The Lebanese region is famous for its legendary cedar wood since Antic times. The Phoenicians used it as construction wood for their houses and ships. Cedar wood was also a valuable trade instrument with Egypt and Mesopotamia to where it was transported by men, camels or donkeys. In fact, cedar wood was also used by the Egyptians since the start of the 3rd millennium B.C., namely to construct their ships. Cedar wood was also used for mortuary stones, statues sculpting, and palaces’ furniture manufacturing. In Jerusalem, Palestine, the roof and monumental doors of the Temple of Salomon were made of sculpted and engraved cedar wood.
The Lebanese used this natural resource abundantly and manufactured all their furniture with their precious cedar wood. The cedar wood panels were either painted, or decorated by engraving and sculpting with beautiful vegetal motifs, or incrusted with small nacre, bone or ivory shapes (lozenges, triangles or squares).
Unfortunately, with the advent of modernization and mechanical instruments, the art of engraving and sculpting wood has progressively disappeared. As for the incrustation craft which requires highly skilled hands, it remains a living contemporary form of art, producing domestic furniture incrusted with nacre and ivory, as well as some traditional wooden games like backgammon, and decorative objects. In a typical wood crafting workshop, a master craftsman works with an apprentice. The latter manufactures the wooden object to be decorated, saws and paints the wood, while the master prepares and applies the veneer. For this purpose, the master assembles very thin pieces of wood that are glued together to form the main stalk. The latter is then sawn into 0.8 mm thick lamellas. The design is then veneered on the surface to be decorated.
Woodcraftsmen are currently concentrated in the suburbs of Beirut. Their craft is no longer limited to that of cedar wood, as they have diversified into rose wood, olive tree, mahogany and beech wood.
One can best discover the zouaq technique by visiting the Sursock museum or the Beiteddine palace. This wood painting technique is known to have allowed the blossoming of Arabic decorative art.
The eye-catching decorative wood panels produced with the zouaq technique covered walls and ceilings. They unveiled a harmony of colors and multitude of motifs combining geometrical star figures, arabesques, and nature-inspired curl designs.
The zouaq craftsmen, or zouaqas, perform their art in a number of workshops located in the capital. They admirably handle colors their craft brings back to mind the meticulous work of past manuscript illuminators. The zouaq technique requires a number of steps of which the first is the preparation of the supporting wood panel. The motif is then drawn on the panel and lightly faded color is applied. Finally, gold and a plaster relief are added.
The Oud is a pear-shaped stringed instrument that is very widespread in the Arabic world. The Oud is the pillar of a skillful musical art where the instrument player accompanies a poet or a singer. Until today, the Oud is crafted solely by lute makers in the Al-Mina (Tripoli) and Ras-el Aïn (Baalbek).
The cedar wood has inspired a typical craft practiced in the regions of Bcharreh and Blawza: woodturning. Here, the wood is dried first before undergoing its transformation with the help of a wheel. The wood is made into cylinders of different volumes in which a multitude of items can be sculpted, namely coffee cups, eating plates, vases and bowls. The wood used for woodturning is usually recuperated by craftsmen in the cedar forest after trimming for maintenance, which explains the relatively small size of produced objects.
The sculpted wood technique is usually used for cupboards, closets and furniture. This craft ornaments wood objects with a combination of geometrical figures and vegetal designs. The craft of these Arab-inspired objects is still performed in a number of workshops disseminated in the capital and its suburbs. Before sculpting, the wood is submitted to traditional carpentry work: preparation of the sketches, wood cutting and assembly of the piece of furniture. Only then can the wood-carver perform his art leading his gouge or a mallet to carve the wood. As he progresses, he reveals the different decoration elements then proceeds to finishing smaller details.