A History of Arts and Crafts from Late Ottoman Beirut (ca. 1860-1914)
In the post 9/11 context, permanent and temporary exhibitions of “Islamic art” aimed at countering the effects of “terrorist Islam” by improving the image of “Islam” and humanizing Muslims in the eyes of the global community. Showcasing functional and decorative historical artifacts as “art” involved a particular way of knowing, connecting, and engaging with material culture of the past. Exhibited as “art,” these craftworks were positioned outside time and presented as a bridge to cross cultural differences. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this approach, derived from late 19th-century Orientalist attitudes, has given rise to ahistorical and misleading representations of cultures and societies under the guise of universal art and timeless Islam.
This phenomenon attracted a lot of scholarly attention and raised serious questions about the role of art and the museum as effective cultural brokers or mediators. Scholars also problematized and questioned modern concepts of culture, art, history, and religion resulting from these museological representations. What has been persistently missing from the literature, however, is a systematic examination that would account for different ways of conceiving and representing craftwork before and during the constitution of the field of Islamic art at the turn of the 20th century. In other words, a perspective that situates crafted objects in their living spaces or social settings, at the start of their long journey into art museums.
Focusing on late 19th-century Beirut, a booming Ottoman port-city on the Eastern Mediterranean, I ask how ideas and objects interacted in this emergent urban space. I thus propose an analysis of arts and crafts that integrates conceptual history and history of material culture, by focusing on certain crafts produced or sold in Beirut and on discussions about crafts, art, and industry in Arabic periodicals and other literary productions. I attend to the development in local artistic traditions in tandem with the formation of discursive categories that represented these crafted objects in the context of the Ottoman Empire’s integration into the world-economy and the dissemination of the modern Western episteme. Instead of evaluating the 19th-century local crafts according to the requisites of modern Western art or industry, narrating the history of arts and crafts from late Ottoman Beirut complements or helps rethink the formation of universalist and binary categories that organized modern knowledge into art versus crafts, for example.
The role and the value of the traditional crafts have generally been understudied in the Arab provinces of the late Ottoman period, when the Empire embarked on a series of reforms to modernize the socio-political and economic structures. This is particularly true in art historical studies, perpetuating the Orientalist assumption that material and cultural production were stagnating in the region. I challenge this paradigm by documenting production sites, reform initiatives, and multifaceted discourses articulated by intellectuals, notables, and merchants in late Ottoman Beirut.
Production sites encompassed traditional workshops in specialized suqs as well as new arts and crafts schools built through provincial and imperial initiatives. Not only did Western demand galvanize production of local artifacts, but it also created a market for “Oriental” or antiquities from the Islamic world. Craft and antique stores like Asfar & Sarkis, or “Au Musée Oriental” and “Au Magasin Oriental” of the Tarazi family, operated between Beirut and Damascus with regional and overseas destinations. Overall, little has been published on 19th-century arts and crafts schools in Ottoman Syria. Before the establishment of the School for Arts and Crafts complex (maktab al-ṣanāʾiʿ wa al-tijāra al-ḥamīdī) in 1907 in Beirut, there had been an earlier venture by local Muslim notables Dāʿūq and ʿArdātī in 1892. Such schools provided an education that differed from the traditional master-apprentice system and aimed at professionalizing the crafts along the lines of modern vocational and applied learning.
Members of al-Jamʿiyya al-ʿilmiyya al-sūriyya (the Syrian Scientific Society, 1868-1869), Jamʿiyyat al-funūn (Society for the Arts, est. 1874), and Jamʿiyyat al-ṣināʿa fī Bayrūt (at least since 1884) among other societies were concerned with the crafts and attempted to explain why local production lagged and how to improve it. By the 1880s, craftwork featured in Arabic periodicals within assessments and reflections concerning civilization and progress. Debated issues addressed the dependence of crafts on scientific knowledge, the cultural (de)valorization of craftsmanship, the means to improve manufacture and artistic production, the cultivation and refinement of modern sensibilities, as well as the contribution of women to the workforce and the development of the country.
These examples offer an alternative narrative to the one derived from Eurocentric approaches and Orientalist concerns. They also nuance our understanding of the history of late Ottoman Syria and the Arabic cultural and literary revival during this period.
 Notable exceptions include the scholarship of Abdul-Karim Rafeq, James Reilly, Toufoul Abou-Hodeib, and Marcus Milwright.