Syria’s last traditional boat-makers keep ancient craft afloat
“We are the last family that makes wooden ships and boats in Syria,” said the 39-year-old on the shores of Arwad island, near the city of Tartus. “This is the legacy of our ancestors. We are fighting to preserve it every day.”
Located about three kilometers off the coast, Arwad is Syria’s only inhabited island and a haven of peace in a country torn by 11 years of war.
Hundreds of workers, residents and visitors commute to and from there every day in wooden boats, mostly built by the Bahlawan family. But demand for a craft that dates back to ancient Phoenician times has dropped to all but a trickle.
The eight members of the Bahlawan family now share the work, making boats for fishermen, resorts and passenger transport.
The tradition of building and repairing wooden boats has been in their family for hundreds of years.
Long power cuts due to years of conflict mean that Bahlawan cannot use his electrical equipment.
Instead he works with his grandfather’s manual tools, smoothing the wood by hand rather than with an electric plane.
“It’s a hard task,” he said, standing inside the hull of a boat and tapping each nail carefully.
He heads to his narrow, open-air workshop near the beach every day, despite the low demand and modest means.
Boat-building has been a village tradition since Phoenician times, said Noureddine Suleiman, who heads the Arwad municipality.
In the past, the majority of Arwad’s residents were boat-makers, he said.
Thousands of years ago the Phoenicians, renowned for their ship and boat-making, laid the foundations of marine navigation. The skilled sailors and traders roamed the seas, bringing their knowledge, craftsmanship and their alphabet to other parts of the Mediterranean.
But traditional boat-making now risks disappearing altogether, Suleiman warned, as young people emigrate or search for easier, more profitable work.