Zouk Mikael: Lebanon’s year-round destination
ZOUK MIKAEL – A giant Christmas tree greets visitors at the entrance of the old souk of Zouk Mikael propagating a sense of joy and merry spirit. The small town in the Keserwan district north of Beirut, which, adorned the decorations of the festive season, is a popular destination for locals and foreign tourists all year round.
Bells, mistletoes, strings of colourful lightings, the nativity scene and Christmas trees embellish the Ottoman-era souk famous for harbouring Lebanon’s traditional forms of craftsmanship, which are threatened with extinction.
Since the 17th century, the Old Souk was gradually extended. It inspired many Orientalists and Ottoman dignitaries to travel to Zouk Mikael to buy the trousseau of their bride from the products of its “Nawl” weaving looms, handmade jewellery and embroideries.
Renovated at the end of the civil war (1975-1990) the souk was famous for its silk products in the 15th and 16th centuries, said Zouk Mikael’s Municipal Council member Nathalie Farah.
“The old souk has two levels. In the past, the upper level was occupied mainly by shoemakers who produced silk shoes for the rich. The lower level was the place where jewellery makers and weaving looms workshops were concentrated,” Farah said.
Khan el Mir caravanserai in the middle of the souk constituted the silk trade centre of the region. This is where traders sold merchandise, including embroidery and marzipan for which Zouk Mikael was also known, Farah added.
To perpetuate artisanal heritage, especially the dying craftsmanship of the weaving looms, the municipality of Zouk Mikael established the House of the Artisan, where regular exhibitions of local crafts and artisanal works take place.
“We have a school for teaching weaving. Currently, some 20 women are being initiated on the traditional way of loom weaving. The municipality supports them by providing material and paying the teacher,” Farah said.
Bending over his wooden loom, Salim Saade, one of a handful loom weavers remaining in the souk, worked on an intricate design, interweaving several threads of different bright colours with amazing precision.
“I inherited the profession from my father and taught it to my son, Saade said. “Unfortunately, my son preferred to work in another field because this profession is no longer sufficient to make a living.”
It takes up to two-and-a-half months to produce a piece. “I mostly work on women’s abayas (oriental robe-like dresses), which can cost $5,000 and more depending on the design,” Saade said.
Lamenting the lack of government support for the fading craftsmanship, the artisan in his 70s said: “In 10 years’ time there will be no loom weaving workers left in this country.”
The annual Nights of the Old Souk festival that takes place in July has become a tradition since it was introduced by Zouk Mikael’s municipality in 1995. The festival plays host to artisans displaying their traditional handicrafts and old-school techniques, with everything from weaving, metalwork, carvings, pottery and glassblowing.
“We have up to 70 exhibitors every year from across Lebanon. There is the handmade cutlery from Jezzine, blown glass from Saida, traditional soap making from Tripoli, et cetera. Every region is represented by its main craftsmanship,” Farah said.
Valentwine is another festival organised by the municipality in the old souk to attract visitors.
“It is a wine festival that takes place in February around Saint Valentine’s Day. Over three days, local and international participants display their wine products and delicacies, such as local olives and olive oil and cheeses from France,” Farah said.
The lighting of the Christmas tree December 1 is a much-awaited occasion for residents of Zouk Mikael and its environs. Unlike most years, the traditional Christmas market was cancelled this year due to the unstable economic situation in the country, Farah said, adding: “Nonetheless, we made sure that the Christmas spirit prevails through the souk’s decorations, Christmas parades, music shows and activities for children.”
Zouk Mikael has a reputation of being a cultural and entertainment centre through its annual international summer festival at its Roman-styled amphitheatre with a capacity of 2,500. In addition to Arab and international singers, the festival featured “One Night On Broadway,” one of the world’s best-known musicals.
The town has three museums, including the Nawl Museum where old looms, some dating to 1732, are displayed.
To lure visitors who have dwindled lately due to unstable political conditions in Lebanon, the municipality will be launching an annual cultural symposium in the spring.
“This year it will be about sculpture. All Arab countries are expected to participate. We want Zouk Mikael to be a place for bringing people together,” Farah said.