An art and a source of
Mother-of-pearl was traditionally a main handicraft in Bethlehem. It is
believed that mother-of-pearl was introduced by Franciscan monks who
came from Damascus to the Bethlehem area around the 15th century.
With the presence of the order of St. Francis of
Assisi in the Holy Land around the late 1600s, religious artifacts
gained in economic importance. One Franciscan of the late sixteenth
century, Father Bernard Amico, is well known for having made miniature
reproductions of churches out of mother-of-pearl.
Since 1850, Bethlehem has witnessed a major
development in the manufacture of mother-of-pearl, encouraged by the
presence of pilgrims and religious persons who acquired them at a
relatively good price due to the stability and increasing good relations
between the Holy Land and Europe.
The treasures of Crusader King Richard the Lion Heart
included shells and mother of pearl items such as crosses and other
religious objects. In 1220 some Christian leaders who were on a
pilgrimage to the Holy Land brought back crosses and beads made of olive
wood and of raw and simple shells.
The vaults of the Vatican include many boxes and
cabinets that contain excellent mother-of-pearl works made by
Palestinian artistic craftsmen in the Holy Land during the past three
centuries. This craft has developed greatly during the 19th and 20th
centuries. The role of craftsmen from Genoa and Damascus was well
recognized historically, but during these two centuries Palestinians
mastered this art and passed it on, mostly in the same clan or family,
from one generation to the next.
Beautiful products include crosses, frames, boxes, models of religious
monuments, and many other forms. In earlier times the raw material was
brought by caravans from the Red Sea. Later on, one finds evidence of
Bethlehemite traders purchasing this semi-precious material from New
Zealand, Australia, Mexico, and Brazil. The entire production process is
based on cutting, designing, gluing and polishing. This is carried out
in local workshops mostly in the Bethlehem area.
Working with mother-of-pearl requires simple tools
such as cutters. Certain chemicals are used to glue the mother-of-pearl
pieces which are then polished not only to make them look better, but
also to preserve them for a long time. The work is time-consuming and
requires skill and patience. The introduction of modern tools in the
second half of the 20th century, such as small motors and tools for
carving, naturally made the work easier. Nowadays in workshops in
Bethlehem, Beit Sahour, and Beit Jala one can see industrial tools that
copy figures and carve them.
Most outstanding Palestinian artists in the field
include Elias S. Dabdoub, Suleiman Dabdoub, whose work of the Dome of
the Rock exists in the Top Kapi museum in Istanbul; Suleiman Roc
(1831-1906), Hanna S. Rock (1863-1941), Yousef Jidi (1864-1934), Mikhael
Lama, Butros Lama, Hanna Tabash, Elias Giacaman, Jamil Musallam, Saleh
Abu Ayash, and others from the Salameh, Freij, Izmeri, Handal, Hazboun,
Ballut, Shehadeh and Asfura families.
Hanna S. Rock
Butros I. Lama
Elias I. Giacaman
Saleh S. Abu Ayash
The Zougbi family was well known for its skill in
working on large models. Issa Mikhael Zougbi was a senior member of the
community in Bethlehem; his sons, mainly Bishara (1863-1934) and Yousef
(1878-1964) were well known artists in crafting creative mother-of-pearl
The legacy of the mother-of-pearl craft in the
Bethlehem area continues to maintain the artistic vision and tradition
of the Palestinian community. It has grown into a productive and
lucrative industry providing some economic stability to the community of
Bethlehem eventually attracting tourists and pilgrims who have valued
the beauty and art of the mother-of-pearl craft to purchase them as
gifts to take back home.