Bsous Silk Museum

The Secrets of Silk

Ecological, Cultural & Economic History

Silk in

Just 5km from the centre of Aley, down a winding road and surrounded by olive, apricot and mulberry trees, is Lebanon’s last surviving reminder of a bygone ecological and economic era – the Silk Museum in Bsous.

This magnificent estate was built by the Fayad family and fully operational as a silk production facility between 1901 and 1954.

The two-story building operated an olive press on the ground floor and a silk factory on the upper level; a combination that was common at the time, given that both industries required large quantities of hot water.

Today, the Silk Museum is owned by George and Alexandra Asseily. They purchased the property in 1974, planted hundreds of trees, and gradually began to restore the war-torn and neglected buildings into Lebanon’s only surviving “kerkhana” (an old Turkish word for silk factory).

The couple set up an NGO – The Association of Memory and Development (aMED) – with some friends, and began transforming the silk factory into a museum in which to organize exhibitions and educate on silk production.

After extensive restorations, the site was reopened as a museum in 2000 with the aim of highlighting the significance of the 1,500 year old history of silk production in Lebanon, which ended when the last silk mill closed in the 1970s.

It is now an ode not only to traditional Lebanese architecture and village life – but to an iconic craft of important historic and economic value.

From Worm to

The areas inside showcase newspaper clippings, stamp collections from the 1930 Silk Congress in Beirut, and vintage boxes once used to carry silkworm eggs from Marseilles to Beirut. There is an impressive display of live silkworms, on their way to turn into cocoons. And, as an ode to the many silk weaving families spread across the country, a traditional loom, often found in Lebanese households, is on display. Behind the loom is an exhibition space, dedicated to yearly expositions of various aspects of silk production.
  Upstairs, where visitors can view the beautiful estate’s magnificent gardens, the museum showcases the secrets of making silk – including live silkworms.Various weaving machines are on display, showcasing the progressive rationalization of a generally labor-intensive industry.
Every year, The Silk Museum opens in May, following the seasonal cycle of the silk worm. Their eco-museum shows visitors how silk is produced, detailing the process from silk worm to cocoon and how the fibers are extracted and woven through an old loom into thread. It shows the ancient interaction between people and their environment to create the highly desired natural thread.

Besides learning about the detailed process of silk production, from worm to cocoon to silk thread, the museum is a pure voyage into the mysterious and extraordinary ways of nature, a cultural landmark that tries to preserve the glory of a past trade, reminding us of the interaction between humans, insects and plants and the rewards that this brought to Lebanon for hundreds of years.

Sericulture

Silk production in Lebanon goes back to the Middle Ages and in the 19th century it became the main activity for a large section of the population, creating great social and economic change in the lives of the Lebanese.

Lebanon’s first silk factory was established in 1840 in Btater, Mount Lebanon, when in those days the mountain was an autonomous district within the Ottoman Empire.



In 1914, it is estimated that there were roughly 120,000 textile workers in Syria and Lebanon. Most of them worked in the silk industry. In that golden period, a Silk Office was set up to manage the region’s silk industry.



According to a 1968 study, there were 194 Lebanese-owned silk factories in 1893 and by 1911 Lebanon and Syria were producing around 524,000 kilos of raw silk, most of which was for export to Lyon, France.



Lebanon’s numerous other silk factories have either been transformed into grand, traditional style houses, or else abandoned (as in the factory in Kfarmatta).

History

The Bsous museum is the only one of its kind in Lebanon. That may seem a little strange when, as the signs in the museum will tell you, silk production was at one period the pillar of the Lebanese economy, counting for 62 percent of all exports between 1872 and 1910.

Numerous factors led to the decline of Lebanon’s silk industry. Factories suffered from a major shortage of women – who long dominated the silk factories’ workforce – after they found they earned more in lacework, which they could do from home.
When silk factories shifted from all-female to mixed workspaces, angry reactions from Mount Lebanon’s religious authorities – two patriarchs named Aoun and Geagea, as it happens – deterred many families from sending women to work. The availability of cheaper cloth like rayon and cotton, as well as increased competition from other silk producing countries, spelt the end of Lebanon’s remaining factories.
Silk enterprise was over by 1982 – defeated by cheap mass production from China, which still dominates the industry today. That year, the Silk Office was suspended indefinitely.

“In the early 20th century, there were 3,160,000 mulberry trees in Lebanon … it is undoubtedly the most precious tree in the country.”

An excerpt of Frenchman Victor Guerin’s 1881 book “Mission au Liban: Extraits de la Terre Sainte,”

"Season of

This historical brief from the museum sheds light on Lebanon’s ties to silk:
Under the reign of Cyrus (556-530 BC) in the 4th century BC, the vast Persian Empire opened caravan routes of Chinese silk – woven or raw – into Phoenicia. Therefore, the silk tradition in Lebanon is more than two thousand years old and goes back to the period of the famous purple dye (ourjouan) extracted from the Murex shell by the Phoenicians of Sidon and Tyre and which was used to produce imperial purple silk.
The Byzantine Emperor Justinian the Great (537-564 AD) also realized the importance of producing silk and ordered two Nestorian priests to go east to uncover the secret behind silk making. Two years later, the priests returned from Central Asia, with a good quantity of silkworm eggs, which they had carefully hidden in their bamboo canes. From then on, sericulture (silkworm breeding) developed in the Byzantine Empire, especially in Syria and Lebanon, where mulberry trees (the golden tree) were grown and the silk worm was farmed.
Fakhreddine II Ma’an (1572-1635), “The Agronomist Prince”, developed silk related agriculture and established an industry based on the production of silk. This would ensure economic autonomy to the emirate of Mount-Lebanon, thanks to its commercial exchanges with Tuscany and Modena. The silk bundles were grouped in the “Kaysarieh” of Deir el Kamar as well as the “khans” of Sidon, Tripoli and Beirut, where local weavers would get their silk supply. This particular kind of silk was called “baladi” (literally, from the region), and was famed for its beautiful yellow color. In the 19th century, Lebanon’s reputation for sericulture grew thanks to the know-how developed in partnership with the silk weavers of Lyon, on the other side of the Mediterranean.
…..
In those days, the silk season was a great agro-industrial event for thousands of Lebanese. It constituted 50% of the GDP of Mount Lebanon. In fact so many families farmed the silk worm at that period, that it became a tradition called “the season of glory.”

Silk

The Silk Museum holds an annual exhibition, showcasing silk culture from around the world. Past exhibitions have spotlighted the silk industry in China, India, Indo-China, Vietnam, Italy and France. 

Bsous Silk Museum

When & Where

When

Open daily from May through October, 10am to 6pm, except Mondays. Duration of Visits: Approx. 1hr 30mins.
N.B. Date period may vary. Contact first for further information.

Phone – 05 940 767

Where

The Silk Museum is just below the village of Bsous, in the Aley district of Mount Lebanon.
It is just 15km from Beirut and 4km from the Damascus Road junction with EDL Jamhour.

Heather & Sami Eljurdi

Founders • Archivists • Editors

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