Remembering the golden years of the Beirut Jewellery Souks

BEIRUT: Where sleek designer jewelry shops now line the halls of Downtown’s Beirut Souks, there once stood stalls of goldsmiths, diamond setters and neighborhood merchants who catered to a loyal clientele. Today, Beirut’s Jewellery Souks bear little resemblance to its namesake. However, the memories of the old market still live on in the hearts of many Lebanese.

Starting Thursday, a four-day evening exhibition entitled “The Jewellery Souks Golden Years” will feature photographs from the old market, an exhibit of Lebanese outfits dating back to the 17th century and old Lebanese jewelry from the jewelry houses Albert Assi and Co., Aziz and Walid Mouzannar and Tabbah.

The participating jewelers are among those who set up shop decades ago in the old souk and have since relocated around the city.

The exhibition aims at “reviving the golden era of the Jewellery Souks and Beirut Souks and supporting this strategic and historic location that has been recently renovated and redesigned in a modern and special way,” according to Solidere.

Tabbah, for example, has been around for more than 150 years and moved its shop to Bab Idriss – now Downtown’s Souks – in 1945.

Though Tabbah has since moved from its Bab Idriss location, the company played its part in Beirut’s golden age and counted among its clientele members of the Saudi royal family and 1960s European beauty queens. A jewel-encrusted sword by Tabbah even sits at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., a gift from Saudi Arabia to U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Some of the jewelry on display at the exhibition come from private collections. A representative from Albert Assi and Co., located in Ashrafieh’s Sofil center, said they would be displaying jewelry pieces from women who have been longtime patrons.

The traditional textiles and women’s clothing on display will be supplied by Samia Saab, a local guru on historical garb from the Ottoman era in Lebanon.

For Leon Tatarian, who has been in the jewelry business since 1958, having learned from his father, nothing compares to the spirit of the old souk.

From his shop at the new high-end mall, where he has been for three years, his face lights up as he describes what it was like before the Civil War – a time, he recalls, when people had the money, the comfort and the love of life to buy jewelry without needing a special occasion.

“Twenty people would come from the mountains to get jewelry for a wedding. Today,” he says, “the man comes to buy the woman a ring, then leaves.”

The merchants at the nearby shops are too young to remember the old souk, but like their older counterparts they have a strong sense of nostalgia for it.

“It was before my time,” says Victor Abou Chedid, manager of Azar. “People always say the old Beirut was more beautiful, but I didn’t see it. The younger people don’t know, but the older generation really sees a difference. My father, who sold jewelry, has refused to come back to the new souk.”

Perhaps this week’s exhibition will bring back some of the spirit that has been lost to war, lingering political disputes and an ongoing recession.

Jewelry holds a special place in Middle Eastern culture and history, where it has been an important craft for over 4,000 years. In the cities of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, jewelry symbolized wealth and power.

Jewelry also has an archaeological value, for example Egyptian designs in Phoenician jewelry evidence early trade routes.

Regional souks, including centers for gold and jewelry trading, emerged under the Ottoman Khans – often becoming centers for trade and social life. Such was the case in Beirut, until its souk was destroyed during the 15-year Civil War that ended in 1990.

It took nearly 20 years for the Souks to reopen, a 10-year delay to the anticipated opening, due to political instability and disagreements between Lebanon’s Syndicate of Goldsmiths and Solidere.

In 2009, the doors to the completely redesigned high-end shopping center opened, featuring such luxury brands as watch and jewelry companies Tag Heuer and Voyageur.

The exhibit is under the patronage of first lady Wafaa Sleiman and is hosted by Solidere.

History of Beirut’s souks

Evidence of a thriving commercial center in modern day Downtown Beirut dates back nearly 5,000 years, prior to the time of the Phoenicians. A more detailed record of life in that part of town has been traced since the beginning of the Islamic era in the 8th century A.D.

- 700-1400

At the main entrance to the modern Souks stands a reconstructed mosque, incongruent with the mall beyond it. The entrance pays tribute to two Islamic scholars who settled in what would become a popular shopping center called Souk al-Tawileh: Imam Abed al-Rahman al-Ouzai in the 8th century and Ibn Iraq al-Dimashqi in the 15th century.

- 1800-1943

In the modern era, a sophisticated shopping center took shape in Downtown. A move toward Westernization started during the late Ottoman period, which began Beirut’s transformation to its, now cliche, mid-20th century title: the Paris of the Middle East. The area also flourished during the time of the French Mandate from 1920-43, due to a push for construction and development.

- 1943-1975

Souk al-Tawileh attracted a cosmopolitan mix of shoppers to its clothing boutiques, perfumeries and luxury product stores. Souk Ayass housed a beloved shop selling sweets and juices named Intabli Fountain. It and a restaurant on the corner of Souk Ayass and Trablos Street, called Al-Ajami, also brought in heavy foot traffic. Lebanon’s Civil War put a halt to all business Downtown, and after 15 years left the Old Souks in rubble.

- 2010-today

Solidere rebuilt a shopping center where the Old Souks used to stand. In the famous Souk al-Tawileh, local shops of the pre-Civil War era have been replaced by international brands like Dolce & Gabbana, Carolina Herrera and Massimo Dutti. In Souk Ayass, a square carries the name of the old Intabli sweets shop, and at the end of the Souk intersecting with Trablos Street, a new cafe stand instead of Al-Ajami.

– Information courtesy of Solidere

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 04, 2013, on page 2.




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