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Home > Life & Culture > Customs & Traditions
Hebron glass: A centuries' old tradition
Nazmi al-Ju'bah, This Week in Palestine, Jan 25, 2008

This article was originally published by This Week in Palestine and is republished with permission.

hebron-glass.jpg
A glass object being created in a traditional factory in the West Bank city of Hebron. (Steve Sabella, This Week in Palestine)
Just a few meters before the city of Hebron, at the end of the short distance between Halhul and Hebron city, visitors will notice a number of factories that produce coloured glass, representing several centuries of Hebron tradition.

As you enter one of these factories, the temperature rises dramatically because of the furnace (al-furun) that is located in the central hall of the factory. Its temperature rises to 700° C and is surrounded by two to four workplaces.

The craftsman holds a long, thin pipe (80-100 cm) in one hand and then puts it into the boiling glass inside the furnace; he pulls it out with some semi-liquid glass. As he blows through the pipe, the form of an object appears. The shaping process continues with a metal instrument (kammasha), and the vessel is complete. The pipe is put into the furnace again, pulled back close to the mouth, and blown into to shape the object. The kammasha is used once again, and then the glass is put aside into a small chamber adjacent to the furnace to cool down.

This process is repeated every two to three minutes in an amazingly fluid movement, as if the craftsman were playing a musical instrument, in spite of the boiling heat, which transforms his face into a sweaty tomato colour.

The raw material comes from recycled glass, which is gathered from houses in the area and brought to the factory to be smashed and then cooked. The traditional intense colours of Hebron glass include dark and light blue, turquoise, dark red (Bordeaux), and light and dark green.

Traditionally, the raw materials were gathered from nature. Sand, which is a major component, was brought from the area of Bani Nu’aim, a village close to Hebron. Sodium carbonate was brought from the Dead Sea. The colouring material was prepared from metal oxides (iron, copper, etc.). Some of these oxides, especially copper oxide, are still used to colour Hebron glass.

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The current glass industry in Hebron, as described above, most probably began in the 13th century. There is no doubt that glass production in Palestine goes back to the Roman period, but Hebron's tradition is not to be understood within this framework. It is a totally different tradition. It is generally believed that the technique was imported from Venice; but this theory is also debatable, and some researchers claim that the Crusaders carried this tradition with them to Europe and the origin may be Syrian.

In any case, in the fourteenth century, Hebron glass factories flourished. Historical references list no less than fourteen factories of glass, all located in the old city. A special quarter was designated for this industry, which till today carries the name of Glass-Blower Quarter (Harat al-Zajajeen or Harat al-Azazeen).

Since the surplus of such a large industry could not be absorbed into the local market, it was exported to Egypt, Syria, and Transjordan. It is generally accepted that Hebron glass factories were the only factories of their kind until the 16th century, when the Ottoman Sultan (Salim I) took most Syrian handcrafters (especially from Sidon and Damascus) to Istanbul. These factories were obliged to develop their products both in quality and quantity in order to meet the market needs of Greater Syria and Egypt. Hebron's camel caravans carried the glass in special wooden boxes that were guarded by both the official armies and the private guards; hence the caravans carried very expensive goods across regional borders in order to supply the markets.

Hebron's glass merchants managed to develop agencies and mercantile relations (a cliental system) with both Karak (Crac), in East Jordan, and Cairo in order to market the products. As a result, since at least the 16th century, Hebron communities were established in these two cities and a whole social network was developed around the glass. The glass industry became a major employer and contributed greatly to the wealth of factory owners.

Traditionally, the products were functional; cups of various sizes and shapes, bottles, bowls, jugs, dishes, olive oil lamps, and later, various forms of petrol lamps, which were considered common household items. Jewellery and accessories, mainly for Bedouins, were also produced and sold in the desert (the Naqab, the Arabian Desert, and the Sinai). Some of these products - namely, eyes and hands made from blue glass - were also used as amulets to protect people or homes from the evil eye. Glass balls were also produced for fishing nets.

Hebron glass remains a tourist attraction for both Palestinian and international visitors. Today, the three Hebron glass factories mainly produce souvenir items, most of which are also useful household items. A large hall close to each factory displays wine glasses, dishes, bowls, flower pots, etc. Although most objects are not decorated, some have artistically applied glass strings, which add to their uniqueness. Metallic decoration is a recent innovation.

Glass-blowing is an art that is based on apprenticeship. In order to learn the profession, a child must begin as an apprentice to the master and, in essence, grow up in the factory. Masters generally believe that adults are unable to learn the craft. As one master noted: "You can learn to play the 'oud at any age, but unless you begin as a child, you will never become a master." More than learning specific skills, a master must develop a relationship of love with his or her craft. Musicians and glass-blowers seem to have much in common; both need skilled hands, fingers, and mouths. But most important are a good touch and artistic taste.

For centuries, Hebron has become associated with glass production in the same way that Nablus was associated with soap production. In addition to visiting the tombs of the Patriarchs in the Ibrahimi Mosque, travellers have been visiting and reporting on Hebron glass factories since the late-Middle Ages. The Natsheh family, who owns two of the three factories in operation, has been mentioned in many documents of the Islamic religious court in Jerusalem and Hebron.

This tradition has managed to survive for at least seven centuries. Today, due to the current problems of export, the decrease in the number of tourists, and the restrictions on movement of Palestinians, glass production has been considerably reduced. If this situation continues, the Hebron glass-blowing industry's main challenge could be mere survival.

Dr. Nazmi Ju'beh is director of the RIWAQ: Centre for Architectural Conservation.


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