Pottery Making in Lebanon
In Lebanon’s Chouf Mountains, one of the earliest crafts in the world is in the hands of ceramic artisans.
The wooden shelves inside the ceramic workshop of Bkerzay, nestled on the green slopes of Lebanon’s Chouf Mountains, are full with carefully crafted objects. Terracotta coloured mugs stand next to large bowls decorated in turquoise and green, and small plates with motifs from the flora of the surrounding Chouf.
‘Everything we do is inspired by the region and its environment,’ says Fadi Ksheik, one of the three potters working in Bkerzay.
He is seated on a wooden chair in the middle of the workshop, one foot resting on the pedal of a potter’s wheel, pressing softly to adjust its speed. His blue bib overalls and tshirt are sprinkled with tiny spots of clay; his hands, gently forming a chunk of terracotta into the shape of a plate, are entirely covered in it.
‘This is one of the most important things when making pottery – when forming the shape, to make sure it’s not too thick anywhere,’ he says.
He removes his foot to stop the wheel, then turns the plate upside down and taps its bottom with the finger. The sound – if hollow or not – helps him to find any uneven parts. Slowly, he starts the wheel again, and with a piece of bent metal starts scraping away long strips of clay from underneath the plate.
Learning pottery in his home town of Fayoum in Egypt, Deif now makes pottery inspired by the natural landscapes of the Chouf
Ksheik scrapes off abundant clay from a large plate
Ksheik, who is the most recent addition to the pottery team in Bkerzay, has worked with ceramics since 2000. He began in his home village in rural Damascus, working first with qishani, the ornate ceramic tiles that can be found decorating traditional Damascene houses. He came to Lebanon in 2013, and spent four years in the pottery of late ceramics artist Samir Mueller before moving to Bkerzay in the Chouf.
‘This region has a very rich history of ceramics. In the village of Armanaz in Syria, near Idlib, artisans work with pottery traditions dating back to the Roman times,’ says Ksheik.
For the artisans of Bkerzay, maintaining traditions also means letting them evolve. The pottery, which is part of a larger initiative to preserve the local heritage of the Chouf, gives traditional ceramics new and contemporary artistic forms.
‘What we do is bringing back old crafts by marrying them to the arts,’ says Marianne Geadah, the manager at Bkerzay. ‘I believe that our heritage can be saved. We have so much traditional excellence here, not just in Lebanon but in the Levant in general. Besides potters we also hope to work with local artisans, like weavers and embroiderers.’
Top left: Pottery is one of the oldest crafts in history, and was an important life-sustaining method in civilisations across the world
Top right: Terracotta cups waiting to be decorated
Bottom left: Inside the workshop at Bkerzay, where three potters work – Ahmad Deif from Egypt, Maha Nasrallah from Lebanon and Ksheik, who is Syrian-Lebanese
Bottom right: One of the most important steps of making pottery is making sure the finish is even and not too thick in some places
Ksheik puts a plate away to dry, it will then be baked in the oven and finally decorated and glazed
She sits on the veranda outside the workshop, where wooden benches overlook the vast valleys and nearby mountains. The Chouf is traditionally an agricultural area – indeed, much of Lebanon is – and olive trees and vegetable plantations dot the slopes.
It is this natural habitat that forms the recurrent theme for each of the three potters: Ksheik, the Egyptian resident artist Ahmad Deif and Maha Nasrallah, a local Lebanese ceramicist.
The view from the veranda outside, overlooking the mountains and valleys of the Chouf
Inside the workshop, Ksheik picks up a vase in red terracotta, already shaped into a soft form and baked in the oven. With one hand, he dips it halfway into an egg coloured glaze, then dips a brush into a solution of tobacco and black pigment, and quickly strokes it across the surface. Instantly the black colour, from a chemical reaction caused by its alkalinity, creates a peculiar and decorative pattern, spreading across the vase.
‘The patterns it creates look just like trees. It’s called mocha and is originally an English technique,’ he says.
The ceramics of Deif, who has spent five years in Bkerzay, have been influenced by his upbringing in Fayoum, a fertile and green area southwest of Cairo.
‘It’s an area that is very rich in arts and crafts, especially the small village of Tunis. Potters and artists come there from all over the world, not only Egypt,’ he says.
Since coming to the Chouf, Deif’s work has changed. The area’s green and mountainous landscape, much different from Egypt’s vast deserts, has added inspiration to his work. His earthenware is painted in bright greens and lemony yellow, and decorated with flowers, animals and abundant trees.
Ksheik prepares to start decorating a terracotta vase
Left: Using the mocha technique, Ksheik applies a black solution to the surface of the vase, which quickly spreads and creates organic patterns
Right: A finished vase
Across Lebanon, a handful of potteries still remain, although significantly fewer than only a few generations ago. In Assia near the coastal village of Batroun, heavy terracotta pots for cooking and storing food are still being made; in Rashaya al Foukhar (literally meaning Rashaya the Pottery), in the country’s southern region, near the border with Syria, artisans still make decorated ceramic jars and pitchers. Both Assia and Rashaya al Foukhar were known historically for their ceramics, and depended almost entirely on them for long periods of time.
Ksheik lifts the finished plate from off the wheel with both his hands, then puts it carefully aside to dry. It will be baked in the oven after a few days, then decorated with flowering motifs.
‘Making pottery is a slow process, in particular at the beginning when you work with the clay. You have to always take your time and not work too fast, because that will destroy the shape,’ says Ksheik.
‘I like this craft because it has so many steps and methods. The best part is the very beginning, when you use your hands to form the clay.’
He returns to the bench next to the potter’s wheel, where he takes out a new piece of clay and starts kneading it softly. It’s still early in the day and the workshop is bathing in light.
A branch with green leaves has found its way in through one of the open windows – perhaps as a gesture to the potters, asking to be replicated on one of their plates.
Marianne Geadah, the manager at Bkerzay, in conversation with Deif
Left: Pottery inside the Bkerzay workshop. The place is one of a handful of potteries still remaining in Lebanon, located in towns and villages across the country
Right: A plate crafted by Deif, who has worked at Bkerzay for five years
Writer: Jenny Gustafsson
Photographer: Karim Mostafa
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