AMMAN — Rich brocade, colorful embroideries and intricate patterns adorn the ancient dresses lining the walls. This is “Syrian Glory,” a temporary exhibition launched in December 2020 in Amman, Jordan, that pays tribute to over a century of Syrian textile and dressmaking.
The main room of “Syrian Glory” features festive dresses and jackets from various regions across Syria, 10/2/2021 (Syria Direct)
The pieces are part of the personal collection of Widad Kawar, an art collector and founder of Tiraz Center, which preserves traditional costumes from Jordan and Palestine. The center boasts one of the largest collections of traditional Levantine dress worldwide.
Details of a richly embroidered festive dress from Qalamoun in northwest Syria, 10/2/2021 (Syria Direct)
The birth of Kawar’s collection stemmed from the political tragedies that tore the region apart. “After college, in 1948, I found my country at war, and the place I lived in full of refugees,” Kawar, who hails from Palestine, told Syria Direct. Seeing refugee women sell their belongings and embroidery to make a living, she felt compelled to “keep these things for future generations, to preserve this beautiful art of the village life.”
Details of a festive dress embroidered with geometric motifs, 10/2/2021 (Syria Direct)
At first, Kawar’s collection centered on Jordan and Palestine. But fifteen years ago, Kawar started gathering pieces from Syria through frequent trips to Souq al-Hamidiyah in Damascus, and to the city of Aleppo to find textiles originating from the north of the country.
Among her collection, Kawar fondly describes the textiles weaved and embroidered by the Kurdish women of Afrin, in northwest Syria, who use a unique technique. Gathering art indiscriminately across the country, Kawar claims to own a “complete” collection representing all areas of Syria.
Kawar’s home features curtains woven and embroidered in a style uniquely mastered by the inhabitants of Afrin, a Kurdish area in northwest Syria, 10/2/2021 (Syria Direct)
“For the tenth anniversary of the Syrian war, we wanted to make at least one statement – to pay tribute to the extraordinary craftsmanship of the Syrian people,” Salua Qidan, the artistic director of the exhibition, told Syria Direct.
Details of a richly embroidered men’s jacket from Syria, 10/2/2021 (Syria Direct)
Before modernization and the arrival of ready-made fashion imported from abroad, Qidan explained, Syrian textiles formed the basis of dressmaking in the Levant. The silk used by women in Palestine and Jordan was imported from Syria, where unique weaving and dyeing techniques had been developed.
A dress decorated using the “plangi” tie-dye technique, for which Syria’s central region of Hama was famous, 10/2/2021 (Syria Direct)
Kawar and Qidan lament the loss of this unique cultural heritage due to the combined effects of modernization, the globalization of the textile industry, and a decade of conflict. “What is produced in Syria is not of the same quality anymore; it is mostly simple things, plain linen,” Qidan said, “and the knowledge is getting lost. Syrians themselves often lost the meaning of the stitches.”
Intricate stitches are a common feature of traditional dresses across the Levant, where each region developed a specific style and pattern of stitchwork, 10/2/2021 (Syria Direct)
“Syrian Glory,” a powerful name, pays homage to the immense contribution of Syrian artisans to the cultural heritage of the region.
“To tell you the truth,” Kawar added, “everything good we have in our homes is Syrian,” pointing out the delicate wooden furniture, elaborate carpets and thick curtains filling her living room. She recalled the pre-war years when Jordanians would drive up to Damascus to purchase furniture or even food. The distance between Amman and Damascus can be covered in a few hours, but now the two capitals seem worlds away.
“We feel very bad that Turkey wants a piece, Iran wants a piece,” Kawar said. “We are all worried that one day, there will be no Syria.”
Details from one of the embroidered jackets on display, 10/2/2021 (Syria Direct)
The exhibition, which may one day travel internationally – as have other pieces in Kawar’s collection – is a precious tribute to the Syrian cultural legacy. It represents an essential effort to preserve a heritage of international significance, threatened by the ongoing conflict.
“We wanted to make a statement: stop this war,” Qidan said. “Syria used to have the best [craftmanship]; where is it now? And who is going to preserve it?”
This report was produced as part of Syria Direct’s project promoting gender equality, supported by the Canadian Embassy in Jordan’s Canada Fund for Local Initiatives (CFLI).