Silk Museum keeps memory of Lebanese industry alive

In addition to a collection of live silkworms, the museum showcases old weaving looms offered by silk factories in Lyon with which trade relations were prosperous.
Sunday 21/10/2018
A general view of the Silk Museum in Bsous in Mount Lebanon. (The Silk Museum)
A general view of the Silk Museum in Bsous in Mount Lebanon. (The Silk Museum)

BSOUS, Lebanon - Sitting on a mountain slope amid a lush terraced garden strewn with olive and mulberry trees in the sleepy village of Bsous is Lebanon’s sole silk museum, testifying to an industry that was the pillar of the Lebanese economy for decades.

Housed in a former kerkhana — “silk factory” in Persian — the museum was restored and opened in 2001 thanks to the initiative of George and Alexandra Asseily, who bought the property in 1973. The site had operated as a silk spinning factory for 50 years until 1950 when the industry declined due to cheap mass-produced synthetic silk from China.

Visitors are given an insightful tour of the history of silk manufacturing in Lebanon and the life cycle of the silkworm, which feeds on white mulberry trees.

“This museum is a unique place that recounts the heritage and history of silk production in Lebanon,” said Therese Saade, a tour guide at the museum. “In the past, most Lebanese families used to breed the silkworms at home. It was basically a female activity and probably the first job in which Lebanese women engaged because they could work from home.”

Old photographs showing silkworm breeders at work are displayed in the main hall where the processing and unreeling of the silk cocoons took place. Original machines and worktops line the room on both sides.

“The silkworms do not grow on the mulberry tree branches but are bred. They are completely dependent on humans to live,” Saade said. “Women dedicated one room in their homes for breeding. They would erect wooden scaffolds to accommodate the silkworms and mulberry leaves. Every silkworm makes a cocoon and every cocoon produces a single silk thread. The length of the thread varies between 600 and 1,500 metres, depending on how healthy and nourished the silkworm is.”

The silkworm life cycle is not more than one month long, Saade explained. Exhibits demonstrate the process of “hatching” the silkworm, which starts as a caterpillar.

“From a tiny egg weighing half a milligram, the silkworm grows 10,000 times bigger in just one month. As they grow bigger, they shed their skin a total of four times. The silkworms then spin cocoons of raw silk, slowly transforming into a cocoon. The cocoons are then sold to factories, where they begin their metamorphosis into silk threads,” Saade said.

In the early 20th century, there were more than 3 million mulberry trees in Lebanon, largely concentrated in the Mount Lebanon area, a panel at the museum indicated. Late Lebanese historian Maurice Shehab said there were 194 Lebanese-owned silk factories in 1893 and by 1911 Lebanon and Syria were producing around 524,000 kilograms of raw silk, most of which was for export to Lyon, France.

Sericulture, or silkworm breeding, flourished under Ottoman rule and witnessed its golden age towards the end of the 19th century and early 20th century. Silk production was considered the pillar of the Lebanese economy, accounting to more than 60% of all exports from 1872-1910. In that period, a Silk Office was set up to manage the region’s silk industry. The office closed permanently in 1982 with the death of the industry.

Saade said there were approximately 100 basins in Bsous factory, which meant that about 200 women operated them.

“At the time, the silk production caused a sort of social revolution in the Lebanese communities, as many women left their homes for the first time to work at factories,” Saade said. “They would line up both sides of the marble and copper fixtures, sorting the cocoons in basins of hot water to kill the pupa inside, then clean them of the sticky residue and unreel the silk.”

In addition to a collection of live silkworms, the museum showcases old weaving looms offered by silk factories in Lyon with which trade relations were prosperous. Newspaper clippings, stamp collections from the 1930 Silk Congress in Beirut and vintage boxes that were used to carry silkworm eggs from Marseilles to Beirut are also on display.

The two-storey building also operated an olive press on the ground floor; the silk factory was on the upper level. Today, the olive press area has been transformed into a boutique shop selling eco-products and silk attire.

“The museum also regularly puts on annual exhibitions under different themes. This year, the theme is wedding dresses from East and West,” Saade noted.

Natural silk white dresses by famous designers, including Versace and Christian Dior, are displayed next to another dress collection borrowed by the museum showcasing outfits worn by celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor, Empress Soraya, Jackie Kennedy and Lady Diana.

The Silk Museum is open from May through October.

Traditional caps on display at the Silk Museum in Bsous. (The Silk Museum)
An old loom offered by silk factories in Lyon on display at the Silk Museum in Bsous. (Samar Kadi)
Carpets on display inside the Silk Museum in Bsous. (The Silk Museum)