History of Silk

The origins of silk and its Introduction to the Middle East


According to a legend mentioned in Confucius’ ‘Odes’, roughly 2700 years BC, Princess Si-Ling-Chi, the wife of Emperor Huang-Ti discovered the secret of silk by picking up a cocoon that had fallen from a tree into her hot tea. The Chinese then figured out the important stages in the silk making process. Firstly, that the chrysalis (or pupae) needed to be stifled inside the cocoon before it emerged as a moth. Secondly, that the silk thread can range from 500 to 1600 meters. This silk secret was jealously kept for centuries, as it represented a fabulous commercial monopoly.

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 realised 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 colour. 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 1841, Prosper, Nicolas, Joseph and Antoine Fortuné Portalis built the first spinning mill (kerkhana) for the reeling (of cocoons in Btater in the Chouf region). Teams of spinners were brought from France to train young women (a'milat), who for the first time, were leaving their households, to go out to work. This was a real social revolution in this rural and traditional part of the country. In Gaston Ducousso's book “The silk industry in Syria and Lebanon” published in 1912, the French Consul in Beirut counted no less than 183 spinning mills in Lebanon. It's important to mention that the transport of silk cocoons and silk from Beirut's port to Marseille, laid the foundations for maritime transport agencies in Lebanon. Similarly, loan grants to intermediaries and traders wishing to buy silk cocoons from farmers, laid the groundwork for financial trading posts which in turn led to the establishment of the first Lebanese bank, and to the development of the port of Beirut.

The presence of French silk spinners and of French Jesuits also led to the establishment of Beirut's Saint-Joseph University, originally a branch of Lyon University; as well as several private schools founded by Catholic congregations. Thus, thanks to the silk industry, the French language was popularised in Lebanon.

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.”

A few important dates in the last 150 years:

1840 - 1912 The Golden age of sericulture in Lebanon.
1930 1st international sericulture congress – stamps were printed for the occasion.
1945 Decline of sericulture in Lebanon.
1956 Creation of the first autonomous silk office in Lebanon.
1965 2nd international sericulture congress, stamps were printed for the occasion.
1966 Creation of the first automatic factory for unwinding cocoons in Kfarchima imported from Japan.
1975 The factory of Kfarchima is looted.
1982 The Silk Office is attached to the Ministry of Agriculture.
1983 The Silk Office activities are suspended.
1992 Program for the rehabilitation of sericulture in Lebanon by Robert Karam and the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization).
1994 The silk worm farming season is started again.
1996 The Silk Office resumes its activities: distribution of mulberry stalks and silk worm seeds.
2000 3 tons of cocoons are harvested.
2001 Inauguration of the Silk Museum in Bsous
2002 The Silk Office’s situation becomes uncertain once again…

Mona Sader Issa
Silk Museum - Bsous - September 2008

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