Bsous Silk Museum in Lebanon

In honour of Lebanon’s former silk production industry, a museum in the mountains is dedicated to telling the story of the delicate craft

‘I fell in love with the tradition and history of the place. It revived the culture of the area and I decided that I had to work here,’ says agricultural engineer Majed Feghali, sitting under the shaded terrace of Bsous Silk Museum, a short drive up the hills outside of Beirut. It was as a student that he first came to the museum, for a research project in college.

Fast forward 10 years and Feghali is both a tour guide and organiser of gardening workshops at the museum. The area he refers to is Aley, a region that throughout history has been known for its many silk factories. Silk manufacturing, for a long time the main lifeline of what is now Lebanon, was first introduced to the region in Phoenician times, via trading routes from China through the Persian Empire.

 

Top: The museum’s terrace overlooking the garden grounds and neighbouring villages

Bottom: Majed Feghali, an agricultural engineer and tour guide at Bsous Silk Museum

The development of sericulture, or silkworm breeding, was an essential part of the area’s economic development in the 18th and 19th centuries. Through trade partnerships with France, silk became a vital growth engine for Mount Lebanon, where Aley is situated, ushering in a golden age that lasted up until the Second World War. 

‘Sericulture was so popular in Lebanese villages and towns that most regular households would partake in it, especially since silkworms are completely dependent on humans to live,’ says Feghali. ‘You would find people breeding silkworms in their living rooms on wooden scaffolds.’   

The ease with which that practice became a household affair can largely be attributed to the white mulberry trees, which grow in abundance in Mount Lebanon. The tiny silkworm, which relies entirely on mulberry leaves and berries as its sole source of nutrition, happily made the mountains its home.  

The silkworm life cycle is exceptionally short, not more than one month long. Starting as black caterpillars, they eat mulberry leaves to grow bigger and finally moult, or shed their skin, a total of four times. The silkworms then spin cocoons of raw silk, slowly transforming into a pupa. It’s at this stage that the cocoons are sold to factories, where they begin their metamorphosis into silk fibre. 

 

 


Top: Bsous Silk Museum displays the different cycles silkworms go through

Bottom: Cocoons of raw silk spun by the silkworms

Bsous Silk Museum was a functioning kerkhana – silk factory, using an old Turkish word – from 1901 until 1950. 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 required large quantities of hot water. 

Today, the museum is open from May until October, following the traditional silk production season.  

‘I didn’t know much about silk or olive oil production until I joined the team at Bsous Museum in 2007,’ says Donna Raad, the museum’s operations manager. ‘Working here reminds me of my mother. She used to crochet and I would sit and watch her weave for hours. I took her work for granted, but being at a place dedicated to preserving another important craft gives me a whole other appreciation of artisanal work.’

Bsous Silk Museum was purchased in 1973 by George and Alexandra Asseily, from the Fayad family, who ran it as a factory until 1954. They initially intended to keep it as a private residence and began renovating and planting hundreds of olive and apricot trees to revive the grounds. Sadly, the Lebanese Civil War, which started in 1975, put a major halt to their plans. They were not taken up again until 1997, when Francoise Le Noble, a French urban landscaper, suggested that the old factory should be turned into a museum.

‘He felt that very little money was invested in rural cities, which is where the majority of Lebanese traditional crafts are located,’ says Feghali.

The museum was opened to the public in 2001. Comprised of a private residence, a museum space and several rundown smaller homes, it’s now an ode to traditional Lebanese architecture and village life – and, most importantly, to an iconic craft.

 

 


Top left: Reprinted photographs from the early 20th century showing scenes from Lebanese village life and sericulture activities

Bottom left: Donna Raad, executive operations manager at Bsous Silk Museum

Right: The museum exhibits silk-woven clothes from Lebanon and abroad, the majority of which are donations from Alexandra Asseily’s private collection 

Although the factory is no longer active, the team insists it remains a commemorative and educational institution, ensuring that visitors are offered a glimpse of what the place once was.

‘We used to learn about silk making in school. But it’s a whole other experience to see the process live,’ says Raad.

The grounds inside showcase newspaper clippings, stamp collections from the 1930 Silk Congress in Beirut and vintage boxes, once upon a time 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.

‘This year’s theme is titled On the Silk Road and looks at different embroidery patterns from various parts of the world. We’re also planning to do an expose on Italian wedding dresses,’ says Raad.

 

Top: The ‘On the Silk Road’ exhibit shows various global weaving and natural dying silk techniques

Bottom: Threads of raw silk woven on a loom

 

Silk production, besides being an important economic milestone, also presented a social revolution in Lebanese history, as many women left their homes for the first time to work at factories.

‘There were approximately 100 basins in Bsous, which meant that around 200 women operated them,’ says Feghali, pointing to an old map of various silk factories across Lebanon.

‘They would line up alongside 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,’ he says.

The many Lebanese villages which once depended on the craft witnessed a decline after synthetic fabrics like nylon gained popularity. Silk production in Lebanon came to a halt in 1983 when the Silk Office, a governmental body tasked with managing the country’s industry, was permanently closed. Bsous Silk Museum aims to reinvigorate village life, once supported by the silk industry, in whatever way it can.

 

Aromatic plants and olive trees grow in the museum’s garden

From the 350 olive trees in the garden, olive oil and soaps are manufactured. Organic produce and preserves made by women in neighbouring villages are sold in the shop where the olive press once used to be. Rows of mulberry and olive trees provide visitors to the garden withmuch-needed shade. Charbel Sader, in charge of maintaining the garden, takes great pride in his work, ensuring that every square meter of land is well kept.

‘I deal with plants, with life – I go through the sapling’s phases and at the end of the day, I help create something that visitors enjoy,’ he says.

Through such efforts, the museum has come full circle.

 

Outside the museum are run-down stone homes, which used to house both silk factory and olive press workers

Writer: Reem Joudi 
Photographer: Roland Ragi

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