The Hassoun Copper Artisans

In a workshop in North Lebanon overlooking the Mediterranean sea, this family of artisans hammer out intricate copper designs by hand.

‘It’s Ramadan, and I never lie during Ramadan,’ says Salah Addin Hassoun with a smile as he walks up the narrow stairs to the first floor of his roadside workshop in Qalamoun, a small coastal town in northern Lebanon. The room upstairs is entirely filled with pieces of intricately decorated metal work – lanterns, small side tables, life-size candleholders, pitchers and plates. ‘All of this is our work, entirely made by hand. I told you I don’t lie.’

 

One of the largest items for sale by Salah Addin Hassoun and his sons

He walks around works that fill the room, stopping at different pieces to tell their stories. One of them, a large and carefully engraved metal fireplace, took six months for a team of four coppersmiths to complete, in the midst of Lebanon’s civil war.

‘This is for cooking foul,’ he says pointing towards a heavy cauldron, large enough for hundreds of servings of the slow-cooked breakfast dish. ‘Before there was electricity, they would take this to the hammam in the evening, where there was still hot water left from the day’s baths, and cook the beans overnight.’

Historical anecdotes fit the story of copper craft well: the metal was one of the first to be used around 9,000BC when it was discovered as bright red forms among natural rocks. A copper pendant dating back to 8,700BC has been found in Iraq, an example of the early craft of the metal in the region.

Left: Many engravings have historical motifs and intricate calligraphy
Right: Glass pearls decorating a chandelier; one of five in total, two of which hang in Beirut’s Sursock Palace.

Residents of the eastern Mediterranean have used copper for many purposes throughout history: to make household items, jewellery and weapons like arrows and swords. The Phoenicians, a seafaring people who built a flourishing civilisation in the beginning of the first millennium BC, mastered the art of engraving well, and decorated pieces with hunting scenes or geometrical designs. In Byzantine times, most themes came from the Bible; under Islamic rule, metal works had elaborate calligraphy and verses from the Koran.

The pieces on display in Hassoun’s workshop follow the same tradition. They feature floral motifs and intricate calligraphy, along with detailed engravings. An elaborate chandelier hangs from the ceiling, with glass bead decorations in different colours. It’s one of only five in existence: two more in the Hassoun family’s ownership, and two hanging in the Sursock Palace in Beirut, one of Lebanon’s finest aristocratic homes, dating back to 1860.

 

Outside the low building housing four metal workshops, one for each of the Hassoun brothers

Three generations of coppersmiths work together

The way back down the flight of stairs passes by a glassless window, open to the rocky shores of the Mediterranean. The first floor, where Hassoun and the other coppersmiths work, is small and full with metal works in the making.

‘My four sons work with me here, Monday to Sunday. You never know when a customer might come by,’ Hassoun says.

One of his sons, Bilal Hassoun, is seated on a wooden chair just inside the open door. Hassoun sits down facing him and picks up a heavy wooden hammer. Bilal grabs a large plate in shimmering red, used to serve dishes like mansaf, rice with lamb meat, or chicken with pine nuts.

  

Top: Copper products change patina as they grow old: the red-golden colour will eventually turn to shades of grey
Bottom: Small metal plates in the making

‘A restaurant in Beirut ordered this piece. It will take a total of 40 days to complete,’ says Bilal as he starts beating the plate, to continue shaping its form. ‘And most of it is using the same few instruments – a hammer and this one.’ He holds up a small metal chisel, sharp on one end and rounded in the other. The coppersmiths call it qalam, or pen, and use it to make the decorative engravings.

 

The first floor of the workshop is crowded with all kinds of metal products

While Lebanon’s copper craft is nowhere near as flourishing today as it once was, there are still active artisans in several Lebanese towns. In the building where Hassoun works, his three brothers all also have workshops of their own.

‘Each has their speciality. What they are, you have to ask our customers!’ he says.

Their father used to work in the old market of Tripoli, Lebanon’s northernmost city, but moved to Qalamoun in 1959, when the coppersmiths were told they ‘made too much noise’, says Hassoun. Though Souk al-Nahhaseen, ‘the coppersmith market’, still exists in Tripoli – as in most Arab cities, including Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo and Tunis – most copper artisans have relocated to Qalamoun.

The repetitive hammering lies as a backdrop in the small town, which besides copper workshops also has several shops selling antiques and bottles of rose water used in food and Arabic sweets. The soundtrack reminds of the patience that copper engraving requires, and how steadfastness must be balanced with a careful attention to detail.

An old photograph shows the coppersmith brothers with an engraved plate portraying Gamal Abdel Nasser

 

‘Daqq, daqq, daqq. Three cuts, that’s how we do each engraving,’ says Hassoun, pointing to the myriad of tiny, triangular holes that decorate a lantern. ‘What happens if we make any mistakes? We don’t.’ His smile is back. Hassoun, now in his 70s, has worked with copper since the age of 13, when he started learning from his father. There used to be an elaborate trainee system for teaching crafts in Lebanon and Syria, with the most senior craftspeople, sheikhs, at the top and apprentices at the bottom. Today, there is no such straight line of passing down knowledge. Hassoun’s grandson, who shares the name of his grandfather, comes to the workshop after school finishes, but isn’t certain that he wants to work in copper.

But the Hassouns still get orders, from customers who appreciate the value of the craft.

‘Crafted items are an investment. The money you spend on them, stays forever,’ says Hassoun.

Left: Details of engraved animals, a popular motif throughout history, before Arabic calligraphy and Islamic ornaments became more widespread 
Right: The qalam, or chisel, used to engrave the copper

He leans back on his chair, resting against the wall where an array of objects are on display: saucepans, carafes and plates of all sizes, ranging in colour from bright gold to deep grey. Copper changes tone as it oxides, and when alloyed with other metals. The salt in the seaside air also does its part to create a patina, says Hassoun.

‘But the most important thing for making beautiful copper work is this,’ he says, tapping the side of his head. ‘The mind. It’s a gift from God.’

Writer: Jenny Gustafsson
Photographer: Alia Haju

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