has its own life, and starts with the most humble of materials. And just like in life each thing has to transform itself into something better, and to acquire a new life.

Text on copper making taken from: http://www.destinationlebanon.gov.lb/en/tourismtype/details/17/42

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