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Lebanese Jewelers are providing insights about historical figures, and jewelry is a means to retell stories lost in time.
Pao Hraoui enjoys strolling through Byblos, a coastal city in northern Lebanon, and taking in the artwork being offered for sale in the old markets. The 30-year-old self-taught artist finds Phoenician-inspired objects to be particularly captivating.
“I feel at home when I see works with Phoenician influences on exhibit. Lebanon is rich with fascinating tales, and it serves as a reminder of the necessity of conserving this legacy,” Hraoui told Fanack.
Strong archeological evidence linking the Phoenicians (also referred to as Canaanites) to Byblos, one of the major cities in Lebanon, has been discovered. A significant part of the city’s contribution to the development of the Phoenician script is also worth noting. The oldest Phoenician inscriptions that are known to exist, which are thought to be the progenitors of the present alphabet, were discovered on the sarcophagus of Ahiram, a Phoenician King of Byblos (c. 1000 B.C.E).
Lebanese jewelers have made attempts to revive the historic tradition that has long been abandoned. Increasing efforts to preserve Phoenician artifacts and accessories have enhanced their visibility and accessibility to the general public as well as outsiders notwithstanding poor demand in local marketplaces and limited local appreciation.
“I live close to Byblos, which has always been a center of Phoenician heritage… It’s wonderful to see how the tradition is still alive in an outside the city despite everything the country is going through,” Hraoui said.
Lebanon and the Phoenician heritage
The Phoenician civilization was once widespread across the Mediterranean coasts of Lebanon, Syria, and even Carthage. Greek vernacular for the Phoenician laborers was “purple people,” hence the moniker “Phoenician.” The Phoenicians were the first to conduct maritime trades in the Mediterranean, and their society was based on trade in dye, wood, and minerals.
The coastal cities of Byblos, Tyre, Beirut, and Tripoli were important hubs for the Phoenician maritime trade and are dotted with Phoenician ruins.
Even if each city had a separate ruler and set of gods, their functions remained the same despite their variations in names and legends. For example, the kings of Byblos were Ittobal, Ahiram, and Abi-Baal. Biblical sources make reference to Hiram, King of Tyre, who assisted in building Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.
The most well-known exports from these cities included Tyrian purple dye, embroidery, wine, metals, glass, glazed faience, salt, and cured fish.
The majority of Phoenician artifacts were never unearthed, but a few sculptures, tablets, and works of art were found and are now kept in museums, such as the National Museum of Beirut, the Phoenician Museum, and of course the citadel of Byblos. In fact, one of the earliest sculptures was discovered on the limestone sarcophagus of Ahiram at Byblos.
Each city had its own deity and religious practices, in line with Phoenician tradition. Baal, Baalat in Byblos, Melqart in Tyre, and Eshmun in Sidon were just some of the revered figures.
Astarte and Tanit, both goddesses of the moon, fertility, war, and love, were popular female deities at the time.
Despite the scant body of evidence, jewelry was found to be important to Phoenician culture and trade. Ingots of various metals, including gold, copper, and iron, were produced during this time period by traders in exchange for items that were to be imported home.
Pectorals and gold medallions dating back to the second and third millennia with Egyptian-inspired molding were among the jewelry discovered in Phoenician cities. Repoussé, a technique for decorating metals in which portions of the design are raised in relief from the back or inside of the item using hammers and punches, and cloisonné, a technique for decorating metals in which designs are created on metal containers using colored glass paste and enclosures made of copper or bronze wire, were two of the most popular methods to create intricate pieces.
Jewelry and artwork made by the Phoenicians have been discovered as burial treasures or gifts at numerous locations throughout the Mediterranean coast, all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.
The seafarers used their shrewd business acumen to produce jewelry that would appeal to their customers by drawing inspiration from the lands they had explored.
Ancient jewelry-making techniques were complex, difficult, time-consuming, and effective for trade. Glass was utilized as a more affordable substitute for pricey gemstones when creating pendants and charms, for example.
Bronze and carnelian were also widely used at the time.
Religious and animal themes, including scarabs, sphinxes, and griffins, as well as goddess and lotus flower symbols, were frequently depicted in the designs.
The modernized version
A handful of artists in modern-day Lebanon have embraced the mission of preserving these priceless historical artifacts.
Rayane Ezzedine, 28, has always been interested in history and culture. She launched an online jewelry store in Lebanon in early 2022 where she produces creations inspired by ancient Phoenician and Mesopotamian cultures. She has traveled widely and has a fascination with antiquity.
“Interest in ancient heritage is not as popular in the country as I would like to be,” Ezzedine told Fanack. “Ancient Egyptian, Mayan, and Incan jewelry and patterns for example, are much more present in the modern-day design of their respective regions. In Lebanon, however, ancient civilizations are neglected and forgotten beyond the tourism spots.”
Drawing inspiration from available resources including various Lebanese museums, Ezzedine created a line of jewelry influenced by the ancient Phoenicians and Babylonians. Her creations feature Phoenician symbols like figures, vessels, and the flower of life, as well as the goddesses Astarte and Tanit, the lions of Babylon, and the Assyrian alphabet.
Taking into account the country’s economic challenges, she opted for gold-plated designs rather than pure gold pieces in order to reduce the cost of manufacture and acquisition.
Ezzedine recalls that the response from the public was disappointing. Within a few months of launching, the designer realized that the majority of her clientele are history buffs.
“These types of designs are less popular than more modern and trendy looks, which is regrettable because it appears that people do not fully understand the rich history of their nation or region,” she lamented.
Only for a niche audience
Gilbert Hakim, 44, a jewelry designer, has seen his Phoenician collection premiere in 2021 only reach a small minority, similar to Ezzedine.
In celebration of women’s rights, the jewelry designer, who possesses a profound admiration for Lebanese heritage, decided to include goddess motifs in his creations.
According to Hakim, women enjoyed greater respect and power in the past than they do now.
Hakim claims he attempted to provide his customers an authentic aesthetic by imitating old techniques in his designs, colors, and shapes. The designer rapidly discovered how difficult it was to produce numerous pieces with the same Phoenician look without utilizing modern techniques.
“It’s interesting to see how advanced they were. They were able to make intricate, challenging designs using hand tools without the sophisticated machines we have today,” Hakim said.
Having participated in an exhibition in the UAE, Hakim noticed that foreigners were more interested in his collection.
“Their purchasing power is greater as is their interest in ancient designs,” he noted.
According to Hakim, jewelry can provide insights about historical figures, and it is a means to retell stories lost in time. The progress, phases, and discoveries of ancient civilizations are told through the jewelry and artifacts they produced, he said.